With its sweeping bay framed by two facing mountains, Lugano, on the shores of Lake Lugano is a beautiful sight to see, especially when the sun is out and the light sparkles on its lake.
The largest city in the Swiss canton of Ticino, Lugano is an excellent base for exploring the wider region. This includes the nearby beautiful towns of Locarno and Ascona, as well as neighbouring Italy. Here, you are spoilt when it comes to lakes to explore.
Aside from its spectacular scenery, Lugano is a relatively small, albeit attractive, city perfect for walking, particularly along its extensive lakeside promenade. This offers magnificent views of Monte Brè and Monte San Salvatore, as well as the soaring Monte Generoso that stands across the lake.
From outdoor enthusiasts looking for hiking trails and mountain bike rides to those looking for a more leisurely, laid back break, Lugano has it all.
Or you can choose from other outdoor activities such as boat rides, leisurely strolls along the lakeshore promenade, or taking a dip in the delights of the numerous lidos dotted around the lakeshore.
The best thing about it is that you can do it all in a relaxing environment without the stresses you often find in many cities.
What to do Lugano in one day
The city of Lugano is a great place for a short break.
However, you may be based elsewhere and considering a day trip here. If so, there’s lots to do. Read on for an overview of the best things to do on a day trip to Lugano.
This post gives you the low down on these things and an itinerary for what to do in Lugano in one day. We’ve also included some practical information to help you plan your day.
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Where is Lugano?
Lugano is located in southern Switzerland in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino. This is the Swiss region that cuts into northern Italy.
From Milan’s Malpensa Airport, you can be up in Lugano in about 1.5 hours on the train, it is that close! In fact, it’s nearer to Milan than the other major cities in Switzerland, such as Zurich, Geneva, and Bern.
This close proximity to Milan and northern Italy means you can use Lugano as a base and easily explore other lakes in the region that often straddle the Swiss-Italian border.
And the Ticino canton features several notable cities and towns that are also worth exploring. This includes Locarno, with its funicular and cable car, and Bellinzona, with its three medieval castles.
Or you could go on a day trip here from other places. Locarno is only 30 minutes away by train and sits on nearby Lake Maggiore. Como City, which sits on the equally fabulous Lake Como, is between 30 minutes and an hour away.
How to get to Lugano
Lugano does have its own airport but it is not geared up for international travel. So your best option if you’re planning to go directly to the city is to catch the train from Milan’s Malpensa Airport.
You can pick up a train from terminals 1 and 2. Typically, the journey time takes about 1.5 hours and there are direct trains.
How to day trip to Lugano
If you’re just visiting Lugano for a day, you’re likely to be staying elsewhere. Trains from central Milan take around an hour and 15 minutes. The FlixBus also goes to Lugano several times daily, with a similar journey time.
Try to catch an early train or bus to give you plenty of time to see as much as you can of Lugano.
Or if you are staying in Como in northern Italy, you can pick up a direct train from Como San Giovanni station to Lugano. This is a journey of 30 to 60 minutes. Locarno to Lugano is 30 minutes by train.
Another option is to hire a car. This might be handy if you want to explore places that are more difficult to reach using public transportation.
Remember though that this is a mountainous region. So destinations that might appear close on the map may actually take longer to reach than you might think.
Tours to Lugano
You can also visit Lugano as part of an organised day tour. This might suit you if you’d prefer to be escorted there and benefit from a guide.
From Milan, there are several tours that go out to the city. They also often include visits to other cities and towns on nearby lakes.
This full day trip leaves Milan in the morning, and stops off in Como. There is the chance for some free time in Lugano and to try some Swiss chocolate, after which you go by boat from Cadennabia to Bellagio in Italy. You can then go on a Lake Como cruise after exploring the town.
The Swiss Travel Pass
If you want to use Lugano as a base to explore further into Switzerland, or if you’re exploring several places in the area, including Lugano, it might be worth considering purchasing a Swiss Travel Pass.
The Pass gives unlimited travel throughout the country – covering trains, buses and boats. It also includes free entry to over 500 museums and discounts on certain tours.
It therefore enables you to see the rest of Switzerland at a fraction of the cost than if you buy individual train tickets (Switzerland is generally not a cheap country). And with typical Swiss efficiency, it is easy to get around with this. With this in mind, it offers excellent value for money.
Why take a day trip to Lugano?
Lugano is a lovely city, in beautiful surroundings, and there is a lot to see and do.
However, as with most of Switzerland’s cities, it is not especially big, and the centre is quite compact. This means you can pretty much see all of the main sights in a day. Having said that, as with all Swiss cities, you will always find more than enough to justify a return visit.
We’ve been to quite a few places in Switzerland. And like Geneva, Lausanne, Luzern, and Zurich, Lugano enjoys a lakeside setting with a mountainous backdrop. However, that’s where the similarities end.
