The villas and gardens of the Italian lakes are as spectacular as the alpine landscape surrounding them. This 15-day tour visits many of the finest villas and gardens of northern Italy, from the shores of Lake Como, with their elegant villas and exuberant displays of springtime blooms, to the Renaissance country villas and town houses of Andrea Palladio in the Veneto. The tour concludes on Lake Maggiore, best known for the baroque splendour of Isola Bella, and enjoys the lakes, villas and gastronomy of the region at a gentle pace.
The villas and gardens of Lake Como in bloom: Villa Melzi, Villa Carlotta and Villa Balbianello
Asolo and Mantua: the surprising histories of their Renaissance courts
Elegant Vicenza and Palladio’s extraordinary vision for its palaces and country villas
The fascinating towns of Lake Garda, the little-visited Lake Lugano and tranquil Lake Orta
Excellent regional cuisine and wine, including lunches at Villa d’Este and in scenic Valdobbiadene, home of prosecco
The Borromean Islands: baroque masterpieces on Lake Maggiore
Days 1–4: Explore Lake Como by boat, visiting Villa Balbianello and Villa Melzi, with lunch at the Villa d’Este. Day trip from Bellagio to Lugano.
Days 5–6: From Vicenza, discover Mantegna and Giulio Romano’s Mantua, and Palladio’s town houses and theatre.
Days 7–9: In fairytale Asolo, enjoy fine gastronomy in the Valdobbiadene and Veronese and Palladio’s country villas.
Days 10–11: On Lake Garda, explore the Italian villa tradition from ancient to modern.
Days 12–15: Travel to Stresa via Lake Iseo. Experience the extraordinary villas and gardens of Lake Maggiore and enjoy the tranquillity of Lake Orta.
The tour begins and ends at Milan Malpensa airport. Qatar, Singapore, Emirates and Etihad airlines all offer connections to Milan Malpensa airport from most Australian cities. Contact us for quotes and bookings.
Included meals are shown with the letters B, L and D.
Sunday April 19: Lake Como
A group transfer to Bellagio, spectacularly situated on Lake Como, is available for those arriving in Milan’s Malpensa airport on early morning flights. Those travelling independently should make their own way to the hotel. On arrival there is the chance to freshen up (hotel rooms may not available until early afternoon), before we take a short stroll around the town. In the afternoon, we enjoy Lake Como in the way it was meant to be seen, from the water, on our private boat tour, stopping for an afternoon tea break and visit to the picturesque Villa Monastero. There is a light, early dinner in the hotel, which looks out across the lake. Overnight Bellagio (D)
Monday April 20: Neo-Classical Villas
Villas and their gardens often have stories to tell, and the two we visit today speak volumes about Italy’s travails at the turn of the 19th century. The Villa Melzi was built in the neo-classical style for Napoleon’s Vice-President of Italy, Francesco Melzi D’Eril. He called in the designers of the Royal Park at Monza to do his gardens, which flow graciously down the mountainside to the lake. After our visit of the villa, we continue by private boat to Villa D’Este, the best-known villa on Lake Como, where we enjoy a sumptuous welcome lunch. Overnight Bellagio (B, L)
Tuesday April 21: Lake Lugano
This stunning glacial lake marks the border between southern Switzerland and northern Italy, and its art and architecture have long reflected the strategic geographical location of the Ticino. We begin the day with a visit to the lakeside Villa Fogazzaro Roi, a beautifully preserved aristocratic residence of the 19th century. It was the residence of novelist Antonio Fogazzaro, whose personal mementoes still dot the elegant rooms of his beloved house. We continue to Santa Maria degli Angioli, which preserves an extraordinary rood screen frescoed by Bernardino Luini, a significant 16th-century pupil of Leonardo da Vinci. Before returning to Bellagio, we ascend the Monte San Salvatore by funicular, for stunning views over Lake Lugano. Overnight Bellagio (B)
Wednesday April 22: Neo-Classicism to Modern
We begin the morning by crossing the lake to the Villa Carlotta, commenced by Gian Battista Sommariva, the great rival of Melzi D’Eril of the Villa Melzi. Villa Carlotta became a fixture for Grand Tourists because of its collection of works by Canova and Thorvaldsen, the two best sculptors of the period. In the mid-19th century, Sommariva’s villa was sold, then given as a wedding gift to Princess Charlotte of Prussia, whose husband Georg of Saxe-Meuningen was an avid botanist. He is largely responsible for the garden’s appearance today, with its cascading azaleas, rhododendrons and camellias, and extensive botanical gardens which take full advantage of the lake’s microclimate. We then continue to the 18th-century Villa Balbianello, which occupies an exceptional position on a promontory with panoramic views of Lake Como. We take a guided tour the interior, decorated in the 20th century by Italian entrepreneur and explorer Guido Monzino. Overnight Bellagio (B)
