Travel Black Book: Ambassadors series

Ticino: Swiss with a touch of Italian

The best of home: Ambassadors to Singapore provide an insider's guide to their favourite destinations

Vibrant-coloured boats stand out in the old town of Ascona.
Vibrant-coloured boats stand out in the old town of Ascona.PHOTO: ISTOCKPHOTO
Vibrant-coloured boats stand out in the old town of Ascona.
Mr Thomas Kupfer, 62, Ambassador of Switzerland to Singapore. He and his wife Fiorella have lived in Singapore for 4 1/2 years.PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES

Who: Mr Thomas Kupfer, 62, Ambassador of Switzerland to Singapore

Favourite destination: Ticino, the Italian-speaking region in southern Switzerland. This region combines Swiss qualities of efficiency, punctuality, convenience and hospitality with Italian dolce vita.

It is where a lot of Swiss spend their long weekends because of its combination of snow-capped mountains, crystal-clear rivers and the little villages on the shores of Lake Lugano and Lake Maggiore, where one can admire colourful houses and sophisticated palazzi.

I also like Ticino's warmer Mediterranean climate. Compared with other parts of Switzerland, spring always starts a bit earlier in Ticino, while autumn starts a bit later, so if you visit Ticino from the north during the autumn months, you can often see the leaves changing colour again.


The first stop in the Ticino region is often its capital Bellinzona. The town's ancient fortifications - a Unesco World Heritage Site - are one of the main attractions in the region and are composed of fortified walls and three castles - Castelgrande, Montebello and Sasso Corbaro - which surround the town. The oldest castle was built in the 13th century, but archaeological evidence suggests that parts of the walls are much older.

You can learn more in the Archaeological Museum and the Museum Of Art in Castelgrande, which also hosts an open-air cinema ( from Aug 10 to Sept 3 this year.

Visitors can walk from castle to castle or take a hassle-free train ride which connects them.


  • Singapore Airlines and ​​Swiss ​International ​Air​ Lines​ operate daily flights to Zurich.​ You can spend a few days in Zurich exploring g the old town; the Kunsthaus, which is the city's largest collection of modern art and impressive works by Picasso, Monet and Giacometti; the Fraumunster Church with the Chagall Windows; as well as the Lindenhof, the site of a former Roman castle.

  • After that, take the train to Ticino. The journey south will take you through the new 57km Gotthard Base Tunnel, the longest train tunnel in the world. It opened last year and shortens the trip from Zurich to Lugano - from 21/2 hours to two hours.

  • TIPS

  • • Public transportation throughout Switzerland is convenient and reliable. Buy a Swiss Travel Pass (​) and enjoy unlimited rides on the whole public transportation system, including trains, buses and boats, as well as free admission to several museums around the country. The pass is available for three, four, eight or 15 days and starts at 216 Swiss francs (S$311) for adults, 186 Swiss francs for those aged 16 to 26 and 108 Swiss francs for children aged six to 16.

    • To enjoy the sites in Ticino, three to five days is ideal.

    • Switzerland Tourism ( and Ticino Tourism ( provide a lot of valuable information, insights and ideas online.

    • You can count on meeting polite and helpful locals. In rural areas, they might be not used to seeing Asian travellers. However, they are welcoming.

    • The temperature can be very different between the Ticino area and the north of Switzerland. You can be wearing summer clothes on a golf course in Ascona in the morning and find yourself in a snowstorm after traversing the Gotthard Base Tunnel on the way back to Zurich.

    • Switzerland is considered a safe country - similar to Singapore.

The next stop is in the small but romantic town of Locarno on Lake Maggiore, with its picturesque old town and famous Piazza Grande in the town centre.

From there, cross the Maggia river to the town of Ascona and visit Monte Verita - Mountain of Truth - a 350m-tall hill which has been a source of inspiration for many artists, philosophers and thinkers. These days, it is a modern conference and cultural centre overlooking Lake Maggiore and the surrounding green hills.

