Verbania, the biggest town on the lake, makes a good base for exploring the west bank. The town is strung out along the lakeshore and consists of three districts. Verbania Pallanza, the middle chunk, is the most interesting of the three, with a pretty waterfront and a ferry stop.
Forming Lake Maggiore’s most beautiful corner, the Borromean Islands (Isole Borromee) can be reached from various points around the lake, but Stresa and Verbania offer the best access. Three of the four islands – Bella, Madre and Superiore (aka dei Pescatori) – can all be visited, but tiny San Giovanni is off limits.
Laveno is a pleasant enough lakeside town but the main reason for coming is to take the Laveno Funivia, a cute little capsule-like funicular which whisks you up to a panoramic beauty spot 949m above sea level, in the shadow of the Sasso del Ferro (1062m) peak. The views over the lake and beyond to the Alps are breathtaking.
Isola Superiore (Pescatori)
Tiny ‘Fishermen’s Island,’ with a permanent population of around 50, retains much of its original fishing-village atmosphere. Apart from an 11th-century apse and a 16th-century fresco in the charming Chiesa di San Vittore, there are no real sights. Many visitors make it their port of call for lunch, but stay overnight and you'll fall in love with the place.
It was in Arona, 20km south of Stresa, that the son of the Count of Arona and Margherita de’ Medici, who would go on to be canonised San Carlo Borromeo (1538–84), was born. In 1610 he was declared a saint and his cousin, Federico, ordered the creation of a sacro monte, with 15 chapels lining a path uphill to a church dedicated to the saint.
The grandest and busiest of the islands – the crowds can get a little overwhelming on weekends – Isola Bella is the centrepiece of the Borromeo Lake Maggiore empire. The island took the name of Carlo III’s wife, the bella Isabella, in the 17th century, when its centrepiece, Palazzo Borromeo, was built for the Borromeo family.
In the unassuming town of Casalzuigno, about 9km east of Laveno, generations of nobles have swanned about the magnificent gardens of Villa della Porta Bozzolo, completed in 1690. The grand, two-storey building, surrounded by various outbuildings, has a calm, self-assured feel. Inside, the ballroom and upstairs gallery are richly decorated with frescoes.
The otherwise sleepy town of Luino hosts Lake Maggiore's biggest market on Wednesday year-round. This is no ordinary local flea market but rather an enormous bazaar that snakes off into the surrounding streets with all manner of trash and treasure, not to mention some good street food. The records show that an important weekly market was first held here in 1535.