The city of Lugano is on its namesake lake in Switzerland’s Italian Canton of Ticino, south of the first ridge of the alps. As a tourist escape, Lugano hardly needs introduction. The wild beauty of the lakeshore, the dominating San Salvatore and Brè Mountains all speak for themselves and need to be top of your holiday plans.
And in the city you’ll fall for the Italianate architecture, lakeside promenades, parks on the waterfront, chic shopping streets and lively squares with arcades and restaurant tables. The outlying villages also deserve some love and are huddled onto mountainsides over the lake. One, Montagnola was where the writer Hermann Hesse settled in 1919 and he was so fond of it he remained the until he died almost 50 years later.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Lugano:
1. Lake Lugano
When you step onto the waterfront promenade at Lugano what will strike you about the lake is just how wild it looks.
On every shore there’s a mountain with wood-cloaked slopes that plummet to the water.
The lake is long and sinuous, filling the deep valleys between the peaks.
And because of the peaks on the shore you can only see one portion of the lake from Lugano, so you shouldn’t pass up the chance to see more by boat.
There’s a whole menu of daily excursions by paddle steamer from the jetties at the Società Navigazione del Lago di Lugano.
The most popular are the morning cruise and the panoramic cruise, both lasting three hours, and you can also set off to see Lugano’s city lights twinkling on the lake at night.
2. Monte San Salvatore
Lugano’s own mountain and a monolith on the southern skyline, Monte San Salvatore crests at over 900 metres.
At the top you’ll be awestruck by the 360° views of Lugano, the lake and views of the Alps to the west.
A funicular carries you up the precipitous slope from the suburb of Paradiso in just 12 minutes.
For determined hikers the upper station at the summit is just the start of their adventure as they can pick up the trails for Carona or venture even further along the ridge to the lakeside town of Morcote.
You could also walk back down instead of catching the funicular, for a hike of just over an hour.
3. Monte Brè
The Cassarate suburb in the east of Lugano is the springboard for another ride to the top of a mountain.
Clattering up the mountainside since 1912, the funicular railway has a maximum incline of 60.5% and more of a vintage feel than San Salvatore, even though it’s actually newer.
At the summit, 925 metres above sea level, there are two restaurants and you can survey Lugano and the landscape as far as Italy.
Monte Brè is touted as Switzerland’s sunniest mountain, and the abundance of sunlight nourishes the Christmas rose, a flower that usually only thrives in Mediterranean climes.
On the way up or down, you could alight at Brè Villaggio stop to look around the exceedingly picturesque village of Brè, squeezed onto the steep slope.
4. Centro Storico
The old centre of Lugano is a delight to explore, and is crammed with Renaissance and Baroque churches, convents, palazzi and arcaded squares.
Your first port of call has to be the Piazza Riforma, edged by tall pastel-painted houses and full of life on evenings and weekends.
On the southern boundary is the striking facade of the Neoclassical city hall, while the tourist office is also here if you have an queries.
On Tuesday and Friday mornings be sure to rise early for the fresh produce market on Piazzale Ex Scuole, selling cold cuts, flowers, cheese and fruit.
On Piazza Cioccaro is the trapezoidal and arcaded Palazzo Riva, commissioned by a count in 1740
5. Via Nassa
Beginning at the very south of the city, Via Nassa is one block in from the waterfront and curves with Lugano’s bay as it enters the old centre of the city.
Here you can get some serious shopping done on a street with a long line of arcades that go back to the 17th century.
In the past, those arcades provided a sheltered place out for stall-holders to trade,. Now they’re a cool way to get around in summer, and upmarket boutiques, jewellery shops, department stores, food emporia and cafes are all hiding under the arches.
6. Parco Civico
East of the centre of the city, Parco Civico is an enchanting lakeside park that also hosts a few big amenities like the Cantonal Library and Convention Centre.
Around the curve of the bay from the centre there are supreme views of Lugano, which are just as pretty after sunset.
During the day you’ll be wowed by the vistas of Monte Brè and Monte San Salvatore.
Closer to the city centre is the Villa Ciani, wrapped in carefully tended gardens with flowerbeds, palms and shrubs.
To the east, by the bank of the Cassarate River things are a little wilder in mature woodland growing maple, plane, oak and lime trees.
7. Chiesa di Santa Maria degli Angeli
A former monastic church, the Chiesa di Santa Maria degli Angeli is rather sober on the outside but is cherished for what you can see in the interior.
Spreading across the entrance to the chancel is the finest Renaissance fresco in Switzerland.
It was painted in 1529 by Bernardo Luini and represents Christ’s passion and crucifixion.
