Between Italy and Switzerland; Lake Maggiore has history, scenery, a moderate climate, and plenty of activities for tourists, who can tour by car or by boat.
Maggiore is the second largest lake in the Italian Lakes region; ringed on all sides by mountains that in places drop almost straight into its waters, and elsewhere form a gently sloping shoreline. The upper third lies in Switzerland, but driving around it is easy, with no border formalities. One can also visit the towns, by the frequent boats that go between them; choose from large excursion boats, hydrofoils (corse rapide), and car ferries (traghetti).
Three Maggiore Museums Worth Seeing
Rocca Borromeo Castle, Angera: The original 13th century defensive castle remains intact; the later additions made without destroying the original Medieval construction. A 14th-century fresco cycle in the Sala di Giustizia has some of the finest non-sacred Medieval frescos to survive, and the Museo della Bambola displays more than 1,000 dolls.
Museo dei Transporti, Ronco: Delightful in its quirky and somewhat jumbled collection of hundreds of conveyances, from Pope Pius IX’s rolling chapel to a coalmine rail system. Low-tech fun and many exhibits the kids can climb into.
Civic Museum of Contemporary Art, Maccagno: Italian Artist Giuseppe Parisi donated his collection of more than 2,000 works of Italian art from the 1930s to the 1980s, including those by Picasso, to this striking modern museum, which was built bridging a river. The building itself is an award-winning work of modern art.
Exploring Maggiore by Boat and Cable Car
Monte Mottarone Cable Car, Stresa: Look down at the grand hotels and the Borromean Islands en route to the summit of Monte Mottarone. Views at the top encompass lakes Maggiore and Orta and the Alps, and from a stop partway up walk to the Giardini Alpina (Alpine Gardens),
Isola Madre Gardens, Stresa: Take a water taxi to visit an entire island covered in landscape gardens and flower beds set among exotic trees. One entire southern shore is a terraced promenade for lake views. The highlight of the 16th-century manor house are puppets and their theatres.
Palazzo Borromeo and Isola Bella Gardens, Stresa: Set in spectacularly over-the-top Italianate style gardens; this high-baroque ancestral home of the Borromeo dynasty was begun in 1670, but only completed in 1948. The Throne Room is a riot of gold-washed stucco work. The water taxi trip can be combined with Isola Madre.
Santa Caterina del Sasso, Laveno: Carved into a sheer cliff south of Laveno is one of the lake’s signature sights; the beautiful 13th-century hermitage and church. For the best views of this, it is best to arrive by boat.
Two Stunning Gardens and a Medieval Quarter
Villa Táranto, Verbania: At the spectacular gardens of Villa Táranto more than 20,000 plant varieties, from varied climates that include Amazonian rainforests, thrive in an English garden park setting, highlighted by terraced flower gardens.
Isola Brissago, Porto Ronco: Just over the border into Switzerland, an island botanical garden; begun in 1885 by a Russian baroness; takes advantage of the micro-climate provided by lake waters, to keep it at above-freezing temperatures year round.
Medieval Locarno: Behind the curving main piazza, the old town climbs with twisted narrow streets and tiny piazzettas to arcades, fountains and garden-filled courtyards of Medieval houses. Look for Casa dei Canonici, which has a Medieval garden. Locarno is the departure town for the scenic Centovalli train excursion.