Choosing which lake to visit on my Northern Italy road trip wasn’t easy… go for the glitz and glamour of Lake Como, head to the most popular and largest Lake Garda, or relax at the more peaceful Lake Maggiore?
With the recommendation of a friend and the help from the ever-trustworthy Lonely Planet, I decided on Lake Maggiore. A decision I did not regret one bit!
Things to do at Lake Maggiore
- Lake Maggiore Car Ferry
- Cannobio Market
- Sant’Agata and Orrido Sant’Anna
- Isola Bella
My first sight of the lake comes as I arrive in Laveno-Mombello after driving through Parco Naturale Regionale Campo dei Fiori on my way from Bergamo.
Lake Maggiore Car Ferry
I’m staying in Cannobio, a small town on the opposite side of the lake just a few miles south of the Swiss border, and it seems the fastest way there is to take a car ferry across the lake. The ferry runs every half an hour between Laveno-Mombello and Intra, costs €10, and is a great way to experience the lake for the first time.
It gets dark in the half an hour it takes to cross the lake and it looks great as we come in to dock at Intra with the town all lit up against the dramatic backdrop of the mountains. Cannobio is another 30-minutes’ drive up the edge of the lake, but in the complete darkness, there isn’t much to see!
After a quick check-in at Hotel Cannobio, a grand 18th century hotel on the promenade, I go out to find somewhere for some food as it’s almost 9pm and I’m very hungry after my driving in the afternoon.
The promenade on the shore of the lake is full of restaurants, but the first one I come to looks good and is called Paul, so I obviously have to go there!
I’m slightly surprised when I’m greeted in German and handed a German menu, before it dawns on me I am just over the border from Switzerland and so the majority of the diners are also speaking in German. At least my very limited German is better than my even more limited Italian!
I order the anti-pasti starter and spaghetti carbonara for main, but when the food comes, I wonder if my German is even worse than I thought! It’s not quite what I expected… it looks like I’ve stumbled into a Michelin Starred restaurant!
The food is amazing and does remind me of my recent visit to Michelin Starred Adam’s in the UK, but luckily the bill isn’t quite so expensive! A very nice surprise treat on my first night at the lake… and all because the restaurant has my name!
Cannobio hosts a huge market every Sunday morning which attracts crowds from all over the local area, both Italian and Swiss. So, after a leisurely breakfast, I step out of the hotel and browse the many stalls stretching the length of the promenade.
I only pick up some souvenirs but there is a huge range of stalls selling clothes, shoes, Italian leather belts and bags, hiking gear, and a few with arts and crafts. The only thing missing was food and drink, although I had read that they were also on sale so not sure if I just missed them.
Sant’Agata and Orrido Sant’Anna
As well as the market, the other reason I chose to stay in Cannobio was due to some places I’d read about and a hike I created to explore them.
Cannobio sits in the shadow of Monte Giove, and part way up the mountain is a village called Sant’Agata, perched on the cliff edge overlooking the town and lake below. And back down in the valley is Orrido Sant’Anna, a gorge carved out of the rock by the flowing river with a church standing at the top. Both looked stunning, so I plotted a 10km hiking route to take in both sights…
The hike starts on the promenade, although I use the parallel back street as the market is now in full flow and is packed compared to when I was out earlier. I then skirt by the edge of the lake and walk along a beach, before starting the ascent up to Sant’Agata.
It’s a fairly warm and sunny day and I’m already regretting the amount of water I’ve brought… as I stop at a bench on the way up and check how much further uphill I have to go (and soon regret checking!), I think I better start to ration the water a little!
Luckily a little further on I find a drinking tap to refill my bottle, so I power on and reach the village. Most of the way up has been through woods with tree cover with only a few places with an open view of the lake, but the village offers amazing views for miles around!
I rest for a while on the benches in front of the church admiring the view of the lake and Cannobio below, before getting my drone out to get some air shots…
The way back down is back through the woods without much of a view (the main thing that happens is I get hit by a falling conker from a tree!), until I reach town again and then Orrido Sant’Anna.
The gorge is amazing… a huge, deep crevice in the rocks with the river far below. The narrow bridge crossing it linking the church to the opposite side, and far below a pebble beach at the river’s edge.
I make my way down and the river rapids are flowing out towards the town and Lake Maggiore, and I again get my drone out to take some shots from above.
For my last night I’m staying at the other end of the lake in a town called Baveno. I was supposed to be staying in Stresa but was moved by the hotel due to occupancy rates not making it worthwhile opening the one in Stresa. And while this move meant I lucked out hotel-wise and I end up with a much nicer one, Baveno itself is a ghost town! All I can really say about the place is… don’t bother visiting!
The main reason I’d picked the hotel in Stresa originally was due to its location overlooking the lake and Isola Bella, one of the Borromean Islands. The island is home to a Baroque Palace and beautiful gardens and is one of the main tourist sites of Lake Maggiore.
So despite not staying in Stresa, I still take a trip to see the island from the shore and fly my drone out to get some shots…
Back in Bevano I relax for my last night in Italy… having a beer in a bar by the lakeside, before struggling to find the only pizzeria in town both open and not completely empty!
But despite the quiet ending, the visit to Lake Maggiore has been better than I could have imagined, and I would fully recommend anyone confused about which lake to visit to give Lake Maggiore a try!
Complete the journey of my Northern Italy road trip… Exploring Lombardy in Northern Italy