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.
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.
1. 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 was part of the defensive constructions of the northen region of Italy.
We walk in the quiet historic center where every house, porch and stone is characteristic of the medieval architecture. After visiting the 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.
2. 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.
3. 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Isola San Giulio – Walk around the island
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.
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.
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.
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.
4. 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:
Located 3 miles from the Swiss border, it is an ideal place to admire Lake Maggiore and the beautiful villas on its banks.
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.
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.
We could also mention Miasino, Crabbia, Pratolungo, ….
5. 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.
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).