Switzerland is home to so many different cultures and landscapes, all housed within a small border that is barely 3 times larger than Los Angeles County. When thinking of Switzerland many things immediately come to mind – chocolate, cheese, tall mountains and precise time! But something that you may not think of is palm trees. Enter Ticino! This gorgeous canton in the southern region of Switzerland shares a border with Italy’s Lake District and sits just north of Milan. What Ticino lacks in notoriety it certainly makes up for in charm and exciting areas to explore. This little corner, that I began to refer to as “Swissaly”, feels much more Mediterranean than any other part of the Alps that I’ve visited in the past. Whether it be the palm trees, figs the size of avocados lining the streets or the temperate water that you can swim in for hours, Ticino has a character all its own.
Once isolated from the more northern areas of Switzerland, Ticino is now even closer thanks to the recent opening of the Gotthard Base Tunnel, essentially connecting the bustling cities of Zurich and Lucerne to this border region through a 57 km long tunnel, a world record holder and a testament to Swiss engineering and ingenuity. A train through the Base Tunnel gets you there quickly – direct trains take under 2 hours from Lucerne to Lugano(!) – but one of the most pleasant ways to travel between these two areas is on the Gotthard Panorama Express. The Gotthard Panorama Express gives you a taste of life in the slow lane, with a ferry ride across Lake Lucerne and a panoramic train ride across the historic Gotthard route, starting in Lucerne from the North, or Bellinzona or Lugano from the South. In addition to announcements on the ferry as you cross Lake Lucerne, you’ll get a handy travel guide for your journey on the panoramic train cars that will match with an audio companion to inform your about all of the notable and interesting sights you’ll pass along your journey south towards Bellinzona.
Starting in Lucerne, you will traverse along the great lake towards Flüelen, making stops along the way at many historic sites and sleepy towns, and waving as you go at fellow travelers on one of the many steam-powered paddle boats that cross the lake each hour. History buffs will especially appreciate a quick stop at the Rütli meadow below Seelisberg, where the original three cantons of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden formed the Confederatio Helvetica (Switzerland) in an alliance against the tyrannical Habsburg family. The heart of the Wilhelm Tell legend and the birth of Switzerland. This route used to be known as the Wilhelm Tell Express until 2016.
Once across the lake, you’ll hop on a the Gotthard Panorama Express train. This train has standard 2nd class cars and special 1st class cars with large windows that open for easy picture taking. It takes you above the new Basis tunnel up into the mountains, where you cross through the original Gotthard tunnel (opened in 1882) to reach the southern side of the Alps. Once through the tunnel, you are greeted with green lush hillsides, loads of waterfalls and yet another impressive architectural feat in the Biaschima Loops that wind you through the mountain on the way to Bellinzona through a series of tunnels and delicate arches. Bellinzona is a nice stop in it’s own right, known for it’s handsome castles, or you can continue on to the area on the northern end of the Lago Maggiori, Lugano or Milan, depending on your destination.
The Gotthard Panorama Express operates in spring, summer and fall. It is a 5½ hour trip departing Lucerne at 11:12 and departing Lugano at 9:23 (check the sbb site for current info). The full trip is covered by a Swiss Pass or Swiss Flex Pass, and traveling first class gets you access to the upper deck on the boat and the panorama wagons on the train. Seat reservations are not necessary in advance, and are not even offered for the boats. You will need to pay a CHF 24 supplement for your seat on the train, in addition to your rail pass.
While it is not yet open, the Ceneri tunnel, slated to open in 2020 will combine with the Gotthard and Lötschberg tunnels to link Zurich and Milan by rail with a journey of less than three hours! For those looking to connect areas in the Engadine to the Western side of Switzerland, a quick cogwheel train from Göschenen, the stop just north of the Gotthard tunnel, will bring you to Andermatt where you can connect to the Glacier Express.
While Ticino is something of a secret spot for amazing hiking, you can also enjoy some great wine tasting or family-friendly adventures when visiting this diverse area. For those looking for some great hiking be sure to check out the Hike Ticino app for great maps, hiking notes and helpful details about getting around the area. Ticino itself is a large Canton, stretching south to more well known towns like Lugano and Mendrisio, and with nearby access to Lake Como in Italy, and to Ascona and Locarno on Lake Locarno. There are a wealth of exciting activities to enjoy here. Once here you’ll get the Ticino ticket which entitles you to free travel within the area for the duration of your stay, including your departure day which will come in handy if you’re heading off on the local rail system to connect back to a larger city in Switzerland.
Be sure to check back soon to get more information about hikes and other areas to explore from Ascona and Locarno in gorgeous Ticino!