Thursday April 23: The Court of Mantua
We leave Lake Como today and travel by coach to Vicenza, stopping at Mantua, a small town that was a vibrant 15th-century court under the Gonzaga dynasty. Andrea Mantegna’s celebrated frescoes in the Camera degli Sposi, and Giulio Romano’s mischievous gods and goddesses at the Palazzo Te, are two different indications of the concerns of the dukes, whose city declined from the 16th century due to problems with succession. After a guided visit of the town, we continue on to our hotel and enjoy a meal together. Overnight Vicenza (B, D)
Friday April 24: Palladio in the City
Vicenza, today a vibrant regional centre, was the home of Andrea Palladio, the great Renaissance architect whose Four Books of Architecture are among the most influential works ever written in the field. With our guide, we explore his youthful contributions to the streetscape of Vicenza, from his early proposal to retrofit the town’s celebrated Basilica Palladiana, to his urban palaces inspired by a patrician Roman ideal and the late masterpiece of the Teatro Olimpico. This theatre still preserves it original stage set and is an iconic example of Palladio’s innovative and practical designs. The afternoon is at leisure, to continue your survey of Palladio’s works or perhaps to enjoy a stroll past the city’s elegant shops. Overnight Vicenza (B)
Saturday April 25: Palladio in the Country
Please note: today is a public holiday
We continue our survey of Palladio’s glorious contribution to architectural history today, visiting the best known of his ‘suburban villas’: the Villa Capra ‘La Rotonda’. Its siting and proportional rhythm have been endlessly influential on subsequent designs, such as Jefferson’s Monticello estate. We continue to the Villa Valmarana ai Nani, still in private hands, before heading to Asolo, our base for the next three nights. Dinner is in our hotel, which boasts one of Asolo’s best restaurants. Overnight Asolo (B, D)
Sunday April 26: Villa Barbaro & The Valdobbiadene
This morning we visit another of Palladio’s masterpiece, the Villa Barbaro. The villa was commissioned by two brothers from one of Venice’s leading families, one of whom, Daniele, collaborated extensively with Palladio on a new edition of Vitruvius, the only treatise on architecture to have survived from Roman antiquity. The interiors have extensive frescoes by Paolo Veronese, who plays with Palladio’s interior spaces by creating trompe-l’oeil balconies (complete with people looking down on you), doorways and windows with imaginary landscapes. After visiting the villa, we travel to the Valdobbiadene, a string of valleys along the Piave River most famous for producing prosecco, where we have lunch in a country restaurant overlooking the vineyards. We return to Asolo via the village of Possagno to visit the monumental tomb of Antonio Canova, modelled on the ancient Roman Pantheon. Overnight Asolo (B, L)
Monday April 27: Asolo and Villa Emo
Asolo is one of the most beautiful hill towns in Italy, and the morning and early afternoon are free to relax in the charming town. There are numerous walks through the countryside or up to the medieval fortress above the city, as well as an interesting local museum, cafes and small shops, and a cathedral with works by Lorenzo Lotto and other local artists. This afternoon we take a short excursion to Palladio’s Villa Emo, the most perfectly conceived of the architect’s villas. Overnight Asolo (B)
Tuesday April 28: Villa Arvedi and Verona
This morning we travel to Verona, stopping to visit Villa Arvedi, the residence of the Count Arvedi who will be our guide. The villa contains frescoes by French artist Ludovico Dorigny and a fine parterre garden ‘all’italiana’. We continue on to central Verona for lunch and to visit the formal Giardino dei Giusti. In the late afternoon we continue on to our base on the western shores of Lake Garda, in the quiet lakeside town of Gardone Riviera. Overnight Gardone (B, D)
Wednesday April 29: Lake Garda
We begin the day by making the short trip from our hotel up to the villa of the 20th-century war hero, poet and eccentric Gabriele D’Annunzio. The interior is extraordinary: dark, intense, eclectic and certainly unique. It is complemented by peaceful gardens and terraces, replete with gifts given to him by the Italian state, including a small WWI warship he then had installed in the mountainside. Il Vittoriale is surely the most iconoclastic of the Italian villas we survey on our tour! After a break for lunch by the lake in Gardone, we embark on a leisurely private boat tour of Lake Garda, travelling as far as the fortress built by Verona’s Scaliger dynasty at Malcesine, with its dramatic backdrop of Monte Baldo. Overnight Gardone (B)
