Holiday in Ticino: A little slice of Italy in Switzerland

Surrounded on three sides by Italy, Switzerland’s southernmost canton feels as Mediterranean as you can imagine with its gorgeous places, colourful houses, sub-tropical flora, and a food culture to die for

funicolare monte The iconic funicular that dates back to 1890 (Picture: Enrico Boggia)

We’ve all done this at some point after March 2020. Scroll down our Instagram feed and revisit some of the most beautiful destinations we’ve visited and memories that we’ve created. Switzerland is likely to dominate the ‘most liked’ posts on our feed. 

But more than all those painstakingly edited images, it’s a rock that rekindles one of my most memorable trips to the playground of Europe. This souvenir, a piece of rock from the excavations to build the Gotthard base tunnel, sits on my work desk and serves as a better memory than all my Instagram posts.

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In 1992, the Swiss public voted in a referendum (the Swiss love their referendums) in favour of a historic train tunnel. When the Gotthard Base tunnel was opened to the public in December 2016, it became the longest railway tunnel in the world. 

It’s 57km long, nothing short of an architectural marvel and cuts travel times from Zurich to the Ticino canton (that borders Italy) by almost 90 minutes. It’s a surreal experience to ride through this tunnel. My journey began in Luzern, a charming city, that’s a gateway to popular mountain getaways like Titlis and Pilatus. 

lugano local market The local food market is a gourmand's delight  

The city is home to Europe’s oldest covered wooden bridge (it’s also the world’s longest surviving Truss bridge). 

The legends of Wilhelm Tell (the Swiss folk hero and ace archer who skilfully shot an apple off his son’s head) surround Lake Luzern. The Wilhelm Tell Express connects central Switzerland to what the locals like to call its Mediterranean South. 

It’s actually two journeys rolled into one seamless experience. The first begins on Lake Luzern aboard one of Switzerland’s art nouveau steamers or paddle steamboats. Some of these steamers are a century old and each of them has its own signature horn, that locals recognise. The three-hour journey winds through the lake offering picture perfect panoramas of the Alps and tiny villages along the lake. 

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While the Gotthard base tunnel is a 21st century marvel, Switzerland embarked on a bold project in 1871, one that would change its map and economy forever. 

Since the 13th Century, the 2106-metre-high Gotthard Pass was an important trade route that bridged Southern Europe with the North. This new proposal entailed a 15km-long train tunnel that would cut travel time from 30 hours by stagecoach. 

The Gotthard tunnel took 11 years to construct and was one of the first modern structures that extensively used dynamite in its construction. In 1882, at the time of its inauguration, the Gotthard Tunnel was the longest railway tunnel in the world. 

My train journey ended at Sedrun, a multi-function station that is more than 800m  deep inside the mountain. 28 million tonnes of rock (including the tiny bit on my work desk) were excavated by the 1800-strong workforce; the project eventually cost $15 billion. It wasn’t just light at the end of the tunnel but a whole new Swiss experience that awaited me. 

gotthard base tunnel Inside the world's longest railway tunnel 

This was nothing like the Switzerland I knew. I was in Lugano, the capital of the Swiss canton of Ticino. The first few palms I saw on arrival in Lugano validated everything I came prepared for. A gelateria at Lake Lugano was my first stop at Switzerland’s only Italian canton, I don’t think I’ve tasted more sinful gelatos anywhere else in the world, except Italy. 

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Lugano’s culinary offerings are among the best in Switzerland. The local food market in the heart of town is a ‘must do’ for gourmands. My first meal was at Morchino, an authentic Ticinese Grotto (an eatery ensconced within a cave) just outside Lugano. No Michelin star chefs here, just the family Oligati, who have been running this restaurant since 1842. Local sourcing has been a credo here ever since, way before buzz words like carbon footprint became a fad. The Oligati family continues to showcase fine ingredients from the Ticino canton. If you do make it to Morchino, do try the rabbit served with polenta and the homemade gnocchi with fresh gorgonzola. 

san salvatore mountain panoramic view 360-degree panoramas from San Salvatore

You have to walk along the lakeside promenade to understand why Lugano is often referred to as the Monte Carlo of Switzerland. 

It isn’t just picturesque but is also home to the city’s retail landmarks and attractions. Via Nassa is one of Lugano’s historical streets; jewellery stores and luxury brands rub shoulders along the 270 metre-long, ancient city porticoes on the lakeshore.

Not far away from Via Nassa is the Church of Santa Maria degli Angioli.  It’s where Benardino Luini painted Passion and Crucifixion, a vibrant fresco that features more than 150 figures. Luini was one of Leonardo da Vinci’s most celebrated disciples.  

The Monte Carlo of Switzerland boasts of some of the finest luxury addresses in the country. The Collina d’Oro (Golden Hill) is a great starting point to discover Lugano. Villa Principe Leopoldo sits atop this vantage point. Once the private home of German Emperor Wilhelm’s brother in law, this luxury hotel offers stunning views from its unique location, nestled between mountains and lakes. Both the Principe Leopoldo Restaurant and the Principe Bar with it’s fine cognacs and whiskies are a favourite among the city’s cognoscenti Morchino was not the only grotto I visited. A quick boat ride along Lake Lugano transported me to another Grotto, with a stellar view. The Grotto San Rocco offers sweeping views of the lake and the region’s most famous mountain – San Salvatore. I didn’t just sample the most scrumptious risotto, I’ve eaten outside Milan, I also signed up for a quick culinary lesson where I learned the art of putting together a perfect Ticinese risotto. 

view of lugano from the grotto san rosso Charming lakeside views are a given at the Grotto San Rocco

Of all my stops in Lugano, nothing beat the panoramic views from San Salvatore. All roads in Lugano eventually lead to the funicular that takes visitors all the way up to the top of the San Salvatore. In the 13th century pilgrims made their way up this mountain on foot. The climb is much easier in 2017 with the funicular.  Local fables suggest that the Son of God stopped here for a short break before his heavenly ascent. With 360-degree panoramas and endless views of the valleys, lake and the spectacular Alps, these views are special, even in a country where such panoramas are almost a given. It’s why 

Lugano occupies a special place among all Swiss destinations I’ve ever visited; and then there’s the risotto. 

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grand hotel villa castagnola

Grand Hotel Villa Castagnola

Set on the shares of Lake Lugano and nestled in a private subtropical park, this luxury address boasts of a Michelin star restaurant. Once the home a noble Russian family, it was transformed into a luxury hotel back in 1885


Wallet: Rs50,000 onwards

hotel splendide royale

Hotel Splendide Royal

This was once Villa Merlina, before it became the Splendide hotel in 1888 soon after the Gotthard Tunnel became a catalyst for tourism in the area. I Due Sud, where the flavours of Southern Italy and Southern Switzerland crisscross, is one of Lugano’s most romantic dining venues


Wallet: Rs40,000 onwards

the view hotel

The view

The name is a giveaway, this hotel resembles a giant yacht with terraces overlooking Lake Lugano and the Swiss Alps. It leans towards contemporary design with rooms that offer uncluttered views and a decadent spa


Wallet: Rs55,000 onwards

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