After a week spent in luxury in Italy, I wanted to show you some of the great things to do around Lake Maggiore. As one of Italy’s three biggest Italian lakes – Lake Garda, Lake Maggiore and Lake Como – you can imagine, it’s very beautiful.
Even just driving around the lake is an absolute pleasure, and actually, one of the things I enjoyed most about the trip.
We did 300 miles in the 6 days we were there.
There’s not a crazy amount of things to see in Lake Maggiore, but enough to keep you busy on holiday and allow for rest. Lake Maggiore isn’t like one of Italy’s crazy cities, it’s a welcome respite from busy life with fresh air and beauty all around.
Let me take you through some of the great things to see on Lake Maggiore based on my recent week-long trip. Just to note – we stayed in Luino, which we came to realise was on the less touristy east side of the lake.
A few facts about Lake Maggiore
– Lake Maggiore is well-known for its stunning villas and amazing botanical gardens.
– It’s is the second largest lake in Italy, after Lake Garda, and before Como.
– It’s right in the north of Italy. The northern tip of Lake Maggiore is actually in Switzerland. It not only borders Switzerland, but also the two Italian regions of Piedmont and Lombardy.
– Lake Maggiore is 54km long, and has a coastline of over 150km.
– Prices correct as of May 2019 –
Lake Maggiore things to do
I’ve added the prices in, as they were in May 2019. And I’ve also looked at the approximate driving time from Luino, which is where I stayed on Lake Maggiore.
The main tourist area of Lake Maggiore is actually in Stresa, on the west side, but anywhere around the lake is beautiful.
We went over to the west side, to Baveno and Stresa for a day, and realised we actually liked the east side better. Mainly because there were less British and American people (#nooffence) and it seemed to be quieter.
1. Spend the day at Monte Tamaro
Monte Tamaro is in Switzerland (just 5 miles away). It’s a stunning journey around the lake to get there. It was easy to get through the border check, just remember to take your passports, answer the questions, and you’re through.
Monte Tamaro is a pure adventure. Here you can go paragliding, go mountain biking, use the toboggan or even have a go on the zip line 1500m above sea level.
I found the pricing to be pretty confusing, as there are about 100 options, and I got the idea from the website that there were bikes to rent but apparently there weren’t. You needed to take your own, and there aren’t any bikes in the vicinity, which was a shame.
So, we walked.
We paid €28 return to go up in the cable car – a beautiful journey – and then €5 to go on the bobsleigh and €8 to go on the zip line.
Car travel time from Luino to Monte Tamaro: 1 hour 14 minutes / 47km
40 mins to Rivera drive and then get the cable car from there.
37 CHF / £28 to get up and down
8:30 – 17:00
Last ride down: 17:00
2. Day out at Valle Verzasca and Valle Maggia
Also in Switzerland, which, remember is only 5 miles away, are the two incredible beauty spots of Valle Verzasca and Valle Maggia.
Unfortunately we didn’t get time to do this. I really wanted to as they both look amazing, but there just wasn’t enough time in our week at Lake Maggiore.
With a dramatic gorge and crystal clear water Valle Verzasca and Valle Maggia provide the perfect setting for some photos and a good time. Just be careful if you plan on jumping off the rocks though as the area is known for having a really strong current. Watch out.
Valle Verzasca is the site of the famous dam that features in the opening sequence of the James Bond film, Goldeneye. So if Bond can vouch for the beauty, you know it’s real!
Car travel time from Luino to Valle Verzasca: 53 minutes / 43km
Car travel time from Luino to Valle Maggia: 1 hour / 55km
3. Bucket lifts at Laveno
These are err… buckets that just take you up a mountain. They’re really popular and as soon as I found out about them I wanted to have a go. The view from the top was amazing, and totally worth the thrill of the ride.
Wait for a clear day to do the buckets at Laveno though, it’ll be all the better for it.
It was a grey day when we attempted it, but we were in the area so thought we’d go for it. I didn’t actually quite register how windy it was either, until we were quarter of the way up a mountain with no return. We’d stupidly gone for an open top bucket and felt very precarious as we were winched up.
