Did you know that Switzerland has four official languages? There’s German (Deutsch) in the north, Italian (Italienisch) in the south, French (Französisch) in the west and Romansh (Rätoromanisch) in a very small area in the east of Switzerland. These areas do not just differ in their language, however, they also have a very distinct feel to them due to their varying architectural styles and their culture. So, when I set out on a day trip to the Ticino, I knew I was in for an Italian adventure.
My day trip to the Ticino began very early in the morning. I live on the complete opposite side of Switzerland. In order to reach the canton of Ticino, I had to cross all of Switzerland from the very northwestern corner to the absolute southeastern point. Not to mention the massive Alps that are blocking my way as well.
With this itinerary, I will prove to you, though, that no matter where you are staying in Switzerland, a day trip to the Ticino is absolutely realistic and more than worth it!
Yes, that’s when my alarm rang. Travel is definitely not always the “dolce far niente”-lifestyle we would like it to be. After a quick shower, I grabbed my breakfast I prepared the day before (I didn’t want to waste any precious snooze time) and made my way to the railway station. As I didn’t want to worry about buying tickets so early in the morning, I organized all of it in advance. Public transport in Switzerland isn’t cheap, but by doing some research and taking advantage of the SBB travel passes, you can safe a lot of money and nerves.
Just as an example: Traveling from Basel (where I live) to Bellinzona, the capital of the Ticino, and back costs 158 Swiss Francs! And that doesn’t even include all the additional bus and train rides from one sight to the other. The Swiss Travel Pass, on the other hand, grants you three days of unlimited travel by rail, road and waterways, free access to 480 museum and many other reductions and benefits for just 210 CHF! And the cherry on top? Kids under the age of 16 travel for free!
My train left in direction of Zurich. As I’ve traveled this route many times before and there isn’t that much to see, I used the hour-long journey to enjoy my breakfast and finally inject some much-needed caffeine into my system. In Zurich, I jumped on the train that would take me all the way to Bellinzona, the first stop on my day trip to the Ticino.
Shortly after leaving the train station, Switzerland showed itself in all its glory. We traveled along peaceful lakes, drove past magnificent mountains and said a quick ‘good morning’ to sleepy sheep and cows. I took picture after picture and couldn’t stop marveling at the beauty that was rushing past my train window. Make sure you sit on the right side of the train to catch all the panoramic views.
As soon as you leave Arth-Goldau, the train starts winding its way up and through the mountain on the famous Gotthard panoramic route. One of the sights to look out for is the famous little church of Wassen. You’ll see this church three different times as the train loops and turns on its way to the Gotthard tunnel. Don’t worry if you feel completely confused about how you somehow end up seeing this church over and over again, just accept it as one of the many Swiss engineering mysteries. (Or follow the train tracks on Google Maps, to try and figure it out.)
After a 10-minute ride through the tunnel, I’ve finally made it. I’ve reached the Italian speaking canton of Ticino.
Bellinzona: First stop on my
day trip to the Ticino
Placed at the convergence point of several Alpine valleys, Bellinzona is visually striking. Its three grey-stone medieval castles have attracted everyone from Swiss invaders to painter William Turner. Yet Bellinzona keeps a surprisingly low profile considering that its castle trio is one of only 11 Unesco World Heritage sites in Switzerland.
Bellinzona is the capital of the canton of Ticino. With only 18000 citizens it is only a small town but it still has a lot to offer. Besides a beautiful city centre and some gorgeous architecture, it has not just one, not two but three castles: Castlegrande, Castello di Montebello and Castello di Sasso Corbaro.
After a very enjoyable 3.5 hour train ride, I arrived in Bellinzona. As I had a lot on my plate for the day, I decided to limit my visit to one castle (I know, what a sacrifice, right…). Turning left outside the train station, I reached the city centre in just a couple of minutes.
