Take the train to Switzerland to see Ticino’s secret gardens

This subtropical terrain has 2,300 hours of sunshine a year

Think of Switzerland and snowy mountains and Saint Bernard rescue dogs come to mind. But in the Italian-speaking southern region of Ticino, the mild and sunny Mediterranean climate means it’s a garden-lover’s paradise.

Against a backdrop of jagged Alpine peaks, leafy banana plants flourish and lemon trees grow heavy with fruit. For those who prefer not to fly and adore lakes, mountains and botanical treasures, Ticino is easily accessible by rail. Swiss trains are all electric and mostly powered by hydro plants, a renewable and clean energy.

The Gotthard Panorama Express, a five-hour journey by boat and train, is a scenic highlight to any visit. Travel from Lucerne to Lugano, or the reverse route on your way home, to enjoy the railway line’s spiral loops, bridges and tunnels.

For the cruise section, the boat steamer docks at Fluelen and navigates Lake Lucerne, a uniquely-shaped 44-square-mile twisting body of water formed from four glaciated valleys. Hidden on the lake-bed, a newly-discovered Bronze Age village has just emerged from the depths.  

Stay in Ticino’s capital Bellizona with its medieval castles, Lugano on Lake Lugano with pastel-coloured palazzi or balmy Locarno. Founded in the 12th century on the banks of Lake Maggiore, Locarno has the warmest weather in Switzerland and it’s where I made my base. The church of Madonna del Sasso is said to have been established after an appearance of the Virgin Mary and, in this Catholic area, the bells ring out twice an hour.

It’s easy to use the efficient local buses and the former fishing village of Ascona now has a tranquil cafe-lined waterside promenade on the delta of the River Maggia and a definite creative vibe.

From 1900 Monte Verità (Mountain of Truth), a hillside above the town, became the home of a community of vegan pacifists; artists and writers looking for an ‘alternative’ life. Many of the group of intellectuals believed in exposing their bodies to light, air, sun and water, with naked bathing and dancing. This bohemian spirit spilled over onto the island of San Pancrazio on Lake Maggiore (one of the Brissago Islands) where skinny-dipping in the faux Roman baths was definitely encouraged.

Now San Pancrazio, protected by its cloak of mountains, has a fabulous botanical garden with 1,500 plant species including a fragrant cinnamon tree and – definitely not to be touched – white-flowered hemlock. The first exotic seedlings were planted in 1885 and ferries run to welcome (fully clothed!) visitors from March to October.

The blooms in the Parco delle Camelie (Camellia Park) in Locarno thrive on the acid soil between sequoia and ginkgo biloba trees and amongst the many Camellia japonica varieties, with vivid pink flowers and rich reds, is Alba Plena, the perfect white flower that Coco Chanel chose as the motif for her fashion brand. Walk to the nearby Termali Salini & Spa Locarno (Saltwater Spa) for a relaxing treat after a hard day’s sightseeing with another sensational backdrop behind the infinity pool.

For a quiet, shady stroll through exotic plants and under huge palm trees, Lugano’s Parco Ciani is right on the shorefront of Lake Lugano. As well as a magnificent 200-year-old magnolia, it  has the most high-tech public loos I’ve ever encountered. (Press the wrong button and you could be catapulted over Monte Brè and into space.) Comfort yourself with a takeaway slice of bread pudding (Torta di Pane), the local speciality, from Via Pessini.

The village of Morcote, half an hour from Lugano on the bus, is said to be the prettiest village in Ticino. The steep slopes of Monte Arbostora dip down to the side of the lake and Parco Scherrer is a fantasy wonderland of oriental greenery, planted out on different levels. The quirky mix of garden follies include Egyptian obelisks, a Greek temple and a Siamese teahouse.

The seasonal asparagus salad on the overwater terrace of Morcote’s family-run Ristorante della Torre is superb. It’s the perfect choice for lunch, followed by freshly-caught perch with creamed carrots and sauteed turnip greens.

For the most spectacular sweeping views of all, ascend from Lugano to Carona, a picturesque village at the foot of Monte San Salvatore. Over the centuries, local craftsman have embellished the buildings with exceptional flourishes. Then, carry on uphill and enjoy the peace of Parco San Grato.

There are themed paths and the Panoramaweg (Panoramic Trail) leads to breathtaking outlook points over the bay of Lugano. For a truly magical experience, hikers can book A Night Under The Stars, sleeping at 690 metres above sea level in a suspended tent fixed between larch trees. Fall asleep with nothing between you and a dazzling galaxy, surrounded by the sounds of the forest ‘long-breathing and restful’.

As German-Swiss poet Hermann Hesse wrote: ‘Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. ’

More information

  • Switzerland has four official languages (German, French, Italian and Romansh), the regions divided by the Alps. The quality of the water is excellent so refill your bottles from the tap.
  • Fly from the UK to Zurich or Geneva with SWISS. Or make the journey by train with an Interrail Pass. There’s a 10% discount for those 60+. The Pass is valid for Eurostar but you need to book your seat and pay a seat reservation fee. A supplement is charged for the Gotthard Panorama Express.
  • The official Switzerland Tourism website has travel tips and Gardens of Switzerland will inspire you. The Swiss Sanctuary garden display at the Chelsea Flower Show 2022 was designed to show off the unique flora in Switzerland’s different regions.
  • See the Swiss Travel System website for Swiss Travel Pass offers, including the Swiss Museum Pass, with free entrance to 500 museums and exhibitions.
  • If you overnight in a Ticino hotel you get a Ticino Ticket, giving you free public transport in the canton during your trip and discounts on attractions.
  • Feel like a celebrity at the 4-star-superior Hotel Belvedere Locarno. Book half-board and enjoy the excellent dinner menu at the hotel’s
  • Restaurant La Fontana. Avoid the beginning of August unless you’re a devoted movie buff as the Locarno International Film Festival quickly fills the rooms.

Our Silver Travel Advisors can help you create an ideal Swiss holiday – call 0800 412 5672

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Bev Watts

2 Responses

  1. I have just brought an interail pass ( on a whim as they were 50% off) and am looking for ideas to help plan my journey.

    1. Yes, the Interrail Pass offer was a bargain. Lucerne and Ticino are definitely worth visiting and you can stop off wherever you choose along the way.

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