Lugano: The Sunny Side of Switzerland

Lugano's waterfront promenade (photo: Cameron Hewitt)
By Rick Steves

Lugano, the leading city of the Italian-speaking Swiss canton of Ticino, gives you Switzerland with an Italian accent. The town (population 60,000; metropolitan area jumps to 130,000) sprawls luxuriously along the shores of Lake Lugano. Just a short, scenic train ride over the Alps from the German and French regions of Switzerland, Lugano has a splashy, zesty, Mediterranean ambience. It attracts vacationers from the rainy north with its sunshine, lush vegetation, inviting lake, and shopping. While many travelers come here for the fancy boutiques, others make this a base for hiking, cruising the lake, and passing lazy afternoons in its many gardens. Its mountains aren’t mighty, its beaches are lousy, the cityscape is nothing thrilling, and it can all feel a little geriatric, but Lugano is the best spot to enjoy palm trees in Switzerland, and its charm merits at least a short visit.

Planning Your Time

Lugano lies conveniently at the intersection of the William Tell Express and the Bernina Express — two of Switzerland’s more scenic train rides. Blitz sightseers arrive along the William Tell route one day and take off on the Bernina Express the next.

If relaxing is on your itinerary, spend two nights and a full day here, arriving and departing on the scenic trains. With a day, spend the morning exploring the old town with my self-guided walk, then do a boat cruise and ascend a mountain lift (San Salvatore is best) in the afternoon. Extra time — and you’ll have some — can be spent relaxing in gardens and along the lakefront.

Orientation to Lugano

The old town is on Lake Lugano, which is bordered by promenades and parks. A funicular connects the old town with the train station above. Nearly everything in this article (with the exception of the mountain lifts) is within a five-minute walk of the base of the funicular. The town of Lugano fades into other, smaller waterfront communities all around the lake (much of which lies in Italy).

Italian is the language of Lugano and its region (Ticino), which is surrounded on three sides by Italy. In this corner of Switzerland, a Strasse (street) becomes a Via, and a Platz (square) becomes a Piazza.

Tourist Information

Lugano’s tourist information office faces the boat dock a couple of blocks below the funicular (tel. 058-866-6600).

The TI offers free walking tours in English up to four days a week during peak season, with a different theme each day: Mon 10:00 (April–Oct) — classic tour; Tue 10:00 (mid-April–mid-July and late Aug–mid-Oct) — parks and gardens; Thu 10:00 (mid-May–Oct) — history through architecture; Fri 13:00 (June–mid-Oct) — to the top of Monte Brè, a popular excursion as they pay for your boat and lift tickets. All tours leave from the TI except Monte Brè, which starts at the boat dock; confirm times with TI.

Arrival in Lugano

The train station is on a hill above downtown. It has lockers (in the underground passage and out front), a ticket office, ATMs, a convenient small grocery (Piccobello, open long hours daily), a surprisingly genteel restaurant (Buffet della Stazione, SF-12 pizzas), but no tourist information office. The easiest way to get to the town below is by funicular (look for funicolare per il centro sign — it’s by track 1 in the middle of the station, departs every 5 minutes, daily 5:20–23:50, 1.10 SF, free with Swiss Pass). The funicular deposits you right in the heart of the old town, at Piazza Cioccaro, a short walk from my recommended accommodations (and at the start of my self-guided walk). You can also walk (but not with wheeled luggage) or take bus #2 down the hill (for bus details, see “Getting Around Lugano,” below).

Helpful Hints

Internet Access: The city operates free Wi-Fi along the waterfront and in Piazza della Riforma (look for the Wi-Fi Lugano network). You'll need a phone that can receive texts to log in. The Manora self-service restaurant, in the middle of town, has free Wi-Fi for customers (see “Eating in Lugano,” below).

