The Beautiful Borromean Islands of Lake Maggiore, Italy

Written by Lana Van Cleave

February 10, 2023
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Lake Maggiore in Northern Italy’s Lake District is as stunning as the better-known Lake Como. Explore the three enchanting Borromean Islands of Lake Maggiore.

The crystal blue water with mountains rising in the background took my breath away. My husband and I quickly stepped into the awaiting water taxi from the shore at Stresa. Lake Maggiore in the Lake District in Northern Italy was as stunning as the better-known Lake Como, even on this somewhat hazy fall day. The boat with our private guide was gliding across the calm waters to take us to explore the Borromean Islands. Visitors may flock to Lake Como hoping to mingle with or catch a glimpse of the rich and famous. However, Lake Maggiore boasts the enchanting Isola Bella and Isola Madre—two islands with exquisite villas and lush gardens—and Isola Superiore, an island with a fishing village frozen in time.

Isola Madre of the Borromean Islands

These islands belong to the Borromeo family. They were a very prominent banking and merchant family in Milan. In the 16th century, the family began purchasing the islands on Lake Maggiore. Before their purchase, the islands held a few houses, small churches, and olive trees on nothing but rock. However, the Borromeo family envisioned much more. They labored over the next several hundred years, and the islands became home to incomparable houses and gardens. Our first stop was Isola Madre.

Natural Gardens of Isola Madre

After disembarking at Isola Madre—the Mother Island—our guide led us on an idyllic pathway through the spacious gardens. Isola Madre, the largest of the three islands, was the first to be transformed by the family. To support construction of the home and the planting of hundreds of species of plants, dirt was transported to the island. It is said that Count Vitaliano IX Borromeo spent 50 years importing plants from all over the world.

Borromean Islands Garden Pathway.

Strolling the garden path on Isola Madre. Photo by Lana Van Cleave

We continued the pathway up numerous stairs underneath an iron pergola that overflows with fragrant wisteria blooms in the springtime. The English-style botanical garden is a magical park filled with magnolia, rhododendrons, and camellias—a virtual paradise of rare and extraordinary plants. Not only did the foliage amaze us, but so did the birds and peacocks wandering about, totally undisturbed by all the visitors.

Borromean Islands Pergola on Isola Madre.

The pergola on Isola Madre. Photo by Lana Van Cleave

The Villa on Isola Madre

As the villa came into view, our eyes beheld a large cypress. This ancient tree was brought to the property in a bag of seeds in 1862 from the Himalayas. Unfortunately, it sustained critical damage in 2006. However, the family has protected this long-standing icon with assistance from botanists, engineers, and technicians.

Isola Madre Villa.

The grand old cypress on Isola Madre. Photo by Lana Van Cleave

Inside the palace, elegant family furnishings from their many properties decorate the rooms. Paintings and tapestries adorn the walls, while Murano chandeliers provide soft lighting. The charming sunny Venetian Lounge, with its domed ceiling and walls—painted to resemble a pergola— caught my eye.

Venetian Lounge on Isola Madre.

The Venetian Lounge on Isola Madre. Photo by Lana Van Cleave

One of the most fascinating rooms was the Marionette Theatre. The collection includes not only the intricately painted stage sets but the scripts, design concepts, musical scores, and extraordinarily life-like marionettes, as well as the devices used to create special effects such as fog and fire. One can only imagine the many visitors entertained by these puppets.

Marionette Theatre.

The Marionette Theatre on Isola Madre. Photo by Lana Van Cleave

Isola Superiore of the Borromean Islands

We took a quick boat ride to the Borromean Island of Isola Superiore or Isola dei Pescatori (Island of Fishermen) for lunch. This enchanting, frozen-in-time island is the smallest of the three islands. The village—home to less than 100 residents—has narrow cobbled alleys with residences perched over the few shops and restaurants.

The water taxi docked at the shoreline, and we wandered the village for a while before we chose a restaurant overlooking the water—as most everything does on this island. Finally, with a lunch of pizza and a glass of prosecco providing needed sustenance, we were ready to take the water taxi to our last island visit—Isola Bella.

Borromean Islands Fishermen Village.

Fishing Village on Isola Superiore. Photo by Lana Van Cleave

Isola Bella of the Borromean Islands

Our final stop was Isola Bella, home to the palace, gardens, and more breathtaking vistas.

