Lake Orta, Italy
If Lake Como is for the rich and famous and Lake Maggiore is for the garden lovers, Lake Orta is for travelers who like to be the first to discover hidden gems. This secret sister to the Italian Lakes is frequented by mostly the Milanese on the weekends, and practically empty otherwise.
Lago D’Orta is a quiet day trip from Lake Maggiore and we spent a leisurely day exploring its sleepy medieval towns, island monastery and colorful piazza. Our local guide showed us the island and lakeside hot spots, but I didn’t even realize at the time that it was an entirely separate lake!
While it might not be as popular as the other lakes of Northern Italy, Lake Orta makes up for it in charm. Here’s some insider tips for what to see and do in Lake Orta, with lots of photos so you can see it for yourself!
Lake Orta’s nickname among the Milanese is La Cenerentola, or Cinderella, as local Italians think it’s just as beautiful as its more popular neighbors and a bit of a hidden gem. If you visit, you’ll find the lake quite peaceful, with soaring mountains in the backdrop and misty low hanging clouds. Noticeably what you won’t find are the huge tourist hoards which crowd Maggiore and Como!
I loved it! It felt really quaint and a bit old fashioned, but in a peaceful way. We first took a boat to visit the island monastery of San Giulio.
Isola San Giulio
San Giulio Island is a tiny island in the middle of Lake Orta, easily walkable in under an hour. The main thing to see is the Benedictine monastery, with its pretty pastel frescoes and opulent sculptures. Only a handful of nuns live on the entire island to take care of the basilica so San Giulio feels like a peaceful step back in time.
Signs guide visitors around the church. Going one way, you can take “the way of silence” while the opposite path guides you to the “way of meditation”. After exploring the basilica, take the circular path outside which takes you on a walking route of the entire small island.
Our guide mentioned there used to be families who lived on San Giulio but they’ve mostly left, leaving behind their dilapidated villas. I was really amused by all the funky door knockers they had! San Giulio is a spiritual place – every couple yards you’ll find meditation quotes and inspirational snippets of wisdom. I think you’re meant to walk the main street of silence in contemplation.
From here, we took a boat to reach Orta’s main town.
The boat ride itself was a short, calm ride and the perfect way to see all of Orta’s beautiful waterfront villas. Most homes have their own dock and small boat, covered by curving ivy leaves. Each palazzo on the shore is a slightly different shade of pastel, which stands out from the deep blue water and misty mountains. While all of the homes looked a bit old and faded, it definitely contributed to the romantic atmosphere!
After just a couple minutes, we reached Orta San Giulio, the main village.
Orta San Giulio
Orta San Giulio is a small pedestrian town with a colorful main piazza and two important churches: a 12th century basilica and 19th century monastery. The town was originally named Lago di San Giulio, after the local patron Saint Julius.
Today, the town remains famous for religious pilgrimage due to its position on the slope of Sacro Monte, one of 9 sacred mountains in Northern Italy. There are over 20 chapels built into these cliffs, all dedicated to Saint Francis of Assisi, and UNESCO has classified Orta San Giulio on its World Heritage List.
Religious affiliations aside, Lake Orta is worth a visit for its romantic atmosphere. Enveloped by thick woodland, backed by tall mountains and occasionally hidden by misty fog, the medieval villages of Orta are captivating. Aside from a day tripping tour group, we had the entire town to ourselves!
Things to Do in Lake Orta
You can easily visit Lake Orta in one leisurely afternoon. The main sights are really not much at all – just leisurely exploration on food, a peek inside the pretty churches and some sunbathing or gelato by the docks.
1. Visit the Benedictine Monastery
Ferry captains will take you to the tiny church island for just 4 to 5 euros round trip. Learn about the local nuns and then explore the path which circles the monastery and takes you in a full loop around the island.
2. Climb Sacro Monte
Hikers will appreciate the fresh air and fantastic views high up on the mountain.
3. Swim at Orta Beach Club
If you want to go for a dip, don’t do it at the harbor. All the constant ferry activity can be dangerous. Instead, head to Orta Beach Club for a proper swim or just sunbathe on their lounge chairs. You can also rent kayaks!
4. Visit the Church of the Assumption
This quaint yellow church sits on a hill overlooking the town. Climb the steps for some great views of Piazza Mote and see where all the locals get married.
5. Grab Gelato at Pan Vino
This is the best gelato shop in town (maybe even the entire Italian Lakes region) and conveniently located right on the main piazza. Grab a cone, fill it with two of their house-made gelato flavors and enjoy it on the waterfront benches.
6. Visit During the Poetry Festival
In the 19th century, many writers and poets were drawn to Orta’s mystical qualities and Friedrich Nietzsche, Lord Byron, Honoré de Balzac and Robert Browning were all frequent visitors. Orta holds a popular poetry festival each fall, where poets from all over the world get to indulge their imaginations for a week or so!
Where to Stay in Lake Orta
Orta is not a tourist hot spot, so most accommodations in the area are family run, inexpensive hotels. AirBnB is a great option as well, especially if you plan to stay for a longer period. You can get $40 off your first AirBnB stay here.
But without a doubt, the place to stay in Lake Orta is Villa Crespi. This luxurious Moorish-style castle has exquisite apartments that are lavishly decorated. There’s also a fantastic on-site restaurant that has two Michelin stars where chef Antonio Cannavacciulo focuses on modern Mediterranean cuisine and incredibly fresh seafood. This is the place to treat yourself!
From Milan to Lake Orta
Lake Orta is about 130 km from Turin, and about 70 km from Milan. We went from Milan via car and the journey took roughly an hour.
Which lake are you most looking forward to visiting?