Named after the noble Borromeo family who acquired the islands in the 16th century, the small archipelago contains the islands of Isola Madre, Isola Bella, and Isola dei Pescatori.

Isola Madre

The largest of the three at 220 meters by 330 meters, Isola Madre hosts the impressive Botanical Garden of Isola Madre.  With an area of 8 hectares, the garden embodies the English garden landscape that was popular at the time. The island began its transformation as early as 1502, when the Borromeo family decided to turn the island into a private residence.  Renato gave the island the name madre, or mother, paying homage to his mother Margherita Trivulzio.  Less than 40 years later, under the direction of Count Renato I Borromeo, the first foundations were laid for the manicured garden that would later come to define the island. Initially a citrus grove, today the gardens consist of 7 terraces extending across the island, with the Palazzo Borromeo as its nucleus.

Today, the principal gardens include:

  • Loggia del Cashmir, offering an arrangement of cypress trees
  • Piano delle Camelie, housing one of the oldest camellia collections in Italy
  • Piazzale dei Ppagalli, with roaming birds such as parrots, peacocks, and pheasants
  • Piazzale della Cappella, housing the 19th century family chapel
  • Piazzale della Darsena, with an exhibition of rhododendrons
  • Prato dei Ginerium, displaying an assortment of tall grass
  • Prato del Pozzo, presenting an assortment of trees, including dogwood, maple, and magnolia
  • Viale Africa, which is the sunniest side of the island
  • Viale delle Palme, which has a notable palm collection

One peculiarity within the gardens is the wisteria-covered scala dei morti, or staircase of the dead, which pays homage to the cemetery that existed on the island prior to the Borromeo palace. Visitors can also visit the old home of the Borromeo family, which has several antique pieces of art and furniture.

Throughout history, well known individuals such as Napoleon Bonaparte have appreciated the gardens beauty. Visitors can arrive to Isola Madre via ferry from Stresa or Verbania. Tickets start from €16 and can be bundled together with entrance to the other islands. Entrance is permitted to visitors between March and October.

Isola Bella

The second largest island is Isola Bella, measuring 320 meters by 180 meters. The island is home to a grand villa and a large Italianate manicured garden.  It was named after Isabella D’Adda, the wife of Carlo III Borromeo who commissioned the original development of the land in 1632.

In the early 17th century, the island was primarily rock and looked much different than it does today.  Over the next several decades Carlo, with the help of his sons, transported boats of soil to the island to cultivate an ornate garden.  A tower, the Torre della Noria, was also erected as a hydraulic irrigation system for the wide range of common and exotic plants. In the 19th century, Vitaliano VIII Borromeo, himself a skilled botanist, introduced many of the elements that are found in the garden today.

Upon leaving the floor level of the villa, which sits at the far north of the island, the first feature seen is the Atrio di Diana, a sunken courtyard with stairs leading above to the garden tiers.  The courtyard also features a statue of the Roman deity.  At the top of the stairs is a large lawn featuring a camphor tree that was planted here in 1820.

On the southern end of the lawn is the imposing Teatro Massimo. The “Great Theatre” is a three-tiered monument filled with statues of people, animals, seashells, and obelisks. Symmetrical staircases allow visitors to climb the tiers and descend on the other side, which provides a vastly different view of the Teatro.  From this angle, the monument exhibits four tiers of plants and resembles a pyramid.

Continuing south is a parterre tier, the Giardino Quadro, with four perfectly formed, mostly symmetrical hedges with a central fountain.   From here there are stunning views facing south over Lago Maggiore and the surrounding mountains and hills.

Within the Palazzo Borromeo one can view a collection of antiques and art from the Borromeo family collection.  One area of interest is the shell-covered lower floor, an indoor grotto that also houses a collection of art.  In more recent history, the Palazzo Borromeo was the setting for the ill-fated Stresa Front agreement between Italy, Britain, and France in 1935. Within a year, both Italy and Britain broke with the pact.

Like Isola Madre, Isola Bella can only be visited between March and October.

Isola dei Pescatori

The only residential island in the archipelago is Isola dei Pescatori (also known as Isola Superiore), the Island of Fishermen. It measures 375 meters by 100 meters, and is the northernmost island in the group.  Although it possesses some green areas, it does not have a notable garden.  Unlike Isola Bella and Madre,  this island no longer belongs to the Borromeo family.

Despite not having a garden to visit, it is certainly worth a day trip. One site of interest include the remains of a 700 year old chapel, today part of the Church of St. Victor.  Inside are well-preserved frescos dating from the 16th century and an altar from the 17th century.


Images from Daderot and BáthoryPéter.