Laundry: Il Girasole is a self-service launderette with English instructions a 15-minute walk away from the lake — or take bus #7 (direction: Pregassona) three stops from Lugano Centro to Piazza Molino Nuovo, then walk a block onwards (about 17 SF/load, open long hours daily, Via Giuseppe Bagutti 8, tel. 091-922-9900 or mobile 076-503-7964, ).

Local Guide: Lovely Christa Branchi teaches enthusiastically about her city and its history (180 SF/1–3 hours, 220 SF/half-day, 330 SF/day, tel. 091-606-3302, christabranchi@hotmail.com).

Getting Around Lugano

The town center is easily walkable, and the two nearby hilltop excursions, San Salvatore and Monte Brè, start from funicular stations that are each a 20-minute lakeside stroll (in opposite directions) away from the center.

Buses can save time, though. All lines converge at the Lugano Centro terminal on the north edge of downtown. Bus #2 (2–4/hour) conveniently links Paradiso (for San Salvatore), the train station, Lugano Centro, and Castagnola (for Monte Brè). Buy bus tickets from the English-speaking touch-screen machines next to any bus stop (1.80-SF “short-path” ticket good for up to four stops, 2.30-SF ticket valid for one hour, 6.90-SF day pass — to buy, touch “Further Tickets,” then “Day Pass,” then select "Lugano"; all Lugano buses covered by Swiss Pass).

Welcome to Lugano Walk

Resorty Lugano hides some interesting history, but let’s face it: You’re here to relax. Consider taking this short stroll to get yourself oriented...or just grab a gelato and wind your own way through the city center’s arcades and lakeside promenade.

Start on Piazza Cioccaro, at the base of the funicular that connects the train station with the town center.

With your back to the funicular, go down the narrow street to the right of the building at the bottom of the square.

Via Pessina: In this tangled, colorful little corner are several small delicatessen-type shops run by Signor Gabbani. Stop in if you’d like to sample some of the best local cheese, bread, salami, and/or wine.

Bear right, and on your right, at Via Pessina 3, find the...

Grand Café al Porto: This venerable, elegant institution is the most historic café in town. The 1803 above the fireplace is the date it opened — and also when Ticino joined the Swiss Federation. Once a convent (notice the fine sgraffito facade), the café evokes the 19th-century days when Giuseppe Mazzini and fellow Italian patriots would huddle here — safely over the border — planning their next move to unify Italy. Much later, as World War II wound down, US intelligence officer Allen Dulles (future head of the CIA) met right here with Nazi and Italian representatives to organize a graceful end to the war and prevent the Germans from ruining Italy with a scorched-earth retreat. And in more carefree times, this is where Clark Gable and Sophia Loren dipped cookies in their coffee.

Just past Grand Café al Porto, take a left at the fountain into...

Piazza della Riforma: This square is Lugano’s living room. With geraniums cascading on all sides, the square hosts an open-air cinema, markets (Tue and Fri), and local festivals. The giant yellow building is the city hall (municipio).

Facing the city hall, make a 90-degree left turn and walk (between the farmacia and the white bank building) down...

Via Canova: This street leads directly to the city park. Follow it for a few blocks, watching for the elegant gallery that burrows through a block (on your left after the second crosswalk). Just after that, on your right, you’ll pass the Museo Cantonale d’Arte, which displays ever-changing exhibits of primarily 19th- and 20th-century art (main collection-8 SF, with special exhibits-12 SF, covered by Swiss Pass, Wed–Sun 10:00–17:00, Tue 14:00–17:00, closed Mon, Via Canova 10, tel. 091-910-4780).

Next is the creamy little Church of San Rocco. Its rich frescoes celebrate the saint responsible for protecting the city against the plague.

Beyond the Church of San Rocco is the park-like Piazza Indipendenza. The giant head on its side is the work of Polish sculptor Igor Mitoraj, who has decorated squares all over Europe with similar sculptures. On your right is the vast, sterile casino building. Though its blocky, modern style doesn’t quite fit the otherwise elegant architecture of this area, it does have an elevator leading up to a fine lake view (lake side of building — we’ll pass there later on this walk).

