The poet Robert Browning described Lake Orta as being the place where ‘the Alps meet heaven’, and maybe he was right. Lake Orta is located in the Piedmont region in northern Italy, it is a quiet spot for a relaxing getaway or even for a longer stay. If you want to stay away from the busy Lake Como, then Orta is the ideal alternative. Read on to discover everything about the top things to do in Lake Orta and how to enjoy your time there.
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But first, let’s get ready for Italy!
RESOURCES TO PLAN YOUR TRIP TO ITALY!
Book your flight: I use Skyscanner to compare prices before booking a plane ticket.
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Book your car: The best way to find an affordable car to rent is to use a powerful search engine that compares all the rental companies in the market. I use Discover Cars.
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Don’t forget travel insurance: Things can go wrong at times, but travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. I recommend Safety Wing for peace of mind.
Top Things to Do in Lake Orta
Basic Things to Know About Lake Orta
Are you getting ready to visit this destination in Piedmont? Besides making your list of all the best things to do in Lake Orta, it is also a good idea to get ready before the trip by discovering important details you need to know about the area, from where to sleep, to the best places to eat, and how to move around. So let’s begin with some basics:
Where is Lake Orta
Lake Orta is located in the northeastern region of Piedmont, in northern Italy. However, the lake is closer to Milan (in the Lombardy region), about 87 kilometers from Milan than from Turin (the capital of Piedmont). Lake Orta is, in fact, 130 kilometers from Turin.
How to Get to Lake Orta
It is possible to travel from Milan by train, there is a service that departs from Milano Centrale as well as a regional train from Milano Porta Venezia station.
The trip can take from 2 to 2.5 hours. It is a better idea to drive, though. The ride is a bit more than 86 kilometers along highway E62.
When is the Best Time to Visit Lake Orta
Spring and summer are the best seasons to enjoy warm temperatures and even go for a swim. However, keep in mind that, especially in summer, locals love to spend time in the area, therefore places tend to be crowded.
As a consequence, prices tend to go up as well. If you’re traveling in the high season and planning to spend a few days in the area, I strongly recommend booking your accommodation in advance.
During fall and winter, the atmosphere is quieter with fewer visitors (except if it’s a sunny weekend!). Although temperatures can drop to near 0 °C, it may be rainy, and it can even snow, the area is still enchanting, and navigating the lake is possible provided the weather is pleasant.
Where to Stay in Lake Orta
If you are getting ready for a stay in the area, keep in mind that the area is a popular destination, especially during the high season (from late May to early September).
For that reason, booking in advance will get you enough availability to choose from and even better fees. These are the places I suggest in Lake Orta:
- Convenient: Agriturismo Il Cucchiaio di Legno is a comfortable venue with a spa and bed and breakfast style. Located in Orta San Giulio, overlooking the lake, the place also offers a restaurant and free parking for guests.
Click here for more information and to get the latest prices.
- Mid-range: Residence Casa Sul Lago is also located in Orta San Giulio, this villa on the shores of Lake Orta offers a private beach and modern apartments with panoramic lake views.
Click here for more information and to get the latest prices.
- Luxury: Check out Relais & Chateaux Villa Crespi for a top stay in Orta San Giulio. This unique property boasts an excellent location and a gorgeous restaurant. The venue is in an impressive 19th-century building surrounded by private gardens and access to the lake.
Click here for more information and to get the latest prices. Compare prices here.
- If you still have not found the right place to stay, check this link to find the best hotel deals as well as rental homes in the area.
Best Things to Do in Lake Orta
Italian lakes have grown a reputation as luxury retreats. Postcard-like landscapes and extreme relaxation are features that have attracted visitors looking for rest, inspiration, and magnificent nature for decades. Lake Orta is not any different.
Among the things to do in Lake Orta, visitors enjoy sailing and swimming, but also like to relax in a stylish villa and soak in the magnificent landscape around the area.
In the afternoon, they enjoy walking the cobblestone centennial promenades or sitting for an aperitivo at a seafront café for a long chat with friends. However, there is more to do and see in the area…
Sail From Pella to Isola San Giulio
This is the most obvious thing to do when you visit. Navigating the lake and reaching the tiny Isola San Giulio is one of the best things to do in Lake Orta!
You can jump on a boat departing from the small marina of Pella, along the waterfront promenade. The ride is short and often quiet, and if you’re traveling in spring, you will probably ride on an almost empty boat.
