Stresa Italy – A Local’s Guide

Ciao!  Clair here.  People often ask what brought me to Stresa, as I used to live in the northern Italian town of Ferrara (between Bologna and Venice) and I guess the answer is love! My partner is a Stresiano born and bred and now, after 12 years, it’s my adoptive home.

How To Pronouce Stresa

Stresa is pronounced STREH-zah.

Listen to it here:

Where is Stresa Italy?

Stresa is on Lake Maggiore in the Piemonte (Piedmont) region in Northern Italy. It is around an hour and 20 minutes from Milan by car (though just an hour by train) and less than an hour from the border with Switzerland.

Stresa is really close to the beautiful and tiny Lake Orta (30 minutes by car), to peaceful Lake Mergozzo (20 mins away) and a bit further from northern Italy’s other ‘great lakes’ – Lake Como is an hour and 15 minutes by car, while Lake Garda is two hours’ drive away.

Stresa’s History

The Borromeo Family Develops Stresa

In the Middle Ages, this small village was inhabited mainly by fishermen and was the territory of one of Italy’s most important ruling families, the Visconti. Later came the wealthy and powerful Borromeo family and by the 16th century, they were developing the islands and adding many of Stresa’s amazing buildings that make it such a tourist attraction. The Borromeo family is still very much present in the town’s life today.

Stresa Welcomes Tourists

Stresa really began to be known as a tourist destination worldwide from the 19th century onwards. The wealthy British upper class enjoyed Stresa as a rest stop on their ‘Grand Tour’ after visiting the wonders of Rome, Florence, and Venice and before heading on to Switzerland. They were drawn by the temperate climate, gorgeous gardens, stunning villas and palaces, the tranquility of Lake Maggiore, and the surrounding snow-covered mountains that beckoned them towards the Alps. 

Stresa’s Famous Visitors

As well as the Italian aristocracy, who built their magnificent residences there to escape from the heat of the cities, Stresa had a string of famous international visitors.

Charles Dickens found the Borromean islands and especially the fanciful palace on Isola Bella, overwhelming: “However fantastic and wonderful Isola Bella may be and is, it is nevertheless beautiful,” he commented. Which is a kind of contorted way of saying that he found it all a bit much but amazing nevertheless!

Gustav Flaubert, who came the year after Dickens was blown away by the gardens on Isola Madre, with their abundance of camelias, rhododendrons and azaleas. “Isola Madre is the most sensual place I have ever seen,” was his verdict.

Other famous visitors to Stresa in the 20th century included Clark Gable, Andrew Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Charlie Chaplin.

Stresa’s most famous visitor is probably Ernest Hemingway whose novel “Farewell to Arms” was published in 1929 and was partially set in Stresa. Hemingway was an ambulance driver in Italy during WW1, in 1918 he was injured and allowed to convalesce in Stresa. He checked into room 106 of the Grand Hotel Des Iles Borromées (now known as the “Hemingway Suite”). When he returned in 1948, he rather sweetly signed the guest book as simplyErnest Hemingway (an old client).

A room in the palace on Isola Bella was also the scene of the Stresa Conference, a meeting in 1935 between Ramsay MacDonald (then Prime Minister of Britain), Pierre Laval of France and Mussolini, Duce of Italy in a last-ditch attempt to broker peace and stop what would become the Second World War.  Spoiler alert: it failed.

Today Stresa draws thousands of tourists during Spring and Summer for the beauty of Lake Maggiore and its spectacular islands.

Why Visit Stresa?

Isola Bella on Lake Maggiore in Northern Italy.

The main draw in Stresa is undoubtedly the Borromean islands: Isola Bella, Isola Madre and Isola dei Pescatori.  Each island has its own unique character and all three are a short boat ride from Stresa and can be visited over one or two days.

Isola Bella and Isola Madre are owned by the Borromeo, still a prominent noble family in Italy.

Isola Bella

Isola Bella (the ‘beautiful island’) is the closest island to Stresa. It has a breathtaking palace and terraced gardens. The island was developed by Charles III Borromeo as a gift for his wife Isabella (lucky lady!) in the 18th century and its grandeur, frills and flounces are considered the utmost expression of Baroque.  White peacocks strut their stuff in the garden, filled with oleander, citrus fruits and roses.

For more details, check out our post on Isola Bella!

Isola Madre

Isola Madre (literally ‘mother island’) has a stately home that is a more intimate, although impressive, family residence.

The real draw is the gardens that Flaubert raved about. Vitaliano IX Borromeo was a true botany enthusiast and introduced a variety of rare and exotic plants in the 19th century that flourished in the sub-tropical climate, including citrus fruit, magnolias, wisteria, palms, banana trees, eucalyptus, and its enormous Kashmir cypress tree – brought in a bag of seeds from Tibet in 1862.

Isola dei Pescatori

Looking out toward Isola dei Pescatori

Isola dei Pescatori (fishermen’s island) has a completely different character. There are no grand palaces here, just a tiny fishing hamlet with cobbled streets, intriguing nooks and crannies, and a lovely little church. There are now less than 50 people that live all year round on the island, but they still fish for pike, perch, and lavaret that are served fresh in the island’s cozy restaurants and trattorie.

