Lake Orta and San Giulio Island, Italy: how to get there, what to see and where to eat

Orta San Giulio, Italy

Orta San Giulio is a tiny village located on the shores of Lake Orta. A place that will be passed over by the bulk of foreign tourists coming to Italy. Orta San Giulio is more for its own people, for Italians. And also for travelers who already have such blocks of Italy behind them as Rome, Florence, Pisa, etc.

Cozy and deserted medieval streets, shops with traditional Piedmont gifts, family restaurants on Piazza Motta. No one is in a hurry to get anywhere. The air is soaked with measuredness and tranquility.

Be sure to take at least a day to visit Horta San Giulio when traveling in the north of Piedmont. Read on for the best way to organize your trip.

HOW TO GET TO HORTA SAN GIULIO

This wonderful corner of Italy is located in the northern Piedmont region. The closest major city to Horta San Giulio is Milan, which is an excellent starting point for a trip to the region’s lakes (Horta, Maggiore, Como).

Orta San Giulio on the map

Every year the competition among Russian carriers in Moscow-Milan direction is gaining momentum. There are from five to seven direct flights a day.

Choose the best option below:

Milan (Malpensa):

  • IATA code – MXP
  • Official website https://www.milanomalpensa-airport.com/
  • FlightRadar 24 itinerary map

Traditionally, Pobeda has the lowest prices for flights. However, keep in mind that the flights of this airline fly to Bergamo Airport, which is located 50 km. east of Milan. For other airlines, they all fly to Malpensa airport. The airport is the most convenient in relation to Orta-San Giulio, only 40 km.

BY PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION

Horta San Giulio is a very isolated place and does not have the crowds of Chinese or other package tourists. Part of the reason for this favorable environment for an independent tourist is the inaccessible location of the city in terms of public transport.

To get here from Malpensa Airport, Milan or Bergamo is a very grueling journey by train with transfers. The situation is different for everyone, if for some reason you can not rent a car, the information below will be very relevant.

The nearest train station to the city is Orta Miasino. From it to the historic center of Orta San Giulio it’s about 30 minutes walk.

Routes to Orta Miasino station:

From Milan (Milano Centrale station) – one transfer in Novara, travel time from 1,45 min. Cost from 9 euros.

Milan - Orta San Giulio

From Malpensa Airport – To the above route is added the route from the airport to Milano Centrale station. Despite the fact that from Malpensa to Orta San Giulio you have to make a detour. Time is about 3 hours and from 20 euros per person.

Malpensa - Orta San Giulio

From Bergamo airport – here the shortest way is again via Milan. First you go from Bergamo to Milano Centrale, and then to Orta San Giulio with one more change in Novara.

Bergamo - Orta San Giulio

For the exact timetable and route, visit the official Italian railroads website – trenitalia.

BY RENTED CAR

The most convenient and easy way to get to Orta San Giulio is to rent a car upon arrival at Milan airport. In this case you can save a lot of time, and in some cases even money (if you are traveling in company).

From Milano Malpensa airport to the center of Orta San Giulio it takes only 40 minutes. There is a toll section on the route, you will have to pay about 7 euros. If you want to save money, check the “Toll Roads” box in Google Maps and the navigation system will show you free roads. You won’t lose much time, about 15-20 minutes.

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Actually I don’t have anything to tell you. Everyone can figure out how to get from point A to point B. The only thing worth paying attention to is renting a car.

I usually use an aggregator Rentalcars. It compares prices of all major rental agencies and displays them in a convenient search window. This time we got a super economical smart car with an automatic transmission. The price tag is ridiculous – 19 euros a day.

Parking in Horta San Giulio

Italy is a country with draconian rules. To avoid heavy fines, you need to be extremely careful when driving in the ancient cities and choosing a parking space.

The historic center of Orta San Giulio is quite tiny. It is forbidden to enter by a “Zona Traffico Limitato” sign. See the picture below. After driving into this zone, the camera will record and automatically write you a fine in the neighborhood of 100 euros. Do not pay attention to the cars that pass under the ZTL sign, they are locals, they have a permit.

My advice is to leave your car in the large paid parking lot along Via Gustavo Fortana Alpino. The cost is around 2 euros per hour. You have to pay at the machine in the parking lot. Put the stub you receive under the windshield so that the inspector can see it. If you do not do this he will definitely write you a fine, no one will know whether you paid for parking or not.

