One of northern Italy's most spectacularly sited monasteries, Santa Caterina del Sasso clings to the high rocky face of Lago Maggiore's southeast shore. The buildings span the 13th and 14th centuries; the porticoes and chapels are packed with frescoes; the views from the tiny courtyards are superb. The monastery is reached either by climbing up 80 steps from the Santa Caterina ferry quay, or by clattering down a 268-step staircase from the car park (there's also a lift for €1 each way).
Dominican friars founded the monastery in the 13th century, and bits were tacked on subsequently down the decades. Enter by the portico overlooking the lake, then pass through the south monastery and a small courtyard (with an 18th-century wine press), which leads into another Gothic portico. A 16th-century fresco series depicting the Danza macabra (Dance of Death) can still be made out on its upper level.
Finally you reach the church, which is fronted by a four-arch portico. A curious affair, the church is actually the cobbling together of a series of 13th- and 14th-century chapels that form an oddly shaped whole. Inside, the carnival of frescoes includes the Christ Pantocrator in the Cappella di San Nicola, the first chapel on the right upon entering.
Ferries from Stresa (adult/reduced return €6.80/5.60) call here regularly. Otherwise, by car or bus it’s 6.5km south of Laveno (watch for the signs for Leggiuno and then a sign for the convent, 1km in off the main road).