Discovering Lake Maggiore and its Borromean Islands

| Wed, 05/21/2014 - 05:28

Whether you like the beach or prefer the lake, Italy boasts the best of both worlds, but if you are in 'team lake' and think that the beach is a bore, it’s time for the Lake Maggiore tour. 

Maggiore, meaning the ‘greatest, or superior’, is Italy’s second largest lake and the best thing about it is that there are many islands to choose from, making this a worthwhile weekend adventure. 

What makes it the greatest, and where is it?

They don’t call it ‘maggiore’ for nothing. This beautiful lake extends for miles, 43 to be exact (70 kilometres) and 3 to 5 miles (3 to 5 kilometres) wide, except at the bay opening westward between Pallanza and Stresa, where it is 6 miles (10 km) wide.

Lake Maggiore is situated in Northern Italy, north of Milan, between Lombardy and the Alps, and is fed by the Rivers Ticino and Tresa. It is the longest Italian Lake, stretching between the two regions of Lombardy and Piedmont, and the second largest, extending into Switzerland. With breathtaking views, hills in the south, mountains in the north, this is one of Italy’s best tourist treasures. 

Lake Maggiore and the Borromean Islands

These are four beautiful islands:  Isola Bella, Isola Madre, Isola Superiore dei Pescatori and Isola San Giovanni.

Isola Bella (Beautiful Island)

Situated 400 metres from the lakeside town of Stresa, Isola Bella is 320 metres long by 400 metres wide and is entirely occupied by the Palace and its Italian garden. 

Until 1632 the island was not much more than a tiny fishing village, but that year Charles the 3rd of the wealthy Borromeo family began the construction of a palace dedicated to his wife, Isabella D'Adda, from whom the island takes its name.

Today it is a popular tourist attraction and plays host to the annual Stresa music festival in July.

Isola Madre (Mother island)

Mini paradise would be a modest description for the mother of the Borromean islands, which is 220 m wide and 330 m long, and the largest island of the Isole Borromee. 

This once upon a time medieval defense is now a botanical garden housing azaleas, rhododendrons, camellias, and ancient wisteria. Although the gardens are less formal than Isola Bella, it does display Europe’s largest example of a Kashmir Cyress. Peacocks and a rare species of birds make this a must see on your Maggiore itinerary. 

Isola Superiore dei Pescatori (Fishermen's Island)

Fisherman’s Island gets its name from the occupation of its inhabitants, that's right, fishermen. This island, with its windy medieval streets and view of the lake, offers a charm, difficult to forget. The beautiful countryside surrounding Lake Maggiore offers incredible views, including the provinces of Novara and Varese and the Canton Ticino, with its natural beauty.

Isola San Giovanni 

The island of San Giovanni has none of the opulence or fame of the other Borromean Islands, but it still intrigues passers by, strolling along Pallanza lakefront, where you have a brilliant view, as only a few dozen metres from the shore. Many eminent figures have resided on the island, one of which being the great conductor Arturo Toscanini, who lived in this “place of peace and hospitality” from 1927 to 1952. 

The island is first mentioned as “Isola di Santo’Angelo” in a document drawn up by the Emperor Otto III in 999 AD; at this time a castle and a church dedicated to St Michael the Archangel stood here, hence the name. When the church was demolished the name of the island changed to “San Giovanni”, from the oratory where a baptismal font dedicated to St John the Baptist still exists. In the middle of the twelfth century the island belonged to the Barbavara family.

The island can be admired from the lake, by boat. 

When to go

The climate is mild in both summer and winter, producing Mediterranean vegetation, with beautiful gardens growing rare and exotic plants. 

Museums and other places to see near Lake Maggiore

The Umbrella and Parasol Museum - Museo dell’Ombrello e del Parasole 

Made in Italy at its best, the museum tells of the 170-180 umbrella making "dynasties" from 52 towns and villages around Gignese and how members of those families, the so-called "pioneers", took the business further afield in Italy, then to Europe and even to South America. Mini hand made parasols from the 1850s to more modern umbrellas from WWII, with ivory handles, printed silk covers and intricate lace decoration. There is also an explanation of "Tarusc" which was the umbrella makers own dialect which allowed them to talk among themselves.

In Gignese, near Stresa, Open April – September, closed Mondays. 

Museo della Bombola - The Museum of Dolls

The Museum of Dolls is a twelve room museum displaying the Borromeo family’s rare collection of dolls and what better place for them than this towering, fairy-tale castle that the Borromeo family bought from Milan’s Visconti family in 1449. The doll collection itself consists of many dolls, some mechanical, from Italy and Germany. Various rooms and halls open on to the courtyard, among them the awe-inspiring Sala della Giustizia (Hall of Justice), with its overarching vault and lively 13th-century frescoes. From the tower you have breathtaking views. 

A combined ticket including Isola Bella and Isola Madre is one way to see this museum, but the easiest way up is by car (signposted from the centre of Angera).  

Open March to October 9.00 - 17.30 


Mayhem on a market day, Luino massive bazaar will provide that bit of buzz you might be looking for on your travels around Lake Maggiore. The weekly market dates all the way back to 1535. Today more than 350 stands are set up in the old town centre, and bargain-hunters come from as far away as the Netherlands to buy everything from local delicacies to vintage clothes.

Much too busy to drive to the market, it's better to arrive via the ferry services from the other side of the lake, or by public transport (trains and buses travelling around the lake are another option). 


Villa Taranto

Pallanza’s highlight is the grounds of the late-19th-century Villa Taranto. In 1931 royal archer and Scottish captain Neil McEacharn bought the Normandy-style villa from the Savoy family after spotting an ad in the Times. He planted some 20,000 species over 30 years, and today it is considered one of Europe’s finest botanic gardens.

The main entrance path is a grand affair, bordered by a strip of lawn and a cornucopia of colourful flowers. Depending on when you visit, the experience will differ. The winding dahlia path, for instance, shows off blooms from more than 300 species from June to October. In April and May, the dogwood and related flowers run riot. In the hothouses you can admire extraordinary, equatorial water lilies. The villa itself is not open to the public as it houses the offices of the local prefecture.

Boats stop at the landing stage in front of the villa.


Buses leave from the waterfront at Stresa for destinations around the lake and elsewhere, including Milan, Novara and Lago d’Orta. The daily Verbania Intra–Milan bus service operated by SAF ( in Italian) links Stresa with Arona (20 minutes), Verbania Pallanza (20 minutes) and Verbania Intra (25 minutes), and Milan (1½hours).

Stresa is on the Domodossola–Milan train line and is well served by hourly trains from both Milan (one hour) and Domodossola (30 minutes).

Ferries and hydrofoils around the lake are operated by Navigazione Lago Maggiore ( in Italian), which has its main ticket office in Arona.

Boats connect Stresa with Arona (40 minutes), Angera (35 minutes), Baveno (20 minutes) and Verbania Pallanza (35 minutes).

Various one-day passes are also available: departing from Stresa, covering Isola dei Pescatori, Isola Bella and Isola Madre. There are one-day passes including admission to the various villas, too.