The second-largest lake in northern Italy, Lake Maggiore stretches under the gaze of the Alps. Unlike the show-stopping opulence of the renowned Lake Como, Lake Maggiore is understated. Its communities dotted along the lake are laid-back, peaceful and unobtrusive, and expect tourists to be respectful of the surroundings. Its show-stopping attraction is the Borromean Islands, like green jewels in the water.
Italy's currency is the Euro (€). €1 = £0.83 / $1.10 (as of 2022).
Top 5 things to see
The Borromean Islands
The biggest draw for tourists, and arguably the main reason they visit Lake Maggiore is for the Borromean Islands. Four islands make up the archipelago on the eastern side of the lake. Only one is inhabited all year round - Isola Pescatori. In the sun, the views are magical: the snow-peaked caps of the Alps transform into lush green hills with clusters of stucco buildings. To get to the islands, you'll have to take a ferry from any of the surrounding towns or water taxis from Stresa.
Two Passports' Top Tip: Be sure to visit the islands when it is guaranteed to be good weather (which is hard to predict in the region). If a storm sets in, the islands shut down for business and boats stop running to the islands - you will be stranded.
When we visited, we stayed on the islands for two nights in late September.
Incredible terraced gardens dominate Isola Bella, the largest of the Borromean Islands, the Palazzo Borromeo is a baroque masterpiece and is easily the lake's most beautiful building. Dating back to the 1700s, it was once home to Napoleon. During the summer months, the family that still owns Palazzo Borromeo move in and occupy the second and third-floors. The views over the lake are extraordinary. If you're visiting the islands, the Palazzo Borromeo is well worth a visit.
Tickets cost €20 for adults, €11 for children (up to 16 years old), and free for babies.
Towns and Villages Surrounding the Lake
Along the shore of Lake Maggiore are towns and villages waiting to be respectfully explored. There's Stresa, the town closest to the Borromean Islands and once home to Ernest Hemingway in 1918; Locarno, a Renaissance-town which edges into the Swiss border north of the lake; and Verbania, the lake's largest town, to name a few. These are easily accessible boat, with schedules dotted around the ports on the lakes.
Santa Caterina del Sasso
A monastery dating back to the 13th century, Santa Caterina del Sasso clings to overhanging rocks on the eastside of Lake Maggiore. The small courtyards dotted throughout are perfect havens of serenity. Climb the steps to reach spectacular views from the top.
Although infrequent, there are ferries from Stresa to the town. Otherwise, you can drive there and stop as part of your Lake Maggiore adventure.
Rocca di Angera
Towards the southern tip of the lake is Rocca di Angera, an imposing medieval castle with gardens and frescos throughout. Dating back to the 13th-century, the castle looms over the small town of Angera close by. Climb the tower for breathtaking views over the lake. There's also a doll museum too if you're keen.
Tickets start from €13 for adults and €8.50 for children.
Where to eat and drink
Sophisticated lakeside terraces provide stunning views over the mountains at sunrise and sunset Yes, you are a captive audience in some towns and villages, but eating out doesn't have to be a costly experience. Find the small cafes and independent pizza and pasta joints (trattorias) that look like you're stepping into someone's home, and you can eat reasonably well for less.
In terms of our recommendations below, as you can imagine, dining options may not be as accessible as they would be in a city. You really are governed by the boats and ferries that drift along the lake. If you happen to be in and around the area, Lake Maggiore is yours to explore.
Breakfasts in Italy consist of a strong espresso and a pastry; you can find good spots everywhere.
Il Molo in Ranco is a casual cafe by the waterfront. With picturesque views ver the lake, it's the perfect start to the day.
Caffe dell Arte in Locarno is a pretty cafe in the middle of the town's old town with a light menu.
Markets, are a way of life in Italy. No place is this more evident than the small towns and villages that serve the locals picking up the fresh produce for their daily meals. Wander round, enjoying captivating views of the lake as you do, then make a picnic hamper and sit in one of the many gardens or promenades close by. Personal favourites include Intra and Porto Valtravaglia.
