Ticino: snowy mountain passes, palm-lined riviera, and epic roads

The Swiss canton of Ticino is one of those destinations that is worth the long ride getting there.

With more snowy mountain passes and winding roads through deep valleys than one can explore in a lifetime, Ticino offers more diverse experiences in its small area than perhaps the Las Vegas Strip. A high alpine mountain landscape, resembling the Norwegian fjords plunging straight into the water, blends with lush scenery, tropical riviera, and medieval castles. Ticino is the epitome of an alpine romance with its Mediterranean lover.

I have just crossed the Gotthard Pass at 2106 meters above sea level and entered the canton of Ticino. Before that I conquered the mountain passes over the classic ski resorts Disentis and Andermatt. Climbing up the serpentine roads, through and up the valleys, cannot be described as anything other than pure motorcycle magic.

My bobbed 1998 Honda Shadow 1100 feels like a truck with the sharp curves. I enjoy the oldschool style of travel with a duffelbag on the sissybar. But the real reason for my choice of bike is not looks, but due to that I am mechanically handicapped. With the cardan drive I remove much of maintenance that comes with a chain and sprockets and I am much too short for the 1200 GS bikes. But it doesn't matter, I am here for one of the world's most beautiful nature experiences in the coming days on a motorcycle.

An Alpine romance with the Mediterranean

Ticino's southern border is just a mere 50 kilometers from Milan, and the canton is only 100 kilometers in height. Despite its small size, Ticino packs immensely varied climates. In the north, snowy mountain passes over 2000 meters above sea level, and in the south, Mediterranean climate with palm trees and a riviera. Add a handful of 11th-century Medieval castles perched on the slopes, and you get a mix rarely seen. For those not wanting to spend every day on the motorcycle, there are more hiking trails, picturesque stone villages, and mountain lakes to visit than you can count insects on your visor.

Surrounded by waterfalls, mountain passes, and serpentine roads

In Ticino I recommend staying in Locarno or in Ascona and you are in the middle of Ticino.  Its riviera along Lake Maggiore offers beachfront dinners with a magical view, and you have the perfect starting point for the entire region.

My first misison is to explore the Maggia valley and follow the river upstream towards Foroglio and its waterfall. It doesn't take long before an entirely new world opens up between the side mirrors.

The mountain walls are green with vegetation at this altitude becomes steeper and steeper, and I pass several villages, each more rustic and postcard-friendly than the last. I turn west into the Bavona Valley, where I am soon met by the waterfall thundering down from the cliff edge 100 meters above.

It might be my inner mountain goat or the explorer in me pulling, I decide to continue further up the valley. The road gets a bit narrower, and each new curve serves me with a new experience.

I pass so many scenic views that I alternate between breathlessness and panting behind the visor. Small stone churches overlooking the beautiful valley where the morning sun illuminates the view, along with small stone villages disappear in the side mirrors.

As I decend after reaching roads end, I turn west in the village of Cevio and head towards Bosco Gurin, Ticino's highest and most authentic mountain village, if you believe the locals. Take the opportunity for a Swiss delicacy in the bakery or check out the village's oldest house and historical museum, dating back to 1386.

The evening is spent in Locarno and in one of the many classic grottos in the area. A seemingly simple restaurant where stone is also the overarching theme referring to the ancient refrigerator – a cave. Here, almost exclusively local delicacies such as sausages, minestrone, risotto, and polenta are offered. Wash it down with the local favorite, Mezzo-mezzo – lemonade mixed with red wine.

More mountain passes, alpine cows, and serpentine roads

The second day is spent at higher altitudes at the Lucomagno Pass, which is just under 2000 meters above sea level. About 20 kilometers on the highway that runs through Ticino, I exit at Biasca and wind my way past the Serravalle ruin and along the Brenno River. Beautiful views, a pleasant road, and the mountains in front of me hint at what is to come.

In Blenio, I turn west, and the ascent towards the pass begins. The journey up offers the most enjoyable roads during my stay. Not just 180-degree curves, but softer ones that provide a nice flow when riding.

Behind me, I see the valley getting smaller and smaller, and infront, the peaks getting closer, and the landscape changing as the vegetation becomes sparser the higher I go. After passing a group of mooing alpine cows grazing in the green pasture, I finally reach the Lucomagno Pass and Lake Santa Maria with the small hotel and restaurant of the same name. If you want to continue exploring the mountain pass, you cross the border here into the canton of Graubünden, but after taking in the view at the lakeside I decide to roll back down into the valley.

On the way down, my stomach starts growling as loud as the motorcycle and I pull into the Ospizio Camperio restaurant, located about a third up from the valley. Several other motorcycles are parked here: the usual and slightly boring GS and even three bikes with sidecars, resembling miniature versions of the classic 1981 Delorean

Heading back to Ascona, I take the opportunity to visit two of the medieval castles in Bellinzona. The foundations for these were laid in the first century and later expanded into what we see the remains of today in the early Middle Ages. Even if a thunderstorms creep over the mountain peaks, it is insanely beautiful. Don’t forget to take the opportunity to visit the old town and treat yourself to an Italian espresso with a Swiss flair while enjoying the historical atmosphere.

Off the motorcycle for half a day and flower-power

If, like me, you took the road down via Autobahn, you have a few miles stored in your human rear suspension. Taking half a day for something else is not a defeat but rather a step closer to a perfect stay. The dinners I've spent overlooking Lake Maggiore with a local glass of wine in hand and an Italian-composed symphony on the plate, I've noticed the green-clad mountains plunging straight into the lake and an oddly looking island.

The explorer’s nerve tingles again, and I decide to explore the direct local surroundings. The island not only houses a magnificent hotel, restaurant, and wine terrace but also an exotic garden with over 2000 different flowers and plants from most parts of the world. Even if I have as much interest in botany as I do in Latvian local politics, which is none, this is one of the highlights of the trip. After stepping off the boat, you step into what feels like a completely different country and era.

Disembarking in Ascona I mount my motorcycle for the western side of the lake and climbing up the serpentine roads towards Bosco Sacro di Mergugno, or Mergugno's sacred forests as it is so beautifully translated. At the top you can lace up your hiking boots and continue even higher via the hiking trails. However, I choose to head towards the lake's eastern side that for will take me into Italian territory.

This road is gently winding with beautiful views at the right side mirror over the lake. In Luino, I turn directly east and back into Switzerland, taking a brief look at the town of Lugano. But the goal is Ascona for a final dinner on the beach at sunset, before heading the 1600 kilometers back home to Sweden.


  • On Ticino.ch, you can search for motorcycle-friendly hotels and navigate through all the attractions you could wish for. 
  • Make sure to have legal pipes on your motorcycle. The police here are very strict on dB levels. If stopped, a fine is what you wish for. 
  • Visit Isole di Brissago and the botanical garden. If you have won the lottery, stay a night at the hotel. 
  • Visit one of the various grottos and try the local cuisine. 
  • Bellinzona and its ruins are impressive whether you are a historian or not. 
  • I stayed at Hotel Jazz, which had its own indoor garage. 
  • Visit the market at Piazza Grande in Locarno, shop, people-watch, and treat yourself to a coffee. 
  • Stay in Ascona or Locarno: prices are equivalent. 
  • Remember to buy the highway vignette if you pass through Austria. 

Don't forget to have fun on the way down if you travel far away like me!

Words & Photography: Johan Stahlberg







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