An island paradise in Switzerland: Brissago Islands, Lago Maggiore

Just like you wouldn’t expect the team of a landlocked country to win a major international sailing competition, you probably wouldn’t expect to find an island paradise in Switzerland either. And yet… Switzerland won the America’s Cup in 2007, and is also home to the Brissago Islands with a lush subtropical garden.

The Brissago Islands, or Isole di Brissago, are two islands in Lago Maggiore in the southern Swiss canton of Ticino. Lago Maggiore stretches from Switzerland all the way to Italy, but the islands are located in Swiss waters and are easily accessible by boat from Ascona.

Brissago Islands

Taking the boat to the Brissago Islands

The boat takes you straight to Grande Isola, also known as San Pancrazio, which is the larger of the two as the name suggests and home to a grand mansion and the superb botanical gardens with over 1700 plant species. The smaller island, called Isola di Sant’Apollinare, Isolino or Isola Piccola, is left in a natural state with indigenous vegetation.

View from the boat on Lago Maggiore

View from the boat on Lago Maggiore

Just to remind you you are still in Switzerland!

Just to remind you you are still in Switzerland!

The Brissago Islands have been through a series of ownership changes over the last 130 years. In the late 19th century, the islands were owned by the St. Leger family, who purchased them complete with the remains of an old convent. They restored the convent and developed what is now the big botanical garden that stretches all over the Grande Isola by creating pathways and bringing in subtropical plant species.

Wildlife on the island

Wildlife on the island

Max Emden, a businessman from Hamburg, bought the islands in the late 1920s, establishing a grand mansion building and roman bath on Grande Isola but mostly leaving the botanical gardens untouched in their layout and vegetation.

The villa on the island

The villa on the island

Emden’s heirs later sold the islands to the government of the Canton of Ticino and the leagues for national heritage and nature conservation in 1949, under the condition that the islands be used for the purpose of conservation, to give the public access to the botanical gardens for tourism and cultural activities.

Vegetation on the Brissago Islands

Vegetation on the Brissago Islands

The variety of plants to be found in the 2.5 hectare botanical garden of Grande Isola include palm and eucalyptus trees, bamboo, lotus blossoms, ferns, cypresses, banana plants and even sequoias. The mild climate of the islands is due to the alps protecting the area from the cold air, which in turn also enables the waters of the lake to store warmth better, and thus allows plant species normally found in subtropical areas such as Asia, Australia, South Africa, America and Oceania to flourish on a small island in a lake at the southern end of Switzerland.

Mini lido

The roman bath on Grande Isola

The Brissago Islands are a beautiful little surprise to the first time visitor of Switzerland and show how a country that is thought of as the mecca for chocolates, mountains and winter sport offers a lot more than its stereotype suggests, and spoils its visitors with a taste of subtropical vegetation in the middle of a large lake!

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Have you visited Ticino or the island paradise of the Brissago Islands?

Christina Hegele

About the author: Christina Hegele runs Sandal Road, a blog on her favourite destinations. It just so happened that 95% turned out to be about New Zealand. Follow Christina and her blog on Twitter, like her blog on Facebook, and subscribe to her Youtube channel. Alternatively, subscribe to her email newsletter at the top right of this blog.

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  27 comments for “An island paradise in Switzerland: Brissago Islands, Lago Maggiore

  1. 4 September, 2011 at 20:38

    I’ve been in Switzerland heaps but not in Ticino yet. Looks beautiful.

    Funny about that great seafaring nation Switzerland winning the America’s Cup, eh? Twice even. We lived in New Zealand in 2003 when Alinghi won the first time. The Kiwis were pretty miffed, especially since the “Swiss” crew were mostly Kiwis. Ah, lively times…

    • Christina
      7 September, 2011 at 13:39

      Must have been interesting to experience the reactions in NZ when the Swiss took the America’s Cup! As you said, the Kiwis might as well have celebrated, since they made up almost all of the Alinghi’s crew!

