Visiting the Italian Lakes District
The five lakes that make up Italy’s lake district have a fun rivalry. Since most travelers make their way to just one, competition for first place is fierce! Lake Como is probably today’s winner but long ago, Lake Maggiore held the crown.
All of the lakes have a balmy Mediterranean climate, with sky blue lakes cradled by the snow crusted Alps. Whether you’re traversing down from Switzerland or up by train from Milan, the lakes are a refreshing sight for sore eyes! In today’s post, I’m sharing our trip to Lake Maggiore, which is known throughout Italy for its botanical gardens and stunning villas.
Here’s a quick travel guide for what to see and do in Lake Maggiore, Italy!
Lake Maggiore, Italy
Lake Maggiore is the second largest lake in Italy and its shoreline touches not only the Swiss canton of Ticino but two Italian regions, Piedmont and Lombardy. The lake was named Maximus (or Maggiore) by the Romans in ancient times as it was the largest of the pre-Alpine lakes.
After the Simplon Pass was built through the Alps to connect Switzerland and Italy, Lake Maggiore became a popular tourist destination. By the 19th century, it was a popular weekend getaway for wealthy Italian families from the big cities, similar to Upstate New York for the titans of the Gilded Age. These Italian aristocrats built some of Italy’s most stunning villas along the lakeside towns. One family in particular, the Borromeans of Milan, came to dominate Lake Maggiore’s shores.
The Borromean family purchased three rocky islands and over a generation, transformed the boat-shaped inlets into baroque botanical masterpieces. The Borromean Islands are now Lake Maggiore’s most famous attraction and well worth a visit, garden lover or not!
Lake Maggiore’s Towns
Of all Lake Maggiore’s towns, Stresa is the most famous. In addition to magnificent views of the lake and easy ferry access to the Borromean Islands, the town also has restaurants, galleries, cafes and hotels to satisfy all the tourists who visit Northern Italy. The town has a lively cultural scene year round and is well-known for its musical events in the summer, called Settimane Musicali.
Stresa’s quieter neighborhood, Baveno has escaped the trappings of large-scale tourism while retaining its small town Italian charm. Baveno makes an excellent place to stay in Lake Maggiore if you wish to have easy ferry access to the Borromean Islands while avoiding the higher prices and big crowds.
Angera is most famous for its castle, the Rocca Berromea. Dating back to the 10th century, the castle is one of the best preserved structures in Lombardy and quite popular for weddings.
The Borromean Islands
The Borromean archipelago sits between the shores of Stresa and Verbania. Named after their wealthy owners, the Borromeans built fabulous weekend palaces in Italy’s Romantic Age, filled with antiques, paintings and porcelain. On the grounds, they created enchanting gardens and placed rare plants and exotic species. Don’t miss a visit to all three islands – Isola Bella, Isola Madre and Isola dei Pescatori.
Lake Maggiore Hotels
Lake Maggiore retains its Old World charm and romantic atmosphere, but the accommodation here can feel a little dated. During Italy’s Romantic Age, massive resorts were built along the shore to appeal to Victorian aristocrats – with grand names like Regina, Victoria, Astoria and Bristol.
Most have been only lightly renovated so a stay here is like a step back in time. Despite their faded furnishes, we loved the huge resorts with their lakefront promenades, beautiful views and open air terraces.
Stresa makes for the most convenient base but also feels very touristy. We opted instead to stay in Baveno, with all of its neighbors’ benefits and none of its disadvantages.
7 Things to Do in Lake Maggiore
1. Isola Bella
Lake Maggiore’s main attraction is the Borromean Islands and the crown jewel of the trio is Isola Bella. Take a boat taxi to ferry you around the island and you’ll see how it’s shaped like a boat, with a pyramid-shaped garden in the back and a grand villa steering the front.
Isola Bella was famous for its villa and gardens, and the Borromean family threw lavish parties for famous figures throughout the ages – including Montesquieu, Napoleon and Josephine, the Prince of Wales and Ernest Hemingway. You can read more about our tour of the palace and gardens here.Read more: 18 Photos to Inspire You to Visit Isola Bella
2. Isola Madre
Next, head back to the boat to visit Isola Madre, with its rival palace and gardens. Whereas Isola Bella was built in the Baroque style, to be perfectly landscaped into formal garden structures, Isola Madre was created in the English-style, to showcase plants in natural landscaping. Both, however, take an armful of gardeners to achieve their looks (no less than 23 gardeners and 10 part timers).
Isola Madre’s 19 gardens are designed to feel private, with shaded wisteria arches, soaring 20 foot high hedges and windy pathways. Take a tour to enjoy the atmosphere and artful decoration before hopping back on the boat.
3. Isola Pescatori
The smallest of the three islands, Isola Pescatori is a quaint village of cobblestone streets and a circular promenade. The tiny fishing village is known for its restaurants and cafes and perfect for lunch or dinner.
4. Villa Taranto
If you haven’t had your fill of magnificent gardens, visit Villa Taranto. Its botanical gardens are famous – and better yet, draw half the crowds of the Borromean Islands.
5. Rocca di Angera
Rocca di Angera is a hilltop castle on Lake Maggiore’s southern shores. The medieval walls are perfectly preserved with paintings, furniture and even 18th century toys. Don’t forget to head out back to check out – you guessed it – the beautiful gardens. This tour takes care of round trip transportation and includes a local guide. Check availability and rates here.
6. Eat on the Water
Perhaps the most famous restaurant in Lake Maggiore is Ristorante Milano, which sits literally on the water. The best way is to arrive by boat and see the glass encased structure from the lake. Great service, Milanese fare and unbeatable views – what more could you want?
7. Mottarone Cable Car
For the opposite view, head high up on the Mottarone cable car to soak in magnificent views. On a clear day, you can see not only Lake Maggiore but also Lake Orta, the Alps and Po Valley! The cable car departs from Stresa and has two notable stops. The first, about halfway up, are the Alpine Gardens which make for a great place to picnic. The second, is Mount Mottarone, as far up as you can go! Round trip tickets cost 19 euros to the top or 11.50 euros one way.
When to Visit
Lago Maggiore as the locals call it, is just a short train ride from Milan. It’s quite popular as a weekend retreat so to avoid crowds, try going on a weekday.
The best time to visit Maggiore is in the spring, when all the flowers are in bloom. As Italy’s Garden of Eden, it’d be a shame to miss the landscapes in their peak! Come in May or June for the best atmosphere.
From Milan to Lake Maggiore
Check the schedules here on Rail Europe and take the train to Maggiore. Swiss Rail takes you direct to Stresa via Brig or equally, Milan’s Centrale Station is about a 1 hour ride.
Getting Around the Lake
Lake Maggiore has an excellent network of ferries so you can see the lake and all its small Italian villages easily. You can pick a public ferry in Stresa, Baveno or Carciano to visit the Borromean Islands, or book a private taxi which is faster and more convenient (especially if you have luggage with you).
Check the prices and schedules ahead of time, as one way rides are the most expensive. Since the schedules change frequently, it’s easiest to take a photo of the schedule in front of the ferry when you arrive in Italy.
Typically, the ferries first stop at Isola Bella or Isola Pescatori, as they are closest to the shoreline. Depending on the ferry schedule, you’ll have 1 or 2 hours to see the island on your own.
If you plan to visit just Isola Bella, book this hop on, hop off ticket to sight see at your pace.
If you want to see all three Borromean Islands, this hop-on hop-off ticket allows you to travel in style comfortably, at whatever pace you wish.
Are you planning a trip to Lake Maggiore? Let me know any questions in the comments below!