It has the magnificent vintage air of old-fashioned vacations, but it never goes out of style. Lake Maggiore is the second largest in Italy in size (the biggest is Lake Garda) but the largest—and that’s why it’s called maggiore—of the lakes closest to the Alps. Geographically, it straddles two Italian regions, Lombardy and Piedmont, and a small part juts into Switzerland’s Canton Ticino. But the main thing is that since the 19th century it has been one of the top vacation and weekend destinations for wealthy families from big cities, who built some of northern Italy’s most stunning villas on its shores. The secret to Lake Maggiore’s success is its position just under Mount Rosa, a varied landscape, easy accessibility from both Milan and Piedmont, and a climate that allows very distinctive vegetation to thrive. To get an idea, just consider the fact that the two botanical gardens of Verbania and Stresa alone merit a visit, not to mention a peek (even if just “from the outside”) of the grounds of the private villas on the Piedmont side. In spring, the blossoming of azaleas, rhododendrons, camellias, lemons and magnolias rightfully attract plant lovers.
Towns-mountains-islands: in short, this is the winning trio of Lake Maggiore, and all you need are a few recommendations to enjoy all three. Naturally, there is always more to discover, thanks to the lake’s excellent network of ferries.
Stresa is the most famous town. But in addition to the architectural beauty of the historic district, the immense period hotels overlooking the lake and the town’s lively cultural scene (the Settimane Musicali— Musical Weeks—during the summer are famous), its main asset is the varied offer you can enjoy even for just a weekend. Excursions to the mountains, boat rides to the Borromean Islands, a tour of the Alpinia Botanical Garden boasting over a thousand plant species. You’ll have a hard time deciding!
Arona is the lake’s main port and the most populous town. It is on the southern end and has a wealth of historical buildings from different eras: Romanesque, medieval and Baroque. One of the outlying towns, Meina, has a monument worth visiting. This is the so-called Sancarlone, a statue that is 115 feet tall and was crafted from copper sheets in the 17th century in honor of St. Charles Borromeo, who was born here.
Angera boasts the Rocca Borromea, one of the most fascinating and best-preserved castles in Lombardy. Its oldest structures date back to before the 10th century. For a dream come true, organize an Italian-style wedding in one of its halls.
The Borromean Islands: anyone who has seen a postcard of Lake Maggiore is bound to be familiar with their outline. The archipelago is one of the biggest attractions for travelers enticed by the charm of yesteryear—and Isola Bella, Isola Madre and Isola dei Pescatori have plenty of charm. The archipelago is named after the Borromeo family, which acquired the islands in the 14th century and still owns two of them. The noble palaces on the islands, with their rooms filled with antique furniture, paintings and priceless porcelain, and the enchanting gardens are open to visitors and are a must on your list of things to see.