Thursday April 30: Lake Iseo
This morning we depart for Stresa, stopping to visit Lake Iseo. Relatively undiscovered, this beautiful lake was recently “wrapped” in striking orange silk by the artist Christo, and a number of islands – one with an elaborate and private Medieval Revival castle – rise up from the water. Monte Isola, the largest island in this lake (and in southern Europe in general), rises to a peak of 600m, and we stop for lunch at leisure here, perhaps at one of the lakeside fish restaurants. In the afternoon, we continue to Stresa and share a group meal. Overnight, Stresa (B, D)
Friday May 1: The Borromean Islands
Please note: today is a public holiday
The Borromean islands, lying just off the shores of Stresa on Lake Maggiore, are named after the noble Milanese Borromeo family, who have owned them since the 13th century. This morning we take a private boat to Isola Bella, an entire island given over to their baroque palace and magnificently theatrical gardens. After a break for lunch on Isola Pescatori – the small island next door, also owned by the Borromeo – we visit Isola Madre. In contrast to the baroque display of the Isola Bella, the gardens of Isola Madre were designed by Henry Cocker in the English style in the early 20th century, although sections retain the family’s botanical interests. Overnight Stresa (B)
Saturday May 2: Lake Orta
This morning we travel to the nearby Lake Orta. This lake is yet to be discovered by mass tourism and we visit peaceful Orta San Giulio, a small town on the shore. From here we take a boat to Isola San Giulio, the site of a medieval abbey. The abbey, according to tradition, was the 100th church founded by San Giulio, a 4th-century Greek monk who evangelised this mountainous region. Today the island remains a monastic retreat, and its church contains medieval frescoes and sculpture. After a break for lunch, we return to Stresa where the afternoon is at leisure before we meet for our farewell dinner. Overnight Stresa (B, D)
Sunday May 3: Departure
An early morning group transfer to Milan’s Malpensa airport is available for those joining midday flights. (B)
Dr Kathleen Olive
A literary and cultural historian with a PhD from the University of Sydney, with particular expertise in Italy, Spain and Japan.
Dr Kathleen Olive is a literary and cultural historian with close to 15 years’ experience leading tours to Italy, Spain, France, Turkey, Japan and the United States. She has a strong personal interest in the visual arts, interior design, fashion history and contemporary fiction.
Kathleen holds a BA with first class Honours and a PhD, both from the Department of Italian Studies at the University of Sydney. For a number of years she worked as a lecturer at the University of Sydney and the University of Technology, Sydney, teaching Italian language, literature and history. Kathleen continues to teach, as a national lecturer for the Australian Decorative and Fine Arts Society (ADFAS), and in adult education courses in Sydney. In 2015, her edition of the Codex Rustici (a 15th-century commonplace book that Kathleen worked on with Nerida Newbigin, for her doctoral studies and for publication) was presented to Pope Francis on his first official visit to Florence.
Kathleen’s historical and artistic knowledge stretches from the Middle Ages through to the early 20th century. In Italy she has led numerous tours focusing on the medieval and Renaissance periods. In Spain she has a particular concentration on the “Convivencia” of Islamic, Christian and Jewish cultures in the south, and on the medieval pilgrimage routes of the north. Her tours of the USA’s north-east have focused on American collectors and their Gilded Age reinventions of European glory days, and in Japan she is particularly interested in contemporary design, from fashion to architecture. Kathleen speaks fluent Italian, is conversant in Spanish and understands French.
Kathleen was first involved on a tour to Italy in 2003 and it sparked her passion for on-the-spot communication of art and history. Since 2010 she has worked exclusively for Academy Travel, leading 6 tours a year. She has designed a number of our popular tours, from the Florence residential, to surveys of the courts of Renaissance Italy and of central Italy’s villas and gardens, as well as “twin city” tours to Palermo and Naples and to Florence and Rome. Closer to home, Kathleen is leading Academy Travel’s inaugural tour to Japan and our popular tours to Tasmania.
