24 hours in Locarno
I love Ticino. It still amazes me that in a country as small as Switzerland I have access to so many varying regions within a 2-3 hour drive. Visiting Locarno has become a favorite getaway when I’m looking for a change of scenery and holiday- esque vibes, right in my own “backyard”. Complete with palm trees, lakeside Aperol spritz’, stunning views, and lots of sunshine, Locarno (and the greater Ticino region) is perfect weekend getaway (or longer) material.
I spent the day with Ticino Tourism exploring Locarno and the surrounding area. As a veteran Locarno visitor, I was happy to discover a few lovely areas I’d never been to before. The itinerary we put together for you includes some classic, “must-see” sites in Locarno for newcomers to the region, but also, hopefully, a few surprises. Let me know what you think in the comments.
PRO TIP: If you’re staying in a hotel in Ticino you’ll receive the Ticino Ticket, which gives you access to free travel on all public transit in the canton, and 30% discount on cable cars and main tourist attractions.
Locarno is a quick two and a half hour drive from Zurich, three hours from Bern, and about four and a half hours from Geneva. There are also plentiful train connections from all major Swiss cities, including faster routes through the new Gotthard Base Tunnel.
PRO TIP: Driving to Locarno is simple… when there’s no traffic. On holiday weekends especially the Gotthard Tunnel is something to be reckoned with. Check traffic estimates ahead of time to plan your route and timing accordingly - you’ll be glad you did.
One day itinerary in Ascona/Locarno
We’ve got a full day planned for you here, but if you keep a good pace, it will be no problem to fit it all in. It will be simple to do this itinerary on public transport as far as Ponte Brolla. After that, because of very limited bus connections, a car is necessary - which is probably why the region is still so beautifully untouched!
First stop, coffee in the piazza! We have a leisurely beginning so you can soak up the vibes of the colorful buildings and quaint cobblestones. This is the site of the famous Moon and Stars music festival and the Pardo International Film Festival. On many evenings there are events taking place here, from music to food stalls to ice skating in the winter. Coffee finished, take a stroll around the piazza and then meander down for a quick morning walk along the lakeside.
If you’re up for a hike, walk straight up the hill, away from the lake, to the Madonna del Sasso, otherwise, take a ride up on the historic funicular. Soak in the spectacular views and snap a few photos of the gorgeous Madonna del Sasso, perched on the hillside, overlooking the lake. Then go in and explore. The building is covered in beautiful frescoes and decorated with endless plaques of gratitude from people thanking the Madonna for answering their prayers. Even if you’re not usually one for churches, I wouldn’t miss this one. It’s a quick circuit to take in most of the building and the location is really something special.
Now it’s time to go even higher. Take the gondola from the Madonna del Sasso up to the middle station Cardada. More stunning views to be had here, as well as some great looking play areas if you’re traveling with kids. Make sure to check out the Cardada viewing platform down the path to your left for a 180-degree view of Ascona, Lago Maggiore, Centovalli, Maggia Valley, and Italy beyond.
Did you know? Cardada is the sunniest location in Switzerland! It receives the most hours of sunshine per year. So pack your shades, and if you see clouds in the sky, know that they are probably fleeting.
Once you’ve done a bit of exploring, it’s just about time for lunch. There is one option right at the gondola station, and a few others within walking distance. All offer lovely views and cozy atmospheres. If you’re looking for a hearty and delicious regional meal then you have to go for either the Ticinese polenta or risotto. Delicious!
OPTIONAL: While you’re here, and depending on how you want to spend your afternoon, you might want to take the chairlift up the final leg of the mountain to Cimetta. This affords you an awesome 360-degree panorama of the surrounding mountains and region. There are plenty of hikes that take off from here as well. If you don’t have access to a car for the last leg of this itinerary, spending some more time up here is a great option. The walk down is easily accessible for many fitness levels.
Assuming we save Cimetta for another day. We’ll head back down the mountain from Cardada now and hop in the car (or train/bus) to explore some areas off the usual tourist trail. For many visitors, the next stop is the famous historic stone bridge, the Ponte dei Salti, over the emerald green waters of the Verzasca river. To be sure, this is a beautiful location, but those who have been there know it’s not exactly “undiscovered”. Worth a visit if you have more time, but today we’ll head the other direction toward Maggia.
First stop is Ponte Brolla. Drive a bit past the village and park along the roadside. From there you can scamper down the rocks and discover a lovely, “hidden in plain sight” location. Unusual rock formations create a small canyon through which the dark green Maggia river flows. When we visited there was not a single other person around, although the area does fill up when it hosts the terrifying and impressive WHDF International Cliff Diving Championship in July.
Back in the car, pass through Maggia and head toward the Bavona Valley, which is about a 40-minute drive from Ponte Brolla. This is where a car really becomes necessary. Besides the fact that there are only four bus connections to this region per day, it’s really lovely to be able to explore at your own pace and have the freedom to stop for photos and little wanders in each charming hamlet that steals your heart. As you enter the Bavona region you’ll find many of these storybook hamlets, clusters of 10-20 classic Ticinese stone houses and churches, with very few residents. Most of this region has no electricity so residents and visitors rely primarily on solar, gas, and small water turbines for power.
On our exploration, we went as far as Foroglio, which is a beautiful small stone hamlet at the base of the eponymous waterfall. It’s a stunning location. The perfect place to take it all in from is the absolutely charming La Froda Osteria - one of the few osterias that I noticed in the area.
After a leisurely afternoon exploring the Bavona Valley at your own speed, slowly make your way back to town for an evening in Locarno. If you’re not quite ready for dinner there are plenty of cute places for an apero, my personal favorite is the patio at Al Borgo. For dinner, you choose your own direction, there’s the classic Piazza view, the hidden restaurants in the back streets of Locarno, a row of watering holes along the lakeside, or traditional grottos scattered up the hill in Muralto. You could also take a quick bus ride to neighboring Ascona for a picturesque lakeside evening meal - all excellent choices.
Hopefully, you’ll have more than 24 hours when you next visit Ticino, as there is much more to discover! Please share some of your favorite locations and tips in the comments.
A little inspiration
This content was made in partnership with Ticino Tourism, who kindly acted as my guide through the Ascona/Locarno region. If you missed my Instagram story take over on their account on the day, take a look below to follow along in my footsteps. For even more inspiration on what to enjoy in the region, follow Ticino Tourism and Ascona/Locarno on Instagram!
Useful tools for exploring Ticino
Photos by Emma Baumhofer.