Lugano in summer is probably not what you expect when you first think of Switzerland. This sunny city in southern Switzerland belongs to the Italian speaking Ticino region and is easily reached from Milan or Lake Como. I had to keep reminding myself that I had crossed a border and wasn’t still in Italy. That said, Lugano boasts stunning lake views, lush, hikeable mountains, pristine gardens and some pretty tasty food. I spent 24 hours here on my solo trip to Italy last year, and want to share how to get from Milan to Lugano and what there is to do in this beautiful city.
Getting From Milan to Lugano
Lugano can be easily done in a day trip from Milan. I ended up staying the night there because it was my last night away and it turned out to be closer to Malpensa airport for going back home. I treated it like a day trip, however, so the same applies.
The direct train from Milan Central Station takes around 1h30 and is quite scenic. It passes the beautiful and better known famous Lake Como, so expect a relaxing journey. You can check train times and ticket prices via Omio or Trainline. I didn’t find the prices to fluctuate much whilst I was there, so you could likely get away with being spontaneous and booking on the day. Coach is another option but the fastest and most direct mode of transport is train.
Other nearby places you can get to Lugano from
Milan Malpensa Airport
If you’ve been to Milan before, it’ll be no surprise to you that both airports are a way out of the city. You can can take the train via Mendrisio or take a Flixbus coach like I did. The coach takes around 1h15 and costs about £7.
Como S.Giovanni Station is on the same train line on the way from Milan to Lugano. You could easily visit Lugano from Lake Como or do both in one trip. Alternatively, you can get a bus from Menaggio or a 45 min coach from Como.
Tirano and the Bernina Express
Lugano is a 3 hour bus ride from Tirano, the departing station for the Italy-Switzerland leg of the UNESCO Bernina Express line. This is an incredible scenic train journey through the Swiss Alps, all the way to Chur, though many people like to stop in St Moritz or Poschiavo. If you chose Lugano as your starting station on Rhaetian Railways, your journey will include a Bernina Express bus to Tirano. Alternatively, you can arrange your own train to Tirano.
Things to Do in Lugano
The view from the Station
Ok so this isn’t technically a “thing to do” but it’s amazing so I had to include it. On stepping out of the train station I was greeted by chiming bells, fresh mountain air and beautiful lake views. It’s always a bit of potluck choosing day trips or stays somewhere you’ve never been, but I instantly knew I was in the right place.
Lugano Cathedral, or the cathedral of St Lawrence, is well worth a visit. It’s on the way down to the lakeside and is situated in front of another beautiful view. The cathedral itself is stunning inside out. The church tower with the blue dome is a beautiful design, typical of churches in the Ticino region, and the ceiling and floor mosaics inside are intricately detailed. The church requests that you wear something to cover your shoulders when you enter as a sign of respect.
Stroll down to the Lake
Being a city built into a hillside, you have to go down several flights of steps to get to the lakeside from the train station. It’s a very beautiful walk so take your time. You’ll stroll through narrow cobbled streets and see the blue lake getting closer and closer on your way. The steps can be quite steep, particularly going back up. A more mobility friendly option is taking the funicular down to the lower level of the city from the train station.
Parco Ciani is an immaculately kept park and garden right by the lakeside. It’s a great spot for a picnic or to just sit and take in the breathtaking views. With nothing either side of them, these pretty gates are purely decorative, but they do make a perfect photo/Instagram stop.
The park is lined with pretty flower beds, shady tree laden walkways and fountains. It is a little slice of peace and tranquility near the city centre. Located within the park is it’s namesake, Villa Ciani, a property purchased by the Ciani brothers in 1845 and later bought by the city. This is a peachy coloured building that is used to host various exhibitions. Also in the park is the Natural History Museum.
The Lake & the Promenade
One regret I have about visiting Lugano is not going in the actual lake. I didn’t bring a swimsuit on my holiday and was anxious about swimming with my luggage etc. on my first proper solo trip. It turned out to be the height of a European heat wave at around 30 °C and boy did I wish I could just jump in!
