Borromeo Islands of Lake Maggiore, Italy

Borromeo Islands.

The Borromeo Gulf is the most famous part of Lake Maggiore. The famous towns of Stresa, Baveno and Verbania are located here. Breathtaking scenic views attract tourists from all over the world. Stresa called “the pearl of Lake Maggiore” is one of the most popular Italian tourist destinations since the second half of the XIX century thanks to its landscaping and architectural beauty. The Borromeo Islands are the main attraction of the gulf: Isola Bella with the noble Palazzo Borromeo and the splendid Baroque gardens, Isola Madre immersed in its luxuriant vegetation, Isola dei Pescatori with the picturesque village, San Giovanni is the only island which cannot be visited.

History and interesting facts

The Islands take their name from the Borromeo family, a noble family that played an important role in the history of Lombardy for centuries. The Borromeo family included cardinals and governors, state treasurers, generals, important political figures, writers, and senators. The descendants of Borromeo still occupy a very important social position in society today.

In the XIV century, the Borromeo family acquired an archipelago of four islands and a small reef, located in the central part of Lake Maggiore. At the beginning of the 16th century, one of the islands, today known as Isola Madre, began to be used for citrus cultivation. It was then that the first noble residence on the island, later rebuilt into a sumptuous palace, appeared. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, by decision of Counts Giberto V and Vitaliano IX Borromeo Arese, the areas set aside for orchards were transformed into a romantic English garden, which is still considered one of the best examples of this trend in Italy.

In the middle of the seventeenth century a luxurious villa was built on the neighboring island of the archipelago, Isola Bella, to host social evenings and theatrical performances for the European nobility. In 1671 the landscaping of the gardens was also completed.

Today, the two islands are still the property of the Borromeo family, and have become an important tourist attraction, famous all over the world for the beauty of their architectural and park ensemble.

What to see in the Borromeo Islands

Isola Madre

Borromeo Islands Isola Madre Borromeo Palace

Borromeo Palace in Isola Madre

If you have enough time to spare and decide to visit all three islands, your first stop will be Isola Madre, the largest of the three islands of the archipelago and the most important island of Lake Maggiore. Isola Madre is home to the magnificent Palazzo Borromeo, surrounded by a picturesque botanical garden. Walking through the park, made in English style, you can see many exotic plants, as well as white peacocks, silver and golden pheasants strolling peacefully through the territory.

The Borromeo Palace is a luxurious 16th-century family residence. Its interiors are decorated with tapestries, paintings depicting members of the noble family, and antique furniture. Among the most important rooms are the Reception Room, the Four Seasons Room, the Venetian Drawing Room, the Library and the Hall of the Popes. Particularly noteworthy is the home marionette theater, which was one of the main hobbies of the family. In addition to puppets and sets, most of which were created by Alessandro Sanchirico, the set designer for the Borromeo family at La Scala in Milan, the collection includes various devices for creating fog, fire and other special effects.

Purchase a boat ticket just to Isola Madre here.

Isola dei Pescatori

Borromeo Islands

Isola dei Pescatori © commons.wikimedia.org

Isola dei Pescatori means “island of fishermen” in Italian. It is the only island in the Borromeo archipelago with public status. Once a fishing village, the island is now home to everything tourists might be interested in: restaurants, bars, souvenir stores and grocery stores. Isola dei Pescatori is very beautiful and ideal for a lunch break before a trip to Isola Bella.

On this site you can buy a ticket to get only to Isola dei Pescatori.

Isola Bella.

Isola Bella Lake Maggiore

Isola Bella is an island paradise, a treasure of Lake Maggiore and one of the most beautiful places in Europe. It was built by Vitalino Borromeo in 1650 but it took almost four centuries to reach the splendor we see today. The Palazzo Borromeo on Isola Bella is even more magnificent and majestic than the one on Isola Madre. It resembles a real royal palace. There is the Throne Room, the Hall of Queens, the Napoleon Hall, where the famous general visited during his visit, and the beautiful Tapestry Room. Particularly noteworthy is the Gallerie Bertier, the heart of Palazzo Borromeo, where you can explore a private collection of paintings.

