We started our road trip in Northern Italy with a visit to Lake Maggiore. Our main goal was to explore the Borromean Islands, but we also took advantage of our stay to visit the villages around the islands.

Lake Maggiore is a true Italian postcard come to life: villas, flowers, orange trees—it’s quite different from its neighbor, Lake Garda. Despite being smaller, it has preserved the Belle Époque ambiance and architecture better. You’ll find numerous villas with stunning gardens that are often open to visitors.

What to do at Lake Maggiore in a few days? Here are the highlights:

To fully enjoy Lake Maggiore, we recommend staying for at least 3 to 4 days. Visiting some palaces or islands will take at least half a day.

The Borromean Islands

A must-see at Lake Maggiore, undoubtedly one of our most beautiful discoveries! The Borromean Islands are home to the luxurious palaces of the Borromeo family.

  • Isola Bella: The first island, closer to the shore, is Isola Bella, and it’s also the most famous and photographed. You can visit Palazzo Borromeo, a sumptuous Baroque palace that hosted Napoleon. The rich Baroque decoration inside will leave you amazed with its art pieces and sculptures. Surprisingly, inside the palace are “grottos” made of pebbles and marble, designed to stay cool in the summer, reminiscent of Nymphenburg Palace in Germany. The terraced gardens feature the famous “Teatro Massimo” fountain made of shells, marble, and pebbles. It’s the heart of the garden, surrounded by statues including the Borromeo family emblem: the unicorn. The view from the gardens over the lake and shore is stunning, especially enjoyable amidst the flowers, orange trees, and lemon trees. If you visit in spring, you’ll also enjoy the fragrance.
  • Isola Madre: Further from the shore and therefore less crowded, the second island is equally breathtaking! Unlike Isola Bella, the entire island is occupied by Palazzo Madre and its park, where you’ll need to buy your ticket upon disembarking if you haven’t already. Isola Madre retains a more intimate and romantic atmosphere compared to its neighbor. The park is vast, offering plenty of shade in summer and opportunities to get lost among its paths. You’ll also encounter numerous peacocks and other birds roaming freely. The palace is smaller and less adorned in Baroque decoration but exudes more romance. Inside, you’ll find a large collection of puppets and theaters created by La Scala’s set designer.

The little Cannes of Lake Maggiore: Stresa

During our stay at Lake Maggiore, we lodged in Baveno, a quaint Italian town by the lake, in stark contrast to Stresa, which is larger and much more touristy!

In Stresa, you’ll find a beautiful, flower-lined promenade along Lake Maggiore that evokes the charm of Cannes’ Croisette. Along this promenade, you’ll pass numerous luxury hotels with rich, typically Italian Baroque decorations. A coffee on the terrace of these hotels will set you back no less than 5 euros!

Stresa’s town center is very picturesque, and you’ll discover a local specialty: scented soaps! They’re everywhere, at various prices, and the aroma in the narrow streets is delightful. Another local treat, this time to eat, are Margheritines, small sugar-dusted biscuits that are absolutely delicious! Head to Marcolini Pasticceria for the best ones!

For children, you can visit the small animal park at Villa Pallavicino. This park is located within the fabulous gardens of this beautiful Italian villa, quite an original zoo!

Verbania and Villa Taranto

After Stresa, don’t miss the lovely, flower-filled town of Verbania, situated above the Borromean Islands. Villa Taranto is renowned for its fantastic gardens boasting over 20,000 plant species! It’s one of Europe’s most beautiful botanical gardens, with endless fields of flowers.

Monte Camoscio

Looking for more greenery and tranquility? Take a hike to Monte Camoscio, not far from Baveno. The hiking trails are well-marked and offer magnificent views of Lake Maggiore on clear days.

Monte Mottarone

From Stresa, take the cable car up to Monte Mottarone, which offers sublime views of the lakes. Once at the top, you’ll find mountain biking trails and well-marked hiking paths.

