No, this is not the Isola Bella from Sicily located in Taormina and as seen in films like White Lotus. This is the Northern Isola Bella located on Lago Maggiore. The one with more history, architecture, and luxurious gardens where you can spend countless hours wandering the island. Isola Bella is one of the 4 Borromean Islands located on Lago Maggiore, the second largest Northern Italian Lake. Isola Bella is considered the best island on Lago Maggiore, and with reason. It’s the epitome of opulence, beauty, and luxury. 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.
In this article:
- How to get to Isola Bella, Lago Maggiore?
- History of the Borromean Islands and Isola Bella
- The Borromean Crest
- Shopping on Isola Bella
- Where to eat lunch and dinner on Isola Bella
- Explore il Palazzo Borromeo
- Explore I Giardini, Teatro Massimo and the Greenhouse
- Hotels on Isola Bella, Where to Stay
You need a whole afternoon to explore Isola Bella, so don’t make the mistake of dedicating little time to it. But if you can try and time it perfectly so you finish exploring Isola Bella by 7PM, that is the best time to see Isola Bella. It’s when the last ferry departs the island. It’s when the sun begins to set behind the architectural lavish hotels in Stresa. When the alleys and bars on the lakefront empty of tourism. When the staffs footsteps can be heard echoing through the palace’s halls as they close up. During this time, Isola Bella gives you the sensation of being the owner of this unique and enchanted place. It’s no surprise poets and writers fell in love with Isola Bella.
How to get to Isola Bella?
The adventure begins in Stresa. Getting to the Borromean Island of Isola Bella is easy. Small motorboats dot the shore in Stresa or you can choose to take the larger ferry. 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. Within minutes, your boat brings you to Isola Bella. From the side, you see the 17th century palace and baroque architecture surrounded by immense Italian Lombard gardens.
Now you might be asking yourself…Sveva, isn’t that a Louis Vuitton logo stuck to that boat window? Why yes dear friends, yes it is. Louis Vuitton’s Cruise 2024 collection was held in the Borromean palace and gardens at Isola Bella. Louis Vuitton is known for selecting jaw-dropping backdrops for it’s cruise collections and Isola Bella made the cut. Some boats kept the Louis Vuitton logos on them as a souvenir of the worldwide event that took place on these gorgeous islands. My wedding planner, Roberta, actually organized the lunch following the fashion show for all the models and staff at the Michelin restaurant and hotel Il Piccolo Lago on Lago di Mergozzo, so I have all the exclusive details. Check it out if you’re ever in Mergozzo!
The History of Isola Bella
Originally a rocky fishermen’s village, Isola Bella was the concoction of a group of famous Italian architects that were hired in the 17th century to create a one-of-a-kind masterpiece. The concept was inspired by an imaginary ship. The islands dock represented the prow of the vessel, the palace the bow deck, and the raised garden terrace was the bridge. The construction of Isola Bella lasted more than 40 years.
The Borromean islands are owned by the Italian aristocratic house Borromeo who acquired them in the 16th century. More on their history here. Isola Bella is the most famous of the four and the one with the most to see and do, followed by Isola Pescatori then Madre. 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 located on Isola Bella. If at this moment you’re looking for the word speechless in Italian, it’s senza parole. A day on Isola Bella means spending the afternoon exploring the palazzo, terraced pyramidal gardens home to peacocks, grottos, and expansive estate. Let’s get into what to do and what you can expect to find on Isola Bella in a bit more detail.
The Borromean Islands on Lake Maggiore: History, How to Get There, What to See
Keep Your Eyes Peeled for the Borromean Crest
As you step off the boat, you are immediately engulfed in stalls along the lake selling local items or Made in Italy products. You’ll find products being sold with the official Borromean Islands crest – three linked circles with a point on each represent the ancient partnerships and unions made between the house of Borromeo, Visconti e Sforza who fought to protect the Lago Maggiore territory and governed the land. And now that I told you about the three circle crest, you will see them everywhere, I promise. Keep your eyes peeled.
Shopping on Isola Bella, Lago Maggiore
Unfortunately, like most Italian tourist destinations Isola Bella’s market scene has been overrun with commercial souvenirs that are not tied to Isola Bella’s unique identity. For this reason, I’d suggest you be selective in what you purchase if you truly want to leave with a piece of history from the island itself rather than a generic souvenir. The original souvenirs started off with postcards, silk and cashmere scarves with botanical motifs and Borromean crests inspired by the garden, soaps, and antique books. Each recounts the stories of these noble houses and allowing you to take home a small souvenir of history. However, today, it’s hard to find these souvenirs among the necklaces, fans, aprons, beach cover ups, t-shirts and other souvenir gifts overrunning the streets. Keep your eyes peeled for the Borromean crest if you truly want a one-of-a-kind Isola Bella gift.
Like My Shoes? Buy Them From My Favorite Italian Artisan Shoemaker: Rose’s Roses
Is Lunch and Dinner on Isola Bella possible?
