Gardens and Villas of the Italian Lakes – Hidden Parks and Romantic Havens
The gardens and villas of the Italian Lakes are reason enough to spend time in this gorgeous part of northern Italy. There are few things more romantic than ambling the dreamy parks and gardens, hidden behind the high walls of former mansions now open to the public. And few things more fun for children.
The gardens and villas of the Italian Lakes in Northern Italy are a must-do for romantics, horticulturalists and families. I absolutely adore gardens. It’s surprising I don’t have a green thumb (everything we plant on our balcony here in Siem Reap seems to die), because as a child growing up in Sydney, I spent most of my waking hours playing in a garden. I’d be picking and arranging flowers, making mud pies under the shade of a huge tree, or ‘helping’ one of my grandparents by digging around with the tiny garden tools they’d bought me.
And we were blessed with big, flourishing gardens of greenery and flowers out front, vegetables out back, whether it was my Nanna and Pop’s garden at Northmead or my Russian grandparents garden at Blacktown (both, sadly, long-gone now, sold to developers and townhouses built in their place), or one of my parent’s garden. My favourite was at Lidcombe, not so much for our tidy, compact backyard but the massive plant nursery adjoining our property which the owner allowed me to play in after hours. It was wild.
It’s no wonder that I fell in love with the gardens and villas of the Italian Lakes. Behind imposing wrought iron gates, there’d be ancient trees shading pretty picnic tables, row upon row of perfumed rose gardens, extravagant fountains spurting into lily ponds, and sculpted hedges decorating manicured lawns.
And the villas themselves… dramatic staircases were decked with towering palms in massive ceramic pots, terraces dripped with crimson and purple bougainvillea, red geraniums filled flower boxes, and orchids and ferns hung in glass observatories where afternoon tea would have once been served.
As the affluence of the lakeside villas, verdant gardens and grand hotels that sprawl on the shores suggest, the Italian Lakes were a popular getaway spot for European nobility and grand tourists for centuries. Fortunately, many of these palatial villas and elegant parks are now open to the public and exploring their landscaped gardens and flamboyant interiors, filled with antiques and art, are a highlight of a trip here.
These are our favourite gardens and villas of the Italian Lakes that are open to the public, lake by lake.
Gardens and Villas of the Italian Lakes
The bewitching Borromeo Islands (Isole Borromee), just off Stresa on Lake Maggiore’s western shore, are arguably the most enchanting of any on the lakes. The islands are owned by the Borromeo family, who started buying them up in the sixteenth century. A day spent hopping between them by boat, exploring their beautifully landscaped gardens and gracious palaces, and enjoying the gorgeous vistas is an absolute delight. Especially when punctuated by a sublime lunch on the lake!
There are three islands, Isola Bella (Beautiful Island), Isola dei Pescatori (the island of fishermen, also called Isola Superiore), and Isola Madre, the largest. It makes sense to visit them in this order, but if you want a full day exploring and don’t want to rush around, then you’ll need to catch the earliest boat you can from Stresa. Buy all your tickets when you buy your boat tickets at the Stresa dock. Don’t panic if you miss a boat or you decide to spend longer on one island as there are also private boatmen on all of the islands.
Isola Bella (Beautiful Island), named after Countess Isabella Borromeo, is home to a Baroque summer palace and terraced gardens. The richly decorated palace, which Count Vitaliano Borromeo began building in 1632, is now a Pinacoteca (picture gallery) with priceless paintings, sculptures, antique furniture, and tapestries on display, however, it’s the gardens that most people come to experience.
Considered to be a fine example of the 17th century Italian garden style, they have ornate arrangements of flowers and plants set out on overlapping terraces (ten in all!), all carefully selected to ensure something is always in bloom from spring to autumn. Don’t miss the chapel with the family tombs and the cool mosaic grotto. Allow a minimum of one hour to a maximum of two hours to see the palace and gardens. Picnics aren’t allowed so you probably won’t want to stay longer.
Isola dei Pescatori (the island of fishermen, also called Isola Superiore), a favourite spot of Hemingway’s, is tiny – just 90 metres wide and 500 metres long – yet it’s a busy little fishing village of an island, where fishermen still live and work. Wander the lanes first (it won’t take long) where you’ll find Madonnas in shrines (to protect the fishermen) and nets strewn about. There are a handful of excellent seafood restaurants, which makes it a great choice for lunch.