If you want to book before getting there, this hop-on-hop-off tour takes you directly to Orta San Giulo.
We sailed from the town of Pella, but there are boats also leaving from San Filiberto and Lagna, two small towns further south of the lake.
The return ticket is about €4.50 however prices change according to your point of departure. All fees and timetables (including winter and summer updates) can be found on this website.
The navigation time from Pella to Orta San Giulio is about 10 minutes.
Visit the Benedictine Monastery on Isola San Giulio
The enchanting islet of San Giulio is 275 meters long and 140 meters wide, which means that you can walk around it in about an hour.
The whole area has been a Benedictine Monastery for the last thirty decades and it is, of course, traffic-free.
In the Early Middle Ages, the island’s strategic location made it an important defensive point in the region of Novara, even a castle was built on the island by a former bishop of the region. However, most of it was demolished back in 1841 to allow for the enlargement of the monastic buildings.
When visiting the monastery, there are a few things you can enjoy doing, my favorite was walking the different suggestive paths that surround the premises of the monastery.
There are two paths you can walk, La Via del Silenzio (Pathway of Silence) goes in one direction; La Via della Meditazione (Pathway of Meditation) goes in the opposite direction.
On Isola San Giulio, there are a few small cafés where you can sit for a while and some souvenir shops as well.
On the small island, the pace of life is slower than on the mainland, you will come across nuns holding books but also families wandering the little port waiting for water buses.
About San Gulio
According to the legend, San Giulio (Julius of Novara) founded his church here in the fourth century AD when the island was the lair of a giant serpent, which used the island to attack nearby villages.
But the saint, with his ability to command the waves, stood on his cloak over the water and managed to send the monster away.
Basilica San Giulio
The church you can visit today mostly dates back to the twelfth century, although there are more modern additions.
It is believed to have been constructed on top of an ancient Christian church from at least the fifth century.
The basilica is built in the Romanesque style and it features a single nave and two aisles.
The interior of the church was refurbished back in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with new architectonical elements in the Baroque style.
The few nuns that live here and run the monastery also take care of the basilica.
Ferry to Orta
From the monastery, you can jump on the boat again to visit another favorite attraction in the area, Orta or Orta San Giulio is a small town overlooking the small island, where dozens of tourists flock every summer to unwind and relax, eat by the lake, or simply walk around the settlement.
The town itself is on a promontory on the eastern bank of the lake and it is famous for the Sacro Monte, a pilgrimage site part of UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
Built in traditional northern style, the pastel houses lining up the narrow, cobblestoned alley feature picturesque balconies with flowerpots and colorful wooden shutters.
If you’re looking for a very Italian place, quieter than Lakes Como or Lake Maggiore, then you can’t miss spending some time in Orta.
San Rocco Church
One of the places to visit in town is the tiny church dedicated to San Rocco, which is located on a tiny corner, on via Gippini, at the entrance of the historic part of the village, and is a delightful example of Baroque architecture.
The small temple dates from 1631, and the villagers ordered the construction to thank the saint after getting rid of the Great Milan Plague (1629-1631).
The church features the saint on the external fresco located on top of the access door. If you happen to visit on August 16, then don’t miss the celebrations!
Lake Navigation from Orta San Giulio
It is a good idea to do a bout tour of the lake if you want to learn more about the area as well as to see several other settlements, other than Pella and Isola San Giulio.
There are several companies offering the tour, however, I preferred booking with Consorzio Navigazione Orta San Giulio, the oldest and biggest company on the lake which has earned a good reputation for its excursions.
This organized boat trip departs from Piazza Motta in Orta and it lasts about an hour. It offers a panoramic tour of the lake to discover the Orta peninsula, spotting highlights, and landmarks along the coast, including the gorgeous Buccione Tower, San Giulio Island, the waterfront of Pella and Lagna as well as the stunning Orta skyline. This is the best way to fully appreciate the lake and the small village overlooking it.
Click here for more information and to get the latest prices.
Shop for Traditional Gastronomic Products
The path right at the angle of the church leads to the center of the village where you will find ice cream parlors, pizza places, and traditional shops where you can purchase local products and unique pottery souvenirs.
Several alleys lead you to the main square, Piazza Motta, where more restaurants and cafeterias with views of the lake are animated with visitors having a drink.
However, walking along these small winding alleys is perfect to find unique Italian gastronomic products, including pasta with unusual shapes and colors, and an insane variety of salami, prosciutto, and other delicious cold cuts and cheese.
