Italian Lakes (2013)
One of the smallest and prettiest of the lakes, Lake Lugano is enfolded by mountains; steep wooded hills rise sheer from the water, precluding development along most of its shore. Lively, stylish Lugano, in Switzerland, is the only large town.
Also masquerading as Lake Ceresio, Lake Lugano lies deep in the mountains, shared between Switzerland and Italy, the long tongue of Swiss Ticino snaking through the middle with Italy on either side. About two thirds of the lake lies within Swiss territory; only the very eastern tip is Italian, plus the enclave of Campione d’Italia, a little lakeside town that remains proudly and typically Italian. In 1847, a dam was built across the middle of the lake, from Melide to Bissone, taking the motorway and railway across the water en route to Como.
Lugano, the “Monte-Carlo of Switzerland”.
Set on a sweeping bay at the north end of the lake, Lugano 1 [map] was built on trade and finance but has thrived for the last couple of hundred of years on tourism. Its lakeside promenades, café-lined piazzas, luxury shops and galleries have earned it the nickname “the Monte-Carlo of Switzerland”. The town is thought to date back to the 6th century, but is first mentioned in 724, control bouncing between Como and Milan until it fell to the Swiss in 1512.
Parco Botanico San Grato in bloom.
Work on the triumphant Lungolago A [map] (waterfront) began in 1865, creating the broad walkway with its avenue of shady linden and horse chestnut trees fronting the arcaded shops, hotels, villas and open-air cafés. The Frecciarossa (Red Arrow) road train (tel: 89 20 21; www.trenitalia.com ) runs tours of the city which loop around the bay along the Lungolago, between the two funiculars that stand like bookends at either end of the bay. At the western end of town, the Paradiso Funicolare Monte San Salvatore B [map] cable railway (Lugano-Paradiso; tel: 091-985 2828; www.montesansalvatore.ch ; mid-Mar–mid-Sept, every 30 minutes, first trip 9am, in summer last trip at 11pm) takes you up to 912 metres (2,992ft). At the other end, the Monte Brè Funicolare C [map] cable railway (Via Ceresio 36, Ruvigliana; tel: 091-971 3171; www.montebre.ch ; Mar–Sept 9am–7.30pm, June–Aug Fri–Sat until 11pm, Oct–Dec 9.30am–5.30pm, closed Jan–Feb) goes higher to 925 metres (3,061ft), up to the village of Brè, an open-air museum of frescoes donated by enthusiastic visiting artists. Take time to wander, hire a mountain bike to come back down or just settle for lunch or dinner in one of the good restaurants that take advantage of the superlative views.
Two fine churches
To the west of the city centre, the Chiesa di Santa Maria degli Angeli D [map] (Piazza Bernardino Luini) is the city’s most beautiful church, built from 1490–1515 as part of a Franciscan convent. The interior is covered with glorious Renaissance frescoes, many of them by Bernardino Luini, a pupil of Leonardo da Vinci, including his version of The Last Supper and the Passion and Crucifixion of Christ . In the city centre, the Cattedrale di San LorenzoE [map] (Via Cattedrale) began life in 875, but was largely rebuilt in the 13th and 14th centuries, was heavily restored a century later and gained a new Renaissance facade in 1517. It has several 14th–16th-century frescoes inside. The Chapel of Santa Maria delle Grazie was dedicated in 1473 in thanks for the end of a bout of plague but refurbished in Baroque style in 1774.
Much of Lake Lugano lies within Swiss territory; just over a third of the shore at the eastern end of the lake belongs to Italy, plus the enclave of Campione d’Italia – so don’t forget to take your passport with you.
The bold lines of the Lugano Arte e Cultura complex (LAC).
Liberty mansions and art collections
Several of the city’s magnificent Liberty (Art Nouveau) mansions open their parks to the public. Some are also used as museums and galleries. Villa Saroli F [map] (Via Stefano Franscini 9; grounds open all year, house open only for exhibitions; free), built in 1904, is home to the city Museo Storico , while the exuberant grounds contain an orangery and numerous flowering trees, from dogwood and magnolia to ancient camellia and rhododendron bushes.
