Explore Lake Garda – it’s the most developed of the lakes but for that reason has plenty to keep the kids occupied, from medieval castles to clean waters, and lots of opportunities to get away from it all. The sportiest of the Italian Lakes, it’s fabulous for older kids and teens, who can try their hand at windsurfing, sailing and canoeing. On dry land, there’s horse-riding, mountain-biking, treetop adventures, and many undemanding and scenic hiking routes on the eastern and western shores. Riva Del Garda, a pleasant 19th-century resort on the lake’s north-western tip, has pastel-painted hotels, lovely views and enough gelaterie and pizza parlours to keep any child happy.
Interesting sights around Garda are Il Vittoriale, a fantasy villa on the western shore, Sirmione with its medieval castle and maze of Roman ruins, Desenzano with its interesting ruins, and the castles at Torri del Benaco, Malcesine and Vallegio.
There’s also unadulterated fun at the themeparks tucked away between Lazise and Peschiera on Garda’s southeast shore – Gardaland is Italy’s largest themepark, offering jungle rapids, rollercoasters and a Fantasy Kingdom for little ones, plus two hotels of its own. Canevaworld combines movie-themed rides at Movieland Studios with slides and watery fun at Movieland Aquastudios. Also nearby is Parco Natura Viva, a decent zoo and safari park active in conservation. And if your accommodation doesn't have a waterpark or pool, you'll be glad of the presence of Acquasplash Franciacorta when you need to cool down.
Discover Lake Como, widely held to be the most beautiful of the Italian Lakes, surrounded by tall peaks that rise more or less directly from the water's edge. You can travel up the lake on an old-fashioned steamer, swim in its clear waters or head to its hills for all manner of outdoor activities. Avoid the main towns and stay in Menaggio, Varenna or Bellagio.
Menaggio, a good base for hiking, swimming or cycling, is great for outdoorsy families: water-skiing, mountain-biking and horse-riding are also readily available, and there's an 18-hole golf course close-by. Little Bellagio is one of Italy’s top family destinations – a long-established resort, it has two pretty gardens to visit, good swimming and lots of restaurants and boutiques. Kids love jumping off the pier into the lake; there’s also water-skiing, horse-riding and hiking. Up the mountain from Bellagio, Civenna offers aerial obstacles at Jungle Raider Park.
For Como’s best swimming, head to the northern towns of Gravedona and Domaso for uncrowded beaches and the cleanest water (flowing straight into the lake from the Adda River). Just north of Como is the best playground for children in the area, next to the Lido in Mandello del Lario, with a classic carousel and lots of activities.
Head for Lake Maggiore, second-largest of the Lakes and another well-established tourist destination, with hiking, mountain-biking and watersports. Base yourself at Stresa, a lovely town on the western shore, with good lake views, and visit the nearby zoological park and the Borromean Islands, three of which are open to the public (Isola Madre has heavenly gardens and an interesting puppet theatre).
Discover the smaller lakes, of which the Lago d’Orta is probably the best. Nicknamed Cinderella by locals, its gentle waters and famous island–village, Isola San Giulio, make it a very popular destination (try to come out of season to glimpse its 19th-century charm).