Why you should skip the beach and choose one of Europe's most beautiful lakes instead

Beach at Lake Tegernsee, Bavaria, Germany - Alamy
Beach at Lake Tegernsee, Bavaria, Germany - Alamy

Beaches aren’t just beside the seaside. Lakes and enclosed expanses of water have an allure that seas and oceans don’t, and one that lasts beyond the high days of summer.

Rather than receding to a flat horizon, lakes offer all-round scenery. This can vary from the Alpine peaks above Annecy, and the dazzlingly chic towns around Como to the forested shores and lush pastures of Lake Lucerne. Anywhere ringed with deciduous trees also offers the autumn treat of a blazing watery reflection. And, as water takes longer to heat up (and cool down) than land, lakes are often at their warmest by the end of the summer.

Lakes often offer more variety than your standard seaside beach-and-water-sports package: lakeside strolls, high-level hikes, bird- and wildlife-watching, as well as swimming and boat-y activities. At Greece’s Lake Kerkini, for example, you can watch the antics of flamingos and pelicans, or spot red squirrels around Derwentwater. Lakes often have islands; sometimes inhabited, such as Monte Isola on Lake Iseo, but more often a tree-covered target for a swim or boating expedition. Whichever, they have a world-within-a-world appeal that’s very satisfying when you gaze back to the shore.

Admittedly, lakeside beaches tend to be the coarse sand or rocky variety – but all you need is the right footwear. Besides, pebbles give endless opportunities to perfect your stone-skimming technique.

Lake Päijänne, Finland

Best for fishing

Finland can seem more water than land; around one third of the country is in the south-eastern Lakeland region where some 1,000 lakes nestle between pine forests. This is where Finns go to chill out in their rust-red-painted weekend homes. Lake Päijänne is the second-largest – a staggering 75ml/120km – and perfect for hiking, fishing, kayaking or just gazing at the drinking-quality water. In the middle, the Paijanne National Park – a series of islands – has nature trails, sandy coves, an observation tower and excellent bird-watching for species such as the Eurasian golden oriole and red-breasted flycatcher.

How to do it: Ilola Inn is a renovated, lakeside 19th-century tavern with neat, Scandi rooms from £153 with breakfast, large sauna, pool and marina (00 358 400 469 797; ilolainn.fi)

Lake Päijänne, Finland - Johannes Sipponen Salpausselkä Geopark
Lake Päijänne, Finland - Johannes Sipponen Salpausselkä Geopark

Lake Ohrid, North Macedonia

Best for history

Tucked between Albania and Greece, North Macedonia is often unfairly overlooked Balkan country. Yet Lake Ohrid (which it shares with Albania) and its namesake town has an Unesco listing for their natural and cultural heritage. With snow-capped Mt Galicica rearing to the east, pretty blue-green waters, and sand and shingle beaches, locals have long known the lake’s attractions. When tired of swimming, boat trips and walks in the Galičica National Park, explore the town’s Roman, Byzantine, medieval and Ottoman architecture. The film-set perfect 13th-century church of St John the Theologian perches tantalisingly above the lake.

How to do it: Aleksandar Villa & Spa, a grand-looking building with gardens, indoor and outdoor pools, small spa and vast rooms from £83 with breakfast, is a short walk from the lake (00 389 46 261 644; aleksandarvilla.com)

A Macedonian Orthodox church overlooking Lake Ohrid - Getty
A Macedonian Orthodox church overlooking Lake Ohrid - Getty

Lake Iseo, Italy

Best for boat trips

Lake Garda may be grander, and Lake Como more chic, but Lake Iseo (which lies between them in northern Italy’s Lombardy region) has its own charms. It has the same deep blue-green waters, forested slopes, boat trips, beaches and lidos, cycling and hiking, but its towns retain a low-key, unshowy feel. Lovere, with its beautiful 15th-century basilica, is particularly attractive. The lake’s showpiece is Monte Isola, the largest inhabited lake island in Europe. Buildings pile, Ferrero-Rocher style, to the forested summit where the Sanctuary of the Madonna della Ceriola rewards with stunning views.

How to do it: On the south-eastern shores, with views to Monte Isola, Hotel Rivalago has a relaxed, Mediterranean air, a pool, and direct access to the lake. Rooms from £122 with breakfast (00 39 030 985011; rivalago.it). For more inspiration, read Telegraph Travel's guide to the best hotels in Italy.

Lake Iseo, Italy - Getty Images/iStockphoto
Lake Iseo, Italy - Getty Images/iStockphoto

Lake Maggiore, Switzerland

Best for flora

Most of Lake Maggiore is in Italy but I’d argue for the northern Swiss portion, which lies in the relatively undiscovered (by Brits) Ticino region, offering both the country’s highest sunshine record and an irresistible mix of Swiss efficiency and Italian dolce vita. Here you can do the passeggiata along the lake shore passing gardens of camellias, oleanders and cypress trees, take a swim, putter across to one of the beautiful Brissago islands with its lush botanical gardens, sip an aperol in Locarno’s Piazza Grande or browse the chic shops in small and arty Ascona.

