On our first morning in Stresa I suggested we get up early and take a sunrise stroll to the lakefront to catch the sun rising over the surrounding mountains. Several years ago we did a similar sunrise opportunity outside of Charleston, South Carolina and that turned out so well that we decided to try it again.
Unfortunately the sunrise over the mountains doesn't quite equal a sunrise over the Atlantic Ocean. In fact once the sun peaked above the top of a small mountain at the edge of Stresa we barely had time to snap off a few quick pictures and even then the angles we had were not the greatest.
We did however enjoy the quiet stroll down along with lake before anybody was really up and about. And then we were able to go back to our bed and breakfast and have a really great breakfast just as they started.
The Isole Borromee - Isola Bella, Isola Pescatori and Isola Madre - are Stresa's main attraction. They are three small islands that can easily be reached by boat from Stresa. They were named after the House of Borromeo, the family still own part of the islands today.
Isola Bella is the most famous of the islands, but I must admit that it was the one I liked the least. One reason for this was that it was very, very crowded. When you leave the boat, there are many tacky souvenir stalls, and during the two hours we stayed there, more and more people arrived. The atmosphere in this part of the island was very commercial.
On Isola Bella, there is also a palace from the 17th century which was built by Carlo II for his wife Isabella, and this is also how the island got its name. The palace is very elegant and luxurious, and has large gardens as well.
Isola Pescatori is the smallest of the islands and it is very different because it has no palace. It is home to a small former fishing village and has a small harbour, an old church and delightful alleys and cobble-stoned lanes. Although there were many tourists here, too, it did not feel as crowded, and I enjoyed the atmosphere a lot.
Isola Madre is less visited compared to the other islands because it is further away from Stresa. It is the biggest of the islands and it has a palace and a spacious park that is beautiful with its many trees and flowers. The castle is different to the palace on Isola Bella because it is not as luxurious, it rather looks like a real home and you can see a lot of furniture of the period as well as an interesting collection of historical puppets.
I liked Isola Madre very much because it was not so crowded. We visited late in the day and it was very beautiful. I enjoyed seeing the interesting palace and relaxing in the park, before we returned to Stresa in the evening.
You can read more about the islands on this page!
Picture 1: Isola Bella
Picture 2: Isola Madre
Picture 3: Isola Pescatori
Picture 4: The gardens on Isola Bella
Picture 5: A small alley on Isola Pescatori
When we arrived at the shore of the lake, we were fascinated by the wonderful views. Unfortunately it was very cloudy, so the view was not as far as it usually might have been, but it was still amazing to see this large lake surrounded by the mountains. It looks so large, but of course this is still only a small part of the lake!
From the waterfront, you also have a fantastic view of the three Borromean Islands that look like three small gems dropped into the water. Isola Bella is very close, while Isola Pescatori is almost hidden behind it because it is so small. Isola Madre is further away, but it is still possible to recognize its palace in yellow colour.
As I said, I think the views must be much better in sunny weather, when the water is blue and you can see more of the mountains, but even like this it was fantastic and we enjoyed it very much.
Stresa's lakefront is really beautiful. When we arrived after we had walked down from the train station, we were amazed by the beauty of the flowers and the green space. There are some wonderful gardens and it is so nice to walk along the waterfront amidst all the green bushes and trees, and the pretty flowerbeds. It all looks so splendid! There are also a few statues and memorials in the park.
If you walk along the lakefront to the east, you get to Stresa harbour. To the west, there is another small harbour, Carciano. You can take boats to the Borromean Islands from either one.
When you walk along the lake to the west, you cannot miss the huge and opulent Grand Hotel des Iles Borromees. It looks very impressive and splendid, however, it is not famous because of this, but rather because of a famous guest who used to stay there: Ernest Hemingway.
He stayed here for the first time in 1918 after the had been wounded in the war and went to Lago Maggiore to recover. These experiences largely influenced his novel A Farewell to Arms, and the hotel plays a role in that book, too.
Hemingway returned to Stresa quite often and always stayed in the Grand Hotel des Iles Borromees, in room 106 which is now called the "Hemingway Suite".
Stresa's main harbour is a very pretty place in the town centre. We arrived here in the end of our trip to the Isole Borromee, and had a look around before we walked back to the train station. There were only a few small boats, but it looked very picturesque with historic walls surrounding it and some fine and elegant buildings.
The harbour is a pleasant place to sit and have a break, as it is located between the water and the hustle and bustle of the town, with shops and restaurants close by, but still in a quieter area.
Basically, this is a train and ferry round trip to Locarno (a town at the Swiss end of the lake). You take the train from Stresa to Domodossola then swap to the Centovalli train. The Centovalli train takes you on a scenic journey through the 100 valleys which is absolutely stunning!!! There's a bit of time in Locarno and then you have to catch the ferry back down the lake to Stresa. It's a long day out but definitely worth it for the scenery!!! You can buy tickets at the ferry station, the tarin station or at the travel agents opposite the ferry station.
