Along the northern border of Italy lies one of the country’s most beautiful and scenic areas: Lake Maggiore. This enormous lake is one of the largest and the longest in Italy. Just beyond the lake, the mountains give rise in the distance, making this expansive area a true respite of peace amidst some of Mother Nature’s finest work. Whether you plan to stay for a day or a week, Lake Maggiore will capture your heart and speak to your soul.
FESTIVAL AND EVENTS IN LAKE MAGGIORE
During the month of May, Enolago takes place in a town on the southeastern bank of Lake Maggiore called Angera. The event was established in the early twenty-first century and brings together wine producers from across the region. Those visiting in May should not miss this event as it is often accompanied by fabulous local wine tastings.
During the summer, Stresa comes alive with a number of different celebrations of music. In July, jazz bands from around the world descend on the area to play and entertain. Toward the end of the summer months, the Stresa Festival continues with a celebration of classical music played by renowned orchestras. Many of these musical celebrations and concerts exude a magical quality when they take place lakeside by the light of the moon.
Another popular event in the Lake Maggiore town of Angera is the Festa dell’uva, or Grape Festival, in September. This event has historical roots that trace all the way back to the fifteenth century when the grape harvest often ended with celebrations of feasts and dancing. Today it kicks off with a colorful and lively parade that is set to joyous music.
Most months in the year, the southwestern Lake Maggiore town of Arona is filled with interesting craft and food finds via the market. Vendors here typically sell everything from handmade crafts to fresh produce to antique trinkets. During the Christmas holidays, the market takes on a particularly enchanting atmosphere and is a fantastic place to find a special holiday gift.
Like in other parts of Italy, each of the towns along the lake also celebrates the feast day of their particular patron saint. The events themselves can vary from town to town, but they typically feature processions, mass, and, in some cases, fireworks. One example is the town of Stresa that celebrates the Feast of St. Ambrose each year on December 7. Typically, the day begins with an outdoor market in the center of town where local goods can be purchased. The evening concludes with a bonfire on the lake shore and a traditional dinner.
Isola Bella is perhaps the most toured of the three Borromean Islands. Sixteenth century Carlo III Borromeo named it after his wife, Isabella, and built a palace here that is dwarfed only by the stunning gardens he created. The gardens are anything but average as they were established on the island when there was a decided lack of greenery. The flourishing gardens visitors see there today are said to all have come from a special soil that was transported to the island to make the land more fertile. Do not miss this gorgeous collection of terraces and gardens filled with water fountains, fragrant plants, flowers, statues, and even white peacocks, all of which overlook the beautiful waters of Lake Maggiore.
Another of the Borromean Islands, Isola Madre, is famous for a fabulous botanical garden whose blooms are simply stunning next to the sparkling lake. The garden is beautiful year-round but is in full bloom primarily from March to October. Of particular interest to guests are the palm trees, cacti, camellias, rhododendrons, and azaleas. The gardens offer amazing views and are an ideal way to spend an afternoon on the lake.
Although it is the smallest of all the Borromean islands, do not miss a visit to Isola dei Pescatori. This island is known for its fishing and is extremely small in size, but its charming atmosphere is unmatched. Isola dei Pescatori is a natural beauty and one of the understated jewels of the Borromean islands.
But Lake Maggiore is not only islands. There are also countless charming villages and historic areas worthy of a visit. Among these, the hamlet of Arcumeggia should be mentioned. Located almost 2,000 feet above sea level, this scenic town is an open-air museum of sorts. In the mid-1950s, the walls of the town’s buildings were offered up to contemporary artists who created remarkable murals and frescoes over a period of nearly twenty years. Head to Arcumeggia to admire the unique art then enjoy a nice hike along the network of local paths through the valley, for which Arcumeggia serves as a starting point.
Another town offering authentic experiences is Castelveccana. The area is well-known for Parco di Caldè, a park housing historic furnaces, which attest to a former industrial economy and ancient artisans. Today the furnaces are in ruins, though local artists have taken to decorating the remaining structure with street art. Surrounded by the tranquil scenery of the lake, near the furnaces travelers will also find a peaceful beach area.
Travelers who wish to spend a peaceful afternoon hiking should visit the Hermitage of Santa Caterina del Sasso, which can be reached via a series of steps from the lake below or from a group of buildings above the complex. According to legend, the first building of the complex was constructed following the shipwreck of merchant Alberto Besozzi, who attributed his survival to Saint Catherine and commissioned a small church on the site in her honor. Today the complex consists of the main church, the southern convent, and the small convent, all perched on a cliff overlooking the shores of Lake Maggiore.
After you visit the beautiful Borromean gardens on Isola Bella, be sure to venture inside to the majestic palace that Count Carlo built in his wife’s honor. In addition to the breathtaking grounds, the palace itself is stunning, with elegant and ornately decorated ballrooms and guestrooms, and fantastic period paintings. The palace is as exquisite as it is historical, with documented visits from world figures, such as Napoleon.
As with Isola Bella, when you are finished visiting the gardens of Isola Madre, do not leave the island without spending time at the sixteenth century Borromeo Palace. The interior of the palace is rich with period paintings, vintage furniture, and lavish curtains and tapestries, but one of the most unique features of the palace is an elaborately decorated and stocked antique puppet theater.
In addition to the palaces on the Borromean Islands, the Lake Maggiore area is also home to several fascinating museums. In Laveno-Mombello, for instance, travelers will find the International Museum of Ceramic Design. Founded in 1971 and housed in a sixteenth century palazzo, the museum is home to an impressive collection of ceramic art from Laveno and other areas of Lombardy. The earliest pieces date back to the middle of the nineteenth century and everything from intricately decorated vases to plates and Art Nouveau pieces can be admired here. The works of several modern designers are featured as well, including Giò Ponti.
