Lake Orta: The Best Things to See and Do

Take a ferry ride across the crystalline waters of Italy's hidden paradise, Lake Orta, for picture-perfect views.
Written By: Andrea Spallanzani
Reviewed by: Rick Orford
How & Why We Created This Article

This article has been written, reviewed, and fact-checked by Rick and I. We live in Italy and travel throughout the country to help you make the best choices for your trip. We wrote this piece to help you have the best trip possible on your next trip to Italy. Portions of this article have been written using assistive AI tools to help with tasks like research, spell-checking, grammar, and translation.

Last Updated March 22, 2024

In this article, you'll learn how:

  • Lake Orta is a picturesque hidden gem in Northern Italy, near the Alps and Lake Maggiore. Famous authors have praised it.
  • The lake's proximity to Milan makes it easily accessible by train, car, or bus, with the train being the fastest and cheapest option.
  • Orta San Giulio is the top lakeside town to visit, with charming architecture, shops, and restaurants overlooking the serene waters.

Are you planning on visiting Lake Orta, and wondering what to see and do? The world-famous lake, also known as Lago di Orta in Italian, is one of the most beautiful destinations in Northern Italy, along with Lake Maggiore, Lake Como, and Lake Garda

Located in the Piedmont Region, this picturesque lake is a bit of a hidden gem and is home to some of the best views you’ll find on this side of the world. The majestic lake views have enchanted poets, authors, and other creatives from all places and all time periods, with Robert Browning, Lord Byron, and Honoré de Balzac famously praising the heavenly sights and serene atmosphere of the place.

Dozens of tourist destinations surround the lake, and its proximity to such places as the Alps and Lake Maggiore makes it an excellent place to spend your vacation. So here’s a list of places to visit and things to see and do in Lake Orta. 

How to get to Lago Orta — One of the Jewels of Piedmont

First off, we need to discuss transport. Lake Orta can be found west of Lake Maggiore and Lake Como. The best starting point for your journey to see Lake Orta is Milan. And while you’re there, here are the best places to visit in the city.

Milan to Orta San Giulio by train

You can take a train from Milano Porta Garibaldi or Milano Centrale, whichever is closer to you, to Novara. Then, take another train from Novara to Orta Miasino, a small town and a tourist attraction. Feel free to spend a few hours wandering around the place — but don’t forget that Lake Orta is your destination. The trip from Milan to Orta Miasino will take about two hours and ten minutes, costing about €5 – €9. Once at Orta Miasino train station, you can walk eastward or take a taxi to Orta San Giulio. 

Milan to Orta San Giulio by car

You also have the option to drive to Orta San Giulio.

If this is something that interests you, and you’ve rented a car, head onto Svincolo Autostradale Viale Certosa from Via Alessandro Manzoni, Via della Moscova, Via Francesco Melzi d’Eril, Corso Sempione, and Viale Certosa.

Continue on this route until you reach the A8 and E62 highways. Follow these highways until you arrive at Via Borgomanero/SP142 in Paruzzaro. To get there, take the Arona exit from A26/E62. From this point, your route takes you along SP142, SP229/II, and SP229, leading you to Via Panoramica in Orta San Giulio. This trip will take you about one and a half hours. 

Milan to Orta San Giulio by bus

Alternatively, you can take the bus from Milan to Orta San Giulio. This trip will require several bus changes, though.

First, get a bus from Milano Centrale to Milan Malpensa Airport Terminal One. From there, you can find another bus to Stresa. There, you will be dropped off at the Stresa Imbarcadero (or Pier), near Piazza Guglielmo Marconi.

Then, you can find a bus that will take you directly to Orta San Giulio, where the bus stop is near Piazzale Prarondo.

This trip can take about four hours or more if you take overnight bus transport, costing between €7 – €15.

The Best Time to Visit Lake Orta

Some tourists prefer to visit Italian attractions during the summer. However, Lake Orta may be too hot during the dry, hot months, especially down at Orta Beach. It’s better to schedule your trip to see Lake Orta in spring or autumn. The mild weather and comfortable temperatures will ensure a great experience. 

Places to Visit Near Orta Lake

Visit Orta San Giulio

Orta San Giulio

There are a few towns and villages to see around Lake Orta, but the best place to experience the lake is the peninsula town of Orta San Giulio. Located on the eastern shore of Lake Orta, Orta San Guilio is one of the most underrated tourist destinations north of Italy and a living, breathing testament to Italian unique architectural heritage.

The pastel hues, stone balconies, and shuttered windows of the buildings in town are all reminiscent of Cinque de Terre, and the cobbled streets harken back to the Renaissance period. Piazza Motta in Orta San Giulio is located near the lakeside and has a harbor for ferry trips around the lake and to the tiny Isola San Giulio, which we’ll discuss in a bit.

Small restaurants and shops are dotted along the lake, giving tourists a great place to overlook the calm crystalline waters. In fact, one of the best things to do in Orta San Giulio is to while away the time at the lakeside near the main square, enjoying a cup of gelato or a local snack. 

Places to Stay in Lake Orta

Villa Crespi — One of The Best Places to Stay in Lake Orta

Vill Crespi in Lake Orto - probably the best hotel to see or stay in the area.

You can ask any Italian about the finest accommodations in Lake Orta, and there’s a big chance they’ll mention “Villa Crespi.” Once a rural palace, the eye-catching structure is now a hotel and restaurant managed by Chef Antonino Cannavacciuolo of Masterchef Italia fame.

