George Clooney bought a house in the Italian lake district and Julia Roberts is rumoured to be looking for one. Yet celebrities have been escaping to the bucolic idyll of the Italian lakes since Roman times, when Pliny the Younger praised the virtues of the local resorts. The 19th century was the golden age of the lake district, and the cream of European aristocracy and northern Italy?s industrial dynasties vied for their place by the water, fuelling an unprecedented property boom.

It turned the lakes? shoreline into a procession of stately neo-Classical villas and flamboyant Art Nouveau mansions, which are especially prized by today?s buyers.

These historic houses occasionally reach the open market. Among them is Villa Fuoco, in Carate Urio, on Lake Como, which is on the market with Studio Viganò (00 39 02 76003914). Built in 1846, it occupies a splendid waterside location, affording views across the lake. The house, which requires renovation, extends over three floors. Beautiful gardens stretch all the way to the lakeshore, where a boathouse and private mooring are situated.

The price of Villa Fuoco is ?3.9 million. Demand for the Lakes is strong, according to property research company Scenari Immobiliari, and early-19th century mansions are virtually priceless. ?It is difficult to put a price to villas dating from the first half of the 19th century, because they are such a rarity,? says Giorgio Bonfiglio of estate agents Case di Campagna (00 39 329 2188 382). ?Other villas cost from ?3.5m to well over ?10m if they are located on Lake Como?s waterside, and between ?1.5m and ?3m if they only have views of the lake.?

Among the most expensive hotspots is the so-called Primo Bacino on Lake Como. ?This is where Armani and Versace have their houses,? says Benedetta Viganò of Studio Viganò. The Primo Bacino is within commuting distance of Milan, so demand for waterfront houses there can be 10 times greater than supply.

Further north, the Centro Lago district is reasonably close to Milan?s airports, but sits beyond the immediate commuter belt. ?The Centro Lago is less expensive, and, since the lake widens here, the weather is milder and the views are better,? Sig Bonfiglio says.

The very best views can be enjoyed in the postcard-pretty village of Bellagio, which has prices to match the panorama. Waterfront properties here command about ?3,400 per square metre (about £216 per sq ft), according to the Agenzia del Territorio, which is the Italian equivalent of the Land Registry.

Sig Bonfiglio?s tip is to look west of Bellagio to the Tremezzina, which is peppered with lovely villages but is somewhat cheaper than Bellagio, with prices for waterside houses ranging from ?2,710 per sq m (about £168 per sq ft) in Lenno to ?2,920 (about £181 per sq ft) in Tremezzo and Menaggio.

Hop further west to Lake Maggiore and prices drop significantly. Stresa, an Art Nouveau jewel, is incredibly affordable, with average asking prices of about ?2,200 per square metre (about £137 per sq ft) for lakeside properties. In spite of being relatively far from Milan city centre, Malpensa airport is about an hour?s drive away, making the area a good choice for international buyers.

Bargain-hunters should also consider venturing to the lesser-known Lake Iseo in the southern Alps. Barely an hour from Orio Al Serio international airport, Lake Iseo is slightly harder to reach from Milan than the other lakes, and this makes it both less crowded and more affordable. Prices for modern waterside properties are in the region of ?2,300 per sq m (about £143 per sq ft), according to the research department of estate agents Tecnocasa, although period properties with good views will cost rather more.

Sig Bonfiglio is asking in the region of ?2.6m for a late-19th-century property on Lake Iseo, which is set in a four-acre park of cypresses, magnolias and olive trees. The main residence is a three-bedroom farmhouse with plenty of period features, and there are two further cottages as well as a tennis court, a swimming pool, a home cinema and a studio. ?If this property had been on Lake Como, it would cost twice as much.?

Also available for sale on the Lakes is Villa Bianca, Somma Lombardo, near Lake Maggiore. Set in a park of just under three acres 22 miles from Milan, it has panoramic views over the Ticino river. Built in 1970, the house was decorated by interior designer Filippo Perego and extends over three floors. Staff accommodation is available in a cottage. Mature trees shade an open-air swimming pool and dominate the gardens, which slope down to the river. Studio Viganò are handling the sale and the price is ?2.3m.