A Rough Guide to Lake Garda in Italy: Things to Do in Salò
After working on Lake Garda for the best part of 5 months, I thought it was time I visited Salò. I spent most of my summer in places like Pescheira, Desenzano, and Sirmione.
Then there were the occasional day-trip to obscure outposts like Milan, Verona, and Venice. Maybe you've heard of the latter.
Therefore a visit was long overdue to take a leisurely look around this historical town which has been made famous for all the right and some of the wrong reasons. Here are some of the things to do in Salò on Lake Garda and also what you can see among the beautiful scenery.
Under the mountain
Salò lies on the south-western shores of Lake Garda in a small gulf area surrounded by moraine hills and mountains.
Paramount among these is Monte San Bartolomeo which dominates the area.
I arrived for a short visit one day by car in August with a friend as we both worked on nearby campsites.
You can find free parking but it will most likely be away from the town centre. In the centre you will most likely need to pay.
The most remarkable first impression is that towering mountain which dwarfs the city as it lies so close.
It provides a startling backdrop to the street views and makes the buildings seem very small in comparison. In terms of acreage the town is small in size too but with a population of over 10,000 Salo is quite a compact and densely packed area with many buildings and small streets.
Overall it's perhaps not ideal for a long stay especially since the transport links aren't as strong as elsewhere. Other towns on Lake Garda like Peschiera and Desenzano serve as better bases for those who like to tour around. But certainly worth a day visit or maybe even just a short stop-off for an afternoon as I did.
Salò was founded during the Roman period and named Pagus Salodium. It is not certain how the town got its name but one theory is that it is named after Salodia who was an Etruscan Queen and who lived there. A less majestic suggestion is that it derives from the fact that the town was an important centre in trading salt which was once a lucrative commodity.
In the Middles Ages the town became a stronghold of the powerful Visconti family from Milan. However in 1440 like most of the region it came under the control of the Venetian Republic. In 1560 Salò was eventually bestowed with the the honorary title of city by royal decree.
In more modern times dramatic and traumatic events took place in the 20th century. In 1901 the town was almost completely destroyed by an earthquake and even today there are still some ruins along the promenade as a reminder.
Then in the Second World War the town was the location from 1943-45 where Mussolini ruled over his Salò Republic. However this was just a puppet state of Nazi Germany during his last years of decline and since the Allied invasion he had no real powers in the country. The official title of this government of a rump state was the Italian Social Republic. Another one of those quaint pseudonyms for those nasty Fascists.
On that subject the town was also the period scene of the infamous movie 'Salò: The Last Days of Sodom' which was released in 1976 to an outbreak of controversy.
On a more worthy note the inventor of the violin is supposed to have come from Salò. His name was Gasparo Bertollott and he was born in 1540. Ever since he has been known as Gasparo da Saló and is certainly credited with perfecting the design of the violin.
Taking the passeggiata
Out on the water's edge Salò has the longest promenade on Lake Garda and possibly the longest in Italy itself. It was built on stilts after the earthquake. I took a stroll along it on that sweltering August afternoon marvelling at the colourful array of boats along the shore.
Although it has to be admitted that the view from Salò is not as spectacular as the view onto itself from other parts of the lake. The hillside directly on the other side of the bay is much, much smaller than the hills around the breath-taking Monte San Bartolomeo.
But Salò is the perfect place to visit for people who enjoy water sports or leisure. It can offer fishing areas and surfing with normally medium-sized waves when the mountain winds blow. There is also rowing and of course sailing on the lake especially when those breezes come around.
There is a popular market held on Saturday mornings although normally the best markets are more inland and off the beaten track. The resort markets around the lake-front tend to be aimed more at the tourist trade.
Things to see in Salò
For those of a less than sporting nature who wish to avoid such exertions then there is no need to worry.
For in the hot summer months there are more passive and cultural activities to enjoy.
As you would expect there is a Cathedral, or 'Duomo' in Italian, which was rebuilt in the late Gothic style in the 15th century.
It has a beautiful facade and portal looking onto a square where classical music concerts take place in July. These are the sparkling touches that produce the magic of Lake Garda.
Highlights inside the building through its Renaissance portal are paintings by the 16th century painter Zenone Veronese, a Polyptych of the Paolo Venezaino School and also a 'Madonna and Saints' by Romanino.
