There is a vast variety of beautiful lakes in Europe, ranging from rugged, fjord-like lochs in northern Scotland to scenic waterfall-tumbled lakes in Bosnia-Herzegovina and from mountain-hemmed, ice-cold lakes to endless, flat expanses of water surrounded by dense forests. Yet ask most Europe-bound travelers, and Lake Garda in Italy, Lake Geneva between France and Switzerland, and Lake Bled in Slovenia seem to be the best-known and most visited.
Therefore, I have brought together a collection of lakes here that are not so well known but are equally beautiful, varied, and worth a detour or a longer stay nearby for various reasons. There are some names you will recognize instantly but might not have considered a worthwhile destination in their own right, while others might be quite new to you.
Here are my personal favorite and not-so-well-known lakes to visit in Europe, and the reasons I am recommending them to you.
1. Lake Zurich
Let’s start with one lake you will certainly have heard of: Lake Zurich. Stretching from Zurich some 25 miles into the landscape with a width of roughly 2 miles, Lake Zurich meanders past some of the world’s priciest real estate, villages, and islands. This lake is a beauty that is best explored by boat.
There are regular commuter ferries that you can hop on to take you to the lovely medieval town of Rapperswil-Jona, with its sturdy castle, lovely marina, and annual Blues and Jazz Festival. You can go on themed lake cruises or touristy outings, which have the advantage of feeding you interesting information about the surrounding area and its history.
Pro Tip: Lake Zurich has some of the cleanest and clearest water there is in Europe, so if you happen to find yourself nearby in summer, do enjoy a swim in one of the many public baths along the coastline near Zurich.
2. Lac Inférieur
Steps outside of the center of Paris and just across the Peripherique, the busy ring road, lies a bit of countryside, one of the two “lungs” of Paris: the Bois de Boulogne. This vast forest, park, and slice of nature is part of the 16th arrondissement and offers a wonderful respite from the city with its many walking trails.
This is where Parisians take their dogs for a walk at the weekend, and one of the loveliest walks — roughly a 40-minute loop — is once around the Lac Inferieur. It’s not an inferior lake, but simply the lower of two artificial lakes, the other one being Lac Superieur. The lake is surrounded by mature trees that come into their best in fall when the leaves change color and is a haven for birds and waterfowl, plus you can hire rowboats for a bit of splashing around.
Pro Tip: In the center of the lake there are two islands, on one of which there lies a superb restaurant, Le Chalet des Isles, which is reached by ferry. The terrace is particularly enchanting in summer.
3. Lake Constance
I first encountered Lake Constance, or the Bodensee as we call it in German, when my mother took me there on a summer vacation. This lake is well known to Germans, but foreign visitors tend to forgo it in favor of better-known examples such as Lake Starnberg or the Chiemsee. However, in my mind, Lake Constance has so much to offer — such as great swimming and water sports — and is large enough for decent sailing.
In fact, Lake Constance is Germany’s largest lake. Bordered not only Germany, but also Austria and Switzerland, the wonderful towns of Meersburg and Lindau and the flower island of Mainau are non-lake-related sights to not miss, as are the nearby Rhein Falls in Switzerland, one of Europe’s most spectacular waterfalls.
Pro Tip: As you explore, pop into the Kunsthaus Bregenz in neighboring Austria for some superb temporary exhibitions of contemporary art.
And, speaking of Austria, that is another country dotted with crystal-clear alpine lakes where each one is prettier than the next. My personal favorite is the Mondsee, or “Moon Lake,” 17 miles from the gorgeous city of Salzburg. I first visited in summer, and it was a hot one. The water of the lake shimmered in the light, crystal clear as if freshly poured from a mineral water bottle. I will never forget running into the lake and then running straight back out again. It was so cold!
Fed from streams tumbling down from the surrounding snow-capped alpine mountains, the water is as fresh as it is freezing. Ironically, I later found out that the Mondsee is reportedly one of the warmest lakes in Austria, actually known for its warm water. I suppose everything is relative. I did eventually go for a swim, and it was lovely. It just took a little getting used to.
Pro Tip: Stay a few nights in Mondsee Town, known for its ancient abbey and recognizable to Sound of Music fans for the Mondsee Cathedral, where Maria and Captain von Trapp were married.
5. Lake Como
If it’s good enough for George Clooney, then you really can’t go too wrong with this northern Italian lake, right? Often people descend on Lake Garda, the largest of the north Italian lakes, or Lake Maggiore with the world-famous Hotel Eden Roc, but I agree with Mr. Clooney — Lake Como is simply gorgeous, and if I could afford an Italian villa, I’d happily become his neighbor.
Small villages are nestled in the coastline alongside villas most of us can only dream of, with palm-fringed gardens and their own moorings. While there are fewer touristy sights, the ones that are there are spectacular. For example, the lovely Basilica of Sant’Abbondio, dating back to the 5th century CE, or the ruins of Forte di Fuentes are well worth seeing.
Pro Tip: This is an elegant part of the world, asking to be explored in style. Book a tour of the lake with these sleek water taxis, don some large sunglasses and a great hat, and go ahead, choose your dream villa.
6. Plitvice Lakes
This is a magical, natural wonderland like no other. The Plitvice National Park, the largest and oldest in Croatia, is simply riddled with lakes and waterfalls. Covering some 30,000 hectares, this national park is not just full of natural beauty, from forests and rock formations to rivers, streams, lakes, and waterfalls, but is also home to wild bears, wolves, and countless other species of flora and fauna, making it a wild gem.
To truly appreciate the natural beauty, you will need to take plenty of time to walk through the park along allocated trails and walkways, and you must not forget your camera. The park is beautiful in all seasons, with the foliage of the trees spectacular in fall, as is the young green in spring, and in summer the watery landscape is refreshing and calming. In winter, when snow-covered, it is truly magical. The choice is yours.
Pro Tip: The accommodation available near the park is quite basic, with camping and farm stays very popular. But there are a couple of hotels with plenty of amenities nearby, such as the 16 Lakes Hotel.
7. The Lake District
Okay, this is cheating a little, but to choose a favorite of the 16 glacial lakes that make up the Lake District in Cumbria, northwest England is very hard. The region, spanning 912 square miles, is famous for its quaint villages, such as Ambleside, Keswick, Kendal, or Hawkshead; for poet William Wordsworth, who waxed lyrical over the tranquil area and the sights he enjoyed during his walks; and for being one of England’s best area to explore on walking tours – and all that because of a stunning natural setting dotted with superbly beautiful lakes.
Lake Windermere is no doubt the most popular and thus crowded of them all, but that also means it is the one with the most accommodation choices near it. It is a perfect base from which to explore further and get to see the other lakes, too.
Pro Tip: To give yourself a break from hiking, why not embark on a little steam train adventure? Not such a little adventure, rather than a little train, but fun, nevertheless.
8. Loch Awe
There are an incredible 30,000-plus lochs to discover in the Scottish Highlands, one of which everybody has heard of: Loch Ness. Lochs might look like lakes, and some are indeed quite close to being completely surrounded by land, but they are in fact arms of the sea, fjords, that stretch inland, and which are increasingly freshwater the further inland they are located.
Best enjoyed on a great UK road trip, Scotland is a vast, rugged country with so many natural wonders to see that taking your time is very advisable. There are so many lochs, and a great number of them have a castle or three sitting nearby. As does stunning Loch Awe, with its scenic Innes Chonnel Castle from the 13th century, whose reflection in the calm water is stunning.
Pro Tip: This mostly freshwater loch lies northwest of Glasgow and can be used as a gateway to the Hebrides Islands.