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How to spend a long weekend in Ticino, Switzerland

Swiss charm meets la dolce vita in Ticino, Switzerland’s southernmost, sole Italian-speaking canton.

By Sarah Gilbert
Published 24 Jun 2020, 08:00 BST
Taking off from Cimetta, 5,482ft above sea level, travellers can soar on mountain thermals and enjoy ...

Taking off from Cimetta, 5,482ft above sea level, travellers can soar on mountain thermals and enjoy vistas across the Maggia Valley, the rooftops of Locarno and Lake Maggiore.

Photograph by Getty

Home to historic lakeside cities and a strong tradition of farming and gastronomy, Ticino’s cultural sights, scope for outdoor pursuits and culinary gems are an open secret in Switzerland — and yet its name is unfamiliar to many Europeans. 

Ticino’s regional cuisine is shaped, in part, by its high-altitude tea plantations, rice fields and vineyards — the most famous of which are those around Mendrisiotto in the south, which produces white Merlot. Come in May, when the Open Wine Cellars days offer the chance to be bussed between vineyards for tastings and musical events. The canton’s castle-rich capital, Bellinzona, has an unmissable morning market on Saturdays.

Further afield, in the historic lakeside cities of Lugano, Locarno and Ascona, restaurants range from Michelin-starred wonders to simple taverns. There are lots of ways to burn off Ticino’s gastronomic treats, however, from hiking, biking and kayaking to climbing and canyoning. For the brave, the area is also home to one of the world’s highest bungee jumps — a 721ft leap off the Verzasca Dam.

Ticino has a busy calendar of events, too, including international film festivals; harvest celebrations dedicated to grapes, strawberries and chestnuts; and the Holy Week processions in Mendrisio, which hold UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage status.

Day one: Lugano

Nicknamed the Monte Carlo of Switzerland, Lugano is famed for its Mediterranean-meets-Alpine lakeshore location, the Estival Jazz festival and a museum dedicated to the German writer Hermann Hesse, set in his former home. Start in the grand Piazza della Riforma, and explore the maze of cobblestone streets that fan out around it, lined with boutiques, restaurants and pavement cafes. Have lunch at the opulent Grand Café Al Porto or grab a picnic at family-run Gabbani, which has been selling culinary treats since 1937, including its own salami.

Stroll down to Lake Lugano, flanked by forested slopes and dominated by the twin peaks of Monte Brè and Monte San Salvatore, popular with hikers and mountain bikers. Drop in to the Church of Santa Maria degli Angioli, with its frescoes by Bernardino Luini, a pupil of Leonardo da Vinci. Then take the funicular to the top of Monte San Salvatore for epic views before hiking for six miles down through idyllic fields and chestnut forests to the pretty lakeside village of Morcote, before returning to Lugano by boat or bus.

Round off the day with a visit to the striking LAC cultural centre for an art exhibition or a concert in its beautiful hall, right on the lakeshore. Or have dinner at buzzy Bottegone Del Vino, a small restaurant with a daily changing menu — such as tuna carpaccio, pumpkin tortellini or mushroom risotto. There’s a lengthy wine list, communal tables and terrace seating in summer. Save room for the divine chocolate tart, or head to nearby Vanini Dolce e Caffè and join the queue for ice cream.

Cathedral bell tower in Lugano, the largest town in the canton of Ticino. With its spectacular lakeside setting and bustling Italo-Swiss culture, it's a popular base for travellers to the region. 

Photograph by Getty

Day two: Ascona & Locarno 

Just 30 minutes from the Italian border, Switzerland’s lowest-lying town, Ascona, has a laid-back feel. Take a stroll along the picturesque waterfront, lined with pastel-coloured buildings, and enjoy an espresso overlooking the glittering blues of Lake Maggiore. Get closer to the water on a standup paddleboard or on a sailing lesson with Asconautica or take a boat trip to Ticino’s treasured botanical garden on the twin Brissago Islands, thick with subtropical trees and blooms.

Grotto restaurants are a key part of Ticinese food culture, and lunch at Ascona’s Grotto Baldoria means feasting at communal tables on simple but delicious dishes, including charcuterie, polenta, risotto and stews. Work it off with a hike up Monte Verità (‘mountain of truth’), home to a tea plantation, a Japanese-style tea house and Casa Anatta Museum, dedicated to a group of anarchists, vegetarians, nature enthusiasts and free-love advocates who set up a co-operative here in the early 20th century. 

