Welcome back to Ask a Local, a series of posts in which I interview locals all over the world about what to see, where to go, what to eat, and how to fit in in their city or town.
Today, I’m sharing another sneak peek into my new Switzerland guide with an interview from fitness coach and outdoor enthusiast Nicole Ebenhack who lives in the Lugano in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland.
Ready for a mix of Swiss Alpine landscapes and Italian munchies? Let’s go…
First, tell us about you.
I was born and raised in Denver, Colorado, but after school and about five years in my career in the central U.S., my husband and I moved to Lugano. I always wanted to travel but didn’t have the resources growing up. I’ve worked hard to change that over the years and living and working in Switzerland is the fulfillment of a life-long dream.
After moving to Lugano, I used in-home fitness programs to lose 25 pounds and get into the best physical and mental shape of my life, so now I pay it forward as the CEO of my own online fitness and nutrition coaching business helping people accomplish their goals and create time and financial freedom so that they, too, can enjoy healthy, fulfilling lives.
In my free time, outside is where I prefer to be, so you’ll find me skiing, hiking, and exploring new places on foot every chance I get! My current goal is to summit the Matterhorn in Zermatt, so right now I am focusing my attention on training for that.
What should the first-time visitor not miss in Lugano?
The first thing anyone notices about Lugano is, of course, the lake. It is big and gorgeous and the focal point of the entire city. Start your time here with some gelato from La Fredda Tentazione (address: Via Pietro Peri 2). From there, walk toward the lake and take a right when you get there to follow the footpath for a breathtaking panorama of the valley Lugano sits in. Then, make sure to retrace your steps past the city center and to Parco Civico-Ciana, where you’ll find the quintessential view over the lake. Lots of people miss the walk back, but it’s a very different experience with different views.
Along the way, you’ll find a boathouse with chairs and tables available for sitting and relaxing. Continue on the footpath to its very end, where you’ll find a boardwalk and can sit, relax, and soak up some sun. There’s also a fantastic playground.
If you are in the mood for coffee, there is a little café called Café a Porter (address: Via Pasquale Lucchini 1) near one of the Parco Civico-Ciana entrances. It’s a nice place to grab a take away cappuccino—particularly before Lugano wakes up (around 8 a.m.) and the hustle and bustle begins. It’s so peaceful and beautiful to be alone in the park.
From the park, you can walk outside the city and catch the funicular (at Via Ceresio di Suvigliana 36 in Ruvigliana) up to Monte Bre for a drink and to take in the sprawling view of Lake Como to your left, Lago Maggiore to your right, and Lake Lugano straight ahead.
Alternatively, past the end of the lake’s footpath at the fountain (on the opposite end of the footpath from the park), you’ll find Monte San Salvatore. You can also take a funicular (at Via delle Scuole 12) up and down the mountain for views and a drink—or you can pack a bag and hike it.
Finally, on a nice, calm day, you should definitely rent a paddleboat from Pedalo Rivetta Tell (at Palazzo Rivetta Tell). This is one of my favorite things to do.
What are some of your favorite hidden gems in Lugano?
The area of Ticino is known for its grottos (stone homestead ruins turned into restaurants). They are characterized by their outdoor grills and sprawling terraces, which are always tucked back into the trees and away from the cities. Grotto del Cavicc (at Via ai Canvetti 19a in Montagnola) is my favorite and is a must for anyone who wants to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city (and for the foodies). Hermann Hesse—a famous Swiss writer—spent a lot of time eating, drinking, writing, and socializing there.
Go with a friend and order a half or full liter of the nostrano rosso (the house red), which is a Tichinese Merlot typical of the region. Drink your wine out of the striped ceramic bowls like a local instead of with a wine glass. And as for food, start with the selection of cold meats and finish with the pork ribs, dry-rubbed, grilled, and oh-so-delicious with a side of rosemary potatoes! Menus are available in English and Taxi Lugano (taxilugano.ch/+41 79 836 5738) can get you there and back.
Where should visitors stay?
The most convenient and logical place to stay is at the Hotel Lugano Dante (at Piazza Cioccaro 5), which is right in the middle of the city center. From there, everything you’ll want to see and do is within walking distance.
Let’s talk about day trips. What nearby places should we make sure to visit?
For a really special day trip, head north to Sonogno and hike along the river to Lavertezzo (about a 2.5 hour walk), where you will encounter a gorgeous Romanesque arched bridge called the Ponte dei Salti. Here, you can spend some time swimming and diving in the canyon before hiking the Verzasca Valley to Maggia (an overnight hike).