In the pedestrianized city centre, I stumbled onto a little street market. As I was still a little early (the castle opens at 10 am) I decided to walk through the market, breathing in the scent of freshly cut flowers, flavorful local cheese and delicious cured meats (and wondering why there was a stall selling Pikachu toys). At the end of the market I was surprised by some stunning buildings and a gorgeous little old church.
After a quick visit to the church, I walked back and turned left towards the castle. The castle I chose, Castelgrande, is the oldest of the three and probably the most famous one. I had already been mentally preparing myself for an exhausting couple of stairs only to find a modern elevator waiting to quickly take me up to the castle. Sweet!
After a quick climb up a cobbled slope, I was standing in the middle of the castle yard. No lines, no entry fees, just a gorgeously green open yard surrounded by medieval towers and castle walls. Quickly, I started exploring the castle grounds. There was so much to discover, stairs to climb, walls to walk on and tunnels to sneak into. For 5 CHF, you can also climb the tower and visit the museum inside.
My favourite place was definitely the fortified wall. It offered some stunning views and it was easy to understand why many locals come up here simply to read a book or to work out jogging up and down the walls.
As I had to catch my next train at 11 am, I sadly made my way back to the elevator. Not without stopping one last time, however, and marvelling at the fact that I was standing in a castle while looking at two other castles. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of another place where that is possible!
Verzasca Dam: Second stop
on my day trip to the Ticino
Val Verzasca: About 4km northeast of Locarno, this rugged 26km valley snakes north past the impressive dam, which is fed by the gushing, startlingly emerald Verzasca river.
Traveling by public transport meant that timing was crucial for my next stop. There are only 8 connections a day, so missing one meant waiting between 1 and 2.5 hours for the next chance!
Luckily, everything worked out the way I planned and at 11 am I was sitting in the train to Tenero. In Tenero, I jumped on the bus towards one of the biggest dams in Switzerland: the Contra Dam (also more commonly known as the Verzasca Dam). This time, sit on the left side to catch an early sneak peek of this impressive construction.
The contra dam is 380 m (1250 ft) long and 220 m (720 ft) high. It became world-famous when James Bond jumped off it in the opening scene of Goldeneye. If you dare, you can channel you inner 007 and jump as well! Securely attached to a bungee cord, of course… Unfortunately, I didn’t see anyone jump, because they only operate on the weekends. So, keep that in mind, if you’re up for that unforgettable adrenaline kick.
If you want to see the dam and you’re traveling by public transport, always keep an eye on your watch. Buses are rare and depending on the day and time, there might only be one every two hours! I only had about 30 minutes (which was plenty of time, actually) before I had to take the next bus down to my third stop, Locarno.
Locarno: Third stop
on my day trip to the Ticino
With its palm trees and much-vaunted 2300 hours of sunshine a year, Locarno has attracted pasty northerners to its warm, Mediterranean-style setting since the late 19th century.
On the way down, I enjoyed a last glimpse of the dam. I also tried to take some pictures of the breathtaking view over Lake Maggiore. Unfortunately, I wasn’t lucky enough to get a seat on this very twisty and turny road. After unsuccessfully trying to take a good picture while clinging onto the handrails like a drunken monkey, I finally gave up. Sometimes a mental picture just has to be enough.
I got off at the last stop, Locarno Via della Pace, as it is closest to the Piazza Grande. Depending on the bus connection, the last stop might be the train station, which isn’t that much further away, though.
The Piazza Grande is the pride of Locarno and it’s easy to see why. With its colorful buildings, and the beautiful architecture it has a very Mediterranean feel to it. It is a picturesque proof of Switzerland’s diversity and versatility. If all you see of Switzerland are the Alps, you’ll miss out on the essence of Switzerland: the sense of unity despite the apparent cultural and linguistic differences.
All this traveling burns off a lot of energy and my stomach started to complain fiercely. Because I was a bit on a budget, I went to the ‘Coop’ supermarket at the end of the square and bought a scrumptious sandwich, sat on one of the benches in the middle of the square and enjoyed the sun and the lovely atmosphere. If you prefer a proper meal, there are many restaurants with inviting terraces all around the square and the food looked absolutely delicious!
