Are you planning a holiday, a long weekend, or just a weekend in the Ascona-Locarno area of Lago Maggiore in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino and don’t know where to go? Don’t panic! In this guide, you will find 10 tips for the best places you can visit here. Because believe me – you won’t be bored here!
Locarno has 2300 hours of sunshine a year, making it the place with the warmest climate in Switzerland! Locarno is also a great base for day trips to this part of Switzerland. And Lago Maggiore is like the sea in the middle of the mountains (plus it’s the lowest place in Switzerland). With snow still falling in our favorite Bernese Alps, here in the south of Switzerland, everything is already green in mid-April, temperatures are hitting 20 degrees and the hiking trails are ready for the first wave of outdoor lovers.
Even faster to Locarno thanks to the Ceneri Base Tunnel
The Ceneri base tunnel is 15.4 km long and makes it possible to be in Lugano from Zurich in less than two hours (more precisely, in 1 hour 53 minutes without changing trains), making Ticino from Zurich basically around the corner and more accessible even for a day trip. It also makes transfers between Bellinzona, Locarno, Lugano and Mendrisio easier and quicker. The journey between Locarno and Lugano now takes just 30 minutes instead of the previous 50 minutes.
How to get around? Ticino Ticket is a travel bargain!
An overnight stay in a hotel, hostel, or campsite entitles visitors to a Ticino Ticket, giving you free public transport throughout the region. And public transportation in Switzerland is as we all know reliable, on time and takes you everywhere. Other benefits include reductions on cable cars, funiculars, and other attractions. Ask for your Ticino Ticket at your hotel reception.
Your perfect itinerary for a (long) weekend in the Ascona-Locarno region
1. Explore the center of Locarno
At the heart of the town is the Piazza Grande, a large square whose perimeter is lined with gardens of numerous restaurants and cafés. Every year at the beginning of August, a film festival takes place here, turning the square into a large open-air cinema. But it’s definitely worth checking out the streets of the Old Town. You’ll find interesting places to visit, whether it’s the buildings with Renaissance facades, the churches (such as the Chiesa Nuova, which is fronted by a statue of St Christopher, or the Church of San Francesco, which is part of a convent), or the Castello Visconteo, which houses an archaeological museum.
2. Take a bus or boat to Ascona
On the other side of the Maggia River is the equally attractive town of Ascona. You can get here from Locarno either by bus (line 1) or by boat. The boats are operated by the Italian company NLM – and unlike other Swiss lakes, there is no Swiss Travel Pass/Halb-fare reduction on Lago Maggiore. With a Ticino Ticket, however, you get a 20% discount.
The tourist center of Ascona is the Piazza Motta – a 500-meter long lakeside promenade. This is, in my opinion, the best place to sit down, do nothing at all, enjoy the warm sunshine with ice cream or a glass of Aperol Spritz in hand and just watch the beauty around you.
3. Take the funicular to Madonna del Sasso
The Funicolare Locarno, which opened in 1906, runs every 15-30 minutes from the city center. Attention! It’s a bit “old-school” here – you can pay only in cash and the Halb-fare discount doesn’t apply (however, you get 20% off with a Ticino Ticket, 25% off with a Swiss Travel Pass). The cable car goes to the Orselina station, where there is the Madonna del Sasso pilgrimage site.
The sanctuary (whose name can be loosely translated as “Our Lady of the Rock”) was built on the site after the Virgin Mary allegedly appeared to the Franciscan friar Bartolomeo d’Ivrea in 1480. Today, both the sanctuary and the pilgrimage church are open to the public for free every day. The church itself has a beautiful interior. If you don’t want to take the cable car up here, you can walk from Locarno. There are even two routes: at the end of Via del Sasso, you can either go left, and climb the steps and follow the Via Crucis, or right through the wooded ravine of Torrento Ramogno.
4. Take the cable car to Cardada
From Orselina station you can continue on and take the cable car designed by local native architect Mario Botta to the top of Cardada (1,332 m). When you get off the cable car, head left to the viewing platform. Children will appreciate the beautiful playground.
5. Go even higher to the top of Cimetta
From the Cardada station, head through the forest, and in less than ten minutes you will reach the chairlift that will take you even higher – to the top of Cimetta (1,672 m above sea level). A return ticket from Orselina to the Cardada platform costs CHF 28 (half with Halb-fare, children free with Junior Card, CHF 19.50 with Ticino Ticket), a return ticket from Orselina to the top of Cimetta CHF 36 (with Ticino Ticket CHF 25, both Halb-fare and Junior Card apply).
Riding the chairlift is an experience – I’ve never experienced the chair being turned 90 degrees, so you’re actually sitting sideways to the direction of travel. You then get a 360-degree panoramic view at the Cimetta Geological Observatory. And you’ll also see a rarity – a view of both the lowest (Lago Maggiore) and the highest point of Switzerland (Dufourspitze 4,634 m).
6. Take a hike and play treasure hunt with your kids
From the top of Cimetta, it is a beautiful walk back to the Cardada cable car station. The descent is less than three kilometers and is not suitable for strollers. You can make it more interesting for the children by “hunting” for animal footprints using the map that the children receive when buying tickets at the Cardada station. When they have completed the map, they can hand it in again at the ticket office and receive a small gift (we thank the nice lady at the ticket office who still gave our children a small reward even though they didn’t have the map filled in 100% 🙂 ).
The route runs for less than nine kilometers through the magical Maggia Valley from Maggia to Someo, with its typical architecture of stone houses. And with three suspension bridges to cross!
8. Take a walk along the lake shore
From the ferry dock, a pleasant path (lungolago) leads around the lakeshore to the Lido Locarno swimming pool. It has several pools, outdoor slides and, of course, a magnificent view of the lake and the surrounding mountains. A little further afield is the Parco delle Camelie with nine hundred varieties of camellias. At the end of March, Locarno hosts a festival dedicated to these beauties.
If you don’t get enough of the local flora, you can still visit the botanical garden located on the Brissago Islands. The shortest boat ride is from the village of Ronco sopra Ascona.
The southern end of the Valle Verzasca is closed by the giant dam at Lago di Vogorno, where the highest bungee jump in the world takes place – the dam wall is 220 meters high! It became famous especially after James Bond jumped off it in the opening scene of the movie GoldenEye. Past the dam, the road continues on to the village of Lavertezzo, where you’ll find perhaps the most photographed bridge in Switzerland – the Ponte dei Salti, which has two arches and dates back to the 17th century.
Although there are car parks at both sites, they are already busy from the morning under the onslaught of tourists. I recommend taking a bus here instead. There is a Post auto from Tenero, line 321. You don’t have to worry about not having a place on the bus – sometimes there are 3 cars in a row.
Where to stay
For our long weekend in the Ascona-Locarno region, we chose Hotel Garni Muralto***, one of the best-rated hotels in the mid-price category. Otherwise, lest you think: this is not a collaboration, no one is paying me to mention this hotel here. You just asked me a lot on Facebook where we stayed, and since we were happy with the accommodation, I’m happy to share this information further. You’re welcome 🙂
The hotel has an excellent location just 5 minutes walk from Locarno train station and the city center. The rooms with balconies have a beautiful view of the lake. The accommodation was with breakfast, we could book dinner at the Svizzera restaurant in Piazza Grande (guests staying at the hotel here get a 10% discount).
To help you see where each place is, I have created a map for you 🙂