People amble at a gentle pace through quaint little streets, pausing occasionally to take photos. No need to rush here. After all, the tourist throngs are in Bellagio over on Lake Como. Sitting on the terrace of a coffee bar, a question springs to mind. Is this the perfect place? The Italian lake without the crowds, but with an authentic beauty all of its own…Welcome to Lake Maggiore! Stresa is the gateway to a place that you will never forget. Whether it’s a day trip from Milan or a base for further travel, this is a ‘Must See’ destination!
Getting Onto Lake Maggiore
A small ticket booth beside the Navigazione dei Laghi building sells tickets for the ‘ferries’, although the word ‘ferry’ seems grandiose in this case. Even the so-called ‘ferries’ seem more like boats in contrast to their larger counterparts on Lake Como and Lake Garda. Tickets to the main islands (Isola Madre, Isola dei Pescatori and Isola Bella) cost €15.
Rounding a corner, excited cries and fast footsteps fill the air. Two children dash towards the object of their attention, two albino peacocks. E bello, they cry. In fact, who can disagree? These birds, which you can expect to see wandering around both Isola Madre and Isola Bella, are one of nature’s little surprises.
Isola Madre is often the first stop on a trip to the Borromean islands and it is a place of understated elegance. Ancient stone paths lead visitors around an English garden with a quaint palace at its centre. Just outside the palace, ropes now support Europe’s largest cypress tree, which was felled by a freak storm some years ago. The building itself, although smaller and less opulent than its counterpart on Isola Bella, provides stunning views of the lake.
Beautiful Island. It wears its name like a glove. Indeed, it is perhaps more than just beautiful. Simply stunning may sum it up better.
The palace here is on a much grander scale. The gardens…Where words fail, hopefully, the photos will do justice…It is these gardens that are the star attraction of the island. Having acquired a ticket, pass through the palace to access them. In contrast to the smaller Borromean palace on Isola Madre, the rooms are larger and more lavish. The cavernous ballroom, with its views back towards the village on Isola dei Pescatori, is a real standout. Make sure to also visit the shell-encrusted vaults downstairs. They are unusual, almost unique.
On a minor negative note, expect crowds here. The beauty of the island is not a secret!
The Gardens of Isola Bella
As on Isola Madre, albino peacocks roam freely. Brightly coloured flowers and plants meet the eye at every turn. Statues and terraced steps add a touch of fantasy to the setting. All around, there are the azure colours of the lake that seem to sparkle on a sunny day. Literally, you hardly know where to look.
If time is an issue, this is the place to spend the day.
Ideally, visitors would have hours to linger and just soak up the beauty and the atmosphere of the location. However, unless you completely ignore Isola Madre or manage to take the earliest possible train to Stresa, you may have to speed through the crowds in the palace.
Getting There and Away
Trains to Domodossola from Milano Porta Garibaldi serve Stresa. Also, many trains from Centrale to the Swiss destinations of Geneva and Basle include a stop at Stresa. Arriving from Malpensa Airport, change at Busto Arsizio and take a Domodossola bound train. If doing a day trip, try to take an early train from Milan to be able to make the most of your day on the lake.
Check the times directly on the Trenitalia website
Hotel accommodation can be booked for as little as €50 per night on booking.com. Also, AirBnB has a number of properties both in Stresa and around the lake. Booking in advance will make it easier to find bargains.
Visiting the Islands
Tickets to Isola Madre cost €13, Isola Bella €16 and combined tickets cost €16. Buy your ticket when you arrive on either Isola Madre or Isola Bella.
One Day- See As Much As You Can
Start the morning on Isola Madre. Explore the gardens before heading over to Isola dei Pescatori for lunch. After lunch, spend the rest of the afternoon wandering the gardens of Isola Bella.
Short Day Trip- See Isola Bella
Arriving in the late morning, have a light lunch on Isola dei Pescatori before then enjoying the rest of the afternoon on Isola Bella.
With a few days, you can visit the three main islands. The funicular tram on Monte Mottarone in Stresa will provide you with incredible views of the lake. Finally, you can take a ferry to Locarno and then do the Centovalli railway trip from there back to Domodossola.
Interested in visiting more Italian lakes? Click on the link here for more information.