10 of the best lake and river holidays in Europe

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Italy
Hiking and bikes, Iseo

Few places have more romantic appeal than the Italian Lakes, from celebrity-favourite Como, to the vast, stylish Garda. Among the quietest but most picturesque is Lake Iseo, surrounded by mountains, with the Camonica valley to the north and Franciacorta wine country to the south. There are three small towns on its shores: Lovere, Iseo and cobble-streeted Sarnico, less polished and touristy than other resorts and good bases for exploring. Ferries crisscross the lake, linking towns and villages, and there are plenty of easy-to-access hiking and biking trails around the shore and into the surrounding hills.

Monte Isola, the largest lake island in Italy, soars from the water. No cars are allowed (except the doctor’s and the priest’s), so use public buses or hike between the 11 fishing villages and climb to the hilltop church, over 400 metres above the lake, for great views. The area’s famous dish is tinca fish, a type of carp straight from the lake, often baked and served with polenta.

Accommodation is better value here than elsewhere in the region: camp at Campeggio Cave, right on the water at Iseo (pitches from £11 plus £5 per adult); stay at the Lake Iseo Hostel in Lovere (dorm beds from £11); or Casa Visnenza B&B (doubles from £72), a former silk mill with wooden beams and stone interiors. The lake is easy to reach by bus from Brescia and Bergamo, the largest towns nearby.

Finland
Europe’s largest lake district


Sauna and lake Lahti Lehmonkarki Finland

With close to 200,000 lakes, and countless rivers and canals, Finnish Lakeland is the largest lake district on the continent. Its forested landscape glimmers with patches of water, the focal point for endless summer days, when Finns escape to their waterfront cabins and the sun hardly sets. The second largest lake in the country is Päijänne, a great base for watery holidays of all kinds, with sandy beaches and rocky coves around its shore.

Spend lazy days swimming in the clear, clean water, kayaking, fishing or exploring the many islands by boat. The lake is part of a national park and nature trails wind through a wild landscape. Great lakeside accommodation choices include lovely Lehmonkärki Resort on the south-west of the lake, with wooden cottages and villas on the water’s edge which all have their own sauna and rowing boat. Combine a few days’ full nature immersion with a stay in Jyväskylä, the largest city in Lakeland and home to many buildings by renowned local architect and designer Alvar Aalto.
Best Served Scandinavia’s new Summer Adventure in Finnish Lakeland self-drive itinerary includes three nights on Päijänne lake, a stay in a 19th-century farmhouse on the river in Kuusa, and time in Jyväskylä. The eight-day holiday costs from £1,345pp, including return flights to Helsinki, car hire and bed and breakfast accommodation. To plan an independent trip, Visit Finland has a selection of self-drive routes, downloadable from its website.

Germany
Camping near Berlin


Lake Tonsee in Germany

Lake Tonsee.

The region surrounding the German capital is as bucolic as Berlin is bold. Brandenburg is a state made up of lakes (around 3,000) and forests, making it ideal camping and campervan territory. Rent a van from Roadsurfer’s store, a short bus ride from Tegel airport, and you can be dangling your feet from a wooden pier and gazing across serene waters within the hour.

Tonsee, about 30 miles south of Berlin, is a good starting point. This lake may be small, but the water quality is superb. A sloping sandy beach offers an entry point to this tree-fringed body of water, and the charming forest campsite is just a stone’s throw away (campervan £9 plus £6pp). A 40-minute drive west is Grubensee, in the Dahme-Heideseen nature park (camping from £3.50 per pitch plus £3.50 per adult, campervan from £6). The swimming here is glorious: strong swimmers can get out to two small islands. For the less adventurous, a stroll around the lake reveals a second beach on the other side and several picturesque wooden piers to picnic on.

If you manage to tear yourself away, Schmöldesee is about an hour’s drive away. There are various water activities available here, or follow in the footsteps of German novelist and poet Theodor Fontane on the many hiking and biking trails along the Fontaneweg.

For further exploration, buy a copy of Take Me to the Lakes, a comprehensive guide to 50 of Brandenburg’s best lakes.
Roadsurfer hires vans from £67 a day (£89 from 1 June-15 September)

Slovenia
Walks and swims with fairytale views


Young people jumping off of a dock into Lake Bled, Slovenia.