How to do it: The family-run Art Hotel Riposa in Ascona has a rooftop pool and terrace, and weekly jazz sessions. Rooms from £185 with breakfast (00 41 91 791 3164; hotelriposo.ch). For more inspiration, read Telegraph Travel's guide to the best hotels in Switzerland.

Lake Attersee, Austria

Best for turquoise waters

Among the lakes in the Salzkammergut (salt domain) region of sub-Alpine peaks east of Salzburg, Attersee is considered by many to be the bluest; a stunning Caribbean turquoise that captivated artist Gustav Klimt who spent his summers here. Surrounded by forested mountain slopes, rich pastures, tidy farms and equally tidy towns and villages, it offers hiking, boat trips, sailing, water-skiing and well-equipped public bathing areas. Dare you to whoosh down the slide at Attersee town’s lido that tips you directly into the lake.

How to do it: The lakeside Hotel Stadler am Attersee has contemporary and country-style rooms from from £126 with breakfast, most with lake views, plus spa and private beach (00 43 7665 8346; seegasthof-stadler)

Lake Attersee, Austria - Moritz Ablinger
Lake Attersee, Austria - Moritz Ablinger

Lake Annecy, France

Best for grassy shores

Fed by Alpine springs, Lake Annecy, 30 miles south of Lake Geneva, sparkles with turquoise prettiness. It charms as much for the clarity of the water and the saw-toothed peaks rising above forested slopes as for the namesake town where arcaded houses and narrow passages line the flower-bedecked waterways of the Canal du Thiou. There are grassy beaches in the town plus sandy and grassy beaches around the lake, some with diving boards and games. When you’ve had enough of the water, go walking or mountain-biking in the surrounding hills, or join the locals on the 25 mile lake-circuit cycle ride.

How to do it: One of the few Annecy hotels with a lake frontage, Clos Marcel is sleek in wood, glass and metal, with Scandi-style rooms from £145, and a private beach (00 33 450 686747; closmarcel.com)

Lake Zürich, Switzerland

Best for open-air pools

The Swiss are crazy about swimming; any excuse and they’ll leap in a river or lake, even in their lunch breaks. Zürich offers the options of both the River Limmat and the lake whose waters – unsurprisingly, this is Switzerland – have been declared drinking-water quality. Jump in either from one of the ‘badis’ – organised open-air pools with boardwalks and changing rooms (mid-May to mid-September) – or from one of the grassy or pebbly beaches. Boats criss-cross the lake, and the city is way more than an uptight financial centre with a medieval Old Town, hip industrial district, and wallet-busting shops.

How to do it: The neat and nautical Hotel Seehof is in a quiet side-street on the edge of the smart Seefeld district yet only two minutes from the lake, rooms from £183 (00 41 44 254 5757; seehof.com)

Jumping into Lake Zürich, Switzerland - Alamy
Jumping into Lake Zürich, Switzerland - Alamy

Lake Tegernsee, Germany

Best for sandy beaches

An hour south of Munich, in the Bavarian Alps, the drinking-water-quality blue waters of Tegernsee reflect the surrounding forested and pastureland slopes with the Alpine peaks rising above. There are well-organised bathing spots and lidos at sandy beaches – including beach volleyball, children’s playgrounds, water slides – plus sailing, stand-up paddleboarding and boat trips. Walks range from gentle lakeside strolls to a hike up the 5650-ft high Walberg (or there’s a cable-car option) with blistering views over the lake.

How to do it: Althoff Seehoff Überfahrt is a luxurious lakeside hotel with a spa and three-Michelin-star restaurant amongst its eating options, rooms from £241 with breakfast (0049 80 22 6690; althoffcollection.com)

Derwentwater, Lake District

Best for wild swimming

We’re not talking sandy beaches and lilos, but of the region’s lakes charm in all the right ways. Derwentwater is varied but not too big, pretty but with a tough edge, and with plenty to do, from a lakeside theatre to fell-walks. Come autumn, reflections from its tree-covered shores are magical. Picnic or take a dip in one of the bays – perhaps Strandshag or Calfclose – kayak or row to one of the islands or putter across the water in a traditional launch. There are lakeside strolls – even a whole-lake circuit – or just admire the striking views south to Castle Crag and the Borrowdale fells.

How to do it: Inn on The Square, in Keswick centre, has colourful Scandi styling and is a 10-minute walk from the lake. Rooms from £150 (01768 773333; innonthesquare.co.uk)

lake district wild swimming - Getty
lake district wild swimming - Getty

Lake Bohinj, Slovenia

Best for cable-car rides

Most people flock to fairy-tale-pretty Lake Bled, but head further west and you’ll find the serene blue-green beauty of Lake Bohinj, framed by the jagged peaks of the Julian Alps. Take a deep breath and your head will feel peppermint-fresh. Explore a low- or high-level trail, marvel at the Savica falls, sit back in a cable-car for the ride up Mt Vogel and stunning views, visit the sweetly rustic Museum of Alpine Dairy Farming, skim the lake from a kayak – or find a quiet cove on the north shore for a swim.

How to do it: Chalet-style Hotel Jezero, beside the pretty stone bridge in Ribčev Laz at the eastern end of the lake, has simple, modern rooms from £120 with breakfast, pool and Finnish saunas (00 386 4 572 9100; hotel-jezero.si)

Covid rules

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