When To Visit Stresa

Like lots of places in Italy (and in Europe as a whole) the best time to visit Stresa is in the spring and fall.

In May and September, there are fewer tourists than in June, July and August. May can be a rainy month, but the payoff is the incredible flowers in bloom (especially azaleas!) Mid-September through October has cooler evenings but fantastic fall colors (including the bright orange-red Japanese maples).

Classical music and jazz lovers will enjoy the world-famous Stresa Music and Arts Festival (with events usually from mid-July to early September).

It’s best to avoid visiting during the winter (November, December, January, February).  While the lake is peaceful and there are still some amazingly sunny days, you’ll find it difficult to get accommodation. Even locals struggle to find a restaurant or a bar open (except for a brief upswing just before Christmas) as everyone is recovering from working 24-7 during the tourist season and business owners are taking a well-earned rest. The palaces on the islands are also closed in winter.

Stresa Italy Weather

MonthTemperature High/LowDays with Rain
January8°C (46)°F / -2°C (28)°F5
February10°C (50)°F / -1°C (30)°F5
March15°C (59)°F / 2°C (36)°F7
April18°C (64)°F / 6°C (43)°F10
May22°C (72)°F / 11°C (52)°F12
June26°C (79)°F / 14°C (57)°F10
July29°C (84)°F / 16°C (61)°F8
August28°C (82)°F / 16°C (61)°F9
September23°C (73)°F / 12°C (54)°F8
October18°C (64)°F / 8°C (46)°F8
November12°C (54)°F / 3°C (37)°F8
December9°C (48)°F / -1°C (30)°F5

My Favorite Things To Do In and Around Stresa

Visit the Islands

You can’t visit Stresa and miss a trip to at least one of the islands. If you only have time for one, visit Isola Bella!

Have an Aperitivo

There are a wealth of bars and outdoor cafés where you can enjoy an al fresco aperitivo. If you want a lakeside terrace, try La Verbanella, otherwise Il Gato Negro and Paulon Divino Caffè offer a courtyard garden and outdoor seating. For a great view over the lake (especially by night) try the rooftop Skybar of Hotel La Palma. Cin cin!

Go For a Stroll

Take a passeggiata (stroll) on the lungolago, or lakefront promenade. There is a pedestrian walkway beside the lake where you can walk with a great view of the islands and Stresa’s grand hotels and villas.

Shop ‘til You Drop

Stresa’s little town center has lots of stores to browse in with souvenirs, typical Italian produce, jewelry, and clothes. For great wine and food gifts visit the well-stocked La Cambusa, which offers wines (and more) from all over Italy.

Visit Villa Pallavicino

Flowers in bloom in the gardens of Villa Pallavicino near Stresa, Italy on Lake Maggiore.
The gardens of Villa Pallavicino

Also owned by the Borromeo family, Villa Pallavicino is less than a 10-minute walk from Stresa town center.

This historic park has 18 hectares of grounds with a beautiful rose garden, café, and a petting zoo! It is home to more than 50 species of mammals and birds, some of whom have been injured and saved by local rangers (and Stresa’s vet!) and who would not survive alone in the wild.

There are also llamas, alpacas, black swans, deer, dwarf goats, foxes, beavers, and bunnies. Kids (and adults) love it.

See the Views From Mount Mottarone

Just behind Stresa is a 4500 ft mountain – Monte Mottarone. It’s even possible to ski there in winter (weather permitting). In summer it is great to drive to the top and enjoy spectacular 360° views of the surrounding smaller lakes.

If you’re feeling fit you can also walk. I’ve been up and down in a day on the L1 trail from Stresa but be aware that you’re looking at around 3.5 hours to hike up and around 2.5 to come back down. It’s a steep, but easy and fairly well-marked trail.  Just look for the L1 and red and white Italian Alpine Club trail markers.

Get Your Thrills at Alpyland

There is also a little adventure park, Alpyland, at the top of Mount Mottarone with a fun ‘bobsleigh’ that offers great views and thrills. You can enjoy mountain biking, hike around the mountain top or have a meal in one of the restaurants on the summit. Villa Pizzini is highly recommended.

Visit the Alpine Garden

Around halfway up Mount Mottarone is the Giardino Alpinia, this is a lovely ‘balcony’ garden overlooking Lake Maggiore with over 700 types of different plants, mainly from the Alps. Views here are amazing too.

Note: Both Monte Mottarone (and the midway station Alpinia) were easily accessed by a cable car up the mountain. Unfortunately, it is no longer operational, due to an accident (caused by human tampering with the braking system, not mechanical failure).

Stresa and the mountain behind it are now without a cable car system for the first time since 1970. 

The only way to access the mountain is by car. To arrive at the very top you will pay a €10 toll (as the access road to the top is owned by the Borromeo family).

Go For a Hike

If you enjoy walking, Stresa is a great base for hikes. The stunning Alpe Devero natural park and the WW1 Cadorna Line are not far away.

