Nestled in the heart of the glacial lake region on the south side of the Alps, Lugano is the pearl of the Swiss Mediterranean. Once a part of the Duchy of Milan, it was annexed together with the encompassing region of lower Ticino by the Old Swiss Confederacy in 1512. Today, with a population of just over 60,000 denizens, the largest city of little-known Italian-speaking Switzerland pares away many of the preconceptions surrounding the small Alpine country.
Compared to orderly Svizzera interna, the exonym used by local Luganesi to refer to German-speaking Switzerland, the pace of life “down south” is both more relaxed and more hectic. A stroll through its streets is a stimulating affair. Just a few steps away from the colorful neoclassical center of Piazza della Riforma, curtains of salt-cured sausage and cold-cut ham whet and work the appetite. Nearby, gelato shops entice passersby with fantasmic flavors of milky white fior di latte, rosemary-infused orange, and dark Amarena cherry. The lakeside promenade, or lungolago, flaunts Lugano’s flashy side of luxury condominiums, avant-garde architecture, and a fountain to give Geneva’s Jet d’Eau a run for its money. In the backdrop, the majestic cape of San Salvatore unfurls from the firmament. On some days, the dry foehn wind blows down the lee of the mountains, sweeping away the city’s characteristic haze and bathing the entire riviera in a lamasery-like glow.
I love Lugano. For two and a half years, it was my home. It was the place where I earned my first paycheck, stole my very first glimpse inside a nightclub, and gripped the echelons of worlds I never knew existed. Memories forged here are hard to forget. They estivate between palm fronds, suspended, waiting to be tapped. And then, dripping forth, they become viscid, stickier than the nectarines we suckled on those days idling over the water in a rented motorboat, or the scent of sweet April magnolias blooming down all of Via Giuseppe Buffi on my way to work, or the air in my dorm the evening Giò told me he’d never been with a guy but wanted to try with me. Lugano is easy to love.
Most visitors don’t venture far beyond the charming old quarters and sparkling lakefront, but the city’s periphery is full of undiscovered gems. Just slightly off the beaten path, these favorite haunts never cease to fill me with delight.
The Church of Sant’Abbondio
It’s no mystery what inspired the bedroom community of Collina d’Oro its name. Aptly called Golden Hill in Italian, this quiet area on the slopes of Lugano incorporates the villages of Montagnola—home to the Nobel laureate Hermann Hesse for half his life—and Gentilino—where the baroque parish church of Sant’Abbondio presides over a panoramic view. This was my secret sanctuary, where I came to stretch after my jogs and to decompress my thoughts. The towering cypress trees lend an undeniably Tuscan elegance to the churchyard. Across the street, a circuit walk dedicated to Hesse traces the revered writer’s steps through winding forests and hidden taverns to some of his most beloved purlieus.
Brè and Monte Boglia
For a more precipitous view, a plethora of mountain routes awaits. On one end of the city, the trailhead of Monte San Salvatore promises a zigzagging two-hour workout culminating in an unobstructed, jaw-dropping vista over all of Lugano. On the opposite end is Monte Boglia, easily recognizable by the bald crown of its summit.
The trek to the top of Boglia begins in one of Switzerland’s most picturesque villages, Brè. First recorded in 1280, Brè retains many of the rustic architectural elements of traditional Ticinese settlements, such as a large stone lavatoio—a communal washfountain which was a fixture of European villages in days before the washing machine. Linger long enough and you might even hear a conversation in Ticines, a waning dialect of the Lombard language spoken across Ticino and neighboring Italian Lombardy. The round trip to and from Boglia takes roughly five hours, and those who make it all to the way to its peak are rewarded with stunning sights of Lugano’s bay, the vast expanse of the Prealps, and Ticino’s untamed backcountry.
The Olive Path to Gandria
On Lugano’s eastern shore, in the quarter of Castagnola, starts the Sentiero dell’Olivo—a two-hour path threading around the base of Monte Brè and through sun-drenched olive groves, balmy waterfront gardens, and secluded coves. The excursion begins with a tale, marked by the painted Beelzebub peering sinisterly out of the cliffside over the accursed Ponte del Diavolo—Devil’s Bridge. In summer, the bridge and adjacent rope swing are a hip swimming spot for the young student population to cool off, but according to an old Ticinese legend, a possessed man once roamed the mountains and woods of this area. When he disappeared, many believed him to have been whisked away by the devil himself, emerging from the rocks of Brè.
At the end of the Sentiero is the quaint fishing hamlet of Gandria, which marks the frontier between Switzerland and Italy. Owing to its compact town center entirely devoid of traffic, it is one of the best preserved villages on Lake Lugano, with buildings dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries. All cars must park above the village proper, and as such, many arrive either by boat from Lugano or on foot. When the heat is at its highest, residents and visitors alike flock to the opposite shore, beneath the shade of the mountains. The top of the ridge remains Italian, but the land by the banks is Swiss. The small collection of buildings here are the cantine, or cellars, of Gandria, which villagers used for aging wine, ripening cheese, and storing cured meats.