Three beautiful Borromean islands and all different

95 Reviews

Star Travel Rating


Review type

Things to do


Date of travel

May, 2023

Product name

The Borromean Islands of Lake Maggiore

Product country


Product city

Near Stresa

Travelled with


Reasons for trip


Glimpses of islands in Lake Maggiore were a lasting visual memory of a rail journey to Venice that we made in 2017 and so part of my reason for going on the HF Walking Lake Maggiore holiday was to see the Borromean Islands, which are the islands I thought I saw as we went through Stresa en route to Milan. Well, I had a closer view of them on our latest holiday, but only landed on and explored one of them! I’ll go into more detail about why and perhaps my explanation and the information I gathered from others about each island will give anyone planning a visit help in deciding whether to attempt to tour all three or concentrate on one or two. Our main problem was that we only had one free day to do things other than the HF walks. Those who have read my review of the HF holiday might remember that I did, in fact, have an extra `free` day as I chose not to do one of the walks. That day was Tuesday and our free day was on Wednesday so on Tuesday I didn’t know how long it was going to take to visit the botanical gardens my husband was keen to see on Wednesday; had I realised I would have visited Isola Bella on my own on Tuesday,

There are three main Borromean Islands that can be visited – Isola Bella, Isola Pescatori (also known as Isola Superiore) and Isola Madre. They have been owned by the wealthy Borromeo family since the sixteenth century. They can be reached by using the spacious public service ferries with an upper deck for good views; these run almost every 30 minutes to, and between, the islands. The tickets for the public service ferry that visits the Borromean Islands can be bought at the ticket offices at ferry terminals – in Stresa, Baveno, Pallanza, Giardini di Villa Taranto and Intra. Stresa Ferries operate these large ferries between 08.00 and 20.00 in the Borromean Bay and there is a hop-on-hop-off `rover ticket` or other options for those not intending to land on all, or indeed, any of the islands. The other option is to use The Borromean Islands Public Water Transport Service, Stresa which is actually a consortium of private boats. These are motorboats with a maximum capacity of 39 passengers and in fine weather are partially open although they can be closed in wet weather. Tickets for the motorboats can be bought online or at ticket booths on Piazza Marconi near the main ferry terminal in Stresa.

Isola Bella has been described as looking like a ‘gigantic ship rising out of the water` and is the island most people recognise and the one most people visit; it is also the closest one to Stresa, where we were staying. It originally got its name from Isabella D’Adda, the wife of Carlo III who began the transformation of the original fishing village there. Isola Isabella was a bit of a mouthful so was shortened to Isola Bella, which also happens to mean ‘beautiful isle’. It wasn’t my first choice for a visit for the simple reason everyone else goes there and it can become very crowded. Although it is well known for its Baroque palace filled with ornate antiques and portraits I didn’t really want to see inside the palazzo, but I would have been happy to see the shell and pebble decorated grotto in the basement and would have liked to view the iconic terraces. The annoying thing is that one has to pay to see both the palace and the gardens – it’s not possible to buy a ticket for the garden alone. There are apparently rare and exotic plants in the garden but the view one gets from the lake, in photos and on television garden programmes are of the Italianate garden with ten terraces and a multitude of statues. Basically, I’ve seen so much about it in the past I felt as if I’d been there already. Opening times in 2023 are 10.00 to 17.30 from 16 March to 30 September but check locally as sometimes Isola Bella is closed for short periods (in 2023 the palace and gardens on Isola Bella were closed for 4 days in May). In October the last entry is 17.00 and from 30 October to 5 November last entry is 16.30; then they are closed for the winter.

2023 ENTRANCE COSTS for adults are 20 Euros for Isola Bella and 17 Euros for Isola Madre although a joint ticket can be bought for 30 Euros; tickets for children aged between 6 and 15 are 11 Euros and 10 Euros respectively. But here’s the annoying thing – Royal Horticultural Society members can visit these islands free of charge as they are associate gardens and had we known before we left home we’d have taken our RHS cards away with us and seen both gardens for nothing and not worried that we were wasting money if we’d rushed round Isola Bella in less than an hour.

Our local guide had told us that although Isola Pescatori is free to visit it’s basically just an attractive old fishing village with many expensive fish restaurants, a small fishing museum and tourist gift shops: the permanent population is now extremely small. She rated Isola Madre highly and as it has an impressive collection of rare and unusual plants it was the one my husband really wanted to see. I review Isola Madre separately as we spent a long time there so I have many photos of it and can only post five per review.

Most of the rest of our group visited Isola Bella and reported back that it was indeed crowded. We’d bumped into some of our group on Isola Madre but they didn’t stay there as long as we did so I think it’s keen gardeners who enjoy it most. Several had also been to Isola Pescatori and enjoyed a light lunch there. The best advice I can give anyone thinking of visiting any of the Borromean Islands is to go early – before the day trippers arrive in Stresa by coach – or leave it until later in the afternoon by which time they’ll have left. For anyone other than fanatical plant lovers it would be possible to visit all three islands in a day by catching one of the first boats. I enjoyed the ferry trip to view all three islands and to take photos of them from the boat even though I only set foot on one.


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