When you think about northern Italy’s lake-filled landscapes, it’s most likely the famous shores of Lake Como and Lake Maggiore that come to mind. True, those stunning bodies of water are unforgettable, but dig deeper into this region and you’ll be well rewarded.
Less than half an hour from Lake Maggiore, tiny Lake Orta is one of northern Italy’s best-kept secrets. Dotted with small towns such as Orta San Giulio, the lake and its surroundings have preserved much of their original charm and largely avoided the tourist overload of the nearby lakes.
If you’re looking for a quieter, slower-paced holiday away from the madding crowd, Lake Orta is calling your name. With its honest charm, deep history, and ethereal setting, this enchanting lake is the ideal setting for your Italian getaway.
What to See
Isola di San Giulio
The crowning jewel of Lake Orta, this sliver of an island just west of Orta San Giulio (the lake’s principal town) will catch your eye right away. Boats run year round to the island from the main square in Orta San Giulio, so you’ll have to trouble visiting. Crowded with villas and palazzos, the island has the appearance of a miniature Renaissance village rising straight up out of the sparkling waters.
The most famous structure on the island is the Basilica di San Giulio, dedicated to the local patron saint, Julius of Novara. The basilica has been a Benedictine monastery since 1976, but you can still visit the interior to see medieval frescoes and the tomb of Saint Julius himself. Outside the basilica, a path called ‘the Way of Meditation’ leads you on a quiet walk around the island. Soak up the serenity as you wander this idyllic little island, taking in the smell of mountain air and the sound of church bells.
Sacro Monte di Orta
Situated atop San Nicolao hill above Orta San Giulio, this Roman Catholic complex is well worth the hike. Literally ‘Sacred Mountain of Ora’, the 16th century complex – which includes some 20 chapels – was built in dedication to St. Francis of Assisi. As you tour the chapels, look out for ceiling frescoes, medieval wooden sculptures, and plenty of chances for lake views.
The hike up Sacro Monte is a fascinating (and easy) walk, taking you along old, winding roads and up ancient steps. Once you get to the top, be sure to pick up a paper guide to lead you around the chapels in the correct order.
Need a place to catch your breath as you walk up the hill? Stop into Chiesa dell’Assunta, a lovely village church that’s directly on the path up to Sacro Monte. Once you get to the church, look back along the lane you’ve just come up for wonderful views of the town and lake.
The main square in the town of Orta San Giulio, Piazza Motta is an excellent place to linger and watch the world go by. The square is completely closed to traffic, so you’re free to wander the shops and cafes at will. If you happen to be here in spring, don’t miss the annual flower market that turns this medieval square into a riot of colour and scent.
The 16th-century Palazzo della Comunità (Town Hall) dominates the square. With its interesting design – the structure appears to float atop a pillar-supported arcade – this remnant of centuries past helps to set a romantic scene.
How to Get to Lake Orta
Despite being a secluded paradise, Lake Orta isn’t hard to get to. Your best bet is to fly into Milan, the closest international hub to Lake Orta. Milan has three airports – Bergamo, Milan Linate, and the largest, Milan Malpensa. Nonstop flights from London airport to Milan are plentiful and cheap, especially through budget carriers such as Ryanair and easyJet. Total flight time is just under two hours.
No matter which Milan airport you fly into, Shuttle Direct is at your service. Our transfers from Milan to Lake Orta are well-priced, easy to arrange online, and take less than one hour.
Where to Stay:
Hotel Aracoeli – This quirky boutique hotel enchants with its mix of classic and contemporary design features – a striking combination of old and new. Set right in the Piazza Motta, the hotel affords excellent access to the waterfront and boats to Isola di San Giulio.
L’Antica Colonia – For elegance and intimacy, consider a stay in this 18th-century villa and cottages. Located right on the lake in the small village of Crabbia (about two miles north of Orta San Giulio), the property features original Venetian floors, frescoed ceilings, and magnificent lake views.
Hotel San Rocco – For classic Italian luxury with a modern flair, this 16th-century monastery-turned-hotel delivers. Its lakeside location means you can eat breakfast or lounge in the hot tub while enjoying front-row seats to sweeping views of the lake and Isola do San Giulio. In the evening, pull up a stool at the glamourous bar or partake in a game of billiards.
About Shuttle Direct:
As the largest provider of transfer services across Europe and North Africa, Shuttle Direct can help make your getaway dreams a reality. We’re the ones to turn to when you need fast and convenient transport to and from airports, cruise ports, train stations, hotels, and other points of interest. Try us out on your next holiday and you’ll never leave home without us again!