Beautiful and charming Lago Maggiore in Italy is a traveler’s paradise. Whether traveling alone, as a couple, or with family, there are exciting and unique activities to explore on the lake itself, on its islands, and in the towns and mountains surrounding it. Here are the 20 best things to do on and around Lago Maggiore.
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Getting to Lago Maggiore
Lago Maggiore (or Lake Maggiore in English) lies to the west of these two lakes (and the other main Italian Lakes, the Dolomites). It is a deep lake and is the longest Italian lake (40 miles long and 2-3 miles wide) northeast of Milan.
🏞️ It surprises me that Lake Maggiore is usually described as “off the beaten path” when it’s less than 90 minutes from Milan, Italy’s second most populous city.
🏞️ If you’re taking public transport, you can most easily visit Lake Maggiore from Milan by a 56-minute train ride northwest to the southern tip of the lake, Sesto Calende.
🏞️ Milan Malpensa airport is only 18 kilometers from Sesto Calendre on Lago Maggiore and takes around 25 minutes by car.
🏞️ From here you can take buses along either side of the lake and ferries across the lake, but you can most easily visit Isola Superiore, Isola Madre, Isola Bella, and the other Borromean islands by continuing on the train for a further 30 minutes to Stresa in the Borromean Bay.
Lake Maggiore is bisected in the north by the Swiss border. Locarno and Ascona are charming lakeside holiday towns on the eastern side of the lake.
🏞️ Lake Maggiore is a 2.5-hour drive from Lucerne or 3 from Zurich.
In the list below you’ll find enough things to do to keep you going for a week or two!
1. Visit the Borromean Islands
Exploring Lake Maggiore most often means taking boat trips across the lake to the seductive Borromean Islands.
Let’s delve deeper into what each island has to offer:
🏞️ Isola Bella
Translating to ‘Beautiful Island’, Isola Bella lives up to its name with its stunning Baroque palace and terraced gardens.
The Palazzo Borromeo, filled with priceless artworks and tapestries, offers glimpses into the aristocratic life of the past. The surrounding gardens are a visual treat with their vibrant blooms, ornamental fountains, and statues.
🏞️ Isola Madre
The largest at Lake Maggiore, Isola Madre is famous for its English-style botanical gardens. With a diverse range of flora including rare and exotic plants, it’s a paradise for nature lovers.
Don’t miss the 16th-century Palazzo Madre, housing an intriguing collection of antique dolls and puppets.
🏞️ Isola dei Pescatori
Also known as ‘Fishermen’s Island’, Isola dei Pescatori charms visitors with its authentic fishing village atmosphere.
Wander through narrow winding streets, enjoy a meal at a lakeside restaurant serving fresh fish, or shop for local crafts in quaint boutiques.
A visit to these islands not only provides an escape into nature but also a journey through history, making it a must-do when you’re at Lago Maggiore.
2. Experience the Lago Maggiore Express
Embark on an unforgettable journey with the Lago Maggiore Express.
This unique day trip combines a scenic train ride and a leisurely boat trip, offering a comprehensive exploration of Lago Maggiore and the breathtaking Centovalli region.
Your adventure begins with a train ride from Stresa, where you’ll journey through the Italian and Swiss Alps, passing through lush forests, charming villages, and spectacular bridges.
The panoramic views are truly awe-inspiring, so make sure you have your camera ready!
Next, you’ll board a boat for a relaxing cruise on the crystal-clear waters of Lago Maggiore. You’ll glide past picturesque lakeside towns, majestic villas, and the beautiful Borromean Islands.
The Lago Maggiore Express is more than just a mode of transportation; it’s a gateway to some of the most captivating sights that this region has to offer.
Whether you’re a nature lover, a photography enthusiast, or simply looking for a unique experience, this journey is sure to leave you with lasting memories.
3. Explore Stresa
Nestled on the shores of Lago Maggiore, the town of Stresa is a treasure trove of Italian charm and elegance.
Its lakeside promenade, lined with stunning hotels and villas, offers breathtaking views of the lake and the majestic Alps in the distance.
Stroll through the town’s narrow streets and discover a variety of shops selling local crafts, boutiques offering high-end Italian fashion, and cafes where you can indulge in traditional Italian espresso and gelato.
Don’t miss out on the grandeur of the opulent villas, like Villa Pallavicino and Villa Ducale, which showcase the affluent past of this resort town.
