Visiting Isola Bella Italy – home to the quirky and interesting Palazzo Borromeo and its spectacular gardens.
Hi, I’m Clair – a travel planner and wine expert based in the little town of Stresa, on Lake Maggiore (Lago Maggiore). I’m lucky enough to have a view of Isola Bella, one of Italy’s most spectacular islands. It’s home to the unique Palazzo Borromeo and its incredible gardens.
The first time friends came to visit they commented, “We didn’t realize you live on a James Bond film set!” Lake Como may have George Clooney, but we have Isola Bella. My partner is a boatman on the lake so he probably visits it at least 10 times a day, but says there’s always something new to discover!
How to Pronounce Isola Bella
Isola Bella is pronounced EE-zoh-lah BEL-lah.
Listen to it here:
Where is Isola Bella Italy?
Isola Bella is on Lake Maggiore in the Piedmont region, Northern Italy. It’s located in what’s known as the Borromean Gulf, under a quarter of a mile from the town of Stresa. It feels like you can almost reach out and touch it with your hand from the lakefront boat dock!
It’s an easy day out from Milan (around an hour by train) and it’s a very popular day trip for Italian tourists, especially on sunny weekends!
The ‘Italian Lakes’ often get lumped together in popular imagination, but each has its own very distinct character, and they are actually not that close to each other. Lake Maggiore is very near the tiny but beautiful Lake Orta and the tranquil Lake Mergozzo. To drive from Lake Como however, taking Como itself as your starting point would take you over an hour (and more than two hours by train).
What To See Nearby
|City/Town||Distance||Time (by car)||Highlights|
|Milan||90.3 km/56 mi||1 hr 20 min||See Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. Explore Brera, the artist’s quarter, and shop till you drop in the fashion district.|
|Turin||141 km/88 mi||1 hr 45 min||Admire the baroque architecture of Palazzo Reale. Eat delicious gianduia chocolates.|
|Lake Orta||26 km/16 mi||33 min||Explore the quaint cobbled streets of Orta San Giulio, visit the island of San Giulio with its ancient abbey.|
|Verbania||14 km/9 mi||20 min||Enjoy the Saturday market in this bustling town. Taste some great local produce at La Casera.|
|Lake Mergozzo||11 km/7 mi||13 min||Enjoy the peace and tranquility of this little lake. Treat yourself to a Michelin-starred meal at Il Piccolo Lago.|
Isola Bella’s History
How Isola Bella Got its Name
Until the early 1600s, Isola Bella was just an unimportant rocky island, home to a few local fishermen.
The Borromeo family, owners of the nearby island of Isola Madre decided to purchase Isola Bella.
The island’s former name was Isola Inferiore, which didn’t sound great, and Charles III Borromeo wanted to name it after his wife, Isabella d’Adda, so it became Isola Isabella. This proved a bit repetitive and difficult to say, so it was then shortened to Isola Bella (literally ‘the beautiful island’).
Building the Palace and Gardens
Charles (and his son Vitaliano) employed some of the leading architects of the day to transform this rocky little island into something magnificent – an incredible Baroque palace with Italianate terraced gardens.
The idea was to resemble a gigantic ship rising out of the water and that’s exactly what the island looks like, with the stern formed by the garden and its 10 sloping terraces and the prow formed by the tip of the island and the dock. It took almost 400 years to transform it into how we see it today!
Isola Bella’s Owner – The Borromeo Family
The island is still owned by the Borromeo family today. As well as Isola Bella, they still own Isola Madre (which can also be visited from Stresa) and the Rocca di Angera (the Angera Fortress) and the Castelli di Cannero (ruined castles near the town of Cannero on the Swiss border, which are currently being redeveloped as a tourist attraction). They own the top of Mount Mottarone, the Pallavicino Park (also in Stresa, a beautiful park with a petting zoo!) as well as fishing rights on Lake Maggiore, amongst other things.