Made it though and all good fun.
At the top you can enjoy the terraces and watch everyone else coming up in their buckets. There’s also a little restaurant and a even a hotel too.
The Laveno bucket lifts take 2 people per bucket and the journey takes 16 minutes.
Car travel time from Luino to Laveno: 23 mins / 17km
There’s also the R21 bus you can take
One way €7
Over 65s return €7
Over 65s one way €5
Day ticket for people paragliding or deltaplaning € 9.50
Open Monday – Saturday 11.00 – 17.00 (last descent 17.30) and Sundays and Bank Holidays 10.00 – 17.00 (last descent 17.30). In summer it’s open till 22:30. The bucket lift does not operate in bad weather or high winds.
Lake Maggiore map
4. Take the boat across the lake to Cannobio and Cannero
The boat network on Lake Maggiore is the best way to get around. Although, the first day we tried to use it the boats were cancelled because of the windy weather.
We probably should’ve known right there and then that it wasn’t the best time to go on those Laveno bucket lifts!
Find the boat to Cannobio and Cannero and jump on.
We only had time for one and so asked the ticket seller which was best – she told us Cannobio so we went for that. We did get to see Cannero on the way though, and it was so colourful and pretty.
– Cannobio is the largest of the two, with water sports including sailing, windsurfing, kayaks and pedalos in the summer.
– Cannero just has pedalos, but is obviously more relaxing, especially if you want to escape other people’s kids!
The best thing to do in both Cannobio and Cannero is to walk the lake side. We had the best meal of the trip, for both of us, in Cannobio at Bar Verbano.
Ben had an amazing seafood pasta, and I had anchovies spaghetti. So. Good. Looking out to the lake with an aperol spritz in hand, it was lush.
If you’re around on a Sunday there’s apparently a large market in Cannobio that’s fun to see. There’s also a popular sunset cruise from Cannobio you might enjoy – book in advance to guarantee a seat. And if you want to know more about the village, join the Cannobio walking tour, you even get a free aperitif!
Boat travel time from Luino to Cannobio:
5. Day at the Lido in Locarno
We didn’t actually do this during our Lake Maggiore holiday, mainly because Ben doesn’t really like water and also with it being in Switzerland, it was out of our budget.
It just wasn’t for us on this trip but from what I’ve seen and heard the Locarno lido sounds awesome – especially for children. So I wanted to include it as one of the top things to do around Lake Maggiore here.
– The border crossing to Switzerland was pretty straight forward
There are 4 outdoor pools, 3 indoor pools, waterslides, table tennis, diving boards and inflatable obstacle courses both in one of the pools, and on the Ascona Lake.
If you’re travelling without children you can go to the spa next door with pools and treatments. There’s food and drink here, but you can bring your own picnic to keep costs down.
It’s easy to spend a whole day here, if you know how to relax, so that would totally make the entrance fee worth it.
Before you head back to Lake Maggiore check out the lakeside at Ascona – it’s a great spot for an ice cream or a pre dinner drink. Lots of places to eat too. And if you really want to spend some cash – there are even some Michelin-star restaurants including Locanda Barbarossa and Ecco.
And if you’re there in the evening, take the lift up to Cimetta to enjoy the fabulous views over the mountain and valleys.
Car travel time from Luino to Locarno: 42 mins / 40km
Prices from €6.50 upwards
6. Go to Luino Market
On the eastern side of Lake Maggiore, Luino Market takes place every Wednesday. It’s one of the most popular markets in the Lake Maggiore area.
And if you’re in Luino until the aperitivo hour, 6pm, then make sure to pop into Cafe Clerico – their aperitivo was amazing. Look at it!
Just walk or cycle from Luino!
7. Visit the 3 Borromean Islands
The Borromean Islands are one of the most popular things to see on Lake Maggiore. They’re little islands located in the centre of the lake, and you need a boat to go out to them. You can easily jump on the public boats and do a tour, or there are ferries going across regularly.
The islands were populated by the Borromeans of Milan, and over a generation they transformed three rocky islands into baroque botanical masterpieces.
So we went to check them out. We ended up doing a three-island tour from Stresa, which cost €15 and then another €7 on parking.
