Lake Maggiore, whilst perhaps a little less well known than Lake Garda or Lake Como, is the second largest of the lakes on the Italian Riviera and is known as Italy’s Garden Of Eden. Whilst a little less known, Lake Maggiore has plenty to offer as a tourist destination and in this post, I have shared the best attractions & things to do in Lake Maggiore.
The Borromean Islands
The beautiful Borromean Islands are owned by the Borromeo family, rich aristocrats who were prominent members of the Duchy of Milan.
The Borromean Islands (Isole Borromee) are a small cluster of Islands in Lake Maggiore and they each have their own charm. Made up of three main islands Isola Madre, Isola Bella, Isola Pescatori (otherwise known as Superiore) and two islets, together they occupy an area of just 50 acres.
Despite their small size, the Borromean Islands are one of the most popular places to visit in Lake Maggiore. Located just 1 hour by train from Milan to Stresa. Alternatively, If you’re staying on the other side of Lake Maggiore, it is still easy to visit the Islands. Head to the ferry port at Laveno-Mombello and take your car over on the ferry for 26 euros.
There are some incredible sights to be seen from the ferry. As the ferry danced over the lake, the water glistened like diamonds as we soaked up the views of the greenery surrounding the mountain and iconic buildings such as Sant Abroggio Church.
Once across the Lake to Intra, take a short drive to Stresa. We parked up at the Tourist Information Centre car park (paid 5 euros for 3 hours parking) and took a small Lake Tours boat to the Islands. We explored two of the islands (Bella & Pescatori for 12 euros per person.)
Bella Island is only 400 metres by boat from Stresa and is home to a beautiful palace, an Italian garden and a fishing village.
Bella is one of the most picturesque islands and Charles Borromeo named the Island after his wife Isabella. When the family visit the Islands, the family flag is ceremoniously flown from the top of the gardens of Isola Bella.
The lavish baroque palace of Isola Bella has played host to royalty, including the Princess of Wales and Napoleon. See if you can spot Napoleon’s bed when you are browsing the palace rooms. There is even a throne room and crests of Italy’s wealthiest families on display inside the palace.
Paintings beautifully preserved and light streaming through the windows fall upon intricate details of the palace.
There is much beauty to be seen through the windows of the Lake outside too.
Just when you think you have seen all that the palace has to offer, a staircase leads to a black and white grotto adorned with shell patterns. As the Borromeo family’s summer palace, the grotto acts as cooling rooms from the hot summer heat.
The palace is undeniably beautiful, but for me, the true beauty lies in the palace gardens. A treasure trove of exquisite plants and glorious colourful blooms, it is the kind of place I would have loved to have visited with my Nan.
A place of splendour, the enchanting gardens are also home to white albino peacocks, and they can be seen gracefully walking the manicured lawns with a choral of birdsong bringing music to visitors’ ears.
It’s a magical place, made even more so by the unicorn statue. The picture-perfect gardens bring art and nature together and really are a beautiful place to visit.
Some of the steps on the way down can be somewhat steep, Adam and I accompanied an elderly lady down the steps. In light of this, those with walking difficulties may want to check if there is an alternative route.
The price to access the palace and gardens is 16 euros per person. Though, combined tickets are available for Isola Bella and Isola Madre for around 20 euros.
Isola Pescatori (Superiore)
Isola Pescatori, otherwise known as Fisherman’s Island and Isola Superiore, is the smallest of the three Islands and, as the name would suggest, is the place to find the best seafood.
As the boat pulled into Pescatori, we were greeted by an array of autumn colours lining the island.
Family-run restaurants are dotted along the lakeside, lit up with string fairy lights, they serve freshly prepared seafood specialities and authentic local Italian cuisine. I only wish this island had been last on our trip so that we would have had enough time to dine and peruse the cobblestone streets.
As the only Island to be inhabited all year round, with a population of 25 recorded in 2018, there is also a place of worship. Saint Victor Church is such a cute chapel and has a great aura.
For those looking for momentos, there are a few stalls lining the shore selling souvenirs.
The largest of the Borromean Islands and one of the most beautiful, the Island is mostly occupied by picturesque botanical English-styled gardens. It was unfortunate that we did not get the chance to visit Isola Madre during our time on the Borromean Islands.
It is said that the Princess of Wales was so besotted with Isola Madre that she wished to purchase the Island. When her offer was refused, she instead purchased an island on Lake Como ‘Villa d’Este’, now the most famous villa of Lake Como.
