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When many 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 is Lago Maggiore with its Borromean Islands in Stresa, Italy, to the west.
Milan to Lake Maggiore is just an easy 90-minute drive or fast train ride. That makes seeing these Lake Maggiore islands a great first or last stop on an international flight to or from Milan’s Malpensa airport. What a place to recover from jet lag!
We 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 these Lake Maggiore islands, we based in nearby Comnago at a sweet little cabin in the mountains with a lake view, just above cute little Stresa.
- Stresa Accommodation
- The Three Borromean Islands
Stresa is a compact little town at the edge of the lake. Here are three of my best recommendations for where to stay depending on your budget and interests.
1. Luxury (downtown): Grand Hotel des Iles Borromees
You’ll feel like you’ve stepped back in time with the Old World elegance in this ideally situated property steps from the lake, with views of the Alps and walking distance to restaurants. (Is this what it felt like to stay in Stresa during a “grand tour” of Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries?)
Everything is decorated in jaw-dropping Art Nouveau art and architecture. Choose from indoor/outdoor pools and a spa. Guests give top marks for attentive staff, a generous breakfast buffet, and comfortable beds. (Be aware that because this is an older hotel, rooms may feel small and the property less modern overall.)
2. Mid-Range and unique: Apartment on Isola Pescatori
Stresa can feel a bit crowded in the height of summer. If you’d rather give the crowds a miss and live as a local on the lake for a few days, consider staying on one of the islands. Isola Pescatori is a small and beautiful island fishing village where only locals live.
La Ca’Vegia is a simple and historic two-bedroom vacation home here on Isola Pescatori that is beloved by travelers. In addition to stunning views of Lake Maggiore, it comes with wi-fi and a kitchen with a microwave. One bedroom has a queen-sized bed while the other comes with a twin.
3. Budget but beautiful: A Cabin in the Woods
This is a fantasy rustic cabin (one bedroom in a loft) high up in the hills just above Stresa! We loved every minute here. However, you’ll need a rental car. 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.
Be aware that you’ll need a rental car to get here 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.
Check prices and availability on this Airbnb cabin here. if you’re new to Airbnb, you can save up to $55, if you use COUPON to reserve.)
The Three Borromean Islands
The Borromean Islands in Lake Maggiore 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. They sit in the western part of the sprawling lake and definitely deserve a spot on your Italy itinerary.
These islands on Lake Maggiore 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 to the Borromean Islands: Stresa to Borromean Islands Ferry
Take the ferry to Isola Bella and the other islands.
There’s a convenient parking lot just in front of the Stresa ferry terminal. However, beware of the official-looking gentleman wearing a sailor’s hat who helpfully waves you into a parking spot. It’s a popular tourist scam that almost took us in when we were there.
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” like this one.
For less than 17 euro per person, you can circulate freely between Stresa and all three of 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 Borromean islands is Palazzo Borromeo on Isola Bella. Think: white peacocks strolling through opulent gardens. Up until the 17th century, Isola Bella languished as a rocky crag.
But then, Carlos, of the Borromeo family, decided to build a palace dedicated to his wife Isabella. Elaborate construction ensued.
Construction was paused during an outbreak of the plague (!) but eventually resumed when Carlos’ son picked it up again years later. Parties and elaborate theater for the rich and famous happened here.
In fact, Napoleon was a guest. And a certain Princess of Wales did her best to buy the place from the Borromean family to no avail.
Begin by touring the Baroque palace. It’s one impressive palazzo 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, the second of the three islands, 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 Madre is the largest of the three Borromean Islands. Way back in the ninth century, it was home to olive orchards…possibly used for sacred purposes. When the Borromeos purchased the island, they planted a citrus orchard.
The gardens at the palace are noteworthy and worth visiting here. The English-style Giardini Botanici dell’Isola Madre cover seven terraces and include cypress trees, camellias, rhododendrons, parrots, peacocks and more!
Isola Pescatori (Superiore)
Isola Pescatori, also known as Isola Superiore, is the northernmost island of the three. There’s not much to see here as it’s mostly a beautiful little fishing village that’s home to just 25 families who live here year-round (unlike on the other two islands).
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 “Stresa Accommodations” above.)
Borromean Islands restaurant recommendation: 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 Campari spritz, it was perfect!
Best Restaurants in Stresa
Hot tip: Plan for lunch or dinner (or hey… be like us. Do both!) at Michelin starred Il Vicoletto. It was one of our most memorable meals during our trip to Italy.
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 minestrone soup a la Bolognese to start—think pesto… Yum!—followed by a wild rabbit roll with potatoes and veggies for Steve and 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.
Looking for other travel inspiration in Northern Italy?
Check out Lake Garda, the Dolomites, and this list of beautiful places in Northern Italy. Also, consider a next stop in Lauterbrunnen Switzlerland from Stresa as we did. It’s just a few hours drive north!
I also highly recommend the Little Roads Europe guide book to this area: Italy’s Alpine Lakes: Small-Town Itineraries for the Foodie Traveler. You can grab a copy here on Amazon.
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