Who doesn’t like a lake? They are invariably surrounded by picturesque landscapes of quaint countryside or dramatic mountains. The water is generally calm and, good weather assumed, the expansive vistas are usually quite stunning. Coupled together, this invites a state of meditative contemplation that appeals to avid outdoorsy types and ardent urbanites alike.
And luckily, most countries claim a great lake of some description – Italy has Lake Como. North America has Lake Superior and England has Lake Windermere. Some lakes are definitely better known than others so here we pick ten of the world’s greatest lakes that you might not have heard of.
Lake Baikal, Russia
Why go? For outdoor adventure on the Trans-Siberian Railway.
Located in southern Siberia, Lake Baikal is Russia’s most impressive natural feature. It’s a lake of superlatives as the world’s largest freshwater lake, the world’s deepest lake and the world’s oldest at 25 million years old. Baikal contains 20% of the planet’s unfrozen surface fresh water and is home to thousands of species of flora and fauna. Many of these species are endemic to the region, including the freshwater seal, and it’s this biological richness that earned the lake UNESCO World Heritage status in 1996.
Aside from its stunning beauty, Lake Baikal represents outdoor adventure for travellers across the season. In the summer you can hike in the taiga forest that surrounds the lake and wild camp beside the water’s edge. In winter, when the lake freezes over, you can try your hand at snow-mobiling, cross-country skiiing and husky riding. Many travellers include a visit to Lake Baikal on their Trans-Siberian journey, stopping off at Irkutsk and spending a few nights around the attractive village of Listvyanka. If you have more time to spare it’s well worth continuing further north of here to the island of Olkhon. This island is considered sacred by the indigenous Buryats who live in the area and adhere to shamanism, which centres on altered states and the spirit world.
Inle Lake, Myanmar
Why go? For the Intha fishermen and their unique rowing style.
It may not be Myanmar’s biggest lake but you don’t visit Inle simply to appreciate its size. Instead, you go to Inle Lake to explore the stilt-house villages, floating gardens and gleaming Buddhist temples that fringe the water’s edge. You go there to hike around the surrounding hills home to colourful tribes and busy markets. But perhaps most of all, you go there to watch the local Intha fishermen glide across the water in the most distinctive of fashions. These talented boaters stand with one leg on their small rowboats and the other leg wrapped around the oar. ‘Why’, you ask?. Out of necessity. Inle Lake is covered by reeds and floating plants, and this way of rowing gives the fishermen the best vantage point to navigate the water.
For visitors too, nothing beats a boat ride for the best vantage of Inle Lake and its daily goings-on. Slender wooden canoes wait to transport you across the lake to various sites of cultural, natural and historic interest. Perhaps one of the most popular sites around Inle Lake is the Nga Hpe Kyaung monastery, once home to a feline population that would jump through hoops on command. Although this practice came to an end a few years ago, the monastery is still worth a visit for its wooden Buddhist statues.
Lake Kawagachi, Japan
Why go? For iconic views of Mount Fuji.
Lake Kawagachi is often trumpeted as Japan’s most beautiful lake thanks largely to its position in the foothills of Mt. Fuji. It is just one of five lakes that form the popular Fuji Five Lakes region and the second largest of these five. The lake is surrounded by mountain ranges with incredible views of Japan’s most sacred volcanic peak, one that has inspired artists throughout the centuries. On a clear day the snow-capped peak is perfectly reflected on the water’s surface.
It is even more stunning in the spring months when delicate cherry blossom and vivid magenta moss decorates the landscape. And equally as impressive in autumn when the foliage transforms with the dramatic fiery colours of red, orange and yellow. In January and February a Winter Fireworks display is held around Lake Kawagachi. There’s the opportunity to ride swan-shaped pedlos on the water in fair weather and the area is also home to a number of hot springs and Fuji Q Highland amusement park.
Lake Titicaca, Peru/Bolivia
Why go? For unique Andean culture and the floating reed islands of Uros.
