Fresh air and freedom await amid Europe’s watery wonderlands, writes Laura French.
Seaside stays might grab the largest slice of the holiday pie, but there’s a lot to be said for a chilled-out break on the banks of a lake, where exploring the surrounding forests, mountains and villages goes hand in hand with sitting on its shores, Aperol spritz in hand.
And for doing just that, Europe isn’t short on options, with more than 500,000 lakes scattered across the continent amid some stunning backdrops.
To help inspire future bookings, we’ve chosen our pick of the best, from the all-time classics that have charmed for centuries to lesser-known spots you might never have heard of.
1. Lake Garda, Italy
It’s hard to beat Lake Garda in the charm stakes, with castle-topped villages set against the craggy peaks of the Dolomites and colourful villas lining aquamarine shores. Bardolino, Lazise, Malcesine and Sirmione are all hotspots and for good reason, but for a quieter stay, Citalia recommends the secluded Splendido Bay Resort. “This recently opened resort has a superb position on the edge of the lake,” says Heather Green, senior regional destination manager. “There’s a spa, pool, bistro and Michelin-starred restaurant, and it’s a 10-minute drive to the historic town of Desenzano, known for its Roman villa and 16th-century cathedral.”
“Bardolino, Lazise, Malcesine and Sirmione are all hotspots and for good reason, but for a quieter stay, Citalia recommends the secluded Splendido Bay.”
Book it: A week’s B&B starts at £1,149 per person, including flights and private transfers in May.
2. Lake Bled, Slovenia
Shimmering mirror-like amid the greenery of the Julian Alps, Lake Bled is the stuff of picture books, and it’s not hard to see why visitor numbers here have been increasing in recent years (albeit before the Covid downturn). Presiding over the lake is the medieval Bled Castle, set high on a hilltop, but it’s not the only attraction, with hiking trails, canyoning adventures and natural attractions such as Vintgar Gorge – an ethereal, aqua stream of water carving its way through the forest – drawing active types. For an especially peaceful base right on the lake, Balkan Holidays recommends the Astoria Hotel, recently renovated and set in a quiet location beneath the turreted castle.
“Presiding over the lake is the medieval Bled Castle, set high on a hilltop, but it’s not the only attraction, with hiking trails and canyoning adventures drawing active types.”
Book it: Seven nights’ B&B starts at £535 per person, including flights from Gatwick on October 8.
3. Loch Lomond, Scotland
Lakeside breaks needn’t mean trekking too far, of course, with Scotland alone boasting more than 30,000 lochs among its rolling hills. For one of the most impressive, look to Loch Lomond – 44 square miles of water bordered by verdant peaks, ancient castles and whisky distilleries, where kayaking, waterskiing, paddleboarding and other adventures take visitors out onto its rippling waters. For a private stay away from it all, Oliver’s Travels points to Cameron North Lodge, a luxury, glass-fronted retreat sleeping up to eight and backing right onto the loch, with a hot tub, play area and private beach among its facilities, plus three golf courses in the area.
“Lakeside breaks needn’t mean trekking too far, of course, with Scotland alone boasting more than 30,000 lochs among its rolling hills.”
Book it: A week in August costs from £4,555 in total, based on six sharing.
4. Lake Saimaa, Finland
For a lakeside break with a difference, suggest Saimaa, the largest lake in Finland, home to more than 13,000 islands and surrounded by forests where elk, wolves, bears and foxes roam between the trees. It’s a popular swimming hole in summer, but it’s at its most striking in winter, when the water freezes over and turns into a giant ice rink, bringing locals flocking to explore its trails. Best Served Scandinavia offers a tailor-made holiday here with guided skating excursions and accommodation at the atmospheric Hotel & Spa Resort Jarvisydan, which comes with a huge Finnish sauna area as well as new wooden ‘Kota’ huts straddling the shore.
“It’s a popular swimming hole in summer, but it’s at its most striking in winter, when the water freezes over and turns into a giant ice rink.”
Book it: A four-day break costs from £1,050 per person including three nights’ half-board, flights, transfers and skate hire.
5. Lake Brienz, Switzerland
Switzerland rarely fails to impress, and Lake Brienz, in the Bernese Oberland, is no exception. It’s worth a visit for its historic paddle steamers alone – they’ve been linking its towns together for more than a century and now offer themed trips, from Alpine-style brunches to fondue cruises. But there’s plenty more to lure, from the Brienz Rothorn Railway, whisking passengers up through scenic mountain passes, to Giessbach Falls, a 500m-high cascade crashing into the lake below. For an especially peaceful base, suggest the Strandhotel, set on the lake in the village of Iseltwald and offering lake-view balconies, a sunny terrace restaurant and e-bikes for exploring the locale.
“It’s worth a visit for its historic paddle steamers alone – they’ve been linking its towns together for more than a century and now offer themed trips.”
Book it: Tui offers a week’s half-board from £939 per person, including flights and transfers from Heathrow on June 16.
6. Lake Ohrid, North Macedonia
North Macedonia might not be the first place that springs to mind when you think lake break, but this magical patch of turquoise in the heart of the mountains is something of a hidden secret. It’s flanked by the town of Ohrid – nicknamed the ‘Jerusalem of the Balkans’ for its centuries-old history: all medieval castle ruins, steep cobbled streets and frescoed churches – and offers idyllic beaches, stilted villages and Turkish-inspired cuisine without the crowds you’re likely to get elsewhere.
“Ohrid is nicknamed the ‘Jerusalem of the Balkans’ for its centuries-old history: all medieval castle ruins, steep cobbled streets and frescoed churches.”
Book it: For active clients wanting to explore it on two wheels, suggest Exodus Travels’ eight-day Cycle Macedonia and Northern Albania trip, which combines it with other scenic lake spots in these two underrated countries. Prices are from £999, including accommodation, some meals and a cycling leader.
Best of the rest
Lake Annecy, France: Set in the heart of the French Alps and said to be ‘Europe’s cleanest lake’, this is a hotspot for swimming as well as wandering, with the canals and cobbled streets of old-town Annecy inviting picturesque strolls. Inghams offers a week’s half-board at the family-run beachfront Hotel Les Grillons in Agnon from £889 per person, including flights from Gatwick on August 28.
“This national park is nothing short of magical, with 16 curacao-blue lakes nestled among emerald trees and craggy rocks like something from a Pixar film.”
Lake Wolfgang, Austria: Sailing, windsurfing, waterskiing, kitesurfing – you can do it all here. But for a trip that combines those highlights with daily bike rides and walks, suggest Headwater’s self-guided Austrian Lakes Activities holiday. It takes in the spa town of Bad Ischl, St Wolfgang, Salzburg and beyond, with prices from £1,569, including bike hire, accommodation, maps and flights.
Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia: This national park is nothing short of magical, with 16 curacao-blue lakes nestled among emerald trees and craggy rocks like something from a Pixar film. Regent Holidays combines the lakes with Zagreb in a seven-day tour, priced from £1,175, including flights.