Stresa: The Italy you don't know

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Isola Pescatori, home to 50 year-round residents.

A Guide to Stresa

Take a Lake District breather on your next trip to Italy.

Stresa's social hub, Piazza Cadorna.
Daniel's Bar in Stresa.

By Susan Van Allen
Photography by Susan Wright
“Take a day trip on the Lago Maggiore Express. The journey starts with a train to Domodossola along the lake’s border, then follows the Centovalli Railway through mountains and forests to Locarno, Switzerland. You return to Stresa by ferry.”
Sandy Cutrone, Virtuoso travel advisor, Long Island, New York.
Hugging Lake Maggiore’s western shore in the northern Piedmont region, small, elegant Stresa is just the type of laid back-spot to seek out. Directly opposite, the Borromean Islands rise from the mist with baroque palaces and gardens, and all around, a forested alpine backdrop stretches to the horizon’s snowcapped peaks. Steps away from this vista, family-run pizzerias and wine bars fill the historic pedestrian-only center and cozy Piazza Cadorna.
Roughly an hour’s drive from Milan, Stresa makes an ideal base for exploring Italy’s second-largest lake, which runs along the border between Piedmont and Lombardy all the way up into Switzerland.

Stresa first won tourists’ hearts in the early twentieth century when the Simplon Tunnel opened and the Orient-Express rolled through the Alps; its lures haven’t changed much since.

On a cool morning, I set out along the Chestnut Trees Trail to the village of Belgirate. The 4.5-mile path begins on a cobblestoned walkway and follows an old mule trail through the forest, then zigzags down to the sleepy little village. It’s one of more than 50 trails in the region that attract hikers, from overnight trekkers to families seeking pleasant walks.

From Stresa, ferries also set out for Isola Bella, the most popular of the three Borromean Islands, about a 10-minute crossing. It was a rustic fishermen’s rock until 1630, when Carlo III of the aristocratic Borromeo family bought it for his wife and began a three-century transformation into a baroque villa estate. Though the villa’s art and grotto pebble mosaics are impressive, as with most places in Stresa, you’ll want to spend most of your time in the sun. The villa’s ten-terrace garden forms a jasmine- and citrus-perfumed expanse of sculpted shrubs, statues, and an amphitheater.
The Borromean Islands open to the public from mid-March through mid-October. July through September, the Stresa Festival hosts internationally renowned opera, classical, and jazz performances.
Handpainted frescoes and hydrangea-laden balconies await travelers in Villa & Palazzo Aminta Hotel, Beauty & Spa’s 67 rooms and suites, most of which look out to the Borromean Islands. Along with a private beach and outdoor pool, the mansion maintains two docks for private boat excursions. The hotel is known for its spa grotto, complete with an ice waterfall, steam bath, and whirlpool with a geyser, as well as for Le Isole, one of the top fine-dining restaurants in town.
Hikers on Backroads’ northern Italy walking tour spend two days exploring Stresa and its highlights. The six-day itinerary traces mountain trails and former mule paths around lakes Maggiore, Orta, and Como, with multiple options each day ranging from two to six miles punctuated by winetastings, cooking classes, and Michelin-starred meals.
Cozy wine bar Al Büsción pairs Piedmont Barolos with delicious platters of local cheeses and salami. Via Principessa Margherita 18.
For a lively dinner scene in the historic center’s main piazza, try Caffè Torino. Its wide-ranging menu includes everything from pizza and pasta to osso buco and trout; save room for its excellent tiramisu. Piazza Cadorna 23;
After visiting Isola Bella, take a ten-minute ferry ride to Isola Pescatori, where Ristorante Belvedere serves freshly caught fish on a showstopping terrace. Isola Pescatori;
Originally appeared in the May 2016 issue of Virtuoso Life.
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