In the enchanting setting of Lake Maggiore there is the small archipelago of Borromean Islands composed of three major islands, a smaller islet and a rock. L'Isola Madre,Beautiful island andIsola dei Pescatori are the largest, theIsland of San Giovanni and Rock of Malghera, on the other hand, they have very small dimensions.
During a stay on Lake Maggiore, one visit to the three largest islands of the Borromean Gulf is, in my opinion, compulsory: among sumptuous historic villas and luxuriant gardens you will spend a day in a parallel world where nature and art are constantly intertwined.
HOW TO REACH the BORROMEE ISLANDS
FERRY ISLANDS BORROMEE
FERRY ISOLA BELLA
The closest point to reach the Borromean Islands is the town of Stresa (Molo di Carciano), but there are ferries that depart from Arona, Angera and Baveno.
Please note: and to visit Isola Bella and Isola Madre you have to buy the ticket -> buy it here online for 25 euros (savings! If you buy online it costs you less than on the spot)
Massi and I took advantage of a beautiful day of May 2021 and we went to visit them, so to help you fully enjoy the beauty of these places I have prepared for you a complete guide on what to see in the Borromean Islands divided island by island!
- Useful Information
- When to go
- How to reach us
- Visiting Tips
- What to see on Isola Madre
- What to see in Isola Bella
- What to see on the Isola dei Pescatori
- What and where to eat in the Borromean Islands
Useful information on the Borromean Islands
1 - When to go to the Borromean Islands
Normally the islands are open from the end of March to the end of October and the spring (April-May) is undoubtedly the best time to visit them, when you can see the beautiful blooms and visit the islands with good temperatures (I was there in late May and it was very hot).
Da June 2021 the Borromean Islands will reopen every day, while in May 2021 they were only open on weekends.
To visit them to the fullest, I advise you not to go on weekends and above all to try to take the first boat at 9:30, so you will be on Isola Madre before 10 when it opens its gates.
2 - How to get to the Borromean Islands
The closest point to reach the Borromean islands is the town of Stresa, but there are ferries that also depart from Arona, Angera and Baveno.
To get to Stresa you can take the A26. Very easy!
From Stresa the boats leave from Piazza Marconi: here you will also find the ticket office.
The first boat leaves at 9:30. Try to be there 10 minutes early.
3 - Tips for your visit
First di visit the Borromean Islands there are some things you need to take into consideration.
First of all take into account that you will have to buy both the ferries and the ticket to visit the islands.
You can decide to buy only the Isola Bella ticket, be just that for Isola Madre or buy the combined ticket to visit them both for 25 euros online (at the ticket office it costs more) and also buying online is strongly recommended to avoid gatherings and not to be left without a seat (at the moment the visits are numbered):
- Here you will find the Hop-on Hop Off ticket for the boat (get on and off as many times as you want)
- Here you can find the ticket to Isola Bella
- Here you can find the ticket for Isola Madre
- Here you can find the combined ticket Isola Bella + Isola Madre (SAVE!)
- Other types of Borromean tours and activities from Stresa
The Isola dei Pescatori has no entrance, it is free: However, keep in mind that, apart from the pretty village, there is nothing to see, but it is the best island to relax for a second and maybe have lunch in one of the many restaurants.
In reality, even on Isola Bella you can get off without buying a ticket for the Palazzo Borromeo and its gardens, but sincerely that you go there to do, there are only a few stalls and a few restaurants.
If you decide to buy the hop-on hop-off ticket, know that ferries only go counterclockwise.
Starting from the Stresa pier, they will stop first at Isola Madre, then at Isola dei Pescatori and then at Isola Bella.
The visit of all 3 islands (counting to stop for lunch at the fishermen's island) is 5/6 hours if not 7:
- Isola Madre: 1 hour, 1 hour and 30
- Isola dei Pescatori: 2 hours (counting that you will stop for lunch, it's worth it, try the mixed lake fish appetizer!). If you just want to see it, 30 minutes is enough.