The Villa Pallavicino also boasts a zoo and beautiful botanical gardens, making it a perfect spot for families.
Moreover, Stresa serves as the perfect launching point for visiting the Borromean Islands. Whether you’re seeking relaxation, cultural immersion, or a bit of adventure, Stresa has something for every traveler.
4. Visit Villa Taranto Botanical Gardens
Villa Taranto Botanical Gardens is a vibrant paradise that captivates visitors with its impressive collection of over 20,000 plant species from around the world.
As you wander through these meticulously maintained gardens, you’ll encounter a myriad of colors and fragrances. From towering trees to delicate flowers, the variety is astounding.
Highlights include the Dahlias Maze, boasting more than 350 varieties of dahlias, and the Greenhouse of Victoria Amazonica, which houses the largest water lily in the world
The gardens also feature a number of fountains, ponds, and waterfalls that add to the serene ambiance. Be sure to check out the terraced gardens, which offer stunning views over the lake and Borromean Islands.
It’s a big site with so much plant heritage here that if gardening is one of your loves, it’s worth taking a guided tour and I can recommend the Walking Tour with a Private Tour Guide in the Botanical Gardens of Villa Taranto. But don’t my word for it – check out the 5-star reviews.
5. Stroll along the Lakefront Promenade
Take a leisurely stroll along the lakefront promenade of Lago Maggiore.
This waterfront promenade of Ascona, on the Swiss side of the lake, is lined with colorful flowers and lush trees and offers some of the most picturesque views of the lake and its surrounding mountains.
As you amble along the promenades you can soak in the idyllic sights of charming lakeside towns and elegant villas dotting the shore.
The lakefront promenades are also dotted with quaint cafes and restaurants where you can sample local delicacies or simply enjoy a cup of coffee while admiring the view.
The promenades of the large towns on the lake come alive with vibrant hues at sunrise and sunset, making these times particularly magical for a walk.
Whether you’re an early riser or a sunset lover, the breathtaking vistas will captivate you.
6. Visit the Rocca Borromeo di Arona
Set in the charming town of Arona, the Rocca Borromeo is a historic fortress that offers a glimpse into the region’s past.
While the fortress itself is a fascinating exploration, the other main attraction here is undoubtedly the Statue of San Carlo Borromeo.
At a remarkable height of 35 meters, this bronze statue is one of the tallest in the world.
Visitors can even climb up to the statue’s head, where small windows offer a unique panorama of the surrounding landscape, including the stunning Lago Maggiore.
But the statue isn’t the only highlight. The park surrounding the Rocca is a wonderful place for a leisurely stroll, with its lush greenery, picnic spots, and panoramic views of the lake and town below.
7. Explore the Historical Center of Locarno
Venture across the Swiss border to the enchanting town of Locarno, where its historical center awaits with a rich tapestry of culture and history.
The Old Town of Locarno, also known as Città Vecchia, is a captivating blend of medieval architecture, vibrant markets, and inviting cafes.
As you wander through the narrow cobblestone streets, you’ll come across beautifully preserved buildings that tell stories of the town’s past.
Key attractions include the Castello Visconteo, a 13th-century castle that now houses an Archaeological Museum, and Piazza Grande, the heart of the Old City.
This lively square is surrounded on all sides by pastel-colored buildings and bustling cafes, making it a perfect spot for people-watching and soaking in the local atmosphere.
Don’t forget to visit the markets, where you can find everything from fresh produce to local crafts. Whether you’re looking for a unique souvenir or simply want to enjoy the bustle of market life, these markets are a must-visit.
8. Discover the Rocca di Angera
Perched on a lakeside hill, the Rocca di Angera is a well-preserved medieval fortress that offers a unique glimpse into the region’s past.
As you approach, you’ll be struck by its imposing stone walls and towers, which dominate the landscape and provide stunning views over Lake Maggiore.
Once inside, you can explore the Historical Rooms, adorned with ancient frescoes and period furniture that transport you back to the Middle Ages.
The fortress also houses the Museum of Dolls and Toys, one of the largest collections of its kind in Europe, making it a fascinating visit for both children and adults.
Another highlight is the Hall of Justice, featuring a remarkable series of frescoes from the 13th century.
And don’t miss the beautiful Medieval Garden, a horticultural masterpiece divided into several sections, each dedicated to a specific group of plants.
