Traveling With Kids | Lago Maggiore, Italy
As some of you may know, my family and I have been living on Lago Maggiore in Northern Italy for over a decade. Although we love to travel the world we are so lucky to live in an area where we are still discovering beautiful new spots on a daily basis. For us travel isn’t always about getting on an airplane and jetting off to a new country and culture but also taking time to explore our surroundings and the gorgeous region we live in. No matter where you live it’s important to get out and find new parks, museums, hiking trails or even new neighbourhoods in your town or city.
Lago Maggiore, situated north of Milan, is absolutely stunning with its mountainous Alpine backdrop, quaint medieval villages and impressive lake (68 kilometres long) that spans into two Italian provinces (Lombardia and Piemonte) as well as into Switzerland. We are less than an hour from the city of Milan and the Swiss border and less than two hours from the Mediterranean coast.
Lago Maggiore has been a popular travel destination for centuries thanks to the beautiful views over the lakes and mountains, the peaceful atmosphere and the incredible and varied architecture to be found everywhere you go. Although it’s known all over the world as a favourite honeymoon destination there are even more great places and activities for families with kids of any age.
These are some of our family’s favourite spots and things to do on or near Lago Maggiore.
Obviously one of the first things that we recommend to anyone who comes to visit is spending as much time possible on and around the lake discovering all the little beaches, charming lakeside towns and tourist attractions. Lago Maggiore enjoys a Mediterranean climate with an average of 2300 hours of sunshine a year (best period to visit is from April to October). In the summertime it can get very hot here but there are several lakes for swimming and hundreds of gelato shops that help make the heat quite bearable.
There are several ways to enjoy being on the lake. The most popular and economical way is to hop on one of the public traghetto (ferries) that taxi up and down the lake and stop at many small towns and spots of interest. Another option is to rent a boat of your own and cruise around at your own pace and stop at smaller spots and beaches or anchor in the middle of the lake for a swim. And one last option, which my kids really love, is to venture out on a sail boat (with or without instructor).
For anyone who is at all familiar with Lago Maggiore usually the first thing that comes to mind are the famous islands called Le Isole Borromee. These islands are located just off the shore of the opulant little town of Stresa which is on the western side of the lake. From Stresa you can catch public or private navigation services and taxi boats and visit the three islands: Isole Bella, Isola Madre and Isola Pescatori. My kids love the botanical gardens on Isola Madre and have been known to spend hours chasing around the famous white peacocks that roam the flower filled grounds. When we visited Isola Bella a few years ago we paid the entrance fee to the impressive 17th century Baroque style palace and gardens and again the kids loved being able to explore through the villa’s large hallways and rooms and play hide and seek in the massive gardens. After visiting the islands a great activity for the kids is to take the cable car from Stresa that goes up Mont Mottarone. At the top you can go on a little hike, eat lunch in a local restaurant and take in the amazing views that look over the area’s seven lakes.
One of the most stunning places to visit on Lago Maggiore is the hermitage of Santa Caterina Del Sasso. You can visit the three chapels which were built into the rocky cliffs overhanging the lake and that date as far back as the 12th century. Although it’s possible to access the hermitage by land it really is impressive to arrive here by boat.
Seeing as Lago Maggiore is surrounded by mountains one of our favorite things to do on the week-ends and in our free time is to go hiking on one of the many beautiful walking trails. There are hikes for every age and level and there is always a stunning view to be had everywhere. There are several places where you can take a lift to the top and hike down (Stresa, Laveno) and many hikes along ridges that look over the local lakes, the Alps in the distance (including Monte Rosa at 4 634m in height) and as far as Milan. One of our favourite hikes is in Laveno where you can sit at the summit and watch the paragliders start their descent down the steep mountain. Another nice perk to these mountain hikes is that there is often a rustic alpine restaurant located along the trail where you can stop for a traditional lunch.
We live near the bottom of Lago Maggiore close to the town of Angera where you can visit the castle of La Rocco di Angera. Strangely enough the castle houses Europe’s largest doll and children’s clothing museum. I’ve heard several people say they found this museum bordering on creepy but my kids have always enjoyed visiting it and I love the views to be seen from the castle’s roof. From Angera you can take a 10 minute ferry across the lake to the lovely little picturesque town of Arona.
Arona offers quaint cobblestone shopping streets, delicious gelato shops and a massive statue of San Carlo which stands 35 metres tall (slightly smaller than the Statue of Liberty). You can actually go up inside San Carlo and climb a treacherous, narrow spiral staircase to reach the head where you can enjoy the panoramic lake views from his ear and eye holes.
Not far from Lago Maggiore is the small charming lake of Lago d’Orta. The most famous town on this lake is Orta San Giulio which is great to visit with kids due to the fact that there are very few cars and many narrow and winding alleyways in which they can run and explore. From the main piazza you can catch a ferry over to visit the tiny islet of Isola San Giulio where you can stroll around the cobbled lanes and admire the pastel coloured buildings and palazzi and visit the famous 12th century basilica. Back in town we usually walk along the lakeside promenade which leads up to the Unesco Heritage site Sacro Monte di Orta.
Cycling is a definite must when visiting the area. Fortunately there are several bike-only trails in the area that make cycling much safer and a lot less stressful than cycling on the local streets (which I highly recommend you don’t do). There are beautiful bike trails that cirlce around the local lakes of Lago di Varese and Lago di Commabbio. Our favorite bike trail is one that follows the Naviglio Canal, which is the river that runs off of Lago Maggiore all the way into Milan. You can spend a day following the trail and passing abandoned Renaissance villas, majestic castles and small antique towns (best starting point is in Nosate where bike rentals are available).
From June until October our family spends time every single day at one of the local lakes. It really is an essential part of our daily life living in this area. We go to the beaches to meet up with friends and swim, we walk along the shores, we rent pedal boats and we go out for an evening aperitivo in one of the many local cafes. Our favourite swimming lake is the boat-free Lago Monate which is situated minutes from Lago Maggiore near the small town of Ispra. On any of the local lakes you can choose public (free) beaches and private (paying) beaches.
Whether it’s wandering around the little towns and admiring the beautiful old buildings and villas or sitting on an ancient rock wall with your feet dangling in the refreshing lake this region will amaze you with its natural beauty and relaxed atmosphere. So book your tickets, pack your bags and let me know what time to meet you at the lake for a little dip. Let summer begin!
Other activities for families:
Safari Park (Pombia) Villa Pallavicinio (Stresa) Museo del Trasporto (Ranco) Parco Faunistico La Torbiera (Agrate Conturbia) Lago Maggiore Aquadventure Park (Baveno) Villa Taranto (Pallanza)