Located in southern Switzerland, the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino blends Swiss efficiency with Mediterranean-style culture. The result: divine food, excellent wines and friendly people.Ticino’s lakes, mountains, castles and vineyards are absolute treasures.
Stretching from the snowcapped Swiss Alps to the mild Mediterranean climate of Lake Lugano, Ticino is a unique blend of Swiss and Italian cultures. Once ruled by the Milanese, this area entered the Swiss Confederation in 1803. Switzerland consists of 26 cantons, which function like individual states, and has four official languages: German, French, Italian and Romanche. Ticino is the Italian-speaking canton.
Ticino’s exceptional topography inspires a sense of awe, and we enjoy a serenity rarely found on trails in the Alps. We hike from gorgeous alpine regions filled with carpets of wildflowers, alpine lakes and quiet valleys where centuries-old stone villages, emerald-green rivers, and impressive waterfalls soften the landscape. Our walking forays take us to high, summer grazing pastures, where sought-after cheeses are still produced in the original artisanal tradition.
Well-maintained trails lead us along panoramic ridges that yield unparalleled views of Lake Maggiore, Lake Lugano and the Alps. The castles of Bellinzona provide a fascinating glimpse into the area’s defining role as a major trading route and strategic stronghold between Rome and Switzerland.
Highlights of Taste of Switzerland’s Ticino Treasures:
- Enjoy breathtaking views on a scenic train ride through the Swiss Alps
- Shop for local foods at the Saturday market in Bellinzona (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and picnic at an ancient castle
- Experience pristine alps and valleys, picturesque villages, medieval churches, and flowering pastures during daily rambles through scenic southern Switzerland
- View fabulous Lake Lugano from mountainside overlooks
- Summit Monte San Giorgio, a UNESCO World Heritage site
- Savor the famous Meride Merlot at a local winery
- Hike to mountain grazing pastures and meet cheesemakers who produce legendary Cristallina and Piora cheeses
DAY 1: Zurich – Airolo
Highlights: Scenic train ride through the Alps, explore Airolo
Our group meets at Zurich’s central train station (Hauptbahnhof) and takes a scenic ride through the Alps and the historic Gotthard Tunnel to our first hotel in Airolo, a hiking paradise in northern Ticino. Situated at the top of the spectacular Leventina Valley, the small town of Airolo is the gateway to hiking in one of the Swiss Alps’ most beautiful areas.
In the afternoon we’ll explore our surroundings before having dinner at our family-run mountain hotel. Restaurant Forni is renowned for its excellent regional cuisine and house specialties.
Overnight in Airolo
Activity: light walking around Airolo
DAY 2: Valle Bedretto
Highlights: Hike Valle Bedretto valley, visit cheese artisans
Today, we hike into the wild landscape of Valle Bedretto, one of the region’s most remote and pristine alpine valleys where the Ticino River starts its 40-mile journey to Lake Maggiore. We’ll meander through fir and larch forests and on to summer pastures filled with blueberries and rhododendron. If the shepherds are present, we’ll buy some Cristallina cheese, made on the premises, to supplement our picnic lunch in a panoramic setting.
Afterward, we start our descent into the valley floor, where we have the option to stop for a refreshing drink or a coffee before we return to Airolo.
Overnight in Airolo
Activity & Distance: hiking approximately 4.5 to 5 hours (8 to 9.5 miles). Elevations up to 1,765 feet.
DAY 3: Piora region
Highlights: Explore the Piora alpine region, visit a dairy farm, lunch at a mountain rifugio
We’ll make our way to the Piora, a spectacular alpine region and nature preserve that’s home to 300 species of wildflowers. Our circular hike takes us past emerald-green lakes and offers stunning vistas of surrounding peaks. We’ll visit a dairy farm, where we’ll sample the local Piora, a delicious cow’s-milk cheese. After a light lunch at a mountain rifugio (a hut or hostel), we begin our 1.5-hour descent back to our starting point.
We then transfer to Lugano, a sparkling town on the shores of the lake bearing the same name. Our historic, UNESCO-designated hotel is located in the city center, along the lakeside promenade. You’re free to relax, swim in the hotel’s outdoor pool, or promenade along the lake.
Overnight in Lugano
Activity & Distance: hiking approximately 4.5 hours (9 to 10 miles). Elevation: 928 feet.
DAY 4: Above Lugano
Highlights: Hike above Lake Lugano; explore villages, pastures, medieval churches
Our rambles today take us near the Italian border and Lake Como. Although we soak up the Mediterranean atmosphere, we’re still in the mountains, which are mirrored in the lake. Secluded medieval churches sit on the high, open ridges. We’ll encounter enchanting villages perched above Lake Lugano and relax in the serenity of water, forests, grazing pastures and mountains.
