Lake Orta – the prettiest lake in northern Italy

Things to do Italian lakes - Pretty Lake Orta and Isola San Giulio

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 Lake Orta is nestled among a dark green forest and rocky hills. One of the smallest and lesser known of the Italian lakes, its shimmering waters, ancient town of San Giulio and fascinating history stole my heart.

Visit Lake Orta - Isola San Giulio - things to do italian lakes

We visited the area 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. You pass colourful villas, small bathing inlets and park benches placed for quiet contemplation. As you gaze across the lake 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. The medieval and baroque architecture and colourful frescoes of the town reflect its relatively peaceful past and prosperity.

loggia and restaurants of piazza motta lake orta

To reach the main square Piazza Motta on the banks of lake, you must wander through idyllic medieval streets and laneways. Make time to stop and admire the baroque Chiesa parrocchiale di Santa Maria Assunta that looks royally down over the town and the lake. The piazza is lined with relaxed restaurants, bars and gelaterie and is 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.

Venus restaurant Orta San Giulio Italian lakes

For 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 market is held on Wednesdays. We also noticed several shops selling Piemonte specialties such as porcini mushrooms around the town. Apart from the hearty local food, Orta is also home to two starred Michelin restaurant – Villa Crespi.

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Local Piedmont delicacies Lake Orta

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 catch glimpses of the lake and its mysterious island. Orta is an incredibly romantic place.

Isola San Giulio

The island in the middle of Orta is home to the Mater Ecclesiae Benedictine monastery. The nuns who live on Isola San Giulio welcome visitors however ask that you do so in silence. The highlight of the island is the 12th century basilica with its Romanesque facade and purported remains of patron Saint Giulio. You can see the basilica rising up majestically on the island from the shores of Orta San Giulio.

Lake Orta - View of Isola San Giulio from Orta San Giulio

I imagine visiting the island and spending some moments in quiet thought is an amazing 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. Ferries leave Orta San Giulio regularly for the short trip to the island.

Good to know – tips for visiting 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. The lake is an easy day trip from Stresa on Lake Maggiore if staying there is not possible.

✪ Weekends are the busiest times on the lake when day trippers from Milan visit Orta San Giulio for long leisurely lunches.

✪ Fans of design icon Alessi can visit the factory store at nearby Omegna

✪ A short walk from Orta San Giulio is the UNESCO heritage site Sacro Monte di Orta (Sacred Mountain of Orta) dedicated to the life of Saint Francis of Assisi

Why visit Lake Orta

Lake Orta may not have the movie star glamour of Como or the faded beauty of Lake Garda’s palazzi but it more than makes up for that with a unique, almost magical 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 lake. We even managed to secure a perfect lakeside position overlooking the island for lunch without a reservation.

romantic streets of Lake Orta

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 magical spot on the Italian lakes


Thanks to my cousin Nikki for the fabulous tip to visit beautiful Lake Orta.


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Lake Orta | Italy - the prettiest and least known of the Italian lakes is an easy day trip from Milan or Lake Maggiore. Discover the magical island and pretty town of Orta San Giulio

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12 Comments

  1. 12th September 2016 / 7:13 PM

    wonderful! I haven’t heard of it!:)

  2. 15th September 2016 / 2:18 PM

    I feel as if I really have been let into a secret here, Katy. I hate the tourist crowds and it really is so special finding those parts of the world that are just as beautiful as the well-known places – yet relatively quiet. It looks absolutely wonderful. I’d like to take my two boys to Isola San Giulio – the silence would be part of the charm of the visit (for me, anyway!)

  3. 26th September 2016 / 8:15 PM

    Sigh. I love Italy but haven’t seen one of their lakes yet. This looks exquisite. I shall have to take your advice and visit one day!

    • 27th September 2016 / 8:18 AM

      Mandy, I totally fell in love with Orta. It’s so peaceful and has all the amazing things I love about Italy. I hope you make it there very soon

  4. 27th September 2016 / 2:07 AM

    Beautiful! I’d never heard of this place before either! Thanks so much for enlightening me! <3

    • 27th September 2016 / 8:20 AM

      Orta is a special and magical place. Definitely one for the to do list. Thanks for your lovely comment Jillian

  5. 28th September 2016 / 10:35 AM

    Can you believe I have never been properly to this part of Italy? I know the Eastern side of Lake Garda, but I haven’t properly explored Lombardia or Piedmont: Orta looks wonderful, I am not surprised it gets booked up so quickly. Thank you for making me discover it!

    • 28th September 2016 / 11:20 AM

      You are so welcome Marta. Orta is so beautiful. I would like to spend a week there and just relax and explore slowly. Hope you make it there soon

  6. 14th October 2016 / 7:35 AM

    Another corner of Italy for me to visit. Thank you.

  7. 24th November 2016 / 8:16 AM

    OMG this town has just stolen my heart too! Its sooo beautiful and off the beaten path! I’ve never heard of it but I’ve certainly pinned it for later!! #FarawayFiles

  8. 11th January 2017 / 8:43 PM

    There is just so many beautiful spots in Italy that I can’t wait to explore. We keep telling ourselves that when we go, we’ll have to stay for at least a few months to see and do the things we want to do and of course we’ll have to fast for a month because of all of delicious food that awaits us!

    • 13th January 2017 / 3:40 AM

      Thanks Dan, Italy always has something magical hidden around a corner. We are going to Sicily and Calabria this easter and I am very much looking forward to discovering the south and all its incredible food! You are right, you need months to explore properly I think. Thanks for stopping by

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