Aerial view of Lake Garda, in Northern Italy

A tranquil scene at Lake Garda, Italy. (ThinkStock)

What to do in Lake Garda

It's always wise to couple a countryside getaway to any extended urban tour with kids. After an art-intensive walk-through of Florence and Rome's crowded churches and packed museums, relax at Lake Garda. Italy's largest lake and one of the most family-friendly, Lake Garda provides an antidote to all that hushed, indoor time.

You and your kids can kick back with swimming and sunning or go active by sailing, windsurfing, wakeboarding, mountain biking, and hiking. On the lake's southern shore, Gardaland, Italy's largest amusement park, packs in old-fashioned fun with high-tech rides. Screaming is the universal language on the park's thrill coasters and young kids have no trouble making friends while romping through the character-themed Fantasy Kingdom's pint-sized rides or climbing the tree house. At Parco Acquatico Cavour, a water park in Ariano not far from the lake, splash around in the park's five swimming pools and three water slides.

Mountains edge the northern, narrower section of the lake, while the southern region is known for its flatter water and beaches. Sailing is popular in both areas although novices may feel more secure maneuvering through the typically lighter winds of the southern shore. Windsurfers should head to the north's Torbole, Limone sul Garda, and Malcesine, among Italy's windsurfing capitals. (Note that lifejackets are compulsory). Outfitters offer rentals and lessons.

Malcesine, on the northeast coast, also rates as a mountain biking center since the installation of the funivia (cable car) to the top of Monte Baldo. This cable car is unique in that it rotates, providing riders with sweeping panoramic views. Take your bike up and pedal down or hike the trails. The hillside town of Monte Baldo and the forest service maintain a botanic garden displaying the region's plants and flowers.

Built by the powerful Della Scala family, rulers of Verona, Castello Scaligero, also known as Sirmione Castle, was started in 1250 and was rebuilt in the 15th century. It sits atop a hill that juts out on a peninsula on Lake Garda's south shore and has impressive fortress-like walls and towers. It's a good place for a stroll—cars aren't allowed and you can enjoy splendid views from the castle.

Tip: From Lake Garda, you can take a daytrip to Milan, about 90 to 120 miles to the west. Or better yet, make an overnight visit to the city.

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