The Borromean Islands on Our Northern Italy Culinary Tours

April 21, 2022  |  By Peg Kern
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Isola dei Pescatori, fisherman island in Maggiore lake, If you visit the Lakes District in Italy, and specifically the beautiful Lake Maggiore, a visit to the Borromean Islands is absolutely essential. The Isole Borromee, as they are called in Italian, are a group of three islands and two islets on the western arm of Lake Maggiore. They are so named because they were acquired and developed by the Borromean family, which historically was one of the most important and wealthiest dynasties in Lombardy, and which continues to this day.

Palazzo Borromeo on Isola Bella, on Lake Maggiore Italy.The main islands – Isola Madre, Isola Bella, and Isola dei Pescatori – are among the most visited sites on the lake. Only the first 2 belong to the Borromean family and they offer beautiful palaces and gardens to explore, while the Isola dei Pescatori is the only inhabited island of the three.


Visiting the Borromean Islands

Isola madre of the Borromean Islands on Lake Maggiore in Italy.Isola Madre

One of the most iconic sites on Lake Maggiore is the Palazzo Borromeo on the beautiful Isola Madre.

The largest of the Borromean Islands, habitation on Isola Madre dates back to the 9th century, when it was called Isola di San Vittore. The few houses and small church were all that was on the island for many centuries. In 1501, the island passed into the ownership of Lancillotto Borromeo, but it passed out of Borromean hands again until 1563, when it was called Isola Renata. It was during this period that the Palazzo Borromeo as it is seen today was constructed under the eye of architect Pellegrino Pellegrini (“il Tibaldi”). The gardens, on the other hand, were largely designed by Filippo Cagnola in the early 18th Century.

Garden statue in the beautiful gardens of the Isola Madre.The Palace and its gardens underwent changes in the years following their completion, but their appearance has been largely preserved since the end of the 18th Century. Although there was talk of turning the island into a resort and the Palace a hotel, the Borromean heirs instead made the Palace and its gardens a museum open to the public in the mid-Twentieth Century. You can today visit the palace with its luxurious rooms and salons, full of precious art and antiques. The Palace also has one of the most extensive marionette theaters in existence, which was used by the family to entertain guests.

The gardens span some eight hectares and incorporates English style parks, rare and exotic species from afar, and stunning terraces.

A decorative ceiling from the Palazzo Borromeo.The Details:
Open yearly mid-March through October.
In 2022 open weekends March 18-April 14 and open daily April 15-November 1.
Opening times vary, as do entrance costs:

Visiting stunning Isola Bella on a culinary vacation in Italy.Isola Bella

Its name translates literally as “beautiful island,” and it is easy to see why when you visit this little gem.

Isola Bella was basically a rocky island inhabited by fishermen until 1630, when the Borromean family launched a building project that would take many centuries and that would create the islands opulent Palazzo and garden. Not to miss when visiting the Palazzo are the Galleria Berthier, a wonderful gallery of Baroque art, the Sala del Trono (Throne Room), the Salone degli Arazzi (Tapestry Hall), the Sala delle Regine (Queens’ Room), and the Grotte.

Peacock in the lush gardens of the Isola Bella.Then, of course, you must head out to the gardens, where you will see terrace after terrace teeming with color. The garden also boasts its own theater, the Teatro Massimo, surrounded by rare and exotic flowers, trees, plants, and birds, and peppered with obelisks, fountains, and statuary.

The Details:
Open yearly mid-March through October.
In 2022 open weekends March 18-April 14 and open daily April 15-November 1.
Opening times vary, as do entrance costs:

Aerial view of Fishermens Island or Isola dei Pescatori at Lake Maggiore, ItalyIsola dei Pescatori

Also called Isola Superiore because it is the most northerly of the Borromean Islands, the Isola dei Pescatori (“Fishermen’s Island”) is the only island of the three that never belonged to the Borromeo family. It is also the only island of the three that is inhabited. Although it was historically, as its name suggests, an island of fishermen, in recent decades tourism has become the primary occupation of its inhabitants, with the residents providing restaurants, hotel, shops, and services for the many visitors that flock to the Borromean islands in the summer.

Architecture of the Isola Pescatori (Fishermen Island) on the Lago Maggiore in Italy.The island is known for its tiny picturesque village with narrow streets and characteristic houses. The homes long balconies were used for drying fish when it was the primary occupation of the inhabitants. The spire of the Church of San Vittore is a well-known landmark rising above the village homes.

Today visitors to Isola dei Pescatori like to sample the freshly caught fish in the island’s fish restaurants, an experience not to be missed!

The Details:
Because it is not a privately owned island, the Isola dei Pescatori and its village are open year round and have no entry fee. The only cost is the cost of the ferry or private boat and whatever you spend on the island. Note that ferry schedules during winter months are limited.
It is also possible to overnight in one of the island’s hotels.

Isola Bella island on Lake Maggiore, seen during your cooking vacation in ItalyVisiting the Isole Borromee with The International Kitchen

If you want to visit the Borromean Islands on one of our amazing Italian cooking vacations, we have a couple of tours that include excursions on Lake Maggiore.

Our Luxury Gourmet Experience on Italy’s Lakes includes an amazing stay at the 5* Hotel Villa Aminta on Lake Maggiore, and a full-day guided tour of the Borromean islands. You first visit Isola Madre, then head to Isola dei Pescatori, where you have a typical lunch at one of the island’s characteristic restaurants. Then you head to Isola Bella, where you visit the Borromeo Palace and gardens.

View of Isola Bella visited on your culinary vacation in the Lakes District Our Beautiful Bellagio on Lake Como tour also includes a full day excursion to Lake Maggiore. Accompanied by your guide, you will take the local ferry to the Isole Borromee and explore their many sites together.

Don’t forget – we can also arrange custom tours and excursions. So if you’d like to add a trip to Lake Maggiore and the Borromean Islands to one of our other tours, just let us know!

By Peg Kern

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