We were “touristed" only once. As we approached the docks where the taxi boats leave for the Borremeo Islands, 7 or 8 men in white naval shirts, black trousers and captain hats were lingering. One hustled us into buying tickets from him, saying his boat was leaving for the island in 5 minutes. So we did, but found out later that these gypsy boat men steal trips from the official boat service to the islands. We ended paying about $40 too much. However, we did get a private trip, antique wooden boat, and direct taxi service to Isola Madre. We then wondered if he was really going to come back for us at the predetermined time….
Isola Madre has a stately villa with beautiful gardens and free roaming peacocks and exotic birds. After two hours wondering what living on the island must have been in the 1700s, we met our gypsy boat (surprise!!!) and went on to Isola Bella, where the Palazzo Borremeo and castle gardens are located. This was probably the most spectacular villa and floral gardens we have ever seen – including Versailles! The Borremeos' were powerful and wealthy, and produced popes, cardinals and bishops of Milan, and even Saint Charles Borremeo. We saw the bed where Napoleon slept when he visited the family, a room containing a marionette theater, and the mosaic table the Borremeos gave Pope Leo XII (politics have not changed). The most amazing part of the villa was the grotto, six rooms of walls, floors, ceilings, arches of hand laid stone work designed to keep villa residents and guests cool over the summer months. The whole island is designated as a historical landmark treasure.
A funivia in nearby Carciano took us up Monte Mottarone via another gondola cable car. The gondola went half-way up the mountain, and then all the passengers transferred onto 2-person chairlifts that gently rocked to the top. Reaching the highest point in the area was scenic, but the trip was a little scary for one of us. On the return trip, chair lift stopped, suspended high above any land, to accommodate some unknown loading or unloading event. Lots of shouting below. Hanging midair up there was not that much fun (for one of us). An Alpine bob sled rollercoaster is being constructed on Monte Mottarone featuring sheer drops, twisty turns and tight corners coming. Thank God, that wasn't open yet!
Hard to beat a combination of a boat trip on the lake in the sunshine, with a mountain backdrop, and arrive on islands containing palaces with stunning gardens. It is not surprising that this is the most popular activity when you stay in Stresa or other towns in this bit of Lake Maggiore.
Isola Bella is peerless. The palace is extraordinary. Get the audio guide which is probably the best 3 euro I spent all week. The gardens are formal, 18th century Italian with all the statues, flowers and trees you need. Albino peacocks strut in the grounds.
Isola Pescatori is a small village with more restaurants than residents - it appeared.
Isola Madre has impressive gardens, but if you need to leave an island out of your itinerary, this is the one. More expensive to get to than the others (from Stresa), and not as impressive as isola bella.
The cable car station is at the northern end of Stresa. Take the scary ride to the top of Mottarone.
The path down the mountain is well marked. To descend 1200m in 12 km is probably easier than going up, but it still hurt the next day. Unless you are a serious walker, I'd recommend cable car to Alpino station which is about half way, and walk from there. The lower half of the walk is through more interesting villages, and on proper roads rather than a track covered in loose stones. The upper half is through woods and you can't see much of the lake anyway.
The Grand Hotel des Iles Borromees is the place where Ernest Hemingway used to stay during his many visits to Stresa. More precisely, he always occupied the suite 106. When he signed in the hotel’s Golden Book he described himself as "an old client".
In fact, long before he came here as a rich and famous novelist, he had been in Stresa in September 1918, when he was a 19-years-old Second Lieutenant of the Red Cross recovering from his wounds. He spent here a 10-days’ leave and, in a letter to his parents, he wrote: “This is a wonderful place. The hotel is about as big as the Chicago Beach on the South Side”.
Unfortunately I have never been staying in this hotel, so I cannot provide a tip about it and I can mention it only as a landmark of Stresa.
In my opinion the presence of the three small islands (the Isole Borromee) is a great addition to the lake view from Stresa.
These islands are still the private property of the Borromeo family, but they are open to visitors and the boats of the public service make regular stops there.
Only the Isola Superiore (aka Isola dei Pescatori) can be visited for free. The other two are historical and artistic sites with an entrance fee.
Here I have posted only pictures showing the islands as they can be seen from Stresa. But I have many more, that can be found on other pages on Virtual Tourist.
The Isola Bella has its own page, so my tips and pictures of this island are there.
I have written also tips about the Isola Madre, if you want to read them, and see the pictures, you will find them in the “Things to do” tips on my
Lago Maggiore page.
The lake front with its promenade and hotels is certainly the most prominent part of Stresa, but there is also an old centre of town that is difinitely worth exploring, with narrow streets and picturesque little houses. Here you will find also shops, little restaurants and cafes.
The Mottarone mountain, right at the back of Stresa, is 1491 metres high. The view from its top is outstanding. Not only you can see the Lake Maggiore from there, but also other lakes such as Orta and Monate.
I went there by car (about 25 km from the town) but there is also a cableway from Stresa.
I have read in several publications that it is possible to see seven lakes from the top of the Mottarone, however I could not see the Lugano lake nor the Mergozzo lake, so in my count there are only five well visible lakes. Anyway the view was so beautiful I cannot say I was disappointed.