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How do you imagine the northern Italian lakes?
I picture clear blue waters, medieval fortress towns, soaring mountain ranges and grand baroque villas with colourful gardens.
I also know that the pretty towns the sit on the shores of popular lakes Como, Maggiore and Garda are often crowded with tourists.
And then there is Lake Orta.
Lake Orta – Piedmont, Italy
Lying in the foothills of the Alps near the Swiss border, romantic Lago di Orta (Lake Orta) is nestled among a dark green forest and rocky hills.
One of the smallest and lesser known of the northern lakes of Italy, its shimmering waters, ancient town of Orta San Giulio and fascinating history stole my heart.
We visited Lake Orta driving en route to Lake Como from a summer alpine break in Switzerland. After descending from the Alps you head west away from Lake Maggiore along a winding road that hugs the lake.
The road takes you past colourful villas, small bathing inlets and park benches placed for quiet contemplation. As you gaze across the water you notice the little island of San Giulio and hills further in the distance.
We barely passed another car on the road the day we visited in late August. This is a place of quiet natural beauty without the crowds you expect on the Italian lakes.
Orta San Giulio
The lakeside town of Orta San Giulio is the focal point for the community of Lake Orta.
Dating back to Roman times, the town claimed its place in history through its association with the Bishops of Novara from the 6th to 18th centuries and later under the rule of Victor Emmanuel Duke of Savoy and Aosta.
Medieval and baroque architecture and the colourful frescoes of the town reflect its relatively peaceful past and prosperity.
To reach the main square, Piazza Motta, on the banks of lake, you must wander through idyllic medieval streets and laneways draped with wisteria and vines. You catch tantalizing lake views out of the corner of your eye and can’t help but follow your instinct to the water’s edge.
There’s a quiet green path that takes you for a detour along the lake shore to Punta Móvero for peaceful views of the town and surrounds. On the way back make time to stop and admire the baroque Chiesa Parrocchiale di Santa Maria Assunta that looks royally down over the town and the lake.
Piazza Motta is where you will find relaxed restaurants, and bars. It is also home to a delightful loggia and the tree lined waterfront. We enjoyed a delicious family lunch at Venus restaurant while the lake waters lapped at the shores just metres from our feet.
Those looking to experience local cuisine can try local delicacies such as tapulon (sausage made from donkey meat) in the weekly market in Piazza Motta. The Orta San Giulio market is held on Wednesdays. We also noticed several shops selling Piemonte specialties such as porcini mushrooms around the town. You’ll also find truffles in abundance in fall. Apart from the hearty local food, Orta is also home to two starred Michelin restaurant – Villa Crespi.
It would be a hard hearted person who did not fall in love with beautiful Orta. Wandering the narrow cobbled streets overhung with wisteria and hydrangeas you fell a sense of calm. That is until you catch a glimpse of the lake and its mysterious island, then your heart skips a beat.
Orta San Giulio is an incredibly romantic place and in my mind one of the most beautiful towns in northern Italy.
Isola San Giulio
The island in the middle of Orta is home to the Mater Ecclesiae Benedictine abbey. Resident nuns who live on Isola San Giulio welcome visitors however ask that you do so in silence.
Dominating the island, the 12th century basilica has a Romanesque facade and holds purported remains of patron saint Giulio. It is believed San Giulio was a missionary to northern Italy, sent by Rome to build 100 churches
You can see the basilica rising up majestically on the island from the shores of Orta San Giulio. It is this tower on the island, against the mountain backdrop, that gives Orta an air of mystery.
I imagine that visiting the island and spending some moments in quiet thought is the perfect way to experience the lake and tranquil beauty of the area. We decided our preschool children were not up to a silence challenge so will save that for another visit.
You reach the island via the small ferry service that departs from the waterfront at Piazza Motta regularly.
Tips for visiting Lake Orta
Weekends are the busiest times on the lake when day trippers from Milan visit Orta San Giulio for long leisurely lunches. And that’s exactly what I would do if I lived there too! The trip from Milan to Orta takes around an hour and a half by car or there is a local train that takes 2 hours.
Top 5 things to do on Lake Orta
1. Take a boat to Isola San Giulio – ferries leave Orta San Giulio regularly for the short trip to the island
2. Visit the Sacro Monte di Orta (Sacred Mountain of Orta), a UNESCO world heritage site dedicated to the life of Saint Francis of Assisi
3. Go swimming in one of the cleanest lakes in Europe – there are several sandy beaches (some with beach clubs) along the lakeshore
4. Walk around the lake – there are many trails for every level of ability and the photo opportunities are endless
5. Fans of design icon Alessi can visit the factory store at nearby Omegna
Where to stay on Lake Orta
Book well in advance if you want to stay on or near Lake Orta. I could not find accommodation even 2-3 months before our visit so we had to settle for a day trip
Some accommodation in Lake Orta to consider:
- Hotel San Rocco – This was my first pick of hotels in Orta but sadly we left booking too late. Hotel San Rocco is a former 16th century monastery with beautiful views of the lake and a roof terrace > Check prices and availability
- Gli Archi – The views from this apartment on the lake are simply unbeatable. Just imagine waking up and opening your eyes to see Isola San Giulio before you. The apartment is in the centre of town too so convenient for restaurants and bars > Check prices and availability
- Top picks on AirBnB – all with lake views and close to the town of Orta San Giulio
Tip – If you can’t find Lake Orta accommodation, you could stay at Stresa on Lake Maggiore and do a day trip.
Why visit Lake Orta Italy
Lake Orta may not have the movie star glamor of Como or the faded beauty of Lake Garda’s palazzi but it more than makes up for that with a unique, and mysterious, charm.
Even in August, at the height of tourist season, the town seemed bustling but not crowded. It was easy to find a quiet park bench to relax and watch the activities on the water.
We even managed to secure a perfect lakeside position overlooking the island for lunch without a reservation.
Described as one of the prettiest towns in Italy, Orta was once the haunt of writers, poets and philosophers such as Browning, Balzac, Nietschke and the perennial traveler Lord Byron.
I have to agree with their assessment and am already trying to find my way back to this most beautiful Italian lake – its one of my northern Italy highlights.
Thanks to my cousin Nikki for the fabulous tip to visit beautiful Lake Orta.
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