Another staple product you can get in the area is the wine from Piedmont. Italy features 20 different major wine regions, and Piedmont ranks sixth in the highest production volume.
Some of the favorite wines produced in the area are the following
- Barbera (for instance, Barbera d’Asti, Barbera del Monferrato Superiore, Barbera d’Alba, Colli Tortonesi Barbera, Piemonte Barbera, etc.)
- Dolcetto (for instance, Dolcetto d’Alba, Dolcetto d’Asti, Dolcetto d’Acqui, Dolcetto di Ovada, etc.)
- Nebbiolo (for instance, Barbaresco, Barolo, Nebbiolo d’Alba, Langhe Nebbiolo, Colline Novaresi, Piemonte Nebbiolo, etc.)
- Other important red varieties include Brachetto, Grignolino, and Malvasia.
- Among the whites, Piedmont is known for varieties such as Moscato Bianco, Cortese, and Chardonnay among others.
Wednesdays are busy days in Orta San Giulio because that’s the day when the weekly public market happens.
So don’t forget to carry your coin purse with you and head to Piazza Motta, the village’s main square in order to indulge in local products.
At the market, you will also find some interesting fashion bargains and other souvenirs, including old books and magazines.
Around the area, the whole place gets animated with visitors from nearby villages. The bars and restaurants around the square are filled up with shoppers taking a break as well as tourists while there are boats sailing the lake back and forth from the tiny island too.
Characteristic buildings and wide flocks of stairs populate the area, while the Palazzotto della Comunità (Comunity Palace) imposes its presence on the visitors reaching Piazza Motta with its walls covered in ancient frescoes.
The Palazzotto is an important central structure with impressive frescoes and a colonnade, dating back to the 1500s.
The square, instead, faces the promenade and the marina, from where it’s also possible to navigate back to Pella.
Where to Eat Around the Lake
The culinary tradition is typical of the Piedmont region; for a simple yet genuine choice of tastes reach Edera, a small restaurant a few meters away from the Motta Square (Via Bersani 13-15).
Here you can try local mushrooms and fish. Kids will happily feast with huge hamburgers or simple dishes of pasta and will be treated as guests of honor.
Pizzeria La Campana is another option if you are interested in tasting a variety of unusual toppings other than the traditional Margherita.
Hike Along the Lake
As the path takes you further away from the central square and the more popular areas of the village, the path facing directly the lake is a great place for a bike ride, a hike, or simply to walk and take in the local atmosphere.
From the path by the water, it is possible to marvel at gorgeous views of the lake and the small Isola San Giulio as well. And if you get tired, sit by the water, and get a refreshment or an aperitivo in the true Italian style.
If you are looking for inspiration, the lake has always been loved by painters and writers. Friedrich Nietzsche, Samuel Butler, Lord Byron, Honoré de Balzac, and Robert Browning visited the lake and have referenced mentioned the surroundings in their works.
For more information get in touch with the municipality here.
Is Lake Orta in your travel plans?
Let me know in the comments below!
You might also want to read these other articles:
- Things to Know About Italy Before Your Trip – A guide to planning a holiday in Italy.
- Where to Go for the Next Summer Holidays in Greece – A guide to the best destinations to visit in Greece.
- How to Spend 3 Fantastic Weeks on the Road in Crete – A guide to organize a 3-week holiday in Crete.
- How to Spend 2 Days in Milan for an Awesome Escape in Italy – A short itinerary for an unforgettable weekend in Milan.
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About the author of this blog:
Gabi has been living in Crete for the last five years. On the island, she juggles being a solo mom, hosting culinary tours in summer, translating, and freelance writing.
She’s written for Greek Reporter, published several travel guides about Greece, and had more glasses of frappe than any regular person would be able to handle.
2 thoughts on “Top Things to Do in Lake Orta for a Peaceful Retreat in North Italy”
Italy is my fantasy travel destination… I so want to go there and settle too if situations permit… very nice pictures and informative post… Orta looks and sounds really pretty. Even I’m a beach freak and am mostly avoiding lakes, but probably like you, I too will give it a shot soon 🙂
Italy is a wonderful country where there’s no shortage of different landscapes for every taste. I am a beach freak too and it took me years to finally love the relaxed atmosphere of a lake. I still prefer the beach, but enjoy the ocasional visit to Italian lakes from time to time.