Tips for a great family vacation to Lake Maggiore

Dreaming of a family vacation to the Italian Lakes? Here's the advice you need.
two kids and a dog look out from Isola Bella to Isola dei Pescatori on Lake Maggiore in the Italian lake district
(Photo: Christine Sarkis)

My extended family—husband and kids, aunt and uncle, and 24-year-old cousin and her partner—met up for a multi-generational summer vacation to Italy’s Lake Maggiore. Our youngest member was nine and our oldest 70, so we needed to find activities that really worked for all of us. 

view out across Lake Maggiore with a tree in the foreground
Lake Maggiore (Photo: Christine Sarkis)

On my first trip to the region a few years ago (the reason I wanted to return), I stayed in the small city of Stresa at one of the big old hotels with a distinct Grand Budapest Hotel vibe and beautiful rooms and views. This time, because we were a group of eight and love to cook together, we opted for a vacation rental

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We booked about six months in advance, and there was a good selection of options still available though since it was for a summer stay,  I think if we had looked farther in advance, there would have been even more houses to choose among. But I loved the house we booked; it had plenty of room for us all plus a great kitchen and views, and was just up the hill (walking distance to) the lake in the tiny hamlet of Oggebio.

On my first trip to Maggiore, I didn’t have my kids with me, and as I planned this trip I was a little worried about whether or not it would work as a family destination. I shouldn’t have, because it’s a great destination for families. There are plenty of spots to swim (always a win with my kids) and many activities that are fun for families.

My Favorite Activities at (and near) Lake Maggiore

Isola Bella and Isola dei Pescatore

Isola Bella garden
The garden on Isola Bella (Photo: Christine Sarkis)

Just off the coast of Stresa are a cluster islands that make a great day trip with kids. Isola Pescatori is a good first stop and place to go for lunch, and Isola Bella is home to the Baroque Palazzo Borromeo.

Parking at the Stresa ferry dock is pretty easy (there was plenty of paid parking; the only trick is estimating in advance how long you’ll spend). From there, we boarded a traghetto, a little ferry boat, and headed to Isola dei Pescatori (also just referred to as Isola Pescatori or Fisherman’s Island) for lunch and a wander. 

The ferry was, of course, a total hit with the kids, and even though there was a bit of rain, it was still beautiful to be out on the lake. The trip is short—just a few minutes—and we had plenty of time to wander around in the little village fueled by tourism and its ancient fishing tradition.

There are plenty of casual spots to eat, but my aunt and uncle believe in the Italian tradition of a grand Sunday lunch, so we went to the Michelin-rated Ristorante Il Verbano, which has beautiful views, a terrace right on the lake, and a lofty modern indoor space. The multi-course tasting menus are arranged around different themes and easily accommodated our group, which included two vegans, two ardent carnivores, and a pescatarian (yeah, we’re a fun group). And even though it’s not mentioned on the website, the restaurant has a multi-course tasting menu for kids too, with a pasta first course, a meat secondi, a side dish (which can include french fries), and dessert. 

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After lunch, we headed back to the ferry and continued our journey to Isola Bella. At this point, we started moving at different speeds. For adults, there’s so much to learn and see in this Baroque palace that it’s easy to linger. For kids, it’s a slightly faster walk through a stately home, with occasional stops to learn, for instance, that Napoleon once stopped for a visit here and was a famously rude guest. 

Of particular note for families are the grotto in the palazzo’s basement (you’ll see it as you’re routed through the house) and the garden, which has an aviary and white peacocks. The garden is also home to the the Teatro Massimo, a towering structure of terraces, sculptures, and fountains. From the top, you get an amazing view of Lago Maggiore. 

For families with older kids who want to continue island-hopping, there’s another island in the Borromean archipelago: Isola Madre, with a house you can tour and a large English-style botanical garden. 


summertime beach in Cannobio on Lake Maggiore in Italy
The beach at Cannobio (Photo: Christine Sarkis)

Cannobio wasn’t on my radar when during my initial research, but on an early morning drive (my husband and I are early risers so on most mornings, we went out in search of coffee in a new town each day) we happened upon Cannobio and then brought the rest of the family back later that day.

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Once you’re in town, head to one of the public parcheggios and then make your way down the winding pedestrian streets towards the water. Here you’ll find a beautiful wide promenade along the lake. Cafes and restaurants with large terraces line the path, and lead to a big park that, in summer, is a big draw for families. When we went in late June, there was a giant inflatable water slide as well as a massive floating inflatable obstacle course out in the water. There’s a beach and places to rent little motorboats, stand-up paddle boards, and kayaks. Maybe we were just there on windy days, but both times we visited, the water was a little choppy, so that’s something to keep in mind. 

