Why Lugano is low-key the best city in Switzerland

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Part 2 of my train trip from southern Switzerland to northern Italy.

It only took about half an hour by train to travel from Bellinzona to Lugano, and yet the landscape and atmosphere were completely different. While Lugano is not the administrative capital of Canton Ticino, it’s definitely the commercial and cultural heart of the region, with bustling streets and a beautiful, jewel-like lake that seemed to carry a whiff of salty sea air.

This was the view that greeted me when I exited the train station. (Yes, I did have to walk up these steps on my way back; climbing hills seemed to be the common thread throughout this trip.)

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Where I stayed

I stayed at Hotel Walter Au Lac, a sunny yellow building right on the banks of the lake. It was about a 10-minute walk from the train station (longer if you factor in wheezing and stopping for breath on your way back), and my jaw dropped when I saw the view. They had given me the corner room — I had a nearly panoramic view of the city!

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Two other unexpected things that happened: first, they let me check in at 10am because there were plenty of vacant rooms. Second, instead of the single room I’d booked, they gave me a family suite with a whole other bedroom. I didn’t do it because I didn’t want to create extra work for housekeeping, but I was super tempted to take a nap on the other bed just because I could.

Unlike the hotel in Bellinzona, which had provided water in a glass bottle, this hotel supplied two complimentary plastic water bottles. There was also a stocked minibar and a bidet. The room key was attached to — I’m not kidding — a straight-up large piece of rock, I assume in an effort to prevent losing the key.

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The other bedroom. Made me miss my family and how we like to stay in one big apartment together when we travel. I hope they’ll be able to visit Switzerland next year so that I can show them this beautiful city.

I was very taken with the balcony and tried to take some influencer-type photos that I constantly see on Instagram, using a self-timer camera app on my phone. The conclusion? It’s hard! The first time I did it, I got confused by the mirror image and sat in the wrong chair, out of frame. When I finally got a decent-enough picture after ten tries, I was still unhappy with my posture, but was too tired and bored to keep perfecting my pose. I think I’ve seriously underestimated how much work it takes to actually capture a decent picture of yourself.

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It was a beautiful, sunny afternoon in Lugano. When I put on my mask and my sunglasses, obscuring my entire face, there was an abrupt shift in the way I carried myself — I felt suddenly anonymous and invisible, which was also kind of empowering?

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I would estimate that around every 4 out of 10 people in Lugano were wearing masks. The rest either had it on their chin or looped around their arm like an accessory. I’m not sure if masks are mandatory in shops there, but about 20-30% weren’t wearing them inside, which I found interesting because Lugano was supposed to have been the Swiss city hit hardest by COVID back in March and April, due to its proximity to northern Italy. I’d say that mask compliance is much higher in Geneva.

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There is a long park snaking alongside the lake, and it ended in a small public beach. It was Monday afternoon, but plenty of people were sunbathing and diving in.

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It took about half an hour to walk from the hotel to the base of Monte Brè, a scenic mountain that overlooks Lugano. Unfortunately tours were canceled with the exception of Fridays, so I had to do a self-guided tour, i.e., show myself around. I rode the funicular up to the top of the mountain, which took a surprisingly long time; it was about 4 minutes for the first funicular, and then about 13 minutes for the second leg. There were even farms on the side of the mountain, and we passed by a bunch of cows.

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I had lunch at the panoramic restaurant behind the cute yellow building in the above photo. It was very expensive and the food was mediocre. Also, for some reason, a group of bees singled me out and would not leave me alone. I had to drape my mask over my drink and eat with one hand while swatting at them with my other.

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The view was worth it, though. I mean, look at this! Lugano is truly a treasure. It has the beauty and heavenliness of other parts of Switzerland, but without the je ne sais quoi that can sometimes make the country feel sterile and aloof, especially in the German-speaking regions. The people here are much more warm, open, chatty and kind.

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The funicular ride down was much more crowded, and we had to sit shoulder-to-shoulder, which was a little scary even though everyone dutifully wore their mask. I also got a taste of multicultural Switzerland in my car: people were talking in Swiss-German, Italian and French.

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I had to turn in early because I’d booked a train for 7am the following day. There was so much more to see and do in Lugano still; I knew I had only scratched the surface of this city that I had immediately fallen in love with.

Arrivederci, Lugano. I hope to come back again soon!

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