What are your favorite hiking trails/walking paths?
Lugano is surrounded by several local mountains that can all be hiked: Monte Generoso, Monte Bre, Alpe Bolla, Denti della Vecchia, Monte Bar, Monte Lema, Monte Tamaro, and Monte San Salvatore. The paths here are all well marked and taken care of and Switzerland (as a whole) has created incredible resources for hikers and made them available online (at myswitzerland.com and lugano-tourism.ch).
That said, the quintessential local hike to take would be up Lugano’s home mountain, Monte San Salvatore. The trailhead is easy to access by foot from the city center and, while planning is a cinch, the hike itself is both challenging and rewarding. The 360-degree view of the Alps and Lake Lugano from the rooftop of the church that sits atop Monte San Salvatore is sure to take your breath away (it’s where my husband proposed—that’s how beautiful it is).
The trailhead is just past the Scuole Paradiso bus stop, near the funicular station at the base of Monte San Salvatore. Once you get to the summit, continue upward to the church and climb the staircase to the roof. From here, you have a few options. You can hike down the way you came. You can hike through Corona to Parco San Grato (a botanical garden with beautiful flora and views of the surrounding summits) and then down to Morcote where you can catch a bus back to Lugano. Or you can ride the funicular down. My personal preference, though I do not typically favor going back the same way I came, is to hike back down. Round trip, this takes an average hiker four to five hours and can be done early morning or mid-day with plenty of time to clean up, rest, and go out to enjoy your evening on returning.
What are your favorite restaurants and bars?
My absolute favorite is Mojito Bar (on Riva Albertolli), which is an open-air bar open on the lake’s footpath every summer. Mojito Bar is where everyone goes to enjoy the gorgeous outdoor Lugano nightlife. Order the signature mojito.
My next favorite is Bottegone del Vino (at Via Massimigliano Magatti 3), an absolutely charming hole-in-the-wall right next to the city center. The menu changes daily and is limited, similar to an Italian trattoria, and typical of the local establishments. The wine and desserts are fantastic here and the service is wonderful.
How can we best fit in with the local culture?
If you order a cappuccino here (and you should), make sure you order it before 11 a.m. Cappuccino after 11 a.m. will make you stand out right away.
Finally, Swiss people have unspoken quiet hours from 10 p.m. to 8 a.m. And, of course, you’ll want to be polite and considerate of the people that you come into contact with. Other than that, though, there is not a lot you can do to upset people in Lugano, since Italian culture is pervasive here and Italians like to just go with the flow.
What are the best ways to meet locals and make friends
If you are coming to Lugano from another part of Switzerland, you’ll notice an immediate cultural difference. In the French and German parts of the country, people keep mostly to themselves and are much more reserved. In Lugano, the people are friendly, outgoing, talkative, and approachable. When you are out and about, just strike up a conversation with anyone around you and they will be happy to talk to you. (That said, in Lugano, very little English is spoken, so if you do not speak Italian, you might have to try your luck a time or two to come up with an English-speaker.)
You can also use social media to network before you arrive. There are Lugano groups on Facebook, MeetUp, InterNations, and Couchsurfing.
Where’s the best place in town to take a photo?
A picture in front of Lake Lugano and Monte San Salvatore next to the wrought iron gate in Parco Civico-Ciani is the most quintessential view there is, but the photo ops from atop Monte Bre and Monte San Salvatore are even more impressive if you ask me.
Any final tips?
My favorite summer activities are Pardo al Parco, which is a miniature version of the Locarno Film Festival held in Parco Civico-Ciani and Estival, which is an open-air jazz festival.
In fall and winter, Lugano is a bit sleepier. So if it’s events you crave, come in summer. That said, there is an autumn market and a Christmas market here every year and both are lovely. Make it a point to have chocciolatta densa (Italian hot chocolate) if you’re here in the winter months. It’s so thick you almost need a spoon to drink it. The best one is at Munger (at Via Luvini 4), which is to the left of Manor in the city center.
Finally, I’ll leave you with a tip for the grocery store: You have to weigh your own produce here, so make sure you do that with any fruits or veggies you want to buy before heading to the cash register. You also have to buy your own grocery sacks here and bag your own groceries. When you get in line to check out, grab one of the foldable nylon grocery sacks that you see by the gum. One sack costs about two francs and is very handy to have when traveling!
Love this? Get the full interview and 99 more in my new guide: Switzerland: 100 Locals Tell You Where to Go, What to Hike, & How to Fit In.