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12 Top Tourist Attractions around Lake Maggiore & Easy Day Trips

Lying north of Milan, Lake Maggiore (Lago Maggiore), stretches for about 65 kilometers, reaching into the Ticino region of Switzerland. Despite its name ("maggiore" means "major"), it is only the second largest of northern Italy's lakes. Its most popular attractions are on the western shore, where the magnificent Borromean Islands with their subtropical parks draw the most tourists. The trees of Lake Maggiore include a number of subtropical species: figs, olives, and pomegranates flourish in the mild climate, and several splendid show gardens are open to visitors. Regular boat services connect the various lake towns. But as several of the most popular attractions are not close to a boat stop, a car is the best way to explore the entire lake. A car ferry across the center of the lake makes this even easier.

1 Isola Bella

Isola Bella
Isola Bella
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The Borromean Islands lie off Stresa, where boats leave regularly for all three islands, stopping first at Isola Bella, where between 1650 and 1671, Count Vitaliano Borromeo built up terraces and created a splendid summer palace. You can tour its magnificent state apartments, highlighted by the ornate Salone Grande, the domed Salone delle Feste, the Sala da Ballo (Ballroom), and the Sala della Musica, filled with rare musical instruments. Below are six grottoes, artificial caves whose walls are encrusted with shells and pebbles. Sumptuous furnishings and collections of 17th-century Flemish tapestries and Lombard paintings of the 16th and 17th centuries decorate the palace.

But for most visitors, the most impressive part of Isola Bella is the Italian-style garden, rising in ten terraces to a height of 32 meters and covered with luxuriant southern vegetation. Rows of lemon and orange trees, cherry-laurels, tall cedars, magnolias, cork-oaks, sago-palms, carob-trees, camellias, and oleanders frame beautiful lake and mountain views, and parterres of brilliant flowers cover the ground supported by the stone terraces.

2 Villa Taranto

Villa Taranto
Villa Taranto
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The lovely park of the Villa Taranto was created after the Second World War by a retired Scottish army officer, a botanist who collected plants from around the world to grow in this English landscape-style garden park. More than 20,000 plant varieties - flowers, trees, shrubs, and water plants - native to this region and to places as distant as the Amazon rain forests thrive in this beautiful setting overlooking Lake Maggiore.

Address: Via Vittorio Veneto, Verbania

Official site: www.villataranto.it

3 San Carlone (San Carlo Borromeo Statue)

San Carlone (San Carlo Borromeo Statue)
San Carlone (San Carlo Borromeo Statue)
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Just north of Arona, near the village of Meina, a low hill is crowned by a 23-meter statue of St. Charles Borromeo (1538-84), Cardinal-Archbishop of Milan, who played an important part in the moral revival of Catholicism in northern Italy. He was born in Arona. This gigantic statue, made of sheets of hammered copper bolted together, was erected between 1614 and 1698, shortly after the cardinal's canonization. You can inspect the interior and look at the world through the eyes of a saint - literally - by climbing the stairway inside the statue. Up to six people can fit into its head alone.

Address: Piazzale San Carlo, Arona Novara

4 Monte Mottarone Cable Car

Monte Mottarone Cable Car
Monte Mottarone Cable Car
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Although you can drive to the top of Monte Mottarone (1,491 meters) on a toll road, it's far more fun - and the views are better - taking the cable car from the shore of Lake Maggiore in Stresa. At the end of the cable car ride, a chairlift (free with cable car ticket) takes you to the very top for views down onto Lake Orta and of a chain of Alps from Monte Viso to Ortles, with Monte Rosa to the west (the light is particularly beautiful in the morning). As you ascend the mountain, you can enjoy excellent views of Lake Maggiore and the Borromean Islands below. The cable car stops part way up at Alpino, where a short walk takes you to the Giardino Alpinia, alpine gardens with about 2,000 species of mountain plants and magnificent views over the lake.

Location: Lido Station, Stresa

Official site: www.stresa-mottarone.it

5 Isola Madre

Isola Madre
Isola Madre
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Like Isola Bella, Isola Madre belongs to the Borromeo family. The island has beautiful English-style grounds surpassing even Isola Bella in the variety and luxuriance of their plants, although by the nature of a landscape garden, they are less flamboyant and more designed for strolling and appreciating the lake views at leisure. They are especially beautiful in the spring and early summer when the azaleas, rhododendrons, and camellias are in bloom. The villa is far less flamboyant than the palace on Isola Bella, and is particularly interesting for its collection of marionettes and stage scenery for puppet shows, as well as 17th-century paintings and porcelain.

6 Isola dei Pescatori

Isola dei Pescatori
Isola dei Pescatori
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Unlike the other two Borromean Islands, Isola dei Pescatori has no grand palace, villa, or gardens. Instead, it is a simple fishing village of homes built along its highest point, their doorways facing inward along a narrow street so spring and autumn high lake waters won't flood them. About 50 year-round residents come and go by boat, and some families still make their living by fishing. It's a pleasant and atmospheric place to wander, and its few restaurants specialize in lake fish. Be there for lunch or ask which of these provides free boat service from the mainland if you'd like to return in the evening to dine on the terrace by sunset.