The Borromeo family is a noble one with ancient (and sometimes confused) origins. They supposedly originate from the town of San Miniato al Tedesco in Tuscany, but after a revolt against the city of Florence in the 14th century the family was forced to disperse and Borromeo Borromei was the first member to move to Milan.
The origin of the name itself may come from ‘Buon Romeo’, meaning a ‘good pilgrim’ (literally ‘a good man who has been to Rome’).
Through the centuries the family members became wealthy bankers and held important positions at the courts of the Visconti family (the rulers of Milan). The Borromeos have never had an actual pope in the family, but they have had cardinals and even a saint – Saint Charles Borromeo whose motto was humilitas (humility). This can still be seen on the family crest today when you visit the palace on Isola Bella – even though the surroundings are anything but humble!
Although Italy is now a republic with no monarchy, the members of the family still retain their noble titles. There is a prince – Vitaliano XI and his wife the princess Marina. In 2004 one current member of the family, Lavinia Borromeo, married John Elkann (Chairman of Fiat Chrysler). Another family member, Beatrice Borromeo, is married to Pierre Casiraghi (son of Princess Caroline of Monaco).
Fun Fact: The Prince and Princess Borromeo have their own private suite of apartments in the palace on Isola Bella. When they are in residence the Borromeo flag is flown from the flagpole, just like when Queen Elizabeth is in Buckingham Palace!
Why Visit Isola Bella?
Exploring Isola Bella is an amazing experience. It is one of northern Italy’s premier attractions and if you are spending time in Milan or nearby, it is a must-see, as it is such an easy trip.
The palace (Palazzo Borromeo) is fascinating, encapsulating 400 years of family history, as well as its incredible portrait gallery and its gardens, some of the most spectacular ones in Italy.
When To Visit Isola Bella
Stresa and Isola Bella are best enjoyed in the ‘shoulder’ season, during the months of May and September. There are fewer tourists and the weather is more temperate. May is officially our rainiest month, but the flowers are amazing!
Opening hours vary according to the season.
How Long Does It Take To Visit Isola Bella?
You can see Isola Bella in a couple of hours, but more realistically visiting it will probably take up most of a morning or afternoon. As well as the palace and the extensive gardens there are some little shops, stalls selling souvenirs, and a few places to get lunch.
It only takes about 10 minutes by boat from Piazza Marconi, or along the lakefront, to travel to Isola Bella.
Boats go back and forth constantly and you can either take the public ferry (more spacious and a little slower) or any of the motorboats that zip back and forth to the islands. They have the same cost and offer combined tickets if you are planning on visiting more than one of the Borromean islands.
What to See on Isola Bella
The main attraction and the reason everyone visits, is the palace and the gardens. There isn’t really much point in going to the island if you don’t see them. If you just want to see an island without a historic home, then Isola dei Pescatori (Fishermen’s Island) nearby might be a better bet.
- The family of white peacocks who live in the gardens. If you’re lucky they’ll spread their tails for a photo.
- Napoleon’s Bed. Napoleon and his beloved wife Josephine visited Isola Bella in the late 18th century. The bed he slept in is still on display.
- The amazing (and scary) puppet collection in the palace. Kids can see what an evening’s entertainment was before the advent of the internet, Netflix, and mobile phones!
- The basement’s incredible grotto with intricate mosaics made of stones and shells from the lake. The inhabitants of the palace would walk there to cool off on hot summer days.
Where To Eat Near Isola Bella
The Ristorante Elvezia (part of the Hotel Elvezia) offers a nice, scenic dining experience with a view over the water. Otherwise, you can eat in the town of Stresa, which has everything:
- bars offering snacks and cold cuts (like Paulon Di Vino Caffè)
- take away sandwiches by the yard (Cin Panino Al Metro)
- wine bars
- restaurants (one of my favorites is Il Vicoletto, book in advance in summer!)
- aperitivo spots with snacks and great cocktails (El Gato Negro Pub or La Verbanella, with lakefront tables)
Recommended Hotels On and Near Isola Bella Italy
But, traveling back and forth by boat (although a short journey) might not always be practical. The town of Stresa offers a wealth of accommodation to suit all budgets: from 5-star hotels to private rooms and apartment rentals.
