High above the glittering Lake Maggiore and easy to spy from miles away, the Madonna del Sasso is a breathtaking monastery surrounded by snow-capped peaks and stunning scenery in the pretty hamlet of Orselina. Here’s a guide to visiting the Sacro Monte and Sanctuary of Madonna del Sasso in Locarno (including the ecclesiastical building’s history and what to see once there).
A history of Madonna del Sasso: A Sacro Monte in Locarno, Switzerland
The Madonna del Sasso (which can be otherwise translated as ‘Our Lady of the Rock’) was first founded after Franciscan brother, Fra’ Bartolomeo d’Ivrea, experienced a vision of the Virgin Mary on the night of the 14th/ 15th of August in 1480.
The brother chose to found a chapel on the edge of the rock, a place that was to serve as a pilgrimage site for many centuries to come. Easily one of the most iconic religious sites in the Canton of Ticino (Switzerland does not have a capital city, but is instead broken down into unified largely self-governed areas known collectively as ‘Cantons’), the current sanctuary dates back to the 16th-century.
In 2013, the sanctuary was restored to its former glory, after decades of wear and tear as a result of the often harsh climate seen on the climate. Although the Canton of Ticino now owns the complex, the sole custodians of the ecclesiastical site are still the friars.
Today, the sanctuary and place of pilgrimage are open to the public for free on a daily basis (between the hours of 07.00 – 18.30). If you’re visiting, then be sure to wrap up warm as the top of the mountain is often a fair few degrees cooler than down by the water!
Things to see at the Madonna del Sasso
Admire the view of Locarno and Lago Maggiore
Whether you’re spending a day or a weekend in Locarno, one of the best aspects of your visit is sure to be the breathtaking scenery. Alpine lakes, snow-capped mountains, and pretty Swiss towns filled with postcard-perfect rooftops, from the sanctuary of the Madonna del Sasso, you’ll soon discover one of the best views of Locarno to be found anywhere in the region.
Marvel at the life-sized statues on the stairway
When making your way up to the sanctuary after ascending the steep outdoor staircase, you’ll discover three or four rooms containing near life-sized figures depicting scenes from the bible. Of particular note is a replicate of the Last Supper (which people are advised not to throw money at, and instead leave their donations on the floor).
Step inside the sanctuary of the Madonna del Sasso
Ornate gold gilding and beautifully carved wood are just a few of the design elements you can expect to enjoy should you choose to step inside the Sanctuary of the Madonna del Sasso. Highlights of the sanctuary, which is dedicated to Santa Maria Assunta, include Bramantino and Ciseri canvases dating back to the 1520s, as well as various votives to the saints.
Visit the Casa del Padre Museum
Situated in the very middle of the sanctuary, the Casa del Padre museum was opened to the public in mid-2016. Housed in a place where four friars once lived, the interior features eight exhibition spaces which display plenty of Swiss treasures, including several ex votos dating back to the 19th and 20th-centuries.
See the stations of Christ on your way up the mountain
Like many other Sacro Monti in Southern Switzerland and Northern Italy (the most famous being the Sacro Monte di Varese), Madonna del Sasso is home to a steep Via Crucis which makes its way up the mountain. That of Madonna del Sasso is modelled after the Varallo Sesia.
Featuring numerous large plaques depicting scenes of the life of Christ, for centuries pilgrims have been ascending the mountain. Some of the workers who created the sculptures and carvings for the Ticino Sacro Monte also worked in Varese.
Take the nature trails through the mountain
If you have a little more time during your visit to the Sacro Monte di Locarno, then you might prefer to take the long, winding route, which wends its way through the natural valley and all the way to the ecclesiastical building at the top. En route, there are several chapels to admire.
Practical Advice & Tips for visiting the Madonna del Sasso & how to take the Locarno–Madonna del Sasso funicular
If you’re planning to visit the sanctuary on foot, then plan to leave at least half an hour to make your way up the mountain. Otherwise, you can take the Locarno-Madonna del Sasso funicular which will take you to Orselina, the hamlet where the sanctuary is based for a small fee. Be sure to get off on the Santuario stop.
The Locarno-Madonna del Sasso funicular railway (FLMS) was built at the start of the 20th-century and was finally finished in 1906. At peak season (from April to October), the funicular runs every fifteen minutes. For more details on the Funicolare, you can find a complete timetable here.