Where can you find a Mediterranean coastal experience without the tourists? In Ticino, a very Italian corner of Switzerland.
LUGANO, Switzerland — The postcard-perfect towns of the Amalfi Coast epitomize most travelers' Mediterranean fantasy. Which is why, after a few peak summer visits filled with packed cafes and elbow-to-elbow strolls through lovely town squares, I began to research alternative destinations that offered similar charms without the tourist gridlock. On my checklist: balmy climes, picturesque waterfront village, sophisticated hotel — preferably bougainvillea-rimmed with updated interiors (read: no bedspreads or chintz armchairs), access to water sports, killer local wine, and family-run trattorias with fresh, no fuss fare.
I found it all in Ticino, a canton in southern Switzerland about two hours north of Milan where la dolce vita flows freely among palm-tree-fringed lakes and water-facing cafes filled with Aperol Spritz-sipping locals. Just twenty minutes from the Italian border, the vibe is decidedly Mediterranean even though you're in Switzerland. The snow-capped Swiss Alps glisten in the sunlight with the promise of alpine recreation, a nice contrast to lazing by the water. There are hikes, from easy walks to hard-core trekking, through wildflower-carpeted meadows. You can visit tiny mountain villages and swim in glacially chilled lakes.
Cable cars ferry less active visitors up the mountains to fairytale panoramas. Public transportation is clean and precise. Service is snappy. You also have unrestricted access to Swiss wines (pinot noir, merlot, gamay) that are almost impossible to find in the United States. Ticino felt like a secret slice of Mediterranean made even better by the fact that so few Americans visit that English menus are scarce or nonexistent.
Make Lugano Your Home Base
The sophisticated, balmy town of Lugano on the north is a perfect base for exploring the region. It sits on the north end of Lake Lugano ("Lago di Lugano" if you want to sound like a local), which is equidistant to the more famous lakes Maggiore and Como. Lakeside holidays demand lake activities, and around here it's easy to windsurf, standup paddleboard, sail, and water ski. Numerous sightseeing boat tours stop at the small, villages dotting the lake — Gandria, Melide, Capolago, and Morcote. Or you can just hang out at Lido Lugano, the local beach.
What to Do
Get Up into the Mountains
For alpine thrills, I took the Cardada Cimetta cable car from Lake Maggiore up to the peak of Monte Rosa mountain range to hike (you can also bike) and have lunch in an alpine hut (risotto was bubbling in an outdoor cauldron) that felt plucked from the set of Heidi.
Jump from Great Heights
In Mergoscia, a remote village in Valle Verzasca, I hiked up and around the village and then swam in the mind-numbingly cold turquoise green river, then relaxed on the sun-warmed rocks watching teens canoodle. For an adrenaline rush, nothing beats jumping 721 feet from the Verzasca dam, assisted by an elastic rope, an adventure featured in the opening sequence of the James Bond film GoldenEye. A less fearsome option is leaping into the water from the medieval Ponte dei Salti ("bridge of jumps"), a thrill that is decidedly mild in comparison.
Get a Culture Fix
There was only time for one museum, so I opted for the sleek, new LAC (Lugano Arte + Cultura) for an exhibit on Balthasar Burkhard, a contemporary photographer. The space doubles as performance space for opera, theater, and dance.
Take a Chic Village Stroll
The ritzy, sun-soaked enclave of Ascona on upper Lake Maggiore is arguably the most glamorous pocket of Ticino. Its colorful buildings, narrow, shop-filled pedestrian streets, and cafe-lined promenade overlooking the lake resemble a mini Sorrento.
Cruise the Lake
To best experience Lago Maggiore, I connected with Tony Meier of Asconautica to organize a sailing class with my daughter. Lack of wind, however, landed us on a speedboat, tearing through the wake of Rivas and yachts, past ochre-hued villas and over to the Brissago Islands, a botanic park of tropical plants bordering Italy. Asconautica can also organize a skipper to ferry you to sweet port towns like Cannobio and as far as the Borromean Islands, to sightsee and kick back with a few bottles of the region's acclaimed white merlot. For a swanky lunch, the terrace of the lakefront Eden Roc (located in front of Asconautica) offers a classic fish and pasta menu with dreamy views of the lake.
Where to Shop
A classic, upscale town, Lugano is dotted with such predictable luxury boutiques as Chanel and Louis Vuitton. On the elegant Via Nassa, I was happy to discover Antonioli, an indie Barneys-like shop where pieces from Dries Van Noten, Rick Owens, and Haider Ackermann hang alongside lesser-known designers like Ssheena, Rokh, Alyx, and Aalto. Another find was Mauri near Piazza della Riforma,a hybrid concept store with a barber shop, a spa, and a stylish cafe filled with cool kids communing over house-made pastries and espresso.
Pharmacies in Switzerland are known for premier beauty products. I hit a few of them and found the perfect souvenirs in the form of under-the-radar Swiss skincare brands such as Lubex, Cellcosmet, Valmont, and Vitry.
Where to Stay
Most resorts surrounding the perimeter of Lake Lugano are classic in style, the majority begging for a facelift. Which is why we opted for the sleek eleven-room The View Lugano in the hills of Paradiso, where quiet, feathery-soft Flexilan mattresses, custom Quagliotti jacquard sheets, Vergnano espresso machines (with biodegradable capsules), and lighting by Oluce and Penta whispered "made in Italy." Other sophisticated touches include water and pillow menus and an in-room chromotherapy shower. The all-white, multi-floor spa was equally elegant, with a Himalayan salt room, Kneipp circuit, thalassotherapy baths, and a surprisingly massive pool with adjacent vitality hot tub. Of course, as suggested by the hotel's name, the sweeping views of Lake Lugano — from the teak deck where breakfast is served, our room, and the pool area — are the main attraction. Another perk: The hotel offers guests the use of electric smart cars to tool around the lake.
Options in Asonca include Eden Roc, a swanky, old-school hotel with whimsical,Carlo Rampazzi-designed interiors on the shores of Lago Maggiore in Ascona, and Art Hotel Riposa, a groovy, small family-run boutique.
Where to Eat
Though gastronomic restaurants and lively cafes abound, I preferred the grottos, rustic outdoor tavernas known for hearty, local fare and lost-in-time settings. At Grotto America near Locarno, my al fresco lunch of alpine charcuterie and grilled fish was as delightful as the setting: a stone house in a wooded grove complete with babbling brook. A dinner at Grotto dei Pescatori, reachable only by boat, was equally remarkable. From my perch at a wooden picnic table under a canopy of trees, my group feasted upon platters of risotto, vegetable tarts, marinated fish, grilled beef, and plenty of white merlot as we took in the fiery sunset over the lake.
Plan Your Trip
How to Get There
Fly into Zurich and connect to Lugano (a 45-minute flight) or organize train tickets through Rail Europe from nearby European cities.
Lugano is reachable by public transportation, but renting a car will help you explore the area.
When To Go
Late April through November has the best weather. The fall season hosts events dedicated to blues music, art, food and wine and opera. Check here for calendar listings.