lac majeur italie

Lake Maggiore, located at the foot of the Alps in Italy, is a very romantic place.

This glacial lake is especially known for its Borromean Islands, belonging to the Borromeo family since the 15th century. Seduced by the landscape’s beauty and mild climate, the Borromees built exotic palaces and gardens on the two largest islands of Lake Maggiore. These lavish residences symbolize splendor and exceptional lifestyle. As a result, the historical value of this heritage attracts tourists from all over the world.

But Lake Maggiore and its surroundings has more to offer. Hidden treasures worthy of great interest can be discovered outside the usual tourist routes.

lake maggiore map

Map of Lake Maggiore and its surroundings

We describe in this post of our travel blog Heulys several remarkable sites or unusual walks to discover the natural and cultural treasures of Lake Maggiore away from the crowd.


Note that we have also visited Bergamo, and Lake Como during our trip in Lombardy.

Our best walks:

1. The ascent of Monte Mottarone
2. Vogogna : One of the 100 most beautiful villages in Italy
3. Santa Caterina del Sasso : One of the best view on Lake Maggiore
4. Lake Orta and its surroundings: the hidden gem of northen Italy
5. Romantic walks in the charming medieval villages
Practical information


Consult directly the map of Lake Maggiore

1. The ascent of Monte Mottarone

A mountainous range separates Lake Maggiore from Lake Orta. Its highest point is Monte Mottarone (4892 ft).

On clear days, its summit offers breathtaking views on the surrounding region (Lake Maggiore, Lake Mergozzo, Lake Orta) up to the Po Valley. Thus, its ascent is very popular, without feeling overwhelmed by the crowd.

ascent mount mottarone lake maggiore

Ascension of Monte Mottarone by cable car

How to get there ?

The Stresa-Alpino-Mottarone cable car runs in the outskirts of Stresa, at the Piazzale Lido in Carciano. After a spectacular 30 minute ride over the fir and birch woods, it almost leads to the top. Then, you have to walk for about fifteen minutes (or take the Mottarone Vetta chairlift) to reach the summit.

In addition, a toboggan track has been set up for children. This recreational area (Alpyland) is very popular with families.

Finally, the return to Stresa is done by cable car or on foot (3h30 walk through the forest).

: Timetable and prices of Stresa-Mottarone cable car.

2. Vogogna : Visit one of the 100 most beautiful villages in Italy

Vogogna is a village located 20 miles west of Lake Maggiore. From Gravellona, take the E62 road along the Torce River, bordering the Val Grande National Park.

This small medieval town was fortified in the 14th century by Bishop of Novara, Lord of Milan. It is thus part of the defensive constructions of the northen region of Italy.

italy lake maggiore vogogna

Village of Vogogna seen from the Castle of Visconti

We walk in the quiet historic center where every house, porch and stone is characteristic of the medieval architecture. After visiting Church of St. Martha (15th-16th century), we go up to the Castle of Visconti (14th century) overlooking the village.

What an imposing castle with its dungeon and massive walls! Moreover, the visit of this beautifully restored buiding let us discover many historical records and objects.

italy vogogna castel visconti

Vogogna – Castel of Visconti

: Days and hours to visit the Castle of Visconti (in Italian).

– Consult the map of Vogogna
– From the castle, take the mule track that leads to the height of the small village Genestredo (20 minutes).
– Enjoy the proximity of the Val Grande National Park for a hike in the wilderness. It is recommended to be accompanied by a guide.

3. Santa Caterina del Sasso : One of the best views of Lake Maggiore

On the eastern shore of Lake Maggiore, the sanctuary of Santa Caterina del Sasso was built into the cliff. Founded in the 13th century by Dominican monks, it overlooks Lake Maggiore.

We visit this beautifully restored religious complex to admire exquisite frescoes made in the 16th century. In addition, it offers one of the best views of the lake.

