4 Days in Locarno, Switzerland Using The FREE Ticino Ticket

Use the free Ticino Ticket to explore this delightful Swiss canton during four days in Locarno, Switzerland

With its Mediterranean climate and location on the shores of Lake MaggioreLocarno has attracted visitors from near and far since the end of the 19th Century. Switzerland’s lowest altitude town boasts a Renaissance centre, 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. A travel bargain in Switzerland? Surely not?

Say “hello” to the Ticino Ticket.

poeple drinking on pavement outside cafe in locarno switzerland
Locarno Old Town

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What is 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.

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 four days in Locarno to play with, let’s take look at where that ticket could take you, starting in the town of Locarno itself.

A 4-Day Locarno itinerary Using the Ticino Ticket

Day 1: Explore 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 has an array of primary-coloured buttons, resembling a 1960s sci-fi movie.

RIDING THE ORSELINA FUNICULAR
  • The funicular station is two minutes walk from Locarno’s train station.
  • Trains run every 15 minutes April – October; every 30 minutes the rest of the year. Orselina Funicular timetable here.
  • The cost of a one-way ticket is 4.80 CHF. A Ticino Ticket offers a 20% discount on a return fare
church overlooking lake and mountains seen during 4 days in locarno

Visit Cimetta

From Orselina, catch a cable car to Cardara (1340 m). Then, hop on a chairlift to Cimetta.

person paragliding over swiss mountain
View from Cardara

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 (September 2021 price). To reach Cardara only, it costs 19.50 CHF.

Check current fares and timetable here.

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.

view of lake and mountains through the arched window of a church loggia
View from Santuario della Madonna del Sasso, Locarno
VISITING SANTUARIO DELLA MADONNA DEL SASSO

Opening hours: 7 am – 6.30 pm

Entrance fee: Free

Day 2: A Day Trip from Locarno to Lugano and Bellinzona

On this day trip from Locarno, use your Ticino Ticket to visit two very different towns – Bellinzona and Lugano – for free.

Bellinzona

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.

walls of old fortified castle with turret in bellinzona
Castelgrande, Bellinzona

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.

view of town on bellinzona through cross-shaped opening which is one place you can visit using the ticino ticket

The other two fortresses – Castello di Montebello and Castelo di Sasso Corbaro – are located a little way out of town.

VISITING BELLINZONA FROM LOCARNO
  • 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

Lugano

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.

church bell tower by lake
Lugano. View from Chiesa di Santa Maria degli Angioli

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.

Which is better, Locarno or Lugano?

I have stayed in both of these Ticino cities over the years and would find it tricky to choose between them.

Lugano is a bigger and busier city with a broader selection of restaurants, accommodation and shops. By contrast, Locarno has more of a small-town feel.

There are plenty of places to visit from either city.

VISITING LUGANO FROM LOCARNO
  • 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 Piazza Cioccaro in Locarno’s old town.
swiss train that can be used with the ticino ticket with a smiley face painted on front
Gotta love a happy train!

Day 3: Take a Boat from Locarno 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.

green wooden boat by side of lake

Ascona

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.

brightly coloured buildings and church along the shore at ascona
Ascona’s waterfront

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!

orange colored long cocktail in glass with straw
TAKING A BOAT TRIP ON LAKE MAGGIORE FROM LOCARNO
  • I bought a day pass for the Navigazione Lago Maggiore boats which cost 29.60 CHF (includes 20% discount with Ticino Ticket).
  • Pick up a boat timetable in Locarno. Services are infrequent.
  • The botanic gardens are open from April to November and an entrance ticket costs 4.90 CHF with the Ticino Ticket. (30% discount)

Day 4: A Day Trip from Locarno 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.

Como

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.

narrow shaded street in italian city
Como

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.

man sitting on bench on the shores of lake with village in distance

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).

Bellagio

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.

narrow shaded streets with ochre buildings
Belaggio

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!

VISITING COMO FROM LUGANO
  • 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.
  • 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 your journey at Chiasso and purchase a ticket there.
  • The standard return boat trip (slow boat) from Como to Bellagio costs €20.80 (September 2021). 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 lake 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. This will cost a supplement.

Planning Your Visit to Lugano, Switzerland

How to get to Locarno

Locarno has excellent train connections, either from Bellinzona and Lugano to the east or via the super scenic Centovalli Railway from Italy or Western Switzerland.

The closest airports are Milan or Zurich.

Travelling in Switzerland by train

Thanks to Switzerland’s efficient and highly integrated transport system, doing these day trips by train is easy. However, as Swiss rail travel does not come cheap, a rail pass is worth considering.

I travelled around Switzerland by rail on a Global Interrail Pass. If you live outside Europe and want to use a European train pass, the Eurail pass is available.

However, if most of your travelling is within Switzerland it is worth considering a Swiss Travel Pass, which comes with extra benefits, or even a regional pass. Just do your homework before you travel.

With the high cost of rail travel in Switzerland, an Interrail / Eurail Pass or a Swiss Pass (or regional travel pass) is a gift that keeps on giving.

Planning train travel in Switzerland

Packing a good guidebook to help you to plan train travel in Switzerland, and to explore the country whilst you are there, can be a smart move. I can recommend this excellent Bradt guide which I used when I was visiting Switzerland. This is easily the best guide to exploring Switzerland by public transport on the market.

Where to stay in Locarno

Locarno has a selection of accommodation options to suit most budgets

Mid-range

Aparthotel Al Lago – I stayed at this lakeside property. Although it was a little dated, the room was large and had a balcony and kitchenette – handy in expensive Switzerland! –  and a super-friendly owner.

Here are a few alternatives that I have found that may suit other budgets:

Splurge

Villa Oreslina – this small luxury hotel in Orelsina, features a small outdoor pool and is housed in an elegant villa.

Budget

Villa Art’è – this small guesthouse, close to Piazza Grande, occupies a Liberty-style building dating from the late 19th century and offers a terrace and garden.

–> None of these places take your fancy? Discover other great accommodation choices in Locarno.

Is Locarno Worth Visiting?

Whilst Locarno may not be as tranquil as other places located on Lago Maggiore, ignore it at your peril.

It boasts the warmest climate in Switzerland, has a picturesque Old Town and there are many great attractions close to the the city. And with its excellent transport connections and the Ticino Ticket at your disposal, it’s very easy to visit other destinations as day trips. 

DISCOVER OTHER GREAT SWISS EXPERIENCES!