Italy is one of the most sought-after holiday destinations, with its sweeping landscapes and thriving gastronomic scene: from sipping a spritz and cicchetti by the lagoon in Venice to the much-loved scarpetta after a cacio e pepe in Rome – not to mention popping into a local bakery for some warm focaccia or cornetti for a quick pit-stop. As you head north towards Piedmont, home to the Slow Food movement, you’ll delve into a region rich in tradition and flavours that enhance the ingredients of the land. You’ll savour white truffle from Alba to fresh egg agnolotti or tajarin, a variety of alpine cheeses to freshwater fish washed down with a glass of Gavi or Barolo.
Nestled in the North-Eastern corner of Piedmont, next to Lake Maggiore, is Lake Orta, one of Italy’s best-kept secrets. Lake Orta is highly underrated yet equally as compelling compared to its larger neighbour (and only an hour's drive from Milan airport). There are plenty of cultural sites, gardens in bloom and experiences to live and breathe in this little corner of paradise during the spring/summer season. And with that in mind, we've created an insider's guide to Lake Orta, so that you too can experience all this lesser-known gem has to offer.
Sacro Monte di Orta
Perched high above Lake Orta is the Sacro Monte di Orta, an old pilgrimage site and part of the nine Sacred Alpine Mountains, dedicated to San Francesco d’Assisi. The uphill path (worth the views at the top) consists of 20 chapels that illustrate the episodes in the life of the saint through sculptures (a total of 376) and frescoes by Morazzone, all within an enchanting natural setting that reflects the peaceful Franciscan spirituality.
Address: Sacro Monte di Orta, Via al Sacro Monte, 28016 Orta San Giulio NO, Italy
Isola di San Giulio
Amidst the lake rises the small, mystic islet of San Giulio. Known as 'the island of silence' due to the still functioning monastery and the spirituality of the setting. You can visit the 4th-century Romanesque Basilica as well as take the 'walk of silence' around the island, taking note of the meditation and awareness aphorisms signposted along the way.
Address: Isola San Giulio, Lake Orta
Omegna is a charming village and the birthplace of Italian writer Gianni Rodari. He maintained a clear bond with his village which, in 2001, opened the Parco della Fantasia in his name. This is a literary experience perfect when travelling with kids. From Omegna you can embark on one of the most picturesque hikes known as the Anello di Quarna, a loop that takes you through woods, churches, lakes and panoramic viewpoints.
Address: Omegna, Lake Orta
Nature and wellness
The Gardens of Villa Motta
The 19th-century Villa Motta is a private residence yet it is possible to explore by booking your visit online. The sumptuous gardens, designed in the 20th century by architect Alessandro Mazzucotelli, preserve a very rich botanical heritage and were recognised as an International Camellia Garden of Excellence in 2020. With over 250 types of camellias that are in bloom all year round, the gardens are a jubilation of colours and fragrances as you stroll around.
Address: Via Motta 24, 28016, Orta San Giulio, Italy
Il Monte Mottarone
Mount Mottarone, with its gentle, grassy slopes, divides Lake Maggiore from Lake Orta, offering sweeping views as far as Monviso, the Monte Rosa massif, and the Swiss Alps through to the Po Valley. Spend the morning taking relaxing walks across shrub-lined paths, past alpine huts where you can savour polenta and walks in the woods in search of porcini mushrooms and perhaps a little pit-stop tasting cold cuts and local cheeses.
Address: Mottarone, Pennine Alps
A spiritual sanctuary immersed in the verdant hills that offer retreats including meditation, yoga, teaching and discovery sessions to help you rediscover your inner peace and harmony. Accommodation is included in the retreat price in cosy, bohemian-style rooms.
Address: Mandali Retreat Centre, Via Belvedere, 2, 28898 Quarna Sopra VB, Italy
Where to eat
Locanda di Orta
Situated in the historic quarter of Orta San Giulio, Locanda di Orta is a Michelin-starred restaurant with a modern approach to both design and cuisine. Chef Andrea Monesi proposes refined dishes that speak of the territory, immaculately presented.
Address: Locanda di Orta, Via Olina, 18, 28016 Orta San Giulio NO, Italy
Osteria Speranza Omegna
A family-run trattoria that offers traditional Piedmontese dishes in a small, casual setting. Fassona Tartare, gnocchetti and freshwater fish are to name a few of the delicacies to try.
Address: Osteria Trattoria Speranza, Via Giuseppe Verdi, 10, 28887 Omegna VB, Italy
The sumptuous, arabesque-inspired Villa Crespi is home to the three-Michelin-starred restaurant of Chef Antonino Cannavacciuolo. Here, his cuisine is an expression of his life, combining flavours from his homeland and of the land that welcomed him. And so, Campania and Piedmont travel hand in hand, bringing to light the excellence of raw materials and fine wines, together with the remarkable culinary techniques acquired throughout his career.
Address: Villa Crespi, Via Giuseppe Fava, 18, 28016 Orta San Giulio NO, Italy
Where to sleep
Water is said to invite a sense of ease and familiarity and this calmness is felt at Casa Fantini, where Daniela Fantini created her concept around “Lake Time”. She chose her birthplace, her home, a place already deeply rooted in her family business, in the small village of Pella along the shores of Lake Orta. Here, Casa Fantini is an intimate boutique hotel that invites guests to rethink the concept of travel. Immaculate architecture and design signed by Piero Lissoni offers a relaxed and convivial atmosphere and a restaurant, in which Chef Diego Bertona gives value to simple, local and sometimes endangered ingredients in all of their different forms through a four, seven or nine-course tasting menu.
Address: Casa Fantini, Via Roma, 2, 28010 Pella NO, Italy
Laqua by the Lake
Laqua by the Lake is part of Cinzia and Antonino Cannavacciuolo’s portfolio of Laqua Resorts and this particular location is an expression of captivating seclusion. The mornings are idyllic, waking up to the stillness of Lake Orta and barely any road noise. Eighteen suites and two penthouses with an earthly design, woods, greens and neutrals by Studio Primatesta. These vary in size, each self-catered with a fully stocked kitchen. Reserve an evening to taste Antonino Cannavacciuolo’s menu at the restaurant, a celebration of both Piedmont and the chef’s homeland Campania, celebrating fresh, local and seasonal ingredients.
Address: Laqua by the Lake, Via Legro, 33, 28028 Pettenasco NO, Italy
La Darbia lies between the calmness of the lake and the quiet stretches of vineyards, forest and a Mediterranean garden, with the enticing backdrop of Monte Rosa. Once an agricultural settlement, La Darbia was redesigned by the owners Gian Carlo and Matteo into characteristic, rustic apartments with soft colours and all the necessary comforts of a country home. Nestled among the stone-walled structure is the restaurant with an idyllic outdoor terrace overlooking the lake. Here, Chef Matteo Monfrinotti has curated a menu that enhances the gastronomic heritage of Piedmont with an innovative flair. Don’t miss the opportunity to taste La Darbia’s own wine labels.
Address: La Darbia Resort, Via per Miasino, 28010 Vacciago NO, Italy
Located within an 18th-century Palazzo on the edge of the Lake, Al Dom 57 is a four-roomed bed and breakfast with pleasantly designed rooms that retain tradition through coffered ceilings, columns and floors of stone grit despite recent renovations. From the internal courtyard to your private balcony there are plenty of places to enjoy a book under the fresh air and admire the lakeside views.
Address: Al Dom, Via Giovanetti, 57, 28016 Orta San Giulio NO, Italy