The square building was built with a blend of Moorish and Middle Eastern (Arabic) styles, complete with horseshoe arches, ornamental tiles, and the minaret-like tower crowning the hotel. Experiencing the sheer incongruity of a Middle-eastern structure along the very Italian Lake Orta makes Villa Crespi one of the best places to see for your visit. 

Even if you’re not a fan of out-of-place architecture, the hotel is still worth a visit just for its restaurant. Ristorante Villa Crespi is a three-star Michelin restaurant run by Chef Cannavacciuolo.

Many visitors have likened dining here to “heaven on earth,” with some noting the extensive local offerings, complimentary courses, exquisite flavors, and world-class service. Time your visit right, and you can take a picture with Chef Cannavacciuolo himself. You’d want to stay here because a trip to Lake Orta is not complete without a visit to this fine restaurant. 

Locanda di Orta

Near the shores of the beautiful lake, in a pedestrian-only zone of Orta San Giulio, lies a charming little bed and breakfast named Locanda di Orta. The small hotel boasts a one Michelin-star restaurant with a great view of Lake Orta and Isola San Guilo. The cozy ambiance, comfortable rooms, and great location make this one of Lake Orta’s best accommodations. 

Churches to Visit Near Lake Orta

San Rocco Church in Orta Miasino

San Rocco Church in Orta Miasino

One thing you can expect in old, beautiful Italian villages is that it has old, beautiful churches. The church is named after San Rocco, patron saint of diseases and pestilence, protector from plagues and natural disasters. Chiesa di San Rocco is known for its narrow, faded, yet lavishly adorned chapel. You can see and feel the history of the place once you kneel in front of the chapel. Tourists going on church tours are sure to visit this small, quaint church. 

Sacro Monte di Orta — One of the most sacred tourists attractions in Lake Orta

The Sacro Monte di Orta (“Sacred Mountain of Orta” in Italian) is a notable Roman Catholic devotional enclave in Orta San Giulio. This complex rests atop the San Nicolao hill, offering you a glimpse of the vistas over Lake Orta’s western banks.

The church is part of the Unesco World Heritage Site List and was dedicated to Saint Francis of Assisi. The sights within the complex offer a calm, scenic atmosphere. Tourists that visit the Sacro Monte have noted the peaceful contrast to the sometimes crowded churches in major Italian cities. 

Isola San Giulio and the Benedictine Monastery of Basilica of San Giulio

Orta San Giulio

Isola San Giulio is a small island to see near the shore of Lake Orta, near Orta San Giulio. It is sometimes known as Isola di San Giulio, the Island of San Giulio, or Julius Island in English. You’ve probably seen plenty of pictures of this tiny island online — it’s barely three hundred meters long and about 140 meters wide, filled shore-to-shore with old Italian buildings, small scenic gardens, and well-kept shrubbery.

San Giulio Island hosts the 12th-century Basilica Di San Giulio, a minor basilica and the primary tourist attraction of the island. Legend has it that the first church on the island was the 100th and last one built by Saint Julius of Novara and his brother Julian, supposedly during the 4th century.

Archeological digs in and around the basilica have unearthed traces of an older structure — a small chapel with a single alcove — dating to the 5th century. Today, the church serves as the monastery of Benedictine nuns. 

You can take a boat to Isola San Giulio from Piazza Motta. Tourists looking to take a trip to the Romanesque church can see the magnificent carvings along the walls and columns of the church, its tranquil lakeside gardens, and isle frescoes made by artists such as Tommaso Cagnola. The place also offers tourists a unique view of the lake. 

Chiesa di San Filiberto 

On the other side of Lake Orta, in the ancient commune of Pella, lies the Church of San Filiberto.

The church itself is a collection of fourteen small chapels linked by low walls in the form of the Way of the Cross. It is the only church dedicated to St. Filibert in Italy. Those looking for a great overview of the lake outside Orta Giulio can visit this old church. 

Sail along the lake in a ferry and discover Lake Orta up close

One of the best things to do in Orta is to take a boat tour of the lake itself. A good tour usually combines a ferry stroll and a walking portion. They will take you around all the notable tourist attractions Lake Orta offers, with some of the main things to see first and foremost on the itinerary. Plus, they’ll have a sample of the best local cuisine.

It is up to your preference, but I find taking a boat tour takes care of all the planning and allows you to bask in Lake Orta’s heavenly serenity and everything it offers. 

Frequently asked questions about things to do in Lake Orta

What is the best way to get to Lake Orta?

We highly suggest taking public transportation when taking a trip to anywhere in Italy, especially if the place is accessible by train. For this particular example, taking the train is the fastest, cheapest, and most convenient way to get to Lago Orta and San Giulio. 

What is the best way to get around in Orta San Giulio?

The town is primarily car-free, with its old, narrow, cobbled streets. Once there, the best way to experience the place is by walking. You’ll find many places to stop and rest if needed, and you can spend time at the lakeside. This also ensures that you can spot the local shops and restaurants so you can have a fuller, more satisfying experience on your trip. 

What are the top things to do in Orta?

There are a lot of activities that you can partake in once you arrive. You can explore the old streets of San Giulio, hike the lake’s hills, taste the local cuisine, and spend your vacation money on souvenirs and other bits and bobs. One of the best things to do on Lake Orta is, of course, swim in it. As long as you remember to be respectful and obey the rules, you should be in for a treat!