Ticino Travel Guide

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Lugano in Ticino, Switzerland © Shutterstock

The Italian-speaking canton of Ticino occupies the balmy, lake-laced southern foothills of the Alps. Radically different from the rest of Switzerland

, it's a place where the culture, food and architecture owe more to Milan than Zürich . Plan your trip to Ticino with our guide to Ticino, based on The Rough Guide to Switzerland , your travel guide for Switzerland.

What to expect when travelling to Ticino — your Ticino travel guide

The glamour of Ticino and its natural beauty – lushly wooded hills rising from azure water, palm trees swaying against blue skies, red roofs framed by purple bougainvillea – are staggeringly romantic.

That romance is enhanced by the canton's ancient churches, and stone-built towns and villages.

Ticino is divided topographically by the Monte Ceneri range. The area to the north is Sopraceneri (“Above Ceneri”), and to the south, Sottoceneri (“Below Ceneri”).

The former takes in the cantonal capital Bellinzona, a quietly elegant place often passed over in favour of the lakeside resorts.

The heart of this rugged region, however, lies in the very hinterland that most people see through the window as they hurtle past — unspoilt Alto Ticino, comprising Prealpine valleys and mountain-top lakelets glittering in sunshine.

South of Bellinzona, prosperous towns are crammed between narrowing international borders to east and west.

The principal draw is the stylish city of Lugano, sited on a bay of the glorious Lake Lugano. The surrounding countryside is dotted with idyllic Italianate villages and crisscrossed by some of the loveliest walks in the canton.

In Ticino, its clear to see why you voted Switzerland one of the most beautiful countries in the world

.

Castelgrande, Bellinzona, Ticino © elesi/Shutterstock

Bellinzona

A fortress since Roman times, Bellinzona occupies a prime valley-floor position, controlling the great Alpine passes of the Novena (Nufenen), Gottardo (Gotthard), Lucomagno (Lukmanier) and San Bernadino.

Lacking the pace, crowds and touristic sheen of its bigger neighbours, it’s blessed with medieval architecture, picturesque churches, and a trio of UNESCO castles.

The elegant Renaissance buildings of Piazza Collegiata mark the centre of Bellinzona's Old Town.

Where to stay in Bellinzona

  • Best for city chic: Internazionale. An upmarket spa and business-oriented hotel across from the station.
  • Best for convenience: Hotel Unione. Some rooms in this central three-star have a balcony and castle view.
  • Best for budget travellers: Ostello/Jugendherberge. A fine hostel housed in the grand, cliffside Villa Montebello.

Explore more places to stay in Bellinzona.

Locarno

This pretty old town enjoys a grand location on the sweeping curve of a bay in Lake Maggiore.

The town's arcades and piazzas are overlooked by subtropical gardens of palms, camellias, bougainvillea, cypress, oleanders and magnolias. If you plan to see them at their blooming best, you might want to read up on the best things to do in Switzerland this summer

.

Lined with Renaissance facades, the cobbled alleys of Locarno’s Old Town can get overrun with the rich and wannabe-famous on summer weekends. That said, even then, Locarno retains its poise.

Meanwhile, the surrounding valleys are packed with hiking possibilities, and offer some of the most beautiful scenery in the whole canton.

If you're seeking a more relaxing experience, take a thermal bath at the Termali Salini Wellness Centre. With a breathtaking view over Lago Maggiore, life doesn 't get more laidback.

Travelling with kids? The zip-lines, rope courses and playgrounds of Lago Maggiore Adventure Park will burn off plenty of energy. The panoramic views aren't half bad, either.

Where to stay in Locarno

  • Best for couples: Hotel America. Set in a piazza next to cosy restaurants and five minutes from Lake Maggiore.
  • Best for families: Camping Delta. This fancy, semi-forested lakeside campsite has a playground and beach.
  • Best for understated style: Giardino Lago. This quietly opulent hotel opens onto the waterfront.
  • Best for contemporary comfort: H4 Hotel Arcadia. A modern four-star with an outdoor pool.

Explore more places to stay in Locarno.

Madonna del Sasso Church with views to Lago Maggiore, Locarno, Switzerland © Boris Stroujko/Shutterstock

Ascona

3km southwest of Locarno, Ascona has been a magnet for sun-starved northerners for more than a century.