Beaches and swimming spots

Young people on a swimming platform in Lake Maggiore in Italy
Swimming in Lake Maggiore (Photo: Donella Torcassi)

Lago Maggiore is a big and not particularly warm lake. But that doesn’t stop people from swimming. Around the lake, there are both beaches and, in spots like Oggebio, a grassy park with a ladder down into the water and a platform a few meters out into the water for sunbathing. 

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My kids and some of the young adults in the family swam almost every day in the clear, cold water, and when they got chilly they’d sun themselves along the grassy banks. It was pretty idyllic, if a little chilly. 

Lake Orta

View of Lake Orta from Orta San Giulio with boats in foreground and Isola San Giulio in background
View of Isola San Giulio from Orta San Giulio (Photo: Christine Sarkis)

Lake Orta is about 45 minutes away from Lago Maggiore. It’s a smaller lake and is reputedly the cleanest lake in Europe. On our day trip there, we started in the main town of Orta San Giulio, strolling and snacking our way toward the harbor. From there, we boarded a little ferry that brought us out to the island of Isola San Giulio

I’d been to Isola San Giulio once before, but was excited to bring my family back to this tiny island dominated by a cloistered convent where the nuns live in silence. There’s a small church with hauntingly beautiful frescoes that’s close to the dock. Visitors can then wander the Path of Silence, which goes around the island and is marked by little signs with thoughtful aphorisms about the beauty of quiet. If you’re able to walk it in relative silence, it’s a particularly lovely walk. 

There’s a restaurant on the island, San Giulio Restaurant, which is close to the dock. It has a pretty terrace down by the water, and was able to accommodate our group of eight with just a few minutes’ wait. The food was lake-fish focused and regional, with the usual Italian classics as well.

What I Didn’t Do This Time, But Will Next Trip

giant flowers and vespa at Lake Maggiore
(Photo: Christine Sarkis)

Lago Maggiore was a hit with everyone in the family, and we and would definitely return. Here’s what we didn’t have time to do but would absolutely do on a return trip: 

  • Ferris Wheel in Luino: On our first night in Oggebio, we were walking back from dinner and suddenly the kids started yelling. I looked up, alarmed, only to see they were smiling and pointing and laughing: they’d spotted a massive ferris wheel lit up for nighttime across the lake. I don’t know if it’s there every summer but if it is, it’s easy enough to spot if you’re anywhere near Luino.
  • Baceno: Baceno is a bit of a trek from Maggiore, which is why we skipped it this time, but on our next visit, I’ll make the two-hour drive to this town on the border with Switzerland. I’d love to stroll around the small town, which looks very charming. But the real reason I want to visit are the Orridi Uriezzo slot canyons that a short drive away. 
  • Domodossola: Super close to Baceno is Domodossola, another border town that blends Italian and Swiss culture and has what I have been told is a beautiful medieval center. There’s a boat and train combo tour that connects Maggiore with the town. 

More tips for visiting the Lago Maggiore

narrow road with cars passing a truck in a tight spot along the banks of Lake Maggiore
The narrow roads and big trucks means there are some tight moments in driving (Photo: Christine Sarkis)
  • If you’re renting a car and will be spending time in towns close to Switzerland, consider adding it as a country to your rental. We didn’t and ended up not taking some interesting day trips because they required us to leave Italy and we didn’t want to run afoul of the rental agency.
  • Roads are narrow and winding. That’s a note for anyone who travels with kids (or adults) who are sensitive to motion sickness. It also makes travel along the roads a bit slow in some spots around the lake.
  • Want to read more about a visit to Lake Maggiore? My aunt, who publishes three-minute escapes around Italy, has a lovely post about the trip we took.

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Christine Sarkis
A traveling parent and longtime travel writer and editor, Christine Sarkis is the co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of FamilyVacationist. She is the former Executive Editor for TripAdvisor travel magazine, she has spent nearly two decades finding and sharing the best places to go with an audience of enthusiastic travelers. Her stories have appeared on USA Today, Conde Nast Traveler, Huffington Post, and Business Insider. Her expert advice has been quoted in dozens of print and online publications including The New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler, and People magazine. She has also shared travel tips on television and radio shows including Good Morning America, Marketplace, Here & Now, Life Kit, and California Now. Her stories have been published in the anthologies Spain from a Backpack and The Best Women's Travel Writing 2008, and she is working on a travel memoir. Christine and her husband first met in Paris, and travel remains a big part of their shared experience. With their two kids in tow, they have piloted a barge down canals in France, befriended llamas in Peru, tended olive trees in Italy, and gone snorkeling with sea turtles in Hawaii. The family lives in California and loves traveling around the state. Their California favorites include Yosemite National Park, Point Reyes National Seashore, and the West Shore of Lake Tahoe.