Surrounded by mountains, and emerged in its lake, the city of Lugano is the centerpiece of Switzerland’s Ticino region, the southern canton where Italian is the official language. In the city you’ll fall in love with the Italianate architecture, lakeside promenades, waterfront parks, luxurious shopping streets and lively arcaded squares. The Italian touch is clearly noticeable in the cuisine, architecture, attitudes and a more laid-back life style. The Mediterranean scenery gives this lakeside city a particular charm, accented with its cultural fame driven by its Film Festival and being the residence of Hermann Hesse, the Nobel Prize winner. 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. Here we propose our selection of top 10 things to visit in Lugano and enjoy during your stay!
1. Lake Lugano
One of the other popular things to do here is to combine a boat cruise with walking, taking a boat to Gandria and walking back to Lugano along the Sentiero dell’Olivo which we will share more about down.
2. Parco Civico-Ciani
Right by Lake Lugano is the enchanting park of Civico-Ciani, a 63,000 square meters of greenery and parkland, filled with trees typical of the Ticino region: maple, lime, oak and plane. Parco Civico also hosts a few big amenities like the Cantonal Library and Convention Centre. Closer to the city centre, housing historian and art collections, is the 1843 Villa Ciani, wrapped in carefully maintained gardens with flowerbeds, palms and shrubs.
The long lakeside promenade follows the shore for the entire length of Lugano, with subtropical gardens and modern sculptures lining the walkway to the southernmost boat landing at Paradiso. From every point on the promenade you can enjoy postcard views of the lake, framed by the surrounding mountains. During the day you’ll be wowed by the vistas of Monte Brè and Monte San Salvatore and around the curve of the bay from the centre there are supreme views of Lugano, which are just as enchanting after sunset.
Lugano’s old town rises abruptly from the three squares that surround its Palazzo Civico (the Neoclassical town hall). The centre is filled with Renaissance and Baroque churches, convents, palazzi and arcaded squares.The Piazza Riforma is edged by tall pastel-painted houses and on Piazza Ciocarro is the trapezoidal and arcaded Palazzo Riva. Beside it, a funicular climbs to the rail station high above. A wide terrace opens out in front of the church of San Lorenzo (Saint Lawrence), Lugano’s originally Romanesque landmark.
The charming cathedral of San Lorenzo was built in the High Middle Ages. Rebuilt in the 15th century, its exterior facades reflect that epoc’s style instead of the original Middle Ages. The main facade for Lugano’s Renaissance cathedral is a real treasure, carved from white limestone and Carrara marble with a beautiful rose window, and busts of the Kings David and Solomon. From the front of the cathedral, there’s a terrace to contemplate at the view of the lake and mountains and the patchwork of the terracotta roofs of the Old Town.
Another site to visit in the centre is the Palazzo Reali museum, which together with the brand new LAC building in the south of the city, come under the umbrella of Museo d’Arte della Svizzera (MASI). The Palazzo Reali homes collections from the 15th to the 20th century and the standouts include pieces by Swiss-Italian masters from the Baroque like Giovanni Serodine and Giuseppe Antonio Petrini.
4. Monte Brè
Monte Brè, with its distinctive cone shape, is said to be Switzerland’s sunniest spot, and it’s also one of the most scenic, with views as far as the Valais Alps. With a magnificent vista over Lugano, Monte Brè is Lugano’s closest mountain and it can be reached via a narrow road, walking trails, or by a funicular to its 933-meter-high summit. The observation point gives you a view not only of the entire Lake Lugano valley, but often stretches as far as the views of Monte Rosa and the Bernese Alps. Along with a scenic terrace, you’ll find two restaurants to relax and enjoy a local meal.
On the way up or down, you can find the small, quaint village of Brè, a tiny settlement of traditional Ticino-style houses that’s a favorite of artists. The town also houses many paintings by the Swiss painter, Wilhelm Schmidt. There are plenty of things to do in the outdoors, including several hiking trails and mountain biking.
5. Hermann Hesse Museum
The Hermann Hesse Museum is located in Montagnola, near Lugano, and houses memorablia from his time here for the 43 years up to his death. The Camuzzi House, where all of these are housed, is where Hesse wrote many of his most famous works, including “Siddhartha”, “Steppenwolf“, “Narcissus” and “Goldmund”. You can examine correspondence with famous figures like T.S. Eliot and Freud, Hesse’s typewriter, books, photographs and several watercolours he painted. It was during his time in Montagnola that he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1946. Definitely deserved a place in our selection of favourite things to visit in Lugano.
To live further the experience, you can also take an audio-guided tour of Montagnola, following Hesse’s footsteps around the village.
