Living la dolce vita in Ticino – Switzerland’s most unusual canton

Katja Gaskell takes a memorable journey to find a Swiss slice of Italy


Lugano (Photo: Unsplash)

The American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson once famously said, “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.” Well, he had obviously never been to Ticino, because if he had visited this sunny Swiss canton, he would have realised that it is possible to enjoy both the travel and the journey’s end.

My own adventure began in the impossibly picturesque city of Lucerne aboard a stately restored paddle steamer, bound for the town of Flüelen.

For two and a half hours I cruised across the dazzling teal waters of Lake Lucerne under a cartoon-like blue sky surrounded by blockbuster views; movie-poster Alpine cliffs, sun-baked lakeside villages and picturesque pockets of Swiss history.

As well as passing Rütli Meadow, where three cantons confirmed their confederation pact in 1291 and sowed the seeds of a modern Switzerland, we passed the world’s first cog-wheel railway that runs between Vitznau and Mount Rigi, and saw the Tell Chapel dedicated to Switzerland’s national hero and expert marksman, William Tell.

But even that memorable journey was only the beginning. The colourful flag-lined pier of Flüelen signalled the steamer’s arrival and, in an example of Swiss efficiency that only the locals could anticipate, I disembarked from the ship, boarded the Gotthard Panoramic Express waiting on an adjacent platform and, within no time, we were off on the second leg.

The Gotthard Panorama Express is one of Switzerland’s newer routes, having only joined the Swiss Federal Railways’ collection of scenic rail journeys in 2017.

But while the itinerary might be new, the railway line has been in existence since 1882 when it was created to link northern and southern Europe.

The ten-year project took some 5,000 men to complete as they slowly dug their way deep into the heart of the Gotthard Massif, constructing tunnels, assembling viaducts and crafting spiral loops from solid rock for the trains to gain height. It remains a masterpiece of engineering today.

The village of Erstfeld marks the start of the long climb to the Gotthard Pass. The track meandered happily through vivid green valleys and past vertiginous cliffs as snow-ribbed peaks beckoned in the distance.

At Wassen the train pirouetted around a double loop, one of the trainline’s famed spiralling tunnels, and I was greeted with three different views of the town’s baroque Catholic church: from below, at eye level and from above.

Further on at Göschenen, shortly before entering the Gotthard tunnel, I spied a white-haired man standing alongside the railway lines waving an oversized Swiss flag with the fervour of a marshal signalling the final lap of a race.

Reinhard, the ebullient train manager, explained that the flag bearer wasn’t, as I had assumed, an employee of the railway, rather a train enthusiast who had taken to greeting the Panorama Express whenever it passed by.

Inside the tunnel itself, as the train slowed down and the lights dimmed, videos were projected on the train walls telling the history of the railway.

And when we emerged from the darkness, we found ourselves in the canton of Ticino for the final part of the train’s journey through the Leventina Valley, past crumbling ruins of medieval castles. Only a brief pause in the capital Bellinzona remained before we arrived at our destination, the lakeside town of Lugano.

And if the journey was unforgettable, the destination lived up to its promise. Sandwiched between the Alps to the north and Italy to the south, Ticino is the both the southernmost and sunniest of Switzerland’s 26 cantons. It’s also the only one that is entirely Italian speaking.

For five centuries this wedge-shaped region was ruled by the Dukes of Como and Milan before becoming part of Switzerland in the 16th century.

This mixed heritage has resulted in a region that seamlessly blends the sunny charms of Italy with Swiss efficiency and punctuality.

Lugano is the largest of the canton’s three main cities — the others are Bellinzona and Locarno on the shores of Lake Maggiore.

From my hillside base, Hotel Bigatt, I had views over the glistening glacial waters of Lake Lugano, framed by wooded mountains and the twin peaks of Monte Brè and Monte San Salvatore. As the afternoon blurred into evening, I turned my thoughts to dinner at family-run Grotto Morchino, one of the region’s famed taverns.

In the days before electricity and refrigerators, the Ticinese stored their meat, cheese and wine in the caves that punctuated the countryside; over time, these grottos became a popular meeting place for families and friends and, gradually, some became restaurants.

The most traditional grottos don’t serve hot dishes, but Grotto Morchino was happily a little more modern, allowing me to enjoy a creamy and comforting lemon and asparagus risotto accompanied by a glass of dry white Merlot wine, unique to the region.

Before leaving, my waiter insisted on ending with a glass of Nocino and I’m glad that he did. This sweet liquor, made from green walnuts, is a favourite Ticino tipple.

Straddling Switzerland and Italy, Lake Lugano is the undeniable star of the city and one of the best ways to enjoy the views is from the Sentiero dell’olivo, or Olive Tree Trail, a two-mile marked path carved into the mountainside, which connects Lugano with the tiny fishing village of Gandria on the Italian border.

The gentle trail starts in the upmarket residential area of Castagnola and follows the curves of the lake past the remains of old olive groves and areas where saplings have been planted to populate the trail once more.

I passed chestnut trees and flowering cacti as I wandered along the dirt path, happening upon a tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurant primed to serve hungry walkers.

I resisted temptation and carried on instead to Gandria, a huddle of narrow sorbet-coloured houses perched precariously on the water’s edge.

Once upon time, fishermen lived here but today the buildings are occupied by a handful of shops and restaurants. This time I gave in and pulled up a chair on the balcony of Ristorante Antico and enjoyed delicious fresh linguine before catching the ferry back to Lugano.

For a more challenging hike, bulbous Monte San Salvatore — known locally as Switzerland’s Sugarloaf Mountain — is popular with walkers, but I opted for the easy route to the top via the vintage funicular railway, reaching the 912-metre peak in just 12 minutes.

Whether you take the hard route or follow my example, you’ll be rewarded with spectacular views over the city of Lugano, the shimmering lake and surrounding mountains. Numerous walking trails snake away from the summit, including one that leads to Morcote, considered by some to be the most beautiful village in Switzerland.

I still wanted to explore more of Lugano, however, so headed back down to the lakefront promenade, lined with handsome linden trees, to Parco Ciani. Named after the Ciani brothers, who built their villa here during the Belle Epoque era, today the public gardens are an extravagant medley of native oaks, limes and maple trees alongside a riot of roses, azaleas and camellias.

As afternoon turned to evening, I joined the Lugano residents in their traditional pre-dinner stroll of la passeggiata, and wandered along Via Nassa, the city’s main thoroughfare.

This upmarket street links the Santa Maria degli Angioli church, home to frescoes painted by Bernardino Luini (star pupil of Leonardo da Vinci) and the central square, Piazza della Riforma.

Today it is lined with high-end shops, ritzy cafes and boutique hotels but in days gone by this was where fishermen would weave their traditional nets, called nassa.

Sitting just off the Piazza della Riforma at Bottegone del Vino, a popular local restaurant that specialises in local wines and produce, I savoured a glass of Ticinese wine and homemade ravioli and thought again of Emerson.

This unique corner of Switzerland might have persuaded even him that there’s no need to choose between the journey and the destination.

​Getting There

​Flights from London to Zurich cost from around £99 return with Swiss.

Doubles at Hotel Bigatt cost from £130 per night.

The Swiss Travel Pass gives unlimited travel across the Swiss Travel System rail, bus and boat network, priced from £223 for a three-day second-class ticket.

For more information, visit and

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