With its Mediterranean climate and location on the shores of Lake Maggiore, Locarno has attracted visitors from near and far since the end of the 19th Century. Switzerland’s lowest altitude town boasts a Renaissance old town, radiating from the Piazza Grande, the setting for the town’s annual film and music festival.
Sadly, outside of the old town, Locarno is marred by unsympathetic building development and traffic roaring along its lakeside road. But thanks its good transport links, and to one of Switzerland’s great travel bargains, Locarno is a great base for exploring the Ticino region.
Back up there for a minute. Travel bargain in Switzerland? Surely not? Well, allow me to introduce you to the Ticino Ticket.
The Ticino Ticket
This is your golden ticket to explore all corners of the Ticino, the Italian-speaking, southernmost canton of Switzerland within which Locarno sits.
It is an astonishing travel bargain. An overnight stay in a hotel, hostel or campsite entitles visitors to a Ticino Ticket, giving them free public transport, including trains, throughout the region. Other benefits include generous reductions on cable cars, funiculars and other attractions.
The Golden Ticket
Ask for the Ticino Ticket when you check in to your accommodation. Along with the ticket, you should also receive a helpful transport map which lists the discounts that you can expect.
With 4 days in Locarno to play with, let’s take look at where that ticket could take you, starting in the town of Locarno itself.
Day 1: Exploring Locarno
Day one in Locarno involves three types of transport: a funicular to Oreslina, a cable car to Cardara and then a chair lift to Cimetta at an altitude of 1671 m. On the way back to Locarno, we will pay our respects at the Santuario della Madonna del Sasso. Wrap up warm!
Ride the Orselina Funicular
To the accompaniment of the harmonic tones of the overhead cables and a simple turn of the key in the control panel, we set off on the funicular from Locarno’s town centre to Oreslina. The funicular’s dashboard as an array of primary-coloured buttons, resembling a 1960s sci-fi movie.
- The funicular station is two minutes walk from Locarno’s train station.
- Trains run every 15 minutes.
- The cost of a one-way ticket is 4.80 CHF (5 USD)
From Orselina, catch a cable car to Cardara (1340 m). Then, hop on a chairlift to Cimetta .
On a clear day, the views from Cimetta are spectacular. Picture Lake Maggiore in the foreground, behind which the Alps recede into infinity. If you have the time and energy, there are a number of walking trails to choose from. I opted to walk as far as the excellent café at the summit.
- With a Ticino Ticket, the cost of a return trip between Orselina and Cimetta is 25 CHF (25 USD). To reach Cardara only, it costs 19.50 CHF (20 USD)
Visit Santuario della Madonna del Sasso
Back at Oreslina, walk down to the Santuario della Madonna del Sasso, which was founded in 1480 after the Virgin Mary appeared to a monk, Bartolomeo d’Ivrea. From here, you can soak up fantastic views of Locarno and its surroundings.
Then walk back down to Locarno, following the pilgrims’ route in reverse, which represents the Way of the Cross.
- The Santuario della Madonna del Sasso is open from 07:00 to 18:30.
- Admission is free
Day 2: A day trip to Bellinzona and Lugano
On this day trip from Locarno, use your Ticino Ticket to visit two very different towns – Bellinzona and Lugano – for free.
I was enchanted by the friendly, laid-back Bellinzona, Ticino’s capital. It’s easy to understand why artists, painters and poets have been drawn to it over the years.
The cobble-stoned Piazza Collegiata, at the heart of its historic centre, is lined by graceful Renaissance buildings and lively cafes. Bells chime from the large church of Santi Pietro e Stefano which is adorned with elaborate stucco. Get there on a Saturday, as I did, and you will catch the weekly market.
One of Switzerland’s 12 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Bellinzona is guarded by three hulking medieval fortresses. Castelgrande keeps a careful watch over the old town. To visit, take the lift from the concrete structure beneath the castle, wander along its ramparts for fabulous views over the old town and take the path back to Piazza Collegiata.
The other two fortresses – Castello di Montebello and Castelo di Sasso Corbaro – are located a little way out of town.
- Bellinzona is 25 minutes by train from Locarno. Services run twice an hour. Free with Ticino Ticket.
- The old town is around 10 – 15 minutes’ walk from the train station.
- You will find a Tourist Information Centre at the train station
Although Lugano is blighted by traffic noise along its lakeside road, it has a beguiling historic centre.
Its train station is perched on a hill overlooking the town, from where there are fantastic views. Take the path that meanders through interconnecting piazzas that spill eventually into Lake Lugano.
En route, pop into the Chiesa di Santa Maria degli Angioli. Once part of a Franciscan monastery, the star of the show in this early 16th Century church is the huge, powerful fresco painted by Bernadino Luini, portraying the Passion and Crucifixion of Christ. Not to be missed.
The Cattedrale di San Lorenzo, by the lakeside, is also worth a look for its frescoes and baroque statues.
