Straddling the border between Italy and Switzerland, Lake Maggiore is ringed by picturesque towns, lavish villas and gardens, and medieval castles—in addition to the gem-like Borromean Islands that sit in its center. One day gives you just enough time to hit the highlights. Here’s how.
Morning: Explore Stresa
The most popular and scenic resort town on Lake Maggiore is Stresa, perched on the western shore and backed by the Alpine foothills of Monte Mottarone. A retreat favored by luminaries such as Charles Dickens and Ernest Hemingway, the town is best explored on a walking tour that takes in the elegant belle epoque hotels along its tree-lined promenade to Piazza Cadorna, lined with lively cafés and restaurants. Browse the shops and galleries and relax on the waterfront lidos until it’s time to hop a boat to the nearby fairy-tale Borromean Islands. Alternatively, join a late-morning cooking class near the lake to learn how to prepare classic local dishes, followed by an alfresco lunch.
Afternoon: The Borromean Islands
No trip to Lake Maggiore is complete without visiting this delightful clutch of islands sitting just opposite Stresa. Choose a private or hop-on-hop-off-boat tour to explore these three tiny outposts, which have been owned by the aristocratic Borromeo family since the 12th century. Isola Bella and Isola Madre are home to decadent, 17th-century palaces and formal terraced gardens built as the Borromeos’ private pleasure grounds. Charming Isola dei Pescatori is a former fishing island with pretty chapels, souvenir shops, and traditional fish restaurants overlooking the lake.
Night: Treasures of Maggiore or Orta
After you’ve returned from your island jaunt, you can continue villa hopping with a visit to the 17th-century Villa della Porta Bozzolo east of Lake Maggiore to admire its elegant interiors and vast Italianate gardens with statues, scenic overlooks, and rose garden. Otherwise, head to nearby Lake Orta, Maggiore’s smaller and quieter neighbor. Visit its tiny Isola San Giulio, an island that houses a picturesque basilica and monastery, and the mainland medieval village of Orta San Giulio, with its 16th-century town hall and hillside Sacro Monte chapel complex. Top off your visit with aperitifs and dinner at a lakeside restaurant here.