At 69 kilometers long, or 42 miles, Lago Maggiore is the second largest Northern Italian Lake. Dotting the flat water surrounded by dramatic mountains are the fabled Borromean Islands. Many believe there are only 3 Borromean Islands, but that is not the case. Only 3 are accessible to the public, but there are actually 4 Borromean Islands: Isola Bella, Isola Madre, Isola Pescatori, and Isola San Giovanni (the private island). Like all islands in lakes, each Borromean island’s name has a compelling story behind it, which we will get into below. The story of the Italian Borromean Islands on Lake Maggiore have a mystery or romance to guard.
How to get to the Borromean Islands
Getting to the Borromean Islands is easy. Small motorboats dot the shore in Stresa or you can choose to take the larger ferry. Grab a gelato and balance your cioccolato and fior di latte on a cone as you hop on board and take off for the Borromean Islands. I prefer to take the small motorboats for two reasons. The first is that the trip becomes more intimate and quintessentially Italian. The second is that the boats are more frequent, giving you flexibility as to when you want to come and go from the islands. The ferry is slower, bigger, and has a more rigid schedule you need to stick to. Just scamper across a rickety structure, as if walking a plank in a dream, hop aboard and you’ll be on the islands in a matter of minutes. The boats make stops at three of the Borromean Islands on Lake Maggiore – Isola Bella, Isola Pescatori, and Isola Madre.
Don’t forget to buy tickets for all the attractions you want to see online here to avoid cues when there. No need to buy your boat or ferry ticket in advance, those you buy on the spot and they never run out of space. The ferry and boat tickets are about $8.50 one way.
History of the Borromean Islands & Family
The Borromean islands are owned by the Italian aristocratic house Borromeo who acquired them in the 16th century. Hence, the name Borromean Islands or Isole Borromeo. Today, they still own a majority of them. In the 16th century, they began building palazzi, or palaces, and fabulous gardens on them. The Borromeos became one of the most important families of the Milanese aristocratic families, thanks to the eminent figures of the two Archbishops of Milan, Carlo and Federico Borromeo. The former became a Saint as appointed by the Catholic Church. His statue stands tall, like the statue of liberty, in Arona overlooking Lake Maggiore. You can even climb to the top, like the statue of liberty, and take in the view from up there. You will see plenty of portraits, references, and nods to San Carlo throughout all of Lago Maggiore. He was the nephew of Pope Pius IV Medici, an ordained priest and a consecrated bishop.
The cousin of San Carlo, Archbishop Federico Borromeo, didn’t have a less meaningful impact on Italian culture. He was mentioned in one of Italy’s most famous literature pieces I Promessi sposi [The Bethrothed] by Manzoni and left an important cultural legacy to Milan: the Biblioteca e Pinacoteca Ambrosiana. Don’t miss it on your trip to Milan.
Milano, Italy: Places to Visit in 2 days
Today, one of the most recent, and probably more famous members of the Borromeo family is Countess Beatrice Borromeo. She married none other than Count Pierre Casiraghi, the 7th heir in line for Prince of Monaco, son of Princess Caroline of Monaco and Stefano Casiraghi’s. Their first wedding was in Monaco, but their second wedding was on Beatrice’s own soil in Lago Maggiore. They tied the knot on their private, family Borromean island of Isolino di San Giovanni located just steps from Grand Hotel Majestic in Pallanza.
The Borromean Islands
You will be short on time, so my recommendation would be to stick to the big 2: Isola Pescatori and Isola Bella.
1. Isola Pescatori
Visit Isola dei Pescatori
Start your day off on Isola Pescatori, or the fishermen’s village. Although Isola dei Pescatori is part of the Borromean Islands, it’s one of the islands that’s no longer owned by the Borromeo family. It’s actually part of Stresa. Isola dei Pescatori is the smallest of the islands. It only has 2 main roads and has a population of about 25 as of 2018. It’s inhabited by these 25 locals all year round, but the numbers increase in the summer when tourists rent out holiday rentals on the island. The island used to keep itself afloat on its fishing occupation, but has since shifted to tourism as its main economy. Fishing still exists among the locals, but it isn’t the primary source of income. When here you should explore the cobblestone streets, grab lunch by the water, and take in the scenery of Isola Bella across from you.
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2. Isola Bella
A Guide to Isola Bella, Lago Maggiore
Following lunch, take a quick boat over to Isola Bella, and spend the afternoon exploring the palazzo, terraced pyramidal gardens home to peacocks, grottos, and expansive estate. You will spend the majority of your time on this island. Isola Bella is considered the best island on Lago Maggiore, and with reason. This island could not have been more aptly named. Isola Bella translates literally to beautiful island. It was named so in honor of the wife of one of the Borromean’s, Isabella d’Adda. Rising against a picture-postcard backdrop of snowcapped mountains meeting the deep blue lake is what looks like an enchanted castle–the baroque-era Palazzo Borromeo. If at this moment you’re looking for the word speechless in Italian, it’s senza parole.
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3. Isola Madre
Isola Madre was also transformed into a grand, luxurious residence, but a bit more low-key than that of Isola Bella. It’s called Madre, or mother, because it was the first island built and inhabited by the Borromean family. It is the biggest of all the Borromean Islands and mainly consists of exotic gardens. It has rare and original plants from all parts of the world and the palazzo houses furniture from all parts of the Borromeo family.
4. Isola San Giovanni
Lastly, we have Isola San Giovanni. This is the least talked about because it’s the only island not accessible to the public. The closest you can get to it is from Grand Hotel Majestic in Pallanza. The hotel is literally a few feet from the island with impeccable views of it’s architecture. You can even rent a SUP from Grand Hotel Majestic (whether you’re a guest or not) and get closer to the island to see it in all it’s glory. The little island just features a small 16th-century Palazzo Borromeo, which for many years was the residence of the famed orchestra conductor, Arturo Toscanini. You know the guy, there’s no way you don’t! See a clip of his music below for an a-ha! moment. This is where Countess Beatrice Borromeo and Count Pierre Casiraghi of Monaco tied the knot – the second time around.
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