Another museum worth a visit is the Landscape Museum in Pallanza, a hamlet of Verbania. Dedicated to the unique scenery of Lake Maggiore, the museum features fifteenth and sixteenth century frescoes and fifteenth to twentieth century paintings that depict the area’s dramatic panoramas. This is a great place to admire local art, as the majority of the works were painted by artists from Piedmont or Lombardy. In addition, the museum also houses a small archeological section and a few sculptures.
Other one-of-a-kind museums in the area include the Hat Museum in Ghiffa, the Umbrella and Parasol Museum in Gignese, the Doll and Toy Museum at Rocca d’Angera, and the Ogliari Transportation Museum in Vizzola Ticino, which displays more than 25,000 examples of historic transport vehicles including trams, locomotives, and more.
During a trip to Lake Maggiore, it would be a shame to not visit any of the area’s remarkable villas. One essential stop is Villa Taranto, located in Verbania. The Villa itself dates back to the nineteenth century and offers stunning views of the lake, yet the real claim to fame here are the botanical gardens, which are famous around the world and considered to be some of the most beautiful in Italy. Spanning forty acres and featuring nearly five miles of footpaths, the gardens are arranged in an English style and feature a wide variety of plants and flowers including azaleas, maples, tulips, tropical plants, hydrangeas, and much more.
Decorated with a plethora of fountains, statues, ponds, waterfalls, and terraces, the gardens are best viewed from spring to autumn when the flowers are in bloom. There are special events held throughout the year including a Tulip Week in April.
Villa Giulia, located in Pallanza, is another picturesque villa with remarkable gardens. Dating back to the nineteenth century, the villa was built by Bernardino Branca, who invented the famous Fernet-Branca liqueur, one of Italy’s best-known digestifs. A bit understated compared to other villas in the area, Villa Giulia’s gardens are the perfect place to enjoy a moment of tranquility after a day of sightseeing.
A small village located south of Stresa, Belgirate is home to several grand nineteenth century villas. The beautiful and historic interiors of the villas are complemented by their marvelous gardens, which are characteristic of the Lake Maggiore area. Among these villas, Villa Cairoli is one of the more famous, not only for its stunning appearance, but also for the illustrious figures that have visited the villa, such as Giuseppe Garibaldi. Also located in Belgirate, Villa Principessa Matilde hosted Napoleon’s niece, while Villa Fontana served as a gathering point for artists and writers from all over Europe.
The town of Baveno is home to several stunning villas as well, including Villa Barberis, which is revered for its large gardens and private lake access. Villa Fedora, surrounded by a lovely park, was constructed in the mid-nineteenth century and today serves as the headquarters of the province of Verbano-Cusio-Ossola’s Chamber of Commerce. Perhaps the most unique is Villa Henfrey-Branca, a building completed in 1872 that was designed in the style of an English castle.
Finally, there are several churches spread throughout the territory that are certainly worthy of a visit as well. A few examples include the cliffside Church of San Gottardo in Carmine Superiore, the Baroque Church of Santa Maria Assunta in Ghemme, the Church of Santa Maria Assunta in the village of Staffa, and the Church of Saints Gervasio and Protasio in Domodossola. Several sanctuaries are located in the area as well, such as the Sanctuary of the Madonna del Boden in Ornavasso and the Sanctuary of the Madonna di Re in Val Vigezzo, both of which attract pilgrims throughout the year. For unbeatable views of Lake Maggiore, do not miss the Sacro Monte complexes located in Orta San Giulio, Ghiffa, and Domodossola, which are part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Another popular place of respite in the Lake Maggiore area is Parco Villa Pallavicino. The park features a wide variety of different flowers, plants, shrubs, and palms, including azaleas, roses, and magnolias. It is considered to be a zoo as it is home to animals such as deer, peacocks, kangaroos, ducks, and pheasants. Along with the gardens and zoo, you should not miss the gorgeous villa that overlooks the lake. This is a fantastic place for the whole family to relax and unwind as well as for the kids to marvel at all the animals that roam about the area.
Treat the family to a one-of-a-kind view of Lake Maggiore via the funicular. This cable car system has several lines operating around the lake, with one of the favorites stretching from Stresa to the heights of Mottarone. The lake is definitely a sight to see from the ground level, but at more than four thousand feet in the air, it is nothing less than breathtaking.
On the western side of Lake Maggiore in Baveno is the Lago Maggiore Aquadventure Park. Kids will simply love this area as it combines the beautiful scenery of the lake with thrilling challenges such as rock climbing, cable slides, bridges and hanging walkways. In addition, guests usually have access to a mountain bike track, beach volleyball court, and ping pong table. Depending on the time of year, visitors may also have access to swimming pools. On average, the park is open some days in late spring as well as for most of the summer. The kids will love testing their limits among the scenic background of Lake Maggiore, and parents will love that their kids are having so much fun while expending some energy.
UNIQUE EXPERIENCES IN LAKE MAGGIORE
With Lake Maggiore being the longest lake in Italy, it is impossible to see it in its entirety with just one look. There are a number of charming Italian towns that dot the eastern, southern, and western shores of the lake, each with their own traditions and treasures. To see only one or two towns of this picturesque lake and its surroundings would simply be a shame.
One of the most unique ways to enjoy all of Lake Maggiore is to explore the lake by boat over a period of several days. Stop in various towns to acclimate to the local culture, sample the cuisine, and explore the area.
The perfect place to unwind amid phenomenal panoramas of lakeside towns, gentle hills, and rugged Alpine peaks, Northern Italy’s Lake Maggiore is a timeless destination full of wonder. Discover the bountiful gardens, enjoy the fascinating wildlife, explore the islands and villas and be prepared to let Lake Maggiore live on in your memory for a lifetime.