Cuckoo clocks, precision watches and fondue are just a few of the things you might associate with Switzerland. Lizards, pizzas and neoclassical buildings not so much.
Yet Ticino, an Italian-speaking canton in the south of the country, known for its mild climate and subtropical gardens, as well as – naturally – breathtaking alpine landscapes, has them all.
Just over an hour’s drive from Milan or a scenic train and ferry ride south of Lucerne, Ticino is Switzerland’s little Italy.
Here are some of the best places to visit when you are there.
A shameless Italian region
Situated on the northern shore of glacial Lake Lugano, Lugano is decidedly Italian, with a culture closely linked to the Italian region of Lombardy.
The historic town of 70,000, a major banking center, is full of Italianate buildings, Mediterranean style plazas and beautiful parks, such as Parco Ciani, which sits right on the edge of the lake and contains a pier and library, as well as plants and trees from around the world.
Everything is dominated by the high mountains of Monte Brè and San Salvatore. Sit back and watch the world go by over a cappuccino at Vanini Dolce e Caffè in Piazza Riforma. Or try a slice of ‘bread cake’, a local specialty made with amaretto, grappa and stale bread (it’s much tastier than it looks) from Gabbani salumeria on Via Pessina.
Morcote is the most beautiful village in Ticino
An hour by ferry from Lugano and just a 20-minute drive from the Italian border, Morcote is one of Ticino’s prettiest villages, a lakeside idyll flanked by multimillion-dollar villas that cling to the lower slopes of Monte Arbostora.
Ristorante della Torre has created the perfect lunch spot with a covered alfresco terrace overlooking the lake and serves gourmet pizzas and other Italian cuisine.
Shake off the calories by climbing 402 steps to the Chiesa Santa Maria del Sasso, a 15th-century church adorned with frescoes and a view to die for.
In Parco Scherrer, a stepped Italian garden named after its late founder and avid gardener Arthur Scherrer, tiny lizards scurry among cypress and eucalyptus trees.
While miniature versions of the Trevi Fountain in Rome and an Arabian palace add a playful note.
If you’re looking for a romantic wedding venue – and you couldn’t do better than that – you can hire the gardens for your big day.
Make a splash in Locarno
Pretty Locarno, seaside resort located on the northern shore of Lake Maggiore at the foot of the Alpsis famous for having the sunniest climate in Switzerland.
It also hosts an annual film festival (this year is its 75th anniversary) in the Piazza Grande that attracts Hollywood stars and there are various collections of fine arts in the splendid palaces hidden in the hills.
To unwind after a day of sightseeing, dip into the Termali Salini & Spa, a public saltwater pool and spa overlooking the lake and mountains. When the mercury rises in the summer, cool off at Lido Locarno – it has an Olympic-sized outdoor pool, plus thermal pools, slides, slides and wave effects and is a fun day out for adults and children.
For a place to stay, Hotel Belvedere has 90 renovated rooms, landscaped tropical gardens, and a funicular stop just outside the park. Opened at the end of the 19th century, it is located on a hill with a panoramic view of the lake and Locarno itself. A double room with balcony, lake view and buffet breakfast from €282.
Bellinzona is the picturesque capital of Ticino
Dominated by the “tre castelli”, three 15th century castles built by the Dukes of Milan and now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Bellinzona is the capital of Ticino, one of the 26 cantons or regions of Switzerland .
Visit the bustling weekly market (held on Saturday mornings), quaint piazzas and the wide selection of independent shops and cafes. The town is also one of the main stops on the Gotthard Panorama Express, a thrilling four-hour train and boat ride through fairytale alpine scenery to Lucerne in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, 140 km away. North.
Along the way, you’ll pass the chapel of Swiss folk hero William Tell and the Rütli meadow, where Switzerland was founded in 1291. A second-class ticket costs €51.50.
Ascona is made for the passeggiata
With its mild climate and traffic-free lakeside promenade dotted with cafes and restaurants, Ascona on the northern shore of Lake Maggiore is made for the passeggiata, the leisurely evening stroll enjoyed by so many Italians.
The Latin vibe continues in Borgo, the old town, where the narrow, winding streets contain more interesting places to eat and the 16th-century bell tower of the San Pietro e Paolo church serves as a landmark.
In the nearby Maggiatal and Centovalli valleys there are numerous hiking and biking trails and, on the outskirts of town, an 18-hole golf course.