Famous for its tradition of outstanding hospitality, Switzerland is blessed with grand dame hotels that boast long and illustrious legacies. But it may also be the only country where you can stay in such a historic five-star hotel in three culturally and linguistically distinct areas of the country. From Italian-speaking Lugano in the southern lake region to German-speaking Zurich in the north to French-speaking Geneva bordering France, here are three deluxe hotels that reflect their unique regions.
Hotel Splendide Royal, Lugano
A Belle Époque palace perched on the shores of lovely Lake Lugano, the Splendide Royal has been turning heads in this charming seaside town since 1887. Built as a luxury hotel for royal families, it has maintained its regal character ever since. Public rooms exude Old World elegance: marble lobby and hallways, Murano glass chandeliers, stately columns, antique furnishings, and 22-foot-high ceilings.
For all its formal grandeur, the 93-room hotel (plus seven suites) is warm and inviting, not intimidating. That may be because it has been family-owned for 131 years, with only five managers in all that time (each one chooses his successor). Or it may be because of the longtime concierge, Giovanni Lia, who has been fulfilling guests’ every whim and wish since 1991. They have included “lots of nobles, artists, and royals,” says Lia, “including President George H.W. Bush three times, the Prince of Denmark, Prince Philip, Greta Garbo, and Sophia Loren,” among an international who’s who list of guests.
His toughest challenge? “I once had an Austrian who fell in love with a shop girl in town,” he recounts. “He asked me to send her 1,000 roses.” Undaunted, he turned to all the area florists and as far away as Milan to fill up a truck full. The fact that he pulled it off is a testament to his dedication to his work.
The gold-on-gold-themed guest rooms are filled with unusual touches: monogrammed leather holders for water bottles on the nightstands, elegant snack boxes with glass jars of unexpected munchies, a wooden silent butler, and phones, TV speakers, and towel warmers in the bathrooms. Brocade wallpaper, ornate furniture, and lavish chandeliers enhance the opulence of the spacious rooms, many of which boast small lakeside balconies. Reflecting the international makeup of guests, TV channels offer programming in Italian, German, French, English, and Arabic.
Two restaurants dish up distinctive Italian fare: The elegant panoramic La Veranda and the brand-new I Due Sud, a cozy spot with a tasting menu for just seven tables. Chef Domenico Ruberto melds local ingredients with the traditions of his native southern Italy. My dinner of salmon tartare with caviar, tomato-infused linguini, and Angus beef with red pepper and herb butter-flavored potatoes was divine. Chef Ruberto sources only the best: world-famous linguini Gragnano, Swiss beef, and a private-label olive oil from his family’s own grove in southern Italy. Chef Sommelier Simone Ragusa, awarded Best Sommelier of Switzerland, skillfully pairs each dish with a selection from the wine cellar’s 550 labels.
You don’t have to be royalty to stay at the Splendide Royal, but you’ll certainly feel like it.
Baur au Lac, Zurich
It’s the orchids that set the tone for this storied 174-year-old hotel. They’re everywhere, like elegant but subtle grace notes adorning the public spaces, the restaurants, and the guest rooms. Two full-time florists make sure of that.
Indeed, understated glamor is the hallmark of the 119-room Baur au Lac, which has been welcoming guests to its coveted location in a private park overlooking Lake Zurich since 1844. Run by the sixth generation of the same family, the hotel is a quiet oasis right in the heart of Zurich — within walking distance of the bustling Paradeplatz financial district and the chic Bahnhofstrasse, Zurich’s answer to the Champs Élysées.
There’s a hush all over Le Hall, the spacious lobby-lounge where you can enjoy morning coffee, afternoon tea, or cocktails at individual seating areas. With its oversize furniture in muted tans and blues, massive tree planters, soaring chandeliered ceiling, ornate crown molding, and Art Deco skylight, the room makes a powerful contemporary-yet-classic design statement. A watermelon painting by iconic Colombian artist Fernando Botero serves as a striking focal point (he handpicked it for just that spot). The room has another distinction: Alfred Nobel’s secretary, Bertha von Suttner, convinced him to start the Nobel Peace Prize here.
Guest rooms carry on the eclectic design theme, ranging from Art Deco to Empire to English Regency. Yet they all exude a distinctly luxurious feel: heavy silk drapes, textured wallpaper, beveled closet mirrors, and down pillows. Bathrooms don’t skimp either with their deep soaking tubs, private-label La Bottega toiletries, double shower spouts, and double hand towels — linen draped over terrycloth, if you please.
