The phrase "hidden gem" was made for places like Lake Orta.
Most people opting for a day trip out of Milan look to the most popular destinations: think Lake Como, Verona, and even Venice. Travel just over an hour northwest of Milan, however, and you'll end up at the littlest lake in the entire region: Lake Orta. Small as it may be, it's bursting with idyllic charm from every corner. The main town on the lake, Orta San Giulio, is the perfect size for spending a day - here's why we love it, and what you should do when you visit.
View of Isola San Giulio from Sacro Monte di Orta
What makes it special?
Orta San Giulio is a far cry from the hustle and bustle of Italy's metropolitan cities. This town is a peaceful reverie, surrounded by trees and natural beauty, with quaint churches and houses nestled in between. For those looking to experience a picturesque little lakeside village in Italy, this is the place for you.
Situated just above the main town is Sacro Monte di Orta, a complex of chapels and shrines that also boasts a stunning view on the west side of the lake. It is an old pilgrimage site, and one of many Sacri Monti of northern Italy - and it earned a spot on the UNSECO World Heritage list.
The real gem of Lake Orta, however, is the tiny island right in the middle of the lake: Isola San Giulio. Ferries go back and forth from Piazza Motta, Orta San Giulo's main square, on a quick 2 or 3 minute journey to the island.
All in all, Lake Orta's best quality is just how peaceful it is. It's a welcome reprieve, especially in the midst of a bustling vacation to Italy. When you're in Orta San Giulio, it's time to take a deep breath and slow down.
When is the best time to visit?
We prefer fall between September and October - though the weather cools down from summer, you'll be rewarded with a beautiful array of fall colors from the trees, and fewer tourists than you'd encounter in the summer months.
Sacro Monte di Orta
How do you spend a day at Lake Orta?
If you're using a driver to reach Lake Orta, we recommend getting dropped off at the summit of San Nicolao, at Sacro Monte di Orta. You'll quickly become acquainted with a hilltop path that overlooks the lake - and the path is surrounded by 20 chapels. We recommend that you start at the top so that you don't have to walk up the steep path from the town - we prefer to walk down and save ourselves from the sweat!
Take your time walking through the path, which is surrounded by beautiful trees and nature. As you make your way toward town, the route is lined with the most charming villas and houses - you'll be daydreaming of your alternate reality Lake Orta life.
Pathway from Sacro Monte di Orta to the town of Orta San Giulio
Soon, you'll find yourself in the town of Orta San Giulio. The town is small, but there are quite a few shops and corners to peruse, from food shops with northern Italian specialties to quirky gift stores. However, just wandering the town is a quaint Italian dream. Faded buildings in an array of pastel colors, walls thick with climbing ivy and balconies overflowing with flowers, all on the peaceful setting of a quiet lake - it's a dream, and you'll want to enjoy taking it all in.
The main town square, Piazza Motta, is lined with restaurants and cafes - and a lovely view of the water. Stop at Ristorante Venus for some cozy north Italian fare with a view, or Pic Nic for an incredibly quaint cafe-bar experience.
Top: Pic Nic, Bottom: Ristorante Venus
Next, it's time to explore the island of Isola San Giulio. Hop on the ferry and you'll be there in minutes. There is one main path that loops the island - and depending on what direction you face as you walk through, it's either the "path of meditation" or the "path of silence". The messages along the narrow path will illuminate which path you've chosen. The souvenir shop on the island sits right in between the start and end to the path, so that's where you can choose your direction.
Ferry from Piazza Motta to Isola San Giulio
The crown jewel of the island is Basilica di San Giulio, a stunning church just steps away from the docks with beautiful frescoes and architecture. The island is also home to a monastery, and many private residences that were ones homes to members of the clergy.
If you're rushing, you could see all of the island in about 15 minutes - but when in Orta, you slow down! Take your time to appreciate what the island has to offer and stroll slowly. It's the time to take it all in.
Once you've seen the island, hop back on the ferry and head back to the main town. Grab some gelato at Arte del gelato, and take all the time you want to continue exploring what this picturesque town has to offer.