Continuing straight across the street from Piazza Indipendenza, pass through the gate to come face-to-face with the pink palace in the...

City Park (Parco Civico Villa Ciani): The park’s centerpiece, the Villa Ciani, houses a fine-arts museum. Sprawling from here along the lake is a lush park filled with modern art and exotic trees from around the world. Its water gate evokes the 19th century, when this was the private domain of aristocrats. The flower beds are organized to show off maximum color all year long. If the weather’s nice, stow your guidebook and remember you’re on vacation as you explore this ingeniously landscaped, people-friendly space. It’s lit at night and particularly good for a late, romantic stroll.

From the city park, walk back to the town center along the...

Waterfront: This lovely promenade may get even nicer in coming years, as the city is considering barring car traffic along this stretch of the lakefront. For now, the busy street is closed off to traffic only on Friday and Saturday evenings from late June through August (after 20:30), when you'll find concerts and events in full swing.

On the right, the casino’s top-floor restaurant overlooks the lake. If it’s open, ride the glass elevatore up and down for a fun and free view. Then continue strolling through the arcade or under the mulberry trees (a favorite of silk worms, dating from the time when silk was a local industry) until you reach the tourist information office and the boat dock. On the way, you’ll pass several places to rent paddleboats.

Look across the lake for the village clustered around a huge, blocky, sand-colored building (lit up in bright colors at night). That’s the Casinò di Campione, the largest casino in Europe, which enjoys special legal privileges, granted by Mussolini when he saw what casino tourism had done for nearby Lugano. The casino dominates Campione d’Italia — a tiny enclave of Italy that’s surrounded by Switzerland on all sides; residents use Swiss francs, have Swiss phone numbers and license plates, and pay Swiss taxes...but carry Italian passports.

Back at the yellow city hall building, cross the busy road (notice the pedestrian underpass nearby). A block inland from the TI is Piazza della Riforma again. The first left off the square is...

Via Nassa: This is one of Lugano’s main shopping streets. For the next several blocks, just enjoy the wandering, window-shopping, and people-watching along this gauntlet of boutiques and jewelry shops under typical Lombardi arcades. On the right, at #22, the Co-op department store (closed Sun) has a good selection of chocolates (just inside the door on the left), a basement supermarket, and a handy top-floor cafeteria (lunch only, great views).

Follow Via Nassa until it dead-ends at the small but historic...

Church of St. Mary of the Angels (Chiesa Santa Maria degli Angioli): This lakefront church, which dates from 1499, was part of a monastery (next door). Inside the church are the city’s best frescoes.

The Passion and Crucifixion of Christ, the artistic highlight of all Ticino and the finest Renaissance fresco in Switzerland, is on the wall that separates the nave from the altar area. Milanese Bernardino Luini, who painted it in 1529, is sometimes called the “Raphael of the North” for the gentle expressions and calm beauty of his art. Follow the action as the scenes from Christ’s passion are played out, from Jesus being crowned with thorns (left) to the doubting apostle Thomas touching Jesus’ wound after his Resurrection (right). The central dominating theme is the Crucifixion. The work is rife with symbolism. For instance, at the base of the cross, notice the skull and femur of Adam, as well as his rib (from which Eve was created). Worshippers saw this and remembered that without Adam and Eve’s first sin, none of the terrible action in the rest of the fresco would have been necessary. Luini spent a decade working on this fresco, applying his paints day by day, a section at a time, over thin layers of wet plaster.

Facing the giant fresco, look to your left to find the three smaller frames. This is Luini’s Last Supper, which was sliced off a wall of the monks’ dining hall and put on canvas to be hung here.

Finally, wander up to the front of the church. The altar is rich and unusual with its wooden inlay work.

Along the lakefront across from the church begins the...

