Your first inquiry about what to do in Stresa will lead you on a boat. The Borromean Islands (Isole Borromee) are the four famous gems of Lake Maggiore. While you can reach them from various points all around the lake, Stresa and Verbania provide the best access. Their name offers a key to their history. These islands and the villas that decorate them once belonged to the noble House of Borromeo. The villas burst with elegance while their gardens overflow with lush greenery and exotic animals. Three of the four islands – Madre, Bella, and Superiore (aka Isola dei Pescatori) are opened to visitors, but the tiny island of San Giovanni is off limits. Isola Bella features a 17th-century palace built for Isabella by her husband, Carlo II; Isola Pescatori boasts delightful cobble-stoned alleys; and Isola Madre is home to a charming castle and scenic vegetation. There’s plenty to explore!
There is nothing that captures the spirit of Stresa quite as its elegant waterfront. A simple stroll alongside it the lakefront has the power to transport you to a different time period; to a time when Art Nouveau reigned supreme. The 1.5km long lakeside promenade really leaves you time to soak it all in and ponder over the surrounding views. In fact, it stretches from the ferry station in the center of Stresa all the way to the Lido di Carciano ferry dock which makes it a great “foreplay” to visiting the islands. Out of all the things to see in Stresa, the views it offers rank among the top attractions. On the one hand, the incredible bohemian islands are reflecting in the sparkling water of the lake. On the other, there are the elegant gardens and hotels that resonate with echoes of the Belle Epoque. Here, take a moment to chill, relax and indulge in the beauty that surrounds you.
Although it is perfectly possible to drive up to Monte Mottarone using an old toll road, it’s much more fun taking a cable car from the shore in Stresa. If anything, the views are a thousand times better. Once you are up, a chairlift (included in the price of the cable car ticket) awaits to take you to the absolute top for views of Alps from Monte Viso to Ortles as well as the Lake Orta. Furthermore, as you travel higher and higher up the mountain, you can catch postcard-worthy views of Lake Maggiore and the Isole Borromee. Alternatively, if you have a thing for nature, the cable car makes a stop part way up at Alpino where you can visit the Giardino Alpinia. It’s an incredible alpine garden boasting about 2000 species of mountain flora as well as magnificent views over the lake. If you are into all things nature, this should be on the top of your "things to do in Stresa" list.
The town first appeared on historical documents a few years before the end of the first millennium. Back then, it was merely a small community of peasants and fishermen. While different families ruled the area over the Middle Ages, it was the aristocratic Borromeo family who adorned Stresa with the magnificent architecture that made the town famous. They gained one part of the territory in the mid 15th century. Over the span of 200 years, united the entire district under their rule. The architectural highlights of their rule include places built on Bella and Madre islands.
At the beginning of the 18th century, the town passed through a brief period of Austrian rule. That is before being acquired by the Royal House of Savoy responsible for most palaces in and around Turin. This was the time when Stresa started to pick up a reputation as a renowned tourist destination. It attracted visitors with sights such as Villa Pallavicino and Villa Vignolo.
The true boom in tourism though, came about in 1906, after the construction of a new railway tunnel that put Stresa on the map for travelers from London, Paris, and Milan. The more people visited the further the rumors of the beauty of Lake Maggiore and Stresa spread. In fact, many famous writers and artists immortalized the town in their artworks. Today, Stresa maintains its sophisticated atmosphere as well as aesthetic appeal welcoming hundreds of thousands of traveler from around the globe. There is quite a wide variety of things to do in Stresa.
Visiting Stresa is a great way to combine a bit of culture, relaxation, and charms of the belle époque. Furthermore, the city is the best starting point for visiting the three Borromean Islands boasting historic, artistic as well as botanical appeal. In the town of Stresa itself, the lovely waterfront treats you to incredible views. As you stroll along the shore, you can gaze over the lake on one side and admire the Art Nouveau hotels on the other. Interested to find out what other things to do in Stresa are worthwhile? Browse the page for more ideas.