9. Taste the local cuisine
One of the joys of visiting Lake Maggiore is indulging in the region’s culinary delights.
If you’re short on time, we can recommend this wildly popular Lake Maggiore tour – Lake Maggiore: Gardens, Lake Cruise, & Gourmet Food Tasting which involves a lot of boating, but a lot of gourmet food and wine tasting as well! It’s a very clever itinerary with lunch and wine tasting at La Casera.
Known for its rich and diverse food culture, the area offers an array of mouth-watering dishes that reflect its unique blend of Italian and Swiss influences.
Start with the freshwater fish dishes, a staple of the local cuisine. From perch to pike, the fish caught in the lake are used to create delicious dishes, often grilled or served with risotto.
Speaking of risotto, this creamy rice dish is another must-try. Whether it’s flavored with saffron, porcini mushrooms, or local cheese, each version is a comforting treat.
And no meal would be complete without a glass of local wine. The region is known for its excellent wines, including reds like Nebbiolo and Barbera, and whites like Moscato and Arneis.
Don’t miss the opportunity to visit a local winery where you can learn about the winemaking process and sample these delightful wines.
10. Ride the Mottarone Cable Car
For an unforgettable perspective of Lake Maggiore and the surrounding Alps, take a scenic ride on the Mottarone Cable Car.
This exhilarating journey takes you from the lakeside town of Stresa to the summit of Mottarone, a mountain standing at over 1,400 meters.
As your cable car ascends, you’ll be treated to a panoramic view that is truly breathtaking.
From the deep blue waters of the lake to the snow-capped peaks of the Alps, the scenery is picture-perfect in every direction.
On a clear day, you can see as far as seven lakes and the majestic Monte Rosa, the second-highest peak in the Alps.
Once you reach the summit, take some time to explore. There are walking trails for those who want to stretch their legs and several restaurants where you can enjoy a meal with a view.
In winter, Mottarone becomes a ski resort, offering both downhill and cross-country skiing.
However, due to an accident in 2021, the cable car is still not running. We will update this page once the Morratone cable car starts running again.
11. Visit the Intra-Verbania Market
Immerse yourself in the local culture by visiting the vibrant market in Verbania. Held every Saturday (8 am – 5 pm), this bustling marketplace is a treasure trove of local produce, artisan crafts, and unique souvenirs.
Stroll through the market stalls and discover a variety of fresh fruits, vegetables, and other local delicacies.
The aroma of freshly baked bread and local cheeses wafting through the air is sure to awaken your senses.
You’ll also find vendors selling handcrafted items, from pottery and jewelry to textiles and artwork, each reflecting the region’s rich artistic traditions.
In addition to shopping, the market is a great place to observe local life and interact with the friendly vendors. It’s just one of many produce markets held in the towns and islands of Lake Maggiore weekly or fortnightly.
12. Take a boat tour
Surely the best way to explore Lake Maggiore is to get out onto the water and visit the islands, but taking a boat tour.
This allows you to soak in the scenic beauty of the lake and its surroundings, while also offering a unique perspective on the historical landmarks dotting its shores.
As you glide across the sparkling waters, you’ll be treated to breathtaking views of the rugged mountains, lush greenery, and picturesque towns that make up the lake’s landscape.
#1 TOP PICK
Keep your eyes peeled for the grand villas and medieval castles that can be spotted along the shoreline – each has its own fascinating story to tell.
Many boat tours also include stops at some of the lake’s famous islands, such as the Borromean Islands, where you can disembark to explore their stunning gardens and palaces.
Some tours even offer sunset cruises, providing the chance to witness the lake bathed in the warm glow of the setting sun – a truly magical experience.
13. Explore the Hermitage of Santa Caterina del Sasso
Nestled into a rocky cliff overlooking Lake Maggiore, the Hermitage of Santa Caterina del Sasso is a remarkable sight to behold.
This Roman Catholic monastery in the municipality of Leggiuno is as much a testament to faith as it is to the power of nature.
The monastery appears to defy gravity, clinging to the rock face directly above the lake. The journey there is part of the experience, with a steep staircase cut into the rock leading down to the entrance.
As you descend, you’re treated to increasingly stunning views of the lake and its surroundings.