Giardino Belvedere: This delightful little garden park is an open-air modern-art museum. The building facing it was once a monastery, then the Grand Hotel Palace. This first grand hotel on the lake was radical in that it actually faced the lake. From here, survey the scene. Paradiso, the big hotel zone with its 80-foot-high fountain, is a 15-minute walk along the lakeside. From there, the San Salvatore lift zips sightseers to the summit (described next). The ridge across the lake marks the border of Italy.

Our walk is finished. If you've got energy left, continue along the lakefront on the pleasant path to Paradiso; there you can summit San Salvatore, hop on a lake cruise, or do both.

Sights near Lugano

Mountain Lifts

Lugano is a base from which several relatively small peaks can be conquered, sweat-free, by lifts. At about 3,000 feet, Lake Lugano's mountains are unimpressive compared with the mightier Alps farther north; if you've done some of the higher lifts in the Berner Oberland or Zermatt regions, nothing here will thrill you. Still, if you want the complete Lugano experience, you need to enjoy commanding mountaintop views over the lake. Doing more than one is overkill; San Salvatore is best and relatively handy to Lugano town.

San Salvatore

The easiest and most rewarding peak on the lake, thanks to its fine panoramic views, San Salvatore (2,990 feet) rockets up from the Lugano suburb of Paradiso.

At the top you’ll find good viewpoints, as well as a playground, a self-serve cafeteria, and a restaurant (overpriced, but may offer a daily special-plus-funicular deal, food served 11:00–15:00, in high season also 19:00–23:00). From the lift, be sure to climb five more minutes to the actual summit. On the way up, pop into the Salvatore Museum, with its small collection of religious art and exhibits on local geology (included in funicular ticket, Wed–Sun 10:00–12:00 & 13:00–15:00, closed Mon–Tue). At the top of the mountain, there’s a small church surrounded by a view terrace. For the best panorama, climb to the rooftop of the church (entrance around the right side) for a sweeping, nearly 360-degree view. Unfortunately, the bay directly in front of Lugano is just about the only thing you can’t see from up here.

Cost and Hours: 24 SF round-trip, half-price with Swiss Pass, 2/hour — departs on the hour and the half-hour, 12-minute ride, transfer to another funicular midway up, daily late June–Aug 9:00–23:00, off-season generally 9:00–18:00, closed early Nov–mid-March, these are last ascent times--last descent generally 30 minutes later, tel. 091-985-2828, .

Getting There: To reach the base of the funicular, either walk along the water (about 20 minutes south of the city center; keep your eye out for brown signs indicating the funicular), or take bus #2 (direction: Paradiso, get off at Funicolare San Salvatore stop).

Monte Brè

Departing from the other end of Lugano, in the suburb of Cassarate, this funicular takes you to arguably the best view down on the lagoon of Lugano itself (3,005 feet). There's a restaurant up top.

Cost and Hours: 23 SF round-trip, half-price with Swiss Pass, 2/hour — generally at :15 and :45 after the hour, daily June–Oct 9:15–18:45, Nov–Dec and March–May until 16:45, closed Jan–Feb, 33-minute trip, restaurant has lunch-and-funicular combo offer, tel. 091-971-3171.

Getting There: From Lugano’s old town, you can take bus #2 (direction: Castagnola) to the Cassarate/Monte Brè stop. Getting off the bus, walk a little farther along the water, then follow brown funicolare signs uphill to the left. Don’t dawdle--the turnstile gate closes with little warning shortly before the funicular departs. You can also reach Cassarate via the lake boat from downtown Lugano.

Monte Generoso

The tallest mountain but farthest from Lugano, Monte Generoso (5,590 feet) is high enough that you can see some of the more distant cut-glass peaks. From the Lugano train station, you can reach the top in less than an hour.

Cost and Hours: 39 SF round-trip, half-price with Swiss Pass, for cogwheel train from Capolago train station to Generoso Vetta, the summit (April–Oct roughly hourly 9:20–15:30, plus 16:30 June–Sept, few or no trains Nov–March, 35 minutes one-way, tel. 091-630-5111).

Getting There: From Lugano, you’ll take the train (15 minutes) or a once-daily, slower boat to Capolago.

