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Belle Époque villas, grand hotels and gourmet restaurants line the streets of Stresa, a glamorous waterfront town on Lake Maggiore that has been attracting the gentry, celebrities and the wealthy for centuries.

It sits on the southwestern section of the Borromean Gulf and is the principal town of interest along the shores of Lake Maggiore. Its former decadence and strategic position made it the first port of call for European aristocrats coming over the Alps en route to Milan. Today, it has lost none of its appeal, despite being one of the most popular destinations on the lake.

Stresa started life as a small fishing village but its setting overlooking the Borromean Islands and the mountains beyond soon brought it to the attention of the Milanese noble families who then fought over its control. In 1806, the Simplon Pass across the Alps from Switzerland opened allowing traders, visitors and the curious to easily enter the Italian lakes region for the first time. Soon after, opulent villas began to spring up along the lakeshore. By 1857, the Duchess of Genoa was a regular visitor along with her daughter Margherita, the future Queen of Italy.

The town's reputation grew dramatically. Sumptuous hotels followed and artists, writers and the affluent made it a second home. In 1906, the Simplon rail tunnel opened and the town became one of the most popular holiday spots in Europe, its mild climate, grand architecture and lake views ensuring its reputation grew and grew. John D. Rockefeller, George Bernard Shaw, Ernest Hemingway and Charlie Chaplin all came here and the lakeshore is lined with grandiose villas and Art Nouveau hotels.

The genteel atmosphere of its heyday still pervades the old town with its labyrinth of cobbled laneways lined with shops, bars and restaurants. A lakeside promenade built in the 1930s, the lungomare, is a good place to stretch your legs as you take in views of the scattered Borromean Islands just across the water.

Isola Bella gardens, Borromean Islands, Lake MaggioreThe islands are best known for their sumptuous palaces and ornamental gardens, and it’s possible to visit some of them on a day’s boat trip. The Borromeo family turned these tiny islands into opulent expressions of their enormous wealth with grand Baroque palaces filled with fine art and antiques and lavish botanical gardens featuring plant species from around the world. Isola Madre and Isola Bella offer a snapshot of the family's regal tastes, while Isola Superiore, more commonly known as Isola dei Pescatori (Fisherman’s Island), has the feel of a humbler fishing community.

Throughout the year Stresa hosts a variety of cultural events, the largest of which is the Stresa Festival which runs from June to September and features over 30 concerts of classical, jazz and contemporary music.

For the best views of the area, take the cable car to the summit of Monte Mottarone which rises steeply behind the town. Halfway up you switch cable cars and can take a short walk to see the modest Alpine Botanical Gardens. After the second cable car journey, a chair lift takes you to the summit where you'll get a sweeping panorama of the whole region, the lakes and its islands.

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Audley Travel specialist Cara

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Suggested itinerary featuring Stresa

This sample itinerary will give you an idea of what is possible when you travel in Stresa, and showcases routes we know work particularly well. Treat this as inspiration, because your trip will be created uniquely by one of our specialists.

Map of Stresa

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    We've selected a range of accommodation options for when you visit Stresa. Our choices usually come recommended for their character, facilities and service or location. Our specialists always aim to suggest properties that match your preferences.