Although it might be one of the lesser known Switzerland tourist spots for non-Europeans, Europeans have been visiting the Swiss shores of Lake Maggiore for many years.
Attracted by the picturesque towns and villages around the lake, the stunning natural beauty of the nearby valleys and a Mediterranean climate, it’s not hard to see why this part of the Canton of Ticino in Switzerland, appeals.
This part of Switzerland is Italian-speaking and the architecture, lifestyle and cuisine have all been influenced by the southern neighbours over the centuries. Most residents also speak German, French and some English, and English is widely spoken at tourist sites.
It may not be the largest lake in the country – in fact, only about a quarter of Lake Maggiore belongs to Switzerland – but it is certainly one of the prettiest lakes in Switzerland with this part of the lake sometimes referred to as Lake Locarno.
Whilst they are all beautiful, with a different landscape and a very different climate, Lake Maggiore is quite unlike other Swiss lakes like Lake Thun or Lake Geneva.
If you want to visit a part of Switzerland that is still mostly off the tourist radar for native English speakers, then I highly recommend the north western shores of Lake Maggiore. Don’t just visit the more popular Swiss destinations of Lucerne, Montreux and Interlaken, include at least a couple of days around Lake Maggiore in your itinerary.
Amongst the natural beauty and tranquility, you’ll find plenty of things to do in Ascona, Locarno and the surrounding towns on the shores of Lake Maggiore.
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Things to do at Lake Maggiore
Whilst Locarno and Ascona are often mentioned in the same breath, they are actually two separate towns divided by the River Maggia. Locarno is the larger of the two with a population of around 15,000 residents and it claims to be the sunniest town in Switzerland.
Things to do in Locarno
Your first stop should be the lakefront and the Promenade Lungolago Giueseppe Motta. This palm tree-lined promenade is where ferries depart regularly for other towns around the lake. To the north there’s a lido – featuring indoor and outdoor pools, thermal baths and waterslides – that is open year-round.
Not far away you’ll find the Old Town, known as Citta Vecchia, and the town’s heart, Piazza Grande. Lined with beautifully restored 19th-century arcaded buildings, the Piazza Grande is home to a weekly market that has been held every Thursday since 1164!
It’s also home to the Moon and Stars Festival and the Locarno Film Festival, when it becomes a spectacular outdoor cinema.
Grab a drink at one of the many cafes around the Piazza Grande before heading to the Locarno funicular station for the short trip to the 15th-century Santuario della Madonna del Sasso at Orselina.
The funicular operates year round. Return tickets cost CHF 7.20 per adult. Ticino Ticket holders receive a 20% discount, Swiss Travel Pass holders receive a 25% discount.
TIP: You can either disembark at the Santuario funicular stop or continue to the end station which is just above the church.
Built on a rocky outcrop overlooking Locarno and Lake Maggiore, the church, whose name translates to Our Lady of the Rock, is one of the most important religious sites in Italian-speaking Switzerland. Pilgrims have flocked to the site since 1480 when, according to legend, the Virgin Mary appeared to Bartolomeo of Ivrea.
Visitors today appreciate not only the church’s wonderful views – be sure to take in the panorama from the porticoed veranda – but also its beautiful frescoes, oil paintings and the 16th-century altarpiece ‘Flight into Egypt’. I was particularly impressed with the lifesize statues of Jesus Christ and the Twelve Disciples sharing the Last Supper.
For even better views, walk the short distance from Madonna del Sasso to the cable car station to Cardada. Here, a cable car ascends to Cardada (1340 metres above sea level) in just five minutes where you’ll find a couple of restaurants, a playground, picnic areas and a viewing platform that extends out from the mountainside.
A short walk brings you to the chair lift station for the final ascent (eight minutes) to Cimetta (1670 m). The observation platform at Cimetta offers breathtaking 360 degree views of Lake Maggiore and the surrounding Alps and it’s a great spot to watch paragliding enthusiasts launch themselves off the mountain.
