6 of Italy’s most romantic lake towns

(CNN) — While they remain largely unknown to many, the trail of towns skirting northern Italy’s lakes have become a haven for true romantics thanks to their enchanting, cinematic settings.

Pastel-colored shutters over balconies bursting with sprightly flowers, lanes shaded by bougainvillea and skylines defined by the rise of Renaissance era castles and medieval towers — there’s something effortlessly impressive about these hamlets.

While crowds freely flock to nearby Venice and Milan, the villages that pepper the shores in the core of the Italian lake districts, from Lake Como in the west to Lake Garda in the east, are still largely secluded in their uncomplicated beauty.

Here are six of our favorite romantic towns around northern Italy’s lakes.

1. Bergamo

Bergamo’s Piazza Vecchia is full of of medieval and Renaissance architecture.

David Sweeney

This inland destination set in the heart of Lombardy is easily reachable by train from points across the Italian lakes region and shines as one of northern Italy’s most romantic old towns.

Thick Venetian walls surround sturdy towers, while church domes and grand steeples form a distinct skyline echoing a bygone era.

Bergamo’s cobbled paths intersect at Piazza Vecchia, a café clad square lined by elegant architecture in shades reflecting its storied past, including 12th century treasures like Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore (+39 035-223-327) and the Torre del Campanone (+39 035-247-116).

Along with the stately whitewashed visage of the Palazzo Nuovo, the square’s dreamy ambience is especially striking by night.

Visitors can also glide up to the last and highest stop on the city’s funicular cable car for a candlelit dinner at Baretto di San Vigilio, known for its elegant yet traditional Bergamasca cuisine, accompanied by a panorama of all points below the old city.

2. Lecco

The province of Lecco, which is located on the eastern shores of Lake Como, is flanked by mountains.

Maurizio Moro

Lecco may be one of Lombardy region’s least visited spots, yet has the most panoramic views.

The 40-minute direct connect train from Bergamo stops here, right where the Bergamo Alps dip down into the region from the north and east; a perfect cradle for a village where every street ends with a view of either the mountain slopes or the lake coast.

From the train station, visitors can stroll past the facades of elegant 19th century buildings to Piazza XX Novembre and other sights, like the 11th century Basilica San Nicola and the 14th century Viscontea Tower, which are key stopping points on the way to the southern fork of Lake Como.

Lecco’s leafy promenade curls around the waterfront with views of Malgrate and Moregallo across the way. The golden statue of Saint Nicholas (the patron saint of Lecco) juts out of the lake to add a sparkling touch to the scene.

3. Varenna

The small town of Varenna is one-hour train ride from Milan.

Sonia Poncia

While Varenna may pale in comparison to the grand architecture of its neighboring lake towns, it wins for its authentic, sheer, unpretentious beauty.

Set on an intersection of three branches of Lake Como, its mix of pretty pastels and romantic reds painted on traditional fishermen’s houses perfectly pair up with small, stone lakeside paths swathed with sprawling greenery, fragrant flowers and intricate iron-wrought terrace gates.

While adventurers tend to explore the hiking and mountain bike trails of the nearby Esino valley, the impossibly alluring waterfront, with its tiny stone beaches, villa gardens, colorful gelaterias and scenic dining verandas, offers some of the most romantic settings in the region.

There’s also a view of Bellagio waterfront ahead and Menaggio to the right.

4. Lovere

Lovere lies on the northern shore of Lake Iseo, the smallest of Lombardy’s major lakes.

Dimitri Salvi

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, an English writer of 18th-century fame, described Lovere as “the most romantic place I have ever seen.”

Centuries-old buildings dipped in muted pastels tumble down hills that slope to the shore of Lake Iseo. Cool air from both the mountains and the lake brush effortlessly together through the town’s twisting cobbled lanes.

Open since the early 19th century, the Tadini Gallery of the Academy of Fine Arts displays a rich collection, including works by Antonio Canova, Francesco Hayez and Giandomenico Tiepolo.

Gathering at the lakeside promenade in the evening offers the best chance of experiencing a brilliant sunset.

5. Sirmione

Sirmione is home to some of the best beaches in Lake Garda.

David Sweeney

Sirmione’s natural and man-made wonders pack themselves on a pin-like, four-kilometer stretch of peninsula protruding from Lake Garda’s southern shore.

This low-key destination has attracted faithful return visitors as well as some big names like the renowned poet Catullus and opera diva Maria Callas.

Its coast is wild and rocky, especially where the turquoise waters at Jamaica Beach curl over fantastic bone-white rock formations — a surreal scene for those looking to spend the day swimming and sunbathing.

There’s health benefits to Sirmione. It’s natural thermal springsh are the focal point of relaxation at the Terme di Sirmione.

After a peek in the town’s historic churches and leisurely lakeside meals at its restaurants, visitors can climb the dozens of steps within the fortified walls of Rocca Scaligera Castle for panoramic views of Lake Garda.

6. Mantova

Renaissance city Mantova became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008.

David Sweeney

Flanked by three artificial lakes, the serenely terracotta-hued Mantova is a town where the passion of the Renaissance has never disappeared.

Once a powerful artistic and financial hub, Mantova stands with a one-of-a-kind romantic grandeur that impressed when it was a bastion of influence born from the powerful ruling families who lived here.

The 14th century Piazza Sordello is the oldest in town, and creamy marbled statues tower on the roof of the Romanesque-styled St. Peter and Paul Cathedral.

Palazzo Ducale, which once belonged to the ruling Gonzaga family, and the Renaissance-styled Palazzo Castiglioni castle, now luxurious and romantic suites, remain fine examples of Mantova’s ornate residences and ducal palaces.

For centuries, their windows have looked out onto the expansive cobbled, brick and stone paved square which bursts with commotion nowadays when hosting concerts by artists like Sting and Elton John.

Marissa Tejada is an author, travel journalist and founder of the Travel Greece, Travel Europe blog. She tweets @tejadamarissa.

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