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Over the centuries, influential people and famous historical figures have come to admire the astonishing beauty of this extraordinary place. Among them were Napoleon and his wife Giuseppina, as well as Princess Caroline of Wales of Braunschweig. Today, everyone has the amazing opportunity not only to visit this beautiful island, a bastion of tranquility, but even to stay on it, staying in the apartments of Borromeo. Do not deny yourself the pleasure of fully enjoying this paradisiacal beauty.

Guide to Lake Maggiore and surroundings

No matter what, we write about interesting and little-known places in Italy for the masses of tourists. We are especially pleased that the blogger Mila Ulchenko wrote a great guide to Lake Maggiore especially for us. She not only visited all the places she writes about herself, but also took beautiful pictures. Who is ready to go to Lake Maggiore next year?

This lake was loved by the Savoy dynasty and the elegant aristocracy, and a masterpiece of world literature was written here. And it is this place, still little explored by Russian tourists, may become an ideal starting point for exploring the Italian north. However, you hardly want to go far, because Lake Maggiore and its surroundings are full of secrets.

Lake Maggiore is located in the two regions of Italy, Lombardy and Piedmont, while its northern part belongs to Switzerland. The geographical location and the comfortable climate all year round have made this particular lake popular with aristocratic families. It is a well-known fact that Lake Maggiore was beloved by the royal family of Savoy. Maggiore was part of the itinerary of the Grand Tour, a trip taken by the children of Europe’s wealthy aristocrats and bourgeoisie for educational purposes.

Gustave Flaubert wrote that “It is the most voluptuous place I have ever seen in the world. Nature enchants with thousands of unknown temptations, and you feel in a state of rare sensuality and refinement.”

You can choose Lake Maggiore as your vacation destination and explore the sights on the shore and nearby. The lake has a well-developed transportation network, which allows you to travel by public transport. There are ferries on the lake. Along the southern part runs the railroad, which connects Milan and Domodossola. Along the shore of the lake are buses.

There are marked trails for sportsmen for mountain biking and trekking. Children will love the parks Mottarone Adventure Park, the Alpiled at Mottarone Mountain and at Villa Pallavicino with the animals. The beaches of Cannobbio, Cannero Riviera and Arona have been awarded the blue flag for water purity and comfortable infrastructure for many years. Those who can not imagine their vacations without excursions, will be delighted by the islands of Madre and Bella, museum of fishermen on the island of the same name, a collection of dolls in the fortress of Angera, and, of course, numerous chapels and churches, each of which is unique in its history and aesthetic component.

What to see on the Piedmont shores of Lake Maggiore

For many, the introduction to the lake begins in the town of Arona . Trains from Milan and Novara arrive at the train station. Arona is famous for the statue of St. Carlo Borromeo. Locals affectionately call it Sancarlone. The statue was created in 1698 from stone, brick and iron. The outside of the 35-meter statue is finished with layers of copper. By the way, for almost two centuries Sankarlone was the tallest statue in the world, until America built the Statue of Liberty modeled on Sankarlone. The statue is hollow inside and is open to the public in the summer. The view from above is worthy of many photographs.

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Statue of San Carlo Borromeo in Arona © Shutterstock

From Arona you can see the fortress of the city of Angera, which belongs to the Italian aristocratic Borromeo family. It is there that one of the world’s largest collections of dolls and toys is kept, for which a separate museum has been created, occupying a large part of the fortress. The museum was opened in 1988 by Princess Bona Borromeo of Arese, the exhibition has more than 1 thousand dolls made of wood, ceramics, wax and other materials from the XVIII century to the present.

Strese © Mila Ulchenko

After Arona, the train stops in Stresa . It is perhaps the most famous city of the lake. The American writer Ernest Hemingway was so deeply impressed by this place that he placed here some scenes of his novel Farewell to Arms. And he wrote part of his book in the Grand Hotel Des Iles Borromees in Stresa.

