Hailed as having a Mediterranean climate, Ticino is Switzerland’s most southerly region. Italianate towns, influenced by the proximity of the Italian border, provide a wholly different culture and atmosphere to the Bernese Oberland, the Saanenland, and other central and northern regions. A smattering of small lakes mark the upper boundary of Ticino, but it is Lake Maggiore and Lake Lugano that dominate the south, prompting many of the long, straight valleys that lead into Italy. The River Ticino winds its way down from its source on the Ticino border, meeting dams, lakes, and trickling and tumbling waterfalls on its way. Palm trees line the lakesides, medieval Italian castles form the centre-points of towns, and colourful, higgledy-piggledy houses look out across the water or from their tiered position on the steep mountainside. Communities here seem to effortlessly blend the feel of southern coastal towns with the rural authenticity of the mountain villages of central Switzerland.
Two of the main cities in Ticino lie quite close together in the south of the region: Locarno and Lugano. On the banks of Lake Maggiore, Locarno is rich with cultural treasure. Visit the 17th century Church of St Anthony, the 16th century Church of San Francesco, the mid-17th century New Church, or the late 15th century Sanctuary of the Madonna del Sasso to begin your tour of Locarno’s beautiful and historic sites. Perhaps most noteworthy, however, is the Visconti Castle, in which there is a permanent exhibition of Roman glass. On Thursdays a market is held in the centre of the town, which always makes for an excellent place to enjoy Locarno at its liveliest, as well as to pick up a few delicacies. Venture outside Locarno to climb the Cadada Cimetta, from the top of which you can see both the Valais High Alps and Lake Maggiore, the highest and lowest points in Switzerland. Follow the paths of the Magic Valley or the Verzasca Valley to witness the turquoise-green, crystal-clear waters that flow there. For a more leisurely day out, enjoy a boat cruise on Lake Maggiore. As you leave Locarno and head west down the valley towards Italy, you will see the rocky gorges that prove so popular with cliff divers. Eerie tunnels and caverns have been carved out over time, providing ethereal little spots to stop off on your travels. East of Locarno, however, is Bellinzona, a town remarkable in that it is the most Italianate town in Switzerland and capital of Ticino. The central medieval castle and its two neighbours are among Switzerland’s best preserved, coming together to form a picturesque UNESCO World Heritage Site. The ramparts of the central castle run alongside the vineyards within, with lush grass carpeting the fortified walls. North of Locarno, you will come across Tegna, the site of some interesting prehistoric ruins. Continue along this route towards the Italian border on the Centovalli Express to discover the old wine press in the village of Cavigliano, the museum and cableway in Intragna, the cable car up to the solitary, traffic-free hamlet of Rasa from Verdasio, and finally, across the Italian border to Re, where the stunning, yet imposing, Sanctuary of the Madonna of the Blood stands on the very edge of a dramatic cliff. In eastern Ticino is Biasca, a town where a waterfall cascades down the mountainsides, under bridges and over rocks that have been smoothed by time. Towns and villages such as Airolo, Lavizzara, Acquarossa, Blenio, and Brione all offer alternative views on this beautiful region. Any visit to Ticino is incomplete without a few hours spent in Lugano. Famous for its eponymous lake, San Salvatore Mountain, and Monte Bre, Lugano is a quintessentially ‘Ticino’ town. Take the funicular railway from Casserate as high as possible up Monte Bre to witness the phenomenal panoramas and enjoy the traditional Swiss rail experience. Festivals and culture in TicinoAs with much of Switzerland, there is a high focus on dairy products in both the regional dishes and their self-identification. To appreciate Swiss dairy products in Ticino, head to Ambri Quinto in the Leventina Valley at the end of September to enjoy the Agriculture and Cheese Fair. The first weekend in October brings with it a celebration of autumn. In Lugano, this autumn festival focuses on local products, folkloric music, and small dramatic shows. In Ascona, the autumn festival celebrates the versatile chestnut, with jams, cakes, cheese dishes, and entertaining concerts. Ascona’s unique carnival is celebrated on Mardi Gras on the lake promenade. In Muralto on the second Sunday of March there is a fish festival beside the water, involving a fishing contest, music, games, and food stalls. Beside the smooth rocks of Solduno, on St Joseph’s Day in March, the streets are filled with the smell of the speciality Tortelli, a fritter whose recipe is strictly guarded.Gastronomy in TicinoThe varied and delicious specialities of Ticino may very well be the highlight of your trip, influenced by hearty Swiss cuisine, as well as Italy’s Mediterranean flavours. One particular feature of dining here are the ‘grotto’ restaurants. Usually housed in picturesque stone farmhouses, with abundant flower boxes, shuttered windows, and vast terraces canopied by views on which customers eat fresh, home-cooked food. Popular so-called ‘slow foods’ include farina bona flour, cicitt sausages, Zincarlin cheese and shortbread biscuits. At the heart of many dishes you may come across are polenta and Merlot wine, which can also be sampled at a local winery. Originally cooked in a large cauldron like porridge, polenta is now best served alongside braised beef. Before leaving Switzerland, ensure you sample some of the world-famous fondue.Travel arrangementsDue to the excellent rail service available in Switzerland, we always recommend navigating your tour, while in the country, by rail. Trains are known for being punctual and comfortable, and offer an excellent way of viewing the sublime scenery as you pass. Many of the most picturesque villages and towns in Switzerland are also traffic-free, or have complex, winding roads as their only access-point by car; yet, you will find they almost unfailingly have a rail station. Many iconic rail journeys allow travel from the UK direct through France into Switzerland, which we have always found adds a new dimension to your trip; however, flights from the UK into Geneva or Zurich are also regular, providing a quicker alternative for those who would like to spend their entire trip in Switzerland. From Ticino, you are well-placed to continue your tour on into Italy, or north-east towards historic Chur and St Moritz, or up into the Bernese Oberland and Interlaken, Grindelwald, and Wengen.
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