An unusual way to discover Locarno – journey on a scenic Centovalli train and Lake Maggiore cruise

Locarno is a picturesque town located in Ticino region in Switzerland. Ticino is a famous Dolce Vita area (in this part of Switzerland Italian is spoken) with its Mediterranean climate as the Alps shield the region from the northern European weather. You will find here mild winters and warm summers and you can admire the sun-kissed greenery all over the year, if fact many exotic plants can grow in Ticino and you don’t feel like you’re in the middle of Europe but rather somewhere closer to the south.

Ticino region enchants by its beautiful lakes and Locarno is situated by the picturesque Lake Maggiore. If you discover Northern Italy or tour around Switzerland I recommend coming here to admire stunning nature, walk around Locarno’s old town with its colourful houses and narrow streets and /or use it as a base to discover small quaint villages, go on hikes or walk and take cruises to take in the breathtaking scenery of Lake Maggiore.

I have discovered Locarno during exploration of Lake Maggiore when travelling around Ticino and Italian Piedmont. I think that what is so special about those areas are incredible landscapes – lake Maggiore is located on the south side of the Alps which gives you amazing views from the shoreline on the mountains and all around the lake there are small towns and villages with beautiful historical architecture, Locarno is one of such charming towns.

My approach to visit Locarno was to spend there few hours but to have a scenic journey to and from the city. As I was visiting different towns around Lake Maggiore, I went on a one day trip from Italy. I have decided to take a scenic train from Italian Domodossola and come back to Italy by a ferry, travelling all along the lake.

If you have time, I recommend having a one hour walk around the old town of Domodossola

My base for the week was in fact Stresa which is a resort town on the Lake Maggiore with beautiful old town, home to palazzos and villas as well as charming promenade on the waterfront. Stresa is a touristy town with good hotel base, many excellent restaurants and a busy harbour, from here you can take ferries to nearby town and famous Borromean islands which are a big tourist attraction (especially the ones with beautiful old palazzos and elegant gardens). Stresa is also conveniently connected with Milan, Basel, Geneve and – for the purpose of this trip – Domodossola from where the scenic train to Locarno departs.

Centovalli Railway from Domodossola to Locarno runs through the scenic regions of the Centovalli and the Valle Vigezzo. The train passes over 83 marvelous bridges and viaducts. As the journey continues the narrow-gauge railway passes through wild chestnut forests and vine-covered slopes. The train passes many small picturesque towns nested in the valleys and the slopes of the mountains with church towers domineering the traditional low buildings. The route covers a distance of around 50 kilometres and lasts 2 hours. The train stops in numerous small towns so if you plan some hiking you can consider taking just a part of this journey and opt to choose one of the intermediate stations as your final destination.

Views from Centovalli panoramic train

The train can be booked via website of Centovalli Railway (click here) where you can also consult the schedule and prices. It is cheaper to book the train via the official website than through Swiss railway website/app. The one way journey costs less than 30 euro and there is a small fee if you choose to go by panoramic type of train. There are few departures during the day so you can choose  the most comfortable one, the prices do not vary much and my impression was they were not dynamic.

After arrival to Locarno (in my case around noon), I had few hours to discover the city. Fortunately, both ferry terminal as well as cable car to Locarno’s Sacred Mount Madonna del Sasso with the Church of the Annunciation located at the foot of it are just few minutes way from the station and the old town of Locarno is also very compact so few hours should be enough to explore the area.

I have started with a cable car to the Church of the Annunciation. The church is not only one of the most important religious and historical sites in Ticino but its unique location ensures splendid panoramic views at Lake Maggiore and surrounding area.

If you don’t have much time, I recommend taking a cable car uphill (if you want to walk, there are well assigned paths to climb and the route is not very difficult) and then descend to the city center via Via Crucis. As you go down, you pass stations of the Way of the Cross which is a piece of artwork on its own. Apart of the church you can also visit the adjacent museum, but if you don’t have much time, I suggest stepping inside of the Church of the Annunciation and admire its architecture.

Regardless if you decide to take a cable car back or descend on your own (I’d count around 15 minutes), both ways get you back close to the old town of Locarno. I recommend starting with Piazza Grande which is the heart of the city. When strolling around you can admire typical for the region colorful townhouses, there are also plenty of small restaurants and cafes as well as a supermarket so it’s a good place to get some refreshments. A short walk from Piazza Grande will lead you to Visconteo Castle which is another Locarno’s major landmark. Visconeto Castle dates back to medieval times and nowadays hosts an archeological museum.

I recommend discovering the other parts of the old town of Locarno by just strolling through the narrow streets going uphill from the Piazza Grande, admiring the architecture of old palazzos and stylish villas hidden between the streets. As you continue your explorations, you will find many small churches nested in the corners and between historical townhouses, you can step inside to admire their interiors. There are many small orientation maps around the old town where you will find the most landmarks indicated so you can use this information for additional guidance. Personally, I recommend just strolling around in relaxed pace and let the charming narrow streets and shadowed small squares lead to Locarno’s historical and architectural gems.

Vienna is a perfect European city break destination

My way back to Stresa was later in the afternoon with a ferry which departures from the embarkation point located at the shore of the lake. I suggest coming around one hour in advance not only to buy a ticket but also to enjoy a relaxed walk on the promenade along the lake.

When planning the trip, verify well the schedule as the ferry to Italy does not departure every day (or the hours vary depending on which day of the week you travel). More departures are available on weekends, on Saturday and Sunday they have more stops (for instance in nearby beautiful town Ascona). I have travelled on Wednesday at 4pm and had only one stop in Intra before arriving to Stresa (the ferry’s final destination was Arona). I suggest checking the current schedule on the website of the ferry (I find the timetable not very intuitive but you can send an email to confirm the details in case of doubts). Click here to consult the operator’s website.  During my stay, there was no possibility to buy tickets online and all customers had to buy the ticket at the counter before departure (you can book online only for organized larger groups). The ticket from Locarno to Stresa costs (June 2024) around 20 CHF and the journey takes 2h 20 minutes approximately and is incredibly scenic as you admire the lake, surrounding mountains and the outlines small historical towns nested on the slopes and the shore of Lake Maggiore.

For best views I recommend installing on the upper deck which is open. Bring additional sweater or jacket to protect from cold wind as you swim through the lake.

Vienna is a perfect European city break destination

In case you miss the ferry, I recommend to go to station and buy a Centovalli train back to Italy. Usually, booking in advance is not necessary and there should be plenty of seats left and the trains run until evening. Again, I suggest to check the train schedules in advance so you have an alternative if you won’t make it to the ferry or if it’s cancelled because of bad weather. In case you go back by train, choose the seat on the opposite side from your journey to Locarno to have slightly different views.