  2. 4 September, 2011 at 21:02

    How lovely! i’ve never even heard of Ticino!

    thanks for sharing this place…

  3. 5 September, 2011 at 05:17

    You are right, I wouldn’t have expected such lush tropicla vegetation in Switzerland. Thanks to you I now know better.

  4. 5 September, 2011 at 13:44

    I have been lucky to visit Lake Como recently and next time would love to include Lake Maggiore – they look just the same except for the flags flying!!!

    • Christina
      7 September, 2011 at 13:40

      Lake Como is beautiful, too, and only an hour’s drive away. It’s a great region if you want palm trees, lakes and mountains at the same time.

  5. 5 September, 2011 at 13:50

    I didn’t know this area existed. Looks like a nice vacation spot.

  6. 5 September, 2011 at 21:20

    You’re right – I wouldn’t have expected to find this in Switzerland. But how beautiful it is! Interesting background information, too.

    • Christina
      7 September, 2011 at 13:41

      Switzerland is full of surprises!

  7. 5 September, 2011 at 22:47

    Looks like a nice relaxing destination!

  8. 6 September, 2011 at 18:05

    I never knew there would be islands in Switzerland. Plus it looks like a tropical resort.

  9. 6 September, 2011 at 22:41

    I’ve only been to Lago di Como (so far). Lago Maggiore looks equally beautiful!

  10. 7 September, 2011 at 05:05

    Eucalyptus trees in Switzerland??? Wow, you learn something new every day.
    It does look like a very interesting place to visit. I love quirky destinations and we may be visiting Switzerland next year. Thanks for the headsup!

    • Christina
      7 September, 2011 at 13:43

      I know, the variety of plant species is quite mind-boggling. One minute you walk through bamboo forest, then you hit the little beach, and then there are palm trees before you see the Roman bath! Quite a mix.

  11. 7 September, 2011 at 13:18

    I was expecting the island paradise to have heaps of snow covering it! =P Kali and I really want to visit Switzerland, but we’ll have to time it right to get the best weather. Some places it probably wouldn’t matter much, but Switzerland doesn’t seem like one of those…

    • Christina
      7 September, 2011 at 13:45

      I suggest to visit in spring. It can be quite warm already, especially around Ascona and Lugano, but you’ll still see the mountain tops covered in snow!

  12. 7 September, 2011 at 14:18

    Definitely a side of Switzerland I haven´t seen before – thanks!

    • Christina
      7 September, 2011 at 22:12

      I’m glad I showed you a side of this country that you hadn’t seen before. Most people associate Switzerland with the German-speaking part, with alps and cows and cheese and chocolate fondue and superb skiing. But Ticino, southern Switzerland, is often lesser known, and a nice blend of Italian and Swiss cultures.

  13. 7 September, 2011 at 17:30


    The first thing to come out of my mouth when viewing your second pic was “Sweet Jesus!”. I’m in love with Switzerland!! I think I’m going to have to have a talk with God because I am not going to live long enough to see everything that I want to see! LOL!

    • Christina
      7 September, 2011 at 22:13

      Ah thanks, Renee, I’m delighted you had such a strong positive reaction to my pictures! 😀

  14. 8 September, 2011 at 15:45

    Very interesting! I never would have guessed that was in Switzerland, when I think of sub-tropical, I don’t normally think of Switzerland.

  15. 8 September, 2011 at 17:07

    Definitely looks a lot like Italy. However, I never would have guessed this is Switzerland! There goes any jokes about selling someone beach front property in Switzerland!

    • Christina
      13 September, 2011 at 13:22

      I know, it looks so un-Swiss in what is our general perception of the country. Glad I introduced a few to beautiful subtropical Switzerland!

  16. 17 March, 2012 at 16:42

    That is completely unexpected! I love it. I also really like that you added the map.

  17. Felix
    18 March, 2013 at 13:44

    When on Brissago, try to smoke a “Brissago”!

    • Christina
      18 March, 2013 at 21:59

      I shall keep that in mind for next time! Thanks for stopping by, Felix!

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