Visit Lake Orta
Lake Orta is a quiet lake, 15 kilometres long and two kilometres wide, in the southern Alps just west of Lake Maggiore and in the Piedmont region if Italy. To the west of the better known Lombardy lakes such as Maggiore, Iseo, Garda and Como, it is smaller than these other lakes - and less visited, although even Lake Orta can become quite busy in the summer.
The lake is in a picturesque setting surrounded by woods and hills, and it is said that the Italians who know about Lago d'Orta prefer to keep it a secret to avoid it becoming as commercialised as the larger lakes. In any case both the town of Orta San Giulio and the lake are extremely pretty and a visit is highly recommended.
Explore Lake Orta
Although you can explore all around the lake, most visits are centred on a visit to the pretty village of Orta San Giulio, and a boat trip across to Isola San Giulio. If you would like to further explore Lake Orta the bike ride around the lake is lovely and although there are a few small hills there is nothing too arduous. Alternatively you can just relax on Miami Beach, a nice sandy lake beach at Orta San Giulio.
Italy This Way comment: while the larger lakes in northern Italy such as Lake Garda and Lake Como have numerous destinations to explore, Lake Orta really only has the village and the island - so a day trip to visit is probably a better idea than spending a week or two here, unless you just want to relax in quiet but very attractive surroundings...
Orta San Giulio
The small town of Orta San Giulio, on the side of a hill on the south-eastern edge of the lake, is the most important settlement on the shores of Lake Orta and an interesting place to start a visit, with an attractive historical centre bearing witness to a wealthy past.
The main pleasure of a visit is in exploring the narrow cobbled streets, admiring the pretty village houses and relaxing with a coffee in a small cafe - or even better with an ice cream from one of several ice-cream shops. Most of the town centre is pedestrianised, for reasons that will be very clear when you see the narrow cobbled streets!
You will find the harbour and boats across to Isola San Giulio in the main square in the town, Piazza Motta, and the square is a lovely place to spend an hour or two.
See our detailed guide for Orta San Giulio.
Isola San Giulio
Romantically sited and adding to the charm of Lake Orta, the island of Isola San Giulio is in the center of the lake and easily reached on the boats that frequently leave from the central plaza in Orta San Giulio. Your bigger challenge is avoiding the boat operators who are quite insistent that you would like to go to the island!
The main reason to visit Isola San Giulio is to visit the remains of the 12th century basilica and to see the renowned pulpit and 15th century frescoes it contains: the interior painting, decoration and frescoes are quite a remarkable sight.
After visiting the basilica you can stroll along the waterfront of Isola San Giulio admiring yet more picturesque houses, or follow the path that circles the island: the island is small and if you don't stop too often to admire the views across the lake it takes less than half an hour to explore.
Until the 4th century the locals refused to visit Isola San Giulio because they said it was infested with monsters and serpents. A preacher called Julius then went to the island and with miraculous intervention cleared away all the beasties. Due to this miracle Julius was made a saint, the basilica was established, and the island was named after him.
Attractions near Lake Orta
The villages of Omegna and Pella are pleasant to explore on the shores of the lake and you can also follow a small road northwards from here across Monte Mottarone via Omegna, with a pause perhaps at Pettenasco, to reach Lake Maggiore, with lovely views across Lake Orta along the way.
The lake is quite close to the attractive town of Varallo 'as the crow flies' but the road between the two, that leaves from the west of Lake Orta, is very picturesque but also quite slow and twisting so allow almost an hour to travel between Varallo and Orta San Giulio.
You can find more local travel ideas in the Piedmont guide.