For the Complete Swiss Experience: Touring Ticino
by Christen Fleming, August 28, 2023
We often hear from clients that they want to experience all that Switzerland has to offer and since this small country has so many incredible destinations, that can be a challenging task! Too often overlooked on itineraries though is Ticino, the predominantly Italian-speaking canton of Switzerland.
Those who make their way south are rewarded with relaxed lakeside towns lined with pastel buildings, fashionable cities of historic buildings, hiking paths that wind through enchanted stone villages, and epically blue lakes and waterfalls. We present here two different suggestions for where to base yourself as well as some places to visit for an extraordinary time in Ticino.
Located just 1 hour 15 minutes north of Milan and about an hour and a half from Lucerne (both direct by train), it is neither far nor difficult to get to Lugano, the vibrant lakeside city which acts as a gateway to Switzerland’s southern region. To take the scenic route though, choose the beautiful Gotthard Panorama Express from Lucerne and enjoy both a leisurely boat cruise and guided first class train ride to Lugano.
Start your visit in Lugano with a funicular ride to the summit of Monte San Salvatore and enjoy spectacular views over the entire area (that are so much better than any photo can capture!) Return down the mountain either by funicular again or choose to go on foot via one of the hiking trails.
A stroll along Lake Lugano is another exceptional way to get a feel for the city, taking in the magnificent mountains that surround the lake from a different perspective. Continue to the verdant Parco Ciani, weaving through colorful flower beds and century-old trees, to relax as the locals do.
There are two lakeside villages outside of Lugano that are important to include on the list of places to visit: Morcote and Gandria. Each is only a short distance from Lugano by boat or bus, but a lake cruise is recommended for at least one leg of the journey to be able to see the pretty villages from the water.
Morcote was voted in 2016 as “Switzerland’s Most Beautiful Village”. Meander through the narrow cobblestone alleys and arcades, making your way to Parco Scherrer – once a private estate and now a small yet worldly park filled with both artifacts and plants from around the globe. Stroll through the terraced gardens and imagine its history before returning back to the lakefront to enjoy a drink or dinner.
While Gandria can be reached by boat or bus as mentioned before, another option is to take the pretty “Sentiero dell’olivo” or Olive Tree Trail. Start in Castagnola and wind your way along the lakeside path, passing through olive groves and stone walkways to reach the picturesque village.
Locarno is situated on the beautiful Lago Maggiore and thanks to the Ceneri Base Tunnel which allows trains through instead of around the mountain, travel to and from other destinations is convenient and fast!
Every year Locarno’s aptly named Piazza Grande (it’s enormous!) plays host to some of the area’s biggest events, including the prestigious Locarno Film Festival. Starting your visit from here, you can stroll through the cobblestone streets of old town and visit Castello Visconteo, a castle which dates back to the middle ages, as well as walk the “Via Crucis” (Way of the Cross) along the steep scenic pathway to the beautiful and sacred Madonna del Sasso in Orselina (a funicular is available as well) – one of the most important religious and historical sites in the canton.
Locarno opens up into several wild and beautiful valleys filled with turquoise rivers and pooling waterfalls that weave their way along giant boulders. These valleys are home to several enchanting stone villages worthy of a visit, either for a short stroll, a stop at a grotto, or as a starting point for some spectacular hikes.
At the end of Valle Maggia sits Val Bavona. It is here that you will find the small village of Foroglio with its charming stone houses and impressive waterfall. After exploring the village you can start a (very hilly) hike over and through numerous stone settlements, villages, and boulders to Bignasco where you can pick up the return bus to Locarno (please note that the buses between Bignasco and Foroglio are limited, so please check the SBB timetable in advance as you’re planning your day).
A visit to the nearby Valle Verzasca is a stunning one as well! Home to several stone villages, each with its own personality, you can begin exploring this valley by hopping on the bus to Sonogno. A fantastic hike begins right from here, taking you through the valley along turquoise waters and sun-bleached boulders and bringing you to the Instagram-famous Ponte dei Salti stone bridge in Lavertezzo. This is a family-friendly hike (for children with hiking experience) and also part of the Bo Bosco marble run trail. If you prefer, you can start and finish this route at different points throughout the valley to make it shorter/longer or skip the hike entirely and visit each of these villages by bus as the hiking trail meets up with the bus route at several stops.
Make sure you do not miss the picturesque lakeside village of Ascona. Beautiful at all times of the day but an early arrival to Ascona will allow you time for a quiet morning visit by boat to the magical Islands before exploring the rest of the town. The climate here allows a unique opportunity to host both Mediterranean and subtropical plants; it’s truly a botanical world tour with species from 5 different continents! When you return to Ascona, take your time strolling along the picture-perfect waterfront – enjoy a leisurely drink, lunch, or gelato (or all of the above) at one of the many lakeside restaurants or shops.
Finally, make sure to take the train to Bellinzona for a visit to the fortress (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and stroll around the remains of 3 castles: Castelgrande, Montebello and Sasso Corbaro. Finish your visit with a drink or meal with epic views from the Grotto San Michele of Castelgrande.
A few important notes:
- Be aware of opening and closing times of different attractions as many places in Switzerland close early (yet another reason to get an early start on the day!)
- Please make sure you are dressed appropriately for these hikes with sturdy shoes and weather-appropriate clothing (it is smart to bring rain gear just in case).
Everyone is familiar with the postcard-worthy chalets and cow-lined mountains that we love in the north, east, and west of the country, but if you truly want to experience all that Switzerland has to offer, a visit to Ticino is a must. These itinerary ideas are just your aperitivo, certainly not the full, multiple-course menu that this canton offers, so make sure to set time aside to experience a bit of the “Swiss Quality, Italian Lifestyle” that Ticino is known for. We are confident that you will love Ticino as much as we do and, of course, if you’d like assistance maximizing your time there, you know you can always ask one of our travel consultants and we’d be happy to help!
All photos by Christen Fleming of Magic Switzerland
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