The twin cities of Ascona and Locarno is one of the most significant bases to start your adventure from in Ticino. The Maggia river separates Ascona and Locarno which serves as an entry point to the regions abundant valleys which are easily accessible by Post Bus using your Ticino Ticket, a Swiss Pass rail pass or simply purchasing a ticket when you board. It’s a bit off-the-beaten-path, which is part of the charm, but thanks to the extensive Swiss Travel Network, you can easily explore without a car. Aside from the boats crossing the lake, and busses taking your to nearby valleys, you can also explore the mountains by cable car, funicular or chairlift. Exploring Ticino could easily fill an entire trip any time of year, but is an especially great choice for those looking for a destination to enjoy in the shoulder seasons of spring and fall.
For those looking for a great view of the Lago Maggiore and the areas surrounding Ascona and Locarno, a trip up to Cardada is gorgeous, with the summit of the Cimetta just a short hike or chairlift away. Getting there is an experience itself – hop on a restored funicular car from Locarno through a small gorge to Orselina. The Locarno-Orselina funicular dates from 1906 and leaves right from Locarna about every 15-20 minutes. At the top of the gorge at Orselina, make sure to check out the Madonna del Sasso Catholic church that has been lovingly restored and sits as a major focal point from the town below.
In Orselina, walk across the street to the Cardada cable car. After getting off the cable car, at 1340 m, you can take a short 10-minute walk to another open-air chairlift with unique sideways chairs to give you a short but fun ride to Cimetta, the peak at 1670 m. Their claim to fame… from the top you can see Switzerland’s lowest point (Lago Maggiore) and highest point (Monte Rosa) from the same viewpoint. The route from Orselina to Cardada to Cimetta costs CHF 36 round-trip, with a 50% discount for holders of a Swiss Travel Pass (using a free travel day) or Half-fare card.
For those looking to stretch their legs a bit more, you can walk over to the Passarelle Cardada bridge that juts through the old growth trees to give you a sweeping view of the lake and towns below. You can also hike from the middle station up to Cardada and the Cimetta summit with a quick stop at one of the Capannas or huts in Italian to grab a nice lunch or drink along the way. I strongly recommend a stop at the small and unassuming La Capanna Cardada on your hike up even if it is just to grab a drink at their amazing patio!
If staying in Locarno, I recommend checking out the Hotel Belvedere, just far enough out of town to keep things nice and quiet while still being close enough to the train station and main piazza that walking doesn’t seem like too much of a journey. This hotel, which began its life as the manor for a noble family in the 15th century, has been lovingly restored to create a unique blend of modernity and history including a wonderful art collection, original frescoes and a fantastic restaurant with open air kitchen.
Locarno has a number of beautiful valleys stretching up toward the hills from town, Maggia, Verzasca and Vergeletto. If you’re ready for a fun day truly off the beaten path, head towards the Valle di Vergeletto. To get there by car, take the main road that follows the Maggia river north and then head west when you reach Ponte Brolla and follow this road just past the small village of Vergeletto and park at the Funivia Salei. You can also get here by public transportation, by bus to Russo, connecting to another bus into the Vergeletto valley to Salei. This trip takes about an hour and 20 minutes.
The Funivia Salei is a funky two person cable car is operated completely by volunteers and is only manned at the bottom station, CHF 20 round-trip. They are open mid-May to late October, and take a long lunch break (so check the schedule first). This short ride to the top of the ridge gives you access to huge panoramic views including the summit of the Pixxo Zucchero, which is a great little side trip taking about 45 minutes roundtrip, before heading to the Capanna Alpe Salei. Run by a husband and wife team and wonderful volunteers, this little but comfortable building has an amazing kitchen and small dorm rooms available. I recommend booking in advance (directions on their website) and checking out the local polenta specials and a charcuterie board full of local Ticinese specialties.
Another family-friendly hike will bring you through pastoral alpine meadows to the Lago dei Salei in a short 30 minutes or less. From here continue on the many trails that depart from the lake or simply relax your feet in the cool water and head back when you’re feeling fully relaxed.
My last and final recommendation for adventure during your first visit to the area is a hike through the Verzasca Valley. Following the Verzasca river this hike winds its way back towards the tiny hamlet of Sonogno. SBB busses ply the route from Locarno to Sonogno, leaving about hourly. Along the way, you’ll wind back and forth crossing the river several times, including once at the famous Ponte dei Salti bridge just outside of Lavertezzo. This famous double-arched bridge that has been meticulously restored is a favorite spot for locals and wanderers alike because of its aesthetic, access and crystal clear waters. This gentle walk along the river wanders through many stone buildings, including many which still house residents year round, and allows lots of flexibility to walk at your own pace. Simply hop back on the bus whenever you need to either continue further up the valley or head back to Locarno.
For those looking for a good walk, but still want a relatively relaxing day, this is a fantastic option where you can cover quite a bit of ground in a short period of time, without the major elevation gain and loss that you might find on most hikes in Switzerland. This ease of access and many opportunities to adjust the hike to your needs also make a stroll in the Verzasca valley a wonderful option for a family outing. To get there you’ll want to hop on the 321 Post Bus route and head into the valley, getting off at any of the stops near Vogorno. The trail winds through the small towns in this area so if you don’t see it right away just stay on the road for a few minutes and you’ll connect with it quickly. When you finish your day’s exploration if you’ve made it all the way to Sonogno, make sure to plan for a little extra time to stop into the tiny Grotto Efra, where everything is exquisitely prepared to order and made fresh. Try their daily panna cotta, or larger entree specials to cure that rumbling in your stomach after a long day’s hike. If you just want to visit the bridge, take the bus to the Lavertezzo, Paese stop, 38 minutes from Locarno.
Although this seemingly small area of Switzerland may seem quite simple, its unassuming nature is truly its gift to visitors. By remaining somewhat off the radar of most tourists you’ll find just as many, if not more, Swiss citizens taking their own vacations here to get away from the crowds and enjoying the warm, clear waters of the lake and its Mediterranean atmosphere.
A touch of luxury can easily be added to any trip with a stay at the Hotel Eden Roc, a 5-star member of the Leading Hotels of the World. Nestled in a quiet neighborhood in Ascona, this luxury resort features a private dock, spa, multiple restaurants, several pools and free access to many small kayaks and paddleboards to explore the lake on your own. You can even sign up for sailing lessons right at the front desk or while enjoying your breakfast overlooking the Lago Maggiore.
If you’re traveling through the area in late June even just a single night at the famous Jazz Ascona festival is unforgettable. Bringing together musicians, food and culture to the pedestrian-only area on the waterfront creates an atmosphere unlike any other. You might even see one of your favorite musicians or chefs from the US! The Moon and Stars festival takes over the Piazza Grande later in the summer bringing together an all star lineup of musicians from all over the world, another event not to be missed.