Last Updated on June 15, 2023
Off the shores of one of Italy’s most beautiful lakes sit three picture-perfect islands. Imagine lush gardens, extraordinary villas and a breezy, laidback village life. Their distance from main attractions in Italy means they are still one of the best-kept secrets from international visitors. But discovering these islands and the magic they hold is not as difficult or as time-consuming as it may seem when looking at a map if you have the right planning tips. Learn now how to plan the best visit to Lake Maggiore’s Borromean Islands in this guide.
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About the Borromean Islands
The Borromeo family is intertwined with 600 years of Lago Maggiore‘s history. The noble family came from Milan but it was in 1445 that their ties to Lake Maggiore began when Duke Filippo Maria made his nephew Vitaliano I Borromeo the Count of Arona and later acquired the Rocca di Arona, a castle on the southern end of the lake.
Fun fact: The Cardinal San Carlo Borromeo, later proclaimed a saint, was born in the Rocca di Arona.
The wealthy family became the biggest landowners and power holders for centuries. In the year 1501, the first land purchase of what are now the Borromean islands was made.
The Borromean Islands are a chain of three islands on one of Italy’s largest lakes, Lake Maggiore, located between the regions of Piedmont and Lombardy.
The Borromeo family shaped the islands today, from the development of lush gardens to the construction of the magnificent Palazzo Borromeo.
The Best Time to Visit the Borromean Islands
Isola dei Pescatori is the only island that is open to visit year-round because it is the only inhabited island.
Isola Bella and Isola Madre are open from mid-March to late November, and depending on the month are open for different hours. Check out the 2023 season schedule.
The best time to visit the islands is from April to September. In April, May and September you will get the most comfortable weather in terms of temperature (keep in mind that Italy’s rainy season is primarily in April.)
On the other hand, from June to August, you will likely get to see the most blooms in the Isola Madre and Isola Bella gardens according to the blossoms calendar.
Buying Tickets to the Borromean Islands
Isola dei Pescatori is the only island with no entry fee, since it is the only residential and public island. You will still need to pay a ferry to get there.
Isola Bella and Isola Madre require an entrance ticket that you can buy online, which I recommend instead of buying in person and waiting in lines.
My recommendation is to buy the Isola Bella + Isola Madre + Parco Pallavicino package, which will fill up a full, beautiful day on Lake Maggiore. Scroll to the end of the article to find out more about Parco Pallavicino.
On top of the entry ticket, you will also need to coordinate your transportation to the islands. I used and recommend the Get Your Guide hop-on, hop-off boat tour from Stresa.
Know before you go
- When you arrive at the port in Stresa, no matter what boat tickets you buy, you have to pay a $0.50 landing fee per island in cash, per person at the ticket office before you depart for the islands. When I went there, there were agents standing along the port to collect the fee or direct you to the ticket window to pay it.
- Most boat tours are this hop-on, hop-off style but I just want to clarify that that does not mean the boat waits for you while you explore. It continues to do its rounds and the boat driver will tell you in person the next times they will be at the island to pick you up. These are usually 1 to 2 hour intervals.
- There are multiple ferries and boat tours going on, so when you are getting picked up at the islands, you have to make sure you get on the boat that coordinates with your ticket. The captain will usually check all the tickets and call out the ticket type that his/her customers have (for example, red ticket.)
- In our experience with the GetYourGuide ticket, the ticket tells you what time your boat leaves. But if you go down to the docks, the captains will tell you what the next departures times are in case you miss the one on your ticket. I can’t confirm if it is flexible like this through other booking sites.
How to Reach Lake Maggiore & the Borromean Islands
As mentioned above, the only way to reach the Borromean Islands once you reach Lake Maggiore is by boat. But how do you arrive to Lake Maggiore to get the boat?
The Borromean Islands are completely reachable by public transportation. You can take a direct train from Milano Centrale to Stresa.
The direct train travel time is one hour to one hour and 30 minutes.
From the Stresa train station, it is a 15 minute walk to the port.
I highly recommend taking the train if you can because it is an easy, economic option if you are planning a day trip from Milan, but also from other major cities like Turin.
Pro Tip: Check out my Italy train travel tips before booking your tickets and departing for your trip.
I recommend traveling by car to Stresa if you are already renting a car in Italy.
Getting around Stresa was not the easiest when we arrived because parking was quite full (it was a Saturday) and the streets are also very narrow and some were also closed off to traffic due to residential zones and only one-ways.
It is still possible to navigate, but this is one of those rare occasions where taking the train is probably more comfortable.
By organized day tour
If you are not renting a car and you don’t feel comfortable navigating the trains in Italy, you can also opt to book an organized day tour from Milan to visit the islands.
This tour solely covers transportation and does not include the entrance fees to the islands. I think that a trip to the Borromean Islands from Milan can be done stress-free by public transportation, but if you have the budget and want peace of mind that the transportation is all organized for you, then this is your best option.
Exploring the Borromean Islands
The Borromean Islands are three unique islands all with something incredibly unique to offer: Isola Madre, Isola dei Pescatori and Isola Bella.
The first island you will likely visit is the furthest from shore, Isola Madre.
This mystical fairytale landscape is just something you have to see in person to fully feel its magic. From the park’s entrance, you are guided down the island’s picturesque perimeter before curving into the intimate and wild center of the gardens.
The island is full of things to discover: a hauntingly elegant villa that today displays and tells of the more personal side of the Borromeo family’s lives, multi-colored, exotic birds that roam freely, little lakeside hideways along the garden’s edge with wrought-iron benches and peek-a-boo views of the mainland between the thick hedges.
