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Orta San Giulio – A Local’s Guide to Lake Orta’s Gem

Teeny tiny Orta San Giulio is a real undiscovered gem. It is often overlooked by tourists – so overlooked in fact that its nickname is Cinderella. 

Lake Maggiore and Lake Como may be its (not by any means ugly) big sisters, but this charming village on an idyllic lake is well worth a visit.

Where Is Orta San Giulio?

Orta San Giulio is a peninsular promontory on the eastern shore of Lake Orta, in the Piedmont region and the province of Novara. It is a 30-minute drive from Lake Maggiore in the North of Italy.

This little town has a population of just over a thousand people and directly faces the lovely island of San Giulio in the middle of the lake, just a 5-minute boat ride away. The island, with its splendid Basilica, houses a community of Benedictine nuns who have taken a vow of silence.

How To Pronounce Orta San Giulio

Orta San Giulio is pronounced OR-tah san JOO-lee-oh.

Listen to it here:

Who Will Love Visiting Orta San Giulio?

Anyone who loves art, history, and nature will love Orta San Giulio. It is one of the most peaceful of Northern Italy’s lakes and is ideal for families or couples looking for a romantic experience away from the crowds.

During the 19th century, the age of the ‘Grand Tour,’ the town attracted a procession of famous visitors, including philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (who fell in love there) and poets Robert Browning and Lord Byron.

The town’s coat of arms tells its story.  It shows a vegetable garden surrounded by a circular wall, with an elm tree (or cypress). Below is the Latin inscription “Hortus conclusus,” or ‘walled garden.’ It represents the medieval ‘garden of the spirit’ where people could come to rest, meditate and re-charge their batteries. It is also a physical garden – Orta San Giulio is a secluded place, cut off from the rest of the world by the lake and mountains, where all the produce for its residents – and the religious community on the island of San Giulio was grown.  

Fun Fact: The island even had its own saint, Saint Julius, after whom it is named and who, like Saint Patrick in Ireland, banished all its snakes!

When to Visit Orta San Giulio

Cobbled street of Orta San Giulio, Italy in the autumn season.

Lake Orta is at its very best in April and May and then again from September to October, but summer is also a good time to visit. The town is extremely quiet during the winter months when locals take a well-deserved holiday at the end of the season.

Good To Know:  If you’re just visiting on a day trip, try to avoid sunny Sundays or Italian national holidays if you can. This is when the town is filled with local tourists from nearby towns or cities like Novara and Milan. You may find parking difficult, and you won’t be able to appreciate its peace to the fullest.

Orta San Giulio Weather

Month Temperature High/Low 
January 7°C (45)°F / -4°C (25)°F 
February 9°C (48)°F / -3°C (27)°F 
March 14°C (57)°F / 0°C (32)°F 
April 17°C (63)°F / 4°C (39)°F 
May 22°C (72)°F / 9°C (48)°F 
June 26°C (79)°F / 13°C (55)°F 
July 29°C (84)°F / 15°C (59)°F 
August 28°C (82)°F / 15°C (59)°F 
September 23°C (73)°F / 11°C (52)°F 
October 17°C (63)°F / 6°C (43)°F 
November 11°C (52)°F / 1°C (34)°F 
December 7°C (45)°F / -4°C (25)°F 

10 Best Things to Do in Orta San Giulio

Take a Boat to Isola San Giulio (St. Julius Island)

A quick boat ride brings you to the island with its impressive Romanesque Basilica.  The church is filled with sculptures and frescoes.  Wander around the Benedictine monastery on its path named “the way of silence” and return via “the way of meditation.”  A small community of nuns is cloistered inside.

Visit the Sacro Monte di Orta (Sacred Mount of Orta)

Just up the hill from Orta is the ‘Sacred Mount’ a series of little chapels and a UNESCO World Heritage Site dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi.  The dramatic statue groups and paintings in the chapels depict scenes from the saint’s life in a highly realistic manner and date mainly from the 17th-18th centuries.  They’ve been a draw for pilgrims for centuries!

Wander the Streets

Colorful, narrow cobbled street in Orta San Giulio, Italy.

The compact town center has some gorgeous, cobbled pedestrian streets. You’ll feel as if you’ve stepped back into the 16th century.

Have an Aperitivo

Two aperol spritz on an outdoor table in Italy.

Sit in the sun at one of the outdoor cafés in the main square, Piazza Motta, with a spritz and people watch. It’s a perfect aperitivo location.

Swim in the Lake

Boats on the shore of Lake Orta with Isola San Giulio in the distance.

Lake Orta has clear, calm waters and you’ll find both free, public beaches and beach concessions with facilities.  

If you’re looking for a place with a restaurant, sunbeds, and bathrooms, etc. try the delightfully named ‘Miami Beach,’ where you can also rent canoes and pedal boats.

Walk the Lakefront Path

The lakefront walk in Orta San Giulio, Italy.

The peninsula of Orta is just 3.1 miles and the lakeside walk is well-marked.

See the Old Town Hall

The colorful old town hall of Orta San Giulio on Lake Orta, Italy.

Orta’s amazing old town hall stands on pillars, overlooking the central square. It is decorated with frescoes and dates back to 1585.

Break out Your Paintbrushes

Painter sculpture on edge of Lake Orta, Italy.

If you’re an artist, you’ll be in your element in Orta San Giulio. The light is spectacular, the town has long attracted painters, and is home to independent art galleries.

Visit the Colorful Hamlet of Legro

For more art, take a trip up the road to Legro. The walls of buildings in the little village are all decorated with colorful murals.

