Rising from humble beginnings, Venice is one of a select few Italian cities that has achieved iconic status throughout the world. From the annual Carnival of Venice, supposedly started in 1162 to celebrate the victory of ‘Serenissima Repubblica’ over the Patriarch of Aquileia, to the more modern pleasures of the luxury shopping centre, Fondaco Dei Tedeschi, opened in late 2016; even the most discerning traveller can find their niche in this fabled city.
More than 100 scattered islands make up Venice, connected by bridges and vaporetto (water buses or water taxis), with gondolas offering a unique, but expensive, journey. Marco Polo airport sits a few miles away from the historic centre of Venice, a 20-minute bus ride to Piazzale Roma, Venice’s main arrival point. Always check with your hotel to see if they provide a complimentary private boat transfer from Piazzale Roma, as this really is how to arrival in style and see the Grand Canal in all its glory.
Our first hotel, the 4-star Hotel Palazzo Stern unities the grandeur of old Venice with a perfect location directly on the Grand Canal, helpfully positioned next to the Ca’Rezzonico water bus stop. The ground floor of the palatial residence in the traditional Dorsoduro district commands unparalleled views over the Grand Canal and during warmer months guests can take breakfast outside in the private courtyard to take in the full panorama.
The boutique hotel may have little in the way of facilities, with only a small breakfast room and no full restaurant, gym or spa, but the well-appointed rooms featuring updated bathrooms, Murano glass chandeliers and antique pieces, make Palazzo Stern a ideal base for exploring this quiet district.
One of Venice’s newest luxury hotels can be reached after a water bus trip to the San Stae stop and a short walk down a traditionally narrow Venetian street. The imposing 5-star Palazzo Venart Hotel opened its doors in the summer of 2016, ensuring the 18 rooms and suites all had a unique and elegant aesthetic. The opulent Palazzo is best experienced in summer months when guests can relax in the canal-side garden and private courtyard, although on-site restaurant GLAM, created by Italy’s youngest two Michelin-starred chef, is open year-round and provides an authentic dining experience.
Our penultimate hotel, PalazzinaG in Venice’s San Marco district, offers a fresh take on a Venetian property. The Philippe Starck designed residence, complete with bespoke Murano glassworks from French artist Aristide Najean and vintage inspired objets d’art, instantly create an atmosphere of a private club. The 26 modern rooms and suites feature massive backlit mirrors, open plan layouts and quirky furniture, tastefully mixing functionality and high-design.
From one of the most minimalist, avant-garde hotels in Venice, we move to the thoroughly decadent and sumptuous Ca Maria Adele. Our themed room, Sala del Doge, was fully kitted out in red velvet on the walls and drapes, with golden cherubs flanking the television and several windows overlooking the beautiful Santa Maria della Salute church. Ca Maria Adele is well-suited to a romantic getaway, with the intimate and private hotel sure to impress.
Home to two of the world’s biggest football clubs, AC and Inter Milan, as well as Milan Fashion Week and many other major design fairs and historical landmarks, any discussion of northern Italy is incomplete without mentioning this forward-thinking city.
Few cities the size of Milan manage to offer visitors such a deft mix of iconic monuments and contemporary hotspots, with Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper counterbalanced by the all-new Armani Privé club at the Armani Hotel. High-end luxury bars, restaurants and nightclubs are easy to find across Milan, but be aware that not everything that glitters is gold in this metropolis.
Overhyped launches that offer more style than substance can be avoided by making a stop at grand institutions like the Hotel Principe di Savoia’s storied Principe Bar. The Thierry Despont designed space oozes Hollwood glamour, with the handmade velvet drapes and back lit bar adding that extra special touch. The Milanese Caipirinha, with added saffron, certainly packs a punch, but patrons with a sweeter tooth can opt for the aptly named Candy Crush, made from vodka, orange jam, Grand Marnier, lime, sugar and finished off with jelly beans.
For a more contemporary side of Milan, try Il Bar at the Bulgari Hotel, located in Brera, Milan’s arts district. Flawless service and an amazing aperivivo can be found in a bar that lists many of Milanese high society as regulars, who are drawn to exquisite black marble and a large private garden.
The Brera district is home to the unmissable Pinacoteca di Brera art gallery and makes a great place to hang out, enjoy a coffee and absorb the cosmopolitan buzz of this unique city.
Lake Lugano is one of the most stunning subalpine lakes to be found anywhere in the world and its tranquil shores were to be my final stop. Trains run regularly from Milan’s central rail station to Lugano and take just over an hour, passing through Lake Como on the way. The lake straddles Switzerland and Italy, although 80% of the locals speak Italian.
The Italian enclave of Campione d’Italia, which is completely surrounded by the Swiss canton of Ticino, sits directly next to Lake Lugano, leading to a unique mixture of Swiss and Italian culture flowing throughout the region.
Five-star Grand Hotel Villa Castagnola, with its beautiful mountain and panoramic lake views, provides the ideal backdrop to this elegant area. Once owned by a Russian noble family, Villa Castagnola has been tastefully updated in recent years, while still maintaining its old-world charm. All of the hotel’s rooms are individually styled, meaning no two are exactly the same, although each room has beautiful park or lake views.
Food lovers can indulge in one of three unique restaurants, each tempting guests with an adventure in fine dining. Restaurant Gallery Arté al Lago, which specialises in seafood and lake fish, has the distinction of being the only Michelin-starred restaurant in Lugano. Diners at this lakeside art gallery-cum-restaurant can indulge in world-class cuisine like sautéed red tuna and Sardinian fregola with chards, artichokes and marinated winter chicory, while beholding the views of the lake and sculptures by international-artists.
A few minutes walk away from the hotel, guests can take the cable car up Monte Brè to the Ticinese village of Bré. Positioned at 925 metres above sea-level Bré is considered the sunniest place in Switzerland, but it was the traditional architecture showcased in this small village that I came to enjoy. Walking up the mountain is no easy feat, but hikers can have a rest at either of the two restaurants on the summit, Osteria Funicolare or Ristorante Vetta, both serving traditional Ticinese cuisine.
Art enthusiasts will be spoilt for choice at the Wilhelm Schmid Museum, which showcases the works of 20th century Swiss artist Wilhelm Schmid, one of the leading names in the New Objectivity and Magic Realism movements. Just be sure to contact the museum early, as it’s only open by appointment.
Venturing out across northern Italy and into Switzerland allows the chance to explore a historic region with countless impressive landscapes, whether they be seen from the lakeside of Lake Lugano, the garden outside Milan’s Il Bar or the balcony of Hotel Palazzo Stern in Venice. Old and new, modern and traditional designs, all come together to make northern Italy and the Swiss border an essential destination all year round.