You can also stroll around the 'Palazzo della Magnifica Patria' (Palace of the Magnificent Motherland) which dates from 1524 and is now a municipal building. The palace is home to the Historical Museum of the Azure Ribbon, an exhibition of documents on Renaissance history.
You will also find exhibits on the colonial wars of Italy as well as the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s and the Resistance against Fascism during World War Two. Going further back in time the Palace contains archaeological displays including exhibits from the ancient 'Salodium'.
For bookish types there is 'The Library of the Academy of Salò' grew from the 'Accademia degli Unanimi'. The latter was the inspiration of one Filippo Meio Voltolina who was a poet in the town and the creation of the building in 1564 was intended to encourage cultural interests. That led to the founding of the library which now contains 25,000 volumes as well as 13th century manuscripts and documents from the early 16th century.
Bars, cafes and restaurants
Next to the promenade you will find the 'Piazza Dal Vittoria' a beautiful area with restaurants, cafes, shops and hotels.
On the 'Trip Advisor' site customer feedback praises the 'Osteria al Gallo', the 'Osteria di Mezzo' and the 'Quanto Basta' amongst many others.
But of course once you're there it's always best to ask around for the latest fantastic feasts. And you can also check those prices on the menus outside.
As I was in the town in the early afternoon a meal wasn't really on the menu. So a coffee and formaggio e prosciutto sandwich from a local cafe sufficed for me. That's cheese and ham for the uninitiated. But this is the perfect way to have a snack. Sitting in the sunshine looking out onto the cool waters of the lake. Of course the food and drink was delicious as even the most modest meals in Italy are something to enjoy.
Places to stay in Salò
Not having booked into any of the hotels in Salò I'm not qualified to give an opinion.
I spent most of summer in Lake Garda in a large tent which was free of charge so I wasn't complaining.
However I'm sure the Trip Advisor link will tell you all you need to know.
Top hotels that are recommended by visitors are 'Hotel Vigna' and 'Hotel Eden' which are in the reasonably priced bracket.
For a more exclusive and expensive luxury stay then 'Hotel Villa Aracadio' and 'Hotel Bellerive' have been highlighted.
For the cheaper end of the market there is Bed and Breakfast accommodation. Mentioned in dispatches are 'Villa Luna' and 'Cascina La Palazzina'. But you can make your own mind up from the reviews.
As an alternative to hotels there is Camping Eden which is situated on the hillside across the gulf from Salò. A wonderful campsite with a perfect view of those magnificent mountains and valleys behind the town. Not only that but you can see far out across the lake to the Dolomite Mountains including Monte Baldo.
If you do book the campsite then the best views will be found up high on the west side of the site. The hill is quite steep though so be prepared to exercise those calf muscles on your way back from the restaurant and swimming pool to the mobile home. Alternatively if you want to trade off the spectacular view you could rent a place further down the slope.
The small town of Portese is right beside the campsite so is within easy walking distance. The town also has a small ferry port.
As mentioned before Salò is unfortunately not as best served by transport links and services as other resorts around the lake.
Unlike those towns Salò has no rail link and similarly it is not near the Autostrada either as this skirts nearer the south-east resorts. From Salò it is around 15 miles away.
Therefore those possible excursions to Verona, Milan and Venice can take much longer.
It does share the problem of traffic congestion which can affect the whole lake during high season. Weekends are best avoided for that car trip as traffic jams can hold you up for two or three hours on a particularly bad day. However on a good day the local bus service will get you to Desenzano in around half an hour with perhaps a further 20 minutes to Peschiera.
Of course the ferry service is excellent from March to October albeit a little on the slow side and more expensive in comparison to road and rail. But what better way to enjoy the passing scenery and take in the fresh air. It is worth taking a whole day and cruise all the way up north to Riva del Garda.
However you can also go on walks or local trips to neighbouring towns and villages. Places like Barbarano, Campoverde, Cunettone, Renzano, San Bartolomeo, Serniga and Villa are all nearby. The many trails of the 'Colle Bartolomeo' will take you through a pine forest and offer panoramic views of the area. For some relaxing sunbathing and for a paddle or a swim in the lake there is a long pebble beach just outside the south-side of the town.
Unfortunately I was too pressed for time to while away the hours in the sunshine or the local bars and cafes. But enough of an impression was made on yours truly to recommend its attractions. There are many things to do in Salò, so enjoy your visit if you decide to go.