The largest ‘Mother Island’, Isola Madre, boasts the most luxuriant gardens of all. Nicknamed the ‘Botanical Island’ it’s home to countless exotic plants and flowers, including the biggest Kashmir Cypress tree in Europe. The island also has an elegant villa which can be explored, with plush furnishings and paintings, and – the highlight for many – an enormous room-size puppet theatre with elaborately painted sets, beautifully-made marionettes, and various bits and pieces of puppet paraphernalia on display.
But once again, it’s the glorious gardens that most come for – dense forest with shaded paths and fine lake views, exotic palm trees and towering cactus, and whatever time of year you visit, flowers cascading everywhere. For garden lovers the times to visit are April for camellias and May for azaleas and rhododendrons, although you’re guaranteed to find something blooming throughout the year.
The splendid grounds of Villa Pallavicino near the lake in Stresa were opened to the public after World War II. The villa sits on a hill with views of the eastern shore of Lake Maggiore. There’s an abundance of flora, animals and birdlife in the lush 20-hectare botanical gardens and zoo, including peacocks and ostriches that roam around, and a wonderful park with picnic areas, a café-bar and a playground for the kids.
But like its neighbour, Verbania – they’re actually three towns in one, Suna, Intra and Pallanza; Mussolini named them all ‘Verbania’ in 1939 – has its fair share of gracious villas with luxuriant gardens, the most famous of which is Villa Taranto.
Giardini Botanici Villa Taranto
Boasting verdant terraces dotted with ponds, waterfalls, fountains, and pools floating with lilies, the botanical gardens of Villa Taranto on the Pallanza promontory overlooking the lake are beguiling. If there’s one local attraction you shouldn’t miss, it’s this lifetime labour of love of the intriguing Scotsman, Captain Neil Boyd McEacharn.
Born in 1884 to an affluent shipping and mining family with business interests in Australia, McEacharn visited Italy as a child, an experience that changed the life of this Eton and Oxford graduate, and Queen’s Royal archer, who decided to pursue his passion for botany.
Travelling to Italy in 1928 to source land to establish a research garden, McEacharn purchased La Crocetta from the Marquise of Sant’Elia, and began planting the 16 acres of land with seeds and plants from around the world. Forced to leave during World War II, he gifted the Italian State his garden on the condition it remained private, and set sail for Australia.
Returning after the war, McEacharn was begged by the Italians to open the gates to the public, which he did in 1952. In return, he was honoured with the keys to the city in 1963. Sadly, the Captain died a year later at his villa, but it was fittingly on a veranda with sweeping views of his beloved gardens.
McEacharn’s garden is admired for its combination of wild beauty and elegant symmetry – the result of his blending of the natural English Romantic garden style with the classic Italian style based on formal terraces and geometric patterns – but also his decades-long efforts to establish the garden on chestnut fields.
With more than 8,500 plant varieties, including rare specimens collected from around the globe, and acclimatised over long periods, it’s a superb example of a botanic garden where plants are placed in microclimates.
Highlights include the dahlia gardens (with over 300 varieties), avenues of azaleas, maple, rhododendron and camellia, carpets of heathers, greenhouse treasures, including the Victoria Amazonica, and rare lilies. All plants are labelled; you can also buy a guidebook at the entrance and follow the numbered arrows. Allow an hour or so to stroll the gardens.
Easily the most easygoing and enchanting of Italy’s lakes, tranquil Lake Orta (Lago d’Orta) lies just west of Lago Maggiore. Less developed than the other lakes, with elegant aristocratic villas and wooded hills surrounded the lake, it has an air of intimacy and exclusivity that the other lakes don’t possess.
It’s not open to the public, but you can experience fairytale Villa Crespi, just out of the village of Orta San Giulio, if you check into this magical Moorish-style boutique hotel (we stayed a night and it was heavenly; I’d return in a heartbeat) or dine at its Michelin-starred restaurant just outside the village (more on this in our Culinary Guide to the Italian Lakes, which we’re posting soon).
Lake Como has long been a popular destination among cultured travellers, and was probably the most popular lake with the grand tourists in the 19th century, when its fans included French writer Stendhal, Hungarian composer Franz Liszt, and English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.
Lake Como is the most famous for its many gracious lakeside villas with their lush manicured lawns and graceful garden with an abundance of tropical plants. I probably should have mentioned it earlier, but the Lakes have a Mediterranean climate, which is what allows the gardens to flourish and tropical plants to thrive.
One of my all-time favourite film directors, Luchino Visconti had fond memories of childhood summers spent at grand Villa Erba, not far from the city of Como, at Cernobbio. His love for the lakeside ancestral home permeated some of his films. (Remember the ball scene in The Leopard?)