The new Museo d’Arte della Svizzera Italiana (Via Canova 10; Tue 2–5pm, Wed–Sun 10am–5pm; Piazza Bernardino 6; Tue–Wed, Sun 10.30am–6pm, Thu–Sat 10.30am–8pm; www.masilugano.ch ) opened in 2015 over two locations effectively merging the former Museo Cantonale d’Arte and City of Lugano’s Museo d’Arte. Spreading over both the medieval Palazzo Reali in the historic centre and the new lakefront Lugano Arte e Cultura (LAC) G[map] cultural complex, it houses a permanent collection of art by Swiss-Italian and Italian artists of the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as temporary 20th-century art exhibitions and also showcases the region’s art history.
Piazza Riforma H [map] is the space at the centre of a web of pedestrianised streets that make up Lugano’s city centre shopping heaven. Head along Via Nassa for designer boutiques and Swiss watches, Via Pessina for mouthwatering delis, Via Canova for art and antiques, or just stay in the square with a cup of hot chocolate and watch the world go by.
South of Lugano
South of the city, the lake winds around the bulk of Monte San Salvatore . This peninsula has some of the prettiest countryside and most desirable real estate on the lake – luxurious mansions change hands for millions of Swiss francs – and you have to drive through Paradiso to reach it. The main road to Como follows the shoreline as far as Melide 2 [map] , where it crosses over to the Campione d’Italia (see box).
There are plenty of healthy outdoor activities here, but the main attraction is Swissminiatur (Melidetel: tel: 091-640 1060; www.swissminiatur.ch ; mid-Mar–mid-Oct daily 9am–6pm). This is delightful for adults and children alike, showing the country’s highlights from its chateaux to the Alps in miniature, complete with a 3.6km (2.6-mile) model railway.
A steep road leads up to Carona 3 [map] (602 metres/1,975ft), which straddles the back of Monte San Salvatore. The panoramic views have inspired numerous artists to settle here, decorating their houses and the local churches and making Carona one of the prettiest painted villages in the region.
In 1403, annoyed by the treatment of their cattle dealers at the hands of the Lombard authorities, the Swiss invaded Lombardy, scooping out a great tongue of land along the Ticino Valley, including most of Lake Lugano. To this day, it remains the only Italian-speaking canton in Switzerland. Even more strange is the story of Campione d’Italia, a tiny enclave on the eastern shore, which was bequeathed to the abbots of Sant’ Ambrogio in Milan in the 8th century. Although taken by Switzerland, it was returned to Italy by Napoleon and has remained an Italian enclave ever since. Best-known for producing wandering fresco painters of great talent, it is now better known for its casino ( www.casinocampione.it ), the largest in Europe.
A walking and cycle path, the romantically named Sentiero dei Fiori (Path of Flowers), leads up to the San Salvatore cable car. Just outside the village, the Parco Botanico San Grato (tel: 091-943 1888; open all year) sprawls along the ridge, its terraces a picture at any time, but magnificent in April and May when the azaleas and rhododendrons burst into bloom. There are several walks of different levels of difficulty through the gardens, a restaurant, children’s playground and a maze.
Back down at lake level, at the end of the peninsula, the Parco Scherrer (Morcote; tel: 091-996 2125; mid-Mar–Oct 10am–5pm, July–Aug until 6pm) is another very different botanical garden, with each area representing a part of the world, from a floral Temple of Nefertiti to a Siamese teahouse.
Known as “the pearl of the lake”, Morcote 4 [map] itself is one of the prettiest villages in the Italian Lakes, the arcaded waterfront lined with cafés and the narrow streets and tiny piazzas behind meandering up the steep hill to the 15th-century church of Santa Maria del Sasso . Here you’ll find fine 16th-century frescoes, a 17th-century organ and monumental cemetery.
Take the road up the other side of the peninsula to join the main road, signposted to Ponte Tresa . There are two very different stops en route. The first is to pay homage to the Nobel prize-winning writer and artist at the Fondazione Hermann Hesse 5 [map] (Torre Camuzzi, Montagnola; tel: 091-993 3770; www.hessemontagnola.ch ; Mar–Oct daily 10am–5.30pm, Nov–Feb Sat–Sun 10am–5.30pm). Hesse moved to the area in 1919, living in the Camuzzi Tower, where the museum is situated, then transferring to the nearby Pink House with his third wife in 1931. Hesse wrote some of his most popular works here, including Siddharta and the Glass Bead Game. He is buried in the cemetery of San Abbondio in Gentilino.