Opposite the city are three islands – Dei Pescatori, Bella and Madre. The last two belong to the Borromeo family. The island of Bella is famous for its tiered garden with rare plants, roses blooming in spring and snow-white peacocks strolling on the lawns. The palace holds a rich art collection with works by Rubens, Parmigianino, Veronese. The Madre Island Park is a pleasant escape on a sweltering day. Hide under the shade of the trees and watch the amazingly beautiful golden and silver pheasants.

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Pescatori Island © Mila Ulchenko

While the first two islands are museum islands, the third one has people living on it. Pescatori Island, or fishermen, is so named because the main activity of the inhabitants was fishing. Nowadays, not many fishermen live on the island, but in the restaurants you can enjoy dishes with lake fish. The history of the island tells the exposition of the chamber museum. The museum collection includes archival photographs, vat in which the nets were boiled, models of fishermen’s boats, and various gadgets used for fishing.

The Funivia Mottarone cable car from Stresa leads to Mount Mottarone © Mila Ulchenko

10 minutes and you get to the first station, Alpino and the garden, where herbs and flowers of the Alps are collected. A 30-minute walk from the station is the Mottarone Adventure Park with 4 trails of varying difficulty for families with children from 3 years old. 10 minutes from Alpino in a closed cabin and you’ll be at the second station – Mottarone . From here you take the elevator to the highest point of the mountain – 1,491 meters above sea level, where you can see the panorama of seven lakes – Maggiore, Orta, Varese, Mergozzo, Comabbio, Monate and Biandronno. The silence is occasionally broken by the cheerful and joyful cries of the braves who descend with speed on the Alpiland sled ride. Mount Mottarone is accessible year-round to those who love nature. There are trails and routes for trekking, mountain biking, horseback riding and, in winter, ski trails.

The neighboring Baveno is famous for the production of pink granite. This tradition is told in the exhibition of the tiny museum next to the Church of Saints Gervasio and Protasio. On the promenade of Baveno, it is hard not to notice the gray spires of the Villa Humphrey-Branca. Today it belongs to the Branca family, producers of Fernet Branca liquor. The villa was built in the 19th century by Scottish entrepreneur Charles Humphrey. In 1879, Queen Victoria of Great Britain spent one month at the villa.

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Villa Taranto in Verbania © Shutterstock

The city of Verbania came into being in 1939 after the unification of the towns of Pallanza, Intra and their related counties. Intra is famous for the botanical garden of Villa Taranto, where in spring thousands of tulips of 65 varieties bloom! In Pallanza there is a museum of landscape, the first floor of which is devoted to a plasterbox with works of the sculptor and artist Pavel Trubetskoy, son of Prince Petar Petrovich Trubetskoy and the American singer and pianist Ada Winans.

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The Trubetskoy family lived in a villa in the picturesque and tiny town of Guiffa, just north of Intra. A 20-minute walk from the town on a hill in the 16th century, they built the Sacred Mount, a complex of chapels on the hillside in which the story of Christ, the Virgin Mary or other saints is told through frescoes and sculptures. Sacred mountains in Italy began to be built from the late 15th century as an alternative to travel to the Holy Land. Over time, these complexes in quiet places evolved into paths of meditation and prayer. Today they are also landmarks of historical, artistic and natural importance. In 2003, the 9 Sacred Mountains of the Italian regions of Lombardy and Piedmont were inscribed on the World Heritage List of UNESCO). with a complex dedicated to the Holy Trinity. It includes a church, three chapels and a covered gallery of the Way of the Cross with 12 paintings depicting scenes of the crucifixion of Christ. Together with the other sacred mountains of Piedmont and Lombardy, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Cannero Riviera © Mila Ulchenko

In the north of the lake next to Switzerland in the bay is the town of Cannero Riviera . A city with its own unique flavor. It is protected from the dank winter winds by the bay. Citrus orchards provide subtle notes of lemon and grapefruit in the air around the clock. The city’s history is told by the frescoes on the houses in Piazza degli affreschi of the same name. One of them is dedicated to the building of the castles of Cannero, which can be seen on the horizon from the old port and from the promenade. From Cannero Riviera start 6 Nordic walking routes of different lengths and degrees of difficulty.