While in Locarno, take an excursion up the Cardada-Cimetta mountain range to admire one of the best views in the world and to see the lowest and highest points in Switzerland. To get there from Locarno's town centre, take the funicular, which has been operating to Orselina since 1906, then the cable car to Cardada, where you can enjoy a great view of the region from a suspended platform 1,340m above sea level. Finally, take the chair lift to Cimetta at 1,670m, from where you will enjoy a 360-degree view.

To the south, you can view Lake Maggiore, which is 193m above sea level, and to the west, there is the Dufourspitze peak, rising 4,634m above sea level in the Valaisian Alps.

After a day out in nature, I enjoy exploring Lugano, the biggest city in the Ticino region, which is home to many fabulous exhibitions and art performances in the newly opened Lugano Art and Cultural Centre (


While visiting Ticino, a nice meal in a grotto restaurant is a must. The grotti are cool natural caves that were originally used as storage rooms for wine, meat and cheese.

Later, some innovative Ticinesi (natives of Ticino) started to open simple restaurants in front of the caves to cook their favourite regional specialities near the fresh produce.

I recommend Grotto dell'Ortiga ( in the old part of Manno, a town 20 minutes outside of Lugano by car. It is a traditional grotto restaurant with a beautiful outdoor patio, serving regional favourites such as cured meats and risotto. For about 50 Swiss francs (S$72) a person, you will get a delicious three- or four-course meal, including wine.

Another Ticino speciality one should try is farina bona, which means "good flour". It is a traditional product from the Onsernone valley and is a type of flour made by finely milling roasted sweet corn. It used to be part of the daily diet of the region, but now, it is often tasted as a delicious, unmistakable ice cream flavour.

The best place to enjoy a nice espresso is the Piazza della Riforma in Lugano, a beautiful old town square where delightful coffees and pastries are served alfresco on the terrace by the beautiful neo-classical architecture of the Palazzo Civico (City Hall). It is a great way to relax and meet people in a car-free environment.


In the summer, I recommend attending the Locarno International Film Festival (, which runs from Aug 2 to 12 this year. Since acclaimed Italian film director Roberto Rossellini debuted his film Rome, Open City at its first edition in 1946, Locarno's annual cinema spectacular has been a must-go for movie enthusiasts. The festival is known for its eccentric mix of the avant-garde alongside big-budget premieres on the arcaded main square of Piazza Grande, whose pastel-coloured buildings create a stunning backdrop for an open-air cinema that seats more than 8,000 viewers, making it one of the world's largest.

Nature lovers will enjoy the valley of the river Maggia above Locarno and Ascona, where there is a dense network of trails.

Once the largest harbour in Lake Lugano, Morcote is one of the most beautiful villages in Switzerland and is famous for its narrow alleyways and grand, 16th-century arcaded buildings which line the shores of the lake.

Gandria, a border town at the foot of Monte Bre, is a special town with a nostalgic reputation. The town is closed to cars and everything is as it was 100 years ago - with steep staircases, ancient houses and old chestnut trees.

Across the lake, the Swiss Customs Museum (, covering the history of smugglers in the border area, is worth a visit.

Families will enjoy Swissminiatur ( in Melide, the only miniature park in Switzerland.

The park boasts a miniature version of the country, with 120 models of the main landmarks and 3.5km of railway tracks.


The first option is Via Nassa in Lugano's city centre, where there are boutiques selling quality watches, fashion and jewellery.

The second is FoxTown Factory Stores (, a huge outlet mall 30 minutes south of Lugano which offers brands from adidas to Dolce & Gabanna at reduced prices.

If you are looking for souvenirs, buy chestnuts, which are famous in the Ticino region. Local producers make products such as chestnut beer ($5 a bottle), chestnut pasta ($10 to $15 a box) and chestnut honey ($18 a jar). STAY Stay at the Hotel Lugano Dante Center (, which is in the heart of Lugano's city centre and close to the funicular and the waterfront promenade. Room rates start at about 250 Swiss francs a night.

All the rooms in the historic building are modern and updated. The hotel has one of the best breakfast buffets in town.

Correction note: This story has been edited to provide the correct name of Swiss ​International ​Air​ Lines​. We are sorry for the error. 

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 02, 2017, with the headline 'Swiss with a touch of Italian'. Subscribe