A family-friendly guide to Lugano
We aren't usually the type of travellers who return time after time to the same place, but the Swiss city of Lugano is our exception. This lakeside city has been the backdrop to many holidays where we have created wonderful memories. In 2005 we lazed at the lakeside swimming pool, ate steak on hot stones in a Grotto above the city and pushed a pram along the promenade on our first family holiday. Fast forward to 2017, and 16 of us caught the early train south to surprise my mother-in-law for on her 70th birthday in one of her favourite Lugano restaurants. We even announced our engagement to our Swiss family over wood-fire pizzas and glasses of vino della casa back in 2003.
Over the past 17 years, we've collected a long list of favourite places to eat pizza and gelato, to hike and cruise and a couple of things to do when it rains. It feels good to know where to park and how to get to the train station. The kids have a list of their favourites too that we have to revisit for tradition's sake.
And now it is time to pass on our favourite places to eat and visit in Lugano to you. It's a long list, and I've added in a few things that we are still yet to do. I hope this list becomes a jumping board for your trip to discover the city.
WHAT TO DO IN LUGANO:
Swim at Lido Lugano and Carona
When visiting during the warmer months, we will end up spending at least one day swimming at a Lido. While in the centre of Lugano you will find a great place to swim, we usually follow the winding roads up to the Piscina di Carona. Up here it's a few degrees cooler, there is plenty of shade to lay out a picnic blanket, and the kids love the diving boards. For Little Z there is a kiddie pool, and everyone loves the mini-golf. I like that there is plenty of parking, although it does get full on the weekend. We usually drive up but taking the Post Auto from Lugano-Paradiso is also an option.
Other swimming options we have yet to try out include:
We are still in Switzerland, so of course, there is going to be some hiking. The following four hikes/walks are our favourites ...
Take the funicular up to San Salvatore and walk down to Morcote
Visit Caslano and walk around its mountain
Take the boat to Gandria and walk back to Lugano
Try one of the Vineyard hikes in Mendrisotto. We chose route two, which took us to the southernmost tip of Switzerland
The nearby Monte Tamaro is on my to-do list for its hiking and fun outdoor activities.
Take in the views:
We love the views from the top of San Salvatore. Take the funicular up from Lugano-Paradiso and enjoy a 360-degree view stretching into Italy. We've never stayed up to eat, but at the top, there is a restaurant and a small playground. To get back down, use the funicular or walk down to Carona (take a bus back), Morcote (a boat back) or down to Lugano-Paradiso.
Lugano's other mountain, Monte Bre, also has excellent views (however I haven't heard great things about the restaurant). Another fantastic viewpoint is from the 1704m high Monte Generoso, which borders Italy.
Our walking pace seems to slow whenever we are in Lugano and requires a gelato in hand. We wander past antique markets (Saturday's in the Quartier Canova from 8 am till 5 pm), peek into shop windows and stroll along the lake.
I almost forgot about the 1000 steps! Ok 1000 may be a little exaggerated, but I tell you when you get to the top it feels like 1000. Our kids used to love running up them, now as Teenagers, not so much ;-)!
We always end up visiting the park - Park Ciani. Be that because the kids need to run off a little steam, or we have to wait an hour till dinner. The park has plenty of paths to scootering along and a great big playground where the locals like to hang. And no matter how many times I visit, I always stop and take a photo of Lugano's very instagramable gates.
Lugano has a lake, which means a boat ride is a must. While we've tried many destinations over the years, our go-to route is to Gandria. We take the boat, hop off and walk back to Lugano. Other favourites include taking to the water for lunch at Grotto Teresa or to Melida for the Swiss Miniature Museum. We've also visited Morcote, once voted Switzerland's most beautiful village, however other than the church we were the village little underwhelming.
Swiss Miniatur has been on the list of every family's trip to Switzerland for generations. There was a stage where we would visit yearly, but it got a bit boring. But it is worth at least one visit. My kids liked to follow around the miniature trains through the 888 exhibits, while I noted down new destinations for my own bucket list. If you visit in the peak of summer, take into account that this place has no shade.
WHAT TO DO IF IT RAINS IN LUGANO
It is a rare occasion for it to rain for days on end in this region of Switzerland. But on the off chance you've lucked out with the weather, here are a couple of ideas to help inspire:
Foxtown Outlet Mall
While I don't love to shop much these days, whenever we go to Lugano I still somehow end up for an hour or two walking the aisles of Foxtown. Located a short drive down the highway in Mendrisio (or just a few stops on the local train), this large outlet mall is the perfect place for a shop and lunch on a rainy day. You will find brands from Nike to Gucci and everything in between. If we visit, we always arrive just before the 11 am opening to make sure we get a park. PS. It's opened on Sundays too.
Splash e Spa
One spring, we lucked out with the sunny weather and ended up at Splash & Spa. My kids loved the waterslides and wave pool just as much as ordering a drink at the pool bar. Little Z loved the kid's area with boats and kiddy sized slides, and the massages tempted me. The food was ok - typical of any indoor pool place. Arriving here for opening means almost having the pools to yourself for about an hour, I think the locals like to sleep-in.
Chocolat Alprose Museum and Fossilien museum
Both the Alprose Chocolate museum and the fossil museum are on our to-do if it's raining on our next visit. The chocolate museum is in Caslano and could be combined after you walked around the local mountain, while the fossil museum is close to Mendrisio.
WHERE TO EAT IN LUGANO
If I had to choose to eat one cuisine for the rest of my life, Italian food would, for sure make my top 3. So where and what we will be eating in Lugano is my top priority. Below is a list of my favourite restaurants (more here), gelato shops, where we buy groceries and picnic supplies.
