You can see the beguiling Borromean Islands from the shores of Lake Maggiore, but what’s the best way of visiting them, and what should you do and see when you land on them? Here’s a complete practical guide to the three visitable Borromean islands, local tips, and how to get there.
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A Lake Maggiore experience definitely needs to include a visit to the Borromean Islands. These three islands are characterized by unique and scenic landscapes, framed by the Alps and reflected in the beautiful waters of the lake.
There are five Borromean Islands but only three can be visited: the Isola Madre, Isola Bella, and Isola dei Pescatori.
Easily accessible by local transportation, they represent a must-see attraction for visitors who want to immerse themselves in the stately grandeur of Lake Maggiore.
Geographically, the Borromean Islands archipelago lies on the western side of Lake Maggiore, more specifically in the Borromean Gulf.
This portion of the lake is home to some of the best-known local tourist resorts such as Baveno, Verbania, and Stresa.
So let’s cross Lake Maggiore and set foot on these stately islands!
A Very Quick History of the Borromeo Islands
These lands were “discovered” by Vitaliano I Borromeo who, over time, increasingly expanded his local possessions by incorporating the Rocca d’Angera as well.
A part of the history and pageantry of the noble families of 14th-century Italy, the Borromeo family, originally from Tuscany, acquired ownership of these islands.
The family was so successful, it created the “State of Borromeo” and owned lands as far away from Lake Maggiore as Milan.
This State lasted until Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Italy and stripped the Borromeo family of almost all their lands apart from their islands in the lake.
Even to this day, the Borromeo family owns Isola Bella and Isola Madre and the rocks known as the Castles of Cannero (because of the medieval remains that have been found here).
See, I told you it would be quick!
How to get to the Borromean Islands: Stresa to Borromean Islands
Local public transportation can be used to reach the Borromean Islands. To get to Lake Maggiore, the best way is by car. Taking the Autostrada dei Laghi highway, simply follow the signs for Stresa.
Using the train, take the Milan-Simplon line and get off at Stresa, whose station is 800 meters from the ferry pier to the islands.
Once you’ve arrived in Stresa, scheduled ferries allow you to reach all the best locations in and around the Lake. ferries depart from the Carciano pier.
Alternatively, tourist boats designed specifically for a visit to the three Borromean islands depart from Piazza Marconi.
There is also a ferry service from Arona, with an active guided excursion to the islands.
Practical tips for visiting the Borromean Islands
When planning a visit to the Borromean Islands in Italy, it is best to choose the best time of year to best enjoy the experience.
The islands are open to the public from mid-March to early November. The best months to visit them are the spring months so you can also admire the beautiful blooms in the botanical gardens.
To experience Lake Maggiore at its best, it is always a good idea to try and arrive on weekdays rather than holidays and weekends, taking care to choose the first boat of the day to arrive directly at the opening of the gates of the islands.
Except for Isola Pescatori, the only island with free access, you’ll need to purchase a ticket to visit the other islands.
There are combination ticket options to save on the final trip cost and enjoy a stress-free visit by purchasing the ticket directly online.
By far the most popular way of getting between Stresa and the Borromean islands in the Hop-On Hop-Off Boat Tour which is boked hundreds of times a day.
#1 TOP PICK
From Stresa: Hop-On Hop-Off
- Cheap, easy to use, booked hundreds of times a day
- Skip the line ticket – travel at your own pace all-day
Just head down to the dock at the pier of Isole Lago Maggiore and you’ll see the boat with the large tricolor sail with the Italian flag. Show your voucher on your phone (or print it out) and be given your one-day ticket.
Each time you want to leave an island, head back to the pier, and look for the same boat, and head off to the next island or back to Stresa – easy!
Need to Know
🚤There is a local landing fee payable in cash of €0.50 for each island you intend to visit (it’s possible to only visit two of the three islands with this ticket if you’d prefer. You need to pay this fee at the ticket office before leaving Stresa.
🚤Last entrance to any of the parks or villas on the three islands is 5:30 pm
🚤There are entrances fees to the palaces and gardens of Isola Bella and Isola Madre
Isola Bella – the “Beautiful Island”
Isola Bella attracts visitors from all over the world thanks to its breathtaking gardens and Borromeo Palace.
Among the narrow streets that run through it, it is possible to get lost among local traditional shops and the lovely restaurants. It is also possible to stay overnight on the island in one of the hotels.
Palazzo Borromeo on Isola Bella
The main attraction of Isola Bella is the Borromeo Palace and its gardens – the aristocratic residence that also saw Napoleon Bonaparte and his wife Josephine stay there.
It is an elaborate construction in the Baroque style with fascinating rooms and the opportunity to admire rare Flemish tapestries.
The twenty magnificent rooms of the palace that can be visited were created over the course of three centuries, and the ultimate emblem of this achievement is the Berthier Gallery.
The Hall of Honor, Gallery of Tapestries, and Gallery of Paintings are each fascinating. It quickly becomes clear as you walk through the Palace that this is a veritable museum containing 130 paintings by artists such as Raffaello and Titian!
Among the rooms is the Music Room, which owes its name to the musical instruments stored inside.
Also not to be missed are the ground floor ‘sea caves’, and the Isola Bella apartments.
The crowning glory is the Italian-style gardens on Isola Bella, there is no better example anywhere of Italian baroque garden design and it’s my No. 1 favorite thing about the whole of Lake Maggiore.
The amphitheater consists of ten terraces sloping down to the shores of Lake Maggiore and is the most eye-catching part of the Island that you see as you approach it from the water.
As much as one might think that the island’s name derives from its beauty, its name is instead attributed to Isabella d’Adda, the wife of Carlo III Borromeo, the man who initiated the terraces that were designed by architect Giovanni Angelo Crivelli.