Both Cimetta and Cardada offer a host of walking trails during the warmer months but even if you’re not feeling quite so energetic, the mountain is the perfect place to spend a few hours immersed in nature and admiring the stunning panorama.
- Return fares from Orselina to Cardada cost CHF 28 per adult and CHF 14 per child.
- Return fares from Orselina to Cimetta cost CHF 36 per adult and CHF 18 per child.
Ticino Ticket holders receive a 30% discount, Swiss Travel Pass holders receive a 50% discount. Travel is free for children who holder a Junior Card.
The Cableway and chairlift are closed from mid-October to mid-December. > Click here for further details.
Fun Fact: From Cardada-Cimetta you can see both the lowest and highest points of Switzerland! Ascona The Brissago islands are the lowest at just 193 metres above sea level whilst Piz Dufour on the Monte Rosa massif is the highest point at 4634 metres.
After you’ve had enough of the views (I doubt you’ll ever get sick of them, though!), head back down to Locarna where, at Falconeria Locarno, you can witness birds of prey in their enclosures and in full flight. Eagles, hawks, owls and vultures put on a spectacular show twice a day under the guidance of their handlers.
Picnic areas and a playground make a visit to the Falconry fun for the whole family.
The Falconry is open year round with reduced hours from November to March. > Click here to buy your tickets online
Garden lovers should make it a priority to visit Locarno’s Camellia garden which is located on the lakefront. Here you’ll find more than 850 varieties – including 130 double camellias – providing a flowering period of more than nine months.
The park consists of a series of beds that form a trail alongside of which visitors can wander, admiring both the beautiful blooms and the nearby lapping waters of the lake.
Parco delle Camelie part of the Gardens of Switzerland organisation which showcases the most beautiful gardens in the country. It is open year round and entry is free.
Everyone deserves a bit of pampering, right? Of course they do – and Termali Salina and Spa in Locarno is one of the best thermal spas in Switzerland and the perfect spot to indulge.
The largest salt water baths in Ticino, Termali Salina is divided into four areas – saunas, baths, spas and treatments and gastronomy – and are designed for guests to move through the stages in order to enjoy the most immersive and relaxing experience.
With an idyllic lakeside location and a unique multi-level design with cascading pools, caves and a rooftop terrace, there’s no better place to unwind.
Day tickets cost CHF 32 per adult, reductions apply for children. > Click here to buy your tickets online
Termali Salina and Spa is open from 9am to 9.30pm September to June and 10am to 9pm in July and August. Reduced hours apply on public holidays and special occasions.
Perfect any time of the year, if you are wondering what to do in Locarno on a rare rainy day, this is the answer.
Major Festivals in Locarno
Where to stay in Locarno
There is a wide range of Locarno accommodation to suit all budgets including hotels, apartments, youth hostels and camping. In fact, Tenero, on the north shore of the lake, has a number of 4* and 5* campsites.
Some of the most highly-rated Locarno, Switzerland hotels include:
>> Hotel Belvedere Locarno – This 4* superior hotel sits on a sunny slope just above Locarno and offers lovely lake and mountain views. > Click here to check prices
>> Hotel Millenium – Situated on the lakefront and just a two minute walk from Piazza Grande, this 3* hotel features modern, comfortable rooms at a great price. > Click here to check prices
>> For a real luxury experience, why not book a room at the 5* Villa Orselina, just 50 metres from Madonna del Sasso. The hotel features an outdoor pool with stunning panoramic views over Lake Maggiore. > Click here to check prices
Known as ‘The Pearl of Lake Maggiore’, Ascona may not have all the attractions that its neighbour Locarno does but its picture perfect lakefront setting is enough to entice visitors from far and wide.
With a row of brightly coloured buildings lining the lakeside promenade, Ascona’s charm is infectious. It’s hard not to love it.