Dinner on Isola Bella…or Pescatori
You’re really only able to eat on Isola Bella for breakfast and lunch. All restaurants and bars are closed for dinner, except for Hotel Delfino (pictured below) and Ristorante Elvezia, leaving the island desolate except for the few locals who live on it.
If you’re looking to enjoy a late dinner, head over to Isola Pescatori next door that has a lot more dinner options open. For instance, pictured above is my wedding rehearsal dinner at Casa Bella on Isola Pescatori. Just note that if you want to eat dinner on Isola Pescatori or Isola Bella, you’ll have to call the restaurant beforehand to come and pick you up from land. The only way to get there is through the restaurant themselves since no public boats run after 7PM. Every restaurant has a private motorboat or water taxi service that will take guests to and from their destinations free of charge.
A Guide to Isola Dei Pescatori, Lago Maggiore
Any meal at Hotel Delfino
Another place where one can enjoy breakfast, lunch and dinner is at the newly restored Hotel & Ristorante Delfino on Isola Bella. Located on Vittorio Emanuele, this lakeside restaurant goes back to the 17th century. Il Delfino is the oldest hotel on Lago Maggiore. Today, the lakeside hotel and restaurant reopened and can seat up to 150 people. More on the hotel section below.
Lunch on Isola Bella at Il Fornello, Bottega & Cucina
If you’re in the mood for a elegant meal outside of the Isola Bella palace, head to Vicolo del Fornello for a gourmet lunch at Il Fornello, Bottega & Cucina. Their menu is made for vegans, celiac and lactose intolerant people. Trust me – it’s worth it.
Lunch at Isola Bella in the Palazzo Borromeo Gardens at Caffeteria della Torre
If you’d rather eat within the palace and garden grounds of Isola Bella’s Palazzo Borromeo e Giardino (or garden), then you can! We spent the early afternoon wandering around the Palazzo Borromeo for an hour or 2 and then stopped at the Giardini café, ‘Caffetteria Della Torre,’ or the Tower Café. The cost is pricey, for Italian standards, but you’re paying the premium of literally eating within the royal gardens with peacocks walking around you.
Explore il Palazzo Borromeo
The palace is 4 stories and is a typical example of Lombard Baroque architecture – Lombard, by the way, is the word for the region of Lombardy. The first floor includes ball rooms, music rooms, the “medal room,” the tapestry hall, and more. The Galleria Berthier has over 130 paintings including pieces from Raphael, Correggio, Titian and Guide Reni. The palace is so beautiful, it was inhabited by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1797 and Mussolini in 1935 – so yea, the palace is worth seeing. The bed that Napoleon slept in with his wife Josephine is still on display in the palace. Apparently he was a very rude guest and left the place in shambles…the Borromean’s were happy his sojourn was only of 2 days. The Palazzo Borromeo was even visited by Princess Diana! Some important decisions were made in these rooms including the treaty of Versailles.
The coolest part, in my opinion, is the 6 underground natural grottos decorated with dark and light colored pebbles and shells in designs reflecting nautical themes. It’s said that workers spent 10 years collecting stones by the lake at Intra and Pallanza and bringing them to Isola Bella to create the grottoes. You’ll even see stones and shells from far away places like Japan.
Explore I Giardini, Teatro Massimo and the Greenhouse
The gardens are to die for. There are 10 terraces that form a truncated pyramid with opulent statues, balustrades, hedges and obelisks. The Teatro Massimo is the most grandiose with obelisks, fountains, statues, and peacocks wandering around the property majestically. At the top of the monument is a unicorn, the heraldic symbol of the Borromeo family. The gardens include an amphitheater and an impressive panoramic view of the mountains surrounding the gulf. Walk around il Giardino dell’Amore, or Garden of Love, and fall in love — if you haven’t already.
The gardens are so varied and rich in exotic plants, you’ll find yourself feeling like you’re walking through different countries, one minute you’ll be in tall Asian like bamboo trees, the next in rich floral gardens, and the next in a field of oranges. Due to the Isole Borromee‘s micro-climate, every summer, 15 specimens of citrus fruits grow including cedars, grapefruits, oranges, lemons, mandarins, bitter oranges and pomeli appear.
An outdoor garden wasn’t enough. Winter gardens began to trend among the elite and aristocratic in the 19th century. Having one was a true symbol of refinement and social prestige. Therefore, no surprise, Isola Bella has it’s own winter garden or greenhouse called Serra Elisa, a glass structure built in 1821. It’s hard to find, but located next to Viale di Ponente. The green house features about 40 varieties of exotic plants and other botanical rarities.
Are there hotels I can sleep at on Isola Bella?
Because it is a very exclusive island with only a few locals and caretakers living on it, hotels are extremely limited on the island. On top of that, there are no supermarkets and there is no way, or it’s very difficult unless you have a private boat docked, to get on or off the island past 7PM. All these reasons combined make hotels and stays on the island limited. However, if you don’t really care about the limitations Hotel & Ristorante Il Delfino, the oldest hotel on Lago Maggiore, has just renovated 2 new suites or apartments where guests can stay. Each has a small kitchenette, 2 bathrooms each and a spectacular view of the Borromean islands.
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