Our travel guide to Ticino will help you plan your visit with an insider’s view on where to visit, what to see and do and our top hiking tips. Ticino has so much to offer, it can be hard to know where to begin with exploring this very special region.
Ticino Travel Guide: Introducing Ticino
Ticino, Switzerland’s only Italian-speaking canton, is blessed with a wonderful Mediterranean climate which favours a range of flora not seen elsewhere in the country, including palms and citrus trees, figs, olives and vineyards. Ticino shares two beautiful lakes with Italy – Lake Lugano (Lago di Lugano) and Lake Maggiore (Lago Maggiore). Bellinzona is the capital of Ticino and the main tourist hubs are the lakeside resorts of Ascona, Locarno and Lugano. The canton takes its name from the river which runs through it – the Ticino river – whose source lies in the Gotthard Valley among high Alps and steep gorges.
Ticino is a region rich in culture and the arts. At every turn, history, art and architecture blend harmoniously into the colourful landscape. Many of the ancient churches dotted around the region are Romanesque and often feature external murals of St Christopher, the patron saint of travellers.
However, it is the incredible scenery which draws most visitors to the region. It is a land of extraordinary natural contrasts, where snow-capped peaks such as the Saint Gotthard massif give way to flower-carpeted valleys, olive trees and vineyards.
The area in the north of Ticino is mountainous and the landscape gradually changes as you head south towards the lakes, with much of the canton heavily forested with swathes of chestnut, beech and walnut trees. This ever-changing scenery makes for perfect walking territory. There are many tiny settlements which feel so isolated and quiet, it’s like stepping into a bygone era, such as in the Bedretto Valley, the hamlets surrounding Chironico and the Mendrisiotto area at the southern end of Lake Maggiore. A good cable car network can transport you to some excellent high altitude walks, where you can stay overnight at a rustic mountain hut for a really special experience. At the same time, there are numerous very pleasant, leisurely hikes which can be enjoyed along the various lakeshores. Ticino is divided into four regions: Upper Ticino (incl. Bellinzona), Lake Maggiore, Lake Lugano and the southerly Mendrisiotto.
Each region has its own stunning natural characteristics and each warrants plenty of exploration.
Alto Ticino and Bellinzona
Bellinzona is Ticino’s administrative capital and it historically held an important place on the north to south transit route. This route was protected by Bellinzona’s three castles, which are now UNESCO world heritage sites. Today, the town of Bellinzona is often viewed as a hub for reaching the more scenically alluring towns of Locarno and Lugano; yet this is a shame because there is much appeal within Bellinzona itself. Bellinzona’s three castles of Castelgrande, Castello di Montebello and Castello di Sasso Corbaro have been wonderfully preserved and are well worth a visit – the views from the top are breathtaking. There is a lovely Old Town here too and the Saturday market has a great atmosphere. Open from 8am till 1pm, this colourful market showcases a range of local food and crafts. Bellinzona is also a good base for walkers: pretty valleys to the north feature mountain peaks, wooded hills and tiny villages. Moving further up you enter chestnut forests and wonderful alpine pastures which provide a habitat for rare flora and offer some incredible views.
Valle Riviera and Biasca
The Riviera Valley is home to some incredibly pretty villages which give visitors a taste of life as it was hundreds of years ago, interspersed with some fine examples of modern farming techniques. Romanesque churches and towers, stately homes, granite quarries, factories, micro-technology, agriculture and dairy production, all sit happily side by side.
The perfect climate here has produced the most colourful and interesting array of landscapes, from chestnut forests to granite rock to vineyards and mountain terraces. All of this makes for a very serene and relaxing environment. The Riviera Valley offers a great combination of history and excellent hiking opportunities.
Our top recommendation is the ‘Via Crucis’ (Way of the Cross); an easy ramble which leads to the Roman Petronilla Chapel, dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul. It takes around 30 minutes from the town of Biasca, through gorgeous chestnut forests, with views to die for.
