A break around Locarno and Ascona
An ideal destination for Spring or Autumn. This is the warmest part of Switzerland, with winters at least two months shorter than most of the country.
Locarno and its neighbour Ascona stand at the head of a vast lake (Lake Maggiore), sheltered by a semi-circle of mountains which are largely untrodden and unspoilt. The ambience and food are Italian: you can be eating spaghetti or pizza, and enjoying a carafe of wine, at an outside table as early as March or as late as November. With the exception of drink, prices are now much the same as those in Italy, because Switzerland has not endured the Italian rate of inflation.
How to get to Locarno
The easiest way is direct from Milan’s Malpensa airport, around an hour and a half’s car drive. There is also a shuttle bus from Malpensa airport, leaving about every two hours from just outside the station (exit door 4, stand 21 – see links panel) as far as Bellinzona, from which you can catch a twice-hourly – and highly scenic – rail shuttle to Locarno. Alternatively, if combining Locarno with Milan, there is a train, usually every hour, connecting Milan Central with Bellinzona, with a simple transfer there onto the Locarno shuttle. Both the rail and airport bus routes pass through Lugano.
Zurich airport is another approach, some onward rail journeys to Locarno needing no more than a single change at Zurich city station. This trip will often show how much better the weather is at the Locarno end.
Ascona is a bus or taxi ride, three miles further. Travelling to either resort from the Italian side of the border, remember to have your passport with you.
Locarno tourist information
Locarno is a large and busy place, mostly but not all modern, and softened by the ever-present sight of a vast lake on one side and forested mountainside on the other. There is some skiing around the summits in winter and early spring. The town as a whole is comfortably off, and at all times feels very safe (in our experience) for the visitor. The most important fact of its history is that this area, the Ticino, was forcibly taken from the rule of Milan only a few centuries back. There are castle ruins in the town and the remains of very beautiful frescoes in the town churches and those of stone villages tucked away in the mountains.
The local language is Italian, second language German (the place being favoured especially by Swiss from colder parts of the country), third language English. Waiters, shopkeepers, bus drivers etc. can usually juggle all three. The centre of town is unquestionably the long, crescent-shaped Piazza Grande, just south of the rail/bus station. The large and helpful information office, which occupies part of the town’s theatre, faces into the Piazza near the station end. As well as the usual, it can give you its little Vademecum (‘Go With Me’) booklet, with assorted information on the whole of the Swiss end of Lake Maggiore in the three above languages plus French.
Eating and drinking
There are lots of bars, restaurants, coffee-shops and patisseries in Locarno, the greatest concentration of such being along the arcades of the Piazza. Other places can be found among the streets of the old town just above, and there are also several restaurants along the lake front just east of the station.
The food generally is emphatically Italian, with (we reckon) better cakes and confectionary. Among specialities are fish from the lake, fungi in the autumn and – also late in the year – hot chestnuts from street vendors. Wine and beer are almost equally the norm in restaurants, cheaper house wine usually being available ‘aperto’, ie in a glass or carafe, as in Italy or France. The hotels are more likely than those in France or Italy to give you a plentiful breakfast. However, English-speaking tourists are not dominant, and it isn’t always easy – outside a conventional hotel – to get an ‘ordinary’ cup of tea (or even a non-Italian version of coffee) without careful explanation.
There are trains north-east to Bellinzona (a big Swiss town with castles), connecting with the Zurich-Milan line. Another railway line, the Centovalli, is an attractive and popular outing: it wriggles westward to Domodossola (a big Italian town with an old higgledy-piggledy centre and a recommended town walk) and there connects with another main line. Bus services are pretty good and keep to time. Roads are sound and well marked. If staying for any more than a day or two at this end of Maggiore, take advantage of the communications – make a trip up one of the surrounding valleys.
Boats also run enticingly down the lake towards Stresa, and cable-cars up the local mountain. These services are, however, closed down from some time in October until mid-December (the cable-cars) and mid-March (the boats). A pity, as our favourite time here is the beginning of November!
