Lying on the western flank of thin, wispy Lake Maggiore, Stresa is an elegant resort backed by the Alpine foothills of Monte Mottarone and beloved of travellers for the grandiose hotels spread along its tree-lined promenade. Summer sees lidos bordering the lake and visitor-thronged craft markets on Thursday afternoons; come the balmy evenings the cobbled streets of the town are equally packed with locals and tourists alike enjoying a passeggiata (nightly stroll) before they settle down to dine al fresco in leafy Piazza Cadorna.
Once the hang out of literary stars Charles Dickens and Ernest Hemingway, the jewels in Stresa’s crown are undoubtedly the three miniature Isole Borromee (Borromean Islands) just minutes away across Lake Maggiore by ferry. Owned by the all-powerful Borromeo clan since the 12th century, today they exist in a Baroque time warp; while Isola Bella and Isola Madre both boast extraordinary 17th-century palazzi decorated with unbelievable decadence and surrounded by formal terraced gardens – built as the Borromeos’ private pleasure grounds – every inch of Isola dei Pescatori is smothered in miniscule churches, art galleries, souvenir shops and fish restaurants with lake views at each turn. The aristocratic Borromeo family ruled over tracts of Lombardy for centuries, building another elaborate palace at Rocco Borromeo on Maggiore’s southwestern shore; Archbishop Carlo Borromeo was canonized in 1610 and a vast bronze statue stands in his honor at Angera.
The tourist office is at Piazza Marconi on the lakefront and opens daily from 10am to 12:30pm and from 3 to 6:30pm. From November to February, it is closed on Sunday. Ferries to the Isole Borromee also leave from Piazza Marconi. Stresa is linked with Milan by 20 trains a day and journey time is about 90 minutes. Boats operated by Navigazione Laghi leave Arona at the southern tip of Maggiore and take 40 minutes to reach Stresa. For drivers, the A8 runs west from Milan to Sesto Calende near the southern end of the lake; from there Route SS33 follows the western shore to Stresa. The trip takes just over an hour, much longer at the weekend in summer.