Though often overlooked by visitors travelling between the big lakes, Varese and the surrounding countryside makes for some fascinating exploring. Lombard ruins, early Christian artistic treasures and a lofty sacro monte (sacred mountain) are among the highlights of a day's ramble. Varese itself has a quaint pedestrianised centre and several excellent museums.
Enveloped by thick, dark-green woodlands, tranquil Lake Orta (aka Lake Cusio) could make a perfect elopers’ getaway. Measuring 13.4km long by 2.5km wide, it’s separated from its bigger and better-known eastern neighbour, Lake Maggiore, by Monte Mottarone. The focal point of the lake is the captivating medieval village of Orta San Giulio, often referred to simply as Orta.
Orta San Giulio
There's a very northern Italian magic about Orta San Giulio, one of the prettiest old lakeside towns you'll find anywhere. Aside from its lovely architecture and tangle of narrow lanes, it also serves as the gateway to the lovely Isola San Giulio and is watched over by a forested hillside strewn with chapels.
Verbania, the biggest town on Lake Maggiore, 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 Isola dei Pescatori) – can all be visited, but tiny San Giovanni is off limits.
Just 5km south of the Swiss border, Cannobio’s toy-town, cobblestone streets are delightfully quaint. Nicely set apart from the busier towns to the north and south, it's a dreamy place that makes for a charming lake base. There's a public beach at the north end of town, which is also the departure point for a scenic walk along the Cannobino River.
Overlooking the narrow southern reaches of Maggiore, Angera has a leafy waterfront speckled with villas and old fishing families’ houses and there are good views from the grassy shoreline to Arona across the lake. Angera's star attraction is its massive 15-century hilltop castle, though pleasant parks and quaint back lanes packed with history make for some rewarding exploring.
Santa Maria del Monte
The medieval hamlet of Santa Maria del Monte (880m), 8km north of Varese, has long been a destination for pilgrims, with its historic chapels leading up to a sanctuary offering sweeping views over the countryside. The sacro monte is inside the Parco Regional Campo dei Fiori, a patch of thickly wooded hills.
Castelseprio & Torba
Several of Lombardy's most important historic sites lie scattered among woodlands 14km south of Varese. Here you can peer back through the centuries while walking amid fragments of a Lombard settlement at Castelseprio, contemplate the lives of medieval nuns at the Monastero di Torba, and gaze at mystifying 1400-year-old frescoes at the Chiesa di Santa Maria Foris Portas.
Laveno is a pleasant lakeside town, with a tiny cobblestone centre, a picturesque marina and striking views of jagged peaks to the north. It's also a fine base for walks through sleepy villages and woodlands in the heights high above the lake. A funicular provides speedy access up the slopes.
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.