Beyond typical tourist places in Locarno and Ascona

Once you visit Locarno and Ascona in Ticino, you will be sure that you will come back again. The two sister towns and their surroundings are full of gems! These go beyond the classic list of tourist places and attractions. Cuisine here is not just food, it’s also an art that goes with the artistic spirit of the region. In autumn it is an explosion of flavors and colors.

Madonna del Sasso, a tourist place, a local gem or a piece of art?

Madonna del Sasso

Madonna Del Sasso LocarnoIn our opinion it is not only a local gem but the crown jewel of any trip to Locarno!  Madonna del Sasso (or Our Lady of the Rock) in Orselina above Locarno, is the most important sanctuary in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland.

There are two routes to reach it: the steep Via Crucis or the trails in the natural valley where a few chapels are located. Here, you will be filling the footsteps of ancient pilgrims that walked up the “Sacred mountain” for centuries where according to the tradition, the Virgin Mary appeared in 1480.

Funicular to Madonna del Sasso, LocarnoTo get to Madonna del Sasso in a more relaxed yet still distinctive way, we used the traditional funicular railway that took us from town all the way up to the door of the sanctuary. However, here’s a tip, don’t stop at the Madonna del Sasso station but at the next (& final) stop which gets you at the cable car station to Cardada. Just across the street there is a semi-circular view point that gives you an amazing top view of Madonna del Sasso and the bay of Locarno below it. From here head down the long staircase to the sanctuary itself. Madonna del Sasso is a work of art and beauty inside out. Religious art fills the interior of the pilgrims site museum and of several display rooms. You can spend a couple of hours admiring it.

Madonna del Sasso, LocarnoThe facade of the Sanctuary is so distinctive in its design and colour, reflecting the 15th century style when it was built. The space outside is a breathtaking terrace that makes an amazing view point of Locarno. Here, take your time to enjoy the view and the peaceful setting.

Locarno, Piazza Grande, home of the Locarno Film Festival

By this time, the city revealed its sunny face, and it was calling us for a stroll. In a blink of an eye we moved from the mountains to the lakeside. That’s another amazing thing about Locarno both settling on the shoreline of Lago Maggiore, and nestling at the base of the Swiss Alps.

Despite that we have visited Locarno before, and  been to its tourist places and attractions, but nevertheless, there is always a refill of pleasure and excitement with redoing the must do’s!

Locarno promenadeWalking beside the lakeside while observing the boats and the nearby mountains. Strolling and window shopping the circular alley surrounding the Piazza Grande, venturing into the perpendicular alleys, where it’s guaranteed that you will end up in one of these local bakeries or artisanal ice creams and having some.

It was autumn festival time here, and the locals took over the tourist place! So the Piazza Grande once filled with Locarno Film Festival open cinema chairs was now filled with balloons & arches and lazy beach chairs for anyone to lay down and sip a coffee. That’s what we were doing when suddenly a loud “beat” was approaching through the alley! Soon we realized that it was a traditional music band marching with huge cow bells, creating a strong rhythmic beat, to remind us that as much as we are on the lake side, but we are also at the footsteps of the Alps!

Off the typical tourist attractions, we visited “Falconry” and attended their show in Locarno. The show is a performance of actors and animals like falcons, stork, horses, and even a wolf! An activity that is very entertaining for families with children.

Where do the stars of Locarno Film Festival stay? Belvedere hotel!

Belvedere HotelFootsteps from Piazza Grande, slightly up the hill, we were hosted by Belvedere Hotel, the historic hotel that overlooks Lake Maggiore shoreline and the surrounding mountains. Belvedere means nice view and it’s a reflection that all the hotel rooms have a view over Locarno and its bay. Whatever plans we had for the day, we made sure that we were at the balcony of Belvedere hotel at sunrise and sunset to watch as the sun “coloring “ the lake and Locarno with its wonderful golden colours.

Sunrise at Belvedere hotelThe location of Belvedere hotel is amazing to explore Locarno and the surrounding local gems and tourist places. It’s literally a stone’s throw from the heart of the town, in proximity to local attractions while away from daily buzz, very close yet very calm. The funicular that goes up to Madonna del Sasso is exactly at its doorstep, and from there you can go to Cardada and Cimetta, local gems off the frequented tourist places.

The (Belvedere) hotel  is also a feast for art lovers and collectors. Starting from the reception and across the hallways,  original works of Swiss and French painters of the early twentieth century, and amazing sculptures from local artists are nicely exhibited. Not only that but the hotel is an official partner of the infamous Locarno Film Festival. Many celebrities have stayed here and their photos and autographs are nicely displayed in the bar area such as Sir Anthony Hopkins and Adrian Brody. In the hallways between the floors you can find the original posters of the Festival since 1954!

Locarno Film FestivalThe facilities of Belvedere hotel boast a cosy spa with an indoor-outdoor pool. The outside part overlooks a wonderful garden. From there you can amuse yourself with a scene of the two funicular cabins going up and down every 15 minutes. If you turn your head a bit upward you can easily locate Madonna del Sasso in the backdrop!

The pool also welcomes children, and the garden is an amazing place for them to run & enjoy.

Belvedere hotel where food is also art

All of that, and we didn’t get yet to the most distinctive part, the culinary experience! The hotel restaurant “La Fontana”, gets its name from the historic fountain of 1815 located on its terrace. The kitchen design is quite distinctive. It opens to the diners, and you can enjoy watching the cooking process. We felt it’s a reflection of mastery and confidence (14 points Gault&Millau).

La Fontana, Belvedere hotelWe are foodies, who appreciate fine dining and this one was simply remarkable! The menu was full with autumn specialities (one strong reason to visit in autumn). Game, castania, truffles & mushrooms etc…

We went for the homemade “Foie gras” and the “Raviolini del Plin” with truffles, it was out of this world! In between the servings we were heading to the counter of the open kitchen (of course behind the glass, as we didn’t get our chef diplomas yet :)).  Watching as the dishes are being prepared & decorated was a  feast to the eyes! Everything is impeccable with high attention to the smallest detail! The “Vitello”and the “Cervo”(deer) we ordered as main course were amazingly delicious.

Fois gras, La FontanaAlthough we were already full, we couldn’t say no to the dessert! The “Cioccolato e Pera” is soooo tasty.

On Sunday evenings the restaurant has a live music piano performance. It adds to a romantic and cosy ambiance of the place.

The buffet breakfast at “La Fontana”, is excellent! A wide display of cheeses, charcuterie, fruits, croissants and desserts. There is also an egg station where you can ask for personalized omelettes according to your preference.

To note the restaurant provides high chairs so little children can eat comfortably.

Ascona beyond the classical tourist places

Ascona promenadeAscona is mostly iconized by the postcard picture of its lakeside promenade, which has the colorful historic buildings on one side and the blue lake on the other side. There is something about Ascona that brings up childhood instincts in us. Maybe it is its simplicity and authenticity that allow us to express our inner child. Impulsively we start craving for an ice-cream, we start longing for a bike ride on the promenade, we start playing with colorful falling leaves, we jump over the mini water jets next to the lake. But of all, we enjoy most sitting on the swing facing the lake and start swinging freely and peacefully and let the sunset warm our faces.

Swing in AsconaBehind the Ascona promenade there is a network of alleys that are so charming…full of small local shops, restaurants, bakeries, artisans and crafts that are worth exploring. It’s another opportunity to let ourselves (say our inner child) get lost for a glance of time…

Tip: one key enabler was the Ticino transport ticket, that enabled us to travel freely within the Ticino canton. You can even get the funicular and boat rides at a discount with it.

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