From Stresa, you can take a boat to the Borromean Islands, and to many other destinations on Lago Maggiore. There are different boat companies, but Navigazione Laghi is the biggest and as far as I know the only one going to all three islands.
There are different tickets available, we used the Free Circulation Ticket which costs 16,90€ and allows you to use the boat as much as you want for one day. The ride from Stresa to Isola Bella is only ten minutes, from Isola Bella to Isola Pescatori five minutes, from Isola Pescatori to Isola Madre twenty minutes, and back to Stresa thirty-five minutes. In high season, boats leave every thirty minutes.
I found the boats very easy to use, at every stop there are signs indicating the next time a boat will leave and the stops it will go to. Be prepared, though: In high season there are very, very long queues that start to form already about twenty minutes before departure time. Thus, waiting for the boat is not nice and boarding is quite stressful.
Apart from this, it was a nice experience, though! The boats are very spacious with plenty of seating inside and outside. If you choose to sit inside, there are very big windows so you still have good views of the lake.
Stresa is connected to many other towns on the Lago Maggiore by a public boat service. The boats are nice and spacious, all of them have also a bar on board. It is possible to buy point-to-point tickets, or to buy a ticket that lets you travel as you please between two given places, making as many stops as you want in between.
The public boat is also a good way to go to the islands (the Isola Bella, the Isola dei Pescatori and the Isola Madre). Be aware that on the timetables you will find an island named Isola Superiore: it is the official name of the island that is popularly known as Isola dei Pescatori.
Direct buses from Malpensa airport (Terminal 1) to Stresa are operated by a private company: SAF. Its website provides timetable and all details.
The buses are comfortable and a very efficient way to get to destination, but even if they operate on a schedule it is necessary to book your ticket in advance, with at least one day’s notice. By the way, if you travel on a Monday you need to book the Saturday before.
This service is available only for half of the year, from late March or early April to the end of October.
At other times of the year, it is still possible to get from Malpensa to Stresa without having to go all the way to Milan. In fact there are buses to Gallarate, where you can take a train to Stresa.
We did not start our boat ride at Stresa harbour, but at Carciano, which is a small harbour to the west of the town centre. We just walked along the shore of the lake and ended up here, I did not even realize that this was not Stresa harbour until we got back in the evening.
You can buy tickets for the boats of Navigazione Laghi here, and also of another, smaller company - but watch our for the men selling them and don't be persuaded to buy a ticket you don't want (see my tourist trap tip)!
At Carciano, there is a small ticket office where you can buy your Navigazione Laghi tickets, the lady working there was very friendly and paying by credit card was no problem. There is also a restaurant/bar.
The harbour is located in the village of Carciano that is part of Stresa.
If you want to go to Stresa from Milan by train, you can either take a fast EC train, or a slower regional train. Because of budget reasons, we opted for the regional train. A one way ticket for one adult is 7,40€ and the journey takes about an hour. You can buy a ticket at the ticket machines in Stazione Centrale, it is very easy. There are different language options, including English, and you just need to follow the instructions of the machine.
Buying a ticket in Stresa for the journey back to Milan, we preferred buying the ticket at the ticket office because the ticket machine looked a bit old. In the evening, the regional trains do not go to Stazione Centrale, but only to Milan Porta Garibaldi (Milan GP), a smaller train station. This was not a problem for us because Milan GP is on the metro, it is only two metro stops from Stazione Centrale and thus it is very easy to connect to the city centre.
Stresa's train station is quite small, but there are free public toilets as well as a pleasant café where we had a coffee and a tea when we arrived in the morning.
The Alibus, on this website and others - offers a good service from Malpensa to Stresa. There are, however, only a few buses per day, which would have required us to hang around Malpensa for 3 hours going and coming back - or arrive 20 mins before the easyjet check in closes! So we chose to fork out for a taxi which at 80 euro each way is pricey (well, decide that for yourself - it is about 60km) but enables you to spend more time at the holiday destination.
milan airport taxis - website attached - provided a reliable and v comfortable service in BMW 7 series or a Merc E class - the wife liked that and thought the driver good looking.
From the train station in Stresa you can get to Milan in an hour to an hour and a half, depending on whether you catch a normal train (IR) or an InterCity train (IC). When you arrive in Milan central station you can take the Metro (underground train) to the Piazza Duomo where the cathedral is. You take the yellow line directly there. Around the area of the Catherdral there are also the Galleria and the shops. Also worth a visit are the Sforza castle and the monumental cemtery. If you want to visit the San Siro stadium for a tour of the grounds or you are going to a match then you take the green Metro line to "Cadorna". Change to the red line and go as far as "Lotto". From there it is a 25 minute walk to the stadium, or on match day they have buses running between the Metro and the Stadium. Trains in Italy are great value for money and are regular. In Stresa you can buy the tickets direcly at the train station or you can buy them at Tomassucci Travel opposite the ferry point (English spoken)
The ferries going to towns arounf the bay and also to the islands are great. The service is regular and on time. You can buy ordinary single/return tickets. I think, though, that the best way to use the ferries is to buy a hopper ticket which allows unlimited travel for the day. You can also get hopper tickets that include the entry price to the palaces and gardens on the islands. You can get tickets at the ferry station or at the travel agents opposite.
There are three types of train. The fastest is the CisAlpine but it is also the most expensive and booking is necessary. This will not mean that the train is crowded, usually, but the process of booking can be slow and is best done the day before your journey. It is a good system and a comfortable train. Your carriage and seat number will be printed on your ticket. If you have booked one sort of train and then use another you have to pay a fee!
We had spent the day before in Riomaggiore, Italy and now it was time to move onto our next destination in Stresa, Italy in the Italian Lakes region. Our 3 train journey started out in Riomaggiore where we caught a local train to La Spezia. From there we took an express train up to Milan and after a short break in Milan hopped on our last local train up to Stresa.
Most of the trip was in cloudy overcast weather until we reached the far southern tip of Lake Maggiore when the sun appeared and we caught periodic glances of the Lake on our journey up to Stresa.
We arrived in Stresa about 4:30 p.m. ready to begin our next adventure.
The station is an easy walk to most hotels in the area, so if the weather is cooperating you could easily roll your bags to your accommodation.