What we found especially magical about Lugano was the closeness of the mountains. Monte Bre, Monte San Salvatore, and Monte Generoso all feel like they are standing over Lugano, and the lake feels much narrower as a result (we almost thought it was fjord-like).
This is by no means claustrophobic. Rather, it feels like you are up close to both the lake and the mountains, and it feels really cosy.
It also means the spectacular views you are afforded of Lugano from the summit of all three are very special. And it’s really easy to go up these on the local railways.
It’s easy to get to for a day trip
Aside from the breathtaking and outstanding scenery, Lugano is very easy to get to from northern Italy and in particular from around Milan (it’s also probably one of the best day trips in this area!).
Also, because Swiss trains are so efficient, even if you choose the longer route from say Zurich, you know the train journey will be reliable and will only take a matter of hours. A day trip to Lugano is certainly possible from several different places.
It’s a great place to get away from it all
If you are staying in nearby cities such as Milan, Lugano is a great place to get away from it all. As with the Italian Lakes destinations such as Como or Varenna, Lugano offers some welcome breathing space from the frantic hustle and bustle of sightseeing in a large city.
This is also true of the nearby towns and villages which also sit on Lake Lugano.
And like many Swiss cities, one of the joys of Lugano is that the city centre is predominantly car-free. You can walk around pedestrian streets and admire many sights without having to constantly watch out for traffic.
What to do in Lugano in one day
Below we’ve given you a suggested itinerary for your day trip to Lugano, covering what we think are the best things and best places to focus on.
It’s based on arriving at the train station. However, if you drive or catch the bus, you may come into a different part of the city.
A day trip to Lugano
Arrive in Lugano
On the lower level of the train station, you will find a free-to-use funicular that transports passengers down a steep hill to the city centre. It’s literally a five-minute ride so avoid picking up a taxi as we did, as you could pay excessively for the short distance.
If you don’t have heavy luggage and feel like walking (it’s only about a 5-10 minute walk), it’s quite a scenic route down the stairs. This takes you past the Cathedral of St Lawrence (Cattedrale di San Lorenzo) with its distinctive green-domed bell tower.
This is the most opportune moment to pop inside and admire the beautiful interior of this striking building. The façade, which looks out over the city and lake below, was constructed from a mixture of white stone and Carrara marble.
Grab a coffee or tea
At the bottom of the hill, you arrive in Piazza Cioccaro where you’ll find a few attractive-looking restaurants. If you are looking to stop off for a coffee at the start of your day trip to Lugano – this is, after all, Italian-speaking Switzerland – there are plenty of options in the centre.
However, it’s worth wandering down to Piazza della Riforma. This is the main focal point in downtown Lugano and is framed by a number of beautiful buildings.
There is a smattering of bars and restaurants here. When the weather is fine you can order a drink and sit outside and watch the world go by.
You can also look out on the square which is lined with grand neoclassical buildings. The most impressive is undoubtedly the yellow-painted Town Hall (Palazzo Civico), which dates from the mid-19th century.
Admire some frescos
You can then walk down the main shopping street, the pedestrianised Via Nassa. This reminds you of the Italian influence here, with its historic buildings, porticoes, and fountains, and in particular of Milan, with its luxurious shops.
You can pick up this main thoroughfare at Piazza Emilio Maraini. This is a two-minute walk from the city’s main square.
After passing through Piazza Battaglini, you will soon come to another square. This features the stately Hotel International au Lac on the right.
Straight ahead is what at first sight looks like a rather non-descript church called St Mary of the Angel (Chiesa di Santa Maria degli Angioli). However, don’t be put off from venturing inside. You’ll be astounded by a breathtaking fresco that takes up most of a wall and that depicts Christ’s crucifixion.
These were painted by Bernardino Luini, who studied under Leonardo da Vinci. If you’ve been in Milan, you’ll be well aware of the master’s connections to that city. You may well have seen The Last Supper and/or visited one of the museums in Milan that showcases his artistic work and inventions.
Stroll along the lakeside promenade
As you stand outside the front of the church of St Mary of the Angel – one of many old churches in Lugano – you can’t miss the waterfront a stone’s throw across the road.
One of the big attractions in Lugano is the stupendous lakeside promenade and the views it affords. So, cross over the road and take a leisurely walk toward Loreto and Paradiso with the lake on your left.
This is an easy walk with a great view of the lake and the massive ‘Lugano’ city sign.
Up ahead, you can’t miss the distinctive cone-shaped Monte San Salvatore. And when you’re walking, you’ll spot perhaps the most futuristic design in Lugano – LAC (Lugano Arte e Cultura) on your right. This puts on performances and visual arts and music.
Head for Monte San Salvatore’s funicular
A day trip to Lugano can’t happen without at least one mountain ride (we’re recommending two here!). It’s one of the best things to do on a day trip to Lugano.