We’ll savor a picnic lunch in an enchanting setting before descending and returning to Lugano by public transportation. You may want to explore the boutique shops of the “Monte Carlo of Switzerland,” hop on a boat or water taxi for a view of the city from the water, or indulge in a gelato by the waterfront. Among the local museums are ones devoted to art, chocolate and author Hermann Hesse. Dinner tonight is on your own.
Overnight in Lugano
Activity & Distance: hiking 3 to 5 hours. A variety of trails is available—from high, ridge hikes with views of Lake Lugano to wooded walks. The time and distance will depend on group interest and the weather.
Day 5: Monte San Giorgio – Bellinzona
Highlights: Hike to the summit of Monte San Giorgio, arrive in medieval Bellinzona
Today’s adventure begins in Meride, a lovely hamlet surrounded by agricultural terracing, vineyards and vegetable gardens. Meride is located at the foot of Monte San Giorgio, and our day’s hike will take us to the summit of this pyramid-shaped mountain that towers over Lake Lugano and yields panoramas that sweep from the lakelands to the Alps. Scenic views aren’t the only things that make Monte San Giorgio a treasure; its layers of rock are filled with fossil fish, reptiles and insects from the Triassic period (250 million years ago). We’ll choose a breathtaking spot for our picnic lunch; later, we’ll visit a local winery to taste some of the area’s wines, including the famous Meride Merlot.
We then transfer by private vehicle to Bellinzona, whose three medieval castles earned it a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation. (We’ll tour the town and castles on Day 7.) Rich in culture and traditions, Bellinzona is the only town in Ticino to have maintained its medieval characteristics. Its historic center—dramatically lit at night—is an enthralling sight. We have three evenings in our centrally located hotel to behold the town’s wonders. Tonight, we’ll have dinner at a traditional restaurant in town.
Overnight in Bellinzona
Activity & Distance: Hiking 3 to 3.5 hours (3.5 to 4 miles)
DAY 6: Valle Bavona
Highlights: Explore picturesque stone villages in Valle Bavona, hike to glacial waterfall for a picnic, taste local cheese
The remote villages of the Bavona Valley seem completely untouched by modern life. There is no electricity, and the stone houses—clustered close together for heat and protection—transport us back into time. We’ll hike through the heart of this incredibly scenic valley, where we’ll learn about Ticino’s centuries-old culture and mountain pastoral life. The valley is open only seven months of the year when the weather allows, during which old-timers still bring their few animals to graze on miniscule plots of land.
We then hike uphill into a glacial valley tucked into the region’s dramatic topography for a picnic in a fairytale setting next to a waterfall, where cauldrons of water find momentum before plunging to the valley floor. We’ll have a chance to taste local goat- and cow’s-milk cheese before heading back to Bellinzona. Dinner tonight is on our own.
Overnight in Bellinzona
Activity & Distance: hiking 3 to 3.5 hours (3.5 to 4 miles).
DAY 7: Bellinzona
Highlights: Tour Bellinzona’s historic castles and mingle with the Saturday market crowds. Celebrate the grape harvest at the Bacchica wine festival (September departure only).
With its narrow cobblestone streets, courtyards, piazzas and old buildings, Bellinzona exudes old-world charm. This “gateway to Italy,” strategically positioned at the crossroads of the Latin and Germanic worlds, is the capital of Ticino. Most captivating are its three castles. These battlements, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, are among the finest examples of medieval fortification in the alpine region.
We start with a guided tour of the main castle, Castelgrande, sitting grandiosely on a rocky outcrop in the center of town. We then stroll through Bellinzona’s historic center and its Saturday market. Attracting visitors from near and far since medieval times, the market is filled with colorful stalls selling high-quality local products, homemade specialties, clothing and handicrafts. There, we’ll purchase our picnic lunch and follow a mule path up the hill for 20 minutes to the second castle, Montebello, where the panoramic views stretch all the way to Lake Maggiore. At Sasso Corbaro, the third castle, we enjoy our lunch while sitting on one of the many rocks surrounding the fortress. Afterward, we continue on to a beautiful old settlement, a shrine of history and art, before returning to Bellinzona.
Note: Those traveling during Whole Journeys’ September departure will be in Bellinzona for the Bacchica grape-harvest festival, named for Bacchus, the Roman god of wine. This popular end-of-summer celebration enlivens the surrounding community for three days and nights, giving everyone a chance to display their local products, play local music and engage in revelry.
Overnight in Bellinzona
Activity & Distance: hiking approximately 3 hours
DAY 8: DEPARTURE
After breakfast, depart at your leisure from the Bellinzona train station, which offers excellent connections by train to the Zurich Airport. From Bellinzona, you can also make other connections within Switzerland or to Italy. The train ride to Zurich takes about 2.5 to 2.45 hours. Please schedule your flight accordingly.