TRATTORIA GALLERIA & CANVETTO FEDERALE:
If I were only in Lugano for one meal, I would be hard-pressed to decide these two restaurants: Trattoria Galleria in Lugano and Canvetto Federale in Lugano-Paradiso. Both serving fantastic Italian food, deciding between the two is like choosing between my children. So if at all possible I will always eat at both.
RISTORANTE PIZZERIA CANTINONE:
We also eat here regularly as do my inlaws who are on a first-name basis with the waiters. Cantinone accommodates picky kids (their menu is extensive) and gives kids space to run around ( set in a quiet piazza behind Manor.) Oh, and did I mention woodfired pizzas? BTW this is where we announced our engagement to our swiss family back in 2003.
I love wandering the aisle of foreign-to-me supermarkets, and Manor Food in the basement of the Manor department is where I do this in Lugano. I first stop by the bakery section and grab fresh focaccia before moving onto the fresh pasta before picking up some cured meats. Not only great for picnic supplies, but also great as a souvenir.
When we need to do a big grocery shop, we end up in the big Coop at the Lugano Sud Shopping complex. But if you don't have a car and are staying in the centre of town, check out the large Migros near the city centre. It also has a takeaway section with plenty of options for lunch and dinner.
Fresh fruit and veg:
I am tempted to buy something every time we walk past, Moin Frutta a Verdura , a fresh and seasonal fruit and veg shop just off the Piazza Riforma. We've picked up oh so sweet tomatoes as well as cut-up seasonal fruit which are great for picnics. (Address: Via Pessina 1)
Somehow I've never made it to the Lugano farmers market, but it is on my list. You will find the market on Tuesdays and Fridays on Piazza San Rocco fro 7.30 am till 14.30. Lugano is also a good base if you want to explore other markets further afield. The region times the markets well so you've got a different choice almost every day of the week. Pop to my favourite one in Bellinzona or even over into Italy:
Tuesday: Lugano & Ascona
Wednesday: Mendrisio & Luino (IT)
Friday: Lugano & Chiasso
Saturday: Bellinzona & Ponte Tresa (IT)
Remember that market openings can vary during the colder months, so check the local tourism office for exact opening days and hours.
Outside underneath the hanging salamis of the Gabanni Butcher is where you will find the best sandwiches in Lugano. These are not your standard sandwiches! While you can find classics like tomato and mozzarella, you will find unique flavours such as deep-fried eggplant and prosciutto as well. Sandwiches start from around 7chf and best eaten by the lake while taking in the views.
For fresh bread:
Our bakery of choice in Lugano is Munger. While their Zopf isn't exactly to my preference (not enough butter), the rest of the bread is excellent. The kids will always want a Ticino bread while I will go for something different each time. Munger also makes excellent amaretti! A word of warning, those crunchy but soft bits of almond heaven are best when eaten straight away.
I dare you not to be tempted to visit Grand Café Al Porto. A Lugano institution since 1803, this cafe is all kinds of fancy. I am in love with their lemon tart, although I've eyed off their panettone's at Christmas time too.
It is our mission to try all the gelato in Lugano and what a difficult job it is. ;-). So far the kids love Vanini best, which have a couple of locations dotted around the city. I prefer two other ones.
-9 Gelato Italiano tucked away from the old town serves traditional gelato with such a depth of flavour - the dark chocolate and mint are mind-blowing. The more centrally located Chocolat Gelatria is where I experiment. The Chocolate and chilli combination deserves applause, as does the orange and rosemary. Mandarin and chilli, on the other hand, wasn't a hit. Don't forget about the gelaterias dotting the lake, our favourite being the one at the park entrance.
Places still on my list to try:
I am always up for finding new places to eat in Lugano. Here is what's on my list:
Pasta e Pesto - for fresh pasta at lunchtime
One of the Grottos along the lake accessible by boat
The Grottos above Lugano in driving up to Carona
Popping over to Ponte Tresa in Italy for dinner
Thanks to being able to stay at my inlaws holiday apartment, finding a place to stay in Lugano has never been an issue for us. So while I have not personally stayed in any of these places, other families have
If you are looking for a great family-friendly resort, why not consider popping over the border and staying at Parco San Marco. Hugely popular with the Swiss and expats alike, this is an excellent place for a quieter pace but still a comfortable bus/boat/car ride into Lugano.
Arriving, parking and getting around
Lugano is just under a 2-hour drive from central Switzerland via the A2 highway. But a word of warning, this takes you through the Gotthard tunnel which has a terrible reputation for long traffic jams (Check out this blog post for specific tips on how to avoid a long wait). Alternatively, consider the Gotthard pass (open late spring to late autumn) or the San Bernadino tunnel via Chur.
Getting around Lugano is easy, but like most cities, it suffers from traffic jams at peak times. The worst culprits and best to avoid are around the train station, near the big Migros and the road coming down from Caslano/Ponte Tresa.
You don't need a car while exploring Lugano unless you plan to explore outside the city (which I do recommend). However, we stay in the suburbs up a small hill, so are grateful to have a car to explore. There are a couple of options for parking in the city; however, we prefer LAC. Parking here helps us avoid some common traffic problems.
But a car isn't a must in this (or any part) of Switzerland. There is an excellent train/bus network, not forgetting the boats too. Canton Ticino makes a visit to Lugano even more attractive with it's Ticino Card. Guests in hotels and campgrounds travel on public transport for free for their entire stay, as well as receiving discounts to local attractions. Use Lugano as a base to explore the UNESCO heritage listed Bellinzona or the glacier waters in the Maggiatal.