Although I just walked around it, there are plenty of things to do on and around Lake Lugano. You can take a cruise on the lake, which you can book at the ticket office along the promenade. You can also hire a pedalo, which costs around CHf 8 (around £6.36) or just jump in at one of the beaches. The most central pool with lake views and beach is Lido di Lugano.
The Red Arrow Tourist Train
The red arrow train is pretty easy to spot and makes itself very well known by blasting out Italian music. It is in no way subtle, but is actually a great way to access a lot of the city’s main sights in one day, including Monté Bré and San Salvatore. The train departs every half hour from Piazza Manzoni and costs CHf 9 (approx. £7.12) for a return journey. It’s a life saver in the heat, trust me. You can hop and and hop off whenever you like.
Monté San Salvatore
At 912 m height, Monte San Salvatore is the smaller of Lugano’s 2 closest mountains. This doesn’t make it any less impressive, however. If you want to see a visual of how high this is, check out my time lapse videos below.
I took the funicular to the top after taking a ride to the base on the red tourist train. It is on the expensive side, at 26-30 Francs for a return (£20-23), but I think it’s totally worth it for the views and connection to nature. The trains depart every half hour and take about 12 minutes to the top; check out the timetable and prices here. Another option of course is hiking up, which you can read more about on this post by Gelato Travel.
There are several walking routes once you get to the funicular station at the top, including a hike to the picturesque village of Moorcote. I climbed up to the highest viewpoint, where there’s a tiny church that you can go inside and have a look, and then back down to the viewpoint by the restaurant. I recommend stopping at the restaurant for drinks or dinner with a view. I enjoyed some pasta and an aperol spritz with a (very hazy but beautiful) view. You’re probably paying for the privilege to dine on a mountain top, for CHf 10-12 (region of £7-10), soup or pasta are affordable options.
You’ll likely meet some large bugs and some cute geckos up on the mountain. It was super humid and cloudy on my visit, hence the mist in the photos, that I’ve had to edit quite a bit to be visible. Even so, the views are absolutely fantastic.
The other mountain enclosing Lugano city is Monte Brè. This is the highest of the two, at 925m. Bré is also accessible by funicular, which costs CHf 25 (£19.84) for a return journey. It’s across the lake from Monté San Salvatore and takes a while to walk between the two. You can save time by taking the red tourist train between them.
It was my plan to visit both but it was getting late when I got down from San Salvatore and I just wanted to sleep before my flight, so I skipped it. To be honest, it was so hot I’m surprised I managed to to any of this!
The mountain is Known as the sunniest spot in Switzerland and a has a walking route via the pretty village of Brè. This post by Travel Yes Please details some of the hiking routes on Brè.
Swissminiatur is a charming minature model of Switzerland and parts of Italy, featuring a mini Duomo Di Milano amongst Swiss landmarks. Regretably I skipped this one as well due to travel fatigue and the heat, but I actually wish I had been; I’ve never been to a mini country before! You can take a 7 minute train from Lugano to Melinda or take a boat from Lugano to get there.
Museums & Other Sites of Interest
Handy Things to Know Before You go
Remember the currency change
If you’re just hopping across the border from Italy, like I did, it’s easy to forget that you’re actually entering another country. This is especially the case in Lugano as the official language is Italian and visually, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were still in Italy. Don’t forget to take out some Swiss Francs and get some change. Like most places, you’ll get away with paying by card, but for certain things, like luggage storage lockers the tourist train, you will need some coins.
Storing Your Luggage
If you’re staying overnight like I did, or just have a lot f stuff with you, you might need somewhere to store your bags. The best place for luggage storage in Lugano is at the train station. The have a variety of different sized lockers, including ones that fit a carry-on sized bag or larger. You will need coins for the lockers so try to get some Swiss change!
Thanks for Reading!
Hope you enjoyed this post about my day in Lugano; you might also like to read about the best day trips from Milan, things to do in Milan or my scenic train ride through the Swiss Alps on the Bernina Express.