But you can do far worse in Lugano than just wander through its cobbled streets and piazzas, window-shop in the designer boutiques and stop for a coffee or aperitivo. Then stroll along its flower-bedecked lakeside promenade, taking in the views of Monte Brè and Monte San Salvador.
- The train from Bellinzona to Lugano takes approximately 30 minutes. Trains are frequent.
- The return trip from Lugano to Locarno takes one hour; change trains at Giubiasco.
- Both journeys are free with Ticino Ticket.
- In less than two minutes, the funicular, known as the Sassellina, will whisk you back to Locarno train station from Locarno’s old town. It leaves from Piazza Cioccaro and costs 1.30 CHF
Day 3: Taking the boat to Isole di Brissago & Ascona
We are going to spend day three near Locarno, taking to the lake to visit the botanic gardens at Isole di Brissago and the charming lakeside town of Ascona. Whilst these are attractive destinations in their own right, you also get the added bonus of a cruise around Lake Maggiore.
Isole di Brissago
Set in the shimmering waters of Lake Maggiore, this pair of small islands is famed for its botanic gardens. Founded in 1885, it is home to more than 1700 species of plants from five regions of the world.
Visiting the botanic gardens is a wonderfully relaxing way to spend a few hours. Listen to the sound of the waters of the lake gently lapping against the rocks, punctuated by the occasional vocal duck. In the distance, the faint chime of church bells invites the faithful to prayer.
Unlike Locarno, Ascona has retained its village charm through careful conservation and sympathetic development. Saved from the traffic blighting its bigger neighbour, strolling its pedestrianised shore front, shaded by plane trees, is a delight.
Its warren of narrow streets is home to a number of antique shops, art galleries and craft shops.
The perfect place to stop for a late lunch and an Aperol Spritz!
- I bought a day pass for the Navigazione Lago Maggiore boats which cost 29.60 CHF (discount with Ticino Ticket).
- Pick up a boat timetable in Locarno. Services are infrequent.
- The entrance ticket to the botanic gardens costs 6 CHF (6 USD) with the Ticino Ticket. Note that for purchases under 70 CHF, cash only is accepted
Day 4: Take a day trip to Como, Italy
On our last day in Locarno, we are going to push the boundaries of the Ticino Ticket and cross the border into Italy, visiting the delightful city of Como and then taking a boat trip across Lake Como to Bellagio.
With a prime position at one of the southern tips of Lake Como, the small city of Como has a lively and atmospheric historic centre which opens up to the lake at Piazza Cavour.
The jewel in its crown is its magnificent Duomo, with its Gothic façade and striking rose-window. Considered to be an architectural masterpiece, it is as beautiful on the inside as on the outside.
But as majestic as the Duomo is, I preferred the more understated San Fidele, Como’s old cathedral, a few blocks to the east. Look out for the relief of souls fighting their way out of hell below a crucified Christ, to the left of the main altar.
Taking a boat trip on Lake Como
After exploring the historic centre of Como, take a boat trip on Lake Como.
This is one trip where the journey is as good as the destination. Pastel-coloured houses rise in terraces from the sapphire waters of the lake to the forested hillside beyond. The lakeside is punctuated by small villages, marked by their church steeples. Lake Como is the ultimate romantic fantasy lake. Not even the sound of a Vespa can break its spell.
Keep your eyes peeled for the Villa del Balbianello, a filming location for Casino Royale (2006) and Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones (2002).
Bella Bellagio was everything I hoped that it would be.
Occupying one of the most scenic positions in Italy, beautiful Bellagio manages to retain its charm and dignity despite its deserved popularity. It’s a shopper’s paradise with a proliferation of art galleries, jewellery stores, designer boutiques, craft shops and foodie places.
If you have time, check out the Villa Melzi which was built for Napoleon’s assistant. From its manicured grounds there are prime views of the lake. Little Boney sure knew how to treat his staff!
- The train journey from Locarno to Como takes 1hr 45 minutes. A change of train is necessary.
- Your Ticino Ticket is valid to Chiasso on the Swiss – Italian border. You will need to buy a ticket from Chiasso to Como to complete your journey, which will cost you €1.40.
- I could not see a way of buying this at Locarno station. The easiest way to do this is to buy a ticket on the Trenord app. Alternatively, break off your journey at Chiasso and purchase a ticket there.
- The return boat trip from Como to Bellagio cost €20.80. If the queue for the ticket office is horrendous, for an extra euro you can jump the queue and buy your ticket on board.
- I was there in September, which is not at the height of the season, and it was very busy. Give yourself enough time to catch your boat.
- As I wanted a leisurely journey, more akin to a cruise, I caught the ‘slow boat’. A one-way journey took around two hours.
- However, if you are short on time, you can reach Bellagio in 45 minutes on the fast service for a supplement. Check the timetables displayed in the harbour for further information or here.