Visconti returned to the villa to rehabilitate after becoming ill at the height of his career (he edited his film Ludwig here), but died four years later. Built by the family to entertain illustrious guests, the 19th century mannerist villa was indeed lavish and in 2003 was restored to its former splendour.
Now part of an exhibition and conference complex, the first floor Luchino Visconti rooms have been established as a museum dedicated to the director and the special bond he had to the Villa. While the sumptuous rooms are theoretically open to the public, they are closed if the property is booked for conferences or special events. Visits are by guided tour by appointment only, so Visconti fans (and anyone who loves snooping in beautiful houses) should book in advance.
Stunningly located on the edge of Lenno (you can arrive by foot or boat), on a small, steep headland overlooking the lake, Villa del Balbianello was built in 1787 by Cardinal Angelo Maria Durini, but is more famous as the home of 20th century explorer Count Guido Monzino who bequeathed his beloved house to his country.
Best known as the first Italian to have climbed Mount Everest, Monzino reached the summit in 1973. Architecturally, aside from its graceful loggia, there’s not a lot that’s notable about the enormous lemon and cream villa exterior. Rather it’s the alluring location, richly decorated interior and enchanting gardens that are special.
Inside the villa there’s a fascinating collection of precious objects, art and antiques, including pre-Colombian, Chinese, and African art, and beautiful 18th century French and English furniture. The Expedition Room contains an exhibition of personal mementoes, photos, flags, and memorabilia from Monzino’s trips, including the eight-dog sledge he used to reach the North Pole in 1971.
The Map Room in the loggia contains maps and geographical charts Monzino used, along with antique prints of the lake. In the adjoining Library are some four thousand volumes of books Monzino amassed, comprising the research materials he used to plan trips. Today these represent one of the most complete collections of books on alpine and polar expeditions.
The luxuriant gardens are the highlight, however, with their multiple levels, sweeping staircases and panoramic terraces with unparalleled lake and Alps vistas. Spilling down the steep hillside, with slopes of manicured lawn separated by neat hedges and foliage, the gardens are unique in that they don’t fit into either the ornate geometrical Italian form or the wild romantic English garden style that were fashionable at the time.
They’re probably a combination of both, with shaded paths adorned with marble statues and potted shrubs on the one hand, and the wild wooded parkland on the other. These are perhaps my favourite gardens on Lake Como.
Located in Tremezzo and originally built in 1690 for the Milanese noble, the Marchese Giorgio Clerici, the palatial pale pink Villa Carlotta (pictured above) was sold in 1801 to politician and patron of the arts, Battista Sommariva. It was Sommariva who started to develop the gardens and establish an exquisite art collection that drew travellers doing the grand tour to the villa.
However, it wasn’t until the second half of the 19th century, when Princess Marianne of Nassau bought the mansion and gave it to her daughter Carlotta as a wedding gift on her marriage to George II of Saxen-Meiningen, that the property was transformed into the thing of splendour it is today.
George was a passionate botanist and it was he and Carlotta who created the 14 acres of wonderful gardens that can be visited today. The front terraced Italian garden is the most dramatic, with its symmetrical staircases, walls of climbing roses, and geometrical arrangements of flowerbeds, hedges, fishponds, statues, and fountains, and its famous ‘tunnels’ of citrus trees.
But it’s the sprawling botanical gardens either side of, and behind, the villa that are most impressive with the forest of rhododendrons, bamboo gardens, rock garden, fern valley, rare azaleas, and ‘theatre of greenery’. Paths meander through the magnificent woods and gardens, and while there is a café and snack bar in the greenhouse, there are several lovely picnic spots, so bring a picnic hamper.
Also worth an hour or two of your time is the restored neo-classical villa. The first floor (ground floor) is a museum with room after room of gorgeous art, sculpture, and precious objects. Highlights include a high relief depicting the Entrance of Alexander the Great in Babylon commissioned by Napoleon for the Pantheon in Paris in the Marble Room (room 1) and fine marble statues of saints from the Duomo in Milan in the Cameos room (room 3).
Also look out for the splendid statue of Eros and Psyche, carved from one piece of Carrara marble, by Antonio Tadolini (room 7), the beautiful Last Adieu of Romeo and Juliet (1823) by Francesco Hayez (room8), and the exquisite decorative ceiling (room 9).
The second floor has rooms furnished in the original period style, giving a fantastic insight into how Italian aristocrats lived at the time. The gallery is sumptuous with prettily decorated ceilings and chandeliers, however, the rest of the rooms, while elegant, are rather pared back in style, including Carlotta’s pink room.
