A family holiday in the Italian Lakes that kept parents and teens happy. Essentials included: swimming and sunbathing, fashion shopping in Milan and designer discount discoveries across the border in Switzerland.
- The Italian Lake District
- Boat trips
- Swimming in the lakes
- Wonderful scenery
- Fashion outlet shopping
Who went Cath, David and their daughters Caitlin, 19, and Alice, 15
Where did you go and how did you get there Cath: We flew Ryanair from London Stansted to Turin and returned from Milan Bergamo. We hired a car and spent two weeks in the Italian Lake District of Piedmont and Lombardy
When July 2015 for two weeks
Itinerary For the first couple of days we stayed with Italian friends in Turin and then drove on to Lake Maggiore. We stayed here for a week then drove to Lake Como for three nights. We rounded off the trip with two nights in Milan.
Two days in Turin
We hadn’t visited Turin before and it was a revelation. It’s an elegant city with architecture from the Renaissance through to Art Nouveau, though much of it was built by the Savoy family in the eighteenth century. People associate Turin with the Fiat factory but that’s out on the outskirts – the centre has wide boulevards, beautiful buildings and airy piazzas.
On the first day our friends drove us around the city to point out the sights. We went to the Mole Antonelliana – the city’s most famous landmark – which was originally a synagogue. It’s now a museum of Italian cinema with a restaurant and a glass lift to the top of the tower for views. We had ice-cream, ate in the restaurant then drove up to the viewing point at Monte dei Cappuccini. There are amazing views over the city and the River Po.
On the second day we took the tram into town and toured the city on foot. Most key sights are within walking distance and the tram and metro systems are brilliant.
We wandered around the shops – Caitlin’s studying to be a fashion buyer so visits to Prada and Armani were a must. Everyone spoke English and was very friendly – unlike the rather hushed atmosphere in some of London’s fashion stores. Many of the shops are in grand arcades, along with some of Turin’s famous historic cafés.
For lunch we ate piadine – wraps made from a thin Italian flatbread and sold in cafés or as street food. It’s typical of the region and you can choose your own fillings like prosciutto and salad or mozzarella and tomato.
More must-sees and dos in Turin:
- Cafés visit Turin’s elegant and historic cafés like Caffè Fiorio, Cavour’s favoured HQ during the Risorgimento. Or perhaps try a bicerin at Caffè al Bicerin: a potent mix of espresso, bitter hot chocolate and whipped cream
- Chocolate the hazelnut and chocolate paste combo called gianduja, made famous by Nutella, was first created in Turin.
- The Shroud of Turin there’s an exhibition in Turin Cathedral although bear in mind that only a replica is currently on display.
- National Automobile Museum car buffs can get their Ferrari fix at Turin’s modern and interactive car museum which traces the history of motoring in Italy
- Gran Madre de Dio you’ll recognise this church from the Michael Caine film The Italian Job: the gang drove their Mini Coopers down the wide front steps.
A Week at Lake Maggiore
From Turin we drove to Lake Maggiore, which is about an hour away. The scenery is breathtaking: mountains, lake, pine trees, everything is on a grand scale.
We’d rented a lakeside villa on the east coast of Maggiore near Porto Valtravaglia. It’s about two miles in each direction from Luino and Laveno. There are plenty of villas to be had with swimming pools and we debated several before going for a lakeside location. After all, why swim in a pool when you can have a lake! We can completely recommend it. We could hop into the lake from the end of the garden – along with the ducks and geese who’d join us for breakfast too.
Our trip luckily coincided with an Italian heatwave so the water was warm (and relatively clean). We spent most of our time swimming, sunbathing, reading or walking into Luino to the supermarket. There was a local restaurant a five-minute stroll away along the ‘beach’.
As far as we could see we were the only English people around. Luino is a little working town, not touristy at all. Laveno is prettier with a few bars to sit outside in the evening.
There are a lot of second homes in the area and a boat hire service too.
We cooked for ourselves most of the time and ate watching the sunset over mountains and lake.
One night we booked a lakeside table for supper at Montesole, which has wonderful views. It was full of Italian families and couples – all glammed up to the max. Even at the local locanda, dressing down is not an option. The food, local dishes and pizzas, was delicious and the whole meal plus wine cost around 80 euros for the four of us – great value.