Boat to Santa Caterina

Virtually opposite Stresa, on the Lombardy shore of Lake Maggiore, is Santa Caterina del Sasso, a beautiful, frescoed Roman Catholic Hermitage. Boat trips are available from Stresa.

Swim in the Lake

Lake Maggiore never gets colder than 20° C (68° F) in summer so it’s really nice to have a refreshing dip. There are a couple of little public beaches just a 5-minute walk from the main lakefront boat dock (Piazza Marconi) in Stresa.

Hop Over to Another Lake

Lake Mergozzo and Lake Orta are also super-close to Stresa (20 minutes and a half-hour drive respectively and make for great days out).

Browse the Verbania-Intra Market

Verbania-Intra (a 25-minute drive along the lake from Stresa) is a bustling little town of 30,000 people with lots of stores and restaurants. La Casera and Ristorante Via Roma are great places to eat and there is a huge market on Saturday morning that draws people from neighboring towns.

Delight in the Gardens

Gardens, gardens, gardens.  Plant lovers will be spoilt for choice.  Roses, camellias, azaleas, and massive lily pads are all in bloom at the Villa Taranto Botanical Gardens, created by an ex-pat Scot who found the perfect place to grow all the exotic plants that shriveled and died in the chilly wilds of his native land. It’s known as one of the world’s most beautiful gardens and it’s just a 20-minute drive from Stresa.

Best Restaurants in Stresa Italy

Stresa has all sorts of places to eat, from simple pizzerias and sandwich joints to elegant restaurants serving fresh lake fish.

Best for Families – If I’m with kids, especially fussy eaters, I’ll usually take them to Il Papagallo Pizzeria, which has a lovely vine-covered courtyard, or sit outdoors and watch the world go by at Caffè Torino in Stresa’s main piazza.

Epic view of Lake Maggiore and the Borromean islands from La Rampolina  restaurant in Stresa, Italy.

Elegant Dining – For something a little more elegant try Il Vicoletto or Lo Stornello. A 10-minute drive up the hill behind Stresa is La Rampolina with a focus on great local produce and a view of the lake to die for.

Fish Lovers – Head 15 minutes down the road to the town of Lesa and Il Rapanello, where you can eat outdoors close to the water and enjoy imaginative seafood cuisine.

Interior of Villa Crespi, in Orta, Italy.
Interior of Villa Crespi

Michelin-Star Restaurants – For a truly special Michelin-starred treat you won’t have to go far. Il Piccolo Lago and Villa Crespi (both with 2 Michelin stars) are just a 20- and 30-minute drive respectively from Stresa.

A Unique Dining Experience – Want something a bit different? Why not eat in a local’s home? Enjoy a superb meal (or even a cooking class) by Flore Dinner Nights. Chefs Jharvari & Angelica have an international, high-end dining and restaurant background and their warm welcome is second to none. Be sure to book in advance.

Hotels in Stresa Italy

5-Star Hotels

  • 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.

4-Star Hotels

  • 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.

3-Star Hotels

  • Hotel Primavera – simple hotel in a great location with a very good restaurant (Lo Stornello) attached.
  • Hotel Sempione – a brand-new hotel on the lakefront with a great rooftop bar. The owner, Daniela, really goes out of her way for guests.

How To Get to Stresa

Boat heading toward Isola Bella from Stresa, Italy.

Car

If you’ve got a rental car (and your International Driving Permit!), 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.

Good To Know: If driving from Milan beware of rush hour traffic! A journey that should take around 1 hr 20 min from the center can take much longer if you hit the 5pm exodus from the city and the tangenziale (Milan’s busy ring road).

Plane

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.

Ferry

It depends where you’re coming from, but ferries on Lake Maggiore can be slow and somewhat infrequent. They’re not the most efficient way to travel, unless of course you’re visiting other towns on the lake (like Verbania-Intra, which has a regular ferry service to Stresa) or you want to just sit back and enjoy the views from the water.

All information on sailing times and destinations on Lake Maggiore can be found on the Lago Maggiore ferry website.

Train

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.

Getting Around Stresa 

It’s easiest to travel around the small town on foot.

Nearby Towns and Attractions

City/Town Distance Time (by car) Highlights 
Milan90.3 km/56 mi1 hr 20 minSee Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. Explore Brera, the artist’s quarter, and shop till you drop in the fashion district.
Turin141 km/88 mi1 hr 45 min Admire the baroque architecture of Palazzo Reale. Eat delicious gianduia chocolates.
Lake Orta  26 km/16 mi33 min Explore the quaint cobbled streets of Orta San Giulio, visit the island of San Giulio with its ancient abbey.
Verbania14 km/9 mi20 min Enjoy the Saturday market in this bustling town. Taste some great local produce at La Casera
Lake Mergozzo 11 km/7 mi13 min Enjoy the peace and tranquility of this little lake. Treat yourself to a Michelin-starred meal at Il Piccolo Lago.

I hope you have a lovely time in Stresa!

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