- Beautiful island: 1 hour and 30/2 hours
ATTENTION: Before entering the buildings, your temperature will be measured. On boats and islands, the mask is mandatory.
THEIsola Madre it is the largest of the archipelago and the farthest from the mainland.
In the past it was called Island of San Vittore and housed a small church, a few houses and a handful of olive trees.
In the early sixteenth century the bishop of Novara sold the island to the Borromeo.
For a period the Island of San Vittore passed to the Trivulzio family, but already in 1536 Renato Borromeo repossessed it and, called the architect Pellegrino Pellegrini (the Tibaldi), began to give the Palazzo the charm that we can still admire today.
In the eighteenth century it was the turn of the gardens: it was Filippo Cagnola who took care of designing stairs, pergolas and other decorations. The exteriors, however, changed again during the nineteenth century to follow the fashion of the time that favored the idea of the Romantic Garden characterized by perspective views, tall trees and the introduction of exotic and rare vegetation. It was in the nineteenth century that the greenhouses and, finally, a small chapel were built.
The palace and gardens were opened to the public in 1978.
Let's see then, what to see on Isola Madre during your visit.
1 - The Borromeo Palace of Isola Madre
Palazzo Borromeo it is a sumptuous but elegant noble residence that preserves furnishings, paintings, tapestries and porcelain belonging to the family.
Inside there are some particularly interesting rooms to which I advise you to pay more attention and which I will tell you about below.
2 - The Marionette Theater
Il Marionette Theater it delighted the family and its guests, but also the servants who participated in the shows that were held here privately.
The theater hall now houses a very rich collection of sets, productions, puppets and scores.
Among the most interesting things to observe are the mechanical devices that were able to create real special effects such as fog, fire or scene noises.
3 - The Venetian living room
Il Salotto Veneziano it is probably the most spectacular room in the whole palace.
The vault of the room, in fact, is decorated with a large trompe l'oeil that represents a pergola supported by columns on which plants and flowers intertwine just like in a garden.
The effect is of great impact, especially if you look out of the large window overlooking the garden: it looks like a whole.
4 - The Reception Hall
Another impressive room is the Reception Hall where you can admire some biblical paintings by Stefano Danedi and other paintings by Giuseppe Panfilo known as il Nuvolone, by Ercole Procaccini and by Tommaso Costa.
The Hall of Seasons
This room takes its name from four paintings made by Flemish authors representing the changing of the seasons.
Here you will also notice a large tapestry that belonged to Cardinal Federico Borromeo on which the family crest stands out.
5 - The Doll Room
A large one is kept in this room collection of French and German dolls dated between the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century.
6 - The English Garden of Isola Madre
The highlight of the whole island is, in my opinion, the English garden.
Over 2.000 species of flowers from all over the world are looked after here and as you walk around you will find yourself face to face with white peacocks running free.
Do not miss Terrace of the Protee, a prehistoric flower from South Africa that has incredibly found a suitable climate here.
7 - The Cypress of Cashmir
In the large garden stands the Cashmir cypress, a real historical monument and symbol of the island.
The tree arrived here in 1862 in small seeds coming straight from the Himalayas. Today it is the largest and oldest specimen of this species in all of Europe.
Unfortunately, after a kind of hurricane, the tree collapsed, but it was pulled up and stabilized with tie rods, so you can still see it in all its majesty.
8 - The Gentilizia Chapel
Finally, the last of the things to see on Isola Madre is the Gentilizia Chapel which is located in the English Garden and overlooks a circular fountain.
The Chapel dates back to 1858 and inside it does not host cenotaphs or funeral monuments.
Buy the hop-on hop-off ticket for the Borromean Islands - you can get on and off as many times as you want!
Among the tips on what to see in the Borromean Islands I obviously also include a visit to theBeautiful island.