Lake Maggiore Region
The Lake Maggiore region is one of Ticino’s most diverse – and beautiful. Aside from the sparkling lakes which provide a reflection for the snow-capped peaks above, there are sweeping green valleys dotted with picturesque villages, swathes of chestnut forests and woodland and quaint churches and ancient buildings. Walking around Lake Maggiore is always a delight, with much to be explored. The nearby towns of Locarno and Ascona, with their rich culture and welcoming atmosphere, are great places to unwind after a day of exploring. The climate here is the mildest and sunniest in all of Switzerland, with spring coming early and autumn arriving late, which means that the lifestyle here is very much based around outdoor activities. Walking, cycling and mountain biking are all popular pursuits, and the hidden valleys and woodlands are a magnet for locals and visitors alike. One of the most popular walking destinations in Ticino is Mt. Cardada (1,340m/4,396ft), where the Orselina funicular takes you up to a themed trail and a viewing platform where you can marvel at the panorama. Other popular walking areas include the hills and peaks of Ronco-Ascona, and Centovalli, the ‘Valley of the Hundred Valleys’. You can take various cable cars to reach some high-altitude walks, including Monte Comino at an altitude of 1,200m (3,937ft).
Don’t miss: Ticino’s famous valleys
Vallemaggia – The largest valley in the Ticino, the Maggia begins at the shores of Lake Maggiore and rises to an altitude of 3,000m (9,843ft) in the mountains. Its many interesting side valleys are also well worth exploring, including the white marbled Lavizzara, Rovana with its traditional Wallisian village, Mogno with its interesting church. There is also a cable car service from Lago di Robièi (1,940m/6,365ft) which can take you to various hidden mountain lakes.
Valle Verzasca – The very beautiful Verzasca Valley, with its emerald-green river carving its way down the valley flanked by white rock, is a deservedly popular tourist spot. You can go and see the dam used by Pierce Brosnan for his famous bungee jump scene in the James Bond movie GoldenEye; if history is more your thing then you will want to visit the church at Vogorno, whose frescoes date back to 1200 AD. And walkers will enjoy exploring the 2,864m (9,396ft) peak of the valley’s highest mountain, Pizzo Barone.
Our top tip: Sonogno, the tiny, traffic-free hamlet in the Valley Verzasca is a really interesting place to visit. The houses are all traditionally-built using pillars of stacked stones, topped with thick, stone-slab roofs and there are some lovely, quaint shops selling local wool products and crafts. In winter, it’s a great spot for skiing, and in summer its hiking which takes centre stage here.
Walking in the Verzasca Valley: Running along the banks of the Verzasca river is the “Sentierone”, a former mule traders’ trail, from Contra/Gordola up to Sonogno. The path alternates between the left and right hand side of the river. There are many points of interest along this trail, including chapels, holy markers, bridges and a series of sculptures between Brione and Lavertezzo. It is such a beautiful stretch that has inspired several renowned artists. To get there, drive or take public transport from Bellinzona or Locarno to Brione in the Verzascatal, via Gordola.
Valle Onsernone – This is one of the most wildly beautiful valleys in Ticino, with thick swathes of forest, spectacular gorges and rushes of white water. This isolated spot is reached via a steep and winding road from either Locarno or Ascona, which passes through some truly picturesque hamlets.
Lake Lugano Region
Lugano, at the heart of Ticino, is an interesting blend of modern and traditional. It’s a bustling town, yet there are many oases of calm within; and being surrounded by such beautiful countryside, it is hard not to feel relaxed here! The wooded hills and valleys which surround Lugano offer leisurely walking opportunities, including the Capriasca and Valcolla valleys and Malcantone, which was once hugely important for its water-powered ironworks. There are also some excellent lakeside walks, including the ‘Olive Trail’ from Castagnola to Gandria, which has a decidedly Tuscan feel about it. Climbers will enjoy exploring the Denti della Veccia in Valcolla and cyclists are spoiled for choice as the entire region has a series of well-marked mountain biking trails. If all this leaves you wanting more, then the ultimate challenge lies in the Tamaro-Lema Ridge Walk, the famous high level walk from Monte Tamaro to Monte Lema. So impressive is this hike that it has received a special award for its beauty from the German leisure industry. More details on this route can be found below.