So carry on walking along the promenade, and as you stroll along a shady grove of trees, you’ll walk past the rather inviting Lido di Lugano on your left.
When you get to the ferry terminal at Paradiso, cross over the road and walk past a large glass building. Almost immediately, take the first road to your left (Via San Salvatore) and walk straight ahead.
In less than ten minutes, you’ll find yourself outside the ticket office for Monte San Salvatore’s funicular. You can’t miss the building as it’s designed as an Alpine lodge with flags hanging from the front. There’s also a sign for the funicular to its right.
Take the funicular up Monte San Salvatore
The ride up to the summit of the 912 metre high Monte San Salvatore actually involves two funiculars. It takes about 12 minutes, and your return ticket covers both.
The change-over point is halfway up, and both funicular rides are great fun with superb views. When you disembark at the top, you’ll find a restaurant (with indoor and outdoor seating) and clean toilets straight ahead of you.
You can then wander around the area and take in the views from different points. Some of this might be a challenge if you have mobility issues – but I’d still recommend taking the funiculars up. There are panoramic views from the restaurant’s outdoor seating and a viewpoint to the side. These are on level ground near the funicular stop.
It’s possible to see over to Lake Maggiore in the distance and also the two parts of Lake Lugano. For those with good eyesight, you can just make out Milan’s skyline in the distance.
Between March and November, the funiculars run every half an hour every day, with closing times getting later as the summer goes on. For most of July and August, they run all the way up to 11 pm, except for the 7.30 pm slot. Times vary between December and February, with some closures, so if you’re visiting during the winter months, I’d recommend checking in advance that the funiculars are running.
Walk to the summit of Monte San Salvatore
If you are up for a relatively steep walk uphill, head towards the small museum (which displays religious art and local geological artefacts and information) and, beyond that, to a small church on the summit. Along the way, you’ll be rewarded with jaw-dropping views at various points.
Before climbing the stairs inside the church to its roof, you can take some great pictures of Lake Lugano below, and the towns dotted along the lakeshore.
However, the best vantage point is on top of the church roof. There are spectacular 360-degree views and, on a clear day, these are absolutely incredible.
You could easily spend an hour up here marvelling at the scenery. You can pretty much see right across the length of Lake Lugano in all directions as well as Monte Bre and Monte Generoso.
Take a boat ride to Gandria
Once you’ve descended to the funicular station at the bottom of Monte San Salvatore, return to Paradiso’s ferry station. Here, you can pick up a boat ride to Gandria, a tiny picturesque hamlet located east of Lugano and one of many small villages along the lakeshore.
You can either buy a ticket for a single boat trip or purchase a day pass. The advantage of the latter is that you can hop on and hop off at various boat station stops on Lake Lugano.
The boat cruise is amazing, with fabulous views of the mountains all around you and pretty houses sitting right on the water, often with cypress trees near them. It takes about 20-25 minutes.
Some boats also stop at Gandria en route to places in Italy, including Campione d’Italia.
The boats run every hour during the day between April and October (and every two hours in the evening). In other months, trips start slightly later in the day and end earlier.
Have lunch in Gandria
Gandria is a fascinating place that is worth exploring. It is also the perfect spot to grab lunch at one of the many picturesque restaurants that overlook the lake.
We stopped off and had an excellent meal at Ristorante Antico. We sat out on the terrace watching the boats coming and going along the river.
Alternatively, there are a couple of eateries right next to where the boat docks that serve drinks and snacks.
This historic hamlet features houses that date back as early as the 16th century, some of which are literally right on the water. Apparently, there wasn’t a road connection until the 1930s, which meant you could only reach it by boat or on foot.
It’s definitely worth spending a bit of time walking around. It’s only a small town, but is really charming, with its narrow alleyways, cobbled streets, and quite steep staircases. There is also a tiny church.
Walk the Olive Grove Trail back
If you feel up for it and it’s a bright sunny day like when we visited, you can also walk back to Lugano via the Gandria Trail (also known as the Olive Grove Trail).
If not, or if you have mobility issues or don’t have enough time, you can hop on a boat back to Lugano (note that if you want to follow this itinerary and then go up Monte Bre, you should try to get off at the Debarcadero/ Casserate stop – however, check the boat schedule as not every one stops here).
It takes about 40 minutes to get to Castagnola on the eastern edge of Lugano (longer if you’re going directly back into the centre of Lugano). It’s a really scenic walk with amazing views over the lake.
Finding your way out of Gandria to pick up the trail requires a little bit of an uphill walk to the church. However, with a few exceptions when you have to walk up and down some steps, it’s pretty flat most of the way.
On the way, there are some beautiful spots. Due to the microclimate in this area, there is some unique flora, palm trees, and of course, olives!
