Top Things to Do in Lake Orta for a Peaceful Retreat in North Italy

Italy, Lake Orta

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 more extended stay. If you want to avoid the busy Lake Como, 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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Top Things to Do in Lake Orta

Top things to do in Lake Orta, Italy


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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.

Essential 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 essential 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, Piedmont
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) than the capital of Piedmont, Turin.

In fact, Lake Orta is about 87 kilometers from Milan and 130 kilometers from Turin.

How to Get to Lake Orta

things to do in lake orta

You can get to Lake Orta by train from Milan. There is a service that departs from Milano Centrale, Milan’s main train 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

things to do in lake orta
Lake Orta in winter.

Spring and summer are the best seasons to enjoy warm temperatures and even go for a swim. However, keep in mind that locals love to spend time in Lake Orta, making the place crowded during spring and summer.

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 Lake Orta, 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 when the weather is pleasant.

Where to Stay in Lake Orta

things to do in lake orta
The gorgeous landscape in Lake Orta.

If you are getting ready to stay in the area, remember that this is a popular destination from late May to early September.

Booking in advance will get you enough availability to choose from and even better fees.

These are the places I suggest in Lake Orta:

Best Things to Do in Lake Orta

things to do in lake orta
Lake Orta, Italy.

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

things to do in lake orta
Pella and its waterfront.

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 Giulio.

things to do in lake orta
Arriving at Isola San Giulio.

We sailed from the town of Pella, but boats also leave 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

things to do in lake orta
The Benedictine monastery on Isla 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.

things to do in lake orta
Paths around the monastery.

In the Early Middle Ages, the island’s strategic location made it an essential 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, and my favorite was walking the different suggestive paths that surround the premises of the monastery.

things to do in lake orta
Walking the paths with my son.
things to do in lake orta
Gorgeous sights you encounter along the way.

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.

things to do in lake orta
Orta San Giulio, a souvenr shop.

On the small island, the pace of life is slower than on the mainland. You will see nuns holding books and 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

things to do in lake orta
The bell tower.

The church you can visit today mainly 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.

things to do in lake orta
Basilica San Giulio

The basilica is built in the Romanesque style, and it features a single nave and two aisles.

The church’s interior was refurbished back in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with new architectural elements in the Baroque style.

things to do in lake orta
The vaulted basilica ceiling (via Torsade de Pointes CC0, Commons Wikimedia).

The few nuns that live here and run the monastery also take care of the basilica.

Ferry to Orta

things to do in lake orta
The settlement seen from Isola San Giulio.

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 peninsula 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, you can’t miss spending time in Orta.

San Rocco Church

Italian Lakes with the Family: Orta San Giulio
Church of San Rocco.

One of the places to visit in town is the tiny church dedicated to San Rocco, which is located on a tiny corner, in 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 atop the access door. If you visit on August 16, don’t miss the celebrations!

Lake Navigation from Orta San Giulio

LagoD'Orta tour

It is a good idea to tour the lake to learn more about the area and see several other settlements besides Pella and Isola San Giulio.

Several companies offer this tour. However, I preferred booking with Consorzio Navigazione Orta San Giulio, the oldest and most significant company on the lake, which has earned a good reputation for its excursions.

things to do in lake orta
(Courtesy: Navigazione Lago d’Orta).

This organized boat trip departs from Piazza Motta in Orta and lasts about an hour. It offers a panoramic lake tour 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, and 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

things to do in lake orta

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 lake views are animated with visitors having a drink.

things to do in lake orta

However, walking along these small winding alleys is perfect for finding 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.

things to do in lake orta

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.

things to do in lake orta

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 red varieties include Brachetto, Grignolino, and Malvasia.
  • Among the whites, Piedmont is known for varieties such as Moscato Bianco, Cortese, and Chardonnay, among others.

Public Market

things to do in lake orta
Piazza Motta.

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.

You will also find exciting fashion bargains and other souvenirs at the market, including old books and magazines.

things to do in lake orta

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.

Local Architecture

things to do in lake orta
things to do in lake orta

Characteristic buildings and vast 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. 

things to do in lake orta

The Palazzotto is an essential 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

things to do in lake orta

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).

things to do in lake orta

Here, you can try local mushrooms and fish.

Kids will happily feast with giant hamburgers or simple dishes of pasta and will be treated as guests of honor.

things to do in lake orta

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

things to do in lake orta
things to do in lake orta

As the path takes you further away from the central square and the more popular areas of the village, the path facing the lake directly is an excellent place for a bike ride, a hike, or simply to walk and take in the local atmosphere.

things to do in lake orta

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.

Honorable Visitors

things to do in lake orta

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 referenced the surroundings in their works.

For more information, get in touch with the municipality here.
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Top things to do in Lake Orta, Italy

About me:

Gabi Ancarola | The Tiny Book

Gabi Ancarola

I have lived in Chania, Crete, since 2016. As a local, I have an intimate knowledge of the Crete. I host culinary and concierge tours and experiences in Crete and write about the island for several travel media. During the last five years, I have helped many travelers plan the perfect holiday in Crete. I co-authored DK Eyewitness Top 10 Crete and had more glasses of frappe than any regular person could ever handle.

2 thoughts on “Top Things to Do in Lake Orta for a Peaceful Retreat in North Italy

  1. Sriparna says:

    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 🙂

    • Gabi | The Tiny Book Crete Travel Blog says:

      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.

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