The northern Italian lakes are popular destinations, beloved for their placid waters and mountain scenery. Among these, however, sleepy Lake Orta (Lago di Orta) is one of the least well known. Overshadowed by its famous neighbor, Lake Maggiore, and slightly farther from Milan, Lake Orta attracts visitors who want to get away from it all.
One of the charms of picturesque Lake Orta is the tiny island at its center, Isola San Giulio, home to a centuries-old basilica and monastery. Ferries run to the island from the medieval village of Orta San Giulio, whose historical center and 16th-century town hall are worth exploring; climb the hill above town to visit the Sacro Monte chapels. A few small towns dot the shores of the lake, including Pettenasco and Omegna, but this isn't the tourist-centered experience of Lake Garda or Lake Como.
Lake Orta is a popular excursion from Milan or Stresa, and joining a Lake Orta day trip by coach is an easy way to experience the lake without the hassle of driving. Alternatively, consider taking a private tour of Orta San Giulio and San Giulio Island to get the most out of these out-of-the-way spots.
Things to Know Before You Go
- Day trips may include a boat trip to Isola San Giulio, so wear weather-appropriate clothing for the ferry ride.
- Some boats may be accessible to wheelchairs, but always confirm ahead of time.
- A day trip to the lake is a fun break for kids and can include a dip in the water and walks along the shore.
- Lake Orta and its island and towns are all very picturesque, so be sure to bring your camera.
How to Get There
The lake district in northern Italy is easy to reach from Turin, Milan, and Venice. Lake Orta is about an hour by car from Milan's Malpensa Airport; the train trip from Milan to Orta San Giulio requires a change in Novara and takes between two and three hours.
When to Get There
Italy's northern lakes are especially spectacular in the fall when the surrounding countryside explodes in autumn colors. Lake Orta also hosts the Poetry on the Lake festival each September, honoring the lake's history as a favorite destination for writers such as Lord Byron, Honoré de Balzac, and Robert Browning.
The Sacred Mountain
On the hilltop above the town of Orta San Giulio, the Sacro Monte religious complex comprises 20 chapels built between the 15th and 18th century. The chapels, scattered artfully around a wooded estate, form part of the UNESCO-listed Sacri Monti of Piedmont and Lombardy.