We loved the villa – it has huge windows and beautiful lake-and-mountain views from every room. What a treat to wake up to every morning.
A secret lake in the Alps
We took a couple of day trips from Porto Valtravaglia. Laveno has a car ferry and we used that to cross the lake and go up into the low Alps, to Domodossola to visit the brother and grandparents of our Turin friends. They took us to a ‘secret’ lake called Antrona.
It was like something out of a fairytale and very peaceful, there were only a few local families there. We didn’t take swimming kit but wished we had. Usually it isn’t warm enough to swim there but thanks to the heatwave it would probably have been OK.
Instead we took a long stroll around the edge of the lake. The path leads under a waterfall at one point.
It is one of the most magical places we’ve ever been to.
Fashion discount shopping
In complete contrast, on another day we went to the FoxTown outlet stores in Mendrisio, Switzerland. This is an air-conditioned mall on three levels with pretty much every major fashion designer at discount prices. The language is still Italian but prices are in Swiss francs – we paid by credit card to avoid changing money again. I bought two Furla handbags (I know) which were really well priced and significantly cheaper than the bags we saw at sale prices in Milan later. We drove through Lugano to get there – it’s a pretty city and would have been a good place to stop off and look round.
Visiting Isola Bella
Our final day trip was to Isola Bella. This is a beautiful island on Maggiore famous for its palace and terraced gardens owned by the Borromeo family.
In hindsight we might have been better catching a passenger ferry to get there. In the event we crossed the lake on the car ferry and then drove direct to Stresa which is the main hub for island visits. The atmosphere felt different as soon as we arrived. Touts surrounded us selling tickets for the boats to the island, we were hurried and hassled and ended up getting on a private taxi boat which seemed an expensive option. Isola Bella is very beautiful but it felt like a tourist trap. The main focus of the island is the palazzo and gardens for which you pay an entrance fee. There isn’t a great deal to do apart from that and the inevitable souvenir shops. In the end David looked round the gardens and the girls and I settled down in a café. It felt very different to everywhere else we’d been on the holiday – and not in a good way.
On the water on Lake Como
After a week on Maggiore we drove on to Lake Como. The drive was a very picturesque route along Lake Lugano that’s worth doing just for the scenery. Como was a lot more busy and upmarket than Maggiore. It’s slightly more built up as well but that hardly matters when the buildings are lavish eighteenth and nineteenth century villas. We spent three days in Lenno in a beautiful modern apartment with a pool that we’d booked through AirBnB. We were up high this time and had to drive when we went into Lenno but the views made up for it.
Lenno is a pretty village with lots of bars and restaurants along the waterfront and was fun to stroll around in the evening.
Neighbouring Mennagio is bigger but equally picturesque – we went there to hire a boat one day.
We took it out on the lake for three hours which was plenty of time for us all to practise our speedboat driving skills. And get a close up view of the villas from the water.
Shopping in Milan
We finished our trip with a couple of nights in Milan before flying home. We booked an apartment through AirBnB which was reasonably priced though less memorable than our find on Lake Como. We used the metro which is efficient and easy, and did some more shopping and sightseeing. David and Alice went to the Duomo, Milan’s gothic cathedral with a rooftop view to the Alps.
Caitlin and I went to a temple of commerce instead: the Duomo branch of Zara has a vast marble entrance hall with sweeping staircases – very Milan!
What went wrong?
The villa at Lake Maggiore didn’t have air-conditioning and it was so hot that we had to buy a fan. We had difficulty finding one too because of the heatwave but we were reimbursed by the villa’s manager. There were mosquitoes there – but we were prepared for them!
Otherwise the only real annoyance was the boat taxi touts at Stresa. It was crowded and confusing and we felt we had been taken in by them.
Family Holiday in the Italian Lakes
Car hire – Maggiore
Villa on Lake Maggiore – Villa Alba BFY111 booked via bookingsforyou.com
Apartment on Lake Como – Residenza Simona, Mezzegra booked via AirBnB
Photos taken by Cath and family are all rights reserved.