Feeling refreshed and relaxed, I decided to ditch all the maps and simply wander around for a while. There were so many cute alleys and fascinating buildings that I could have walked around for ever. After a while, I ended up at the pier and decided to try to walk to my last stop on my day trip to the Ticino, Ascona.
Unfortunately, I only got as far as the Locarno Lido, which is a beautiful pool and spa with stunning views over Lake Maggiore (a great rainy day option for the whole family if you’re staying in the region). The only way to Ascona from that point onwards was along busy roads. As this didn’t sound very enjoyable, I took the bus instead.
Ascona: Fourth and last stop
on my day trip to the Ticino
If ever there was a prize for the ‘most perfect lake town’, Ascona would surely win hands-down. Palm trees and pristine houses in a fresco painter’s palette of pastels line the promenade, overlooking the glassy waters of Lago Maggiore to the rugged green mountains beyond.
Although Ascona is just around the corner from Locarno and the bus ride only took a couple of minutes, I couldn’t wait to finally get there. According to the pictures I saw on Google and all the stories I heard from friends and family, I saved the best for last.
The bus dropped me off at Ascona Posta, mere steps away from Ascona’s old town. Ascona is the lowest lying town in Switzerland, though that’s far from being its biggest attraction. This small village has one of the prettiest promenades in all of Switzerland and its southern charm will make you seriously doubt that you’re still in Heidi’s home country.
Following the crowds, I strolled down the main street towards the lake. The buildings along the street were painted in all the colors of the rainbow and I definitely wasn’t the only one taking a gazillion pictures.
Innocently hidden behind a corner, the lakefront springs on you without warning. I had to pause to take it all in – the palm trees, the gorgeous buildings and the peaceful lake.
At the end of the street, the promenade was waiting for me. This is one of those postcard perfect sites that could never disappoint. The only thing that could make this moment even better was some delicious ice cream.
And what a coincidence, there was an ice cream place just on the corner! Of course, the ice cream is home-made and incredibly tasty. They do speak German (and probably English as well) but if you want to have the real Italian experience, try ordering in Italian (it worked for me 😉 )! The best place to eat your ice cream in style is on one of the benches along the lakefront while the sun shines in your face.
Although it was hard to break away from this beautiful panorama, I took a stroll along the promenade, checking out all the restaurants for the best place to have dinner later on. The common theme was strongly leaning towards typically Italian food, so expect lots of pizza and pasta.
After a short walk (the promenade really isn’t that long), I got a pizza from one of the many restaurants and went back to my bench on the lake. What could be a better end to this day than watching the sunset with a bite of tasty pizza in your mouth? I thought so, too.
Sadly, it was time for me to start my long way back home. Ascona doesn’t have a train station, so first, I had to take the bus from Ascona Posta back to the train station in Locarno.
Very important! There are numerous buses leaving from Ascona Posta and even though they all leave from the same side of the road, some of them end up going in opposite directions. So, be very attentive and ask the bus driver when in doubt. You might have already guessed why I’m stressing this fact so much… Yes, I got on the wrong bus! It came at the exact time I was expecting it and it had the correct bus number, unfortunately, it was just going in the opposite direction!
To make matters worse, we got stuck in a tunnel before we even reached the first stop and didn’t move for about half an hour. Slightly panicking, I started looking up my train connections. As my phone battery was virtually dead (we’re talking 5% here), I frantically scribbled down all possible connections on my pizza carton, before turning it off and hoping for the best. Ah, what fun would traveling be without our pal Murphy and his stupid law, right?
After driving for about an hour at the mind-blowing speed of a glacier, we finally reached the final stop and turned around. About two hours later than planned, I reached the train station in Locarno.
Miraculously, I managed to catch my very last connection back home and my eventful day trip to the Ticino ended, when I finally fell into bed at 1 a.m. What a day!