You also pass another tiny cruise boat stop with an attractive-looking restaurant. The end section then takes you along the side of the main road. This leads you to Cassarate, just east of Lugano’s centre.
You can then carry on walking to Lugano and shortly after passing over the river, walk back to the waterfront through Lugano’s beautiful park, Parco Ciani.
Take the funicular to the top of Monte Bré
As you come to Cassarate, you’ll pass another cruise boat stop on your left. This is an opportune moment to take a slight detour to the right where you can pick up the funicular to Lugano’s second mountain, Monte Bre.
Monte Bre is slightly higher than Monte San Salvatore at almost 930 metres high.
Again, the funicular ride up to the summit involves two trains; the first is free. When it reaches the top, you must cross the road to pick up the second (paid) funicular. On the ride up, you’ll get fabulous views of the city and lake below again.
At the very top, you’ll come across a restaurant with a terrace (Osteria Funicolare) with magnificent views. If you have time and fancy it, you can walk along a path to the village of Bre, which takes 15-20 minutes. This starts just past the church at the top of the summit.
The first funicular from Cassarate departs daily, every 15 minutes, between 7 am to 9 pm. In July and August, hours are extended to 11.15 pm. The second funicular from Suviglana also runs daily and departs every 30 minutes starting at 9 am. Closing times vary by season, the earliest being 5 pm, with it closing at 7 pm between June and the end of October and 11 pm in July and August. It is shut between the second week of January and the middle of February
Visit the Vetta Restaurant for stupendous views
If you want to stop for a drink, while Osteria Funicolare would be a great place, we recommend walking down to the Vetta Restaurant. This has a large outdoor patio and more jaw-dropping views of the lake and Lugano below.
To reach the restaurant, turn right outside the funicular station entrance and walk down the path through the woods to the elegant-looking building below (it’s only a 5-minute walk).
You don’t have to eat here. You can just order a drink as we and others did.
This is a perfect spot for sunset as the light is magical. As well as the view of the mountain peak of Monte San Salvatore standing to the left of Lugano, you can also see Monte Generoso. In the distance, there’s Monte San Giorgio.
Walk back to Lugano through Parco Ciani
When you have descended both funiculars, you can walk back to Lugano via the main road. Then turn left into the beautiful lakeside park that is Parco Ciani.
Facing Lake Lugano, this attractive park covers 63,000 square metres and features lots of sculptures and fountains. Watch out for the eye-catching pink-coloured Villa Ciani and the metal gates right by the lakeshore.
You can take some great photos of the lake with Monte San Salvatore in the background by these gates.
End your day trip to Lugano with a drink in the main square
Once you exit the park (near the Casino), it’s a relatively short walk to the city centre along the promenade.
It’s worth exploring some of the streets around here. But make sure you end up in Piazza Riforma for a relaxing drink to end your day trip in Lugano. You can soak up the vibe before leaving, and if you have time and are peckish, there are plenty of places to eat.
The best time to visit Lugano
As is the case with all Swiss cities, especially those in spectacular lake and mountain settings, there is really no best time of year to visit if you are looking for clear fresh air and exceptional views.
However, unless you are particularly looking for winter sports activities, the summer months are probably the most ideal time to explore the city and surrounding countryside. Notwithstanding the more bearable temperatures – it can drop to around zero degrees Celsius in winter – you are more likely to be rewarded with bright, sunny days that offer outstanding views of the mountains and lake.
You will also find that much more is open (and for longer). This includes some of the things outlined in this post on a day trip to Lugano – for example, the funiculars that service the mountains.
Also, when a weather depression moves in, which is more likely outside the summer months, you can soon find the visibility reduces significantly. This can be particularly frustrating if you are hiking in the mountains or have taken a funicular to a mountain summit only to find your view spoilt by low-hanging clouds or rain.
In the summer, the weather generally hovers around the 25 to 30 degrees Celsius mark. On a bright sunny day, you can enjoy all the outdoor attractions that Lugano has to offer to the full. The days are longer, and the light and sunset views can be spectacular.
Is Lugano worth visiting?
We have previously visited quite a few towns and cities in French-speaking Switzerland and also German-speaking Switzerland. However, this was our first time in the Italian-speaking region.
We were not disappointed. In fact, we were so impressed that we will definitely be back.
If this is your first time in Lugano, I’m sure you’ll also love it. Aside from being a laid-back city with many attractive sights, Lugano is located in absolutely breathtaking scenery, with the lake and the mountains around the city lending it a unique feel.
What to do in Lugano in one day
We hope this Lugano itinerary has been useful to help you plan your day trip to Lugano, Ticino’s biggest city. If you’ve visited and think we have missed anything, do let us know.
There are lots of other great day trips in Switzerland, so check out some other posts and maybe put these places on your Switzerland itinerary:
Written by Emma Marshall and Nick Warburton