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Lugano from the ‘lake promenade’

“Lugano has two directions: up and down. The train station sits high above the city with the lake promonade below.” 

That just about sums it up! Imagine a beautiful lake high up in the Swiss Alps, but with a microclimate that makes it ‘mild’ and feel (on lucky days) Mediterranean… add a dash of Italian food, flavor and style… Swiss bankers in suits strutting around the incredibly expensive shops… and with views that will steal your breath. And… voila!.. you have the town of Lugano!

Located on Lake Lugano, a stone’s throw away from it’s ritzier, flashier, and more crowded and famous Lake Como neighbor, Lugano is a bustling town built into the Swiss hills and ending with soft edged lake views. (I was okay with missing out Clooney sightings for a bit more sedate pace and calm.)

I spent five days on the Italian side of the lake in one of the charming villages that dot the edges of the water, and decided to check out market day in Lugano itself. A 30-minute bus ride into the city (where the direction is definitely up or down – but add in lots of twists to get the up and down part executed!), dropped me a few minutes walk away from the Lugano boardwalk.

A lazy day of playing chess in the rain – these guys were there when I drove IN from the airport, when I spent the day in Lugano, AND when I drove OUT to the airport

Lugano is an interesting town – unique blend of Swiss focused discipline (incredibly clean for a ‘holiday town’ and with busses that run like clock work!) and Italian culture, it’s filled with banks and casinos and conference centers and watch shops. But it is also about lazily walking along the boardwalk and sitting in a cafe to sip some of the local ‘Lago Lugano’ white wine and savor it’s crisp and fruity flavor. And one of my favorite parts of it – its tiny airport! Catering mostly to private and corporate jets, it’s got a terminal the size of a classroom, and most of the ‘waiting area’ cafes are OUTSIDE the building located underneath giant canopies and palm trees, ‘beach-resort’ style. (You can reach Lugano, btw, either by train from Milan Malpensa airport (which is usually the cheapest option) or you can gamble and see what prices you get for a flight directly into Lugano.)

Braving the rain while shopping Via Nassa

Carved out of the side of the Alpine hills that crawl out from the lake, the main part of the city is compact and easy to walk around in. There’s a bustling street market with yummy treats (but note that it is not every day and it ends at noon so you have to be there early! If you wanted to first have a third cup of coffee with breakfast like I did, you just may miss the good stuff. Sigh.) There are a couple of museums and a cultural exhibit hall.

But the main to-do in Lugano for the day is shopping and water sports. I explored the shopping, and the Via Nassa pedestrian area. But since it was a) pouring rain and b) filled mostly with shops like Gucci and Hermes and Gaultier which were SLIGHTLY out of my price range… I opted for a walk in the rain along the boardwalk, a over-priced salad in a cafe, and a boat ride.

Sorry, but for all the loveliness of Lugano’s cobbled streets and adorable cafes, the best part for me of Lugano was getting on the boat and leaving it!

Lady of the Lake (ha!)

That’s when it became REALLY fun! The ferry ride from the center of Lugano’s ‘pier’ area to the village where I was bunking down was about 45-minutes. 45-minutes of charming views, gorgeous little villages, mirror-still water, and quiet. It was the best part of my visit to Lugano! So gorgeous, I found myself grinning like a total loon while snapping pictures and video like a first-time tourist (and my total apologies to the little German boy on the boat who I think I scared because I was smiling THAT much!)

Local Lugano color

The ferry ride zigzagged across the lake, giving passengers a view of Lugano (the ‘big’ city on the lake), private homes, little villages that seem to rise out of the water and are tenaciously clinging to the hillsides already for centuries. On one random stop at a placed called Grotto Teresa, it looked like the ‘village’ consisted of the dock, a home, and a restaurant with a huge deck overlooking the water. Definitely on my ‘to-do’ list for next time! (I’m holding out for that experience to be shared with sunshine, blue-skies, and some adorable guy to make eyes at while we sit on that romantic deck.)

Patrolling the rough border on the lake

Since the lake is technically cut in half by the Italian-Swiss border… now the EU-Swiss border technically, there is even a ‘border’ stop on the ferry ride. I loved it! The most colorful border patrol stop you will ever see! (See picture!) Not to ‘diss’ the security measures in place there, but it’s basically a ‘grin-and-wave’ stop – it was adorable and charming. (I bet Hemingway’s hero would have appreciated knowing there will be friendly border guards when he sat in that little boat and rowed from Italy to Switzerland. Was that Lake Lugano or Lake Maggiore? English teacher buddies, help!)

Wish you were here!

So would I recommend Lugano for a stay? Totally! Just don’t stay IN the city itself – rather explore and discover local charm and atmosphere in the villages and other towns around the edges of the lake. But take the time to do a drive to Lugano. And for sure pick a ferry and get on board! :)