The Hermitage of Santa Caterina del Sasso

Our small regret from the road trip, as we unfortunately couldn’t make it there. Indeed, the journey by boat from Stresa is quite long and can only be undertaken in good weather; otherwise, boats do not operate. Remember to check the weather before your trip and avoid purchasing tickets in advance this time!

This magnificent religious building is perched on a cliffside and offers breathtaking views of the lake. Access by boat, due to its construction, is only possible in fair weather, but you can also reach it by car by driving around the lake.

Please note that access may be regulated or even prohibited during Masses. Make sure to check the schedule directly on the Hermitage’s website. As the site is inhabited by religious individuals, it’s crucial to respect the tranquility of the place and its inhabitants.

La Rocca di Angera

Located south of Lake Maggiore, the Angera fortress is well worth a visit!

You’ll find many details about the Borromeo family here. The fortress underwent significant restoration by Princess Bona Borromeo, who aimed to offer visitors refined collections, thereby creating Europe’s largest museum of dolls, automatons, and toys. Part of this collection can also be found in the Borromeo palaces on the islands. The architecture and wall frescoes are in excellent condition and have been meticulously restored by the family. Don’t miss exploring the gardens during your visit!

How to get around Lake Maggiore?

Navigazione Lago Maggiore

To travel between towns on Lake Maggiore, you’ll need to use the public boat service operated by Navigazione Lago Maggiore. You can purchase tickets online through their website or directly at the dock ticket offices, for both passenger ferries and car ferries.

Tickets can be quite expensive! If possible, combine multiple visits in a day to purchase a cheaper day pass. Be aware that at the boat ticket offices, they may also sell tickets for entry to the Borromean Islands. Prices on the Borromean Islands’ website are much lower; consider buying them online!

Lago Maggiore Express

This train connects Stresa or Arona to Locarno in Switzerland, passing through breathtaking landscapes between the lake and the mountains. For return journeys, you can take either the train or the boat back from Switzerland. You can also purchase combined train-boat tickets at the docks.

Where to stay at Lake Maggiore?

Of course, there are many options for accommodation at Lake Maggiore, ranging from hotels and Airbnbs to guesthouses, catering to all budgets.

In a camper van

For those in camper vans or other mobile homes, it can be quite challenging to park and even more so to sleep near Lake Maggiore, due to height barriers, narrow streets, or restrictions.

We highly recommend staying at a campsite. Depending on the season, book your spot in advance by contacting the campsite. From our experience, we stayed at Camping Parisi in Baveno, and we absolutely loved it. This small campsite is located right on the lake, with pitches literally right by the water’s edge and a stunning view! Baveno is perfect for parking because it’s slightly cheaper than neighboring towns but very convenient with its train station and dock, allowing you to do everything on foot. If you’re not in a camper van, note that this campsite also offers bungalows for rent.

Our tips and tricks for visiting Lake Maggiore

  • Isola Bella: The ticket price includes access to the palace and gardens. If possible, purchase your tickets online directly, opting for the combined ticket for both islands; this will be much cheaper than buying on-site! We also recommend allocating half a day for each island. Inside, you’ll find a dining area and café, but beware of the prices! There’s also a small souvenir shop selling honey made on the island. The visit to the island itself is quite quick and may not be worth it; unfortunately, it mainly features touristy restaurants and shops selling similar items! After visiting the palace and gardens, don’t waste your time if it’s limited.
  • Isola Madre: On-site, there’s a café/restaurant with a stunning view near the palace, as well as picnic tables in the park, unlike its neighbor. As you stroll through the park, you’ll also find a restaurant with higher prices.
  • Don’t miss the markets, especially in Stresa, where you can indulge in numerous culinary specialties for the food enthusiasts!
  • For those in a camper van, staying at a campsite near a boat dock is the most convenient option due to restrictions for mobile homes at the lake.

About Author

We are Sophie, Adrien, and our two adorable little ones. Passionate about travel, discovery, and gastronomy, we bought a 2007 Rapido camper van to travel differently, travel more, and introduce our children to the world. Here, we share our wonderful discoveries and tips for activities to do with children in France and beyond ! Welcome !

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