The Isola Madre gardens, unique for its rare and exotic plants, and the gardens of Isola Bella are part of the Royal Horticultural Society.
Pro Tip: On Isola Madre, there are no barriers between you and the exotic birds who call the island home. Keep this in mind if birds are not your forte and be respectful to not antagonize them (they will chase you!).
Travel Tips for Your Visit to Isola Madre
- There are two eateries on the island, a quick service café, Caffetteria della Serra, and a full service restaurant, La Piratera restaurant. La Piratera serves local lake fish and Piedmontese meat dishes.
- Toilets are available on the island near the bookshop.
- Accessibility is limited due to the natural terrain of the island. If you will be traveling in a wheelchair, you can call ahead of time for more information at +39 0323933478.
- You cannot bring animals on the island. The only exception is for guide dogs for the visually impaired.
Isola Bella is likely the last island you will visit and the one on which you will likely spend the most time, as there is so much to take in and explore.
After being dropped off at port at the southern end of the island, walk along the boardwalk past artisan and souvenir shops. Reaching the northern end, you will find the entrance to the stunning Palazzo Borromeo and a large park with perfect views of the Isola dei Pescatori.
Palazzo Borromeo is a 17th century Baroque palace and Isola Bella’s can’t-miss attraction. This massive villa and its voluptuous gardens are truly a fantasy. Curated, unique rooms from the huge hall of Salone Nuovo to the basement called “The Grottoes”, with textured, dark stucco walls that make you feel like you are traveling through a treasure cave.
And then you arrive at the Baroque gardens: a fantasy land of blooms, citrus trees, Baroque statues, and even exotic white peacocks roaming freely.
The stand-out structure is the Teatro Massimo, an ornately decorated amphitheater you can walk up and through to reach the terrace and take in magical views over the lake.
When you exit the gardens, you will end up on the Vicolo del Fornello, a narrow street full of local, artisan shops.
Entering and visiting the Palazzo Borromeo is included in the Isola Bella ticket or any of the packages in which Isola Bella is included.
Travel Tips for Your Visit to Isola Bella
- When purchasing tickets to Isola Bella, you can add on extras like audio guides or a guided tour if you want to really dive into the palace’s history.
- You can actually spend the night on Isola Bella in restored fisherman’s dwellings for a completely unique stay.
- The Delfino restaurant is the oldest hotel on Lake Maggiore, dating back to 1791. Today, it has two suites and is open all day long for you to enjoy a meal in one of the areas most historic places.
- Like on Isola Madre, accessibility is limited due to the natural terrain of the island. If you will be traveling in a wheelchair, you can call ahead of time for more information at +39 0323933478.
- You cannot bring animals on the island. The only exception is for guide dogs.
Isola dei Pescatori
The Isola dei Pescatori, also called the Isola Superiore, is the main residential island.
Isola dei Pescatori is a humble fishing village, a completely different experience from the pristine Isola Madre and extravagant Isola Bella.
It is incredibly interesting getting to see a slice of local life on Isola dei Pescatori. You can’t help but imagine and picture what a serene and slow way of living it can be!
The island is basically one long strip with a park on one end and in the middle two rows of buildings/houses connected by a singular, super narrow street in the middle. Then, of course, you also have the lakeside boardwalk on both sides.
You will find the most restaurants on Isola dei Pescatori, so it could be the perfect place to land for lunch.
I recommend spending the shortest amount of time here, not only because the island is the smallest of the three so it is easy to see quickly but also because it is less of an attraction than the other islands and there is not as much to do.
Fun Fact: Another island belongs to the Borromean archipelago, the Islet of San Giovanni. It is less known since it is not as opulent as the Borromean islands, but if you fall in love with the area and have extra time, it may be worth your visit!
Around the Borromean Islands
Stresa is the most natural take-off point for visiting the Borromean Islands for tis proximity. After visiting the Borromean Islands, explore Stresa’s a charming downtown area, lined with art nouveau hotels and beautiful blooming green areas.
I highly recommend pairing your visit to the Borromean Islands with a trip to Parco Pallavicino, also in Stresa.
The park is a fun alternative to the classic things to do in Italy. It is part gardens, part zoo, part villa and all within a heavily forested hilltop, so you get magical peeks of the lake through the natural windows of tree branches as you explore.
Arona is a beautiful town on the southern end of Lake Maggiore. My favorite part of Arona is the lakeside boardwalk that provides stunning views of Rocca di Angera, another Borromean family residence.
Discover its Roman past and the ruins of the Rocca Borromea fortress that towers over the town on a rocky cliffside.
If you will be in the area of Lake Maggiore for more than one day, you must travel upstream to experience the lake’s northern shore in Switzerland! One of the most beautiful towns on Lake Maggiore is Locarno, Switzerland, which has an elegant, laidback vacation vibe.
Savvy hotels, a stunning hilltop cathedral and peaceful lakeside parks are just a few of the best things to do in Locarno. Check out my full travel guide to Locarno, Switzerland.
The SGTD Take
The Borromean Islands are a unique landscape that I have tried to capture in my words and my photographs but have a magic that can only be experienced when you visit them.
I think the Borromean Islands and Lake Maggiore in general are an underrated destination in northern Italy and would make the perfect stop or day trip for travelers looking to escape the heavily trafficked tourist destinations but want to experience Italian allure and breathtaking landscapes.
Have any questions about your trip to the Borromean Islands? Ask me in the comments!
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Italy’s hidden gem Borromean Islands await – let me know how your adventure goes!