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Piazza Sant’Ambrogio in Cannobio © Mila Ulchenko

Cannobgio is another town with a sprawling promenade with the Santuario della SS Pietà sanctuary at its center. In its place, a miracle happened on January 8, 1522. A picture of “Piety” blistered, and on January 9 a bone like a rib emerged from the wound. Every year on January 8 and 9, a solemn procession takes place in Cannobbio to commemorate this event and lights are lit throughout the town and on boats in the evening. The wind rose in Cannobbio has made it a popular place for kite and windsurfing.

What to see around Lake Maggiore by train

This swan is clearly happy with life on Lake Mergozzo © Mila Ulchenko

As I wrote above, there is a train line that runs along the southern shore of Lake Maggiore in Piedmont that connects Milan and Domodossola. The train, which leaves from Milan’s Porta Garibaldi station, stops in Arona and Stresa and then in the town of Mergozzo on the lake of the same name. It is among the cleanest in Italy. Many years ago the use of motor boats was forbidden here, and in summer both local residents and travelers from other countries come here to bask in the crystal clear waters.

Visconti family castle in Vogonia © Mila Ulchenko

After Mergozzo, the train stops in Vogonia , which is on the list of the most beautiful Borgos of Italy I Borghi più Belli d’Italia. In the center is the castle built by the Visconti. Today it hosts exhibitions, and in the summer concerts. The inhabitants of Vogonia are affectionately called lupi, which means “wolves” in Russian. According to legend, the Borgo was ruled by the kind werewolf King Wolf (Re Lupo). He lived in the dungeons of the Castle of Visconti and on Carnival the townsfolk brought him alms. Today, during the festival Vogonia is renamed Luponia, and the main mask of the carnival is the mask of the Wolf King.

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Domodossola or Domo, as the inhabitants call it, is the northernmost point of the Piedmont region © Mila Ulchenko

This town is located 50 km from Lake Maggiore. The medieval center is adorned by the market square. It is surrounded by elegant palazzos with porticoes of the XV-XVI centuries. Every Saturday there is a market place. It was opened in 917 by King Berengar.

From Domodossol to Locarno in Switzerland runs the panoramic train Chentovalli Express. Lonely Planet ranked it among the ten most scenic rail routes in the world. It passes through the towns of the Val Vigezzo artists’ valley .

The town of Santa Maria Maggiore has just over 1300 residents and there are 3 museums! The Museo dello Spazzacamino Chimney Sweep Museum tells of an important part of the valley’s history, when its inhabitants, both adults and children, went to work in the countries of Europe. This is why the valley was given a second name already in the fifteenth century: the Valley of the Chimney Sweepers. In the first weekend of September, Santa Maria Maggiore hosts chimney sweeps from all over the world, including Russia, at the annual meeting, which over time transformed into a colorful show.

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The Casa Del Profumo Feminis – Farina perfume museum did not appear here by chance, because the creators of the world’s first cologne, Giovanni Paolo Feminis and Giovanni Maria Farina, were natives of these places.

The art gallery Scuola di Belle Arti “Rossetti Valentini” houses a collection of paintings by local artists. Santa Maria Maggiore is also an open-air gallery. Paintings decorate the facades of the houses and the doors of the counters.

2 km from Santa Maria Maggiore stands the town of Kravedja Fireplace © Mila Ulchenko

Kravedja consists of several parallel streets located one above the other. If you climb the upper one, you will see dozens of fireplaces of different heights against the background of the mountains. The Church of Saints Giacomo and Christopher holds the Treasure of Kravedja. Among them are the burial cloak made of velvet of Ludwig XIV and the cape of Marie Antoinette. All this was brought by the inhabitants of the city who emigrated to work in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Travelers are surprised to see among the slopes of the mountains the basilica in the Byzantine-Renaissance style in the town of Re of impressive size. It was built at the end of the XIX century in place of the church, in which 400 years before that a miracle happened – the fresco of the Madonna and Child on the facade bled. After that, pilgrims from different countries began to come to Re. There were so many of them that the little church could no longer cope and built a basilica.