Can’t afford such a luxury? Why not stay at Golfo Gabella Lake Resort; a picturesque resort overlooking Lake Maggiore:
Stresa is a sophisticated area of Lake Maggiore and is one of Lake Maggiore’s most well-known towns. You’ll find a plethora of art nouveau hotels, which have been frequented by famous artists and writers since the late 19th century.
It is still a popular tourist destination today and we couldn’t leave without taking a peak and of course, tucking into pizza.
If you fancy a tipple with views over Lake Maggiore, head to the Sky Bar at Hotel La Palma.
The small town of Cannobio is the last Italian town along the shore of Lake Maggiore before you reach the Swiss border.
The cobbled streets and colourful 17th – 19th-century buildings give the town an old-world charm character that is popular with tourists.
As well as its lido, a popular attraction for beach-lovers, the Sunday market held in Cannobio is popular with locals and tourists alike. There is even a special Cannobio dedicated water taxi rank outside the Golfo Gabella Hotel where I was staying.
Santa Caterina del Sasso (St Catherine of the Stone)
St Catherine’s monastery is a beautiful place to visit if time allows during your visit to Lake Maggiore.
The story goes that merchant Alberto Bessozi vowed devotion to St Catherine after he took refuge in a cave during a shipwreck. In the 12th century, he built a small church on the cliff side to mark this pledge.
The tiny monastery, bell tower and courtyards have the most captivating views across Lake Maggiore and it’s quite like stepping into a fairytale.
If you’re driving to St Catherine, it’s worth noting there are 268 steps that will take you down to the monastery. After taking the steps in the heat, we realised there is a lift that will take you up and down without the need to take the stairs… Oh well, I could do with some exercise anyway! Those travelling by boat have far fewer steps to climb!
A restaurant awaits once you reach the top. Adam and I tucked into a tasty vegetable lasagna.
Very handy if you arrive between 12-2pm when the monastery is closed as we did!
Whilst Luino does not feature high on recommendations for fine dining by the locals, both locals and tourists do flock to the area for the Wednesday market.
From leather goods, clothing to Italian food; it’s the kind of place that really does have a Marmite effect (you either love it or hate it.) It goes without saying, I bloody love Marmite, although, the Luino market was a bit too bustling for me and wasn’t my cup of tea.
But, as tourists flock from across Europe for the Wednesday Market in Luino it would be rude for me not to include it in my best attractions and things to do in Lake Maggiore post.
The Bucket Lifts
I felt on top of the world after braving the bucket lifts of Lake Maggiore. Not only because the views were quite simply, incredible, but it took overcoming some fears to do this popular attraction. Have you seen how scary they are?!
As we viewed out of the tiny bucket lift, we saw a ray of sunlight piercing through the church below us. It was quite a surreal moment and kind of made me think there was some kind of miracle at work (it was a miracle I’d braved the bucket lifts in the first place 😉) Either that or a scene similar to the Omen films…
Scariness aside, I would highly recommend heading to Funivie del Lago Maggiore (the bucket lifts) as it’s so much fun and has an amazing restaurant – head on over to my Bucket Lifts dedicated blog post to find out all about it. Let’s put it this way, the bucket lifts are certainly numero uno for me when it comes to the best attractions & things to do in Lake Maggiore!
Enjoy the lake, you’ve picked this destination for a holiday after all! From speedboats to kayaks and ferries; there are plenty of ways to explore Lake Maggiore by boat.
As well as kayaks, the Golfo Gabella Resort (where I was staying) also has electric bikes with fairly flat lakeside biking routes as well as more adrenaline routes; all offering a great way to explore Lake Maggiore.
The Lake was still fairly warm to swim in when I visited in September too!
Last and certainly not least, visit Switzerland! This may sound like a strange thing to recommend as my posts have been all about Italy, but Lake Maggiore is so close to the Swiss border it would be rude not to!
The Swiss border is a mere 45 minutes drive from my hotel in Lake Maggiore and it’s a scenic drive too! Italy shares Lake Maggiore with Switzerland so all you do is follow the Lake road round.
We saw some incredible scenery during our time in Switzerland and even braved a mountain-top rollercoaster!
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I hope this post has given you plenty of ideas of things to do in Lake Maggiore should you visit the Italian Lakes. Let me know which of the attractions and towns you would like to visit most.
Love Italy – why not check out my other Italy posts:
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