Pair Swiss efficiency with an Italian lifestyle — add mountains, countryside restaurants and alpine lakes — and Ticino provides a stunningly scenic, gourmet vacation for families seeking la dolce vita. Switzerland’s canton south of The Alps is more Latin, laid back and affordable than other provinces. Protected by The Alps, it also offers insta-worthy mountain and lake vistas in a more temperate climate year round.
The Best of Ticino in 5 Days
We asked Swiss contacts to recommend a fun itinerary for families with a few days. The province’s best known landmarks are the small cities of Locarno and Ascona on the Lago Maggiore, and Lugano on the lake of the same name, just 70kms and a quick train ride from Milan. They suggested that in summer, families split their time between Locarno and its lake activities, and Bellinzona with its many fortresses, while making side trips to Lugano and regional attractions.
Waterfront and Movies in Locarno
Even if Federico didn’t film in Locarno, it oozes a Felliniesque sense of style. Hugging the shores of Lago Maggiore, this walkable city feels Mediterranean, with gardens, parks and squares filled with flowers. The major Locarno International Film Festival takes place outdoors on Piazza Grande each August. The other cobblestoned lanes of citta vecchia, the old town, are lined with stylish boutiques, cafes and old churches like the frescoed San Francesco.
Families will enjoy Locarno’s small Pinacoteca Comunale Casa Rusca, the city’s art museum. Tucked into an old town square, this manageable museum and garden is featuring a fun retrospective of American pop artist Robert Indiana, up through August 13, 2017. Nearby on Piazza Sant’Antonio, Pasticceria Marnin provides a staggering array of baked treats, hot chocolate and much more in an old world setting. Art enthusiasts should also drop into the Ghisla Art Collection for a look at what’s very new in visual arts and multimedia throughout Europe.
Year round, Locarno’s lakefront is a big draw. With a commitment to wellness done in the inimitable Swiss way, the city invested in the enormous Lido Locarno complex, a series of recreation facilities, gyms, pools and outdoor spaces along the waterfront. Day passes are inexpensive (check their website for frequent discounts), and we loved our afternoon hopping from relaxing pool to lap pool to hot tubs, followed by artisanal cocktails and delicious seafood at Blu. It’s very dolce that Locarno’s hottest bar accommodates both locals in partygear and families in bathing suits with ease.
Finding a base in Locarno is easy and inexpensive. From our Hotel Garni du Lac, we could easily stroll the shaded porticos surrounding Piazza Grande, pause at the yummy Gran Caffe Verbano, or shop the markets packed with breezy cotton clothes from India. The best thing about this small and comfortable hotel was our room overlooking Lago Maggiore and a nice outdoor cafe. On the weekend, a large crafts and produce market appeared on the small square below our window. It’s certainly not fancy, but the friendly hotel staff did a great job and offered perks like free bottled water (sparkling or still), fresh coffee or tea, and newspapers.
Our Home Base in Bellinzona
After Locarno, rather than stay in busy Lugano, Swiss Tourism booked us into quiet Bellinzona. Known worldwide for its three UNESCO World Heritage designated forts, and locally as a hiking base for school groups, Bellinzona is a very appealing, walkable town.
Straddling a lush valley that was of strategic importance during centuries of trading and warfare, Bellinzona is riddled with fortified stone walls connected to the three forts: Castelgrande, Montebello and Sasso Corbaro. The most impressive is Castelgrande, whose foundations date to the Romans, because it’s seemingly alone on a peak (the snaking stone walls protecting its flanks are only revealed from a high vantage point.) There is footpath and elevator access, plus a small museum and very special restaurant (more below), on top. The others, built on the other side of the valley in the 13th and 14th centuries, are anchored by a series of walls that once protected the old city and cut off access from the south.
In the heart of Bellinzona, there are some Airbnb’s, pensiones, hostels and the super convenient Hotel & SPA Internazionale, across the street from the train station. Built to welcome arriving tourists back in 1909, it is fully restored and stylishly youthful, with a small gym and spa downstairs. We loved our attic room with a sloping roofline and views of the town’s castle turrets — sold for honeymooners, its little loft area is perfect for parents traveling with one or two preschoolers.
Note the lobby desk sculpture by Switzerland’s celebrated artist, Ivo Soldini, whose work is also depicted in photos on each hotel landing. Armed with the hotel guide “Ticino Top Ten Weekly,” we headed down Bellinzona’s main street after fresh pastries at their cafe, and in a few minutes arrived at the labyrinthine old town, where the Saturday market is held. As you walk around the town, look for larger than life metal sculptures that Soldini crafted for his hometown.
Lake Lugano and Lugano Highlights
Lugano is a much bigger city than either Locarno or Bellinzona, with a much more upscale feeling. Arrive by train (within 30 minutes of either base) and you’ll be entertained by the city’s complimentary funicular, which plunges at a rakish angle from the hilltop train station to the lake-level terminal downtown.
