Updated: Dec 31, 2019
Floating like three glittering jewels dropped into the broad waters of Italy’s Lake Maggiore, each year the Borromean Islands draw tens of thousands of eager travellers from around the world who come to wander the impressive palaces, gorgeous gardens and well-preserved villages for which the islands are famous.
You can visit the Borromean Islands on Viaggio Italia Travel's Beautiful Italian Lakes small group tour. Find out more on our website at www.viaggioitaliatravel.com.au or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Made up of three main islands – Isola Bella, Isola Madre and Isola dei Pescatori – this gorgeous archipelago takes its name from the wealthy aristocratic Borromean family who purchased the islands between the 14th and 16th Centuries and transformed them into the wonders they are today.
Each of the islands offers a different experience.
Originally just a rocky outcrop inhabited by fishermen, Isola Bella – only a few minutes by boat from the lake’s shore at Stresa – is the most sumptuous, with a palace that is worth the trip on its own and whose layered Italianate gardens – complete with wandering white peacocks - are the epitome of opulence and luxury. The gardens are spread across ten terraces filled with balustrades, hedges and statues, and from the upper terrace visitors take in an impressive panoramic view across the lake. It’s advisable to take one of the regular and inexpensive guided tours of the impressive Palazzo Borromeo when you visit the island to get a full grasp of how this marvel, with its gilded halls and stone and shell-covered grottoes, came to be.
Next stop is Isola Madre: the largest of the three islands. Madre boasts a 20-acre botanical garden considered an exemplar of topiary art and one of the most impressive, romantic and well-preserved historical gardens in Italy. The English-style gardens were first cultivated at the beginning of the 16th century and play host to ancient trees and a delightful population of white peacocks, golden pheasants and parrots that live freely within this splendid natural setting. As well as the gardens, the 18th-Century villa exemplifies the pomp and circumstance of the House of Borromeo and includes an impressive collection of precious porcelain.
In contrast to the extravagance of Bella and Madre, the smallest of the islands - Isola dei Pescatori (also known as Isola Superiore) - is largely a characteristic old village almost unchanged by time. The village has been a fishing community for centuries whose inhabitants still preserve a traditional way of life. Its narrow alleyways and tiny traditional shops and restaurants make it a popular destination for day-trippers, but it is even lovelier in the evenings when most tourists have gone and silence falls. If this appeals, consider an overnight stay at one of the island's two hotels to truly soak up the atmosphere.
Lake Maggiore is about an hour to the north-east of Milan - easily reached by car or train - and the best place to site yourself to visit the Borromean Islands is Stresa: a pretty little town with a long history which has been transformed over the centuries from a peasant settlement into what in the 1800s became an exclusive holiday resort for the aristocracy. Stresa was once the first Italian stop on the Grand Tour and a favourite destination for an eclectic band of the rich, famous and infamous; from Napoleon and the English royals to Hemingway and Mussolini. Today the town retains its aristocratic glamour, and a stroll along the grand promenade that hugs the lake’s edge will take you past a series of magnificent hotels built to cater for the many well-to-do guests for whom a visit to the lake was an annual highlight.
The promenade also provides a great view across to the Borromean Islands, which sit almost at arm’s reach off the shore. A great way to take the whole scene in is to take a ten-minute walk along the promenade to catch the funicular cable-car for a ride to the top of Mount Mottarone (about 1500m high) from where you can get a wonderful view of the lake, with those beautiful islands floating in the water down below you.
Visiting the islands from Stresa is easy, with local ferries running regularly between them. A tip is to buy a ferry pass for whole day, which enables you to hop on and off the boats, visiting the islands and all the other sights that await you on an excursion to this beautiful part of the world.
Then at the end of the day, you can take part in the passeggiata along the promenade with a stop at one of the many lakefront bars where you can enjoy an aperitivo and the great view across the water to the Borromean Islands as the sun slowly sinks behind the imposing Alps that frame this magnificent vista.
You can visit the Borromean Islands on Viaggio Italia Travel's Beautiful Italian Lakes small group tour.