When you’ve had your fill of rösti mit bratwurst in Swiss German-speaking Eastern Switzerland and sampled the fondue in French-speaking Western Switzerland, it’s time to head south to the Ticino region for the Italian-speaking region’s culinary delights.
While there are plenty of worthy destinations in Ticino, one of my favorites is the medieval stronghold of Bellinzona. With its strategic position between the German north and Italian south, the town has been vital in controlling the flow of people and goods for centuries. Wandering along the grassy tops of the impressive ramparts that connect the three grand castles it’s easy to imagine an army of Italian soldiers marching up the valley, itching for a fight.
These days, things are somewhat more peaceful. Quiet, romantic Bellinzona begs to be explored and savored on long walks through its narrow streets and from its sidewalk cafes. On the outskirts of town, trails meander up smaller valleys, along rushing creeks, and through tiny, historic settlements that look as if they’ve come out of a fairytale. In the many small restaurants and markets, uniquely Swiss-Italian cuisine completes the package. Experience it in a gauzy, golden sunset or a misty, pewter dawn, and Bellinzona will sweep you off your feet.
Are you ready to fall in love with Bellinzona? Let me count the ways you can with a couple of days of activities in this palm-studded paradise.
Getting to Bellinzona is a feast for the senses. Board a historic paddle steamer boat in Lucerne to cross the entire length of sparkling Lake Lucerne before exchanging the boat for the sleek Gotthard Panorama Express train at Flüelen. Marvel at the feats of engineering that help the train gain and lose elevation as it crosses the passes of the jagged Alps. At Wassen, you’ll see the village church spire three times from your window as gently ascending loops allow the train to climb a steep grade over a relatively short distance. At Göschenen, the train enters the old Gotthard tunnel, looping again, this time inside the mountain, before emerging and dropping down into the valley on its way south. Here, the views become more bucolic, as vineyards and pastures along the valley floor slip by. Keep your eyes peeled for the palm trees that begin to dot the landscape, welcoming you to Ticino. Pro tip: I’ve often stayed at the welcoming Hotel Internationale, which is steps away from the main station.
Self-Guided Walking Tour
Bellinzona’s main old town is compact and can be easily covered by walking. Before you leave the station, pick up a simple picnic lunch to enjoy at the Castelgrande. Then, exit the train station to your left and follow the Viale Stazione to the Piazza Collegiata. This is a great place to take a seat in one of the sidewalk cafes for a cappuccino and some people-watching. From there, follow Via Nosetto into Via Camminata until you reach Piazza Indipendenza. Here, wander through the Palazzo Civico Municipio, the Teatro Sociale, and to your heart’s content through the warren of arcades and narrow streets. When you’re ready for that picnic lunch, make your way to the front of City Hall and squeeze through the narrow alley, Vicola al Sasso, up the hill to Castelgrande. Here, you can browse the museum to learn about this hill’s 6500-year human history before heading out to explore the courtyard and ramparts and find a sunny spot to have your picnic. Stunning views abound and history seeps from every crack in these medieval stones. When you’re finished exploring, cross the courtyard and descend via elevator to Piazza del Sole where you’re just a short walk back up Viale Stazione to the station. Pro tip: Stay over in Bellinzona to walk the town at night, when all three castles are dramatically lit.
How can you have just one? Montebello and Sasso Corbaro stand in a line above Castelgrande forming a phalanx of formidable fortifications. These late-medieval structures were built to control traffic in this valley that leads north to the Gotthard and San Bernardino Passes, among other passes. For centuries, the valley was a superhighway of commercial and other traffic. The fortifications evolved over hundreds of years to protect the town’s residents as well as to control and tax trade along the route. It has been an important asset going back to Roman times. The impressive Montebello houses an archaeology exhibit with over 200 archaeological finds from the Ticino region. Sasso Corbaro, the smallest of the three castles and highest in elevation, offers sweeping views and has a small restaurant. Both of these can be reached on foot via trails, by public transportation, or by car.
A half-day wandering through a local, open-air market is time well spent for a traveler. The Bellinzona Market runs every Saturday from 7:30 am to 1:00 pm, year-round (its smaller Wednesday counterpart runs in the spring and fall from 10:00 am until 5:00 pm) and features colorful stalls filled with the freshest local fruits and vegetables, nutty cheeses from surrounding alpine valleys, delicious cured meats, handmade clothing, crafts, hardware supplies - you name it. It’s both a gathering place for locals and a traveler’s treasure trove of possible souvenirs. Eat straight from the market stalls or enjoy lunch at one of the many sidewalk cafes on the piazza.
Ticino’s Italian influence infuses the food there with familiar flavors from the south while keeping its Swiss sensibilities. The cellars at Montebello Castle are treasured for their perfect temperature and humidity for the curing of salami. Ticino is rightfully proud of its salami, but its unique flavor profile doesn’t come from a secret family recipe. Indeed, the mixture itself is simply meat, salt, and time - the taste is Ticino itself, or what the French call “goût de terroir,” the taste of the soil. Now, you can make this delicacy yourself in a two-hour workshop that includes instruction on how to bind your own salami with butcher’s string and then hang it in the Montebello cellar to cure. The activity is followed by a sumptuous spread of local wine paired with cured meats, cheeses, and bread in the castle’s courtyard. After the curing period of six to ten weeks, the salami you’ve made will be sent to you (unfortunately, it can’t be shipped to the U.S., so you’d still have to be in Switzerland to receive it).
Travel requires a certain amount of sitting on planes, trains, boats, and buses, so when I arrive in a new place, I like to stretch my legs and get my blood pumping. The Tibetan bridge “Carasc” near Bellinzona hangs 130m over the Sementina Valley, offering a shot of adrenaline to anyone able to white-knuckle their way over its 270m length. It can be reached by taking a cable car from the Monte Carasso station, but I heartily recommend hiking up from Monte Carasso, passing over the bridge, and circling down to the neighboring town of Sementina, where you can catch the bus back to Bellinzona. The route passes through small vineyards, rocky forests, and the ancient stone village of Curzútt, an idyllic spot to linger for a picnic lunch. This excursion is the perfect melange of outdoor excitement, physical exertion, and natural beauty, all steeped in rich history.
In the original Real Rail Adventures: Switzerland, we spent a half day visiting the misty, mysterious Lake Ritom. We took the train from Bellinzona to the Ambri-Piotta station where we hopped on a bus for a six-minute ride to the funicular station. There, we boarded the heart-stoppingly steep Ritom Funicular for the twelve-minute ride to the top station. In that short time, we were hoisted high above the Leventina Valley, tracing the route of huge pipes that carry water down the mountainside to generate power in the hydro station below. On top, hiking choices abound, but one route I can recommend is the 2 ½-hour walk along the edge of Lake Ritom to the Capanna Cadagno, one of the region's many excellent hiking huts where it’s possible to bunk for the night and get a sumptuous meal of local, organic Ticino cuisine. Our lunch included an appetizer of Ticinese salami and cheese, a green salad from the garden, and a hearty venison stew, washed down with excellent, local red wine. We’re told that, upon request, the kitchen staff will fill your thermos with “Swiss Gatorade,” a mixture of hot, mint tea and schnapps, to keep your spirits up on the hike back to the funicular. Pro tip: The Ticino Card (available for free from the front desk of your hotel) or your Swiss Travel Pass will give you steep discounts on the steep funicular.
Have you visited the Ticino Region of Switzerland and Bellinzona? What were your favorite adventures there? Tell us in the comments below and subscribe so you don’t miss a thing!