Amid the vineyards, lakes and Alpine peaks of southern Switzerland, the canton of Ticino dishes up a slice of Italian flair that few expect to encounter…
International dialling code: +41
Currency: Swiss franc (CHF), currently around CHF1.18 to the UK£
Getting there: EasyJet flies regularly from London to Zürich (1 hr 50 min) from £54 return. From Zürich, trains run to Bellinzona through the Gotthard Base Tunnel (2 hours) from £45 one way. Or fly to Milan from London, Manchester or Edinburgh and get the train (1 hr 40 min) to Locarno.
Getting around: It’s easy to get the train or bus between Ticino’s major cities, while mountain transport (funiculars, cable cars, railways) is very well connected. But it’s worth hiring a car or e-bike to explore the remote valleys.
Weather: Summers can be very hot, though the air is cooler in the high mountains. Come in autumn for the wine and chestnut harvests. Winter is generally milder here than in the rest of Switzerland.
Further information: Ticino.ch
Think of Switzerland and it’s the French and German-speaking regions that spring to mind first. However, the Italophone area of Ticino, bordering Italy to the south, is just as important a part of this diverse country, with a unique character, sunny disposition and Italian-influenced cuisine that is nevertheless innately Swiss.
Sharing Lake Maggiore and Lake Lugano with Italy, Ticino has a Mediterranean feel, with palm tree-lined lakeshore promenades in the towns of Locarno, Lugano and Ascona, along with some of the best beaches and warmest water in the country – this is one of Switzerland’s sunniest cantons, after all. Locarno’s vast Piazza Grande, a cobbled square on a scale to rival those in Spain and Italy, testifies to the outdoor culture of Ticino.
Every August, a huge open-air cinema is set up here during the longstanding Locarno Film Festival, while markets, music festivals and food events, as well as numerous cafés and restaurants, animate the square year-round.
Locarno’s Piazza Grande (Shutterstock)
Yet this southern European character is coupled with scenery that is distinctly Swiss. Funiculars and cable cars whisk visitors up to mountain summits, including Monte Brè and Monte Tamaro, for hiking and mountain biking. To the north of Locarno, the wild and unspoiled Vallemaggia and Valle Verzasca offer rivers and gorges, peaceful swimming hollows and tiny villages whose traditional grey stone buildings are very different to the more typical wooden chalets seen elsewhere in the country, but just as charming. These hamlets, seemingly unchanged for centuries (those in the Val Bavona aren’t even on the electricity grid) have a unique history and character that is thankfully being preserved. Corippo, the smallest village in Switzerland, has been turned into an albergo diffuso (‘scattered hotel’), following the Italian model of converting restored traditional villages into unique stays.
North of these valleys, the high alpine hiking trails of the Lepontine alps lead over to Bedretto and Airolo, from where the old Gotthard pass railway, opened in 1882, takes passengers through and over the mountains to the canton of Uri. Below it, buried some 2,000m deep in the rock, is the 57km Gotthard Base Tunnel, the world’s longest and deepest railway tunnel, which has provided a speedier north-south connection since 2016.
Southern Ticino, meanwhile, serves up the wine region of Mendrisiotto, characterised by charming villages and acres of vineyards producing mostly Merlot wine. Wine cellars offer tastings, while rustic restaurants known as grotti – natural rock caves once used as refrigeration stores – serve traditional Ticinese dishes, including polenta, minestrone, risotto and chestnut cake. It’s Switzerland, but not as you know it.
Castelgrande castle in Bellinzona (Shutterstock)
Wander through the narrow streets of the Città Vecchia (Old Town) before stopping for coffee in Piazza Grande. Nearby, a funicular ascends to Madonna del Sasso, an important pilgrimage site in Ticino dating from the 15th century. Explore the basilica, monastery and small museum, which look out over Locarno and Lake Maggiore far below. Back on the lakeshore, have a swim at Lido Locarno before dinner.
As one of Switzerland’s UNESCO World Heritage sites, Bellinzona’s three 13th-century castles testify to this area’s strategic importance on the north-south trade route. Walk between Castelgrande, Montebello and Sasso Corbaro to explore their ramparts, towers and grounds. In Montebello, have a go at making the area’s famous Ticinella salami, which is cured in the cool cellars of the castle.
The tranquil Valle Verzasca is only a short drive north of Locarno but feels a world away. Walk across the 220m-high Contra Dam at Vogorno, which James Bond plunged off in the film Goldeneye (you can bungee jump here if you wish), and cool off in the translucent turquoise river water at Lavertezzo, whose Ponte dei Salti, a double-arched stone bridge, is a much-photographed symbol of Ticino.
Spend a morning discovering the street art in Ticino’s largest city, which has a thriving cultural scene. In the afternoon, take the funicular from Cassarate to Monte Brè (925m). Explore the typical Ticinese village of Brè before hiking back down to the lakeshore at Gandria.