- Grand Hotel des Iles Borromees – historic hotel. Part of Ernest Hemingway’s novel “Farewell to Arms” takes place here and they even have a Hemingway suite!
- Villa Aminta – one of the Leading Hotels of the World, with a private lakefront beach. Set slightly outside the town of Stresa but offers a shuttle service into town.
- Hotel La Palma – a modern hotel with a great rooftop bar and a lakefront swimming pool
- Regina Palace – a Belle Epoque style hotel near the lake in the center of Stresa.
- Hotel Primavera – simple hotel in a great location with a very good restaurant (Lo Stornello) attached.
- Sempione Boutique Hotel – lakefront hotel with great rooftop bar. The owner, Daniela, really goes out of her way for guests.
How To Get to Isola Bella
If you’ve got a rental car, you can head to the area on the A26 highway from Milan – take the Stresa/Baveno exit. Or, take the Carpugnino exit and have a spectacularly scenic, if windy and narrow, car ride downhill into Stresa.
The main car park in Stresa is Piazza Marconi (boat dock). You can also find parking near the conference center or free parking at the train station. These car parks get busy in summer, but if you’re prepared to walk just a few minutes you’ll find free on-street parking around town.
By far the closest and most convenient airport is northern Italy’s largest – Milan Malpensa (MXP). Malpensa Airport is a 50-minute drive from Stresa.
You can reach Stresa and Isola Bella by ferry from other locations on Lake Maggiore. It’s a slow, but very scenic way to travel. All the information on sailing times and destinations on the lake can be found on the Lago Maggiore ferry website.
To reach Isola Bella itself by ferry, you can buy tickets from the ticket office in Piazza Marconi in Stresa.
The town of Stresa itself is very small and everything is close by. There is even a handy tourist office next to the ferry office dock. The smaller motorboats also sell tickets for the islands from a booth in Piazza Marconi and don’t worry about finding them – the boat captains will find you first, as everyone is touting for business at the boat dock (in the nicest possible way)!
The town of Stresa is extremely easy to reach by train from Milan – it takes around an hour depending on the type of train:
- Regionale train – slow and not really recommended, takes around an hour and a half
- Trenord train – inexpensive and takes just over an hour from Milan
- Eurocity (the Milan-Switzerland line) – fast (at just under an hour) and comfortable but more expensive and less frequent than Trenord
You can also reach Stresa easily from Switzerland. The town is a stop on the Milan-Switzerland Eurocity train line.
The train station is about a 10-minute walk from Piazza Marconi, where boats depart to Isola Bella.
Buying Tickets for Isola Bella
Currently, tickets for Isola Bella cost €20 for adults and €11 for children.
Combined tickets are also available for the other Borromeo attractions like the Pallavicino Park and Isola Madre, which also has a historic house (although less spectacular than the palace on Isola Bella) and beautiful gardens.
Where to Buy Tickets
Tickets can be bought at the ticket office on the island itself, at the entrance to the palace which is right next to where the boats dock. However, because Isola Bella can get very busy, especially in summer, we recommend you buy tickets in advance online before your visit.
Guided tours are priced at €75 for a group (plus the cost of your entry ticket per person). The tours last exactly 1 hour and are informative and available in many languages, but it can make entry pricey. These should also be booked in advance so you can be sure there is a guide available for your language at the time you want your tour.
Isola Bella Contact Info
Isola Bella With Kids
- the boat ride over
- the puppet display
- the gardens
- the white peacocks
Minimum Age and Cost
There is no minimum age for the palace on Isola Bella and there are discounts for children.
Bringing a Stroller
While strollers can usually be accommodated on boats (folded), they can’t be taken inside the Palace itself. Most of the palace is easily accessible, but there are some stairs to climb on the garden terraces.
Toilets and Changing Facilities
There are bathrooms on Isola Bella inside the Palace Gardens.
Enjoy your visit to Isola Bella!