Inside, the hermitage is equally impressive, with its ancient frescoes and tranquil chapels. The serene atmosphere invites quiet reflection and offers a sense of peace and tranquility that contrasts with its dramatic setting.
But perhaps the most captivating aspect of the Hermitage of Santa Caterina del Sasso is its positioning.
From this vantage point, you’ll have a unique perspective on the lake, making it one of the most charming sights of the entire Lago Maggiore region.
14. Visit the Botanical Gardens of Villa Pallavicino
Lose yourself in the enchanting world of Villa Pallavicino’s botanical gardens.
Located in the charming town of Stresa, these beautifully designed gardens span over 20 hectares and are home to a wide variety of plants and trees, as well as an impressive collection of exotic animals.
As you wander through the winding paths, you’ll discover a landscape dotted with rare and exotic plants, colorful flower beds, and century-old trees.
The garden is carefully curated to ensure a vibrant display of blooms throughout the year, making it a feast for the senses in every season.
But it’s not just about the flora. The gardens also host a small zoo, where you can meet and observe animals from around the world, including llamas, kangaroos, zebras, and a variety of birds.
It’s a wonderful opportunity for both children and adults to learn about different species in a natural and engaging setting.
15. Go hiking in the mountains around Lake Maggiore
Like the Garda, Como, and Dolomites lakes, the mountains surrounding Lago Maggiore are a hiker’s paradise. Here are some hiking trails to consider adding to your itinerary:
🥾 Ponte Romano – Brione Hike: Beginning from Orselina Madonna del Sasso, this trail takes you through the ancient village of Brione and offers stunning views of the lake. The loop trail is perfect for a day hike.
🥾 Monte Todum: This trail in Cossogno, Piedmont, Italy offers a hard yet rewarding hike. The trail is approximately 5.1 miles long and is estimated to take around 4 hours to complete. The panoramic views from the top are worth the effort.
🥾Monte Faje – Vercio: Another challenging hike, this trail has a length of around 4.4 miles and offers spectacular views of the surrounding area.
🥾Trail Cannero Oggionio and Via delle Genti: These trails located in Cannero Riviera, provide a great way to explore the Province of Verbano-Cusio-Ossola.
🥾 Val Grande Hike: If you’re looking for an adventure, consider exploring Val Grande, the largest wilderness area in Italy. It offers deep valleys, rugged peaks, and untouched nature.
🥾 MTB & Hike-trail Montorfano: Located in Mergozzo, this trail is not only popular with hikers but also mountain bikers.
Each trail offers different levels of difficulty and terrain, so be sure to choose one that suits your fitness level and hiking experience.
🥾 Always carry a map, wear suitable footwear, and take plenty of water and snacks.
16. Water Sports on Lake Maggiore
With its clear, calm waters and stunning surroundings Lago Maggiore is an ideal playground for water sports enthusiasts. Whether you’re a seasoned pro or a complete beginner, there’s something for everyone.
Paddling a kayak across the lake not only gives you a fantastic workout but also allows you to explore hidden corners of the lake at your own pace.
You can rent a kayak from various providers around the lake and set off on your adventure. We love the Paddle on the Orta Lake and San Giulio island experience with American Canoe Association Guides which takes 4 hours.
If you’re in the mood for something more thrilling, why not try windsurfing? With the wind in your sails and the spray of the water on your face, it’s a refreshing and exhilarating way to spend a day on the lake.
Stand-up paddleboarding is a peaceful and enjoyable way to explore the lake. It’s also a great full-body workout!
You’ll find several places around the lake where you can rent equipment and even take a lesson if you’re new to the sport.
These water sports activities offer a fun and active way to enjoy the lake’s beautiful scenery.
17. Explore the Ancient Village of Orta San Giulio
Take a morning to hop from Stresa to Lake Orta to visit a magical ancient village in as little as 2 hours.
Nestled on the eastern shore of Lake Orta, this enchanting village is a treasure trove of history and charm. Its narrow, cobbled streets, lined with pastel-colored houses and verdant flower boxes, invite leisurely exploration.
Begin your visit to Piazza Motta, the heart of the village, where you’ll find charming cafes and shops.
From here, you can take a stroll along the lakefront promenade, enjoying the beautiful views of the lake and the island of San Giulio.
Don’t miss the opportunity to visit the Basilica of San Giulio, a majestic Romanesque church that houses some impressive frescoes and a 12th-century pulpit.