Cruising Lake Lugano with a Stop in Gandria

Lake Lugano is made to order for a boat trip. Along with paddleboats and simple cruises from village to village, you have a dizzying array of more elaborate excursions to choose from (a lunch trip, a grand tour, a shopping excursion into Italy, and an evening dinner cruise). Pick up the boat schedule (orario) listing your options, and ask the TI or at one of the boat docks for details.

One-Hour Loop Trip: The best basic trip is the one-hour circle from Lugano. This cruise stops at a few desolate restaurants and hamlets along the far side of the lake, visits Gandria (a peaceful and picturesque little fishing town with several romantic view restaurants), then returns to Lugano (26.40 SF round-trip including stopovers, or 16 SF for one segment, free with Swiss Pass). You can get off at any point, look around, and wait for a later boat; from Gandria (see below), you can also return to Lugano by foot or bus.

Note that if you’re hopping on and off the boat, you’ll actually cobble together the trip from various longer cruises, each with different itineraries. Some circle the lake clockwise, others counterclockwise, and not every boat makes every stop (the boat serves only those parts of the lake within Swiss borders). Study the boat schedule carefully to note when the next boat comes by and exactly where it stops.

Stops on the Lake: On the far side of the lake, the best place to break your journey is at the adjacent stops of Cantine di Gandria and Museo Doganale. Cantine di Gandria has two traditional trattorias and wine grottos — great for a rustic meal or just a snack and a drink (Grotto Teresa, tel. 091-923-5895, and Grotto Descanso, tel. 091-922-8071; they close on different days, so at least one is sure to be open on any given summer day; they’re both closed Nov–April). A five-minute walk from Cantine di Gandria takes you to the bright orange Museo Doganale, right on the Italian border, with underwhelming exhibits on customs and smuggling (free, no English but worth a 10-minute visit, April–mid-Oct daily 13:30–17:30, closed mid-Oct–March, tel. 091-910-4811). Boats stop alternately at Cantine di Gandria and Museo Doganale.

Gandria, on the Lugano side of the lake, is the most intriguing and popular stop. A dense cluster of houses hangs over the lake with a few lazy, romantic hotels and several inviting restaurants. Of the various waterfront options, Restaurant Miralago Gandria is immediately above the ferry dock, with an extremely romantic setting (mediocre food, fair prices, open daily, tel. 091-971-4361). You can lob bits of bread to the hungry birds, rewarding the ones who fly high circles by your lakeside table. Locanda Gandriesi has better cooking and a smaller, quieter terrace, but is pricier and farther from the boat dock and birds (go left from the dock — it’s about a 5-minute walk, just below the church; open daily, tel. 091-971-4181).

From Gandria, you can walk back to Lugano along a great 45-minute lakeside path through restored olive groves, with multilingual signposts telling you all about olive cultivation. This path brings you to Castagnola, a suburb of Lugano; at the Castagnola post office, catch bus #2, #11, or #12 back into Lugano (or walk another 30 minutes).

Note that the last boat of the day from Gandria back to Lugano leaves at 17:20 (or 18:35 in July–Aug). There are also buses (#490, Mon–Sat only), but the last one leaves at 18:25. If you stay longer and miss the boat and bus, you’ll have to walk or fork over 40–50 SF for a taxi.

Half-Day Plan: Here’s a pleasant way to spend a late afternoon and evening (confirm boat times before departing):

14:55   Catch the boat from Lugano around the lake to Gandria (arrival at 15:40) and have a drink and appetizer at Miralago Gandria — early diners always get lakeside tables.

17:20   Catch the last boat from Gandria (departs at 18:35 in July–Aug) and ride to Paradiso. Once at Paradiso, walk to the San Salvatore lift, ride the lift to the summit of the mountain (beautiful at twilight), ride back down, and walk along the lake from Paradiso back to Lugano.

