Although Italy’s lakes district lies at the foot of snow-covered Alps, the warming effect of the lakes creates microclimates that nurture tropical and subtropical plants. Palm trees frame views of snow-capped mountain peaks, but temperate flowering plants such as azaleas and rhododendrons thrive just as happily in this lovely setting.
Just north of Tremezzo on Lake Como, Villa Carlotta is the 18th-century palace of Prussian Princess Carlotta, best known for its 14 acres of terraced gardens built in the 1850s. Camellias, rhododendron, azaleas and exotic trees frame lake and mountain views, and stunning beds of massed annuals form patters across sloping lawns. It’s open daily April through September 9am-6pm, shorter hours March and October.
Above Bellaggio, at the center of Lake Como, the 19th-century gardens of Villa Serbelloni are of Italian design, with grottos, fountains and parterre rose gardens. The park reaches to the top of the promontory, landscaped with exotic trees to frame views across the northern arm of Lake Como to Alps. Open mid-April through mid-October, by tours only, Tuesday–Sunday.
Lake waters keep the air at above-freezing year round at the botanical garden on Isola Brissago, in northern lake Maggiore. Begun in 1885 by a Russian baroness, gardens are divided according to the continents where the plants are native. Medicinal plants, some extinct in their own natural habitat, surround a neo-Roman bath. Open April through October daily 9am–5pm.Arrive by lake steamer or more frequent service from Porto Ronco, a mile north of Brissago.
On the steep slopes above Lake Lugano, the garden designs, plants, statues, fountains and buildings combine everything from Renaissance Ticino to a Thai teahouse and a Greek temple, each in its own native flora, collected by the well-traveled creator of this magical garden.Open mid-March through October 10am–5pm.
Parco degli Olivi’
Olive trees, cypresses, myrtles, pines and palms fill Lugano’s terraced Parco degli Olivi’ and in the spring the gardens are bright with daffodils and wild tulips. A wide walking path, the Sentiero dell’Olivo, or Olive Path, follows the lake through vertiginous villages and more gardens to the village of Gandria.
Hruska Botanical Gardens
On Lake Garda, Gardone Riviera’s steep hillside is covered in plants from around the Mediterranean and as far away as Africa. The lake’s mild climate allows plants that would ordinarily not survive this latitude to thrive here.
Isola Madre Gardens
Almost the entire island is planted in trees, lawns and manicured flowerbeds. Woodland walks around the edge offer views across Lake Maggiore, and the entire southern shore is a terraced promenade. Near the villa is Europe’s largest Cashmir Cypress tree. Open April through September 9am––5:30pm, Oct 9am––5:00pm.
Isola Bella Gardens
Spectacular formal gardens rise behind the ornate villa of the Borromeo family, with patterned flower beds falling in terraces framed by sculpted evergreens. Statuary and ornamental stonework add finishing touches to the Italianate garden style. Open April through September 9am––5:30pm, Oct 9am––5:00pm.
The 30-years work of a Scottish botanist, these English-style gardens are more relaxed and flowing than their Italianate neighbors. It combines formal terraced gardens and avenues with a park filled with thousands of exotic and native trees and shrubs — more than 20,000 plant varieties from as far away as the Amazonian rainforest. Open daily April through October 8:30am—6:30pm.
Alpine gardens on Monte Baldo, high on the mountain above Lake Garda, display the plants indigenous (and many endemic) to this pre-alpine mountain range, including edelweiss, alpine lilies and wild roses. Open daily May through mid-September 9am—6pm.