The free tourist literature outlines a few walks, with good views, in or around Locarno and nearby Ascona. But there are even better to be had further afield, using a fine and well-signposted (even for Switzerland) network of hill tracks, many of them stepped and cobbled for mules and packhorses. A large-scale map (1:25,000), readily available in the town, shows such paths clearly in red, but if you want to explore the valleys you will need something that ranges more widely. We found a hiking map at an inch-to-the-mile scale (1:60,000), area Tessin/Sopraceneri, published by Kümmerly and Frey (www.swisstravelcenter.ch), in a bookshop – libreria – just below the station.
Especially recommended is any section of the justly well-known footpath along the Verzasca valley from near Corippo at the bottom to Sonogno at the top, facilitated by use of the valley bus. This route includes a famous double-arched packhorse bridge at Lavertezzo and also passes for much of its length through deciduous forest (mostly sweet chestnut) that is lovely in Spring and even lovelier in Autumn – although you would then be in the shade of mountains by mid-afternoon.
For big views you have to get above the tree line. This is achieved most easily from the top of the cable car: there is a chairlift from there to the Cimetta summit but a walk could take you to the same point via the mountain restaurant of Colmanicchio, with its open-air terrace and commanding view of the lake. A finer and quieter belvedere than the Cimetta can be reached by continuing for another hour on the signposted path to the Cima della Tosa, a real alpine summit. This reveals an immense tangle of mountains and valleys, with Monte Rosa behind them, white, to the west and a glimpse of the Bernese Oberland to the north-west.
A strong walker can reach these Locarno tops in a long day out starting from town, or shorten the ascent by taking a car to Monte Bre or bus to Mergoscia. The latter approach gives you unspoilt terrain and fine views almost the whole way to Cima della Tosa, by-passing the Cimetta – well worth an effort even if you can’t manage the full distance.
Itineraries: Three possible days for the active visitor
Day 1 – in Locarno
Walk up the old cobbled pilgrimage path (30 minutes) to the Madonna del Sasso, a monastic complex built high on a rock. Alternatively, ride up in the funicular, which operates all year. Either way, you obtain a lovely, romantic view of Lake Maggiore. The buildings are impressive, attractive, but to some degree odd. They contain a nearly full-size – and remarkably gloomy – three-dimensional version of the Last Supper behind glass and, in the highly ornate church itself, paintings of fatal car crashes in memory of the victim. You could be in Sicily.
Morning coffee at the little café just above, then set off along the road with the lake view on your right. You are on a signposted walk. After this has become a footpath to cross a little woody valley (30 minutes), or earlier if you wish, take any of several obvious footways down into the town. Reaching the lake promenade, stroll back along it, watching out for a café. In the afternoon, take a look at the mostly ruined Visconti castle, and perhaps its museum, before using any surplus energy exploring the streets of the old town just above the castle, and one or other of its several old churches.
Rest and refreshment back in the colonnaded Piazza Grande. ‘Do’ the shops along the Piazza and check the programme of Locarno’s little theatre just over the road before going back to your lodgings.
Day 2 – Ascona
It’s only a short drive or bus ride through suburbs to reach Ascona, yet this place is quite different from Locarno. Prettier and more restful: a better base if you want to sketch, write, think or do nothing. Arriving for the day, do the official walk around and over Monte Verita (“Hill of Truth”), a centre for the anarchists, vegetarians, nudists, artists and other avant garde who were drawn to Ascona in the early decades of last century. Stop for a cappuccino at the summit, outside an early ‘Modernist’ building (now a conference centre), where there is also a serpentine pattern in the grass designed to tap the psychic energies close to the earth’s surface here. There’s also an orientally-inspired tea-garden for further spiritual support. Having enjoyed the view down the lake, descend to the waterfront.
Here, you find what doesn’t exist in Locarno: a stretch of cobbled promenade backed by a continuous row of pretty restaurants, and virtually no traffic. Almost all vehicles are barred, not only here but from the old grid of narrow streets – the Borgo – immediately behind. The quayside looks straight down the length of the lake, the shore of which appears very Mediterranean, Amalfi-style. One can easily imagine that it’s 1910 and the dancer Isadora Duncan is arriving in a chauffeur-driven Bugatti.