Born in Calw in Germany, Herman Hesse (1877–1962) became a Swiss citizen in 1924, living in Lugano. As well as creating the literary masterpieces for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1946, he took up painting and grew flowers and vegetables for pleasure.
The picturesque village of Morcote.
Chocolate is almost as Swiss as the cuckoo clock, so a stop at the Museo del Cioccolato Alprose 6 [map] (Alprose Chocolate Museum;Via Rompada 36, Caslano; tel: 091-611 8856; www.alprose.ch ; Mon–Fri 9am–5.30pm, Sat–Sun 9am–4.30pm) is entirely justifiable. It is best to visit during the week when the factory is working, the smell of chocolate is all-pervasive and the tasting opportunities are increased.
Lugano tourist offices
Stazione FFS, Lugano, tel: 091-923 5120
Riva dal Garavell, Morcote, tel: 058-866 4960; www.luganoturismo.ch
Mendrisiotto and San Basso Ceresio, Mendrisio; tel: 091-641 3050; www.mendrisiottoturismo.ch .
At Ponte Tresa (a steamer-landing and curious border village with both a Swiss and an Italian side), the road crosses the river and goes back into Italy, skirting the lake through Lavena and Brusimpiano to Porto Ceresio . A detour south along the Valceresio to Besano 7 [map] leads to the Museo Civico dei Fossili di Besano (Besano Museum of Fossils; Via Prestini 5; tel: 0332-919 200; www.montesangiorgio.org ; Tue–Wed, Fri 9.30am–12.30pm, Thu 2.30–5pm, Sun 2.30–6pm). Here you can see findings from one of Europe’s most important Triassic fossil beds (dating from c.230 million years ago). Monte Giorgio 8 [map] is a Unesco World Heritage site and to date has yielded 22 species of animal and 54 species of fish. More fossils can be found in the museum in remote Meride 9 [map] (tel: 091-646 0854; Tue–Sun 9am–5pm; www.montesangiorgio.org ). Both museums organise guided walks on the mountain itself.
South of Besano, the fabulous privately owned Villa Cicogna Mozzoni ) [map] (Viale Cicogna 8, Bisuschio; tel: 0332-471 134; www.villacicognamozzoni.it ; Sun and holidays Apr–Oct 9.30am–noon, 2.30–7pm) was originally built in the 1430s as a hunting lodge. In the mid-16th century, it was converted into a country residence with lavishly frescoed rooms. The formal gardens are on seven levels, linked by a double staircase lined by cypress trees, while a huge English-style park stretches over the hill behind.
Around Monte San Giorgio
Back at the shore, the road starts working its way across the border and around the bulk of Monte San Giorgio. At Brusino ! [map] , a cable car, the Funivio Brusino Serpiano (tel: 091-996 1130; www.serpiano.ch ; Apr–Sept Wed–Sun 9am–6pm) whisks you up the mountain to Serpiano for fabulous views, walks, a spa visit or some fossil-hunting.
At the bottom of the next loop south, the Baptisterium (Baptistery) at Riva San Vitale @ [map] is one of the oldest surviving churches in the lakes region, dating from the 5th century. The 12th-century font and frescoes seem young in comparison.
While there is more than enough to occupy you on shore, it would be a crying shame to ignore the lure of the lake itself. The Società Navigazione del Lago di Lugano (tel: 091-971 5223; www.lakelugano.ch ) runs regular ferry services along the north shore from Paradiso to Gandria, Lugano to Ponte Tresa and Lugano to Campione d’Italia, all with stops en route. In addition, there are morning, lunch and afternoon cruises. The Lugano Holiday Card ( www.luganotourism.ch ) is a free passport-sized card available to anyone who spends at least one night in the Ticino region. The card offers discounts on a variety of guided tours, transport, cultural and sporting events in the Lugano area.
