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Lake Maggiore’s Isola Bella: Italian Island Of Beauty

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Gardens of Isola Bella in Photos

Lake Maggiore’s Isola Bella: Gardens and an Italian Island of Beauty, Whimsy and… you fill in the blank

We came. We saw. We gawked. On our Belles Trip to Italy’s Piedmont, we found the name, Isola Bella (“beautiful island”), fitting. But this smallest of the three Borromean islands on Lake Maggiore with its elaborate gardens of whimsy, constructed on a rocky fishing island in 1630, has not always been considered beautiful by visitors. But “gawkable?” Yes.

Actually to read some quotes from writers in the 19th and early 20th centuries, I think we could just as easily be reading something contemporary travel writers might say about Beverly Hills or Las Vegas!

In 1908 in The Lakes of Northern Italy, author British author Richard Bagot begged to differ in his opinion about the exact merits of this “gawkable” island:

“Ten terraces, one above the other, rise to a height of about a hundred feet above the lake, and above them is the palace. The gardens are a triumph of bad taste. Artificial grottoes bristling with shells, terrible pieces of hewn stone, which it would be an offense to sculpture to term statuary, offend at every turn. The vulgarity of the whole conception is redeemed by the luxuriance of the semi-tropical vegetation…”

Even though his opinion is clearly negative, his descriptions are actually pretty accurate. And for the record, the Travel Belles found Isola Bella beautiful. Not saying we’d be happy if someone came along and built it in our neighborhoods, but on a touristy little island in Lake Maggiore, it seems just right.

Somehow we managed to visit when there weren’t very many people there. (Meaning our Isola Bella photos are all pretty amazing!)

In a 1926 travel guide, when speaking of Isola Bella’s gardens, William Hazlitt, said he was “Utterly disappointed in the Borromean Isles. Isola Bella resembles a pyramid of sweetmeats ornamented with green festoons and flowers.”

In 1810 author Joseph Woods said, “Isola Bella contains a magnificent villa of the Borromean family, in sublime bad taste both inside and out. “

In 1816 Jacques Augustin Galiffe wrote, “Isola Bella is altogether artificial, and contains a large but ill-looking palace in the worst architectural taste…”

(actually, the palace isn’t that attractive, come to think of it, especially from the outside – the Isola Bella gardens are the highlight.)

Charles Dickens in 1844 perhaps put it most diplomatically after his visit to the Italian Lakes including to this most well known of Lago Maggiore’s three Borromean Islands.

“For however fanciful and fantastic the Isola Bella may be, and is, it still is beautiful.”

Thank you to Stresa Sights for providing the research and quotes for this post.

All photos property of and by the author.

Photo Essay about nearby Italian lake, Lake Orta

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About the author

Margo Millure lives in Richmond, Virginia. She is a portrait photographer, writer and founder of Travel Belles. Learn more about her at

20 thoughts on “Lake Maggiore’s Isola Bella: Italian Island Of Beauty”

  1. Love those hilarious quotes, Margo! 🙂 I must concur with them – though I’d apply it to the hideous grotto rather than the fanciful gardens. 🙂 I loved those gardens, and I think it’s their over-the-top-ness that makes them so interesting. 🙂

  2. This is so interesting, Margo – I know we all loved the over-the-topness of the gardens, but on reflection, I suppose it really did represent bad taste for those living in the stern Victorian era. Just goes to show that beauty really is in the eye of the beholder!

  3. So beautiful! I’m sorry I missed this part of the trip. Funny how taste has changed, I sometimes wonder what we’ll think of modern buildings in a century’s time… especially those from the 1960s!

  4. I have heard it referred to as looking like a wedding cake. I guess it’s the layers of terraces that give that feel to it. While some of the ornamentation was definitely over-the-top (the blue room, perhaps?), the gardens were quite lovely and overall I look past the garishness to the love it was supposed to represent.

  5. I thought it was lovely. I don’t know if I would have felt the same way about it if it were crowded though… it just seemed as if every time I came around a corner it was clear it had been “engineered” for a maximum ‘wow’ effect.

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