Also well worth a visit is the chapel of San Salvatore, which is reached via a funicular railway from Lugano. The views of Lake Lugano from the church-tower roof are amazing. Refreshments can be enjoyed at the Restorante Vetta, and from here you can descend to Carona to take a stroll through the San Grato Botanical Park, which is particularly wonderful during the late spring. There are many beautiful gardens in this region and another popular choice, once described by the Aga Khan as “paradise” is Scherrer Park at the gorgeous lakeside village of Morcote – best reached by boat. Its founder, Arthur Scherrer, designed an eclectic mix of buildings to complement the wide range of exotic species he had collected during his travels, including a Greek temple, a Siamese teahouse, a temple and various wild animal sculptures.
Our top recommendation
Walk the Hermann Hesse trail! The renowned writer lived most of his life in the Lake Lugano region of Ticino. The trail is relatively easy going; a circular route which starts and finishes at Hesse’s burial place: the cemetery in the Church of St. Abbondio in Gentilino. The route includes a visit to the village of Montagnola where he once lived – now home to the Hermann Hesse museum (see below for more info).
Hiking Tips, Ticino
The Hermann Hesse Trail (Lake Lugano Region)
Time: 2.5 hours
The quiet cemetery of San Abbondio – the resting place of Hermann Hesse – sits proudly on the Collina d’Oro (Golden Hill) in the village of Montagnola. His gravestone is surprisingly modest for Germany’s most widely-read author of the 20th century and Nobel Prize winner. He lies next to his third wife, Ninon Hesse Auslander. Hermann Hesse spent the last 43 years of his life in Ticino and wrote many of his most celebrated works during this period. This nature’s paradise proved a fruitful backdrop for Hesse’s creative writing and painting skills. There are 11 stops on the marked trail where Hesse lived and worked, leading through the hills of Montagnola and offering some excellent views of Lake Lugano and its surrounding peaks. You can also find out more about this iconic author and his works at the ‘Museo Hermann Hesse Montagnola’ and there is a permanent exhibition of his life and works in the Torre Camuzzi, part of the larger Casa Camuzzi which was home to Hesse between 1919 and 1931.
The Tamaro-Lema Ridge Walk (Lake Lugano Region)
Distance: 13km/8mi (allow 5.5 hours)
If you want to experience the finest views in the region, then this ridge walk from
It is highly advisable to contact the Lugano Tourist information office before setting off on this walk, to check the weather conditions and also to verify that the route is fully open, as some sections can be closed from time to time.
The Mendrisiotto, Ticino’s largest wine producing area, lies in the southern section of the Lake Lugano region, between the ridges of Monte Generoso (1,701m/5,581ft) and the wooded Monte San Giorgio (1,097m/3,599ft). A pretty area with its many vineyards and characteristic cypress trees, rolling hills and traditional villages, the Mendrisiotto is perfect walking territory. There are literally hundreds of walking trails that meander through woodland and more mountainous terrain. The most interesting peak here is Monte Generoso, a mountain of the Lugano Prealps, located on Swiss/Italian border and between the famous lakes of Lugano and Como. You can take a mountain railway to the summit from the station of Capologo-Riva San Vitale, located on the main line between Lugano and Milan. Take the path from the summit towards Scudellate and Muggio and you will be transported to the rural way of life from a hundred years ago – mills, wash-houses, bird-hunting towers and water troughs. A PostBus at the end of the trail will return you to Chiasso station.
The “capital” of Mendrisiotto is Mendrisio; a small yet attractive town of traditional houses with internal courtyards, alleyways and a piazza where you can enjoy refreshments in a range of eateries. Mendrisio is also the starting point for the Mendrisiotto wine route, which links up with a handful of different wineries, starting with three in Mendrisio itself.
Don’t miss: Monte San Giorgio, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is famous for its prehistoric fossils.
History & Culture
The River Ticino, a tributary of the River Po, gives its name to this canton, which is the only Italian-speaking area of Switzerland. Ticino officially became a part of Switzerland in the late 15th century after centuries of wrangling between the Lords of Como and the Dukes of Milan. Ticino was strategically located on the main highway from northern to southern Europe, making it a target for powerful adversaries – and as such, it was subjected to several invasions over the years. In earlier days it was loosely ruled by Lombardy and, prior to that, a Roman stronghold. When the founding cantons of the Swiss confederation, Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden, had secured their independence of Habsburg Austrian control, they decided to focus their effort further south. Control came relatively easily, once a Milanese force at Giornico in the Valle Levantina was defeated in 1478 and Bellinzona was captured in 1503. In 1798, Napoleon ended the Swiss-German rule of Ticino. It temporarily became an independent republic, then in 1803, it entered the Napoleon’s new Swiss Confederation, as a free and equal canton. It was always a struggling rural canton, until after World War II, when it began to thrive as a services centre and its popularity as a tourist destination soared.
