I’ve visited a lot of rich people’s gardens in Italy.
And why wouldn’t I? They’re beautiful, abundant, easy to visit, a feast for the senses.
I find them pleasant.
I don’t love visiting old palaces, but the gardens attached to them, now that has my name all over it. It might seem like a strange way to spend time and money if you’re visiting from abroad, but strolling through the gardens of Italy is a beautiful way to spend the day. And the Isola Borromee is prime garden-strolling.
What They Are
The Borromean Islands are three islands on Lago Maggiore, a lake that runs from northern Lombardy through Piedmont and into Switzerland. Often overlooked for better publicized Como or bigger Garda, Lago Maggiore is roughly 90 minutes from Milan by car and even less from Switzerland. Lago Maggiore’s star attraction is without a doubt the Borromean Islands.
Located in the most beautiful angle of the lake, the western branch near Stresa, the islands house two magnificent privately-owned palaces and accompanying gardens and they’re well worth the visit.
The islands get their name from the Borromeo family, who began buying them one by one after they moved to the lake from Miniato in Florence in the ‘500s. Now, roughly seven centuries later, the islands’ rich gardens and historical legacy are the perfect getaway for travelers looking to live like kings for a day.
Beyond these two islands is tiny Isola Superiore, known as Isola Pescatori after the fishermen who lived and worked on the island. It’s the only island not owned by the Borromeo family and the only island inhabited year-round. Packed with restaurants, it runs on tourist dollars and isn’t so worth a visit, but it does make for a perfect lunch spot.
Today the Borromeo family still owns and controls the islands and, in fact, much of the gulf and its major sites, including Parco Pallavicino in Stresa, the Rocca di Angera on the banks, the hotels on Isola Bella and even the road (called Borromeo street, naturally) that ascends from Stresa to Mottarone nearly 5,000 feet above sea level.
How to Get There
Though you can arrive by ferry from various points on the lake, from land the easiest destination is Stresa. Type in Stresa in your GPS and you’re good to go, but in general from Milan and the surrounding areas you’ll take the autostrada toward Gravellona Toce, exit at Carpugnino and follow indications for Stresa.
By train you’ll take the Milano-Sempione line and get off at the Stresa stop. It’s about a 15-minute walk from the station to the port.
Regular ferries link all three islands. The public ferry runs every half an hour and costs 16.90 euro for a free navigation ticket among the islands. During high season you’ll definitely want to either buy your tickets in advance or show up with considerable time in advance of when you hope to depart, BUT, the website also says “If you embark from a port without a ticket office service on land, you can buy your ticket on board whitout [sic] any additional cost.” SO, if you’re really cutting it close, just board the ferry! (Note: I don’t actually recommend this, especially if you don’t speak Italian).
That said, there are also private boats that ferry people across the lake to the islands as well for a very similar price to the public ferry. They run about every 20 minutes.
Suggested itineraries bring you to Isola Bella and Madre, many with a conveniently-timed stop at Isola Pescatori just in time for lunch. We ultimately didn’t stop to eat at this island because of time constraints, but if you have the time I don’t see why you wouldn’t stop to explore. The additional price to add Isola Pescatore is negligible.
You’ll also need to buy admission tickets to visit the palaces and gardens. All tickets to the islands you can buy ahead of time at well-made Isole Borromee website, allowing you to skip the line. Tickets for Isola Bella and Isola Madre cost 21 euro together, but note that this does not include the ferry to get there.
What to Know Before You Go
Besides the general itinerary and ferry run-down for the day, there are only a few small things to note. Namely, that the islands are not stroller friendly and not disability friendly. The website says that it’s due to the geographical make-up of the site. That’s true, wheelchair access is all but impossible, but for any type of physical disability, keep in mind there are stairs, hills and gravel paths. On Isola Bella there’s only one path to follow with no seating and the only available exit is at the end of that marked path, so plan accordingly.
We were able to push our stroller around on Isola Madre, though there were plenty of steps to carry it up and down, but Isola Bella doesn’t even allow strollers into the gardens and even some restaurants on the outside of the palace require you to park the stroller outside.
If we did it again we would have made sure to buy tickets with the public ferry, which has an upper and lower deck, rather than the private speed boats. We had to fold up the stroller and crawl down into the gut of the speed boat, which wasn’t so easy with a baby.
For everyone else, picnics are not allowed on the islands, but there are plenty of cafés and places where you can eat.
Finally, if you come from June through September, expect swelling crowds. We came an extraordinarily hot day in late September and it was manageable but crowded. I can’t imagine enjoying it as much with larger crowds.
The Isole Borromee are a small bourgeoise angle of northern Italy. Run by one family, the price is what it is and you have to digest the fact that you’re paying into that. I’ve complained a lot about paying dead rich people to see their palaces, but here the treat are the gardens. Botanical wonders, a tour through these island gardens is like stepping into a nature retreat. With beautiful views, beautiful surroundings and, of course, good company, a day among the Isole Borromee can hardly be beat.