We noticed that the same tours are just €13 from Baveno.
What we didn’t realise was that, you needed to pay another €25 once you got to the islands to be able to access the palaces.
Boat travel time from Luino to the Borromean Islands:
1. Isole Bella
Isole Bella is the most popular of the Borromean Islands. It has famous white peacocks and beautiful gardens. The Borromean family threw fabulous parties here back in the day, for the likes of Napoleon, the Prince of Wales and Ernest Hemingway.
If you don’t want to go in the gardens then there are a few shops to look around, and restaurants. Not many though.
We didn’t actually go in the gardens as our budget wouldn’t allow (we went on our last day) and it was still a nice boat trip out.
As well as the cost it was also the parking that prevented us doing too much. We were told to put four hours on but you actually need 5 or 6, depending on how much you plan on doing.
2. Isola dei Pescatori
Thanks to the fact most of the residents here are fishermen, there are some great fish restaurants on Isola dei Pescatori. For this reason, it’s also known as ‘Fisherman’s Island’.
We had a look around – doesn’t take long – and then decided to eat at the pescatori where we’d got off our boat. Ben chose an amazing seafood linguini, whereas I’d gone for the fisherman’s board and ended up with some little fillets of fish, and a deep fried frog.
It’s a cute island where people basically just go to eat, and buy food to eat as souvenirs.
3. Isola Madre
We were really disappointed by Isola Madre as there’s absolutely nothing to do but pay to go in the gardens. Well, actually, we bought a gelato for €2 to pass the hour till our boat came back.
There are 19 gardens here so if you like flowers, you’ll love it. Not sure what everyone else is supposed to do though!
Getting to the Borromean Islands
Services run every 20 minutes and you have the option of taking the public ferry from the main port, or one of the smaller run tourist boat services which depart regularly from the lakeside front.
8. Visit Lugano for the day
Lake Maggiore is so close to Switzerland, you can go and visit for the day easily. Lugano is a swanky place, full of designer shops and fancy restaurants. You can enjoy Lake Lugano here, and use the boat network to get around on the lake.
On the way to Lugano you could also check out…
– the Alprose Chocolate Factory (watch the production and free tastings)
– Swissminiatur (Switzerland in miniature)
– Morcote (pretty lakeside village for a short stroll and gelato)
We combined our visit to Lugano with our trip up Monte Tamaro, as it was just 20 minutes away. It’s a pretty city, quite small but there’s a nice park. Just like Italy it’s difficult to get food after 3pm though. We ended up at an Argentinian Restaurant as it was the only place we could find.
Ended up spending €28 on a burger. Oops. But, Switzerland.
Car travel time from Luino to Lugano: 33 mins / 25km
9. Hire a boat
It is possible to hire a boat yourself and get out on Lake Maggiore. I went in May when it was still a bit chilly and choppy so had no desire to do this. Could be fun for the summer though!
Boat hire is available in Luino, Maccagno and Cannobio.
10. Head to Lake Como
I didn’t actually go to Lake Como, just because I’ve been before. It looks like a really easy drive to Lake Como from Lake Maggiore though.
Once you’re in Lake Como, again, you can use the boat system to get around. In the summer, it’s crazy busy. Lake Maggiore was much better TBH!
Car travel time from Luino to Lake Como: 1 hr 13 min / 52km
11. Visit Lake Orta
We went to Lake Orta on our drive to Lake Maggiore from the airport. It was about an hour from Milan Malpensa. We stopped at Orta san Giuglio and despite the grey skies and cold weather we could see how beautiful it was.
You can’t drive to the centre of the town. Instead, there are car parks at the top of the hill and you can either walk in to the centre or you can catch one of the little tourist trains in.
We went to the Cafe de Arts for lunch, and I thoroughly enjoyed my pizza. Great little place.
Car travel time from Luino to Lake Orta: 1 hour 20 mins / 75km
12. Villa Taranto
You can easily visit Villa Tranto on your way to or from the Borromean Islands. It’s near where you get off the ferry at Intra, if you’re coming from Luino.
