Italian-speaking Ticino (Tessin in German and French) occupies the balmy, lake-laced southern foothills of the Alps. It’s a little pocket of Italy in Switzerland and radically different in almost every way: culture, food, architecture, attitude and driving style owe more to Milan than Zürich, although Switzerland has controlled the area since the early 1500s. The main attractions are the lakeside resorts of Locarno and Lugano, where mountain scenery meets subtropical flora. The best way to enjoy these chic towns is to join the locals promenading with ice creams.
Unless you approach from Italy, there’s only one train line in – through the 15km Gotthard Tunnel. The climb to the tunnel is famous for its spiralling contortions: trains pass Wassen’s onion-domed church three times, first far above, then on a level, and finally far below.
Top image: Lugano © Mor65_Mauro Piccardi/Shutterstock
A branch line heads west from Bellinzona (whose three superb castles are on UNESCO’s World Heritage list) to Locarno. It’s a charming town on Lake Maggiore, its piazzas overhung by subtropical shrubbery. Overrun with the rich and wannabe-famous on summer weekends and during its world-class film festival (early August), it manages to retain a sun-drenched cool.
The Piazza Grande, where exquisitely groomed locals parade on warm summer nights, is near the lake, with the Renaissance Old Town rising gently behind. The fifteenth-century church of Madonna del Sasso is an impressive ochre vision high on a crag. It’s a glorious walk up (or down); or take the funicular from just west of the station to Ticino’s greatest photo-op, looking down on the church and lake.
From the top station, a cable car climbs steeply to Cardada, amid fragrant pine woods with walking routes; a spectacular chairlift whisks you further up to Cimetta, where the restaurant terrace offers a view you won’t forget in a hurry.
A short bus ride east of Locarno is Valle Verzasca, where you can re-enact the opening of the James Bond film Goldeneye by bungee-jumping a world-record 220m off the Verzasca Dam – in July & August, you can jump by moonlight.
With its tree-lined promenades and piazzas, Lugano is Ticino’s most alluring resort, less touristy than Locarno but twice as chic. The centre of town is Piazza della Riforma, a café-lined square by the exceptionally beautiful Lago di Lugano. Through the maze of steep lanes northwest of Riforma, Via Cattedrale dog-legs up to the Cattedrale San Lorenzo, with its fine Renaissance facade, fragments of interior frescoes and spectacular views from its terrace. Also from Riforma, narrow Via Nassa – home to big-name boutiques – heads southwest to the medieval church of Santa Maria degli Angioli, home to a stunning wall-sized fresco of the Crucifixion. A little further south is the Museo d’Arte Moderna, Riva Caccia 5, with world-class exhibitions; a little further still is the modestly named district of Paradiso, from where a funicular rises 600m to San Salvatore, a rugged sugarloaf pinnacle offering fine views of the lake and surrounding countryside. The best of the lake is behind (south of) San Salvatore on the Ceresio peninsula, accessed by boats or buses.