Photograph: Steve Cole Images/Getty Images

With its lake, river-rich landscape and dramatic mountains, Slovenia lends itself to outdoor adventure. Lake Bled is perhaps the best known, with its fairytale castle and island church, while Bohinj in the vast Triglav national park to the west is one of the most beautiful, surrounded by woods and hamlets, with the Savica waterfall at its head.

An active option is Intrepid Travel’s Hike, Bike & Raft tour. The eight-day trip includes treks around Bohinj, mountain biking along the Radovna River and whitewater rafting on the Sava Dolinka River (from £880pp). For those who like being in the water, rather than just by it, Strel Swimming has a four-day holiday, with days spent swimming in Lake Bled, Bohinj and River Soca (legendary marathon swimmer Martin Strel leads some trips). Visitors who don’t fancy swimming can kayak or paddleboard alongside their friends.
From £510pp, with three nights’ B&B accommodation, strel-swimming.com

Sweden
Paddling in Dalsland


Sweden rural dalsland reflection

Photograph: Nilsz/Getty Images

Sweden’s lake district is a vast system of interconnected crystal clear lakes with a well-maintained network of overnight shelters – a perfect setting for a serene paddling adventure. Two hours north of Gothenburg, on the west coast, this is a place where nature has pretty much been left to run its course.

There are deep forests, home to moose and beaver, and a sparsely populated rocky shoreline, with only the odd summer cottage visibly disturbing the natural colour scheme. This has long been one of the most popular canoe areas in Europe, and you can glide across 100-metre-deep lakes, most of which are long and narrow with almost no waves, paddle down the Dalsland Canal and take the locks out into Lake Vänern.

The less energetic can rent a log cottage with a sauna near Svardlang lake (Rabens Cottage sleeps four from £220 for two nights). The area has over 100 prepared wild campsites, all equipped with wind shelters, open fire pits, wood and environmentally friendly toilets.

Canoeists have to buy a Naturvårdskort (nature conservation card) to stay at the shelters, sold at tourist offices in the area (£5 a night), and canoes can be rented at a number of outlets in the region.

Nature Travels offers four-day tours from £147pp, two people per canoe, until 30 September. The lock system closes at the end of August.

Central Europe
Cycle round Lake
Constance


Meersburg old town.

Meersburg old town. Photograph: FooTToo/Getty Images

Lake Constance has 170 miles of shoreline – most of it in Germany (other bits are in Austria, Switzerland and Liechtenstein). There are many beautiful lakeside towns and villages which work as bases for exploring and no end of options for sailing and windsurfing, or boat trips.

One of the best ways to explore is by bike – it’s flat, car-free cycling. The Lake Constance Trail circumnavigates its entirety, taking in the resort town of Überlingen on the northern shore, medieval towns like Meersburg and nature reserves such as Wollmatinger.

Austria has 15 miles of lakeshore, including the city of Bregenz which each July and August hosts a summer festival of classical and operatic music on and around a stage in the lake. In Switzerland, Kreuzlingen hosts the Fantastical festival for three days in August with music and a huge firework display.

The tourist board has launched a digital map to help plan independent cycling trips and has a helpful accommodation search feature, too. Book a trip through a tour operator and your routes, accommodation and luggage transfers are taken care of.

An eight-day trip with Ragweg-Reisen costs from £473pp, with an average of 45km cycling a day, boat trips and B&B accommodation included. For walkers, Inntravel has a six-night holiday from £715, with luggage transfers and comfortable hotels, including on the monastic island of Reichenau.

For independent travellers, the Bodensee Card Plus offers good value, covering boat trips across the lake to all four countries and access to dozens of attractions (from £60 per adult, £36 for children 7-16)

Romania
The Danube delta


Pelicans at sunrise in the Danube Delta, Romania.

Photograph: Calin Stan/Getty Images

Europe’s second largest river delta is one of the world’s most pristine wilderness areas and a protected Unesco biosphere. After its 1,770-mile journey, the river empties into the Black Sea, close to the Ukrainian border, though most of the 2,200-square-mile wetland area lies within Romania.