Parking in Orta San Giulio

From here it’s about a seven-minute walk to the center of Orta San Giulio (Piazza Motta).

WHERE TO STAY IN ORTA SAN JULIO

To be honest, we visited the town without an overnight stay. We walked around until the evening and then left for Stresa. I now perceive this as a miscalculation in the planning of the trip. In Horta San Giulio I wanted to stay longer, to sit up late in the evening in a cozy restaurant with a bottle of good wine, and then to walk through the deserted evening streets in the yellow light of the street lamps.

I definitely recommend an overnight stay here. There are not many options for accommodation within walking distance of the historic center, I think the fingers of one hand are enough. You can see them on the map of hotels Boooking.

Hotel La Bussola Booking Rating 8/10

I was really impressed with the Hotel La Bussola. Incredible view of the lake and mountains from the room. I hope next time I visit Horta San Giulio I will get to stay here.

MAP OF HORTA SAN GIULIO

As I’ve written many times in this article, the town is quite tiny, in fact, you can explore its historic center in just a couple of hours and it’s not necessary to refer to a map.

However, I still decided to put it here and mark a few sights that should be a must-see.

SIGHTS OF ORTA SAN GIULIO

Now, after the necessary general information on planning a trip, it is time to talk about the sights of the city. Horta San Giulio is a very compact village and there is no need to make any detailed plans for sightseeing here. The sights in this town are relative. The entire historic center is one massive attraction.

Walk the streets as you like and don’t get lost. Look in every narrow passage and corner of the city. Be sure to stumble upon a beautiful vantage point on the lake or a cozy courtyard.

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Below I will share the interesting views and places of Horta San Giulio that we came across and orient you to their location on the map.

STREETS OF ORTA SAN JULIO

Right next to the notorious ZTL sign forbidding access to the historic part of the town there is a very nice observation deck with a view of medieval buildings with red tiled roofs, Lake Orta and the Isola di San Giulio.

Orta San Giulio, Italy

Here you can go down the stairs into the maze of narrow streets of the city.

A very atmospheric place. The medieval district of Orta San Giulio has a special appeal because it is almost completely devoid of people.

Naturally, this village does not claim to be the historical or cultural center of Europe. There are far more significant cities. But how many do you know where there are not thousands of tourists wandering the streets?

The next point of interest in Horta San Giulio that I would like to focus on is a series of narrow pedestrian streets that lead to the lake shore. You can not see them on Google maps, but in the app mapsme they are well marked.

Orta San Giulio, Italy

Don’t be lazy to look into each of these narrow passages.

We were in Horta San Giulio in November. The high water in the lake had flooded the exits to the lookouts. However, this time of year has its own charm to the place.

Don’t miss the lookout point, which is on the grounds of Orta San Giulio City Hall. I’ve marked it on the general map. It is accessible from morning until 7pm. At other times, the gate is closed.

There is a small garden on the grounds. There are benches where you can hang out for at least half a day. The view is incredible and the privacy of the place is great.

Orta San Giulio, Italy

Orta San Giulio, Italy

PIAZZA MOTTA

The most popular and favorite place of Horta San Giulio is Piazza Motta. It attracts like a magnet. Without looking at the map you sooner or later end up here.

Orta San Giulio: Piazza Motta

Piazza Motta is the gastronomic and shopping center of the tiny town. Here you will find some very decent restaurants and cozy family shops with Piedmontese treats.

You can hardly pass by. And, in fact, why? A trip to Piedmont is first of all local products of excellent quality.

Here on Piazza Motta is the largest section of the waterfront of Lake Orta.

Isola di San Giulio

Isola di San Giulio

ISLAND ISOLA DI SAN GIULIO

You can get here from the pier, which is located in Piazza Motta. The boats leave almost every 10-15 minutes. Round trip ticket costs about 5 euros. The boats go from 09:00 to 18:00.

Isola di San Giulio

On its territory there is a monastery and a looped street. It takes only 20 minutes to walk along it. Be sure to put this island in your visit plan. We had too little time to spend on Horta San Giulio, so unfortunately we did not visit it.

SACRED MOUNTAIN SACRO MONTE

This is the last place I will give a few words in my article.

