The biggest town on the Italian side of Maggiore, elegant Stresa is the springboard to the Isole Borromee (Borromean Islands), the tiny Baroque jewels of the lake. Now a genteel tourist town, it captured the hearts of 19th-century aristocracy, who settled in droves in grandiose villas strung along the promenade. Just back into the tangle of medieval streets, Piazza Cadorna is a mass of restaurants that spill out into the center of the square in summer. There’s a food and craft market on summer Thursday afternoons along the prom and a lido and beach club on the lakefront.
The three Isole Borromee are named for the aristocratic Borromeo family who has owned them since the 12th century. Public ferries leave for the islands every half-hour from Stresa’s Piazza Marconi outside the tourist office; a 12.50€ three-island pass is the most economical way to visit them, single tickets are 3.50€ to Bella, 3.90€ to Pescatori, and 5€ to Madre. For more information on Borroman Islands, check out www.isoleborromee.it.
Isola dei Pescatori ★★ -- Pescatori is stuck in a medieval time warp, with ancient fishermens’ houses clustered together on every inch of the tiny island. Wander the meandering cobbled streets as they reveal tiny churches, art galleries, souvenir shops, pizza and pasta restaurants, and, at every turn, a glimpse of the lake beyond. It’s an entrancing place to explore, but be warned: the prices are extortionate and the crowds frustrating.
Isola Bella ★★★ -- The minute islet of Bella is dominated by the massive Baroque palazzo and formal Italianate gardens designed by Carlo Borromeo in 1630. It makes for an absorbing tour with conspicuous displays of wealth evident in the richness of decor and exquisite furnishings. The terraced gardens are dotted with follies and have spectacular views across Maggiore. Restoration work in the palace gardens finished in March 2014. Palazzo Borromeo: www.isoleborromee.it. Admission 13€ adults, 6.50€ under 18. Open mid-Mar to mid-Oct 9am–5:30pm. Audioguide 2.50€.
Isola Madre ★★ -- The largest and most peaceful of the islands is Isola Madre (30 min. from Stresa), where almost every inch is covered with exquisite flora in the 3.2-hectare (8-acre) Orto Botanico. Pick up a map at the ticket office to identify all the rhododendrons, camellias, and ancient wisteria. Many a peacock and fancy pheasant stalk across the lawns of another 16th-century Borromeo palazzo, which is filled with family memorabilia and some interesting old puppet-show stages. Palazzo Borromeo: www.isoleborromee.it. Admission 11€ adults, 8.50€ under 18. Mar–Oct 9am–5:30pm. Audioguide 2.50€.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.