The Best Alternative To Italy's Iconic But Crowded Lake Como, According To Rick Steves

Among the countless destinations in Italy, Lake Como stands out as a favorite vacation spot even among celebrities — George Clooney and Madonna visit regularly and own properties there. As you can imagine, Lake Como is an iconic yet totally overcrowded vacation spot. With 1.4 million yearly visitors, the area is considering implementing a tourist tax to manage the overwhelming influx. According to renowned travel expert Rick Steves, there is a perfect alternative that offers similar beauty without the swarms of tourists: Lake Maggiore. This stunning destination attracts nearly half a million fewer visitors.

For those familiar with Italian, you might recognize that "maggiore" means "greater," a fitting name given its size compared to nearby lakes Orta and Varese. Plus, it's bigger than Lake Como! Covering an impressive 82 square miles, Lake Maggiore is actually the second-largest lake in Italy. It spans two regions — Lombardy and Piedmont — and two countries, extending into Switzerland's Ticino canton. Within it, there are the Borromean Islands, named after the influential 14th-century Borromeo family who transformed the area into a botanical paradise.

These islands include Isola Bella, Isola Madre, Isola dei San Giovanni, and Isola dei Pescatori, each offering unique charm and historical significance. However, not everyone will be staying on one of the islands. Along Lake Maggiore's over 90-mile shoreline, you can travel much more comfortably. The mountainous landscape allows for wider, quieter, and more pleasant roads. In comparison, Lake Como has narrow roads, where it's common for visitors to get stuck in traffic during the summer.

What Lake Maggiore has to offer

Maggiore, with its small villages, lakeside villas, and glacial origin, creates a vibrant Italian backdrop as good as any in the country — arguably, one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. To make the most of your time, Rick Steves recommends island hopping, something Lake Como doesn't really offer since it only has one, Isola Comacina. The best islands for art, history, and nature include Isola dei Pescatori (Lake Maggiore's smallest island), Isola Madre (the largest), and Isola Bella, the lake's priceless treasure of botanical beauty.

Even if you can't distinguish a tulip from a tiger lily, the botanical gardens at Isola Bella are worth a visit. There, you can explore the 17th-century Baroque palace Palazzo Borromeo and the Sala Napoleon, which showcases the bed that Napoleon and Josephine slept on when lodging there in 1797. Make sure to check out the astonishing Teatro Massimo, one of the most important monuments on the island. To put it into perspective, Isola Bella is so beautiful that Ernest Hemmingway used it as a setting for the final chapters of his book "A Farewell to Arms."

In addition to the Borromean Islands, there are also plenty of hiking and nature trails around Lake Maggiore. Adventure through the 8.5-mile Lungolago di Ispra da Ranco, an intermediate hike with several landmarks along the way. Not to mention an abundance of water activities, like water skiing, canoeing, and windsurfing. There are even two waterparks, Aquadventure Park in Baveno and Wave Water Park in Sesto Calende. 

Tips for your visit

Rick Steves notes that Lake Maggiore and Lake Como are approximately the same distance from Milan, each about an hour away. So why not choose the less crowded Lake Maggiore? The best way to get there is by train with the Milan-Luino line or, if you're coming from Piedmont, the Milan-Stresa train. For fewer crowds and milder weather, the best time to visit is in the spring or early fall. The temperatures are pleasant and the humidity is lower — not to mention, the garden flowers and the surrounding foliage look their very best! However, the lake remains open all year long. In regards to exploring Maggiore and the islands themselves, you'll need to use service boats or motor launches. You'll find ferries that connect the two sides of the lake from east to west and north to south.

If you were to choose one town to stay in, consider Cannobio, the last town before the Swiss border — a lakeside promenade with pastel buildings and 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century architecture. Or visit Luino, an Italian town with an active local population that'll make the time you spend there feel much more authentic than anywhere in Lake Como. Additionally, Lake Maggiore is generally more affordable, especially in terms of accommodations and dining, making it an excellent option for travelers on a budget who want to enjoy the beauty and charm of the Italian lakeside without breaking the bank.