In Val Vigezzo there are many trails for trekking from the easiest to the most difficult. See itineraries at opentrek.it

What to see around Lake Maggiore by car

For those traveling by car, the choice of where to go is great. Don’t miss the Formazza Valley . It is famous for the Toche waterfall, which from June to September includes time. Near it, they built a hydroelectric power plant, created an artificial lake and began to use the energy of the water. The visit is free, the emotions of the power of the stream, which rushes down from a height of 145 meters, leave unforgettable memories.

Cascata del Toche waterfall in the Formazza Valley makes a strong impression © Shutterstock

The path to the waterfall passes through small villages with houses of the Valser people. They are stone on the bottom and wooden on the upper floors. Formazza is considered the oldest Walser colony south of the Alps. It was formed in the 12th century by a group of shepherds from the Swiss canton of Valais. To this day, the Walser people have handed down their language, customs, traditions and building architecture from generation to generation.

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In the town of Bacheno, visit the church of St. Gaudenzio © Mila Ulchenko

Take 2€ with you to turn on the lights for 15 minutes, because inside it keeps a cycle of frescoes from the 16th century, dedicated to the life of the Madonna. Here in Baceno there is also a beautiful creation of nature, the Urietzo Gorge, carved in the rock by streams of water. For the walk you need comfortable, and preferably mountain boots.

The Veglia Devereux Alps Nature Park has more than 60 trails for trekking, from the easiest to the most challenging. If you ask the locals where to go in the mountains, most will name this area.

The place Premia comes to relax and bathe in the thermal pools of the Premia Terme complex.

In Macunyaga there is a museum of mountains and contraband. The exhibition is dedicated to the history of mountain climbing and rice smuggling to Switzerland, the rescue of Jews and other refugees by the inhabitants of Macunyaga © Shutterstock

Anzasca is a valley of the Walser people, gold mining and lush views of Mount Monte Rosa. The first settlements of the Walser people appeared here in the 13th century. They came here from the Swiss Saas-Fee valley. Since 1982 in the parish house of Makunyaga there is a house-museum of Walser. It introduces the everyday life of the inhabitants, traditional crafts, as well as the documents of the mining company.

By the mid-18th century, gold deposits were discovered in these parts and mines began to be developed. The latter were closed for unprofitability in the second half of the XX century. For travelers today is open Giya mine. It began to be mined in 1710.

From the ski resort of Macunyaga starts mountain routes of varying degrees of complexity. Expert climbers come here to conquer Monte Rosa. One of the best viewpoints overlooking the mountain is called Belvedere. It can be accessed by chairlift.

Borgo Orta San Giulio is on the list of the most beautiful borgoes in Italy © Mila Ulchenko

Lake Orta is the famous neighbor of Lake Maggiore. There are direct trains from Novara to the towns of Omenja and Orta San Giulio and buses from Stresa in the summer. The other lake towns are easier and faster to reach by car.

If the name Omenia doesn’t mean anything to you, you definitely know the natives of this town – the writer Gianni Rodari was born here, and it was here, in Cruzinallo di Omenia, that the famous Bialetti coffee machines were produced.

Opposite the Borgo Horta San Giulio is the tiny island of Silence or San Giulio with its basilica and convent. On the island live reclusive nuns. A 10-minute walk from the central square of Motta is the sacred mountain. Its chapels tell the story of the life of St. Francis of Assisi. Each one is decorated with frescoes and terracotta statues. Near the railway station of Horta, the district of Legro since the 80s of the last century attracts Italian and foreign artists who leave their paintings on the walls of houses. They dedicate their work to the cinema. They depict actors and scenes from films that were filmed on Lake Orta. For example, “Bishop’s Room” with Ornella Muti.

There is a town on Lake Orta called Brolo SEAL City. It’s tiny, just a couple of streets. But pictures of cats are everywhere – on walls and house license plates, under roofs, on mailboxes!

Quarna Sopra and Brolo © Mila Ulchenko

If you climb a little higher than Brolo, Cuarna Sopra has a gorgeous belvedere with a panorama of the entire lake, from Omenja to Horta San Giulio. And the center itself is an open-air art gallery. In recent years, a festival of murales has been held here.

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