Positioned around the lake of the same name, the small Swiss city of Lugano has long been associated with money: it’s the country’s third financial centre, once home to more than 100 banks. These days, Lugano — part of the Italian-speaking region of Ticino — is instead investing in culture.
The Lugano Arte e Cultura centre (LAC) has just opened, featuring a 1,000-seat concert hall, theatrical studios and some truly gorgeous gallery spaces with views over the lake (00 41 58 866 66 00; luganolac.ch). The scale of the project for a city of only 60,000 people is astonishing — it’d be like building the Barbican in Barrow-in-Furness, or a Southbank Centre in Crewe.
The LAC cost 300 million Swiss francs (£202 million) — and you can tell. The building itself, designed by architect Ivano Gianola, is striking: with a façade of dark green stone, it melts into the steep hills when seen from a distance, but up close its angular shape seems to jut out over the lake. A piazza beneath forms a new social space — when I visited locals were enjoying al fresco cocktails with a view.
If the LAC is a compelling reason to visit Lugano now, the natural beauty and Mediterranean vibe will make you want to stay. Lake Lugano invites dips and boat trips — enjoy a scenic cruise, or hop on and off at pretty fishing villages such as Gandria and Morcote. Two historic funiculars speed you up to the impressive summits of Monte San Salvatore and Monte Brè; both boast views that rival any oil painting.
Bed down: Look out
The View (00 41 91 210 0000; theviewlugano.com) may not have the most original name — but on arrival you soon forgive such literal-mindedness. Perched halfway up Monte San Salvatore, the 18 rooms all face the lake, with private balconies and French windows that allow you to enjoy that vista from your bed. Just opened in June, the hotel is swankily modern: the interior design supposedly imitates a yacht, and is as big on sleek chrome as it is on teak decking. The restaurant and bar are all space-age white, as is the seriously gorgeous spa, which features a pool with — yes — more delicious views, Jacuzzis, saunas, steam rooms and even a relaxation room made of Himalayan pink salt.
It’s a 20-minute walk downhill into town, but if you don’t fancy the climb back, The View has its own fleet of dinky smart cars for guests to borrow for free. Doubles from €455, room only.
Fed & watered: Pasta and piazzas
Lugano’s proximity to Italy means you can expect to see polenta and risotto on the menu rather than fondue. La Cucina di Alice on Riva Vela (00 41 91 922 0103; lacucinadialice.ch) is a warm and welcoming spot for dinner. Fresh fish is a natural choice, but the pasta dishes go down a treat too; I’d strongly recommend starting with the unctuous burrata, and finishing with a grappa.
Another local favourite, in the adorable nearby medieval village of Carona, is Ristorante Posta (00 41 91 649 72 66; ristorante-posta.ch). An unpretentious café with chatty owners, it emphasises seasonal ingredients, simply cooked. Polenta with mushrooms was just the ticket when I visited in early autumn — but do follow the personal recommendations. Closed Mondays.
Lugano is big on aperitifs and you could do worse than sticking to the terrace at The View — or at the LAC for that matter — but a stroll round the town’s piazzas will offer plenty more options. I enjoyed Hotel Gabbani, which houses a restaurant, bar, and deli all under fetching old porticos (00 41 91 921 34 70; gabbani.com).
In the bag: Grand designers
Lugano may be small, with a pedestrianised historic centre offering only a couple of streets of shops, but they reflect its heritage as a financial centre — it’s more Bond Street than tourist trap. A stroll along Via Nassa offers a chance to max out your credit card at Hermès, Cartier, Versace, and Prada; if your budget doesn’t stretch quite that far but you still have your eye on designer labels, try the FoxTown outlet, a half-hour drive or bus ride away (00 41 848 828 888; foxtown.com). Swiss chocolate is also naturally a draw — Laderach (laederach.com; 00 41 91 923 19) on Via Pessina has a mouthwatering selection.
Cultural agenda: Show time
The opening show in the LAC’s art gallery explores how Ticino is a fertile crossroads of European cultures — where Swiss meets Italian. Impressive international loans include works by Alberto Giacometti, Giorgio de Chirico, and Paul Klee (until January 10 2016; entry CHF15). A downstairs gallery, meanwhile, holds an installation by British artist Anthony McCall, who carves up the darkness with beams of light (until January 31 2016; entry CHF15).
The LAC also offers music, theatre and dance — artists in residence include the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana, pianist Daniil Trifonov, and physical theatre company Finzi Pasca; visiting companies include Britain’s Royal Philharmonic and Balleto di Roma.
It’s also worth dropping into neighbouring Spazio -1, a spectacular private collection of contemporary art belonging to Giancarlo and Danna Olgiati, currently exhibiting work by the likes of Anish Kapoor, Anselm Kiefer, and Yves Klein (00 41 58 866 42 30; collezioneolgiati.ch; open September to February; free). And make time for Santa Maria degli Angioli church; dating from 1499, it boasts the biggest Renaissance fresco in Switzerland, by Bernardino Luini, showing the Passion of Christ in eye-poppingly vibrant hues.
Holly Williams travelled as the guest of the LAC and The View. There are no direct flights to Lugano-Agno airport, but Milan Malpensa is only about an hour from the city. easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com) flies here from Gatwick and Luton; there are taxis and shuttle buses from the airport to Lugano.
Local buses, boats and funiculars make an enjoyable way to travel locally, but check timings before setting off as not all are regular. More information can be found on the tourist board website, or at the tourist office on Riva Albertolli.