Panorama of Ascona in Ticino, Switzerland

Lago di Luzzone in Ticino, Switzerland. (ThinkStock)

What to do in Ticino

Like other cantons of the Swiss Alps, Ticino is mountainous. Unlike others, however, it's primarily defined not by vertical peaks but by two blue lakes—Lago Maggiore and Lago di Lugano, both shared with Italy. Ticino is Switzerland's only Italian-speaking canton.

Ticino is famous for "palm-trees-to-glaciers" topography (it's said you can go from one to the other in an hour), and for a climate more balmy Mediterranean than crisp alpine. Switzerland's sunny south is a diverse playground for families, with everything from sailing and windsurfing to glacier trekking and snowboarding.

Lugano, on the north shore of Lago di Lugano, is the largest town and the closest to the region's international airport, making it an ideal starting or ending point. A number of Ticino's best family attractions are in this area, including the Chocolate Museum at Chocolat Alprose, one of Switzerland's chocolatiers. In addition to highlighting the history of chocolate, the museum gives visitors a firsthand look at chocolate production. Naturally, the tour ends at a shop filled with goodies (parents might want to set a shopping limit in advance).

Just over three miles from Lugano is one-of-a-kind Swissminiatur, an open-air museum village with replicas of the country's most important buildings and transportation system, all on a 1:25 scale.

In nearby Capolago families can ride the Monte Generosa cog railway up to 360-degree views of Switzerland and Italy. They can also get a visual lesson on our solar system walking the 1,969-foot (600-meter) Trail of the Planets (walking one meter is the equivalent of crossing10 million kilometers in the real planetary system). There's also the Astronomical Observatory and the Bear's Grotto where the remains of 300 cave bears were discovered in 1988, along with relics used by Neanderthal man 40,000 to 60,000 years ago. The mountain is a spectacular spot for sunrise and sunset so consider staying overnight at the Monte Generosa Inn. Most beds are in dormitories but there's a family room with four beds; breakfast is included. Other mountains with views are Monte Brè and Monte San Salvatore, both with funiculars accessible from Lugano.

Across the lake in Gandria is the Swiss Customs Museum (popularly known as the smugglers' museum). Permanent exhibits include a surprising array of items smuggled into Switzerland and insight into the sometimes-dangerous work of border guards.

Airolo is Ticino's best-known alpine resort while Nara has the region's longest toboggan run. A great resort for adventure-loving families is Cari with sunny lots of beginner and intermediate slopes in winter and mountain biking, horseback riding, paragliding, and trekking in summer. Not to be missed for ages ten to adult is zipping down the mountain on a "monster roller" (think scooter with fat tires), and all ages that dare can dip their toes in ice-cold Lake Cari.

Get a sense of canton history in Bellinzona where three medieval fortresses have UNESCO World Heritage Site designation: Castelgrande, Castello di Montebello, and Castello di Sasso Corbaro. Castelgrande is the oldest and mightiest of the three. Bellinzona has adventure, too. Swiss Raft (www.swissraft.ch) runs rafting trips here May to October (ask about minimum ages).

Locarno, on the shores of Lake Maggiore, has the mildest climate in all of Switzerland. The lake offers every water sport you'd want, plus the Brissago Islands, the canton's botanical park. A short bus ride away is a family's answer to the question, "Can we take energetic kids to an art museum?" The Art Path in Verzasca Valley has 34 works of art along 2.8 miles of easy walking. Stone sculptures, paintings on wood, and works in a variety of mediums create a museum where running, hopping, and leaping between exhibits is okay.

Tips: The Passport to the Swiss Museums includes free entry to 250 museums throughout Switzerland. The cost of the pass is recouped by visiting just three museums. Buy the Adult Passport Plus and bring along up to five children under 16 years of age at no cost. Go to www.passaportomusei.ch

The Lugano airport has daily service from Zurich, Geneva, and Rome.

The William Tell Express links Ticino with the region of Central Switzerland and Lucerne. From Lucerne you boat across Lake Lucerne then hop aboard the first-class panorama cars of the train. The route takes in the Reuss Valley and 9.3-mile-long Gotthard Tunnel.

Recommended Side Trips: Milan, Lucerne, Lake Como

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