7 Villa Pallavicino

Villa Pallavicino
Villa Pallavicino
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From its dramatic entrance view of cypress trees carved into a row of arches, Villa Pallavicino is filled with surprises. A combination of botanical garden and zoo, the park is beautifully landscaped into a natural amphitheater surrounding a villa. Magnolia trees; sequoia; an impressive Lebanon cedar; and manicured lawns bordered by rhododendrons, camellias, and azaleas cover the grounds. Greenhouses hold more exotic species. In the natural environment, animals appear to be roaming free, and you can encounter llamas, zebra, Tibetan goats, flamingos, swans, and colorful parrots - more than 40 different species - as you wander through the park.

Address: Via Sempione 61, Stresa

8 Stresa

Stresa
Stresa
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On the west side of Lake Maggiore, south of its western arm, the chic little town of Stresa looks onto the Borromean Islands. Stresa is the largest resort town on the Italian part of the lake and tends to cater to a moneyed crowd with its smart shops, upscale restaurants, and posh hotels. The lakeside promenade, where much of tourist life centers, offers beautiful views across to the islands.

9 Cannero Riviera

Cannero Riviera
Cannero Riviera
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One of the prettiest towns on Lake Maggiore, Cannero Riviera sits on the northwest shore amid orchards and olive-groves. The climate here is the mildest on the lake, and lemon and orange trees can survive the winter in the open. There is a beautiful beach, rare on the lake, and a pleasant promenade along the lakefront. Just off shore, on rocky islets in the lake, are the ruins of the two Castelli di Cannero, castles built by Lodovico Borromeo in 1519 replacing earlier castles, which had been held by lake pirates. This is a quiet, peaceful choice for a base while exploring the lake, with a few small hotels, outdoor cafés, and great restaurants.

10 Cannobio

Cannobio
Cannobio
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On the west shore of Lake Maggiore, almost to the Swiss border, Cannobio sits on a small plateau at the mouth of the Valle Cannobina. Its old town has picturesque narrow streets and a Palazzo della Ragione (town hall) built in 1291. Near the landing-stage for lake excursion boats is the Santuario della Pietà, a Renaissance church that houses a small picture with a number of miracles attributed to it. On the high altar is a 16th-century painting, Christ Bearing the Cross, by Gaudenzio Ferrari. Follow the valley, Valle Cannobina, to find the Oratorio Sant'Anna, a white church beside a deep gorge that's spanned by a stone arch bridge.

11 Editor's Pick Museo Ogliari Transport Museum

One of the most unusual and quirky museums you're likely to find in northern Italy, this vast maze of historic transport is fascinating for children and adults alike. Assembled by one man and left as a free museum, the collection includes hundreds of conveyances, many of which you can climb aboard and even sit in the driver's seat. Arranged chronologically, the vehicles follow technology, from horse-drawn carriages through steam and electric to the age of engines. You'll find cable cars, funiculars, bikes, motorbikes, cars, trains, streetcars, mining carts, even a metro station that you descend into by an escalator. For kids, it beats any amusement park and has plenty to keep adults occupied, too.

Address: Via Alberto 99, Ranco Varese

12 Rocca d'Angera

Rocca d'Angera
Rocca d'Angera
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Rocca d'Angera, the Borromeo castle overlooking the lake at Angera, is a medieval fortified stronghold whose structure has been preserved almost intact. The castle was originally built by the Visconti family, rulers of Milan from 1277 to 1447, and frescoes in the Sala della Giustizia show Ottone Visconti's victory over Napo Torriani in 1277. Inside is one of Europe's best collections of dolls and children's toys, with 12 rooms displaying more than 1,000 dolls, toys, board games, and children's books. Dolls represent all periods of history and are made from every imaginable material, from wax to plastic. A beautiful medieval garden has been recreated from information in original manuscripts.

Address: Rocca d'Angera, Angera

Official site: www.isoleborromee.it

Where to Stay in Lake Maggiore for Sightseeing

We recommend these charming hotels around the shores of Lake Maggiore:

  • Hotel Splendid: luxury lakefront hotel, large rooms, elegant decor, outdoor pool, private beach.
  • Hotel Pironi: mid-range rates, charming historic building, lake views, delicious complimentary breakfast, free parking and Wi-Fi.
  • Relais Casali della Cisterna: value hotel overlooking the lake, lovely garden, hospitable hosts, excellent breakfast.
  • Hotel Alpi: budget pricing, generous-sized rooms, lake-view balconies, breakfast with homemade jams, friendly staff, complimentary parking and Wi-Fi.

Day Trips from Lake Maggiore

Lake Orta

Lake Orta
Lake Orta
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On the west side of Monte Mottarone, little Lake Orta is overlooked by most tourists visiting the Italian lakes region, which only increases its appeal. The picture-perfect medieval town of Orta San Giulio tumbles down the steep wooded shore to Piazza Motta, where you can (and should) take a boat to the tiny island of Isola San Giulio in the lake's center. Moss-covered stone buildings surround the island's 12th-century Basilica di San Giulio, built by the saint who, according to local legend, drove the snakes off the island. Be sure to see the frescoes and the beautifully carved marble pulpit, then follow the stone-paved Way of Silence between the island's old buildings. On the forested hillside above Orta San Giulio is one of the nine Sacri Monti, mountainside sanctuaries unique to this region and that have been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This one is composed of 20 chapels holding terracotta statues that portray scenes from the life of St. Francis of Assisi.

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