After a delightful visit to the Swiss, German and French parts of Switzerland, an arrival in Ticino, the Italian Canton on the ‘other side’ of the Swiss Alps, is quite an awakening. 'This can’t be Switzerland,' you might think. The train must have taken a wrong turn after going through the 10.5 mile-long St. Gottard tunnel to the Southern side of the Swiss Alps.
Paradiso Port and Lugano Centro — Photo courtesy of Sonja Holverson
As you emerge from the third-longest road tunnel in the world and eventually reach the small city of Lugano, everything you knew about Switzerland suddenly no longer applies. You'll think you're in Italy, surrounded by flowers which bloom year-round and palm trees. Yet the steep Alps surrounding enormous Lake Lugano are snowcapped!. You notice the Italian Medieval architecture with Mediterranean flair mixed with Renaissance period buildings and of course, the Italian villas (but the buildings are so clean and everything appears so orderly!).
Lugano centro view from Paradiso — Photo courtesy of Sonja Holverson
The signs at the Lugano train station are all in Italian (and only Italian). The taxi driver who comes up next at the taxi queue may only speak Italian (prepare for this with maps and addresses). If you find an English speaking taxi driver, get a business card and become friends. You will have a better chance of getting picked up where you stay and dropped off where you want to be. They are all small independent taxi services (the Italian way of doing business).
The comforting thing about this culture shock is that it is not just happening to tourists since the Swiss, especially the French-Swiss, are also a bit befuddled with the change unless they speak Italian or know the region well. Ticino tourism service providers oftentimes speak German as they receive a lot of business from Germany but more in the summer season. The menus are mostly in Italian (only) or Italian and German translations (only). Some people do not like to even try to communicate in French (similarities!) or in English although everyone is very helpful and explains everything you need to know with their hands and smiles.
Alimentari Gebert Morcote, Lago di Lugano — Photo courtesy of Sonja Holverson
The Lake Lugano Swiss region which is intermingled with the seemingly arbitrary Italian border(s) is a significant culture change and drastic modification of the rhythm of life for many (except for the Italians who find it very Swiss). Almost everything one encounters here is an exception to the rest of Switzerland. This includes lack of punctuality (except for the National trains), no national language school requirements, 8:00 PM (more or less) evening news instead of 7:30 PM (promptly) like elsewhere in Switzerland, different popular wine preferences from the well-known Swiss Chasselas or Pinot Noir (Lugano has the Merlot grape variety left over from the Roman era).
Campione d'Italie — Photo courtesy of Sonja Holverson
Besides the change in culture one of the most appreciated aspects of Lake Lugano is the micro-climate and all the Swiss news channels have two versions of the weather on their charts: one for Ticino and one for the rest of the country. Winters are relatively mild in Lugano and somewhat drier than the rest of the year. Although it may be cold, the weather reports show big sun symbols on the Southern Alps at the same time as grey clouds and snow or rain for the rest of the country. With only 103 days of precipitation a year that leaves a lot of time for sun.
Just after the summer tourist season can be a wonderful time to visit, not too many non-Italian languages spoken, not too rainy, not too hot and the magic of the waters of Lago di Lugano makes you feel even more Italian and relaxed.
Full moon over Lago di Lugano — Photo courtesy of Sonja Holverson
A lovely quiet area with lots of green, flowers and trees in which to stay on the shores of Lago di Lugano is Paradiso, an inner-urban but independent municipality at the foot of the spectacular Monte San Salvatore. Formerly a popular tourist area in the 19th century after the opening of the Gotthard Railway in 1882, Paradiso is now more residential mixed with historical buildings and modern apartments and new avant-garde office buildings.
Mt San Salvadore above Paradiso — Photo courtesy of Sonja Holverson
However, there are now more nondescript hotel chains starting to spring up. Right on the water is the luxurious long-standing but simple buildings of the Grand Hotel Eden as well as the elegant waterfront Splendide and Best Western historical Bellevue au Lac close by. Uphill a bit is the very stylish 18th-century Hotel de la Paix.
Exterior detail Victoria au Lac — Photo courtesy of Sonja Holverson
Right near the shore across from the Paradiso boat pier is the charming ornately decorated early 20th century liberty style Hotel Victoria au Lac with modest rates, friendly staff and loads of eclectic ambience in which to experience another era. It has magnificent views of the lake, Lugano Center and Monte Bré across the lake as well as distant snowcapped Alps.
Hotel Victoria au Lac Paradiso — Photo courtesy of Sonja Holverson
There is still a sense of community in Paradiso with friendly neighborhood shops and pizzerias, gelaterias, and English pubs. Here you will find the 19th century funicular that climbs up the steep Monte San Salvatore enabling a 360 degree view of the lake bordered by steep Pre-Alps and (on a clear day) the snowcapped Alps in the distance. There is also a bus which winds up the mountain passing historical villas such as the one owned by author-artist Hermann Hesse which is now the Hotel Villa Principe Leopoldo with a stunning view of the Swiss-Italian Alps and the wandering narrow fingers of Lago di Lugano.
View from Paradiso Lago di Lugano — Photo courtesy of Sonja Holverson
Paradiso is only 20 minutes by foot to the center (Centro) of Lugano along a magnificent lake promenade with diverse sculptures, Plane trees, 19th century iron railings, historical street lights and benches upon which to sit and stare in awe of the unimagined natural beauty of the lake and mountains as well as the very Italian Lugano Centro.
Lugano Centro — Photo courtesy of Sonja Holverson
Intact and embellished with traditional Italian arcade gallery architecture mixed with medieval and Renaissance period architecture, Lugano Centro is impressive and lovely in which to walk along its winding streets discovering everything from ancient churches to cafés, terraces, palaces, villas and even an excellent traditional Irish pub named Trinité. Nearby are enormous lakeside parks and beaches.
Shoppers are also well treated with a vast variety of purchases available to make from the exotic to the world famous international designer brands as well as the ubiquitous Swiss watches.
Lugano Centro — Photo courtesy of Sonja Holverson
If you have no energy left to walk back to Paradiso there is a bus that stops right in front of the Hotel Victoria au Lac or you could take the boat from Lugano Centro to Paradiso port. This is a major port on the boat itineraries of the Società Navigazione del Lago di Lugano (SNL) that provides transportation all around the lake.
Italia Lago di Lugano — Photo courtesy of Sonja Holverson
Two delightful boat excursions are to Gandria going towards Lugano Centro from Paradiso or to the villages in the other direction stopping in little ports on both sides of the lake. An excellent place to disembark is Morcote, a picturesque Mediterranean medieval village built on a steep hill with an ancient church at the top and divine cappuccino down on the Swiss lakeshore.
Morcote Lago di Lugano — Photo courtesy of Sonja Holverson
If you can pull yourself away from the exquisite views from your newly found Paradise, there is a great variety of outdoor activities around Paradiso and Lago di Lugano; especially hiking or mountain biking in the Pre-Alps that border the lake everywhere.
Lago di Lugano Paradiso — Photo courtesy of Sonja Holverson
But if you pull up a trail map you will see that it is seriously impossible to know if you’re in Italy or Switzerland due to the meandering borders. But what do you care? Regardless of the country that you’re in, you’re clearly in an Italian Paradise.