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Stresa & the Islands

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, Stresa captured the hearts of 19th-century aristocracy, who settled 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 on the promenade, and a lido and beach club on the lakefront.

The three Isole Borromee (www.isoleborromee.it) are named for the aristocratic Borromeo family, which has owned them since the 12th century. Public ferries leave for the islands every half-hour from Stresa’s Piazza Marconi.
Isola dei Pescatori ★★ -- Pescatori is stuck in a medieval time warp, with ancient fishermen’s’ houses clustered together on every inch of the tiny island. As you wander the cobbled streets, you’ll discover 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 Borromeo with its formal Italianate gardens. It makes for an absorbing tour, with conspicuous displays of wealth evident in the rich decor and exquisite furnishings. The terraced gardens are dotted with follies and have spectacular views across Maggiore. Of special interest are the ornate grottoes where the Borromeos went to stay cool, or the painting gallery, hung with 130 of the most important works the Borromeos collected over the centuries. Admission is 16€ adults and 8.5€ ages 6 to 15, which includes admission to the gardens and the painting gallery. It’s open mid-March to mid-October 9am to 5:30pm. Isola Madre ★★ -- The largest and most peaceful of the islands is Isola Madre (30 min. from Stresa), overspread 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. Admission to the garden and palace is 13€ adults and 6.5€ ages 6 to 15. It’s open March to October 9am to 5:30pm. 

More to Explore Around the Lake

Alongside Stresa, Maggiore offers natural beauty and architectural wonders as well as lively towns, markets, and cable-car rides up into the mountains.

Arona ★★ -- As well as having the lake’s main ferry office, this sophisticated town at the southern end of Lake Maggiore is a shopping center of some distinction. The charming Via Cavour runs parallel to the lake and is lined with elegant boutiques and expensive delicatessens. The giant bronze statue of Carlo Borromeo, who was born in Arona in 1538, is located just outside of town. it's so huge, you can even climb inside and gaze out at the lake through Carlo's eyes (www.statuasancarlo.it; (tel) 0322-249-669; admission 6€; mid-Mar to Oct daily 9am–noon and 2–6pm, open all day Sun).

Luino ★★ -- On the western shore of Lake Maggiore just a few miles from the Swiss border, Luino is home of one of northern Italy’s most popular street markets, with more than 350 stalls taking over the town every Wednesday. Here you’ll find spices, piles of salami, grappas, olive oils, and the hand-tooled leather belts and bags for which the region is famous. Day visitors from Milan can catch the train directly to Luino from Milan’s Stazione Porta Garibaldi in under 2 hours (7.90€), while extra ferries serve the town every Wednesday. Check ferry timetables with www.navlaghi.it.

Sasso del Fero ★★★ -- East of Laveno, make for Laveno Mombello and take the 16-minute cable-car trip (www.funiviedellagomaggiore.it; (tel) 0332-668-012; 10€ roundtrip) up the lush Val Cuvia to the Poggia Sant’Elsa viewpoint at Sasso del Ferro, towering 1,062m (3,484 ft.) over Lake Maggiore. Here you’ll find truly breathtaking panoramas, looking west to the Alps looking west or south to the mini-lakes Varese, Monate, and Comabbio. Nothing can beat relaxing over a prosecco in the Ristorante Albergo Funivia, enjoying a bright blue sky, and spotting snowy peaks on the horizon. If the conditions are right, there’ll be plenty of paragliders to watch, and the hills are crisscrossed with scenic hiking trails. Weather conditions make opening times vary, but the cable car generally runs April to October (Mon–Fri 11am–6:30pm; Sat–Sun 11am–10:30pm).

Santa Caterina del Sasso Ballaro ★★★ -- Just south of Reno on the southeastern leg of Maggiore, there’s an inconspicuous car park in Piazza Cascine del Quiquio; park up and take the elevator down to the magical hermitage of Santa Caterina del Sasso Ballaro (Via Santa Caterina 13, Leggiuno; www.santacaterinadelsasso.com; (tel) 0332-647-172), clinging to an escarpment 15m (49 ft.) above the lake. The Dominican monastery was founded in the 13th century and sits photogenically against a sheer rock face. The serene complex is of soft pink stone and embellished with Renaissance arches, a square bell tower, pretty cobbled courtyards, and 14th-century frescoes of biblical scenes in the chapel, which were hidden under lime during the Italian suppression of the monasteries in the 1770s and only re-discovered in 2003. The little gift shop sells honey, candles, and soaps made by the monks. Admission is free, but donations are accepted; open April to October 9am to noon and 2:30 to 6pm, and November to March Saturday and Sunday 9am to noon and 2 to 5pm.

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.