It’s South America’s largest lake and considered to be the highest navigable lake in the world. More importantly to the local Andean communities that call this region home, Lake Titicaca is considered to be the birthplace of the sun. All in all, three great reasons to visit Titicaca, a lake split between Peru and Bolivia. Each side offers a different experience. On the Peruvian side the highlight of Lake Titicaca is visiting the floating reed islands of Uros. It’s not just the islands that are made of reeds – houses and boats are too. The buoyancy of the local totora reeds lends itself beautifully to these constructions but it’s not easy work as the locals must replace the top layer every few months.
The main attraction on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca is Isla del Sol, the largest island on the lake. It’s home to several traditional communities and pre-Columbian ruins including Inca stairs and fountains. The island is completely free of motorised vehicles and the best way to get around is by foot. There are great walking tracks that open up the island to those willing to spend a night or two here. Time your visit with one of the calendar’s ancient holidays and you’ll see Lake Titicaca explode into life.
Lake Nakuru, Kenya
Why go? For the sight of hundreds of flamingos decorating the water’s edge.
Lake Nakuru is a soda lake located in East Africa’s Rift Valley and forms the centrepiece of the Lake Nakuru National Park, a beautiful park of light acacia forest, wide savannah and dense swamps. It’s one of Kenya’s premier parks thanks to its accessibility, numerous lookouts and varied wildlife. And of this varied wildlife, it’s the pink flamingo that gives Nakuru its fame. In previous years thousands, if not millions, of flamingos would line the shores, turning the landscape into a sea of fuchsia. It is one of Africa’s most memorable sights.
The lake’s algae attracts these birds though the number of flamingos has decreased as water levels have risen since 2013. Enough still congregate to make it worth adding to your itinerary and within the national park there’s also an enviable population of rhino with reliable sightings. These creatures were reintroduced into the park in the early 1990s and Nakuru is now home to one of the largest concentrations of rhino in the country. There’s more than 25 black rhino and over 70 white rhino who seem perfectly happy to roam the open grasslands beside the lake.
Lake Myvatn, Iceland
Why go? For the wealth of flora and fauna in the surrounding wetlands.
Iceland is no stranger to lakes – it has plenty of them but Lake Myvatn trumps them all. Not only does the lake and its surroundings boast stark beauty and fascinating land forms, it’s also home to an impressive variety of waterbirds. Lake Myvatn is a shallow eutrophic lake, which means it is high in biological productivity with nutrients that support an abundance of aquatic plants and insects. It’s this reliable food source that attracts the birds, including thirteen species of duck. Surrounded by wetlands and an otherworldly volcanic landscape of mudpots and lava formations, Lake Myvatn serves as a microcosm of Iceland’s natural bounty.
The Lake Myvatn region is the perfect place for a combined bike and hike with a sealed road encircling the lake and well-marked tracks taking you through the incredible landscape. The summer brings long days of sunlight perfect for such activities but it also brings midges – lots of them. In fact, the word ‘Myvatn’ translates as ‘midge lake’. Slather yourself in repellent and consider taking a head net. Or visit in winter when the lake becomes a frozen wonderland and there’s the chance of spotting the Northern Lights. Nearby the lake are the Myvatn Nature Baths where you can soak in mineral-rich waters the colour of powdered blue.
Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
Why go? For the stunning scenery and local Maya culture.
Lake Atitlan is widely considered to be one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. Just ask naturalist Alexander von Humboldt and writer Aldous Huxley who have both waxed lyrical about Atitlan’s natural beauty. This stunning lake is located in the Sierra Madre mountain range, hemmed in by steep hills with three volcanoes flanking the southern side. During the day, the water’s colour changes from startling blue to deep green as the sun moves across the sky. And it’s thanks to this scenic excess that Lake Atitlan is Guatemala’s biggest attraction.