It’s a quick stroll to the bountiful Belvedere Garden, a vantage point that shows off the clarity of Lake Lugano, a glacial lake with a depth up to 288 meters. On hot days, the little man-powered pedalos, motorboats, and a solar-powered Vedetta compete for passengers with the many sightseeing ferries. Set your sights on the lakefront Hotel International au Lac, a well maintained, ca. 1906 landmark with a pool next to LAC, the contemporary Lugano Arts and Cultural Center. As the city’s museum and home to music and live performances, LAC is always buzzing and has a pleasant, shaded outdoor cafe. The neighboring shopping streets like Via Nassa, proximity to frequent festivals in Lugano’s cobblestone old square (check local happenings online at the Lugano Tourist Office), and nearby gourmet shops of Via Pessina make this a fun urban area for teens to wander as well.
The San Salvatore Funicular, one of the city’s many electric modes of transportation, adds thrills to going anywhere. The 360° views from the 912-meter-tall mountain provide a good orientation, and several easy hiking paths are marked at the summit.
Must See, Switzerland in Miniature
We descended from the peak of San Salvatore to the Paradiso ferry pier for a picturesque half-hour cruise to Melide. This small town is easily reached by car, bus, train or boat, but in the summer heat, we wanted a shot at those breezy, Lake Lugano views on our cruise to Swissminiatur.
What a treat to meet Dominique Vuigner, son of the founder and father of the current head of a delightful park filled with miniatures of Switzerland’s most important buildings. From the mod, sky-high ski resort at Piz Gloria in Schilthorn, used as a medical clinic in a James Bond movie, to tiny frolicking ibex, the Swissminiatur park shows off the best of its home country. Spend a few leisurely hours taking in the sights and you’ll feel like you’ve toured all of Switzerland. Have some lunch in their cafe, and take the train or ferry back to the city and you’ll feel like you’ve been away for days.
To experience a more rural version of Lugano including great lake views, the Hotel Campione Ristorante All’Arco, about 8kms away, is recommended. In addition to an outdoor pool and kiddie pool, the Campione has a great value, four-day family package for 898 CHF (about US$932) that runs April to October, 2017, offering a family of 3 (75 CHF each for two extra child plus fourth child free) a welcome drink, 3 nights in a room or suite with daily breakfast, 2 days of take-with lunches, dinner with beer or wine on the terrace restaurants, and free admission to family attractions such as the delightful Swissminiatur, the fishermen museum and chocolate museum Alprose in Caslano, Zoo Al Maglio in Magliaso, railways and train museum in Mendrisio, one-hour self-drive motorboat tour on Lake Lugano, and plenty of advice on how to see everything.
Another thing you may have time to do is a cruise to the Brissago Islands to see the botanical park, and search out local markets and regional crafts shops.
Sampling the Best of Ticinese Cuisine
We were promised a foodie heaven and Ticino did not disappoint. The culinary arts have flourished since the 15th century, when local Maestro Martino went to cook for the Sforza dynasty that ruled Milan, to today’s Michelin-starred chefs. Outside the cities, along the E35 motorway, the tradition of weekend dining at grottos, osterie and canvetti (simple rural taverns) prevails. Preferring a more urban experience (and lighter menus), we only sampled one grotto, Grotto San Michele located within Bellizona’s Castelgrande and, as advertised, the ambiance — sitting among turrets and sunset views — plus the farm-to-fork local fare, remain a highlight of our trip.
Classic grotto cooking is influenced by the northern Italian cuisine of Lombardy and Piedmont include risotto, finely ground corn meal made into into cakes or polenta, vitello tonnato (the Ticino valleys are known for raising cattle); sausages; bresaola (an air-dried beef served salted, sliced very thin, with lemon and parmesan); or perch fish from the local lakes.
For wine, we liked the Ticino Merlot, a white varietal cultivated since the turn of the century from vines from Bordeaux. The Nostrano or Barbera are popular too, especially when mixed with gazzosa (a local lemon soda.) Several guidebooks, among them Slow Food’s “Osterie & Locande d’Italia: A Guide to Traditional Places to Eat and Stay in Italy” review the top places in depth.
Trip Planning Tips for Ticino
One of the little known and great things about this region of Switzerland is the Ticino Ticket, a free guide and discount card to help you plan your trip. Designed with families in mind, yet useful to all visitors, the Ticino Ticket is given out by hotels when you check in. When you show it, all buses and trolleys are free; trams, cablecars and funiculars are 30% off; ferry boats are 25% off; and most of the top attractions and museum are somehwere in between. It’s a handy trip planning tool that can also be colored in by the kids when they’re restless. You won’t get one if you stay on a farm, but we want to mention that Ticino is big on agriturismo, the Italian tradition of farm stays that enable families to meet farm animals, milk cows or watch harvesting (see Agriturismo in Switzerland for some ideas).
The best times to visit are April through October, with the mid-July Estival Jazz in Lugano and the early August International Film Festival in Locarno being very busy periods. The film festival, when new movies are projected out of doors under the night sky around the piazza, is especially fun with children if you can get a hotel.
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