The astonishing Teatro Massimo in the Isola Bella gardens will leave you in no doubt about what Italian Baroque looks like!
Spend the night on Isola Bella
After the renovation and redevelopment of the area, the old fishermen’s houses have also been rehabilitated on Isola Bella.
Today they are accessible as hotels and accommodation facilities to accommodate visitors who wish to spend a romantic night in the fishing village.
The apartments are the ideal starting point for discovering all the beautiful Borromean islands of Lake Maggiore and the enchanting Isola Bella.
Just a short walk from the gardens on Isola Bella, these apartments and hotels are surrounded by greenery and you may even be woken up by one of the traditional white peacocks that populate the island.
Isola Madre of the Borromean Islands
Isola Madre is the largest of the three Borromean Islands and the first of the islands to be inhabited. Here, too, there are sumptuous gardens that are home to exotic plants and an advanced level of topiary!
On a day trip to Isola Madre, you can include its Palazzo Borromeo in your program, where you can admire period paintings and furnishings from all over northern Italy.
It’s hard to explain the sheer expense and taste that went into the building and its grounds. It includes a marionette theater from 200 years ago that included machines for making fog and sets designed by the scenographer of La Scala in Milan – this was an impressive palace.
Don’t miss the Venetian Salon amongst the many other wonderful rooms.
Covering an area of 18 hectares, Isola Madre is the largest of the three islands. Thanks to its temperate climate, it manages through each season to display rare species from all over the world.
The Gardens of Isola Madre
The gardens of Isola Madre are home to a centuries-old Kashmir cypress, planted here in the second half of the 1800s, directly from Tibet.
The gardens on the island are a true oasis of peace. There are also greenhouses here, and the botanical garden houses rare plants from all over the world. Don’t miss the Terrace of the Proteas.
Very impressive also is the English-style garden of Isola Madre which was established in the early 19th century.
Isola dei Pescatori (“Island of the Fishermen”) or Isola Superiore
Isola dei Pescatori, the third island which you can visit, rises a short distance from Isola Bella and is famous for its fishing village, the most famous on Lake Maggiore.
The setting is made even more picturesque by the roofs of the houses, which are so close together that they almost seem to caress each other. It’s a lovely village to wander around for a while.
Isola dei Pescatori, also known as Isola Superiore, is the only one in the Gulf that is not owned by the Borromeo family. Entrance to the island is free, as the fishing community has always allowed free access.
Years ago Isola Pescatori was a place dedicated to fishing activities, but tourism is overtaking the island and there are increasing hotels and restaurants opening on the island.
Thanks to this fishing village, it is possible to taste a variety of local recipes that include perch and whitefish.
Isola San Giovanni and Scoglio Della Malghera
The Isolino di San Giovanni is part of the Borromean Islands archipelago. In the early 1900s, it was the residence of the conductor Arturo Toscanini. To this day the island is private and cannot be visited.
Here, too, there is a large wooded park and terraces that slope southward. Since it cannot be visited, the island can still be admired from the promenade along Pallanza’s lakefront.
In earlier times it was known as the island of Sant’Angelo. There was a church here dedicated to St. Michael the Archangel, later destroyed and rebuilt in honor of St. Giovanni.
The Malghera Rock is a small islet halfway between Isola Bella and Isola Pescatori. Because of its small beach, it is also called “lovers’ rock”.
What to see around Lago Maggiore
it’s not only the islands at Lake Maggiore to explore, but also many villages and landscapes to spend time discovering.
The landscape of Lake Maggiore is outlined by the backdrop of the Alps and dotted with stunning gardens found, not just on the islands, but also on the lakeshore.
These fairy-tale locations in Italy were also greatly appreciated by Ernest Hemingway, who spent time in Stresa, more specifically in the Grand Hotel, now known as the Villa Ducale.
He loved traveling to the islands of the lake which gave him inspiration for ‘A Farewell to Arms’.
Rocca di Angera and the Borromean Prince
The Rocca di Angera is located on a rocky outcrop in the southern part of the lake. This particular location was chosen to have control over the entire territory and mercantile traffic.
The Visconti family, the first owners of the palace, ceded to structure to the Borromeo family. Even today it is Count Vitaliano IX Borromeo who is the prince.
Inside is housed the Doll and Toy Museum, the largest not only in Italy but in the whole of Europe. Framing it all are the medieval gardens and the Ala Scaligera host contemporary art exhibitions are hosted.
Located on the road to Laveno Mombello, a nearby town, it is easily accessible by car.
Villa Pallavicino for views of the Borromean Islands
Villa Pallavicino was born in 1855 as a private residence and, throughout history, changed owners and underwent remodeling.
This historic palace has one of the most beautiful gardens in the area and offers splendid lake views and views of the Borromean Islands.
It was the Genoese Duke Ludovico Pallavicino who transformed the villa, giving it a neoclassical appearance.
The park surrounding the Villa houses a zoo with 40 species of animals from all over the world and an accompanying wide variety of exotic and native plants.
The palace, located on Stresa’s lakefront, is easily accessible by car.
What to Eat at Lake Maggiore
No trip to Lake Maggiore would be complete without trying the regional cuisine and village fisherman still provide restaurants around the lake with freshly caught fish.
Agristurismo farmhouses, trattorias, and Michelin-starred fine dining cater to every budget and taste.
On local menus there is no shortage of lake fish, including bleak, pike, and trout. Preparations are among the most varied such as risottos, fried food, and mixed grills.
Accompanying everything are seasonal vegetables and grilled Polenta. Meat lovers will also be pleased by the local game and excellent cured meats to accompany local wines.
See this full list of the best 20 things to see and do at Lake Maggiore.