Spend a day here and you’ll experience the natural phenomenon known locally as ‘xocomil‘. In the Kaqchickel language it means “the wind that carried away sin” and refers to the strong midday winds that occur suddenly on a near daily basis. It’s a language still used by the locals, indigenous peoples that maintain traditional Maya culture. You’ll see them wearing colourful, traditional dress and find them worshipping ancient Maya deities. There’s a number of towns around the lake, each with its own distinct character. So it’s worth spending a few days at Lake Atitlan to explore a few of these and get a real sense of the local culture. Most towns can only be reached by boat so it’s a great way of seeing the lake from different angles too.
Dead Sea, Jordan/Israel
Why go? For a chance to relax in medicinal waters favoured by Cleopatra.
First thing’s first – the Dead Sea is not a sea at all. It’s a lake. And one of the planet’s saltiest bodies of water. In fact, the Dead Sea is over nine times more salty than the ocean. This isn’t somewhere you visit for the wildlife as the salinity of the water is too great for animals and plants to thrive, hence the name ‘Dead Sea’. It’s a harsh environment with little rainfall, high temperatures and barren mountains encircling the lake. The unusually high salt concentration creates a natural buoyancy that makes it impossible to drown. Half the fun of visiting the Dead Sea is the chance to bob like a cork, book in hand without any worry of going under.
The famed Egyptian ruler Cleopatra credited her beauty to the Dead Sea and its healing powers. In more recent years the area has become a popular wellness destination where visitors from all over the world come to enjoy the reported therapeutic properties of the water that help with chronic skin, respiratory and joint conditions. A good selection of 4-5* hotels have their own spas, private beaches and menus of therapies to complement what the Dead Sea has to offer. Buckets of natural mud sit by the water’s edge for you to slather yourself in and then bake in the sun while the mud works its magic.
Lake Bunyonyi, Uganda
Why go? For mountain gorilla trekking in Bwindi National Park.
Lake Bunyonyi is something of a mystery. It is rumoured to reach depths of up to 900 metres, which would make it Africa’s second deepest lake. Yet no one seems to have bothered to confirm this. There are 29 islands on the lake with legends that speak of men being drowned by the islands themselves. Yet you’d have to go looking for these tales yourself, which isn’t so hard to do. The lake is located in the south west of Uganda close to the border with Rwanda. It’s the country’s top natural treasure, unless you count the population of mountain gorillas that call this region home. And that’s what really attracts visitors – the chance to trek to see these majestic animals in their last remaining natural habitat.
Lake Bunyonyi sits beside the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, which incorporates a large, dense primeval forest. It’s one of the most biologically diverse areas on Earth and home to half of the world’s endangered mountain gorilla population. Unsurprisingly, it’s where many trekking expeditions take place with Lake Bunyonyi serving as the ideal base. And while you wait for your turn to hike into the mountains to meet your first King Kong, you can enjoy a little R&R beside the water, enjoying the stunning scenery. Or take a dugout canoe ride for a different perspective.
Gokyo Lakes, Nepal
Why go? For high-altitude mountain scenery and trekking in the Himalayas.
The most obscure entry on this list of world’s greatest lakes has been saved until last. Never heard of the Gokyo Lakes? Unless you’re a keen mountain hiker, we’ll forgive you. The Gokyo Lakes are the world’s highest freshwater lake system, sitting at an altitude of 4,700-5,000 metres above sea level. They are situated in Nepal’s UNESCO-listed Sagarmatha National Park, a protected area of the Himalayas and one of unimaginable beauty. Dramatic mountain ranges rise above mighty glaciers and deep valleys where the rare snow leopard roams. And the six lakes in the Gokyo system further add to this jaw-dropping picture.
The lakes are jewel-blue in appearance, a dazzling turquoise colour that glistens in the high-altitude sunlight. Jagged, snow-capped peaks surround the lakes, considered sacred by Nepal’s Hindus and Buddhists. Every August hundreds of pilgrims visit the lakes to take a holy bath and purge away their sins. Throughout the rest of the year the Gokyo Lakes attract international visitors trekking the extended Everest Base Camp route that takes them to the summit of Gokyo Ri (5483m) for sweeping panoramas of the lakes and Everest itself.
Think we’ve left a particular lake off this list? Let us know in the comments section.