Looking at it today in its splendor, it is incredible to think that until 1630 this "great rock" was nothing more than a simple fishermen's abode. Here there were only two small churches and a handful of houses.
THELower Island (or Isola di sotto), as it was called in the past, was bought by the Borromeo family and, thanks to Charles III, in 1632 work began to create a majestic palace dedicated to his wife Isabella.
The works continued under Vitaliano VI who brought to the island sumptuous parties and renowned theatrical performances appreciated by the nobility of the time.
The successor, Charles IV, finally inaugurated the gardens.
The works continued throughout the eighteenth century and even in the nineteenth century, up to recent times when Vitaliano IX Borromeo, in 1948, had the Salone Nuovo built, repaired the northern facade and took care of the large pier.
Today the island, seen from above, resembles a large ship, a vessel whose stern consists of the terraces of the garden and the bow of the palace.
You cannot visit Isola Bella without knowing that Napoleon stayed here with his wife Giuseppina and that from 11 to 14 April 1935 the Stresa Conference was hosted inside the building, the meeting between Mussolini, Pierre Laval and MacDonald, who it should have served to sanction Germany for violating the Treaty of Versailles.
Now that you know roughly the history of the island, here are some tips on what to see on Isola Bella.
1 - The Borromeo Palace on Isola Bella
Compared to the home of Isola Madre, Palazzo Borromeo here is a real keeper of pomp and luxury and a masterpiece in which the Baroque is the protagonist.
The itinerary develops along 20 rooms. Below I recommend some of the most beautiful.
2 - The Salon
This is the largest room in the whole building: think that it rises for three floors!
The center is surmounted by a large Baroque dome where you can read the word Humilitas, the motto of the Borromeo family.
3 - The Throne Room
This was the audience hall and it is named for the large gilded wooden seat which is located in the center of the room and which is surmounted by a sumptuous embroidered silk canopy.
4 - The Napoleon Room
It is here that Napoleon slept during the two days he stayed in the palace with his wife Giuseppina.
In memory of that event, the original golden bed on which the general rested is exhibited.
The ceiling of the room is decorated with a magnificent trompe l'oeil and on the walls hang large gilded mirrors in the Empire style.
5 - The Music Room
It is in the Music room that the Stresa Conference took place and it is here that you can admire the original table at which Mussolini, Laval and MacDonald sat.
On the wall you can read the paper signed by the participants in which the final resolutions of the meeting are expressed.
6 - The Ballroom
The room is in neoclassical style, is surrounded by sofas and in the center is characterized by a huge Bohemian glass chandelier.
It seems you can still see the magnificent receptions that were held here.
7 - Galleria Berthier
La Galleria Berthier it preserves the paintings from the family collection. Here you can admire paintings by Raphael, Correggio, Guido Reni and Tiziano: a real museum within the museum.
8 - The Cave
Le Caves they are probably one of the most evocative places on Isola Bella and certainly one of the most beautiful things to see in the Borromean Islands.
These are environments intended for summer days and were commissioned by Vitaliano VI so that his guests could be amazed and, at the same time, cool off from the heat of the hottest days.
These six rooms are embellished with pebbles, stuccos, mother-of-pearl and marble which, like in a huge mosaic, reproduce a fantastic and fascinating underwater world.
Even today you are fascinated and almost bewildered by these rooms in which to make the atmosphere even more fairytale there are fountains, water games, statues and finds.
9 - The Baroque Italian Garden of Isola Bella
Leaving the Palazzo Borromeo, you can immerse yourself inside the Italian Baroque Garden of Isola Bella.
This was built between 1631 and 1671 and is a riot of rare flowers and plants from all over the world. Here you can admire, for example, the Gunnera manicata (did you know that its leaves can reach two meters in diameter?), The monumental tree of Cinnamomum camphora, but also the star anise and the Mexican pine.
Here, too, as on Isola Madre, peacocks roam free among visitors.
