Deep in the heart of the glacial lake region, on the south side of the Alps, is a pearly city encased in a shell of blue and green: Lugano. Even its name sounds eloquent, like a secret lagoon protected by a collusion of mountains, cypresses and palm trees. Then again, that wouldn’t be far from the truth. Welcome to the Swiss Mediterranean.
Once a part of the Duchy of Milan, Lugano and the encompassing region of lower Ticino was annexed 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 defies 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 andante yet colorful. A stroll through its streets is a stimulating affair. Just a few steps away from the 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, when the foehn wind blows down the lee of the mountains and sweeps away the city’s humid haze, the entire riviera seems to swim in a lamasery-like light.
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 a higher society I never knew existed. Memories forged here are hard to forget. They estivate between the leafy fronds, suspended, waiting to be tapped. And then, dripping forth, they become viscid: stickier than the nectarines we suckled on days idling over the lake in a rented motorboat; sweeter than the scent of April magnolias blooming down all of Via Giuseppe Buffi on my way to the university; thicker than the air in my dorm the evening Giò told me he’d never been with a guy but wanted to try it with me. Lugano is easy to love.
Most visitors don’t venture far beyond the charming old quarters and sparkling lakefront, and why should they? By the water’s edge on a quiet midmorning, serenity stretches as far as the eyes can see, and one can easily dream away the day. But for those who like to venture, the city’s periphery is full of undiscovered gems. Ever so 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.
Monte San Salvatore
For a more precipitous view, a plethora of mountain routes awaits. On the southern edge of the city in the quarter of Paradiso, the trailhead of Monte San Salvatore promises a zigzagging two-hour workout that culminates in an unobstructed, jaw-dropping vista over all of Lugano. Switzerland’s own Sugarloaf Mountain, as magnificent from a distance as it is from the summit, is a beauty to behold in any season. Born out of a primordial sea forty million years ago, San Sal—as we affectionally called it in college—still retains the lush, tropical essence of the epoch from which it emerged.
Monte Brè and Monte Boglia
On the opposite end of Lugano’s bay is Monte Boglia, easily recognizable by the bald crown of its summit. The trek to the top of Boglia begins on Monte Brè, another mountain and home to one of Switzerland’s most picturesque villages. 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 catch a conversation in Ticinese, a waning dialect of the Lombard language spoken across Ticino and neighboring Italian Lombardy. The round trip from Brè to 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.
On Lugano’s northern shore lies the sleepy quarter of Castagnola. Its hills, blessed with luminous days, have long been a haven for philosophers and poets. In summer, the shores of Castagnola become a hip swimming spot to cool off and escape the heat. By the Ponte del Diavolo, or Devil’s Bridge, a rope swing tempts young daredevils with an adrenaline-filled plunge. Just above, a painted stone Beezlebub peers sinisterly out from the cliffside. 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 Satan himself, emerging from the rocks.
Continue along Castagnola’s main road and you’ll arrive at Villa Heleneum, a neoclassic floral modelled after 18th-century French salons. A stone’s throw away begins 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.
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 lands by the banks are 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.