Alprose Chocolate Factory

On a rainy (or sweltering) day, a visit to this factory in Caslano, a small town near Lugano, makes a fun excursion. Alprose is one of Switzerland's smaller, less-well-known chocolate producers, but their factory is geared up for visitors and generous with free samples.

The machines are in operation Monday to Friday 9:00–15:00, but you're always allowed a look at the factory. An elevated, enclosed, air-conditioned walkway lets you watch as big dollops of chocolate are dropped into plastic molds, cooled and popped out onto a conveyor belt, wrapped (mechanically), and packed (manually) into boxes. Next to the factory, a modest museum is set up in a tent. A 15-minute film describing the chocolate-making process runs continuously (ask for the English soundtrack). The shop sells fresh factory seconds for a reduced price. Picnickers can sit at tables next to a vending machine with drinks.

Cost and Hours: 3 SF, no Swiss Pass discount, Mon–Fri 9:00–17:30, Sat–Sun 9:00–16:30, shop stays open a half-hour longer, Via Rompada 36, Caslano, tel. 091-611-8856.

Getting There: The S60 suburban train runs from Lugano to Caslano (Mon–Fri 4/hour, Sat–Sun 2/hour, 21 minutes, direction: Ponte Tresa, covered by rail passes). The train leaves from the cute yellow antique train station across the street from Lugano's main station (marked "Ferrovie Luganesi"; go down the stairs). Machines and windows sell tickets (12.40-SF day pass covers your return). From Caslano station, cross the tracks and go one block downhill along Via Stazione, then turn right on Via Rompada (passing Museo del Cioccolato signs) a long block and a half to the factory.

Sleeping in Lugano

Demand for hotel rooms in Lugano is more even than in other Swiss destinations, but you're likely to encounter the higher prices listed between April and October.

In the City Center

Hotel International au Lac is a classic, elegant hotel with 78 rooms, old-school furnishings, some Lake Lugano views, and even a “museum” of relics from the hotel’s Victorian past. It’s conveniently and scenically located where pedestrian-only Via Nassa hits the lake. Four generations of Schmids have maintained the early-20th-century ambience since 1906, with old photos, inviting lounges, antique furniture, and, it seems, many of their original guests (Sb-120–185 SF, Db-200–315 SF, price depends on size and view, check online for occasional deals, extra adult-40 SF, extra child-20 SF, closed Nov–March, family-friendly, air-con, elevator, guest computer and free Wi-Fi in second-floor parlor, pay Wi-Fi in rooms, terrace restaurant, fun view seats on balcony of bar, swimming pool, parking-20 SF/day, Via Nassa 68, tel. 091-922-7541, info@hotel-international.ch).

Hotel San Carlo, also on the pedestrian-only shopping street, is conveniently close to the train-station funicular. Anna Martina and Beppe rent 20 small, quiet rooms outfitted with Beppe's woodwork (Ss-85–100 SF, Sb-110–40 SF, Ds-135–150 SF, Db-160–180 SF, Qb-240–260 SF, prices fluctuate with demand, elevator, no air-con but fans, breakfast smaller than at comparable hotels, pay guest computer, free Wi-Fi, Via Nassa 28, tel. 091-922-7107, sancarlo@ticino.com).

Hotel Pestalozzi, near the city park, is plain and vaguely institutional. It offers 55 fresh, modern, somewhat sterile rooms — some with lake views. Though it’s a bit farther from the train-station funicular, this hotel is a particularly good value (S-68–73 SF, Sb-104–110 SF, D-116 SF, Db-166–186 SF — pricier rooms tend to have lake view and/or air-con — let them know what's important to you when reserving, extra bed-40 SF, price includes city tax, elevator, pay guest computer, free Wi-Fi, recommended and affordable restaurant, Piazza Indipendenza 9, tel. 091-921-4646, info@pestalozzi-lugano.ch). From the station, you can reach the hotel quickly by taking bus #2 (direction: Castagnola) four stops to Palazzo Congressi.