Today Sacro Monte is a religious complex of several chapels and a convent. It is located on a hill overlooking Horta San Giulio. Its slopes are a well-kept garden of oaks, pines, beeches, and lindens.

Orta San Giulio: Sacro Monte

If I’m not mistaken, the chapels and monastery are open to tourists. Since I’m not very interested in religious artifacts, we didn’t go inside.

We only came up here for the observation deck next to the monastery. From there, the island of Isola di San Giulio is as clear as a palm. Such a climb does not take much time. It is possible to go there and back in an hour.

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Orta San Giulio: Sacro Monte

RECOMMENDATIONS FOR VISITING ORTA SAN GIULIO

Summarizing the visit to this wonderful town in the north of Piedmont, a few tips formed in my mind that will be useful.

It only takes half a day to see Horta San Giulio, but I highly recommend devoting a full day to it and be sure to stay overnight. There is an ineffable atmosphere of peace and quiet here that is hard to find in today’s world.

Horta San Giulio will be beautiful at any time of year. You can safely go here on your next free weekend. However, in my personal subjective opinion, it is better to visit the city in the fall, October and November to be exact. In these months Piedmont is more beautiful than ever. You can also catch the truffle festival in Alba and take a ride on the wine road, tasting Nebbiolo at the wineries.

Lake Orta and St. Julio’s Island. Legends and tales

Many vacationers who come to Italy first seek to visit the most famous tourist destinations, such as: Rome, Milan, Venice, other major cities and, of course, Lake Como or Maggiore. These lakes are among the most popular tourist destinations, but there are also many other delightful destinations, which are not inferior to the most famous and expensive resorts in Italy.

Lake Orta (Lago d’Orta), which is located in the Italian region of Piedmont, between the provinces of Novara and Verbano-Cuzio-Osola, is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful lakes in Italy. However, among tourists it is not too well known and popular. Being quite close to Lake Maggiore, travelers often automatically give preference to its more “hyped” neighbor.

View from one of the piers. Photo by the author

History

The lake was once formed by the melting of the Sempione glacier. The lake has an area of about 18 km², a length of about 13.4 km, and a maximum depth of 143 m. Almost in the middle of the lake stands the lonely island of San Giulio.

The archaeological excavations conducted on Lake Horta with enviable regularity show traces of human presence in the area go back to the Neolithic period (over 4,000 years BC). They found remains of pottery to support their hypothesis: they excavated fragments of vessels with square throats, a characteristic feature of the pottery of that time, common in northern Italy. The lake was originally called Lake San Giulio, and only by the seventeenth century was it named after the coastal town of Horta San Giulio.

The streets of the town of Horta San Giulio. Photo by the author

Orta San Giulio

Orta San Giulio is located on the eastern shore of Lake Orta, opposite Isola di San Giulio. It is a small town of just over 1,100 inhabitants, with very narrow streets and an ineffable romantic atmosphere. The central part is pedestrian and runs parallel to the lake shore. In the middle is Piazza Motta, which offers a splendid view over the island of San Giulio. In the square there is an old building, richly decorated with frescoes, which is now the local municipality. There is also a pier with many boats and ferries that ferry everyone to the island of St. Julio every 5-10 minutes. You can see the schedule of ferries here www.navigazionelagodorta.it The island is about 400 meters from the shore, so it’s easy to get there.

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The commune building on the main square. Photo by the author

Monument to the guardian of the city – St. Julius. Photo by the author

This cat (right) accompanied us as we toured the town. Photo by the author

Returning to the description of the promenade we can note an interesting restaurant with an experimental cuisine – Restorante Vesus. Part of the restaurant stands directly on the water, bunches of grapes hang from the ceiling, adding an incredible romantic flavor to the atmosphere. Among the particularly interesting and unusual, in my opinion, dishes we can single out: scallops with topinambour sauce, risotto with melon and spices, fish with a very unusual sweetish sauce. The prices, of course, are a bit high, but nevertheless, the place deserves attention with its interior and delightful view from the terrace.

The same restaurant with stunning views of the lake. Photo by the author

Those very scallops. Photo by the author

All in all, a visit to Lake Orta can be safely recommended for families with children and for an unforgettable romantic weekend. The lake is perfect for swimming, because the times when it was heavily polluted with industrial waste are long gone. The best time for bathing is, of course, in summer: from mid-June to the end of August. In the rental shops at affordable prices are always present: jet skis, motor boats and diving equipment.