The Palace on Isola Bella

As the water taxi pulled up to the concrete ramp, our jaws dropped at the sight of the four-story Baroque-style palace. This island villa and formal gardens took four hundred years to complete, and the result is exquisite.

Borromean Islands Palace on Isola Bella.

The Palace on Isola Bella. Photo by Lana Van Cleave

Our guide led us through the villa much as the family would have shown guests years before—a tour meant to impress guests with their prized works of art. We began in small rooms with walls so covered in paintings that we barely saw the wall itself. Then we moved to larger rooms with even more sizeable pieces. In addition, we passed through the hall of 16th-century Flemish tapestries—gorgeous, richly woven silk and wool threads creating painting-like works of art with borders entwined in silver and gold threads.

Borromean Islands Hall of Tapestries.

The Hall of Tapestries on Isola Bella. Photo by Lana Van Cleave

The reception room was spellbinding. The opulent dome hovering over the ornate circular walls would most assuredly have impressed their important guests.

Isola Bella Reception Room.

The Reception Hall on Isola Bella. Photo by Lana Van Cleave

Our feet nearly began to dance as we strolled through the splendid ballroom. The columns provided a stately appearance, yet the cool hues added an intimate warmth to the room.

The ballroom on Isola Bella. Photo by Lana Van Cleave

The ballroom on Isola Bella. Photo by Lana Van Cleave

The Grotto on Isola Bella

The six ground-floor apartments of the Grotto were a fascinating surprise. With windows facing the lake, it provided an escape from the summer heat. Pebbles, lava, and small pieces of marble cover all the walls, floors, and ceilings. The same material is used to create the nymphs, mermaids, and dolphins embellishing the walls. The magnificent third grotto room showcases a statue of Venus sleeping created by Giovanni Batista Monti. This realistic sculpture was quite scandalous then, and the family almost disposed of it. But the figure suits the room perfectly, as one could easily see taking a nap in these cool rooms with a fresh breeze coming off the sea.

Borromean Islands Grotto.

The Grotto on Isola Bella. Photo by Lana Van Cleave

The Formal Gardens on Isola Bella

The Grotto opened into the formal gardens of Isola Bella. The property is surrounded by differing colors and fragrances every season—roses, azaleas, and tulips, to name a few. Ten terraces of formal gardens adorn the end of the island and can be admired from the lake.

Borromean Islands Formal Gardens on Isola Bella

The formal gardens on Isola Bella. Photo Lana Van Cleave

The most prominent statute at the top terrace is the unicorn, the symbol of the Borromeo family. It was apparent that the family took great pride in providing guests with spectacular views of Lake Maggiore while they sipped a glass of prosecco on the patio in the gardens.

Borromean Islands Patio View from Isola Bella.

Patio View from Isola Bella. Photo by Lana Van Cleave

When You Visit Italy’s Borromean Islands

As our water taxi pulled away from the Borromean Islands, we glanced back again at these magical island paradises. Touring these islands, which painstakingly took hundreds of years to complete, creates an immense appreciation for the family that conceived, created, constructed, and continues to conserve them.

Borromean Islands Tiered Gardens on Isola Bella.

The tiered gardens on Isola Bella, Lake Maggiore. Photo by Lana Van Cleave

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Built to Impress

The family built these palaces and gardens to impress—and they are still doing so today for anyone fortunate enough to wander to the beautiful Borromean Islands of Lake Maggiore. Let Wander With Wonder be your guide when planning a trip to Italy or elsewhere in Europe.

Lake Maggiore in Northern Italy's Lake District is as stunning as the better-known Lake Como. Explore the three enchanting Borromean Islands of Lake Maggiore: Isola Bella and Isola Madre—two islands with exquisite villas and lush gardens—and Isola Superiore, an island with a fishing village frozen in time.

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The Beautiful Borromean Islands of Lake Maggiore, Italy

Written by Lana Van Cleave

Lana Van Cleave is a retired CPA, having survived 43 tax seasons. She is now enjoying travel and writing in her retirement encore career. Her trips include glamping in the RV to indulging in luxury hotels; hiking in National Parks to cruising on a catamaran. She has traveled in the United States, Italy and other foreign countries. She is a member of the ITWPA and TravMedia. Follow her online at www.createsomedaytoday.com and on Instagram @lanavancleave.

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