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Northern Italy has been blessed with many picturesque lakes. The Italian lakes are well known for their beauty- just think of Bellagio on Lake Como. However, the beauty of the lakes doesn’t just stop at Lake Como- go further west and you will find stunning Lake Maggiore.
The Borromean islands are small islands in Lake Maggiore- about an hour and a half drive northwest of Milan. They are named after their owners, the Borromeos from Florence and the family still own these gems. Thankfully, they are open to the public and we can now all enjoy their beauty. I’m not sure you can fully appreciate how pretty it is until you are there and living it. When we visited we were blessed with perfect autumn weather- sunny, blue skies but not too hot.
The islands are amazingly pretty, so I would definitely try to make it to this area of Italy. You can base yourself in Stresa, Baveno, or even Pallanza. Stresa and Baveno are right next to each other. We stayed in Baveno and visited Stresa- which is a 5 minute drive away. We also drove to Pallanza (15 minutes) and did a lovely lakeside walk there. If you really want to splurge you could stay in a hotel on Isola Bella or Isola dei Pescatori!
There are three islands that you can visit- Isola Madre, Isola Bella, and Isola dei Pescatori. Isola dei Pescatori is the only one of the three with people still living there whereas Isola Madre and Isola Bella are more just eye-stunners. We saw all three in one day, but in all honesty, I could have lingered longer on the first two islands and dropped the last one. So, keep that in mind if you are short on time or don’t think the kids will have the energy to do all three in one day. You can also split your time over two days- buy your tickets accordingly. Check the weather and go on your sunniest day.
This island has an amazing garden. It’s an English style garden with a variety of plants and trees from around the world. There are pheasants and peacocks- including pure white peacocks that roam the gardens and there is also a very chatty parrot aviary. Also, the entryway to the toilets is really pretty. It’s one of the few times I didn’t mind doing the mandatory toilet break with the kids. Anyway, make sure to use these toilets before taking the next boat.
The palace is so pretty with painted wallpaper and Venetian chandeliers. Kids might find the puppet displays with their sets and the old toy collection really interesting. But the best thing for me of the palace were the lake views from the gigantic windows. The rooms were pretty but better than any painting on the wall were the views.
There is a coffee shop (Orangerie) in the gardens with indoor and outdoor patio seating.
Although named after the Countess Isabella of Borromeo, this island really is bella. The palace here is extremely pretty especially the throne room -- and again with those views! There is also a puppet collection here. What was unexpected was the massive grotto apartment decorated in a mosaic of Japanese black coral and Mediterranean white coral. From ceiling to floor these rooms are covered in natural materials to mimic the feeling of a real grotto. In the grotto you will also find a miniature of a ceremonial Venetian gondola.
The garden is reached through a lovely courtyard and then stairs. From this garden there is another raised terrace that offers some of the best views of Lake Maggiore.
One you have left the palace grounds, you is a great time for lunch. We were pleasantly surprised we had choices (it’s a pretty small island) for restaurants and cafes here. We had lunch in a small lakeside cafe. There are also plenty of small tourist kiosks where you will find the usual tourist fare along with a lot of Venetian glass jewellery .
Isola dei Pescatori (Island of the Fishermen) also known as Isola Superiore
This island is a real contrast to the first two as this is a real village with a small population of local residents. It’s a quaint little village with cobblestone paths. There is a narrow central laneway that goes through the middle of the island, with several speciality shops. There are also plenty of restaurants that specialise in fresh fish. However, what made it nice for us and the kids was the relaxed atmosphere, some gelato, and cat watching.
Getting to the Islands
The easiest way to get to the islands are by taking a small boat from Stresa or Baveno. Tickets can be bought in a variety of combinations and can be bought with entrances to the Palaces and gardens that are on the island. We visited in October, so it wasn’t busy and we bought tickets on the day in Baveno. There are public boats and private boat companies, so pay attention to the boat and where they drop you off. Also, make sure you have a schedule of departures from the islands so that you can split your time between the islands.
For the Public Boat Timetable you can go here
To get the kids excited here is a cute video of Totoro the Traveller visiting Lake Maggiore. The video gives you sense of what the boat trip and the islands are like and see a little stuffed Totoro travelling around the islands.
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