‘Autumn is my favourite season in Lugano – it’s still warm enough to be on the lake, and the colours are beautiful,“ says Kristina as we huddle in her boat munching roasted chestnuts. It’s late September, and hard to believe we’re in Switzerland. Lake Lugano is turquoise, a sparkling contrast to the terracotta-coloured buildings clinging to its shores. Chestnut-wooded mountains, including Sugarloaf-esque San Salvatore, bulge around us like oversized air bubbles.
Kristina, who runs a local guesthouse, is right. Lugano, the largest city in the Italian-speaking Swiss canton of Ticino, carries autumn well, and this weekend it celebrates with the Festa d’Autunno (00 41 588 666 600; luganoturismo.ch). The festival features folk music and stands selling regional specialities, such as polenta stew and merlot wine.
Thanks to an average October temperature of 16C, the colourful city lends itself to the outdoors. When it’s too chilly for boating, locals stroll along the ritzy lakeside promenade into Parco Ciani. Here, manicured lawns and statues contrast with a wilderness of oak, linden and sycamore trees, as well as the Cassarate river mouth regeneration area with walkways, which was completed last year.
Lugano is just as serene from above. The densely wooded summit of Monte Brè (00 41 919 713 171; montebre.ch) towers over the city, offering views of Lugano Bay and, beyond, the Valais Alps. It is also good for collecting castagne (chestnuts), which were once vital sustenance for poor valleys in the region and now find their way into everything, from marmalade to honey and cakes. There is a funicular to the top. “But we tend to hike up,” says Kristina, a typically active local. A funicular also connects Lugano’s hilltop station to the Old Town, where you can meander between tangled, brightly painted townhouses, and sup espresso on an Italianate piazza. There are 10 ornate squares in the centre, including central Piazza della Riforma, with its neoclassical facades, which opens on to luxury shopping street Via Nassa.
At the end of Via Nassa lies Santa Maria degli Angioli church (00 41 919 220 112), containing 16th-century frescos of the Crucifixion and the Last Supper by Bernadino Luini, a disciple of Leonardo da Vinci. It is one of several beautiful examples of architecture, which also include the brand new LAC cultural centre, a striking glass and stone affair that attracts a hip crowd.
Lugano’s hotels range from pricy lakeside establishments to design properties such as Hotel City Lugano (00 41 912 220 900;hotelcitylugano.ch), which opened this year, with doubles from CHF240 (£163), B&B.
There is also a slew of guesthouses providing affordable comfort. Kristina recently finished renovating the last of Guesthouse Castagnola’s three suites (00 41 786 326 747; gh-castagnola.com). Husband Maurizio’s La Strada bar is a good opportunity to mingle with locals. And if you’re lucky, Kristina might take you out in her boat. Doubles from CHF 120 (£82), room only.
Despite Lugano’s slick appearance, its residents are all about the outdoors, be it boating, biking or hiking. Accessible walks don’t get much lovelier than the Sentiero dell’olivo: take the ferry (00 41 919 715 223;lakelugano.ch; winter timetables apply) from Lugano Paradiso to picturesque fishing hamlet Gandria. From there, a five-kilometre marked path returns to Lugano. En route you’ll pass Al Lido (00 41 919 715 500; allidobar.com), which opens on Sundays in the off-season for brunch.
Minutes from Italy, Lugano has a well-developed culinary scene. Pasta e Pesto (00 41 919 226 611;pastaepesto.com) is worth the climb up Via Cattedrale for handmade pasta at affordable prices. For regional food, head for a traditional “grotto”: at La Tinera (00 41 919 23 52 19) try luganiga (Ticinese sausage) with risotto.
For a taste of autumn, head to La Cucina di Alice (00 41 919 220 103; lacucinadialice.ch), which changes its decor and menu each season. “Our autumn menu will include mushrooms, pumpkin and chestnuts,” says owner Alice.
On cooler days, the best place to be is the revered (and cosy) Grand Café al Porto (00 41 919 105 130; grand-café-lugano.ch), which opened in 1803. But a visit to Italian-speaking Switzerland wouldn’t be complete without a drink at a wine bar. The region is famous for its merlot-based wines, particularly Selezione d’ottobre by Matasci. Old-style wine bar Bottegone del Vino (00 41 919 227 689) has an extensive list.
Via Cattedrale, which climbs to Cathedral San Lorenzo for panoramas of Lugano Bay, contains all sorts, from African antiques to handmade paper. But if you only shop in one place, make it Gabbani (00 41 919 113 090;gabbani.com) in the Old Town. Since 1937, the delicatessen has become a local institution. Its torta di pane (moist bread-based cake) is deliciously comforting.
From outdoor art installations in Brè village (Monte Brè) to the Museum of Cultures (00 41 588 666 960; lugano.ch), Lugano can satisfy the most discerning tastes. Opened in September, LAC (00 41 588 664 200; luganolac.ch) is the newest addition. It is dedicated to visual and performing arts and music, and hosts the Lugano in Scena theatre season from October. It also houses the Museo d’Arte della Svizzera italiana (Masi), an amalgamation of Lugano’s two major art museums.
The nearest international airport is Milan Malpensa in Italy, served by Flybe (0371 700 2000; flybe.com) from Birmingham, Cardiff, Manchester and Southampton; BMI Regional (0330 333 7998; bmiregional.com) from Bristol; easyJet (0330 365 5000; easyjet.com) from Edinburgh, Gatwick and Luton; and British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) from Heathrow.
Shuttle buses take 50 minutes and cost around €50 (£37) return (00 41 919 226 703;luganoservices.ch). Trains run every hour from Milano Centrale and take a little more than an hour (sbb.ch); second-class return from CHF41 (£28).