Since ancient times, this place has served as an inspiration to famous writers and artists: Balzac called this charming corner of Italy “a gray pearl in a green box”. Friedrich Nietzsche drew inspiration from the shores of this wonderful body of water to create his work “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”. Also here was born the world famous children’s writer Gianni Rodari, in the books of which you can find references to the lake. The amazing scenery and serenity of these places can truly open the creativity.

The island of St. Julio. Photo by the author

The sun was still shining in the city, but the thunderstorm had already begun in the mountains. Photo by the author

The town itself has about 10 hotels, the most famous of which is Villa Crespi. This mansion was built in 1879 at the initiative of businessman Cristoforo Benigno Crespi, who wanted to use it as a summer residence. The villa was dedicated to his wife Pia Travelli and was in fact called Villa Pia. The author of this construction was one of the most famous architects of the time, Angelo Colla. The mansion was created in the Moorish style, as Cristoforo Crespi was fascinated by the buildings of the Middle East. The building is divided into three floors and the walls are covered with stucco typical of Islamic countries. At one time, the best rooms of the villa were used to receive royalty – Margherita of Savoy and King Umberto I. In the 1980s, the mansion became a hotel, and today, this unusual luxury hotel includes a chic restaurant, the chef of which is the famous Italian chef Antonino Cannavacciuolo, who has two Michelin stars. By the way, the semi-finals of the Junior Masterchef Italia contest were held here very recently.

View at Villa Crespi. Photo by the author

The legend of St. Giulio

The legend says that in the fourth century AD. Giulio and his brother Giuliano arrived in Italy from the Greek city of Aegina with the aim of Christianizing the local population and, with the permission of Emperor Theodosius I, stopped in Novara, dedicating their lives to building churches and fighting paganism.

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According to tradition, Giulio left his brother in the construction of the ninety-ninth church and went in search of an ideal place to build the hundredth. When he saw a small island in the middle of a lake, he knew that there was no better place to build. All he had to do was to get to the islet, but the local heathen inhabitants did not hurry to help with the crossing. So Julio spread out his cloak on the water, and using it as a boat reached the island, much to the surprise of the natives. On the island, he met ferocious snakes and dragons that he fought bravely and, when victorious, he laid the foundations of the church in the same place where the Basilica of San Giulio stands today. Scholars debate whether this story is a myth or an embellished true story. One thing is certain: the remains of a church that was built there in the 5th or 6th century were indeed found under the modern temple. At present, the saint is the patron saint of Freemasons and, because of his activities (building churches) during his lifetime, is often depicted with tools in his hands.

Here is such religious art. photo by the author

The island of St. Julio

The island is about 275 meters long and 140 meters wide. Almost the entire territory of the island is occupied by the Benedictine convent, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In addition, in the only street of the island, called “The Way of Silence”, there is the bishop’s palace and the basilica of St. Julio, in which his relics are kept. An interesting observation: on the basilica there are very many inscriptions left by the Vandals, the earliest dating back to 1513. The Latin inscription reads: “gusty wind, much snow, frost” (impetuositas ventorum, pruina maxima, nix maxima). It will take you at most an hour to walk around the entire island, but you won’t want to leave any time soon. On this island, amazing in its beauty and history, you can often find newlyweds posing diligently for photographs and couples sitting in an embrace near the pier.

As I wrote above, there are very few tourists here. The absence of crowds makes the lakeside town look even more cozy and peaceful.

The painted ceiling of St. Julian’s Basilica. Author’s photos

How to get there

Getting to the lake is not easy: it’s about 60 kilometers from Milan and to get to it by train you need to make several transfers. Go to the central station (Milano Centrale), then take a train to Novara station (branch Novara-Domodossola). Then, at Novara station change to Orta-Miasino station (branch Domodossola-Omegna). Travel time is about one hour. There are also bus services between Novara and Orta. Details of train timetables and prices can be found here www.trenitalia.com

By car you can travel as follows: From Milan take the A8, then the E62 toward Paruzzaro.

Finally, I would like to say that for me the Lake Orta, without a doubt, made a positive impression. There is something truly attractive, mysterious and alluring in it. The whole coastal town seems to be relaxed and there is no rush, there is definitely no usual bustle, everything is very measured. If you lack peace and tranquility you are definitely welcome here!

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