Until the 1890s, it was nothing more than a fishing hamlet. Since then, it's grown into a cultured small town, offering an enticing blend of character, natural beauty and good shopping.

Ascona’s tour de force is Piazza Motta, the cobbled lakefront promenade. Flanked by wooded peaks, the airy views down the lake are sensational. There are few better places to watch the day drift by.

On Tuesdays, market stalls set up along the piazza, selling everything from local cheese to clothing, ornaments and knick-knacks.

Where to stay in Ascona

  • Best for al fresco style: Hotel Ascona. This plush hillside four-star offers fine views from the rooms, dining terrace, and palm-fringed gardens.
  • Best for big spenders: Eden Roc. One of Switzerland’s top hotels, this attracts money’s-no-object visitors.
  • Best for couples: Romantik Hotel Castello. This four-star hotel has a distinctive tower and romantic rooms.

Explore more places to stay in Ascona.

Ascona's Old Town is a Ticino treasure © Boris Stroujko/Shutterstock

Lugano

With its compact cluster of Italianate piazzas and extensive tree-lined promenades, Lugano is the most alluring of Ticino’s lake resorts.

Lugano basks on a south-facing bay of Lake Lugano, framed on all sides by wooded, sugarloaf hills rising sheer from the water.

Much less touristy than Locarno, it's an exciting, sassy place, full of energy and style – less famous than its Italian near-neighbour Como, but smaller, cleaner and sexier.

Its old alleys and winding lanes are full of enticing delicatessens and boutiques, and graceful, villa-style hotels. It's also a place to explore churches and galleries, and indulge in strolls under lakeside palms. 

On the subject of indulgence, foodies in Lugano might relish a taking a self-guided food tour of town.

Alternatively, for an immersive, five-star experience that combines history, lakeside scenery, fashion, and food, book a guided tour with lunch — a chef will help you create the perfect risotto.

Meanwhile, Instagrammers will be rewarded by a guided walking tour of the city's most photogenic sights.

Where to stay in Lugano

  • Best for couples: Hotel Federale. An atmospheric, good-value old town hotel in a quiet leafy district.
  • Best for families: Lugano Dante. A quality four-star in a converted townhouse by the funicular base station.
  • Best for five-star spenders: Splendide Royal. Traditional public spaces and rooms characterize this classic hotel.
  • Best for beauty on a budget: Youth Hostel Lugano Savosa. A top hostel with gardens and a pool many plush central hotels can only dream of.

Explore more places to stay in Lugano.

Lugano, Switzerland, is sure to feature in any good Ticino travel guide © Shutterstock

Top attractions and things to do in Ticino

Bellinzona's castles

This atmospheric, often-bypassed town of Bellinzona, is dominated by its three castles — Castelgrande, Castello di Montebello. and Sasso Cobaro.

Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000, the castles are strung across the valley at three different levels. All three are breathtakingly beautiful, and house exhibitions on local history.

Save time and beat the queues by booking your three-castle ticket in advance.

Boating on Lake Maggiore, Locarno

Visiting the region's most stylish lakeside resort is a hand-down highlight of any Ticino vacation.

Boats run by NLM crisscross the Swiss shores of the exceptionally beautiful Lake Maggiore, as well as continuing down the lake into Italy.

For all but the shortest hops, a one-day pass, which can be purchased from ticket offices at landing stages, is the most economical choice.

Cardada

When sweltering Locarno gets too much, it’s easy to escape into the cool, wooded hills above.

By the top station of the Madonna del Sasso funicular in Orselina you'll find the base station of a futuristic cable car that rises to the plateau of Cardada.

Set amid fragrant pine woods and fresh breezes, the Observation Platform offers an eagle’s-eye view that takes in Ascona, the lake, and the mountains.

View to Locarno from Cardada mountain, Ticino, Switzerland © Eva Bocek/Shutterstock

Valle Maggia

Comprising a complex valley system stretching north of Locarno into the high Alps, the Valle Maggia culminates in a spectacular cable-car ride at San Carlo.

