For generations of overland travellers, weary of journeying over the Alps, Lake Maggiore (Lago Maggiore) has been a first taste of Italy: the sight of limpid blue waters, green hills and exotic vegetation is evidence of arrival in the warm south. With palms and oleanders lining the lakeside promenades and a peaceful, serene air, Maggiore – at 66km, Italy’s longest lake – may not be somewhere for thrill-seekers, but it is seductively relaxing.
The majority of tourists head for the western shore, from where the sumptuous gardens and villas of the Borromean islands are within easy reach. The area retains much of its charm: the genteel old resort of Stresa is still a convenient base, linked by high-speed train to Milan (1hr) and by bus and boat to all points around the lake. Across the bay, pretty Verbania is also well connected by train, bus and ferry, while further north, enchanting Cannobio – the last stop before Switzerland – is popular with families and a good place from which to explore Maggiore’s hilly hinterland. The highlight of Maggiore's eastern shore is Santa Caterina del Sasso, a tiny monastery hewn out of the rock face, although there's also good hiking into the hills behind the more northern villages. Note that in winter (Nov–Easter) many hotels around the lake close down and attractions may be shut.