This is one of three paintings by Luini in the church, the others depicting the Virgin with Child and the Last Supper.
Go through the arches for a peek at the altar, crafted from wood for Como’s Convent of Santa Croce in the 1700s.
8. Cattedrale San Lorenzo
The main facade for Lugano’s Renaissance cathedral is a real treasure, carved from white limestone and Carrara marble.
The cathedral dates to the turn of the 16th century, and was constructed over a much earlier Romanesque building.
The three portals are sculpted with medallions and Renaissance motifs like birds and puttoes.
And between them are marble relief busts of King Solomon, David and the Four Evangelists.
In the centre, look up to admire the rose window, adorned with cherubs and sculpted in the 1570s.
On this high ground there’s a terrace with a balustrade to marvel at the view of the lake and mountains.
9. Hesse Museum
The Nobel Prize-winning German author Hermann Hesse moved to the lakefront village of Montagnola in 1919 and remained there until he died in 1962. A museum has been created in Casa Camuzzi, his first home in the village.
While living here he wrote classics like Siddhartha, Steppenwolf and Narcissus and Goldmund.
In the Torre Camuzzi you can examine a trove of memorabilia, such as correspondence with people like T.S. Eliot and Freud, Hesse’s typewriter, books, photographs and watercolours he painted.
You could also take an audio-guided tour of Montagnola, following Hesse’s footsteps around the village.
Officially part of Lugano since 2004 is this charming lakeside village clinging to the eastern slopes of Monte Brè.
Gandria is unspoiled and looks much as it did a hundred years ago when the village was a den of illicit trade.
The high customs duties for goods like cigarettes and meat made this remote stretch of the Swiss-Italian border a prime target for smugglers.
You can idle along streets and stairways that are creased with hairpin turns, and pop into the 15th-century Church of St Viglio, the facade of which has historic memorials to members of important local families.
Across the water is the Swiss Customs Museum, detailing the smugglers’ ingenious schemes and the efforts of customs officers to counter them.
11. Olive Tree Trail
Along with smuggling and the silk trade, olives are also a big part of Gandria’s heritage.
The sunny slopes of Monte Brè are terraced with olive trees, and you can take a leisurely walk through these groves on a 3.5-kilometre trail.
The route stretches from Gandria to Castagnola and feels more like the Mediterranean than Central Europe.
Some of the groves are hundreds of years old, and there are also new efforts to reintroduce olive cultivation.
The path is well signposted and as you go you can read 18 panels with information about the olive trees and their relationship with these two villages.
12. Museo d’Arte della Svizzera Italiana
Since 2015 the diverse art collections of the Ticino Canton and the city of Lugano have been combined under the umbrella Museo d’Arte della Svizzera (MASI). This has two locations, one inside the brand new LAC building in the south of the city, near the start of Via Nassa.
And the other is the Palazzo Reali in the centre of the city.
The LAC is the venue for modern and contemporary art and major temporary exhibitions.
While the collections from the 15th to the 20th century in the Palazzo Reali warrant as much time as you can allow.
The standouts are pieces by Swiss-Italian masters from the Baroque like Giovanni Serodine and Giuseppe Antonio Petrini.
On the Melide Causeway at the foot of Monte San Salvatore is an open-air museum that, true to its name, renders all of Switzerland’s big landmarks in miniature.
The park has 130 models of churches, manor houses, castles and landforms like the Matterhorn.
These are mostly on a scale of 1:25 and wreathed in flowerbeds and woodland.
Kids will also be wild for the miniature railway that wends through the park.
This is 3.5 kilometres long and has 18 model trains zipping along its tracks.
Also keep an eye out for the park’s funiculars, cars on the motorways and boats zipping over the lakes.
14. Lido di Lugano
East of the Parco Civico, the Lido di Lugano is a kind of holiday resort all within walking distance of the city.
There are several outdoor pools, including one with toys and obstacles for kids, an Olympic-sized pool, medium pool and diving pool.
The Lido also has a sandy beach where you can lounge in front of San Salvatore and the hulking mass of Sighignola on the opposite shore.
You could also go swimming in the lake, pause for lunch at the beach bar, and catch movie screenings on the lawns on summer nights.
Lugano’s cuisine, like the city’s culture and geography, is at the meeting point between Switzerland and Italy.
And that cross-pollination is encapsulated by the Lugano-style piadine.
Very satisfying if you’re on the go, and an antidote to city’s very upmarket cuisine, a piadina is a flatbread wrap that comes with almost anything you like.
It will normally be filled with some combination of cold cuts, prawns or ham, different types of cheese, salad and vegetables like aubergine.
Piadine can be fresh or grilled, and the heated version resembles a taco or quesadilla.