Near the Train Station

Albergo Stella, a wonderful little oasis, offers 14 rooms between slick office buildings just behind the train station. Owners Daniel and Alexandra Hahne used to own an interior decorating store in Basel, and the hotel is their new playground. Enjoy the garden and the tiny swimming pool (Sb-140 SF, Db-190 SF, Tb-250 SF, price includes city tax, 5 percent discount with this book, some rooms have terraces, air-con, lots of stairs, free Wi-Fi, parking-8-20 SF/day, Via Francesco Borromini 5, tel. 091-966-3370, info@albergostella.ch). Exit the station to the rear (toward track 4), turn right and follow the tracks for 50 yards, take the first left uphill, then turn left up Via Francesco Borromini.

Hotel & Hostel Montarina, a creaky pink mansion in a palm garden overlooking the lake, has to be one of Europe’s most appealing hostels. It’s a great hotel option as well. It has 200 dorm beds (29 SF, sheets-3 SF, 5–18 bunks per dorm), as well as 24 private rooms; half of these are antique rooms with classic furniture and shared bathrooms (S-95 SF, D-120 SF), and the other half are modern “comfort” rooms, with private bathrooms and air-conditioning (Sb-105 SF, Db-140 SF, extra bed-30 SF). Surrounded by lush tropical gardens and an extremely inviting swimming pool, and with a helpful staff, this place is well worth consideration by non-hostelers (breakfast buffet-15 SF, prices include city tax, reception open 7:30–23:00, late-night train noise, lockers, small kitchen, laundry-11 SF/load, free Wi-Fi, free parking, closed Dec–Jan, Via Montarina 1, tel. 091-966-7272, info@montarina.ch). At the train station, head to track 4, then walk along the tracks with the station and lake on your left, and go through the parking lot toward the Continental Parkhotel sign. Just before the sign and a stone wall, take the sharp uphill turn to the right; halfway up the hill, go left through the gate marked #1.

Eating in Lugano

La Tinera, beloved by locals, serves affordable, traditional Ticinese cuisine (such as bollito misto, a beef stew offered every Tue). It’s tucked away in an old wine cellar, with heavy wooden furniture and decorated with wine bottles and antique copper cookware (18–23-SF weekly specials, 13–17-SF pastas, 19–36-SF meat dishes, air-con, Mon–Sat 11:30–15:00 & 17:30–22:30, closed Sun, Via dei Gorini, just a block behind Piazza della Riforma, tel. 091-923-5219).

Bottegone del Vino is an expensive little eatery appreciated for its fine wine. The menu is small and rustic, and the indoor or outdoor ambience is of a quality wine bar. Sitting here, you feel in the know — but order carefully, as prices really add up (20–40-SF dishes, Mon–Sat 11:30–24:00, closed Sun, a block off Piazza della Riforma at Via Magatti 3, tel. 091-922-7689).

Restaurante Pestalozzi, close to the city park and attached to the recommended hotel with the same name, cranks out reasonably priced Swiss, Italian, and vegetarian meals in an indoor, alcohol-free, air-conditioned setting (17–20-SF daily specials, open daily 11:00–21:30, Piazza Indipendenza 9, tel. 091-921-4646).

Around Piazza della Riforma: Various restaurants offer decent but pricey food and great people-watching from outdoor tables on Lugano’s main piazza. The ambience here is magical at twilight. At Pizzeria Tango, a helpful waitstaff serves Italian cuisine with a Ticino influence. While many of its tables face the busy main piazza, its interior and the tables facing a quiet little square on the back may be more inviting (15–28-SF pizzas, 20–28-SF pastas, 40–45-SF meat dishes, daily 8:00–24:00, Piazza della Riforma, tel. 091-922-2701). Also consider Sass Café (classy wine bar with 25–30-SF daily specials, 24–28-SF pastas, and 30–42-SF main courses), Olympia (the mayor’s fave, below City Hall, 14–20-SF pizzas, 22–25-SF pastas, 28–49-SF main dishes), and Vanini Café (tops for coffee and desserts; try the marrons glacés — candied chestnuts).

