This article may contain affiliate links. This means that when you click on products we recommend through a link, we may earn a small commission at no cost to you. For more information, please read our disclaimer page.
When people think of the Italian Lakes district in northern Italy, typically Lago (Lake) Como comes to mind first (at least for Americans)…as the famed locale of George Clooney’s mansion. But a bit less frequented and just as beautiful are Lago Garda and Lago Maggiore with its Borromean Islands, to the west. (Next visit to Northern Italy, the even less touristed Dolomites are on my list.)
Lago Maggiore is also an easy 90 minute drive (or fast train ride) to or from Milan’s Malpensa airport. So it makes a great first or last stop on an international flight. What a place to recover from jet lag!
Steve and I visited just before heading home to San Diego, after an idyllic few days on the Italian Riviera in Porto Venere and the Cinque Terre. To see Lago Maggiore, we based in Comnago at a sweet little cabin in the mountains with a lake view, just above cute little Stresa.
The Three Borromean Islands
The Borromean Islands are a group of three gorgeous islands—Isola Bella, Isola Madre, and Isola del Pescatori—that are just across from little Stresa, which sits perched on the edge of the lake.
These islands were named after the aristocratic Borromean family—art and garden lovers—who bought the land and transformed two of them into luxury residences way back in the 16th and 17th centuries. Each island is unique. (More on that below.)
How to Get the Borromean Islands Ferry
One of the things to avoid when parking at the Stresa ferry terminal is a popular tourist scam that almost took us in when were there. As we pulled into the lot, looking for a spot, a smartly dressed man in what looked like official dress whites and a captain’s hat waved us into a spot. Then, once we’d parked, he waved us to follow him over to his sales stand to book our ferry tickets.
But when I said we wanted a ticket to see all three islands, he looked annoyed and said he wouldn’t be going to Isola Pescatori…there was nothing to see there. When I insisted, he got angry.
It was only then that I looked up and saw the huge ferry terminal where the public ferry runs from. Don’t be taken in by overpriced “private tours.” For less than 17 euro per person, you can circulate freely between Stresa and the islands all day. Just proceed directly to the dock to buy a ticket. Check out current timetables and prices here.
The top sight among the three islands is most definitely Isola Bella with its famous palazzo and white peacocks strolling through the opulent gardens.
Begin by touring the Baroque palace here. It’s one impressive palazzo, built by the owner, Charles Borromeo for his wife, and spares no expense. It was hard to believe that we were among just a handful of visitors on the day we toured these opulent rooms stuffed with 15th century art. Incredible tile work and beautiful frescoes were everywhere.
It’s opportunities like this that always remind me how wonderful it is to see so much art away from the masses. It’s easy to have these kinds of experiences in Italy if you’re willing to venture beyond Rome, Florence, and Venice!
Be sure to see the series of grottos below ground here. With floors constructed of sea stone and ceilings and walls of lava rock, they were designed to allow the inhabitants a way to escape the deadly summer heat.
But whatever you do, don’t miss the elaborate Italianate gardens! Your 16 euro admission ticket takes you on a one-way trip through the palace and into the gardens…then out the other side.
Isola Madre offers another gorgeous villa you can tour as well as an exotic tended garden. That’s mostly all there is to do here, however. So if you’ve only got time for one villa and garden tour, I recommend you make it to Isola Bella.
Isola Pescatori (Superiore)
There’s not much to see on Isola Pescatori as it’s mostly a beautiful little fishing village that’s home to a handful of families. But what a great reason to visit! It will just be you and the locals watching the sun set over the lake if you spend the night. (See “If You Go” below.)
We had a delicious seafood lunch al fresco, overlooking the lake at Ristorante Italia here…with one of our favorite pasta dishes we enjoyed during our time in Italy. With a side of grilled lake fish, salad, and a camapri spritz, it was perfect!
Our Favorite Restaurant in Stresa, Italy
Hot tip: Plan for lunch or dinner (or hey… be like us. Do both!) at Michelin starred Il Vicoletto. I’d say it was our best meal during our trip to Italy, but then I also said that about our dinner in the Val d’Orcia at Ristorante Ana. (It’s also true that our Tuscany cooking class was a memorable gastronomic experience!)
Il Vicoletto is just a tiny dining room so be sure to reserve ahead to get in. Our meal there was so incredible that we promptly made a second reservation for the next day when we got up to pay our bill!
We shared an appetizer of a minestone soup a la Bolognese to start—think pesto… Yum!—followed by a wild rabbit roll with potatoes and veggies for Steve and a potato gnocchi with tiny shrimp in a bisque sauce for me. Dessert was a homemade house “cake”…a beautifully plated series of four cheesecake bites
with fruit. Just do it! I promise you won’t be disappointed.
If you go:
Where to stay
If you’re in Stresa mid-summer, you may run into some tourist crowds.To give those a miss, you have two options:
(1) You can stay in a remote Airbnb cabin in the woods as we did for $105 USD per night. You’ll need a rental car and also be prepared to park below the property on a mountain road at the bottom of the driveway. Then hike 5 minutes uphill to the cabin.
(2) Choose from a host of unique lodgings actually located ON one of the Borromean islands. (Tip for finding them easily: click on “open the map” at the top of the Booking.com page.) Inexpensive villas and apartments are within an easy walk to the beach. The best part is that you’ll have the whole island to yourself after the day trippers leave.
Where to Eat
In Stresa: Il Vicoletto
On Isola Pescatore: Ristorante Italia