Enjoy Orta’s Festivals

The Orta Music Festival and the Cusio Festival of Ancient Music are both held in summer, while Orta in Fiore is a flower show/market held in Spring.

Where to Eat in Orta San Giulio

Details of the interior of Villa Crespi in Orta San Giulio, Italy.
Villa Crespi
  • Villa Crespi – a fine dining restaurant with two Michelin stars run by celebrity chef Antonio Cannavacciuolo.  Well worth the splurge.
  • Ristorante Enoteca Al Boeuc (via Bersani, 28. +39 339 584 0039)– atmospheric little wine bar/restaurant serving local produce.
  • Il Cucchiao di Legno – A high-quality farm-to-table restaurant.
  • Orta also has two great gelato stores – one in the center (Arte del Gelato) and the other next to Villa Crespi (AgriGelateria).

Orta San Giulio Recommended Hotels

  • Villa Crespi – If you stay anywhere in Orta, make it Villa Crespi. You don’t usually expect to see a Moorish palace on an Italian Lake, but local cotton merchant Cristoforo Crespi brought his love for Eastern architecture home with him from his travels in the Orient and Villa Crespi is now a boutique luxury hotel.
  • Locanda di Orta – Located in the center of town, the Locanda is a perfect place to base yourself to enjoy Orta on foot.  In the evening, head downstairs to its Michelin-star restaurant.

How to Get To Orta San Giulio

Reaching Orta San Giulio by Car

If you’ve got a rental car (and your International Driving Permit!), you can head to the area on the A26 highway from the center of Milan – take the  Gravellona Toce exit.

Parking is available at Parcheggio Prarondo or Parcheggio Diania.

Good To Know: If driving from Milan beware of rush hour traffic! A journey that should take around 1 hr 20 min from the center can take much longer if you hit the 5pm exodus from the city and the tangenziale (Milan’s busy ring road). 

Reaching Orta San Giulio by Plane

By far the closest and most convenient airport is northern Italy’s largest – Milan Malpensa (MXP). From Malpensa Airport, you can reach Orta San Giulio in 50 minutes by car.

If you want to arrive by public transport, you can bus from Malpensa Airport to Novara, then train to Orta-Miasino, then taxi the remaining 2 km to Orta San Giulio – not incredibly convenient.

You could also fly into Milan Linate (LIN), Bergamo (BGY) or Turin (TRN), all within a couple of hours by car.  Taking public transport from these airports requires too many changes.

Reaching Orta San Giulio by Train

Orta San Giulio has a train station (Orta-Miasino), located 2 km from the town center. The line is not that well connected but some trains run from the town of Novara.

Getting Around Orta San Giulio

Colorful cobbled street in Orta San Giulio, Italy, leading to a yellow church.

You can reach everywhere in Orta San Giulio on foot.  It’s the best way to explore the narrow streets, picturesque piazzas, and highlights like the Sacro Monte. 

You’ll need to take a boat to get out to Isola San Giulio.  Lake Orta’s ferry system goes to the island (5 min, €5 round-trip), but it’s easier to take a water taxi across. 

Orta San Giulio – Nearby Towns and Attractions

Town/Attraction  Distance  Time (by car)  Highlights  
Milan 85 km/53 mi 1 hr 20 min See Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. Explore Brera, the artist’s quarter, and shop till you drop in the fashion district. 
Turin 125 km/78 mi 1 hr 30 min  Admire the baroque architecture of Palazzo Reale. Eat delicious gianduia  chocolates. 
Lake Maggiore   26 km/16 mi 33  min  Explore the cobbled streets of Stresa.  Visit Isola Bella’s unique Villa Borromeo and its spectacular gardens. 
Verbania 14 km/9 mi 20 min  Enjoy the Saturday market in this bustling town. Taste some great local produce at La Casera.  
Alessi Outlet Store14 km / 9 mi20 minVisit the outlet of the famous Italian housewares brand.

Orta San Giulio with Kids

The compact size of Orta San Giulio makes it a pleasant stop for families with small children. 

What kids will enjoy doing most:

  • The fun boat ride over to the island (and some of the gruesome frescoes of saints meeting all kinds of imaginative ends inside the basilica!)
  • Getting gelato and strolling the lakefront
  • The fascinating and slightly creepy statues on the Sacro Monte
  • Riding on the little tourist train that operates from the parking lot to the town center in summer
  • Swimming in the lake
  • Visiting the nearby Omegna Fantasy Park

Strollers – Streets in Orta San Giulio are mainly pedestrianized, but you may find it a little difficult with some of the cobblestones and uphill (especially if you visit the Sacro Monte).

Bathrooms and changing facilities – There are public bathrooms near the car park but you are best doing what locals do – buy a drink in a bar (café) and use the facilities.

Meals – There are lots of outdoor cafés serving all kinds of snacks, especially around the main square, Piazza Motta.

First trip to Italy? 10th? Either way, check out our 200+ Essential Italy Travel Tips! 

Enjoy your time in Orta San Giulio!

FAQ

Can you swim in Lake Orta?
Yes, the water is clear and calm and there are lots of beaches, both public and private near Orta San Giulio.

How do I get to Lake Orta?
The easiest way to get to Lake Orta is by car. If you’re coming from Milan, take the A26 Autostrada and EXIT Gravellona Toce. You may want to our post on How to Pay Tolls in Italy.

Can you walk around Lake Orta?
A walk around the whole perimeter of the lake would be very long (over 20 miles) but there are lots of scenic stretches and the peninsula of Orta San Giulio itself only takes around 45 minutes. Read more about hikes from Orta San Giulio here.