After a prolonged lunch, explore the Borgo, with its galleries and boutiques, and hunt down the church of the old papal college, which is wonderfully decorated with frescoes. Return – inevitably – to the lake shore for afternoon refreshment.
Day 3 – The Verzasca valley – and James Bond
If the day is both clear and calm, you are bound to be tempted by the cable-cars, which start just across the road from the top of the Madonna del Sasso funicular. From the top station, Cardada, follow signs towards Alpe Cardada (for a restaurant with dramatic view) and continue to the Cimetta summit. Return more directly (signposted) to Cardada. For maximum enjoyment this round takes 3-4 hours. It can be shortened by using the chairlift.
Otherwise go to the Verzasca valley. On the way there, you pass a lake and dam made famous by the film GoldenEye – there’s even a bus stop handy for James Bond fans. However, you’re travelling further, to walk between Lavertezzo and Corippo, taking a picnic. Either direction is fine, but our preference is to come down the valley (ie start from the famous double-arched packhorse bridge in Lavertezzo), because you finish in more splendid surroundings. The path is clear, includes many steps and flagstones, and keeps on the opposite side of the river from the road.
It’s necessary to go uphill and walk for a few minutes on a minor road to reach Corippo itself, but this is well rewarded. The village is a cluster of ancient stone houses set high on a mountain spur, as if in the Himalayas, and has a friendly little bar/café. There’s even a leafier and quieter packhorse bridge close to this end of the walk, but you should discover it for yourself. The bus stop is back down the hill.
The whole route can be covered in an hour and a half, but you should aim to take at least twice as long. It’s too good to hurry.
Hotel dell’Angelo, Locarno
A centrally situated and modern three-star hotel, inexpensive for its grade (remember that Swiss francs are 40% cheaper than euros). The Dell’Angelo faces into the southern end of the Piazza Grande, almost opposite the town’s excellent information office and a few minutes walk from the funicular railway and the pilgrimage path up to the Madonna del Sasso. We found it a slightly tiresome 10/15-minutes walk with wheeled luggage from the rail/bus station – level but along very busy pavements or over cobbles. Once there, however, you are nicely placed and reasonably far from noisy traffic: this mostly runs nearer the lake, a five-minute stroll away, or in a tunnel under the old town, which climbs the slope immediately behind the hotel.
Our double bedroom was average-sized and immaculately clean, with a view over a narrow lane and the rooftops of the old town, and a glimpse of the lake and mountains. During our stay of almost a week the nights were quiet. However, this was well into the autumn, when there weren’t too many people about. In summer, there could be some disturbance from the bars and restaurants around the Piazza.
Initially, we found the staff at reception rather unsmiling and barely able to cope happily with (as it happened) the simultaneous arrival of a larger group. They were efficient enough, however, and friendlier once they had become used to our daily comings and goings. In fact, they run quite a good operation. The buffet breakfast was ample, and the staff who brought tea or coffee were prompt, polite and hard-working – likewise the room-cleaners. The ceiling of the first-floor restaurant in which we took breakfast is, in part, seventeenth-century, with fragments of inscription in Swiss-German. We assumed that these date from soon after the Ticino was captured from the dukes of Milan.
The hotel has a ground-floor restaurant, competing with the many other eating-places along the arcades of the Piazza. Trying several of these, we concluded that the Dell’Angelo’s is as good value as others in the area. Its pizza offer during our stay was a bargain.
Anything else? Yes. Don’t expect most of the staff here to have a good grasp of English. But would we go back there ourselves? Yes.
Other hotels in / near Locarno
> Esplanade Hotel Resort & Spa – a four star hotel in nearby Minusio with views over Lake Maggiore.
> Hotel Belvedere, Locarno – a four-star hotel located a cable-car ride above the town
> Schlosshotel, Locarno in a historic site near Piazza Grande
> Smarthotel Geranio Au Lac – a two-star on the by the lake
> Hotel Gottardo Garni – two-star with restaurant
> Ramada La Palma au Lac – four-star hotel on the lakeside promenade