It’s another beautiful villa with magnificent gardens that’s apparently not quite as busy as the Borromean Islands ones. Located in Verbania, which is another beautiful place to visit around Lake Maggiore.
Boat travel time from Luino to Villa Taranto:
Open every day, all day
March: from 8:30am till 5:30pm (last entry)
April – September: from 8:30am till 6:30pm (last entry)
1st October – 14th October: from 9am till 5pm (last entry)
15th October – 31st October: from 9am till 4:30pm (last entry)
1st November – 3rd November: from 9am till 4pm (last entry)
13. Eat at Fusion in Luino
Ok, so this place was SO good I couldn’t just include it in another Luino point of things to do around Lake Maggiore.
Fusion Restaurant is an unassuming place on the lakeside of Luino, that does ALL YOU CAN EAT A LA CARTE SUSHI. Oh my god it’s my dream.
We’d been wandering around Luino for a while, just not feeling the restaurants there. And then we found this beauty where the food was great value (€23) for anything you could eat, although they’d charge you if you didn’t finish it.
Accidentally had 10 courses between us. Delicious.
14. Eat your way round Milan
On that foodie theme, Milan is around an hour’s drive from Lake Maggiore, or you can get a train in from Luino.
If you want to try some of the best food Milan has, head to Navigli by the canal. The aperitivo hour (well, 3) is amazing there and you can pretty much just dine out on your drinks.
We had a night in Milan at the end of our trip so we could just get to the airport easily the next day.
15. Go hiking around the lake
This picture is actually us hiking down to the lake, before we knew there were no taxis and we’d have to hike up again. Our villa was a 5-minute drive up a hill, or 30 minute walk.
It gave us the opportunity to take it slow and really enjoy our surroundings. Lake Maggiore really is a beautiful place and there are many, many hikes you can enjoy depending on how far you want to go.
16. Enjoy walking round Stresa and getting high
Stresa’s lakefront is beautiful to walk around, with amazing views of the Borromean Islands. It’s a great spot for gelato, and plenty of benches for people watching too.
In peak season there’s a steamer that goes from Locarno to Stresa – a wonderful way to experience the magic of the lake.
Or you could look for the Mottarone Cable Car – it departs from Stresa and you can see out to Lake Orta, the Alps and Po Valley. There’s one stop halfway up at Alpine Gardens, and a second one at Mount Mottarone.
Wish we’d done that now!
You can do a half day boat tour from Stresa – all organised and narrated for you. Book in advance to guarantee a seat.
Car travel time from Luino to Stresa: 1 hour 20 mins / 80km
Or just get the boat over
17. Visit the Santa Caterina Church
The Santa Caterina Church is a cool building carved into the rocks. We paid €5 for entry to look around. Check out my Instagram caption for more details on what you can see there!
View this post on Instagram
Went to a convent while we were round Lake Maggiore, the Santa Caterina del Sasso. It’s a beautiful religious building carved into the rocks. The highlight was the views and the building, the ‘oh that’s cool’ moment was the ancient olive press, and the ‘whaaaaaat?’ was the 150-year+ mummified monk in a glass casket inside the church. Wasn’t expecting that! * * * #lakemaggiore #santacaterina #santacaterinadelsasso #laveno #maggiore #lagomaggiore #lakeviewsitaly #italianlakes #italy?? #piedmont #italianchurches
18. Go to an Italian supermarket
I loved going to the Italian supermarkets. It was an opportunity to try lots of different things, at a good price. We were staying in Villa Sereni, with Bookings For You, and so had plenty of opportunity to eat at home. We ate most breakfasts, one lunch and one dinner at home – just eating from the supermarkets.
Burrata and parma ham heaven!
19. Drink in style at the Grand Hotel Des Iles Borromees
Near where you get the ferry out to the Borromean Islands in Stresa you’ll find the magnificent Grand Hotel Des Iles Borromees.
It’s a beautiful building with a great little bar at the front – perfect for enjoying a crazy expensive cocktail.
This is where Ernest Hemingway stayed while writing A Farewell To Arms. Pull up a chair and enjoy a drink!
