With its compact cluster of Italianate piazzas and extensive tree-lined promenades, Lugano is the most alluring of Ticino's lake resorts, much less touristy than Locarno but with, if anything, double the chic. Even Milanese style-junkies, who give very little quarter to their own provincial towns, bring friends over to Lugano for some shopping, a lakeside apéro and a good meal. The ever-aspiring Luganesi return the compliment by dropping in to Milan – just 50km south – for a taste of big city highlife and fashion-conscious clubbing.
Their home town is nonetheless an exciting, sassy place, full of energy and style. Set on a south-facing bay of the cerulean blue Lago di Lugano, its lake vistas are astonishing: the city is framed on all sides by wooded, sugarloaf hills rising from the water that have led to its being dubbed the "Rio of the Old World". Both Monte Brè to the northeast and San Salvatore to the south are served by funiculars, and both give spectacular views over to the snow-capped Alps.
In terms of status as a centre for banking in Switzerland, Lugano vies with Geneva for second place behind Zürich, and the city centre reflects this, with none of Locarno's Belle-Epoque stuffiness: these old alleys and winding lanes are full of commerce, whether in the form of enticing delicatessens and boutiques or graceful, villa-style hotels and apartment buildings. Ancient churches and art galleries are draws in themselves, quite aside from the simpler pleasures of a stroll under the lakeside palms. If there is a drawback to Lugano, it's the traffic – unpleasantly heavy most of the time, especially along the lakefront corniche, and marked by alarming Italian-style driving. But at night, looking down from the summit of Brè amid a warm southerly breeze, with the toot and rumble of cars rising from a bed of twinkling lights, you could feel yourself a long, long way from Switzerland.
Once the home of a noble Russian family, Villa Castagnola was built within large tropical gardens on the shore of Lake Lugano. In 1885, it became a grand hotel but it never ...