Often overlooked for the glamor of Lake Como or the playground of Lake Garda, Lake Maggiore is Italy’s serene older sister. Its art-deco towns and grand villas give the whole area a sophisticated, reserved air. The lake is a perfect summer destination, with its many beach clubs and hotels. But it also acts as a gateway to the Alps, offering active tourists and nature lovers a plethora of activities. These include hiking trails, bike paths, water sports and wellness activities both lakeside and in the surrounding wilderness.
Most of the towns on Lake Maggiore are served by trains to and from Milan. Stresa, Verbania, Laveno and Arona are all within 1.5 to 2 hours of Milan’s Centrale Railway station. Trenord also offers a Lake Maggiore package: whereby visitors can purchase a joint train/e-bike ticket to explore the lake. Once you’ve arrived, here are the 7 towns you can’t miss.
Once a crucial stop on the European Grand Tour, Stresa oozes old-world charm and sophistication. The winding, cobbled streets of this pretty Piedmonte town are full of chic boutiques, artisanal shops, and local produce. From the central square, you can cross Corso Umberto and be right on the boardwalk of the lake. Here, you can look out to Isola Bella and the Borromean Islands, which are just off the coast.
Make sure you grab a coffee at Piazza Cadorna, where you’ll see the famously decorated houses that rise up from the tree-lined street. For lunch, head over to Ristorante Stornello and ask for a table outside. This minimalist restaurant offers a modern take on traditional Italian cuisine and caters to vegan and gluten-free diets.
Don’t miss a quick visit to Parco Pallavicino. This stately home and garden in Stresa became an exceptional zoological park in the 20th century. Today, the park is home to over 50 species of animals, including zebras, kangaroos, cranes, and flamingos.
Where to stay: The belle époque Grand Hotel des Iles Borromees in Stresa has been hosting guests for 150 years. With a spa offering a range of weeklong wellness programs, it’s perfect for anyone in need of a recharge. There are also three swimming pools and a lake-side garden adorned with important works of art.
2. The Borromean Islands
Off the coast of Stresa lies the so-called “Eden of Italy.” This beautiful area includes the three idyllic islands of Isola Bella, Isole dei Pescatori and Isole Madre. Originally home to the aristocratic Borromeo family, the gulf is a veritable wonderland full of candy-colored houses, old-school restaurants, and awe-inspiring views of the lake. The islands are so impressive that the French poet Montesquieu described them as “the most beautiful place in the world, a place made by fairies.”
Isola Bella is the masterpiece of the gulf. Home to the family’s opulent villa and landscaped gardens, the property is accessible to the public from March-November. Built in the 17th century by Vitaliano Borromeo VI, the island quickly grew from a small pile of rocks into a palatial villa and panoramic gardens, it is now a member of the Great Italian Gardens association. Stroll through the glittering rooms of the palace which have hosted historical figures such as Napoleon, Mussolini, and Princess Diana before making your way to the Teatro Massimo, the sunken Baroque garden at the back of the island.
All boat tours will take you to all three islands so make sure you don’t skip Pescatori or Madre. If you want to stay the night, Isola dei Pescatori has three hotels and a multitude of restaurants nestled in its winding streets. Each of the islands is a five-minute boat ride from the other, and it only takes 10 minutes to get back to the mainland. Horticulturalists shouldn’t miss visiting Isola Madre, home to plants from all over the world. Thanks to its unique microclimate, the fauna is protected by the warmer waters of the lake.
Where to stay: On Isola dei Pescatori, the hotel and restaurant Belvedere offers bright rooms and suites with panoramic terraces overlooking the lake.
Verbania is the largest town on the lake and not overrun with tourists, even during high season. A walk along the lakefront is a must in the early morning. Along the lakeside promenade, you’ll also find a cycling and running track that you can follow along the water or up into the hills.
Just up from the town, lies Villa Taranto and its botanical gardens. It was acquired in 1931 by Scottish naval captain Neil McEachern. He planted more than 3,000 plant species from all over the world, including 300 varieties of dahlias. Its verdant greenhouses, winding trails, and broad lawn sloping down to the lake offer spectacular views in every direction.