Aside from the superb Alpine chapel in the Val Lavizzara at Mogno, this is outstanding territory for walking, particularly from Robiei.

Centovalli

The scenic Centovalli railway running to the Italian town of Domodossola winds above a ravine west of Locarno.

Little trains run by the FART company depart from beneath Locarno station into the spectacular valley – so named for its “hundred” side valleys.

Most of the time, the train winds slowly on precarious bridges and viaducts above ravine-like depths.

With a walking map from Locarno tourist office, you could disembark at any of the villages en route. Simply choose your trail and head for the hills to explore an area that's renowned for its natural beauty,

Isole di Brissago

A duo of tiny green dots in shimmering Lake Maggiore, the Isole di Brissago overflow with luxuriant subtropical flora.

While the small island, St Apollinaris, has no public access, the main island, St Pancras, is given over to a fine botanical garden, with plant species arranged by geographical area.

Elesewhere, the atmospheric 1929-built villa at the island’s northeastern end, retains much of its original character, with cavernously cool rooms, an art gallery and restaurant.

Ticino's Isole di Brissago are packed with natural subtropical treasures © Amphi/Shutterstock

Monte Brè, Lugano

From Cassarate, ten minutes’ walk east of the centre of lovely Lugano, a two-stage funicular ascends to Monte Brè.

Rising sheer 660m directly above the city, it offers spectacular views from the summit café over the lake and surrounding mountains.

To soak up the scenery, book a trip that transports you by boat from Lugano to Cassarate, with a funicular ride to the top of Monte Bré.

Travelling independently? Take a twenty-minute walk down from the summit to the village of Brè. Its artistic heritage is expressed through the outdoor art installations that adorn its traditional stone houses.

Monte Generoso

Alongside Capolago-Riva San Vitale train station, a rack-railway climbs on a slow, scenic route up to Monte Generoso.

From the summit, you can see across a sizeable part of northern Italy in an amazing panorama.

Milan

and Turin are both visible. Bellagio on Lake Como is in plain sight, as is Arona on Lake Maggiore and the distinctive pyramidal Matterhorn.

The summit is the starting point for an array of walks, including down to Mendrisio one way (2hr 40min) or Muggio another (2hr 15min).

Great day tours and excursions in Ticino

The Gambarogno

The 13km of shoreline opposite Locarno and Ascona is known as the Gambarogno, and comprises a line of quiet shoreside villages backed by rugged mountains.

On the hillside above Vira, the splendid Parco Botanico del Gambarogno showcases one of Europe’s finest collections of magnolias and camellias.

From Vira, a tightly coiled road leads for 17km over the bleak Alpe di Neggia pass up to the isolated hamlet of Indémini, on the mountain border with Italy.

This stone-built village clings to the valley sides and is virtually abandoned outside the summer. The town has long attracted artists, who exhibit and sell their work at the village’s Bottega dell’artista.

Gandria and around

From Castagnola, just east of Lugano city centre, a pleasant stroll heads east around the base of Monte Brè.

It joins the Sentiero di Gandria footpath at the San Domenico car park. After running through the Parco degli Olivi, a Mediterranean-style lakefront park shaded by olive trees, cypress, laurels and oleander, it eventually reaches picturesque Gandria.

There are few quieter, more alluring corners at which to hole up. The precipitous wooded slopes opposite seem almost completely devoid of habitation.

The good news is, if you're based in Lugano, you can book a boat cruise and walking tour of the Olive Tree Trail from Lugano to Gandria.

Gorgeous Gandria in Ticino, Switzerland © Keitma/Shutterstock

Alprose chocolate factory, Caslano

On a western arm of Lake Lugano, the town of Caslano is the unlikely home of the Alprose chocolate factory.

As you enter, you’re greeted, Willy Wonka-style, by a fountain bubbling with fragrant molten chocolate.

The museum comprises some old coin-op machines and nick-nacks, plus the chance to watch the mixing machines and production line conveyor belts in action.

The Mendrisiotto

South of Lake Lugano, main roads and trains shoot through the hot, dry region known as the Mendrisiotto.

After Mendrisio, the largest town in the area and a major wine-growing centre, there’s a palpable sense of being right on the threshold of the Alps.