Geography, Flora & Fauna
Ticino could be described as a botanical melting pot, with the most diverse range of vegetation you’re ever likely to see in one relatively small area – much of it of subtropical origin. The camellia, which originates from Eastern Asia, is usually the first sign of a Ticino spring, as its colourful blooms appear down at the lakes – often when there is still deep snow in the mountain valleys. Palms are also a significant Ticino flora; they were imported from tropical climes but they had no trouble acclimatising, just like the fig, almond, apricot and kiwi trees.
The hill range up to around 900m (2,953ft) above sea level is covered with thick forests of chestnuts and elm trees, along with swathes of holly, ivy, broom heather, laurel and citrus trees which mainly thrive on the sunny, hard-to-reach southern slopes in the Sopraceneri. The sweet chestnut tree, introduced by the Romans, is characteristic of this area and walkers will delight in exploring forests of chestnut trees which are centuries old.
In the mountainous area from around 900m to 1700m (2,953ft to 5,577ft) above sea level, you can find mixed deciduous and evergreen forests with common beech, limetrees, harewood, noble fir, spruce, mountain ash and green alder from central and southern Europe.
In the sub-alpine altitude (around 1,700m/5,577ft to 2,000m/6,562ft above sea level), you can find larches, arolla pines, aspen, weeping birches, dwarf juniper and alpine roses (on lime-deficient soil) and rock rhododendron respectively (on limy soil).
The alpine range extends to 2,900m (9,514ft) altitude. Here you can still find the blunt-leaved willow, blue moor grass, sedge and alpine azalea. Above 3,000m (9,843ft), the quantity of plants visibly decreases and is narrowed down to only a few different species.
Chestnut forests are an important feature of the southern alpine valleys’ landscape. These trees evoke a bygone era: the Romans imported the chestnuts to Ticino about 2000 years ago. Il castagno ”forced out” the once resident birches and oaks and became Ticino’s most dominant tree. Throughout centuries, the chestnut served as means of existence for many Ticino locals – during the winter, the often-starving farmers’ families in the valleys almost exclusively fed on sweet chestnuts. Besides being a source of fruit, honey and mushrooms, as well as firewood and timber, the chestnut forests also provided tannin for animal hide. However, once corn and potatoes were introduced in the 19th century, dietary habits changed and the humble chestnut lost its appeal. Today, the chestnut forests are still beautiful, but often overgrown.
The animal kingdom of the Ticino and the Lago-Maggiora areas differ little from the rest of central Europe. Amongst the mammals there are chamois and marmots, as well as bats, foxes, deer, stags and boars. Reptiles and amphibians feel at home in the local climate; you can often spot frogs, salamander and green lizards, as well as blindworms and vipers. At the lakes – to the fishermen’s dismay – the cormorant is a common sight. Under the sparkling waters of the lakes lie whitefish, which although introduced fairly recently, has become the typical Ticino food fish. The best place for spotting wildlife here is probably the Val Granda National Park in the Italian part of Lago Maggiore and in the more mountainous areas of Ticino.
Although alpine, Ticino’s climate is milder than many parts of the country. It experiences longer hours of sunshine, consistently warm temperatures and a generous level of rainfall. These conditions favour a unique mix of flora, rich in both alpine and Mediterranean species.
Spring arrives earlier in Ticino and autumn lingers longer than in the rest of Switzerland. The Ticino lakes are the work of gigantic receding glaciers and the mountains are characterised by steep ascents and sharp angles. Granite and some marble are quarried out of the cliffs. The alpine pastures are a delight, although mostly accessible only during the summer months. Water is an important element in the landscape; especially in the northern valleys where alpine springs and lakes are the source of great waterfalls and torrents.