While the house of Villa Taranto isn’t open to the public, country house fans won’t be disappointed as Villa Giulia, just south of Taranto, is another spectacular property. This neoclassical building is complete with a corinthian façade and a sprawling art collection. Make sure to check the website as there are regular shows, exhibitions, and events organized at the villa throughout the year.
In the evening head over to Ristorante Milano, situated in the horseshoe-shaped harbor. Chef Agostino Sala cooks up innovative Italian cuisine served on a few scattered tables on the lawn.
Where to stay: The Grand Hotel Majestic is a renovated villa resting on the shores of Lake Maggiore. It was built in 1870 and features a palatial façade, large rooms, and delightful English-style gardens. Sit in the tranquil, flower-scented gardens and gaze across the lake to the Borromeo Islands and the distant mountains.
A southerly stop on the Piedmonte side of the lake is Arona. Much like Stresa, this quaint medieval town is lively and buzzing with weekend flowers, farmers’, and vintage markets.
Overlooking the town is the imposing bronze statue of Saint Carlo Borromeo. Once the Cardinal of Milan, Saint Carlos was also the patriarch of the Borromeo presence in the area. The statue was actually a blueprint for the Statue of Liberty! Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, who designed Lady Liberty, stayed in Arona in order to study the statue’s structure. A plaque can be found at the foot of the Statue of Liberty commemorating the inspiration given by the ‘Sancarlone’ – now no longer the largest statue in the world. Visitors can climb the 35m to the top of the Saint’s head and take in the views of the lake.
Arona is also a great place to take a boat to the town of Angera where you can visit the Borromeo family’s imposing fortress. The spectacular Rocca di Angera is an accumulation of five different constructions, built between the 11th and 17th centuries. Inside, you can see the 12-room Museo della Bambola, displaying the Borromeo family’s invaluable collection of dolls. You can also visit the vineyards which hug the slopes surrounding the fortress.
5. Laveno Mombello
Boasting a spectacular view of the lake, a vibrant food scene, and excellent hiking trails, Laveno has long been a weekend destination for the Milanese. Its train station is 200m from the lakefront, giving you a breathtaking view the moment you step onto the platform.
On arrival, head over to Come e Casa, a family-run restaurant that prides itself on its Slow Food menu. Fill up on a plate of pasta with local porcini mushrooms and red wine, before you head into the hills to hike the Sasso del Ferro mountain. The 5km trail is suitable for all hikers and takes you up through the beautiful countryside. Past grand villas and verdant gardens, this trail eventually arrives at the Ristorante Funivia, which offers spectacular views of Lake Maggiore and the Alps beyond. A cable car also whisks less energetic travelers up and down to the restaurant and Sasso del Ferro peak (1062m).
Once you return to town, take a five-minute walk to the harbor area where Café Vela, a chic little eatery and bar, offers tables right on the water. Here you can enjoy a spritz with a sunset.
Where to stay: Lake Maggiore is famous for its artisanal ceramics trade, and you’ll see boutiques in every town selling earthenware. The boutique Hotel de Charme in Laveno honors this tradition, occupying the old industrial plant that reaches the shoreline. It boasts lush gardens, bright open rooms, and a spectacular rooftop swimming pool. You can also stay at Hotel Funivia, at the top of the mountain of Sasso del Ferro, its 14 rooms offer some of the best views the Italian lakes have to offer.
6. Santa Caterina del Sasso
This 14th-century hermitage, located 3km down-shore from Laveno, is only accessible by boat or by descending 200 steps into the rock face but this destination is well worth the effort. According to legend, the hermitage was founded when local Merchant Alberto Besozzi found himself trapped in a storm while crossing the lake in 1170. He prayed to Saint Caterina of Alessandria and promised that if she saved him, he would devote his life to her service. Upon waking up on the shore, he became a hermit and began to build the monastery.
Today, the Santa Caterina del Sasso monastery dramatically clings to the rockface over the lake and is home to a stunning baroque church, medieval porticos, and a bell tower. The remains of Besozzi are in a glass-topped coffin in the church: he never left and was sustained for the rest of his life by local fishermen.
7. Sesto Calende
Located right at the bottom of the lake, Sesto Calende is a pretty town with great lidos and fun spots for an aperitivo. If you decide to rent a boat, you can sail down Lake Maggiore and set up for the night here. This town also offers plenty of camping spots for travelers who want to sleep out under the stars next to the lake.