Ristorante Belvedere, on Isola Pescatori, is perfect for those looking for dinner and a view. There is travel stereotype that impeccable views come with the sacrifice of good food, but this is far from the case at Ristorante Belvedere. In the dining room that almost hangs over the lake, tuck into melt-in-your-mouth steak in front of floor-to-ceiling windows and be in awe of the views. In the summer, the sun will set over the mountains making it for a postcard picture; while in the autumn, you could be in for a colossal thunderstorm with a spectacular lightning performance in front of you. It's very special.
La Pescheria, also on Isola Pescatori, is a romantic pizza joint with a large terrace overlooking the mountains. Friendly staff, wonderful service and even better food - inexpensive too.
Taverna del Pittore on the southern tip of the lake in the small town of Arona is possibly the lake's most romantic restaurant. Its terrace overlooks the Rocca di Angera on the opposite side of the lake which lights up magnificently.
Osteria Chiara in Switzerland's Locarno is a hidden grotto serving wonderful homemade pasta.
For the adults
Grand Hotel Des Iles Borromee is synonymous with Ernest Hemingway who would regularly stay in the hotel in 1918, drinking martinis and writing. Pricey, but a step back into history and an experience.
La Bottiglieria del Castello in Verbena is a pretty wine bar in Piazza Castello.
Osteria San'Angolo in Pallanza is a gorgeous wine bar with a terrace decked in flowers and greenery. It has pretty surroundings too, nearby Piazza San Leonardo and colourful buildings.
Tipping isn't required, but you can add an extra euro to your bill if the service was particularly good.
Be careful when hiking between towns; the towns themselves are safe, but the roads are narrow and wind around bends. Due to where the lake is positioned geographically, in shoulder season, the weather can be unbelievably temperamental - it can turn from sun to violent storms in minutes.
Two Passports Top Tip: Add Lake Maggiore onto Milan!
Visit Lake Maggiore as part of your trip to Milan. If you're confident, fly into Milan Malpensa (MXP) and get the train from the airport to Stresa or Arona (or tag Lake Maggiore onto the end of the adventure).
When to Go
Low Season: November to February
Very cold and inconsistent weather. It gets dark early and boats are infrequent. Tourist attractions remain closed and businesses will shut over winter, or if weather is particularly bad.
Shoulder Season: March to April, September to October
Outrageous differences in weather day-to-day. Storms are fairly frequent, making transport links and businesses close. However, the sun also makes appearances and the temperature can get as high as 22 degrees celsius.
High Season: May to August
Extremely busy, especially around the major towns and Borromean Islands. Can be short bursts of rain but businesses will remain open. Hotels are busy and expensive, so book well in advance.
How to Get There
Milan Malpensa (MXP)
Lake Maggiore doesn't have an airport - the closest is Milan Malpensa, 40km west of Milan. You can fly directly from east coast destinations in the US, Japan and SE Asia, as wells most of Europe and Northern Africa. To get there by train, you have two options:
If you're not confident travelling abroad, get a direct train to Milan and then travel from Milan Centrale or Garibaldi stations to Arona, Stresa or other towns on Lake Maggiore - this is approx 2.5 hours and costs €20.
If you are confident, then you can save time and money and get a train to Busto Arsizio and change to the above towns - this will take you 75 minutes and cost €10.
Travelling by train
There are many train stations surrounding Lake Maggiore that offer direct links to the corresponding towns, as well as Milan. Trains are inexpensive, quick and a good alternative to travelling by boat if the novelty of ferries wear off.
Travelling around Lake Maggiore
The transport options around the lake primarily involve ferries, water taxis, buses and trains. For transport around the lake, check the schedules at the ports - there are always staff to help too.
However, the relaxed culture doesn't make for punctual transport, so be wary. And we can't stress enough, if the weather is bad, boats and ferries stop running; if you are on an island you will be stranded and may have to book into a hotel at late notice.
Buses and trains are also temperamental with their schedule too. The Citymapper App is available in the area, so check the schedule and plan your trip.