10 - The Massimo Theater
Il Massimo Opera House it is the most spectacular monument on the island.
It is an imposing structure with 10 terraces decorated with statues and fountains, each characterized by different plants that bloom at different times of the year. Finally, the terraces are dominated by the large statue of the Unicorn, the heraldic symbol of the Borromeo family.
Reaching the upper part of the Teatro Massimo you can enjoy the view of Lake Maggiore.
11 - The Garden of Love
Among the most evocative corners of the Isola Bella Garden is the Garden of Love and its beauty is especially enjoyable going up to the Teatro Massimo.
The four flower beds are formed by well-tended hedges that form a delicate and elegant embroidery.
Buy the boat ticket to Isola Bella
Isola dei Pescatori
Finally, the last of the Borromean Islands to visit is theIsola dei Pescatori, the smallest, but the only one constantly inhabited.
This island takes its name from the historical work of its inhabitants, but is also known as Upper Island.
In the small village housed on the island live less than 60 inhabitants (some still practice fishing) and is characterized by narrow streets exclusively for pedestrians where there are small shops and typical restaurants.
The island is home to two hotels where you can stay to enjoy the unique atmosphere that reigns once the sun goes down, when most of the tourists have returned to the mainland.
Two special moments to visit the island are Ferragosto, when the statue of the Assumption is carried in procession by boat around the island, and Carnival, when the islanders gather at a large table on the shore to eat all together.
Isola dei Pescatori is 350 meters long and 100 meters wide, so you can imagine that it is really very small. My advice, in fact, is to wander aimlessly, enjoying the atmosphere.
1 - The village
Among the narrow streets of the village you can browse through the old houses and notice the long balconies that were once used to dry fish. As I told you before, even today there are those who carry on the traditional work of this small island.
Among the houses there are some restaurants where you can eat lake fish and some souvenir shops.
2 - The Church of San Vittore
During your visit to Isola dei Pescatori I suggest you visit the Church of San Vittore.
This was initially a simple chapel and was probably enlarged during the Renaissance. In 1627 it was elevated to a parish and dedicated to San Vittore.
Inside you can admire some frescoes of the sixteenth century and the busts of Sant'Ambrogio di Milano, San Gaudenzio di Novara, San Francesco di Sales and San Carlo Borromeo that surround the altar.
Where and What to eat in the Borromean Islands
If you decide to spend the whole day in the Borromean Islands, my advice is to stop to eat on the Isola dei Pescatori. In fact, on Isola Madre there is only one restaurant / bar and on Isola Bella there is a few more, but Isola dei Pescatori is undoubtedly the best.
I found myself very well at the Trattoria Imbarcadero on the Isola dei Pescatori. Book first otherwise you will be left dry.
Another highly recommended restaurant is the restaurant Italy. In any case on the island you will eat well more or less everywhere!
Among the things I recommend you try, well you are on the lake, so fish!
Try themixed appetizer of soaked lake fish. You will find at least 4 different types of fish: Perch, salmon trout, whitefish and bleak.
As first I liked the Garganelli del Pescatore, a short egg pasta topped with pieces of fish, cherry tomatoes and sauce.
On the second you will be spoiled for choice but try or the baked salmon trout or the Golden whitefish!
Where to sleep on the Borromean Islands
The best thing to visit the Borromean Islands is to sleeping in Stresa: here there are many other beautiful things to do, such as the Pallavicino Park or climbing to the top of Mottarone.
But while I was with Massi on Isola dei Pescatori I thought about how beautiful it must be to spend at least one night there: when the tourists leave, it must be truly a haven of tranquility!
So if you want staying in the Borromean Islands you should know that the only hotels are on Isola dei Pescatori and only one on Isola Bella.
On the Isola dei Pescatori you will find the Belvedere hotel restaurant and Villa Toscanini.
On Isola Bella, on the other hand, you can stay at the Elvezia Hotel Restaurant.