Cheap Eats

Self-Service Cafeterias: Manora is an enticing self-service restaurant offering affordable, healthy food — a salad bar, pasta bar, dessert bar, and lots more. Choose to sit inside or out on the covered terrace (with a playground). It's on Salita Chiattone, up the stairs ((100 yards) from the bottom of the train-station funicular; during business hours, you can also enter via the bridge from the third floor of the Manor department store (12–17-SF main dishes, free Wi-Fi, Mon–Sat 7:30–22:00, Sun 10:00–22:00, last orders at 21:00).

Co-op Cafeteria, midway along the Via Nassa pedestrian mall, has a pretty rooftop terrace, but is otherwise a poor second to Manora, with less selection, shorter hours, and limited Wi-Fi (open 8:00–19:00, but hot food only at lunch — Mon–Sat 11:30–14:30, closed Sun, Via Nassa 22).

Supermarkets: Try the mid-range Co-op on Via Nassa, or the more upscale Manor off Piazza Dante. Both share the same hours (Mon–Sat 8:15–19:00, Thu until 21:00, closed Sun) and are in the basements of their similarly named department stores. On Sunday, your only option is the small Piccobello at the train station (daily 6:00–22:00).

Lugano Connections

Lugano is a long detour from virtually anywhere else in Switzerland. It’s best connected to other Swiss destinations by scenic trains — over the Gotthard Pass to Luzern and Zürich (take the five-hour William Tell Express train-and-boat combination to Luzern if you have the time), or over the Bernina Pass to eastern Switzerland (ideally on the Bernina Express bus-and-train combination). Train info: toll tel. 0900-300-300 or www.rail.ch.

Long-distance buses leave Lugano from various points around the train station. The Bernina Express and St. Moritz buses leave from the restaurant end (away from the lake), while airport buses leave from the supermarket end (across the street from the antique yellow Ferrovie Luganesi building). Signs and a chart point you to the right stop, but allow extra time when departing, as you might need to ask for help.

From Lugano by Train to: Luzern (hourly, 2.5 hours, half with easy change in Arth-Goldau), Zürich (hourly, 2.75 hours, half with easy change in Arth-Goldau), Interlaken Ost (hourly, 4.75 hours, 1–2 changes), Bern (7/day, 3.75 hours, transfer in Luzern), Milan (hourly, 1 hour).

From Lugano by Bus and Train to the Upper Engadine: The Bernina Express bus leaves Lugano at 10:00 (daily April–late Oct, no buses off-season), connecting in Tirano with trains to Pontresina, Samedan, St. Moritz, and Chur.

From Lugano by Bus Direct to St. Moritz: Quicker but less scenic than the Bernina Express, the Palm Express bus to St. Moritz leaves only once a day in peak season and just on weekends off-season (departs Lugano’s train station usually at 11:55 but confirm time in advance; 3.75 hours to St. Moritz; daily mid-June–mid-Oct, mid-Oct–mid-June runs Sat–Mon only, reservations required).

From Lugano by Bus to Italy’s Lake Como: An Italian-run local bus (#C12) goes from Cassarate (a suburb just east of Lugano, served by city bus #2 from Lugano’s old town) to Menaggio on Lake Como (9/day, 4/day on Sun, 1 hour). From Menaggio, you can take a ferry across the lake to Varenna.

From Lugano to Milan’s Airports: The closest major airports to Lugano are actually in Italy, near Milan: Malpensa Airport and Linate Airport. The handiest way to reach Malpensa is to use the direct buses that leave from Lugano's train station — there are three competing operators, with stops right next to each other on the lakeward end of the station (Giosy Tours, Jet Bus, and Lugano Services, about 1 bus/hour, 70 minutes, 25–35 SF, smart to reserve ahead). Alternatively, you can take the 1-hour train to Milan’s Central Station, from where a train (Malpensa Express) and/or shuttle buses leave frequently for Malpensa and Linate.