How to visit the Borromean Islands on Lake Maggiore
Tucked between the mountains of northern Italy, and stretching across the border into Switzerland, are the beautiful blue waters of Lake Maggiore. Its shores are dotted with historical towns and fishing villages, and out in the water are the three Borromean Islands – Bella, Pescatori and Madre.
Named after the Borromeo’s, a historic noble family who still own two of the islands, they’re all open to the public to explore their palaces, gardens and history. And spring and summer are the best time to go, when the weather’s warmer and the flowers are in full bloom.
How do you get to the Borromean Islands?
The islands are a few hundred metres from the shore in the west of the lake. Passenger boats run regularly from several nearby towns but for the easiest access, stay in Stresa. It’s the closest town to the islands, and the circular boat route starts there and goes to Isola Bella, then Isola dei Pescatori and then on to Isola Madre.
Or you can skip waiting for the next public boat and get there even quicker by booking a private water taxi instead.
Which Borromean Island is the best?
Best for over-the-top opulence: Isola Bella
The Borromeo family bought ‘Beautiful Island’ in the 17th century and built a Baroque palace and tiered garden that was designed to look like a sailing ship. Today, most of it’s open to visitors, so just step off the boat, buy your ticket and head inside – or add on a guided tour to find out more about the place.
Walk from ballrooms to bedrooms, including ones that have been stayed in by Napoleon and Mussolini. Each room is brimming with priceless paintings and furniture, rare instruments and tapestries woven from silk and gold. And underground, there’s a series of grottoes that have been intricately decorated from floor to ceiling with shells and pebbles.
After that, you can move outside to the garden, which has been a partner garden of the British Royal Horticultural Society since 2002.
The highlight is the Teatro Massimo, a towering stone monument topped with a unicorn statue (the heraldic emblem of the Borromeo family). From there, the garden flows down 10 tiers and is full of exotic plants that thrive there thanks to the area’s unique microclimate. You can stroll among box hedges, lily ponds and colourful beds of hydrangeas, azaleas and oleanders. And adding a final, elegant touch are the white peacocks wandering around.
Take time during your visit to stop in the café too – you can sit on the terrace and sip a proper Italian coffee while you enjoy the views of the grounds and lake.
Best for authentic charm and great restaurants: Isola dei Pescatori
‘Fishermen’s Island’ is the smallest, at just 100m wide and 350m long. And it’s the only one that’s not owned by the Borromeo’s and is home to a local community, with around 30 people living there permanently – which also means it’s free to visit.
There’s been a fishing village there for centuries, and it’s well suited to the trade – the whole island is actually shaped like a fish. Take a walk along the 2m-wide, cobbled street that runs along the ‘spine’, and branches off into narrow alleys and tiny courtyards. Stop to visit the 11th-century Church of San Vittore, whose spire towers over the village’s terracotta roofs. And pop inside the little fishing museum (which used to be the school) to learn about the island’s past.
But the main reason to visit Pescatori is the restaurants, where you can sample the freshest lake fish and seafood – one of the best things to eat on a holiday to the Italian lakes. Sit at a waterside table and listen to the lapping waves as you enjoy a meal of perch or trout, with a glass of local wine.
Best for extensive gardens: Isola Madre
‘Mother Island’ is the biggest at around 20 acres, and was once a simple place with just a church and olive grove. Then the Borromeo’s bought it in the 16th century and Count Vitaliano IX made it his mission to create a glorious garden with plants from all over the world. Like on Bella, you can buy a ticket to explore the island as you get off the boat, and add on a guided tour if you like.
Or just go at your own pace as you walk past palm, maple and banana trees, and spot Asian camellias, Australian eucalyptus and beds bursting with rhododendrons. Follow your nose to find the citrus trees or wisteria. And you’re also likely to come across some of the peacocks, parrots and pheasants that live here.
In the centre is a cypress tree that was planted in 1862 and is one of the biggest and oldest of its kind in Europe. And in its shade is the palazzo, where the Borromeo’s once lived.
You can go inside to see the Reception Hall, Venetian Lounge, Library and Battles Room, all decorated with intricate frescoes and Italian masterpieces. And you won’t want to miss the marionette theatre, where the family used to put on shows to entertain guests – you can still see the huge sets and puppets, as well as the special effects machines that were used to create fog and fire.
Round off your day at the café, savouring a glass or wine as you look out over ponds filled with lilies, reeds and lotus flowers.
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