Wine-tastings and art
Heading south, the route winds through the gentle wine country of the Mendrisiotto, which provides the odd stop for a tasting. (Merlot is the varietal of choice around here.) Mendrisio £ [map] is renowned for its particularly beautiful medieval centre. One of the finest buildings, a former Serviti (Servants of Mary) convent, is now the Museo d’Arte (Art Museum, Piazza San Giovanni; Tue–Fri 10am–noon, 2–5pm, Sat–Sun 10am–6pm; http://museo.mendrisio.ch ). World-class temporary exhibitions of modern art are held here alongside the permanent works.
Just west of town, in Ligornetto $ [map] , the Museo Vincenzo Vela (tel: 091-640 7044; www.museo-vela.ch ; Oct–May Tue–Sun 10am–5pm, June–Sept and Sun until 6pm) was the villa and studio of 19th-century sculptor Vincenzo Vela. Beautifully restored by local architect Mario Botta, it houses many of Vela’s haunting plaster models together with works by his son, Spartaco, and brother, Lorenzo Vela. If shopping is more your thing, the FoxTown Outlet Mall is near at hand ( www.foxtown.ch ).
The east shore
Head back up to the lake to Capolago . Allow yourself plenty of time here for a trip on the rack railway up Monte Generoso % [map] ( www.montegeneroso.ch ; closed for redevelopment until 2017). The 40-minute train ride reaches a height of 1,701 metres (5,590ft) and offers unparalleled 360° views across the lake region and on to the Alps, with the Eiger, Matterhorn and Jungfrau all visible on clear days. As well as a restaurant and café, there are 51km (32 miles) of walking trails and an astronomical observatory at the top; you can also take a guided visit to a cave where bears’ bones some 35–40,000 years old have been found. This is one of 50 caves found on the massif so far. And if none of that grabs you, strap on a helmet and take to a mountain bike or paraglider.
The main road from Lugano to Como runs along the shore for a while, crossing the lake to the city at Bissone . Just north of here, a spur loop leads into Campione d’Italia ^ [map] (see box), a corner of Lugano that is forever Italy.
There is no road along much of the shore from Bissone to Ostano – the fastest way to get to the north shore from here is to take the causeway and head back through the city. The alternative is a beautiful but winding drive through tiny back roads and steep-sided switchback valleys in the Italian foothills of Monte Generoso.
Not so extinct – the prehistoric Wollemia nobilis conifer, which reaches 35 metres (115ft) high, was thought to be long extinct before a cluster of 100 trees was found in a deep Australian gorge in 1994, its location a carefully guarded secret. As part of the preservation effort, one precious tree now grows in the grounds of the Villa Heleneum.
Along the Sentiero dell’Olivo.
The north shore is a busy, wealthy area lined by waterfront mansions and restaurants both heavily used by Lugano city commuters. Most of the tourist sights are clustered together around the little town of Gandria , just inside the Swiss frontier and an ideal spot for the Museo Doganale Svizzero & [map] (Museum of Swiss Customs; Cantine di Gandria, reached by boat; mid-Apr–mid-Oct daily 1.30–5.30pm; www.customsmuseum.admin.ch ; free), a surprisingly interesting look at the increasingly inventive battle between customs officials and smugglers over the last century or so.
The Sentiero dell’Olivo is a 2km (1-mile) path from Gandria along the lake, aimed at reviving the cultivation of olives here. The Parco degli Olivi, part-way along the path towards the city, was once the estate of a German baroness. Now the terraced gardens are a glorious mix of wonderful-smelling Mediterranean shrubbery – bay, olives, marine pine, oregano, thyme and sage with a riot of daffodils and tulips every spring.
A further 200metres/656ft towards the city, with its own boat stop, Villa Heleneum * [map] (garden: summer 6am–11pm, winter until 9pm; free) is a faithful reproduction of Versailles’s Petit Trianon. Built in 1931, it is surrounded by fabulous exotic gardens filled with Japanese palms, kumquats, grapefruits, medlars and cedars. The villa is the former home of the city’s Museo delle Culture ( www.mcl.lugano.ch ), a fascinating collection of cult figures and masks from Africa, Oceania and Asia. The museum closed in 2016 and the collection is being transferred to Villa Malpensata (Riva Caccia 5) in Lugano.