Head to the southern tip of Lake Lugano to catch the 130-year old rack railway from Capolago up to Monte Generoso (1,704m) for lunch in Ticinese architect Mario Botta’s Fiore di Pietra building. Later, take the path to the Bear’s Cave to see excavated remains from the lair of a cave bear, now extinct for 20,000 years.
North of Locarno, this so-named ‘magical’ river valley is a fine escape. Starting at Ponte Brolla, hike the trail towards Cevio, crossing the hanging bridge at Someo. Continue onwards into the Val Bavona, a remote valley without electricity, where rustici – traditional stone houses – are built onto or into the rock under high cliffs. Stop by the pretty Foroglio waterfall in the village of the same name.
There’s something very Swiss about the attention to detail and careful construction of the miniature buildings, bridges, railways and cable cars in this open-air park in Melide, which contains more than 120 scale models of famous Swiss landmarks. A stroll here takes in Montreux’s Chillon castle, the federal parliament in Bern, Lausanne’s cathedral, lakes and a miniature railway with 18 trains.
Take the cable car from Monte Carasso, near Bellinzona, up to the pretty village of Curzútt for the start of a four-hour hike that crosses a 270m-long Tibetan-style bridge, rising above a richly forested valley. The trail goes past the Romanesque church of San Bernardo, whose walls are adorned with frescoes.
Monte San Giorgio has a fossil museum (Shutterstock)
The UNESCO-listed site of Monte San Giorgio contains fossils dating back 240 million years. Explore the mountain, with its glorious views over Lake Lugano and the village of Morcote – considered one of Switzerland’s prettiest – before visiting the Fossil Museum in Meride to see fossils of marine animals and invertebrates that flourished in this region so long ago.
A fascinating museum housed inside the rock of Gotthard pass. This once-secret fortress was built during the Second World War as part of Switzerland’s National Redoubt, a defensive plan against potential German invasion. Visit the rooms where 500 troops ate and slept, as well as ammunition stores, gun batteries and a hospital. A second exhibit deals with the challenges facing Switzerland’s future.
This small museum near Bedretto houses the private collection of crystals that have been excavated from the Gotthard massif by a local family over the years. Examples of quartz and other crystals are displayed in illuminated spaces inside a cave.
Pozzo dei Salti (Shutterstock)
Hike the high alpine trail from the top of the San Carlo-Robièi cableway to the Cristallina mountain pass. Look out for ibex on this moderate three-hour hike that takes in several lakes and reservoirs as it winds up to 2,568m. After a comfy night in the Capanna Cristallina, a Swiss Alpine Club hut (open to non-members), take the long trail down to Bedretto the next day.
Ride a mountain bike or e-bike from Alpe Foppa, the top station of Monte Tamaro (reached via a summer-only cable car), down to Lake Lugano. Top up your e-bike at the charging station, then ride up to the summit (1,962m) before descending to the lakeshore via scrubland and forests.
Taste the region’s wines on a visit to one of the many vineyards in the Mendrisiotto area, where the sunny climate is ideal for growing Merlot grapes. Choose from several themed walking routes that meander the vineyards, or stop by one of the area’s 40 wine cellars for a tasting.
Eat local dishes made with chestnuts – they grow abundantly in Ticino – such as chestnut cake, chestnut honey and vermicelles, a dessert made from chestnut purée. From Arosio, cycle or hike ancient chestnut tree forests in the Malcantone region and discover the old grà where chestnuts are traditionally dried and ground. There’s a chestnut festival in Ascona each autumn.
Carasc Tibetan Bridge (Shutterstock)
Corippo Albergo Diffuso
This hotel offers rooms in restored rustici in Switzerland’s smallest village, providing a chance to experience the culture and architecture of the Valle Verzasca. corippoalbergodiffuso.ch
Stylish rooms in two 16th-century mansions on the shore of Lake Lugano. gh-castagnola.com
Part of Switzerland’s Million Stars Hotel initiative, this simple wooden hut on Monte Generoso offers a peaceful night’s sleep under starry skies. swisshotels.com
Enjoy blissful views, spa treatments and an outdoor pool in this luxury boutique hotel near the Madonna del Sasso sanctuary, a few minutes by funicular from Locarno. villaorselina.ch
Conca Bella Boutique Hotel
A wine-themed hotel in the Merlot-growing region of Mendrisiotto. The cellar contains 20,000 bottles. concabella.ch
Case di Sotto
Upmarket B&B and apartments above Locarno. The terrace and rooms overlook Lake Maggiore. facebook.com/CaseDiSottoHouseBreakfast
Simple, family-run apartments in a traditional stone building in the peaceful Valle Verzasca, just steps from Vogorno reservoir. +41 794 443945
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