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Island hopping in Lago Maggiore

Island hopping, Italian-style

La dolce vita near Lago Maggiore

Italy’s most charming archipelago lies in the sparkling waters of Lago Maggiore. For centuries, the three Borromean Islands near Stresa have mainly been in the hands of the extremely wealthy Borromeo family. The general public are welcome to visit the islands, especially in autumn when it is quiet, to enjoy a peaceful stroll through the palaces and gardens.

Land Ahoy!

Day 01: Isola Bella

Morning

Cappuccino in Stresa

Stresa is regarded as the gateway to the Borromean Islands. This is the perfect starting place to experience the grandeur of the archipelago. Elegant writers and posh poets from nearby Milan have been making their way to this harbour town for centuries. You can kick-start your day with a cappuccino on the pleasant Piazza Cadorna, or amble over to the promenade for a view of the islands.

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Afternoon

‘The beautiful island’

Thanks to regular ferry services and water taxis, even the most seasoned landlubbers can easily make their way from Stresa to Isola Bella. In the past, the ‘beautiful island’ was no more than a pile of rocks. The Borromeo family built their Baroque palace in the 17th century and enjoyed visits from Napoleon and Princess Diana. The first two storeys of the palace are open to the general public. Admire the magnificent art collection and the white peacocks in the terrace gardens.

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Evening

Star treatment

Every year, the family still spends a few weeks at the palace on Isola Bella. Visitors must then return to the mainland to stay. Yet a night at one of the fine hotels that line the Stresa boulevard is hardly a downgrade: book a room in the majestic Grand Hotel des Iles Borromees, where Ernest Hemingway once stayed to enjoy the Mediterranean breeze whilst recovering from an accident. It is said that this is where he found inspiration for his classic novel A Farewell to Arms. 

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04 Travel Schedule Lago Maggiore Water Ripple 1St Frame

Day 02: Isola dei Pescatori

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Morning

A royal view

Start the day with a hearty breakfast then continue to the Mottarone: the mountain that sits right up against Stresa. A cable car whisks visitors to the top in just 20 minutes. From the top – 1,491 metres above sea level – you can see the most beautiful outlooks in the region. On a clear day, enjoy stunning views of all seven lakes in the Italian Lake District and the Alps in the distance. On the way down, visit the botanical garden that dates back to the 1930s. 

Afternoon

Outdoor mountain activities

From Mottarone you can spot the sailors, kayakers and surfers on Lago Maggiore, but the mountain itself also offers plenty of outdoor pursuits for an active afternoon. Mountain bikes are available for rent and a number of windy hiking trails start from the cable car station just below the top. In winter, Mottarone welcomes skiers and snowboarders with over 20 kilometers of smooth runs to enjoy.

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Evening

Fresh fish

Once back down, take a ferry to the next island: Isola dei Pescatori. This is the only one of the three islands that the Borromeo family has sold, and it’s now permanently inhabited by a small fishing community. It is virtually impossible to get lost; the village is split in half by one long, narrow street. For a delicious fish lunch or supper head to the restaurants on the water, where you can dine on the freshest catch of the day.

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Day 03: Isola Madre


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Morning

Rhododendrons and magnolias

From Isola dei Pescatori – which also offers accommodations – it is just a short boat ride to the neighbouring island of Isola Madre. The Borromeo family has also left its mark on the largest of the three islands with another lovely palace, albeit a slightly smaller and more recent one than the crown jewel on Isola Bella. The rest of the island is home to a botanical garden that displays a collection of flowers, plants and sculptures from all around the world.

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Afternoon

Dining on the lake

A stone’s throw from Isola Madre, Verbania is the largest city on Lake Maggiore. Those who haven’t yet had their fill of culture can visit numerous churches and the botanical gardens around Villa Taranto. Hungry? Grab a table in the terrace garden of Osteria del Castello; the restaurant has been a local institution for more than 100 years in Verbania. For dessert, stop by Gelato d’Altri Tempi and order a scoop of basil ice cream.

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Evening

Haunted castles

Most visitors think that this is all there is to see, but very few know that the Borromeo family also owned three tiny islands north of Verbania: the Castelli di Cannero. The now-dilapidated castles were once erected to protect the family against the Swiss.

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Local fishermen are happy to give you a tour. Being old castles, of course, these come with plenty of ghost stories. Even before the Borromeo family made it their homes, the islets were the operating base of five blood-thirsty pirate brothers. One of them is said to still haunt the ruins.

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