Car travel time from Luino to Stresa: 1 hour 20 mins / 80km
Or just get the boat over
20. Lake Maggiore zipline
The Lake Maggiore zipline looks great but unfortunately way too expensive for me. I just wanted to include it in my list of things to do in Lake Maggiore in case you had more money than me though!
If you do decide to go ahead you’ll fly through the green scenery of the Terre Alte (High Lands), looking onto Lake Maggiore. Your zipline can travel up to 120km/h (75mph). It takes 90 seconds of thrilling flight!
Car travel time from Luino to Lake Maggiore zipline: 1 hour 49 mins / 104km
Or just get the boat over
More things to do around Lake Maggiore
21. Rocca di Angera – a medieval hilltop castle with gardens, 18th century paintings and furniture on Lake Maggiore’s southern shores.
22. Go on the Lake Maggiore Express – a spectacular journey, done by train and boat through the Centovalli – One Hundred Valleys.
23. Visit Villa Pallavicino – enjoy the villa and the flowers and animals in Stresa.
24. Rent a bike – we couldn’t actually find anywhere to rent a bike, but I’m assured that in the summer there are places to rent from. I’d recommend booking somewhere before you go.
25. Rent a Vespa – Vespas are the most iconic way to get around Italy. Rent one around Lake Maggiore to explore in the Italian way.
Lake Maggiore boat timetable
Intra to Laveno ferry timetable
This is the timetable we used in 2019 to get from Laveno to Intra. Check the latest times and dates before you leave.
Where to stay in Lake Maggiore
We stayed in a villa on Lake Maggiore, in Colmegna just outside the main town of Luino.
The thought of our own balcony was just lush.
We had this incredible villa from Bookings for You. They have all kinds of accommodation on Lake Maggiore from basic apartments for two, to luxurious villas for 16.
Our Bookings For You villa was about a 5-minute windy journey up a hill. Not one for the faint hearted or nervous drivers! The villa was wonderful though. We had three bedrooms – two doubles and a twin. We also had a bathroom, an en suite and of course a kitchen and lounge too.
Check out the video of our balcony on Facebook…
The WiFi was pretty good and we managed to watch a film or two, and some football match that was apparently important.
It was great having our own place as we had breakfast there most days, a dinner and a lunch. It meant we could try some of the foods from the local supermarket which was fun too (see point 17 above).
Best time to visit Lake Maggiore
Seeing as so much of Lake Maggiore’s highlights is based around flowers and blooms, the best time to visit Lake Maggiore is May and June. Which, lucky for me was exactly when I went. I’d aim for the end of May though, as we did have 3 rainy days out of the 7.
Nearest airport to Lake Maggiore
Lake Maggiore’s closest airport is Milan. We flew into Milan on the flight after work, stayed at the Villa Malpensa Hotel right next to the airport for the night, and then picked up our car from the airport to drive to Lake Maggiore the next morning.
Road trip from Milan Airport to Lake Maggiore
We picked our car up from Milan Airport and then drove to Lake Maggiore, via Lake Orta. We used the main motorways on the way, and the smaller roads on the way back. Just for the scenic route.
Personally I wouldn’t recommend visiting Lake Maggiore without renting a car. You’ll be very limited in what you can do. One night we tried to get a taxi home so I didn’t have to drive and they told us we needed to book 24 hours in advance.
Price of a holiday to Lake Maggiore
Our Gatwick to Milan flight was only £130 for the both of us, return with no luggage.
Our car for 6 days was £95.
Our petrol for the 300 miles was £50.
And then we ended up spending over £450 each on food, drink and activities for the week. This was us being kinda restrained and obviously me not drinking as much as I had to drive.
The average meal was around €10 and upwards, with drinks on top of course.
Holidays in Lake Maggiore
Lake Maggiore is the perfect blend of relaxation and culture. There’s plenty to do to keep you busy, but not enough to stress you out. We had a wonderful week in Lake Maggiore, and I hope you do too.
There are beautiful views of nature, and incredible architecture all around, and driving round the lake on a sunny day is something I’ll remember forever.
If you have any questions just let me know in the comments below. I loved Lake Maggiore!