Another must-see is the Sacro Monte di Orta, a UNESCO World Heritage site located just above the village.
Here, you’ll find a series of chapels dedicated to the life of St. Francis of Assisi, surrounded by tranquil gardens and offering panoramic views of the lake.
#1 TOP PICK
- Discover Lake Orta’s must-see sights and the medieval alleyways of Orta San Giulio in just a morning or afternoon
- Hop aboard a prebookedcruise to Isola di San Giulio
- Travel with a guide just for your personal group
18. Find a festival or cultural event
The towns around Lake Maggiore are lively cultural hubs, hosting a variety of events throughout the year.
These range from music concerts and art exhibitions to local festivals celebrating the region’s history and traditions. Here’s an overview of what you might expect:
🎉 Music Festivals and Concerts
Music lovers will find plenty to enjoy, with many towns hosting regular concerts, from classical symphonies to modern pop and rock performances.
During the summer months, music festivals are a common occurrence, often held in stunning outdoor venues by the lake.
🎉 Art Exhibitions
The area around Lake Maggiore boasts several art galleries and museums, which regularly hold exhibitions featuring works from local and international artists.
Whether you’re a fan of contemporary art or prefer classical pieces, you’re sure to find something that piques your interest.
🎉 Local Festivals
Many towns celebrate their unique history and culture with annual festivals. These often include traditional music and dance performances, food and wine tastings, and craft markets.
It’s a great opportunity to immerse yourself in local customs and traditions.
19. Visit the Museo del Paesaggio
The Museo del Paesaggio, or Landscape Museum, is a remarkable institution located in the heart of Verbania (Via Ruga, 44, 28922 Verbania).
Housed in the historic Palazzo Viani Dugnani, the museum showcases a rich collection of artworks focused on landscape painting.
As you explore the museum, you’ll find a range of pieces that span from the late 19th century to the early 20th century. These works reflect the ability of the local territory to attract and host artists of great significance.
The museum’s collections include not only paintings but also sculptures and plaster casts, offering a well-rounded perspective on the artistic heritage of the region.
One of the highlights of the museum is the Gipsoteca Troubetzkoy, which showcases a collection of works by the Russian sculptor Paolo Troubetzkoy.
The Museo del Paesaggio provides a fascinating exploration of the artistic interpretations of the landscape throughout history.
Whether you’re an art enthusiast or simply interested in learning more about the region’s cultural heritage, this museum offers an enriching and educational experience.
20. Go on a wine-tasting tour in the nearby vineyards
The area around Lago Maggiore is known for its vineyards and wineries, making it an ideal destination for wine lovers.
A wine-tasting tour will not only allow you to sample the local wines but also learn about the winemaking process and the history of viticulture in the region.
Below I’ve explained the different kinds of wine experiences you can have around Lake Maggiore but if you’re just looking for the most highly reviewed and popular Wine Tasting tour at Lake Maggiore, that you can squeeze into even a half-day at the Lake, this is it:
#1 TOP PICK
- Fontechiara Vineyard and Cellar wine-tasting tour
- Taste Nebbiolo DOC, Vespolina DOC, Rosato DOC, and Rosso DOC wines served with ‘zero kilometers’ meats and cheeses
- 2 hours, begins at 1 pm from Cascina Vallazza, 16 km from Lake Maggiore
🍇 Visit the Wineries
Most tours will take you to a selection of wineries, each with its unique charm and specialties.
You might visit large, well-established wineries as well as smaller, family-run estates. Each offers a different perspective on winemaking in the region.
🍷 Wine-Tasting Tours
Of course, the highlight of any wine-tasting tour is sampling the wines! You’ll likely have the opportunity to taste a variety of wines, from robust reds to crisp whites and perhaps even some sparkling varieties.
🍷 Pair Wines with Local Cuisine
Some tours also include a meal or snacks, which are often paired with wines. This is a great opportunity to try local dishes and see how they complement the wines.
🍇 Enjoy the Scenery
The vineyards around Lago Maggiore are set in beautiful locations, often with stunning views of the lake and mountains. Take the time to soak in the scenery – it’s part of the experience!
A visit to Lago Maggiore offers a wealth of experiences waiting to be discovered.
This picturesque Italian destination is more than just a lake – it’s a gateway to a rich and varied adventure that combines natural beauty, history, culture, and gastronomy.