In Bellagio, a ten-minute stroll along the lungo largo to Via P Carcano, in the direction of Como, will bring you to the marvellous gardens of the Villa Melzi, once the residence of Duke of Lodi, Francesco Melzi d’Eril, vice-president of Napoleon’s Italian republic.
The neo-classical mansion was built between 1808 and 1810 and its clean, sober lines allow the eyes to take in the gorgeous countryside and lovely gardens which sprawl along the shoreline.
Designed by architect Luigi Canonica and botanist Luigi Villoresi, who were responsible for Villa Reale north of Milan, the beautiful English gardens are dotted with sculptures, while the villa itself is also decorated with paintings and sculptures by some of most famous artists of the time, including Antonio Canova.
The Orangerie, once a greenhouse, is a tiny museum displaying objects from the Napoleonic period, including a bust of Napoleon and the keys to the city of Milan. Highlights include the Japanese gardens with ponds of water lilies, and a white and blue-tiled Moorish pavillion by the water.
A lot less tourist-focused that the other villas on the lake, and more interested in its income from conferences and film shoots, Villa Monastero at Varenna is nevertheless worth a look if you’re lucky enough to find it open.
A former Cistercian convent, founded in 1208 by followers of Saint Mary Magdalena from Comacina Island, but closed in the 16th century by San Carlo Borromeo due to the nun’s rather licentious behaviour, the elegant villa has been a centre for scientific studies since 1936 and is where Nobel Laureate physicist Enrico Fermi undertook his research.
While the villa’s rooms are furnished with antiques and artistic treasures, the highlight are the perfumed gardens with their panoramic lake views, pretty waterfront pathways, and elegant loggias that frame the lake, including the splendid entrance loggia, worth pausing at.
Il Vittoriale degli Italiani
Gardone Riviera’s main attraction is the ‘Il Vittoriale‘, more correctly, Vittoriale degli Italiani (the Shrine of Italian Victories), the weird and whimsical former residence of eccentric fascist poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, which boasts lavish gardens and a bizarre war museum.
D’Annunzio lived in the dark here for 17 years – he was photophobic so there could be no direct light anywhere in the house. A compulsory guided tour of the house (you can roam freely around the gardens) moves fairly rapidly through the labyrinthine, inter-connecting rooms, each decorated in a different theme or style, some reflecting the poet’s philosophical take on a subject, and all crammed with a compelling jumble of art, antiques and curiosities that D’Annunzio collected.
The tour (a warning: conducted in several languages sometimes, which can slow things down) begins in The Vestibule with its antique walnut choir stalls, before proceeding to two waiting rooms, one that the poet kept for friends, the other for unwelcome visitors such as Mussolini and creditors. Next is The Music Room, where pianist Luisa Baccara used to play; its fabric-draped walls resemble an Arabian tent. The ‘Zambracca’ dressing room features a cast of Michelangelo’s ‘Aurora’ and is where the poet died at his desk at 75 from a cerebral haemorrhage in 1938.
D’Annunzio’s bedroom is probably the most compelling, crammed with intriguing objects, cushions, and Persian carpets, while the Blue Bathroom will be the most cluttered bathroom you’ll ever see, packed with over 900 objects, from ceramic vases and statues to majolica tiles and plates on the walls, and Persian carpets on the floors. At the end of it all, you’ll either want to make a beeline for the nearest flea market for some re-decorating when you return home or be yearning to check into a minimalist hotel!
Spread over five terraces, the sprawling nine-hectare gardens are peppered with bizarre sculptures, statues, ponds, and fountains, but the strangest features must be the poet’s extraordinary wedding cake monument to himself, and below it, the navy ship embedded into the hillside – a memorial to two of D’Annunzio’s comrades who died during their invasion of Fiume, orchestrated by D’Annunzio himself, where he and his followers set up a (short-lived) government of their own.
Gardens and Villas of the Italian Lakes – Our Tips
- Note that many of the villas and gardens are only open from April to October, so check the websites (links above) for opening dates and times.
- Some allow picnics (others don’t), which we highly recommend.
- If you like the idea of wandering the gardens with a book of Italian poetry or a copy of I Promessi Sposi in hand, sign up for an Italian language course. In Milan, Dante Alighieri offers a classic ‘Italian for Foreigners’ course, while Inlingua has Italian classes in Como.
- If you’re not exploring the Italian Lakes by car, note that you can get to a lot of these places by ferry, but you’ll need to plan your days well. Check navigazionelaghi.it for timetables.
Have you visited any of the gardens and villas of the Italian Lakes? Do you have any favourites? Are there any that we’ve missed?