Want to see a mini Switzerland? In close proximity to Lugano is the Swissminiatur, a miniature version of Switzerland spanning a scale of 14,000 square meters in an open-air museum. The park has 130 models of churches, manor houses, castles and shows several well-known sites such as Chillon Castle, Heidi’s house in Marienfeld and the Matterhorn . Also keep an eye out for the park’s funiculars, cars on the motorways and boats zipping over the lakes. The models are surrounded by 15,000 flower species and several thousand trees as well, making it an ideal retreat as well as a favourite for families. Kids will go crazy for the miniature railway that wends through the park, its is 3.5 kilometres long and has 18 model trains zipping along its tracks.
7. The Olive Grove Trail and Gandria
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 fascinating olive grove trail passes through the area where ancient olive trees used to grow, stretching from Castagnola to Gandria. Some of the groves are hundreds of years old, and there are also attempts to reintroduce olive cultivation. The path is well signposted and as you go you can read 18 panels describing various aspects of the olive tree: its history, cultivation, cultural uses, and products thereof. The walk is about two hours long and it’s an easy, relaxed walk, allowing you to enjoy the countryside and the beautiful olive trees. View after view unfolds as the path passes through the narrow streets of lakeside villages and among the gardens between trees.
This Sentiero dell’Olivo, Olive Path, leads to the picturesque terraced village of Gandria. Gandria is unspoiled and looks much as it did a hundred years ago when the village was a den of illegal 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. Among its steep, narrow lanes and arcaded alleys, you’ll find the Church of Saint Vigilio, built in 1463, but with a Baroque facade completed only in the late 1800s. The lake is quite narrow here, and directly opposite (by a boat ride) is a grotto restaurant and the Swiss Customs Museum detailing the smugglers’ ingenious schemes and the efforts of customs officers to counter them.
8. The Alprose Chocolate Museum
While in Switzerland you can’t skip chocolate! A fun outing for children and adults alike, the Alprose Chocolate Museum offers a comprehensive view of the history of chocolate and includes a free tasting. In the Alprose factory you can watch chocolate being produced, processed and packaged. You will go through a detailed explanations of these processes amidst the gentle aroma of chocolate, making for an unforgettable experience. Near the end of the tour you can taste the different types of chocolates produced there. Don’t forget to bring home some gifts and souvenirs from the museum and shop, a great way to remember the experience!
9. Monte San Salvatore
Lugano’s own mountain on the southern skyline, Monte San Salvatore peaks at over 900 metres. Despite its relatively low altitude, Monte San Salvatore’s summit offers one of the most beautiful and panoramic vistas in the entire Alps, and thus deservingly gets its place in a must-list of things to visit in Lugano. Underneath you can view Lake Lugano as it weaves its snakey way among the steep, wooded slopes that enclose it. The red tile roofs of Lugano scatter across the town’s hillsides, and other villages cluster around the shore. Turn your back on the lake and town to find a sea of alpine peaks stretching to the horizon, crowned by Monta Rosa and the Valais Alps.
The route to San Salvatore is an old one, dating from 1200 when pilgrims paced a way to the peak of the mountain. A funicular carries you the steep 600 meter ascent to the summit from the suburb of Paradiso in just 12 minutes. At the upper station, you’ll find a restaurant, viewing terrace, and walking trails leading down to Carona, Melide, Morcote and Figino. You can return to Lugano from any of these by rail, postal bus, or boat.
10. Valle Verzasca
Known to the world for James Bond’s death-defying jump in the opening scene of GoldenEye, the 220-meter Verzasca Dam is distinguished with being one of the highest in Europe. You will be enchanted with the surrounding scenery. The river as it runs through the rocky course, forms mini waterfalls and swimming holes of emerald green surrounded by ridges for sunbathing. It beautifully sneaks beneath stone bridges and through ancient alpine villages. A must stop is at Lavertezzo, with its picturesque waterfall. Here, the Ponte dei Salti stone-arched bridge crosses the river, and from the village church, you can follow the Revöira walking trail along an ancient route which was used for centuries by inhabitants transporting their flocks and their families to the high mountain pastures. Along the way, you’ll see remains of ancient water systems and reservoirs carved into the stones. In Sonogno, a quiet stone village at the end of the valley, you can visit the Museum of the Verzasca Valley, dedicated for demonstrations of this system. For a more comfortable way, a bus route from Lugano follows close to the river, with frequent stops, so you can get off and walk along the trails from village to village.
We hope that having read about our selection, now you are inspired to visit and explore. Remember to share with us which places & things to visit in Lugano would you personally recommend!