Things to do in Ascona
Strolling along the car-free lakefront promenade, called Piazza Giuseppe Motta, is a must. Hotels and restaurants are housed in many of the buildings along this strip and in the warmer months al fresco dining is a popular pastime. Pizza and pasta dishes are plentiful – and delicious!
It’s from the promenade that regular ferry services depart for Isole di Brissago and various other ports and it’s also home to a market every Tuesday (April to October) where you can buy typical Ticino foods, handmade crafts, jewellery and souvenirs.
Behind the promenade, Ascona’s narrow ancient alleys are also worth exploring. This is the heart of Ascona’s shopping district and you’ll find everything from gelato and clothing to souvenirs and high-end watches. If you fancy an hour or two shopping, Ascona is the place to be.
From mid-March until mid-October you can discover the sights of Ascona on the Tourist Train. The 30-minute journey departs from the lakefront, travelling past the Lido and golf course and some of Ascona’s most expensive property. It’s a good way to see more of the town and learn more about the history of Ascona via the audio guide that’s included with your ticket.
As I mentioned above, the Ascona promenade is one of the departure points for a visit to the Brissago Islands and the Botanic Gardens of Ticino. Begun in 1885, the 2.5 hectare island is home to over 1700 different plants and flowers from the five continents of the world with Mediterranean climates.
Walking paths lead visitors through gardens which represent the different continents. There are lots of interesting garden rooms to explore and it’s easy to spend a couple of hours wandering amongst the plants.
With a terrace overlooking the gardens and the lake, the restaurant is the perfect place to enjoy lunch and you can also stay the night in the island’s hotel.
The Botanical Gardens are open daily from 9am to 6pm from April to October. Entry costs CHF 7 per adult and CHF 2.50 per child (6-16 years). Ticino Ticket holders receive a reduction.
Ferry services to Isole di Brissago from either Ascona or Brissago cost around CHF 20 return per adult.
Major Festivals in Ascona
Where to stay in Ascona
>> Eden Roc – Ascona’s most famous hotel, the Eden Roc would surely be the best place to stay on Lake Maggiore. This 5* property is a member of the Leading Hotels of the World group and features two swimming pools, 4 restaurants, a large wellness and spa area and an ideal position right on the lake at the end of the Promenade. > Click here to check prices
>> Castello de Sole Beach Resort and Spa – Another 5* Ascona hotel, this one belongs to the Relais and Chateaux group. Set on a 14-hectare private park, the hotel features its own private lakeshore, wellness centre, gym, tennis courts and a golf course. > Click here to check prices
>> Hotel Le Meridiana Ascona – Situated on Piazza G. Motta and overlooking the lake, the 4* Le Meridiana is housed in a traditional Ticinese building. There’s an indoor swimming pool, sauna and spa, a large terrace and a reading room in the building’s 13th-century tower. > Click here to check prices
There are also numerous apartments and B&Bs available for rent in Ascona. > Click here to check prices
It may be less well-known than Locarno and Ascona but Brissago makes a perfect base when visiting Lake Maggiore. Just five kilometres from the Italian border and nine kilometres from Ascona, the lakeside location is just as picturesque.
A regular bus service operates between Brissago, Ascona and Locarno, so you can easily access the larger towns and all they have to offer, even if you don’t have a car. The fare is covered by the Ticino Ticket.
Things to do in Brissago
Whilst there are no significant attractions in Brissago (although it is famous in Europe for its cigar factory), it has an attractive lakeside promenade where you’ll find a number of excellent restaurants. I can highly recommend dining al fresco on a warm summer’s evening.
From Brissago, ferries depart for Isole di Brissago and Ascona, and you can also enjoy a variety of half-day cruises to Italy during high season. The half-day cruise to the markets at Cannobio (Italy) is one of the most popular.
