The picturesque island in the middle of the lake is home to a convent of Mater Ecclesiae Benedictine. The number of nuns inhabiting the monastery grew from 6 in 1973 to around 80 today. Even though the monastery is still active, the resident nuns allow visitors to enjoy the island. However, you are asked to do so in silence which adds a peaceful contemplative aspect to the whole experience. Crowning the island is a 12th-century basilica. Its tower, carved against the backdrop of the mountain, gives the island a special air of mystery. This island is perhaps one of the most popular things to see in Orta San Giulio.
Though Lake Orta is not as big Lake Maggiore or Como, it wins when it comes to purity of water. Indeed, Lake Orta is the cleanest lake in all of Europe, so you better not miss out a chance to take a swim. Beaches on the shores of Orta are numerous and often equipped. Some are private, some are communal but all are perfectly clean and great for a relaxing day with friends and family. Though the beaches vary from sandy to pebbled, the clear water is consistent throughout. Most beaches boast a wide variety of amenities including bars, restaurants, umbrella and beds rentals as well as numerous water sports options.
Sitting atop a scenic hill overlooking Orta San Giulio and the lake is Sacro Monte, a sacred site encompassing twenty-one chapels constructed between the 16th and 18th centuries. Formally known as the Sacro Monte di Orta (Sacred Mountain of Orta), this place is a UNESCO world heritage site devoted to the life of Saint Francis of Assisi. So, if you have a free afternoon and wondering what to do in Orta San Giulio, take a short walk up the hill. The rich forest greenery, a variety of architectural styles and the captivating view of the lake make this site unique, infused with an inescapable sense of serenity.
Orta San Giulio is not only disarmingly romantic but also acts as the focal point of the Lake Orta community. With a history reaching as far back as the Roman times, the town surfaced in the historical accounts in association with the Bishops of Novara (6th to 18th centuries) and later under the rule of the House of Savoy. Today, the town’s relatively peaceful past and stable prosperity reflect in its architecture beaming with medieval and baroque influences.
The idyllic scenery and intimate ambiance make Orta San Giulio particularly popular among couples and romantic souls in general. The maze of narrow streets lined with stone walls, tiny rustic squares reminiscent of Venetian campielli and compelling views of the lake serve as the perfect backdrop for antique shops, craft boutiques, and lively cafés. Plus, the 15th-century church of Maria Assunta with great views of the lake is a favorite wedding location.
The best view of the surrounding area is to be experienced from Sacro Monte of Orta. Sacro Monte of Orta is not only a complex of 16th- and 17th-century chapels but also a famous pilgrimage site and a part of Sacro Monte Special Nature Reserve.
Other ways to enhance the medieval vibes is to participate in the Cusio Festival of Ancient Music that takes place every June. The festival comprises of a series of concerts performed in the 18th century Casa Tallone, on San Giulio Island. There, internationally recognized musicians play classic pieces using ancient instruments.
Though, not all things to do Orta San Giulio are to do with its medieval heritage. To the contrary, the town is also a dynamic venue for contemporary, lively cultural events. For instance, there is the annual Ortissima, a famous art exhibition. It comprises temporary installations scattered throughout the streets as well as permanent displays in Palazzo Pinotti Umbertini. Alternatively, you can check out “Orta in Fiore” held in spring in Piazza della Motta. It’s a lovely Flower Show-Market which brings the town to life with the colors of local and exotic flower species.