Ispra Travel Guide: Things to do in Ispra

Ispra Travel Guide: Things to do in Ispra

Ispra is a lakeside town on the eastern shores of Lake Maggiore. It is a charming town characterised by quaint, narrow streets lined with interesting shops and popular cafes. It’s only small – boasting approximately 5000 residents – but it boasts a wide range of amenities. This is in part due to the fact that it is also the base for the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC). Since multiple languages are spoken here, you’ll tend to find that the town itself is rather multi-cultural too.

What to do in Ispra

Whilst it’s admittedly not a ‘normal’ tourist attraction for those visiting Lake Maggiore, should you have an interest in the scientific research work that the JRC does, it is actually possible to take a guided tour of the facility.

However, Ispra can also boast plenty of other more common activities for holidaymakers to enjoy. These include some of the nicest beaches on Lake Maggiore. In fact, if visiting during the Summer months, Ispra has one of the longest stretches of waterfront promenades anywhere on Lake Maggiore. It also has a number of beaches where you can relax and enjoy the sun. These include everything from lakefronts that stretch into manicured lawns to rocky coves and even a small sandy beach too. And of course, like everywhere on Lake Maggiore, the lake is wonderful to swim in.

At the Fornaci beach in Ispra, you will be able to take the cycle track past the dilapidated old limestone kilns of Ispra. (Incidentally, this cycle path will eventually take you all the way to the nearby village of Ranco). Along with other villages on the eastern shores of Lake Maggiore such as Germignaga, Maccagno or Caldè, Ispra played a crucial role in the treating and production of lime in the first half of the 20th century. The kilns would have cooked the limestone to obtain lime which would then have been transported to Milan from Lake Maggiore by water. Local records show that lime was provided for the building of the Duomo in Milan. Sadly, the industry no longer operates in the area and the last furnace was closed back in 1960. Some furnaces have since collapsed completely, others have been turned into luxury villas and others are still visible along the road nicknamed Ring of the Furnaces.

Things to do in Ispra

There are a number of other attractive buildings to admire in Ispra too. These include Villa Rocchetta which was built in 1935 and which is used today as a venue for weddings and events. Also of note is Villa Ranci Ortigosa de Corti, Villa Sagramoso Brivio and Villa Quassa. The latter was the childhood home of Luigi Cadorna (1850-1928). Cadorna was an Italian general and Chief of the Staff of the Italian army from 1914-1917. Villa Quassa is also home to one of the largest parks on Lake Maggiore. Unfortunately, all these villas can only be admired from the outside though as they are privately owned and not open to the public.

However, last but definitely not least is Villa Castelli. This sits in the heart of Ispra and is surrounded by a beautiful park which is open to the public. At the park’s highest point, overlooking Lake Maggiore, is a small octagonal building which would once have been used as a hunting lodge.

Other buildings of note in Ispra include the Church of San Martino Vescovo. The church that stands today was built in the first half of the 18th century but it incorporates part of the 17th century church that stood before it. The main altar in the church was rebuilt in 1759 whilst the frescoes inside were only completed in 1909.

Our favourite spot in Ispra though is the Castelbarco mausoleum. It’s only possible to view it from the outside and it’s only opened on very rare occasions. This sepulchral monument was constructed using white granite whilst the interior is in red granite. Both were sourced from quarries in Baveno. A four column pronaos surmounted by a triangular tympanum leads to the entrance to the mausoleum. The building itself is laid out over two levels. The upper chapel is covered by a large dome whilst below there is another chapel where the sarcophagus of Antonietta Castelbarco has been kept since 1864. Other family members lie in adjacent chapels. And in front of the mausoleum is a staircase which takes you all the way back to the lakeside.

There is one last thing to see before you leave Ispra – the ruins of the 13th century Castle of San Cristoforo which sits atop the Monte del Prete. Built in Medieval times, this modest structure has been in ruins for centuries but still has a charm to it. Originally it would have served to protect Ispra from frequent raids and was probably originally part of a much larger series of fortifications. These days, all that is left are some parts of the perimeter walls, a small cistern building and parts of the large quadrangular tower. Visitors can also explore its gardens.

Where to stay in Ispra

The aptly named Villa Ispra is a lakeside four bedroom villa in Ispra which is the perfect base from which to explore the town.

Alternatively, Villa Ranco is in the neighbouring village of Ranco which can be reached by bike from Ispra in approximately 15 minutes, or even on foot in just over an hour. Also situated directly on the lakeside, this Lake Maggiore villa has 3 bedrooms and sleeps up to 6 guests.

Restaurants in Ispra

Despite its small size, Ispra punches above its weight when it comes to restaurants. One of the most popular restaurants in Ispra serves up German rather than Italian food. This is La Baita. Staff here are excellent and always very welcoming… and the German beer is also popular too!

Alternatively, head to Ristorante dei Limoni. This serves up pizzas, meat and fish dishes. If you’re a fan of seafood, then this is definitely worth a visit. Tables can be booked online.

How to get to Ispra

By plane: The nearest airport is Milan Malpensa. This is only a 30-45 minute drive away dependent on traffic. Alternatively Milan Linate is 60-90 minutes away and Milan Bergamo a bit further on again.

By boat: Ispra boasts its own boat stop. Public boats take passengers from here to other towns and villages on the lake including Angera and Arona in one direction and Santa Caterina del Sasso and Isola Bella in the other. The ferry timetable can be viewed at Navigazione Laghi. Tickets can be purchased online. Services tend to run only in the Summer months when tourist numbers are higher. Please note that in exceptional years, when the water levels in the lake are low, it may be necessary to suspend boat services from Ispra since the boats can not reach the port.

By car: We do recommend coming by car if you are staying here for a few days. It will allow you to more easily explore some of the activities that are nearby but outside the town itself.

By bus: Buses run from Ispra to nearby cities such as Sesto Calende and Varese. From here you can easily take a train to Milan or to the airport. Buses run hourly.