This Unique Waterfront Italian Town Is A Hilly Hidden Gem Surrounded By Switzerland

We tend to think of borders as immutable lines on the map, but as allegiances change, wars come and go, empires fall, and these dividing lines between nations can wander all over the place. Whole countries may vanish or appear, as in the case of Yugoslavia, the bloc that created five individual nations when it broke up in 1992. Shifting borders can also create geographical anomalies called enclaves and exclaves, and Campione d'Italia on the shores of Lake Lugano is one of the prettiest.

What is the difference? In simple terms, an enclave is a part of a country surrounded by another's territory, while an exclave is distanced from the main state by the territory of one or more other nations. The long and complex history of Europe has thrown up numerous interesting examples. One tricky case is the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. It was further separated from the Russian Federation when Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania joined the European Union in 2004, making it impossible to reach the mother country overland without passing through EU territory.

Campione d'Italia is an enclave and an exclave, a little part of Italy encircled by Switzerland. Previously, it worked under Swiss laws, thanks to an agreement between the countries, but matters were complicated when it rejoined the Italian economy and the EU in 2020. Nevertheless, it still shows how harmony between two countries can make one of these international quirks work.

How Campione d'Italia became separated from Italy

Campione d'Italia is located in the canton of Ticino, a narrow wedge of Switzerland in the far south of the country. Ticino is surrounded on three sides by northern Italian territory and, as the name suggests, has a strong Italian influence. It is a largely Catholic region, the official language is Swiss Italian, and the local cuisine leans toward Italian staples like risotto, polenta, and panettone. 

Shifting borders have thrown up some other interesting anomalies in northern Italy. South Tyrol, a region that was once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, retains a strongly Germanic flavor despite being annexed by Italy in 1919. If you visit the picturesque mountain town of Castelrotto or Kastelruth, you'll find street signs in both Italian and German, and locals speak mainly the latter. Likewise, Trentino might make you think you're in Germany rather than Italy.

Campione d'Italia's status as an enclave goes back even further to 1512 when the surrounding area was handed over to Switzerland by Pope Julius II, but the town remained the property of the archbishop of Milan. If you want to visit other places nearby, Swiss Lugano is closer (around 20 minutes away by car) than Italian Como, which is a 35-minute drive across the border. All these factors contribute to a hidden gem that has a unique blend of influences. While the town has a distinctly Mediterranean vibe, it is surrounded by Alpine scenery that encapsulates the charm of Switzerland.

Things to see and do in Campione d'Italia

One of Campione d'Italia's biggest attractions and notable landmarks is the Casinò di Campione. This brutalist edifice would be more at home in Denis Villeneuve's "Dune" than a picturesque lakeside resort. It's the largest casino in Europe and has a colorful history. It was first established in 1917 as a front for espionage. The establishment went bust in 2018 before it was renovated and re-opened in 2022. It is worth checking out, even if you aren't a gambler, just to soak in a little of the atmosphere.

There isn't much to see in Campione d'Italia other than wandering around and enjoying the scenery or swimming and relaxing at the lido in the summer. The town makes a good base camp for exploring the surrounding area. There are hiking and cycling trails around the lakes and hills, and the climb to the top of Monte Generoso rewards you for the exertion with fantastic views. On a clear day, you can see the underrated modern city of Milan (which comes highly recommended by Rick Steves) in the distance.

There are several restaurants and bars to check out, most of them with an Italian flavor. Head to Grotto Rialdo for thin and crispy pizzas and a range of other favorites, or Vali Restaurant for an excellent gastronomic experience in an elegant modern dining room. For snacks and drinks, find yourself a table on the terrace at Bar Campione for lakeside views.