It is a lucky group of towns and cities that get the honor and pleasure of being founded right on the shores of a freshwater lake. Even fewer then are the lakeside communities who come off looking perfectly beautiful on account of their geography. The city of Lugano is one of these. As the capital of the Italian-speaking Swiss canton of Ticino, close to the Italian region of Lombardy, Lugano holds the distinction of being the largest city with an Italian-speaking majority outside of Italy itself. Its two namesakes of the lake and the surrounding mountain ranges give Lugano a supreme atmosphere that of course is a hit with the touristy crowd.
The variety of names by which Lugano has been known by in history (Latin “Luanasco”, Germanic “Lowens”, Lombard “Lugan”) illustrates the inconstancy of which territory Lugano has been part of. First mentioned in historical records as a market town, it became a minor battleground in the days of conflict between Italian city-states loyal to the authority of either the Pope or the (Germanic) Holy Roman Empire. By the time of the Renaissance Lugano was under the feudal control of the Duke of Milan, but eventually became a Swiss dominion.
Following the conquest by Napoleon, the city was made capital of its own Canton in the Helvetic Republic of 1798. When the Swiss Confederation as it now stands was born in 1803, Lugano canton was merged with its neighbor Bellinzona to form the present Ticino canton. The character of the city changed slightly after World War II with the increase in banking institutions. Today, despite not quite being up there with the list of the most easily-recalled major cities of Switzerland, Lugano is firmly entrenched as the country’s third financial center behind only Zurich and Geneva.
Travelers to Lugano would understandably be surprised at the incongruity of a city that is a banking center when it is right next to a picturesque lake and surrounded by the peaks of the Lugano Pre-Alps. Its lakeside location also led to some quirks in expansion; currently there is a quartier (neighborhood subdivision) of Lugano that is separated from the city proper by the crescent-shaped lake, being on the east shore while most is on the north shore. A separate municipality, Paradiso, is in turn nearly enveloped by the larger city to form a semi-enclave. Its position close to the Alps gives Lugano a subtropical climate wherein the hottest month, July never goes over 30°C in temperature.
Switzerland is most often characterized as having a blend of French and German culture with the native Helvetic, but Lugano is a vibrant reminder that there is some Italian in the mix as well. Its residents are Italian-speakers, and the place-names are in that language. It stands to reason then that the arts, architecture and culture in general have prominent marks of its southern neighbor. The Inventory of Swiss Heritage Sites lists no less than 17 sites in Lugano that are classified as nationally significant sites, many of them historic structures that remain in use.
The best way to kick off a tour of Lugano is by starting at the city center, the Piazza della Riforma. Bonus points if you are there on Tuesday or Friday morning, because these are designated open-air market days. Tourists will get to see what products and goods the city has to offer at first glance; then they can duck into the 1844 Palazzo Civico (city hall) to admire its neoclassical styling.
A prominent museum in town is the one dedicated to German poet-writer-painter Herman Hesse, who was born in Switzerland and lived for a time in Lugano. His personal effects and some of his watercolor works are put on display here. Bookworms will also appreciate the chance to browse at two major libraries, the canton’s main Biblioteca or the Biblioteca Salita dei Frati.
Holy sites include the 15th Century Cathedral of San Lorenzo which stands on a view that catches both lake and mountains, and the churches of San Rocco and Santa Maria degli Angioli, the latter with frescoes by Bernardo Luini. Other quirky museums to check out are the Schokoland chocolate museum (with shop) and the Swissminiatur amusement park that features scale models of no less than 120 attractions throughout Switzerland. Notable palazzos are the Palazzo e cinema Corso movie-house, three different Riva Palazzos and the Villa Favorita.
These are but the manmade attractions to be found in the city of Lugano itself, but the surrounding nature and landscape are masterpieces themselves. The twin peaks of the Lugano Pre-Alps, Monte Bre and Monte San Salvatore, offer commanding mountaintop views of Lugano, the lake and a great portion of the surrounding canton. Monte Bre has been described as the “sunniest spot in Switzerland.” The Lago de Lugano is also a magnificent boating spot, with visible boat traffic the better to commute with the city’s eastern shore neighborhood.
The city of Lugano has long been familiar to other Swiss and neighboring Lombards from Italy, thanks to its breathtaking locale. National interests have also gathered in the city due to its status as a financial center. Now, with the recent opening of a major cultural center at the Museo d’Arte della Svizzera Italiana (MASI), Lugano is steadily making itself known internationally as another must-visit location in beautiful Switzerland, making it one of the best lakeside-mountainside communities all around.
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