Santa_Caterina_del_Sasso italy lake maggiore

By Torsade de Pointes [CC0], from Wikimedia Commons

: Acces by :
– ferrys from Stresa (check schedules that are irregulars)
– road from Laveno (4 miles). Then you go down a staircase of 268 steps. There is an elevator near the parking lot. Free admission.

4. Lake Orta and its surroundings : the hidden gem of northen Italy

If there is a little known destination you should not miss while being around Lake Maggiore, it is Lake Orta.

Located 15 miles west of Lake Maggiore, Lake Orta is one of the smallest lakes of northen Italy. Although away from the tourist circuits that prefer lakes Maggiore and Como, it nevertheless shelters exceptional treasures. For these reasons, Lake Orta is a charming and cultural destination spared by the crowd.

The must-see sites are:
– Orta San Giulio
– Isola San Giulio
– Sacro Monte of Orta
– Sanctuary of Madonna del Sasso

italy lake orta isola san giulio

Lake Orta – Isola San Giulio

Orta San Giulio

The eastern shore of Lake Orta unveils an ancient village, Orta San Giulio. This charming village is definitely worth a visit, with its picturesque narrow streets, typical balconies and accessibility to Lake Orta.

For example, at the entrance of the village, you can’t miss Villa Crespi. It is an impressive Moorish-style mansion dating from the 19th century, built for a wealthy indistrialist. Today, it is a luxary hotel.

In the medieval town, we walk randomly in the shady streets leading to the lake. We discover several superb religious and communal buildings such as the Church of San Rocco and the Municipio – Casa Bossi.

But the heart of the village is undoubtely the charming Piazza Mario Motta, facing the lake and the pier. It houses shops and restaurants where it is good to have a drink while contemplating the lake.

At one end of the piazza, the eye-catching buiding is the Palazzato (communal palace built in the late 16th century), a stocky building on stilts, adorned with frescoes.

lake orta san giulio

Orta San Giulio – Place Piazza Mario Motta

We leave the beautiful main square and walk up Piazza Albertomonti to the Chiesa dell Assunta (15th century) recognized by its yellow color. On the way, we discover various charming mansions such as the Casa dei Nani and Palazzo Gemelli.

Thus, this walk in the paved and shaded streets is a real pleasure.

Conseil : Consult the map of Orta San Giulio

Coming from the Via Panoramica bypassing the Sacro Monte hill, leave your car at the Piazzale Aldo Viglione parling lot. Continue to visit the village on foot.

Isola San Giulio, the fascinating island

Isola San Giulio is the only island in Lake Orta and is located 1.600 ft from the shore. It shelters essentially a religious sanctuary dominated by the imposing Basilica di San Giulio.

After having visited the medieval village of Orta, we take a boat to visit the island. From afar, the basilica is recognizable by its romanesque bell tower.

How beautiful is this island! What an enchanting view! No wonder it is described as the hidden gem of northern Italy. The island exerts a real fascination, we don’t get tired of it.

italy-lake-orta-isola-san-giulio

Lake Orta – Isola San Giulio

Once on the island we visit the romanesque Basilica built in the 12th century. The interior is richly decorated with fine colored frescoes of San Giulio who dedicated his life to evangelizing Lake Orta.

The adjoining monastery to the Basilica is home to 80 nuns who live in total silence.

Then we begin a charming walk on the trail that goes around Isola San Giulio. It is the Way of Silence (Via del Silenzio), a real promise of tranquility. Maxims of wisdom and meditation on travel punctuate this peaceful path.

italy-lake-orta-isola-san-giulio

Isola San Giulio – Walk around the village

Isola San Giulio – Walk around the island

: Regular traffic of  public boats to the pier opposite Piazza Mario Motta (the round trip to the island costs € 3,15 – 5 minutes journey). You can rent a private boat, more expensive.