With 300 employees for 190 guests, service is predictably first-class. On my first morning, I was greeted by name for breakfast in the Pavillon Restaurant and offered my choice of newspapers. From its distinctive purple and lime-green color scheme to its award-winning food — one Michelin star and 18 (out of 20) Gault & Millau points — the Pavillon stands out. Chef Laurent Eperon, who’s been here for 15 years, serves classical French and Swiss cuisine with a contemporary twist.
The hotel makes its own honey, mer du jardin, based on multiple flowers from its garden; its own beurre noisette, caramelized butter to give it a nutty flavor; as well as its own line of chocolates — Zurich being Switzerland’s chocolate capital, after all.
A more casual alternative is the brasserie-style Rive Gauche, which also hosts a Nobu pop-up for two weeks a year. But the see-and-be-seen hub is the candlelit Rive Gauche Terrasse, a stylish al fresco eatery that attracts le tout Zurich. Just ask the head-turning fashionista with her two dogs seated on a pooch pillow at her feet.
Indeed, there’s no better place to rub shoulders with those in the know than at the Baur au Lac.
Acres and acres of marble. Crystal chandeliers dripping from every ceiling. Fireplaces and frescoes and formal furnishings, oh my!
These are the hallmarks of the Beau-Rivage, the only hotel in Geneva still run by the same family since its founding in 1865. Designed as a “palace” hotel for the rich and famous, it succeeded wildly. A parade of luminaries has checked into one of its 80 rooms and 15 suites over the years. Yoko Ono was here, as were Angelina Jolie, Sting, Karl Lagerfeld, Prince Philip, Donald Sutherland, and Catherine Deneuve. Suites are named for Roger Moore, Charlie Chaplin, and Elizabeth Taylor. Wagner composed here. Eleanor Roosevelt wrote the Declaration of Human Rights here, which became the basis for the UN. And Sotheby’s auctioned off the Duchess of Windsor’s jewelry collection here.
“We receive humble people like kings, and kings humbly,” explains CEO and fifth-generation family member Alexandre Nickbarte-Mayer.
That personalized service is best expressed by Aldo Giacomello, the concierge since 1964 and confident to three generations of guests. “My relationship with them is more than just a concierge,” he says. “You have to love to see people happy and take care of them.” He once tracked down a Burberry coat all the way to Hong Kong for a demanding guest and had it overnighted as a surprise.
As former UN Secretary General Kofi Anan once said, “There’s luxury service and then there’s the Beau-Rivage.”
Tucked on the shores of sparkling Lake Léman, the hotel wears its historic legacy with pride. Its over-the-top opulence, updated with modern technology, continues to attract the well-heeled and well-connected. Just consider the public spaces, a panoply of classical urns, gilded sconces, mirrored walls, and red velvet furniture. A massive six-story-high skylight illuminates the fountained atrium. The skylight is draped with a gauzy net from which dangle long strands of flowers and fanciful objects, creating an “angel garden.” In fact, guardian angels are a signature theme of the hotel, appearing in frescoes and on mantels, too.
You can tinkle the baby grand in the bar, smoke Cohibas or Romeo y Julietas in the lounge, or gaze at the famous shooting waterspout in the lake from the lovely outdoor terrace.
Guestrooms and suites are masterpieces of style, from French Provincial to contemporary to Art Deco. But they’re subtly updated with Nespresso machines, bedside iPads, and camouflaged flatscreens. My bathroom is a palatial wonder of white marble and mirrors, adorned with a massive museum-worthy stained-glass window. A deep jetted soaking tub, Villeroy and Bosch porcelain sinks, and marble-topped vanity table with stool add high-end touches.
Dining stands out in a city known for its sophisticated cuisine. Chef Dominique Gauthier serves French and contemporary dishes (pan-seared foie gras or wild salmon with chanterelles and pistachio, anyone?) in the signature restaurant, Le Chat Botté, which has earned one coveted Michelin star and 18 Gault & Millau points. A Thai restaurant, Patara, offers an exotic alternative.
Either way, you can count on an award-winning experience in keeping with the gilded elegance of the hotel itself.
Veronica Stoddart is an award-winning travel writer and editor who has written for two dozen publications and websites. She believes travel can be a force for good in the world.