Where to stay in Brissago
>> Sunstar Hotel Brissago – This 4* hotel is just 50 metres from the lakeside promenade. Housed in an Italian villa-style building, the hotel features a pool and wellness centre and large comfortable rooms. Choose a room with a balcony for wonderful views over the lake. > Click here to check prices
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As beautiful as Lake Maggiore is, it’s not the only reason to visit this part of the Ticino region. Less than half an hour from Locarno, the Verzasca Valley is a narrow, green valley that has been formed by the turquoise waters of the Verzasca River.
You can reach the valley by the PostBus service from Tenero (bus #321 departs from outside the train station) but if you have a car, you will have more flexibility with your arrival and departure times as bus services are infrequent.
Things to do in Valle Verzasca
After climbing the steep, winding road from Tenero toward the Valley, you arrive at Lago di Vogorno, an artificial lake. The 220-metre high dam wall which holds back the water was made famous in the James Bond movie Golden Eye when Bond (played by actor Pierce Brosnan) leapt from the wall.
Today, Bond-wannabes can repeat the scene (well, almost) by bungy jumping off the dam wall. > Click here for more info and prices
Further along the valley you can turn left off the main road and cross the river towards Corippo. It’s not a drive for the faint hearted but it’s well worth a few white knuckle moments to reach Switzerland’s smallest village with just 14 inhabitants.
Corippo has been recognised as a national monument due to its cultural heritage and, wandering amongst the tightly packed stone houses that cling to the mountain, it’s not hard to see why.
With so few inhabitants there are no shops in the village but across from the church a cafe serves drinks and snacks on a terrace with stunning views. Hiking is popular in the area and you can even go rafting on the Verzasca River. > Click here for further details and prices
Parking spaces in Corippo can be hard to come by so you may prefer to park near the bridge by the main road and walk up to the village.
Continuing along the main road into the valley, you’ll come to the village of Lavertezzo and its famous double-arched bridge, Ponte di Salti. The original bridge – which dated back to Roman times – was partially destroyed in 1868 and it wasn’t until 1960 that it was reconstructed in typical medieval style.
The bridge is chocolate-box perfect but it’s what lies below that makes this part of the Verzasca Valley so popular. Turquoise water, as clear as you’ve ever seen, flows through a series of huge rocks that it has carved away over the centuries.
During the summer – when I visited – it’s a hugely popular spot for swimming, sunbaking and jumping off the bridge. If you do fancy a dip, be warned – the water is extremely cold, even in summer.
In high season and on weekends, finding a parking space can be a challenge. There are numerous car parks along the roadside but, due to the narrow valley, they are spread out and you may need to walk a couple of kilometres to the bridge. Parking fees apply.
The ‘jump bridge’ may be the main attraction in Lavertezzo but it’s also home to the pretty 18th-century Madonna degli Angeli church with Baroque features.
You’ll probably have to drag yourself away from Lavertezzo but if you continue on to Sonogno, you won’t be disappointed.
Located at the very end of the Verzasca Valley, Sonogno is a picturesque village of well-preserved stone houses. It may be tiny, but it’s easy to spend an hour or so wandering the narrow streets and admiring the craftsmanship of the builders of yesteryear.
The pretty main square is where you’ll find a couple of restaurants, a small shop and a museum with an exhibition on life in the village in times gone by. The museum is open from May to October, daily (except Mondays) from 11am to 4pm.
That’s not all Sonogno has to offer, though. A tarmac path from the main square leads you alongside the river to the impressive Cascata Froda (Froda Falls) which, at 100 metres high, are the highest in the valley.
Don’t be surprised to have your snaps of the Falls photo-bombed by the local goats (tame, not wild) that graze here in the summer.
There’s a large car park (parking fees apply) at the entrance to the village as you cross the bridge.
As you’d imagine, with such a stunning landscape, there are plenty of hiking trails in the Valley, as well as the 9-kilometre Alta Verzasca mountain bike trail from Brione Verzasca to Sonogno.
Switzerland Tourism’s campaign ‘Nature wants you back’ is designed to encourage visitors to enjoy the great outdoors. With landscapes like the Verzasca Valley to enjoy, you’d be mad not to get out in it!
