It’s known as the land of neutrality, but there’s so much more to Switzerland than its unbiased attitude and affinity for army knives. The non-EU country is also home to Lugano, a lakeside town with panoramic vistas and quaint cobblestone streets. Just an hour from Milan, it’s a perfect escape from the city – and although Switzerland is admittedly just as expensive as everyone says, we’ve got some top tips for visiting on a budget.
Located just south of the Alps in a mountain range called– rather fittingly– the Prealps, Lugano sits across the border from its Italian neighbor Como (home to George Clooney’s $10 million mansion). But the great thing about Lugano is that it offers the same views as Como without the celebrity-spotting tourists.
Those perks do, of course, come at a cost – a recent tourism poll by The Telegraph ranked Switzerland the most expensive country in the world to visit. However, if you love the romance of traveling across an international border and outside the EU for a day, keep reading.
A city worth visiting
You may not immediately feel like you’ve wandered outside the EU, particularly because your passport is unlikely to be checked (though you should certainly bring it just in case), and because the great residents of Lugano also speak Italian. But don’t be fooled – you’ve definitely arrived in the land of watches, chocolate, and those famous Swiss banks you’ve always heard about.
The train station is situated quite close to the city center, via a downhill walk on Via Cattedrale, one of the town’s most picturesque streets.
The avenue is a steep climb for those walking in the opposite direction, but you’ll soon notice that even Lugano’s most elderly residents seem to walk up the town’s hills with no problem – a true testament to Switzerland’s healthy and active lifestyle.
Walk to the end of Via Cattedrale, towards Via Pissina 12, to find one of Lugano’s most famous landmarks – Gabbani salameria. The yellow and red building, complete with massive rolls of salami hanging from its arches, is a favorite among both locals and tourists.
Once you’ve taken a photo and perhaps ventured inside Gabbani for a tasty snack, wander to the nearby Piazza della Riforma, a picturesque square lined with cafés and restaurants. Coffee or a glass of house wine is affordable at most of the establishments, but food will set you back a pretty penny.
The piazza connects to the waterside promenade, where you can stroll alongside peaceful Lake Lugano.
The path will also take you to Chiani park, a well manicured green space sitting right on the lake. Perch on a bench with your favorite book, or simply watch the world go by.
Be sure to find the park’s stunning gate, which is featured on many of the city’s postcards.
A walk to remember
Considering Lugano’s location in the Prealps, it should come as no surprise that there are plenty of hills and trails to keep hikers happy. One of those is the Olive Grove Trail, which spans 3.5 kilometers between Castagnola (an easy walk from Lugano) and Gandria. The path takes walkers past both ancient and new olive groves – but the scenes over Lake Lugano steal the show.
Another option is to hike to the top of Monte San Salvatore, approximately a two-hour walk. You’ll pass vineyards along the way, and the views of the lake are stunning.
“You need to have been up there in person, if you want to get an idea of its greatness and magnificence, and then that moment will become one of the most beautiful and unforgettable experiences in your whole life.” – C. C. Lorenz Hirschfeld
If a four-hour roundtrip hike doesn’t sound appealing, you can always take the funicular one or both ways – just not in winter. Check out the timetable before you get caught out. Meanwhile, those who don’t fancy breaking a sweat can opt for the tourist train.
If you’re not on a tight budget and enjoy designer digs, you’ll be pleased to know that all the usual luxury stores (Louis Vuitton, Gucci, and their various counterparts) are present in Lugano, along with a number of upper-range watch shops. RIHS offers extremely reasonable prices on Swiss army knives, and a nice souvenir shop can be found on Riva Giocondo Albertolli, located just a couple doors down from McDonald’s.
Eating & drinking on a budget
Admittedly, the horror stories about Switzerland’s prices are mostly true. However, with a bit of creativity, you can enjoy yourself without having to take out a second mortgage on your home.
While it may seem ill-advised to pay McDonald’s a visit while in Lugano, this is one situation where it actually makes a lot of sense. Taking advantage of the town’s beautiful views doesn’t cost a penny, and the fast-food chain happens to be located right on the water. Grab a McCafe coffee and pastry, take it across the street, and perch on a waterside bench. Breakfast al fresco on a budget that won’t break the bank.
If the weather isn’t nice enough to sit outside, take advantage of McDonald’s indoor patio area – it offers the best views you’ll ever enjoy at a fast-food restaurant.
Eating a full meal at McDonald’s is also an economical choice, but be prepared to pay substantially more than you would in Italy or elsewhere; value meals average around €13 each. There’s also a Burger King in town, though the view isn’t as good and the food costs around €2 more per meal.
But don’t worry – fast-food isn’t your only option in Lugano. Taqueria El Chilicuil offers up tasty Mexican cuisine for extremely reasonable prices, and the burritos and queso fundido are recommended. Expect to pay around €30 for two meals (a true bargain, considering a personal sized margherita pizza runs around €20 in Lugano).
If you’re only after aperitivo, head to Soave 10, where a glass of house wine and some nibbles costs just €6. But don’t expect a buffet – the staff will bring small plates of snacks to your table. Be sure to sit at the impressive table made of ancient wood that dates back tens of thousands of years.
Bottegone del Vino offers a similar deal, although a glass of wine and snacks will cost slightly more, at €8 each.
For a sweet treat, head to Chocolat Gelateria, where you can enjoy a freshly made nutella crepe for €5 (substantially cheaper than the €8 crepes found in the nearby Piazza della Riforma). A waterside crepe stand near Chiani park also charges €5 for the tasty dessert.
When the day is done, take one last stroll throughout this lovely town, which seems to take on a whole new persona at night. If you wish to stay overnight, head to the Ibis Budget for a central location and decent rates.
Trains to Lugano depart from Milan’s Central Station, and average around €46 return. For more information, visit the Trenitalia website.