We asked Kathleen, what do you enjoy most about leading a group tour?
“I really enjoy travelling with groups who share interests in the history, culture and even food of a destination. It means that those personal connections are there right from the beginning, just waiting to be made.”
“There’s nothing I enjoy more than finding out the particular interests of my fellow travellers – an artist, a dish they love eating, their memories of a particular place – and finding a way to make an experience happen for them. That might mean recommending a particular wine bar, directing them to a museum that features artists they already like, or suggesting the best time of day for a view over a town. It’s so satisfying to be involved in making these kinds of memories for people.”
“Many of the people I travel with comment on my passion for the places I visit. It’s not just that I know my names and dates – it’s that I really enjoy bringing out the connections between history and art, for example, or between landscape and food. I never grow tired of injecting this kind of life into ‘dry’ academic knowledge.”
Historic and well-appointed four-star hotel. Rooms look out across Lake Maggiore and the Borromean Islands. www.reginapalace.it/en
What is included in the tour price?
Unless otherwise stated in the itinerary, our tours include the following:
Any flights mentioned in the itinerary that take place during a tour
Land travel by private air-conditioned coach. Where appropriate public transport is also used for short distance travel on some tours
All accommodation in hotels or apartments as stated in the itinerary
Breakfasts, lunches and dinners specifically stated as included in the itinerary
Drinks at welcome and farewell meals. Other meals may not have drinks included
Background talks on tour, site notes and online resources
Services of tour leader throughout tour
All entrance fees to sites mentioned in the itinerary
Local guides at some sites
Tips for drivers, local guides and restaurants for included meals
Tours begin either at the arrival airport or the first hotel, depending on the itinerary. If you have booked your international flights with Academy Travel and arrive before the tour commences, we will provide airport to hotel transfers to the closest main city on your arrival, and to the closest airport at the end of the tour. These may be either individual or group transfers.
What is not included in the tour price?
Open-age tours do not include the following:
Return international/domestic air travel unless those flights take place during the tour
Special taxes and airport levies that can only be paid in cash at the destination. We will advise you of these charges (if any) before you depart
Costs involved in obtaining visas for countries visited, where required
Travel insurance. We require all participants to have comprehensive travel insurance. A typical policy for one of our tours will cost from $160 upwards, depending on your age, pre-existing medical conditions, the countries you are visiting and the overall length of your trip
Lunches and dinners not specifically mentioned as included in the itinerary
Personal expenses such as laundry and phone calls
Costs associated with any activity mentioned as “optional” in the itinerary, or any suggested free time activity
You will be asked to sign an acknowledgement of these conditions when you book a place on a tour.
A deposit of $500 per person is required to confirm your booking on a tour. Final payment of the tour fee, insurance and any additional travel will be due 60 days before departure.
If you decide to cancel your booking the following charges apply:
More than 60 days before departure: $500*
60-45 days before tour start: 25% of total amount due
44-15 days before tour start: 75% of total amount due
14 days or less before departure: 100% of total amount due
*This amount may be credited to another Academy Travel tour within 12 months of the original tour you booked.
Unused Portions of the tour
We regret that refunds will not be given for any unused portions of the tour, such as meals, entry fees, accommodation, flights or transfers.
Academy Travel requires all participants to obtain comprehensive travel insurance. We offer a comprehensive policy with a reputable insurer if required.
Passport and Visa
A valid passport is required for all international travel. If you do not hold an Australian passport you may require a re-entry permit. Some countries require a visa to be issued before you depart Australia. We will advise you of all passport and visa requirements, but it is your responsibility to ensure that you meet passport and visa requirements before you depart.
Will the tour price change?
If the number of participants in a tour is significantly less than budgeted, or if there is a significant change in exchange rates Academy Travel reserves the right to amend the advertised price. If this occurs you will be given the option of cancelling your booking and obtaining a full refund. If an Academy Travel tour is forced to cancel you will get a full refund of all monies paid.
Will the itinerary change?
Occasionally circumstances beyond the control of Academy Travel make it necessary to change airline, hotel or to make slight amendments to daily itineraries. We will inform you of any changes as soon as they occur.
Full and final payment for the tour, airfare travel, insurance and any additional travel you book is due 60 days before departure. Payment may be made by bank deposit, cheque, cash or credit card. Please note there is a surcharge for payments made by credit card.
Academy Travel reserves the right to decline the booking or terminate the holiday of any traveller.