By Jim Ferri
For a country its size, it’s incredible just how multi-cultural Switzerland is.
In the north there’s a heavy German influence and in the southwest around Geneva it’s predominantly French. In the east, in Canton of Graubünden, people speak Romansch, a language closer to Latin than any anything else. And in the south, in the Canton of Ticino, a form of Italian called “svizzero italiano” is spoken.
Ticino’s most prominent city is Lugano, an attractive town nestled away in the Swiss Alps on the border with Italy. Here the attitudes of its people, their customs and the food are more Italian than anywhere else in the country. And it annually hosts one of the great food festivals of Europe.
If you’re visiting Switzerland and headed for Italy, make sure you visit this lovely city. It is, after all, Switzerland’s “Little Italy,” and a delightful coalescence of the two countries.
Finding the Best Things To Do in Lugano
I arrived in Lugano by train and took a taxi to my hotel. In search of the best things to do in Lugano, I quickly dropped my luggage in my room. Within minutes I was out walking along the tree-shaded promenade of Lake Lugano.
Everything was quiet and laid-back. Aside from boulevard traffic, the most activity came from people boarding the Italia for a luncheon cruise on the lake.
I continued walking along the pretty promenade until I saw the little city tourist office across the street. Since I had decided to visit Lugano at the very last minute, and lacked a map or, in fact, anything about the city, I crossed over in search of tourist information. I left after just a few minutes, surprised about the little information they could provide. The only thing they could give me was one large brochure in English.
But, fortuitously, crossing the street had also put me into the center of the old town. I started wandering about the car-free zone and soon found myself strolling through several little picturesque piazzas, even though I was still close to the lake.
Getting Wonderfully Lost
I got lost really quickly, again fortuitously, since I love wandering through old European cities. I quickly realized, however, that no streets ran straight and each ultimately tumbled me into another piccola piazza.
I soon felt as if I had walked into another world. I paused at a bakery in a bright ochre-colored building, and then passed a bar and restaurant and a macelleria, with its meats displayed in the window. Another 50 feet on I came to a formaggeria, where the aroma of the cheeses drew me in. Soon I was browsing a little vegetable stand with peaches and pears and huge tomatoes right off the vine.
Outside the adjacent salumeria big baskets were filled with packs of rosemary and olive-oil flavored Grissini breadsticks. Just 15 feet away, on the corner of Via Pessina, I could see another macelleria and salumeria and a charcuterie.
It was obvious the old city was a series of little neighborhoods and piazzas snuggled up next to one another. Multi-colored buildings lined the streets. Café tables flowed out onto walkways. Little food shops were everywhere. There was no doubt I was in Little Italy.
Heading for Higher Ground
Wanting to view the city from a higher vantage point, I took a little funicular up to the train station. It was where I had arrived the previous day. Then, however, I was more interested in finding a taxi then enjoying the view. Now, however, I took it all in.
After crossing the street, I walked down a set of steps and found myself in another delightful little neighborhood. The cobbled street flowed down a hillside, pass small apartments, geletarias and all sorts of little shops.
Walking down Via Paolo Regazonni I passed the Cathedral of San Lorenzo-Lugano, practically sitting on top of the adjacent funicular. I went inside but found it was closed to the public because of a massive restoration of its interior. Interestingly, a hallway with large windows allowed people to see the restoration as it progressed.
Out on its terrace, however, I found a wonderful view of the city below.
Piazza Dante Alighieri
The next day I found myself in Piazza Dante Alighieri, the commercial center of the old city. Home to a department store and several other chain stores. it’s much larger than the other little piazzas I visited. Despite its modernity, it was still much older than historic areas of many American cities.
At a little stand in the middle of the piazza, two men were roasting fresh chestnuts. One was cooking them over a fire in a bin, the other carefully measuring bags of marroni on a scale. Evidently they’re quite popular since there was a long line of people waiting to buy a bag.
Around the corner I found a little crêpe shop snuggled up to an almost-equally small butcher shop. The tiny butcher shop had an entire piglet in his window. Next to it was chicken with its head and neck still attached.
It made me remember a story about a Swiss law being passed requiring butchers to leave some form of identification of the animal. I was told that at one time a scandal rocked Switzerland when butchers sold cats as rabbits.
A Top European Food Festival
As in neighboring Italy, food plays an important part of life in Lugano. And whether you buy it in a market, café, or any of the town’s numerous restaurants, you’ll find it delicious.
Heading back to my hotel I passed through the Piazza Della Riforma where I found many more outdoor cafes. Pretty Riforma is the piazza where Lugano hosts its Festa d’Autunno, the salute to the start of autumn. Held annually in late September / early October, it’s one of the 20 best food festivals in Europe.
Later, while walking along the lake, I found the small and simple Romanesque church of Santa Maria Degli Angioli. Passing it earlier, based on its austere appearance, I thought it was closed.
But now I saw the doors open and someone going in so I crossed the street to look for myself. Inside I found a remarkable church with 16th– century frescoes, one a massive depiction of the crucifixion containing many scenes. On one sidewall, across from four small altars, was a fresco of the Last Supper. Walk through the archway to the altar area and you’ll find other smaller frescoes.
The Trains From Italy
Exiting the church and continuing my walk along the lakefront, I remembered training through Switzerland decades earlier. Back then, if a train was late the Swiss would say “it must have come up from Italy.”
Yesterday, after taking the funicular I stopped at the station and made an onward reservation through Zurich to Innsbruck, Austria. The clerk mapped out a routing for me and handed me the ticket.
She then quickly took it back remarking, “Oh no, it’s better if you take this train, which comes a few minutes earlier. That one is coming from Italy.”
I couldn’t help but think how some things never really change.
Somehow, though, it didn’t really bother me. In just a few days I had already adapted well to Ticino’s unique la dolce vita.