Of the three large pearl pine lakes in Italy, Lake Maggiore is the westernmost and the second largest after Lake Garda. The lake acts as a boundary between Lombardy and Piedmont and a part of it also sits in Switzerland (which can be reached from Italy either by train or by a short ferry ride.) Lake Maggiore is less crowded than Garda and less glitzy than Como, offering one of the more relaxed and natural experiences of all the grand Italian lakes. Although Maggiore is best enjoyed between May to October its climate is relatively mild throughout the year, producing a bounty of Mediterranean vegetation and exotic blooms that can be viewed in its various gardens like Alpinia. Whether you are looking for rest and relaxation, sightseeing, or outdoor activities this lake offers something for everyone.
Lake Maggiore is framed by blue skies, lush greenery and the imposing Monte Rosa. Don't be fooled by the name, however, Monte Rose isn't one mountain but a mastiff with ten peaks covered in glaciers. Only a 50 kilometer drive from the lake itself the mountain is a glory to behold and explore.
Around the lake you will find various mountainous areas and hilly villages that offer fabulous scenery. These towns are full of great architecture and ancient legends and traditions. They also have many winding roads you can explore on foot and are the starting point for tours that allow you to venture into the lands around them. Valle Anzasca with its Walser habitat of Macugnaga, Val Formazza and the Toce Falls, Val Vigezzo (called "Painter's Valley" because of its vibrant colors), and Valle Antrong and its alpine tarns are all wonderful places to visit.
If you want to experience the true natural splendor of the area then the best place is Val Grande National Park. The wilderness and pristine beauty of this park is truly worth the trip.
What to See
In addition to the areas noted above there are several other celebrated places in the Lake Maggiore area that are wonderful options for visitors. One such town is Stresa, full of luxe hotels and stunning views--especially if you drive in via Verbania. If you really want to live it up then check into the Grand Hotel des Iles Borromees. Literary buffs will be excited to learn that Hemingway lived here when it was a hospital during World War I and set parts of the classic Farewell to Arms in the area as well.
The islands around Lake Maggiore, known as the Isole Borromei, are all worth visiting if you are in the area. Isola Bella ("Beautiful Island") is aptly named and the architecture adds some man-made drama to the gorgeous natural surroundings. Be sure to check out the glorious Baroque palace on the island.
Another option is Isola Madre where the ancient Borromeo family has their home, which includes a gorgeous garden and exotic animals like peacocks. The island was definitely good enough for Fiat and Agnelli heir John Elkann when he married blue blooded Lavinia Borromeo on Isola Bella in 2004--the event took place at the bride's family's palazzo on the island. In another blockbuster wedding Lavinia's sister Isabella wed Api heir Ugo Brachetti Peretti in the area the following year. Both brides wore Valentino.
Isola Pescatori or Fisherman's Village is just that--home to fishermen who toil in the area. This island is gorgeous and chalk full of visitors during the high season. If you wish to visit its a short launch ride from Stresa.
Nine kilometers from Stresa is the village of Angera and its castle Rocca di Angera. La Rocca was constructed in the 11th century and bought hundreds of years later by the Borromei. It is now the site of many medieval-themed events that keep the aura of mystery and fantasy alive here.
For a fun excursion take the Lago Maggiore Express from Stresa to Locarno through Domodossola. The train winds through Italy and Switzerland passing Valle Vergozza and Centovalli and you then switch to a regular train to complete the journey back to Stresa. Remember that during the summer months the trains fill up fast!
An attraction unique to Lago Maggiore can be found on the lake's eastern banks. Santa Caterina del Sasso is located on the steep cliffs of Sasso Ballaro and has a history that enhances the beauty of its location. Alberto Besozzi was a wealthy merchant in the 12th century, but when his boat capsized on the lake he found himself praying to St. Catherine of Alessandria for assistance. Besozzi was eventually saved by a wave that swept him to shore and he thanked the saint by shutting himself up in a cave for the next 40 years. A convent was later built on the site in the 13th century and was closed by the Austrians in 1770. Today this marvel of faith and engineering is used for concerts during the local week-long music festival.
This place is considered to be as precious as gold, the Pestarena mines that closed lately was possibly because Anzasca valley has the roughest climate in Ossala. Although the terrain seems to be quite rough and rugged, it is this factor itself which draws several tourists to the area. The rugged beauty of the place and its untouched feel makes the valley quite unique.
Those who want to rediscover the beauty of nature must cross the Anzasca valley, this place is crowded by the natives and these people are proud of their culture, traditions, art and architectural elements that they posses.
The mountain village of Macugnaga is located along the Anzasca Valley at the base of Dufourspitze, a part of the Monte Rosa. The original settlers here were the Germaic Walsers that came from Wallis in Switzerland. The quaint village is a joy to visit and is known for its stranglehold on tradition and its Miniera della Guia mine. There is also great skiing and hiking to be had here.
Want an amazing view? Head to the top of Monte Mottarone by cable car and admire the world below from 4,921 feet above sea level. It is said that you can even see Milan's Duomo on a clear day. Here, like at Cimetta, there is great skiing to be had.