Skip the seaside and visit these European lakes instead
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While visiting Spain’s Mediterranean coast or one of Croatia or Italy’s many islands seems like the perfect vacation. activity, it also comes with a (high) price. Pretty much everyone else has the exact same idea — especially during the busy season of summer. And the resulting hefty airfare, expensive hotels and crowded beaches may put a slight damper on your well-deserved getaway.
But there is an alternative plan. You can still cool off in Europe’s refreshing waters, just not salty ones. Instead, head to one of the many lakes scattered around the continent. Some of them are famous, some lesser-known, but each is a freshwater paradise that may surprise, even becoming your new favorite vacation spot.
Lake Iseo, Italy
Lake Como and Lake Garda seem to get all the fame, but the more obscure Lake Iseo is a hidden gem. Delightfully less pretentious and significantly less crowded than the other lakes in the region, Lake Iseo’s shores span a variety of villages along Northern Italy at the foot of the Alps, all with a slightly Swiss feel as you inch toward the border. Fork over a few euros to ferry over to Monte Isola, where you can rent bikes and peddle around the charming car-free island, stopping to swim in the cool water or indulge in a seafood frenzy at one of the local restaurants. Combine your lake trip with wine tasting in the nearby Franciacorta region, which produces sparkling wine using the Champagne method.
Getting There: Fly to Milan Malpensa (MXP). Once in Milan, rent a car to explore the region or take the train.
Lake Enol and Lake Ercina, Spain
Set deep inside the Picos de Europa National Park, the lakes of Enol and Ercina are some of the most picturesque in all of Europe. Keep your eyes peeled for cows on the precarious drive weaving through the mountains to get there. And the two lakes surrounded by snow-capped peaks are just a few of the highlights of the national park, which is also home to the famous pink Santa Maria church swirled in fog on a hilltop and the sacred cueva (cave), where the Virgin Mary was reportedly spotted during a battle in the year 722. Once you’ve admired the sights, dig into some hearty Asturian cuisine, like fabada, a bean stew with chorizo or a wedge of the region’s 50+ different types of cheese.
Getting There: Fly to Oviedo (OVD). From there, Covadonga National Park is about an hour-and-a-half drive from the city.
Lake Bled, Slovenia
One of the more touristy lakes on the list, Lake Bled has been growing in popularity in past years, which is no surprise when you see its sparkling turquoise hue and picturesque medieval castle artfully set mid-lake on a small, wooded island. The lake is surrounded by craggy mountaintops and green hills, and the best aerial view can be found after a hike up to Mala Osojnica. Pick up some locally made schnapps (try flavors like blackberry or cherry) to pair with some sausage sandwiches and have a Slovenian picnic along the shore. If you still haven’t gotten your fill of freshwater, drive 40 minutes west to Lake Bohinj, a quieter, quainter lake surrounded by mountains.
Getting There: Fly to Ljubljana (LJU). Plan to spend a few days exploring Ljubljana and then drive 45 minutes to Lake Bled.
Lake Hallstatt, Austria
For quintessential Austrian charm, head to the village of Hallstatt bordered by the famous Lake Hallstatt. Both the town and the lake are flanked by the Salzkammergut Mountains, a range of the Northern Limestone Alps. The town of Hallstatt is a UNESCO World Heritage site and known for its nearby salt caves. The town is car-free in the summer months, making it the ideal for a leisurely stroll followed by an energizing swim in the lake. The region is also popular for biking, hiking and rowing. Make sure to dine at some of Hallstatt’s restaurants to sample Austrian wines and fresh-caught lake trout.
Getting There: Fly to Salzburg (SZG). Once there, drive an hour and a half to Hallstatt.
Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia
Take your pick from 16 different lakes at the UNESCO World Heritage Site and national park of Plitvice Lakes. With over 100 square miles of forest in addition to the lakes, there’s plenty of space to hike, cycle and view the ever-changing blue-green colors of the lakes, some of which cascade into waterfalls. If you really want to get deep into the outdoors, there are places to camp nearby. Although it’s forbidden to swim in the lakes, you can drive a few miles north to the Korana River, and dive into the inviting water there.
Getting There: Fly to Zagreb (ZAG). Once in Zagreb, the Plitvice Lakes are about a two-hour drive away.
Lake Windermere, UK
Visit Lake District to enjoy an invigorating swim in the crisp waters of Windermere. The largest lake in Cumbria’s Lake District National Park, Windermere is known for being one of the best spots in the UK for boating and water sports. Of course, if that’s not your favorite, the Lake District was named for a reason — it has 16 lakes in total, so find another that fits your fancy. The whole area is also known for its family-friendly spots like the Lakes Aquarium, The World of Beatrix Potter and a variety of castles and farms.
Getting There: The closest airports to the Lake District are Manchester (MAN) and Glasgow (GLA). A direct train runs between Windermere and Manchester.
Lake Geneva, Switzerland
Spanning both Switzerland and France, Lake Geneva is one of the most popular and largest lakes in Central Europe. The Swiss side is especially interesting if you like wine. The Lavaux vineyards, considered a UNESCO World Heritage site as they date back to Roman times wind along the banks of the lake for almost 20 miles. The cities of Geneva and Lausanne border the lake, so it may be difficult to decide where to call home base during your lake visit. We recommend seeing both if you have the time. And, don’t miss a visit to the 13th-century Chillon Castle in Montreux, which juts out into the lake’s clear blue water.
Getting There: Fly into to Geneva (GVA).
Lake Annecy, France
Lake Annecy has a number of beaches or grassy spots where you can enter the lake to swim or participate in many different types of water sports. It’s also possible to hike in the area or cycle around the lake. Make sure to cross the Pont des Amours, or the love bridge, with your significant other. Rumor has it if you cross the bridge together, you’ll end up together forever. Another spot for romantics, the medieval town of Annecy is dubbed the “Venice of the Alps” for its canals lined with colorful buildings and homes. Explore the castles and villages along the lake and throughout the region, and don’t forget to eat raclette, a melted cheese common in France and Switzerland. For more lake fun, you can also drive over to the nearby Lake Bourget in under an hour.
Getting There: Fly to Lyon (LYS), which is a two-hour drive to Lake Annecy. But, flying into Geneva, Switzerland (GVA), is only an hour drive away from the lake (see above for routing).
Featured photo of Lake Annecy by Milena-Pigdanowicz Fidera / Getty Images.
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