Sacro Monte of Orta, outstanding universal value

Sacro Monte is the wooden hill that separates Orta San Giulio from Lake Maggiore. In the 16th century, Cardinal Charles Borromeo ordered the construction of a devotional path, punctuated by 20 Renaissance chapels. In fact, they are dedicated to Saint Françis of Assisi. Each chapel recalls a major event in the life of the saint, from birth to death. For this, artists with exceptional talents have made frescoes and life-sized colored statues. In short, it is like an open-air theatre.

sacro monte orta italy

One of the chapel of Sacro Monte of Orta

The vegetation composed of oak and pine trees also contributes to the serenity of the place.

The walk is a real invitation to meditation.

Finally, from the terrace facing the church, we enjoy a striking view on Isola San Giulio.

italy lake-orta-isola-san-giulio

Isola San Giulio seen from Sacro Monte

This place is really fabulous, and off the beaten track. Moreover, it is classified by UNESCO among the natural reserves as well as the other 8 Sacred Mounts of the regions of Piedmont and Lombardy.

: The site is accessible from Orta San Giulio by a path near the cemetery.

Detailed walk around the island up to Sacro Monte. (in French but the map is explanatory in itself).

Sanctuary of Madonna del Sasso

From the shore of Orta San Giulio, we can’t fail to see the Sanctuary of Madonna del Sasso, a religious complex built in the early 18th century. It is like hanging atop of a rocky outcrop over 2000 ft above the lake.

The sanctuary includes several religious buildings, a baroque church with a porticoed entrance. Moreover, don’t skip the visit: the inside is adorned with magnificent frescoes.

The sanctuary offers a spectacular view of the lake and its small medieval village.

Sanctuary of Madonna Del Sasso

Sanctuaire Madonna Del Sasso

: Access is not easy: from the village of Alzo, take Via per Boleto. At the intersection, turn left on Via Juseppe Fria. Then, in Boleto, a small road called Madonna del Sasso leads to the site.

5. Romantic walks in the charming villages

Small villages are hidden treasures in the shadow of famous palaces and villas. However they are home to ancient buildings worthy of great cultural interest. Charm and serenity prevail and make it a peaceful place to spend a quiet holiday. In addition, most of these villages are the starting point for pleasant hikes.

Among these villages we can mention:

Cannobio

Located 3 miles from the Swiss border, it is an ideal place to admire Lake Maggiore and the beautiful villas on its banks.

Lake Maggiore- Cannobio

Lake Maggiore- Cannobio

Pella

Another village, another setting. Pella is located on the western shore of Lake Orta, opposite Orta San Giulio. The bucolic beauty of the site, bordering the lake is stunning.

Lake Orta- Pella

Lake Orta- Pella

Pettenasco

Pettenasco, an ancient village that stretches along the eastern bank of Lake Orta has a medieval center and beautiful beaches where you can walk, sunbath and swim.

italy lake orta pettenasco

Lake Orta – Pettenasco seen from our accomodation

We could also mention Miasino, Crabbia, Pratolungo, ….

In conslusion, are you convinced now that it is possible to admire Lake Maggiore and its surroundings away from the crowd?

Are you ready to visit Lake Maggiore in Italy?

Interactive map of Lake Maggiore

When to visit Lake Maggiore?

Prefer Spring (May) when nature and gardens are in full bloom.

How to get there?

The nearest airport is Milan’s.

Where to sleep?

There is a wide variety of lodgings in all lakeside towns. But given the high number of visitors, prices are high and it is necessary to book well in advance.
We settled in Pettenasco a little away from the tourist towns, but close enough to move around Lake Maggiore / Lake Orta easily.
We stayed at Bed & Breakfast Il Barsot (http://www.ilbarsot.com/). This choice was excellent: modern and comfortable accommodation, breakfast at the top, with homemade dishes, the host is super nice and give good advice. Moreover, the dining room overlooks Lake Orta and offers an gorgeous view on Lake Orta (see our picture above from Pettenasco).

Where to buy local products?

Another good address in Pettenasco: Cusio Formaggi Botteghe (http://www.cusioformaggishop.it/) : the cheeses and hams of the region are excellent! We have tested for you 😉

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