Forget Lake Como: This Tiny Swiss Town is Europe’s Dreamiest Lake Destination
An under-the-radar village on Lake Maggiore's northern shore has been hiding in plain view but is every bit as breathtaking and glamorous as its Italian neighbors. JS editor Lindsey Olander gets a taste of la dolce vita near the Swiss-Italian border.
Lake Como is one of those places everyone has heard about. George Clooney and Sir Richard Branson own villas there. Chrissy Teigen and John Legend tied the knot there, as did Emily Blunt and John Krasinski. With its charming villa towns built up alongside glittering waters against a dramatic backdrop of the Rhaetian Alps, Northern Italy’s most famous lake is a glamour magnet—a playground for the wealthy, who come to spend and sunbathe at lakeside cafés, the patios of their palatial mansions, or on the backs of their Riva boats as they float between towns. Yes, everyone should visit Como at least once in their lifetime. A return trip, however, is more complicated: visit the same place twice, or strike out for somewhere new? We’d argue heavily for the latter.
Drive just two hours west and you might experience some pretty serious déjà vu. Here, a shimmering lake backed by mountains is bordered by ancient villages; romantic, colorful villas; and private marinas packed with mega yachts and sleek sailboats. Except, something is different. There are no air-kissing crowds. No throngs of selfie-snapping tourists clinking one Aperol Spritz after another. No influx of celebrities that keep certain corners out of reach.
Lake Maggiore straddles the border between Italy and Switzerland, and on the Swiss side to the north, there’s a town so beautifully charming, you’d marvel at how you ever missed it. Ascona’s unmistakable clock tower rises up like a beacon from the surrounding rust-colored rooftops—an easy compass point for ferries that shuttle between the two countries. At ground level, a maze of cobbled streets is lined with independent fashion boutiques, gelato shops, centuries-old churches, and open restaurants whose seats spill out onto sidewalks and where menus are rarely in English. Crowds are even rarer, and never American. Instead, the scene is sedate, and almost completely unknown outside of Europe.
You can dock your boat directly at Hotel Eden Roc, a five-star stay that toes the line between glitzy and understated: think spacious, colorful guest rooms by star designer (and Ascona local) Carlo Rampazzi; a tranquil 21,000-square-foot spa; a choice of pools overlooking the lake; and a host of award-winning restaurants each more impressive than the last—all with gorgeous views of the waterfront. For fine dining, hit La Brezza. For lunch, La Casetta, inside a historic stone lake house by the marina, serves up Mediterranean salads and an impressive buffet of fish and meats. While you’re by the water, why not hop inside the hotel’s private Riva for a spin? Have your skipper set a course for the Brissago Islands, where a magical botanical garden contains rare flowers and trees from as far as South Africa and Japan.
The center of Old Town is just down the road from Eden Roc—an easy walk or Vespa ride away (conveniently, the hotel has a fleet on loan). You’ll wish you had more afternoons to walk the pretty promenade lined with boutique hotels, awning-covered cafés, and lunching locals who angle their seats towards the lake. Ristorante Carcani is one such place, where you can spend hours watching the sun wane while dining on braised beef ravioli or sea bream fillet and washing it all down with glasses of Swiss wine. (Less than 2% of Swiss wine is exported to the rest of the world, so you’re going to want to take advantage.)
Of course, this being Switzerland, hiking is one of the area’s most beloved pastimes. Luckily, you’re already in one of the best places for it. Ascona is just a three-minute ride away from Locarno, an ancient, sunny town overlooked by the dramatic, 15th-century Madonna del Sasso—an art-filled pilgrimage church reached via a steep funicular. A cable car takes you further up above the cloud line, where lush alpine trails crisscross the Cardada and Cimetta valleys. It’s impossible not to swoon at every viewpoint, where you can look out at the entire Maggia Delta region—Lake Maggiore, Ascona, the Brissago Islands, and the Italian border, where Lake Como sits out of view. Not that you’ll be missing it.
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