Lugano – By the Mountain, By the Lakes
There is something inherently poetic about being in a town that straddles two cultures — it enables the otherwise wishful ability to be in two places at once. Lugano, the southern Swiss city sits in the Italian speaking region of Ticino bordering Italy. Sometimes referred to as the “Monte Carlo of Switzerland,” the city boasts of vibrant Italian culture along with the Swiss reputation for picturesque beauty. It sits on the northern shore of Lake Lugano, one of the three major lakes of the region, the other two including Lake Maggiore and Lake Como. The poetic nature of this region has been well established and documented by literary greats such as Ernest Hemingway and Hermann Hesse that thought of it as home. 19 year old Hemingway, injured during his time as a soldier in World War I was sent to this region on a ten day leave, and later wrote about it as “home from home,” visiting it every few years till his eventual passing. One can only imagine the charmed spell that the beauty of this town must have cast on a disillusioned and pained American soldier, enough for him to feel a sense of belonging in an unfamiliar town.
The region holds a distinct and rich history dating all the way back to the Stone Age. Lugano, in particular is permeated with its Italian past — it is reflected in the language, the frescoes that adorn the Renaissance churches, the popular Italian food and the piazzas of colorful villages. Ticino, the canton that Lugano is a part of, only joined the Swiss confederation in 1803. Before that, it had a tumultuous past of power struggle between the dukes of Milan and the bishops of Como, and the multiple castles peppered across the region are proof of it.
How to Get There
Getting to Lugano is extremely convenient by air, water or railroad. The city has its own airport which is located only 15 minutes away from the main city. The domestic airport operates flights between Zurich, Geneva and Lugano and flights between Zurich and Lugano are only about 50 minutes long. The airport also runs their own shuttle service which brings passengers into the city center, hence making it easy for everyone. If you’re travelling to Lugano from the Italian side, the most convenient way is to fly into Milan and then catch the frequent bus services between the two cities.
Those with the luxury of time can instead choose to take the train from Zurich to Lugano, which takes about 2-3 hours. Although a little slower, it offers unparalleled views as it passes through Zug, Arth-Goldau, Gotthard and Bellinzona before arriving in Lugano. It allows a chance to indulge in the quiet views of the Ticino countryside in the journey between two popular cities.
The other option is to take a boat to Lugano, and this is possible because of the many private boating companies that offer rides to and from the city.
It’s quite easy to find your way to Lugano from Milan. One option is using BlaBla Car (make sure to confirm in advance). The other is flixbus, you can find your possible routes on flixbus.com
Exploring within Lugano
The city of Lugano is sizeable enough to travel everywhere by foot — the tourist office in downtown Lugano has a folder with maps of the different trails and routes around the city. If walking around all day doesn’t sound like a good idea, one can always choose the local buses and even boats that operate within the city and to the surrounding towns.
One must tread on this subject very carefully because for a small city, Lugano boasts an array of sights and activities.
1) Chiesa Santa Maria degli Angeli
The church of Santa Maria degli Angeli is a 15th century structure built in 1499 by Franciscan friars. It is the most important church of Lugano and hosts the famous Renaissance fresco of the Passion and Crucifixion of Christ by Italian artist Bernardino Luini. It is a reflection of the time in Lugano’s Lombardo history, a brief cultural sweep among many.
2) Villa Favorita – Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum
Home of one of the most spectacular art transfers, the Thyssen Bornemisza museum sits on the outskirts of Lugano city. In 1922, Baron Hans Heinrich von Thyssen-Bornemisza sent 800 “Old Masters” to a museum of the same name in Spain. The museum in Lugano now displays a large collection of 19th century American Impressionists and artists from the renowned Hudson River School, and includes works by other famous artists such as Leger, Malevich and Pollock. If art history isn’t your fancy, you may still want to check it out for the beautiful garden that surrounds the museum, especially as it sits on the waterfront and itself boasts a variety of flora.
3) Monte Brè
One of the two giants that flanks Lake Lugano, Monte Brè is Lugano’s closest mountain. It has an observation point that gives an excellent view of the Lugano valley and is also home to the village of Brè that is populated with quaint charms and traditional characteristics. To get to Monte Brè, one can take the funicular rail from the station labelled Cassarate on Google Maps. Getting to the station itself is easy as it is a stop on bus line 2 or a short walk across from the waterfront.
4) Monte San Salvatore
The other giant is Monte San Salvatore, arguably boasting a better view of the Lugano valley. The observation deck on this mountain not only offers the spectacular views of the lake and town but also of the snow clad Swiss Alps looking over the city of Lugano. This place is also the starting point of many hiking trails, popular ones being to the small but storybook-esque towns of Carona and Melide. Getting to the top of Monte San Salvatore is easy, as there is a funicular rail to the top from the station Paradiso. The station is on bus line 1 or only a 20 minute walk from the city center.
5) Lido Di Lugano
Lido Di Lugano might be the best place to meet other people in the city — be it the locals enjoying a sunny day at the public pools or tourists enjoying some down time at the lake shore beach. It is a “sports complex,” or more appropriately a social haven. It has a sandy beach on the shores of Lake Ceresio, a heated Olympic sized swimming pool, a kids’ pool with water games, diving pools with ten meter high trampolines, a beach volley court and a five-a-side football pitch. It is open on all days of the week and has a minimal entry fee.
6) Riva Vincenzo Vela
This waterfront walk is perfect for a stroll along the blues of the lake, is close to the city center and is also most importantly, dotted with boating tours and other lake activities. If exploring the mountains isn’t your idea of fun, you may always want to give one of the boat rides a shot! In addition to the sights listed above, the city includes many other museums (Modern Art Museum, Cantonal Art Museum), parks, and churches (San Lorenzo Cathedral, San Rocco Church). It is impossible to list all of them, but the best parts of an adventure are always the ones that we happen to stumble upon, and we hope the options can give you a loose map for stumbling your way across Lugano.
Food in Lugano
The food in Lugano is the best representation of a cultural blend as it pays homage to both its Swiss and Italian sides. However, the Italian side is a little more popular with pasta, risotto and red wine making it onto multiple menus. Some of the restaurants can be a little pricey, so if you’re worried about that, it’s always better to check before! A cheap and fast option for snacks and light lunches is Migros Supermarket, a popular Swiss supermarket chain that has a store in Lugano. It offers small snacks and drinks that might be useful for Airbnb dinners or day hikes, but it also has cheaper hot foods that may be a good option for a day packed with exploring the city!
Lugano city is a popular destination for many, especially because it has something for everybody. The art aficionados can spend their days waltzing between church frescoes and art museums, outdoor junkies can take in walking tours, go on hikes to explore mountain views and small Italian villages, and those looking to do nothing but relax can walk down to the waterfront, sip on Merlot at terrace restaurants, and take boating tours of the lake by sunset. The fairytale like charm of this city is expected to enthrall you at the first look, and then there’s no looking back.
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