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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Lake Iseo and Monte Isola - Italy's quiet lake and Europe's largest lake island

Lake Iseo and Monte Isola

You probably know the saying, popular places are popular for a reason. Sometimes I embrace this as I head out to do something "touristy" - packed with extra patience and high expectations but often, I try to find the quieter options, stay in the smaller towns. and choose the lesser known attractions. 

When we headed to northern Italy, I got the normal questions "are you visiting Milan? Lake Como? Venice?" and the answers surprised everyone. While I'm sure these places are lovely, I want to travel and not see American tourists, I want to find the local spots and more hidden places. So on my first trip to Italy, we drove right past Milan, decided to skip Como, and saved Venice for another time. 

Lake Iseo
Lake Iseo and Monte Isola

Waterfront Sulzano with Monte Isola in the background

So what did we do? We set up our base in an AirBnB in a small little village on a lesser known lake, Lake Iseo (Lago d'Iseo) that turned out to be absolute perfection. We stayed in a beautiful old villa, cooked meals at home when we needed to slow down, lounged on the lake, and quickly learned that the beauty of traveling with toddlers is the art of truly getting to know a place. Traveling with Whitney made us enjoy a place and space instead of trekking across the country trying to see it all and fit it all in. We didn't see Lake Como but we met the local baker, joined the locals on a Saturday morning, and visited the playground in town several times a day.

This little town was dreamy and it's charm came in the form of cobble stone streets, gelato stands, and friendly locals (of whom very few spoke English). There wasn't much in the way of restaurants but it had a few local places, a small market, a square with a playground, and a whole lot of charm. 

Sulzano, Italy
Dragon hunting

The week we were there they were celebrating the Dragon Festival, a tradition celebrated once every five years. The town splits into different colors and the kids all head out on a town wide scavenger hunt to find the dragon (El Drago). Once he was located, the kids led him back down to the square. There was also bow and arrow lessons for the kids, various lawn games (with the dragon in attendance), and the whole thing ended with a viking funeral for a paper dragon. We truly enjoyed all of it and again, traveling with a toddler was the only reason we slowed down enough to join the local kids on a dragon scavenger hunt.

Lake Iseo Map

Lake Iseo itself is not well know, not among Europeans and especially not among Americans. It is the lesser known of Italy's Lombard Lakes and truly feels like an unspoiled gem. It's the sixth largest lake in Italy and the smallest of the four major lakes at about 15.5 miles long and 3 miles wide and 820 feet at it's deepest point. It's located at the foot of the Alps, between well known Lake Como and Lake Garda and the cities of Brescia and Bergamo.

We stayed in a gorgeous villa in small village on that lake. It was so quiet and quaint that I just didn't have it in me to blast it on the internet (message me and I'll share it with you). 

Waterfront Sulzano 

Villa Cecilia on Lake Iseo

Sulzano, Italy
Waterfront Sulzano

Villa Cecilia on Lake Iseo

While the town itself was a lovely little haven, the real gem was the lake and the island. This island you probably never heard of has been rated “Most beautiful small towns in Italy” and after visiting, I totally get why. 

The villa we stayed at was right on the lake and it was so dreamy waking up to the view of the lake, and watching the sun set over the water from outside. We also had a view right across the lake to the island, to see the sanctuary of the Madonna della Ceriola, looming at the highest point on the island. The ferry left right from our small little town, a 5 minute walk from where we were staying and ran about every 15 minutes for the 5 minute ride across the lake to the island. The ferry starts first thing in the morning and runs pretty late into the night making it very easy to go for the day or just for dinner. We went over at least four times to walk around, to have dinner, to run the island, or hike to the highest peak. Monte Isola is steeped in fishing culture and is known for its locally produced goods like Monte Isola salami, extra-virgin olive oil, and dried sardines.

Tribute to the Floating Piers Sulzano and Monte Isola

When you think "island on the lake" you may be thinking small. While it is the largest lake island in Europe measuring about five square miles, cars are not allowed and everyone gets around by bike, motorcycles (residents only), or a small bus that traverses the island. There is a bus that can take you through the various villages but most people get around on foot or by bike. There are bike rental shops, souvenir shops, and is also a bunch of restaurants right at the ferry area if you don't feel like trekking across the island.

Monte Isola
Dinner on Monte Isola

If trekking and type two fun is your thing, you can run around the entire island in less than 6 miles and experience some of the little villages. I set off solo with my running shoes and a few euros in my pocket. I ran across cobblestone streets and paved road, along waterfront roads and quiet little villages. At one point I stumbled up someones driveway mistaking it for a road which I quickly figured out through hand signals despite the large language barrier. It was a lovely hour, a gorgeous run, it was quaint and quiet as I made the loop around the island. You can also hike to the highest point on the island to see the mountain top sanctuary and 360 views (more on that later).

Bus on Monte Isola
Bus to Cure on Monte Isola

If you are visiting the island and not staying locally, you can take a train from Breschia, a neighboring "major city" right into the town of Sulzano. From there, you can walk right down to the ferry which takes you on a five minute ride across the lake to the little village of Peschiera Maraglio on Monte Isola. 

You can buy a ferry pass from the office right at the dock or if that is closed, the bar/restaurant right by the dock. You can also buy tickets on board. When we visited in 2024, there was a reloadable card we used for the week we were staying there.  We found the bus schedule to Cure (to start our hike) a bit confusing but there are updated timetables at the bus station. There is a bus station right across from the Pechiera Maraglio ferry station. We ended up taking the bus back down from Cure to the ferry point for 2 euros (cash only) per person. 

Map of Monte Isola Visit Monte Isola

Monte Isola Bus Station
Bus Station on Monte Isola

Monte Isola Ferry Ticket
Monte Isola Ferry Ticket

If you visit northern Italy, I hope I convinced you of two things:

To slow down and enjoy a slower kind of travel
To truly see some of the lesser known places.

Lake Iseo is a gorgeous quiet lake in Northern Italy nd Monte Isola is the perfect day trip. Pack a picnic and spent the day walking around the island. Head over in the evening for dinner and watch the sunset. Hike to the highest point (that's it's own post) or bike/run/walk around the island. Lake Iseo is a northern Italy Gem and Monte Isola is a great way to experience it. 

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