Back at Ascona’s lakeshore, drink in the sunset with an Aperol spritz or glass of local wine at the Sea Lounge in the old port. Pair it with a sandwich or salad, or for a splurge head to La Brezza, Hotel Eden Roc’s Michelin-star restaurant. The four- to seven-course tasting menus offer delicious dishes such as Mediterranean red mullet with fennel and couscous, and ravioli with braised roe deer shank and Jerusalem artichoke. If time, plan an evening treatment at the hotel spa — the ideal spot for R&R.

Pastel-coloured buildings lining Ascona’s promenade, which gives onto the sparkling waters of Lake Maggiore. 

Photograph by Getty

A taste of Ticino: regional treats

To market
Bellinzona’s must-visit Saturday morning market, which extends from Piazza Nosetto to the lanes of the Old Town, is an opportunity for small producers to showcase their wares. Look out for cheeses such as zincarlin (a curd cheese); soft, creamy büsción; and formaggio d’alpe, made with milk from high-altitude cows. Other specialities include mortadella di fegato, or pork liver salami, plus pepper mixed with herbs from the Maggia Valley and chestnuts prepared in all manner of ways. And don’t miss out on torta di pane — a cake made with bread soaked in milk and eggs, pine nuts and dried fruit.

Ticinese gin
Four friends from the Muggio Valley created organic gin Bisbino, whose botanicals include seven herbs and a secret ingredient — all plucked from the distillery’s garden in the village of Sagno, on the slopes of the gin’s namesake mountain. Dry and mellow with light citrusy notes, it’s perfect in a Ticinese G&T, made with locally made sparkling water. A tour of the gardens and distillery, including a tasting, costs from CHF25 (£20) per person. 

One-of-a-kind cheese
Surviving against the odds, age-old zincarlin cheese is only made by one person, Marialuce Valtulini in the Muggio Valley. Using a recipe handed down by her mother, almost every day for two months she kneads each cheese into its upside-down cup shape, bathing it in white wine to keep the rind soft. Marialuce has also given this flavoursome cheese a modern twist, creating ‘gincarlin’ using Bisbino gin.

Down on the farm
Terreni alla Maggia, a farm founded 90 years ago in the fertile River Maggia delta near Ascona, is home to the country’s only rice paddy, producing Riso Nostrano Ticinese, used in risotto and beer. It also produces award-winning wines, including Bondola, using a native red grape dating back to the 18th century, and La Lepre, a fruity white Merlot that’s perfectly paired with aperitivi. Shop for the region’s culinary specialities and enjoy a tour and wine tasting from CHF23 (£18) per person. 

Fabulous flour 
In the village of Vergeletto, tucked into the velvety green folds of the Onsernone Valley, Ilario Garbani has not only restored the ancient watermill but also revived farina bòna (corn flour). The former teacher researched the historic recipe before installing a coffee roaster, which he says is the secret to the flour’s distinctive flavour. It finds its way into everything from pasta and amaretti biscuits to craft beer and ice cream. 

Top 5: Active adventures

Trail hiking 
Ticino has over 700 way-marked trails, from leisurely rambles to more challenging hikes and multi-day routes, including an easy loop around Mendrisiotto’s vineyards, and the seven-day circular hike up and around the Blinnenhorn.

Mountain biking, Blenio Valley
Whizz down Nara Mountain’s scenic Black Wood Line, with plenty of twists and turns, jumps and flat-but-fast trails. The route drops around 1,640ft over two miles.

Tandem paragliding, Locarno
Taking off from Cimetta, 5,482ft above sea level, soar on mountain thermals and enjoy vistas across the Maggia Valley, the rooftops of Locarno and the sapphire waters of Lake Maggiore. It’s possible to hike up and glide down too.

Bungee jumping, Verzasca Valley
Named after the legendary bungee leap in the opening scenes of GoldenEye, make like James Bond and hurtle headfirst over the 721ft-high Verzasca Dam on the 007 Bungee Jump.  

Rock climbing, Ponte Brolla 
One of Ticino’s most popular spots for climbers and boulderers, Ponte Brolla is an imposing granite dome a 15-minute bus ride from Locarno, offering plenty of routes for novice and experienced climbers alike. 

More info:

How to get there: British Airways, Swiss and EasyJet fly to Zurich Airport direct from the UK. From there, you can take a train to Bellinzona (1h50m) and Lugano (2h20m). Another option is to fly to Milan and get a direct train to Lugano (1h20m). Alternatively, the train from London to Lugano takes around 11 hours, with a variety of routes and connections.

Published in the May/June 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK) 

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