A day in the Valle Verzasca is sure to be one of the best Ticino experiences you’ll have.
Where to stay in Verzasca Valley
The villages of the Verzasca Valley provide numerous accommodation options including hotels, apartments and B&Bs. > Click here to check prices
More things to do near Ascona Locarno
Whilst you could easily fill three or four days visiting just a few of the attractions mentioned above, if you have more time to spend in the area or have other interests, there are plenty of other worthy places to consider including in your Ticino itinerary.
Here are just a few:
- The Church of San Giovanni Battista in Mogno – built on the site of the original 15th-century church which was destroyed by an avalanche, the modern day version was designed by Mario Botta. Built with a striking geometric pattern thanks to its white marble and grey granite walls, the church sits at the end of the Maggia Valley.
- Bellinzona Castles – the three castles of Bellinzona with their medieval fortifications have been granted UNESCO World Heritage status. Castelgrande, with its twin crenellated towers, is the oldest and most impressive. > Click here to buy your tickets online
- Centovalli train ride to Domodossola – discover the stunning scenery of the Centovalli on a two-hour journey from Locarno to Domodossola aboard the Centovalli Express. On the 52-kilometre ride through the ‘100 Valleys’ you’ll pass waterfalls, alpine meadows, forests and vineyards and cross numerous bridges.
- Lugano & Monte Bre – it’s just an hour from Locarno to Lugano, the lakeside resort town on the shores of Lake Lugano. Monte Bre, which sits to the east of Lugano, can be reached by funicular and offers beautiful views over the lake.
- Swissminiatur at Melide – if you are travelling with children they’ll love Swissminiatur, where 1:25 scale models of Switzerland most recognisable buildings, monuments and means of transport are displayed in a 14,000 square metre park. > Click here to buy your tickets online
Outdoor activities in Ascona Locarno
Staying active in Ascona Locarno is easy with plenty of options when it comes to outdoor activities.
Hiking, biking, tandem skydiving, paragliding, bungy jumping, canyoning, rafting and llama trekking are just some of the active pursuits you can enjoy.
What is the Ticino Ticket?
I’ve mentioned the Ticino Ticket above so if you are wondering what it is, let me explain. The Ticino Ticket is a guest card given to guests of hotels, camping grounds and youth hostels in the region.
The ticket provides free transport on buses and trains and discounted entry fees and cable car tickets. A booklet is provided with the ticket which lists all the discounts available.
Where is Ascona Locarno?
Ascona and Locarno are located on Lake Maggiore in the Ticino region of southern Switzerland, close to the Italian border. Locarno is 120 kilometres from Milan, 202 kilometres from Zurich and 366 kilometres from Geneva.
It’s also just 43 kilometres from Lugano, another beautiful lakeside town in Ticino.
How to get to Locarno
Locarno is easily reached by both car and public transport.
If you are travelling from Milan to Lake Maggiore, it takes just under two hours to reach Locarno via the A9 and A2 motorways.
Allow around 2 hours 45 minutes to travel between Zurich and Locarno via the A2 motorway. Lake Maggiore also makes the ideal stop on a road trip around Switzerland.
The fastest rail service from Milan to Locarno takes two hours and 20 minutes and requires a change of train at Giubiasco.
Journey time between Zurich and Locarno is also two hours and 20 minutes with a change of train required at Bellinzona.
By organised tour
If you’d rather let someone else do the organising, why not join an organised tour to Swiss Lake Maggiore? There are a number of different tours available – browse the options here >>
Are you ready to visit Lake Maggiore, Switzerland?
Have I convinced you to Lake Maggiore in your Switzerland itinerary?
It’s an incredibly beautiful part of Switzerland and with so many things to do in Ascona, Locarno and the surrounding area, whatever your interests, I’m sure you’ll fall in love with the area just as I did.
This article was originally published on Holidays to Europe.
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