It’s a haven for birdlife, with Europe’s largest pelican population, and the waters are rich in fish and plantlife (there are 1,150 species of flora, from lianas to water lilies). Some villages can only be accessed by water – these are among the most remote settlements in Europe, with a way of life that’s hardly changed for centuries.

There are cruises and boat trips on the delta, but perhaps the best way to explore this beautiful maze of channels, lakes and islands is on a multi-day canoeing trip. Barefoot Tours offers adventures of between four days and one week, with canoe training included.

Starting in Tulcea, guests take the ferry to Crisan and explore the lakes and waterways nearby, staying with local families and enjoying homecooked meals. There’s plenty of opportunity for birdwatching or fishing while exploring this peaceful refuge.
From £252, barefoot-tours.com

Czech Republic
Laidback river trip/booze cruise


Cesky Krumlov and the Vltava river and canoes, Czech Republic, Europe

Český Krumlov and the Vltava river. Photograph: rmanzanosgarcia/Getty Images

Drifting down the Vltava, a colossal waterway that snakes its way from the forests of southern Bohemia and through Prague before merging with the Elbe in the north, is a sociable summer ritual in the Czech Republic. The river bursts into life, its waters awash with blue-and-white striped sailors in canoes, kayaks and rafts laughing – and drinking – their way downstream. Families and flotillas of friends glide away in a summer haze, bottles of tuzemák (rum made from sugar beet) and beer dangling over the side to keep cool, and larger groups linking their boats together, with the outside canoeists steering while the rest imbibe in the sun. For most, it’s a respite from city life and this little two-day jaunt can act as little buffer in between exploring Prague and the unspoilt mountains and woodlands of southern Bohemia. Rent canoes at Vyšší Brod (£22 for two days), camp at the halfway point at Kemp Branná (tent and two people £6) and unwind under the stars while sinking a few beers and pickled sausage in its little bar, before snuggling into a sleeping bag in a tipi by an open fire. Disembark 20 miles later at Český Krumlov, one of the most picturesque towns in Europe – a chocolate box mix of baroque and Renaissance architecture stacked over the river.

North Macedonia
Explore city and shore


Old Stone Bridge across the Vardar River, Skopje, Macedonia

Old Stone Bridge across the Vardar River in Skopje. Photograph: Ariadne Van Zandbergen/Alamy

Combine the pleasures of river and lake in North Macedonia with a twin-centre break to Skopje and Lake Ohrid. The River Vardar bisects North Macedonia’s capital between the predominantly Muslim half to the north, and the Orthodox Christian part to the south, connected by the 15th-century Stone Bridge. In the Turkish area of Čaršija, the daily bazaar, Turkish trading inns, ornate mosques and ancient fortresses showcase the city’s long history. Mustafa Pasha Mosque is the largest and most ornately decorated in the city, and the Daut Pasha Hamam National Gallery is a 15th-century bath house which now houses contemporary art. Three hours to the south, on the Albanian border, the Unesco-protected resort of Ohrid perches on the hilly shores of its eponymous lake with medieval churches and monasteries sitting alongside traditional houses with red-tiled roofs.
Regent Holidays runs an eight-day tour from £715pp including flights and B&B accommodation, regent-holidays.co.uk

Austria

Alpine hiking


Canopy walkway alongside the river Lech, view from Canopy walkway

Canopy walkway alongside the river Lech. Photograph: Nikada/Getty Images

In the Tiroler Lech nature park, the Lechweg River runs wild in a U-shaped valley between the saw-toothed peaks of the Lechtal and Allgäu Alps, one of the few remaining wild river landscapes in Europe. It has shaped the landscape and cultivated the area’s flora and fauna for centuries, sustaining more than 1,000 species of flowering plants and 100 breeding birds, such as the white-backed woodpecker, the red-breasted flycatcher and the western bonelli’s warbler.

Higher up in the forests and the alpine zone there are also golden eagles, peregrines, and pygmy and eagle owls. There are lots of walking trails to explore in the park, and for the ambitious hiker there’s the 75-mile Lech River Trail, which passes the royal castles of King Ludwig II of Bavaria, the Kneipp pools and the Simms waterfall, the longest-span suspension footbridge in Austria – the 200-metre Holzgau bridge – offering spectacular views.
Walks Worldwide offers a nine-day, self-guided tour from £949, including flights, walksworldwide.com

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