A healthy expat life in… Switzerland
December 2021   BODY & MIND

A healthy expat life in… Switzerland

A young American basketball player planned to spend a year in Switzerland. But 11 years later he still finds the expat lifestyle in Lugano irresistible.
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When Derek Stockalper arrived in Switzerland as a young basketball player from America, he was intending to stay for a year. But his season playing for Lugano turned into an 11-year professional career and a decision to settle down in Lugano, with its strong Italian culture and mountain lifestyle proving impossible to resist.

Lugano is a southern Swiss town which must have won the landscape lottery at some point in its history. It is both a lakeside town and an Alpine resort with the teal waters of Lake Lugano providing a picturesque setting from every angle. 

The town is right next to the Italian border and is home to the largest Italian-speaking majority outside of Italy. That Italian influence dictates its gastronomic offering, but its geography promotes a Swiss approach to living, with sports and activities of almost every type on the doorstep of citizens including expats like Derek Stockalper. Here’s why he loves it.

Where to eat

Having such a strong Italian influence, Lugano’s cuisine has a lot of similarities with Italian cooking. Many restaurants are known as a ‘grotto’ and are mountain restaurants where they serve traditional Italian food from the local area. That means all the traditional Italian staples are available such as pasta all’Amatriciana [which uses succulent cuts of pig cheek to create a delicious tomato sauce pasta], typical pestos, rich Bolognese sauces, and of course pizza; but it also means lots of mountain meats are used when cooking, such as rabbit and goat.

A recent grotto I went to was Grott dal Fuin in Agno, just outside Lugano. It was very good. 

Whilst Italian cooking is found in 95% of the restaurants here, there are places to go to eat traditional Swiss and French food too. For example, at Ristorante Giardino you can find a really good fondue and raclette, which they serve in a big cheese wheel with sliced potatoes.

Where to meet people

Without a doubt, to meet people and have a night out in Lugano you head downtown. Go to the Piazza della Riforma, where historic buildings rise up above bistros, bars and restaurants. That’s where you’ll find the most lively social scene. If you get to town early, between five and seven thirty, then you can enjoy an ‘aperitivo’, where bars lay on food to accompany your first drink of the day. Aperol is a particularly popular aperitivo drink in Lugano.

There are many good aperitivo bars in Lugano but to name one: Gabbani, it always comes highly recommended.

Where to exercise


One of the very best things about Switzerland is the outdoor space available to you. We are situated in-between mountains so if you’re into hiking you could hike for three years and never take the same route. One really nice route that takes about three hours is from Monte Tamaro to Monte Lema. You hike along a ridge line and can see all the way to the Matterhorn.

Cycling is also a big deal here, so too is paddle boarding and wakeboarding on Lake Lugano.

After playing basketball for so many years, my body can’t support me playing that sport anymore – my knees and ankles just tell me ‘no!’ – but for people looking to play team sports, there are lots of options. In basketball there are leagues for over-40s that you can join, and that’s the same for football. So anyone can re-live their youth, if they’re able to! 

Where to go to escape

During the winter time there are quite a few skiing areas that are nice to go to. We last went to Andermatt where there’s great mountains and excellent snow. That’s about an hour and a half away from Lugano. There’s also the thermal baths in Vals which is a really nice spot and great for an escape. 

Where to be mindful

Valle Verzasca is an idyllic valley with crystal clear waters flowing down from the mountains, with beautiful scenery all around. There’s not too many people there and you can pick up plenty of hiking trails and jump in the water as well – it’s cold, so summer is the best time for that. You can also go fishing for trout in the river. 

Where to see something special

Take a trip on the Glacier Express which is a train journey that takes you across Switzerland, passing the glaciers as you go. The route is very old, and the scenery is just stunning. The train doesn’t actually go through Lugano so we have to travel to Zermatt or Andermatt to pick it up, but it’s well worth it.


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