Visit Borromean islands
The Borromean islands are a group of lake islands just off the shore from Stresa, a town on the western shore of Lake Maggiore.They are within a broad gulf on this western shore, slightly separate from the main lake. Three of the islands can be explored, and they are very popular with visitors because of the picturesque villages, villas and gardens.
Exploring the Borromean islands
Italy This Way comment: the tour of the Borromean islands is a lovely way to spend a day when you are exploring the lakes of northern Italy, and the highlight of your trip to Lake Maggiore.
You will usually reach the Borromean islands by boat from Stresa or Verbania, although boats from other smaller ports are available. There are three islands in the group that can be visited: Isola Bella, Isola Madre and Isola dei Pescatori, and one that is not open to the public, Isola San Giovanni.
You can get tickets for ferries to any of the islands, but the most popular is to buy a ticket that allows you to disembark at each of the three islands as part of a circuit. The ferry ticket costs around 22 euros, and entry to the two villas will add another 20 euros per person to your trip, so it is reasonably expensive if you are a large family but in our opinion it is well worth the price.
Isola Bella ("Beautiful Island")
The most popular of the lake islands with visitors is Isola Bella where you can see the grand baroque style villa and gardens of the 17th century Palazzo Borromeo and a picturesque but very small village with narrow cobbled streets winding between ancient houses. If you only have time to visit one of the Borromean Islands, Isola Bella would be the usual choice.
The opulently decorated interior of the palace and its many artworks comes as an interesting contrast after you have strolled through the streets of the village, with each of the major rooms having a particular theme such as rare tapestries or musical instruments. The 'cave rooms' below the palace are also fascinating, with relatively modest rooms decorated with various sea themes.
The baroque style gardens of the Borromeo Palace are also particularly impressive and based around a large pyramid. The gardens are in terraces down to the lake and featuring many statues, water features and varied plant arrangements.
Isola Bella is a very interesting island and a visit is highly recommended and one of the highlights of a visit to Lake Maggiore - although it is true to say you will not be alone if you visit during the summer...
See our guide to Isola Bella.
Isola Madre ("Mother Island")
The island of Isola Madre is further north and more in the centre of the lake than Isola Bella. This island is visited for the botanical gardens and the 18th century palazzo on the island. Although a modest palazzo when compared with the palace of Isola Bella, it is still an imposing building, and furnished in period style.
The villa also contains a museum featuring a wide variety of artefacts such as porcelain, toys and furniture.
The gardens are impressive with numerous features of interest, very varied planting with plants from all around the world, and will be one of the memorable highlights of your visit to Lake Maggiore - made more exotic by the peacocks and parrots that live on the island and are all around you as you explore.
See our guide to Isola Madre.
Isola dei Pescatori ("Island of the Fishermen")
Smaller than Isola Madre and Isola Bella, Isola dei Pescatori has a small traditional village occupying almost the entire small island.
Although the village is small, the narrow streets that run through the heart of the village give it a great deal of charm. If you are exploring all three Borromean islands this is the best one to enjoy your lunch, because there are more restaurants here than on the other islands in the group.
You can also walk around the edges of Isola dei Pescatori to enjoy the views across the lake to the other islands and to Stresa.
See our guide to Isola dei Pescatori.
Rocca di Angera
Still in Lake Maggiore but quite a distance south of the Borromean islands, the Rocca di Angera is also part of the "Borromean experience" and can be reached by boat from Stresa. The fortress of Angera is on a rock promontory on the east side of the lake and is an impressive group of medieval buildings surrounded by a pretty garden.
There are five buildings that form the ensemble: the Castellana tower, the Scaligera wing, the Viscontea wing, the Borromeo wing and the Giovanni Visconti tower. Among the highlights is the hall of justice with its 13th century frescoes.
During a visit you will also see the recreation of a medieval garden that follows the original design, established to suggest a paradise on earth. Finally, there is a Museum of Dolls and Toys, with some of the dolls dating from the 18th century.
Isola San Giovanni and Scoglio della Malghera
The fourth island in the group of Borromean islands, called Isola San Giovanni ("Saint John Island") and close to Verbania on the opposite shore of Lake Maggiore, is privately owned and closed to the public. There is actually a fifth island, so small it is more of a rock really, called Scoglio della Malghera ("Rock of Malghera"). You will see Malghera as your ferry travels betwen Isola Bella and Isola dei Pescatori.
The town of Stresa, from where most visitors get ferries to the Borromean islands, is an interesting town to visit: see the Stresa guide.
The Borromean islands will be visited as part of your trip to Lake Maggiore, one of the most important lakes in northern Italy: see the Lake Maggiore guide for the other highlights on and around the lake.
You can find more local travel ideas in the Piedmont guide.