At Chiasso, where Switzerland reaches an end, the countryside is gentle and rolling, flattening into the plains of northern Italy immediately beyond.

Sports and activities in Ticino

Adventure activities around Locarno

The area around Locarno offers excellent opportunities for adventure sports. Think canoeing. wakeboarding, waterskiing, canyoning, rafting, paragliding and biking.

Trekking Team runs what is perhaps the star attraction — the highest bungee-jump in the world, off the 220m-high Verzasca Dam. In high summer, you can jump by moonlight.

They also do bungee-jumps off the 70m Intragna railway bridge, as well as canyoning in the Centovalli, Val Onsernone, Val Verzasca, and Valle Maggia.

Walking around Locarno

The tourist office brochure Sentieri della Collina pinpoints the route of two pleasant walking paths on the hillside just above the town.

The Sentiera Collina Bassa is 5.4km long, and takes you from the Madonna del Sasso funicular east through Orselina and onto the Via Panoramica through the suburb of Brione before gently descending to the lakeshore in Tenero (1hr 40min).

The Sentiera Collina Alta runs for 6.3km from Monte Brè, the next hill west of Orselina, on a scenic, winding path through the foothills to Contra, and down to Tenero (2hr).

Swimming in Locarno

Locarno’s busy and extensive lido is 900m south of the train station. It features indoor and outdoor pools, a dedicated children’s pool, waterslides, fitness rooms, lawns and a small beach area beside the lake.

Into adventure sports? Read up on the best outdoor experiences in Switzerland

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Female travellers might also want to discover a host of women-only outdoor activities in Switzerland

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Kayaking is one of many activities travellers can enjoy around Locarno © NDStock/Shutterstock

Best festivals in Ticino

Bellinzona festivals

Bellinzona’s February carnival, known as Rabadan, takes in a masked parade and festivities. It kicks off on the Thursday before Mardi Gras and continues all weekend.

May heralds Montebello castle's medieval festival, Spada nella Rocca. Come July, the same historic venue hosts an international festival of chamber music.

Locarno and Ascona festivals

The season begins in May with Ascona’s Street Artists Festival, followed by the popular Ascona Jazz Festival in late June.

In July, nearby Magadino holds an International Organ Festival, while Locarno hosts Moon and Stars, a run of open-air rock and pop gigs by major stars.

The top-class Locarno International Film Festival in early August is rated among the top five film festivals in the world.

Through late August and September, Ascona presents its Settimane Musicali (“Music Weeks”), a series of prestigious classical concerts staged around the region.

Lugano festivals

Lugano's music scene is dominated by LuganoMusica's classical concerts from October to June, and the star-studded free concerts of Estival Jazz in July.

The Ceresio Estate classical music season runs throughout July and August, flanking two big fireworks displays over the lake.

Come late August, the Blues to Bop Festival showcases international blues, jazz, rock and gospel artists.

Live music is a feature of many Lugano festivals © 13_Phunkod/Shutterstock

How to get around Ticino

Lago Maggiore Express pass

For its simplicity, diversity and superb scenery, the great-value Lago Maggiore Express ticket is worth investigating.

It comprises three sectors, all of them great journeys in their own right — a long boat trip on Maggiore, the stunning Centovalli railway between Locarno and Domodossola, and a fast train on the historic Simplon line between Domodossola and Stresa.

The whole thing could take as little as eight hours, or you could dawdle over it for a couple of days, breaking your journey anywhere on the route.

It can be done any time from mid-March to mid-September, but not on Wednesdays when a different timetable takes account of the weekly market in the Italian lakeside town of Luino.

Note this is not a tour — you're on your own, using the public transport described on the downloaded schedule. Remember to carry your passport, as the route crosses into Italy.

Travelling further afield? Consider buying a Swiss Travel Pass to save cash.

If you feel inspired by this Ticino travel guide, The Rough Guide to Switzerland

 and our run-down of things not to miss in Switzerland  will help you plan — think of them as your personal travel guide to Switzerland.

Not a fan of planning? Book a hassle-free tailor-made trip to Switzerland, with customisable itineraries curated by local experts covering everything from unforgettable highlights of Switzerland

, to touring the Grand Circle .

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updated 8/11/2022
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