Earth : Europe : Central Europe : Switzerland : Ticino : Lugano
Lugano  is a lakeside city in Cantone Ticino, the only majority Italian-speaking Canton of Switzerland. Located at the extreme south of the country, Lugano is part of a temperate micro-climate, offering palm trees, picturesque boulevards, stunning views of the lake and the Alps, and plenty of opportunity for outdoor and indoor activities. Lugano also makes a good base for visiting other cities and sites in the area. The city is a pleasant place to relax in the summertime and is only half an hour away from the italian cities of Como and Varese.
Lugano has a small international airport, Lugano-Agno airport  located in the nearby municipality of Agno with flights arriving from several European locations, particularly Italy, England, France and Germany. These are typically connecting flights through Geneva or Zurich. Swiss International Air Lines  and Darwin Airline (as Etihad Regional)  fly regularly scheduled services to Lugano.
Milan's airports are, on average, 1 1/2 hours away by bus or train. Of these, Milano Malpensa may be the best choice for Lugano due to the high volume of flights and its location well towards Switzerland (1 hour by shuttle). For Europeans, Malpensa is especially convenient for its high volume of Easyjet routes. For details on shuttle transfers between Lugano and Malpensa please refer to the "By Bus" section below.
Lugano station is located on the Gotthard railway which crosses the alps connecting Kanton Schwyz, Uri, and Cantone Ticino. It primarily serves FFS (aka SBB, aka CFF, the national railway operator), TILO (Joint operation between FFS and Italy's Trenord), EC, and the local metre-gauge FLP.
FFS trains leave for Zurich (2:15 hr), Basel (3:15 hr) and Milan (a good hour) as well as Geneva (via Zurich: 5h with 1 train-change). Note that getting to Geneva or other points west of Ticino, it is often faster to go via Zurich or Locarno as the trains are more frequent and faster.
FLP trains depart from a separate platform about 50 metres down the hill from the FFS platforms. This line travels to Ponte Tresa on the Italian border via Lugano-Agno Airport.
Due to physical geography, Lugano has good North-South oriented links and non-existent East-West ones.
Lugano is on the A2 motorway (just "2" on a red background on Swiss road signs) which spans the width of the country from Basel on the French/German borders to Chiasso on the Italian. This is part of the European Route E35 from Amsterdam, Netherlands to Rome, Italy. Like most Swiss roads, the condition is usually very good and speeds are good, nevertheless distance makes journey times relatively long, particularly when travelling from the north of the country. (But then again, what do you expect, you're crossing the alps! Just imagine that you're Hannibal and enjoy it). Lugano is about 3h from Berne or Zürich, in optimal conditions. Note that this route passes through the San Gottardo tunnel, which is a bit of a bottleneck on Sundays (northbound) and Friday (southbound), so budget some time for traffic jams. Jams can be up to 3 hours long during peak travel times such as Easter.
Coming from the south, you have more choices on the flat Po plain but the main route is the A9 motorway from near Milano to Chiasso (where it becomes the Swiss A2). This motorway is fast and relatively uncongested, just beware the somewhat more carefree driving style of the Italians compared to the Swiss. Note also the changes in speed limits when crossing into Switzerland. Lugano is about 1h30 from Milano and 1h10 from Malpensa airport, in optimal conditions. Travelling on the A9 does incur one toll near Como, around 2.20EUR as of 2016.
NB. crossing customs is usually a pain-free exercise. Switzerland is part of Schengen, so they're (currently) not interested in your passport (if you're European) but they are not part of the EU and may be interested if you're carrying anything you need to declare; make sure you know the duty-free limits.
There are three airport shuttle services between Lugano and Milan Malpensa Airport (both terminals). The services are very similar to each other, so if you are short of time just pick the one that's going to arrive next:
Lugano is small enough to get around on foot, and many of the streets are pedestrian-only, but the hills above the lakefront are very steep so bus or funicular from the center of town might be a better option. This is probably particularly pertinent if you have a lot of bags and need to get from the Stazione FFS to your hotel in town.
Taxis can also be found on the main roads. They are metered and the fares (quite high compared to other cities) are set by the city, so no haggling or shopping around is required. Ferries and Funiculars are great options for seeing the views.
For public transport, Ticino is divided into fare zones, and tickets typically have a valid time period within a zone, as opposed to validity for a single trip.
APE cards (Arcabaleno Prepay Easy) can be used throughout Ticino. This is a contactless card which isn't quite as smart as, for example, London's Oyster Card. The Arcobaleno card cannot itself be used to pay for travel on the bus/train but it can be used to buy tickets at machines which do not accept credit cards, and it prevents you from having to hold a paper carnet (although when you validate (obliterare) your journey, you will receive a paper receipt that provides evidence of the validation). In Lugano, cards can be purchased from ticket counters and machines on the platforms at Lugano Centro bus station. Apparently also from drivers.
Tickets may also be purchased using the Autopostale app for all scheduled bus services (including TPL, ARL) but not SNL boats.
For more information:
For the most part, bus tickets can be purchased at bus stops, however not all machines (particularly true the further from the town centre you are) accept credit cards or banknotes.
The main bus hubs are Lugano Centro for TPL and ARL, and for Autopostale the nearby underground station beneath the Autosilo Balestra. There are also good connections from the Stazione FFS and by the lakeside.
There is usually no requirement to show drivers your tickets, the honor system is used here. However, there are ticket inspectors and fines for freeriding are high so don't try to abuse the system.
You may have mixed results with trying to buy your ticket on the bus, particularly with an APE card. Although most busses seem to have machines capable of doing so, it isn't standard practice and drivers may seem at a loss. The standard procedure is to buy your ticket before you get on; note that in the polite and relaxed Luganese society, busses will wait patiently for you to purchase your ticket and then board (make sure you acknowledge the courtesy with a respectful "Grazie!").
Regular Ferry services are operated by Società Navigazione del Lago di Lugano (SNL) and serve many locations around the lake. Main routes are to Gandria, Ponte Tresa, and Porlezza (IT).
SNL also operates tourist cruises.
Because of its small size, a car is largely unnecessary in Lugano. However, if you have decreased mobility a car might be essential due to the steep hills at the edges of the town. Note that much of the town centre is pedestrian-only or one-way, so you may find it awkward to navigate the town. A detailed map or a GPS is recommended. Most parking is pay-and-display, street parking tends to be cheaper than the autosili.
Car parks (autosili)
This map shows the locations of the main city car parks with real-time availability. Note that autosili Balestra, Piazza Castello, and LAC are probably the easiest to reach, and closest to the city centre without having to walk up or downhill. Pricing is fairly expensive, like most of Switzerland, but car parks are secure and well-appointed.
Blue zones (zone blu)
If you happen to have a blue zone card (some rental companies provide this) which looks like a large blue card with a parking symbol and a dial to set the time of arrival, you can park in spaces marked with blue outlines. Parking is free and typically allowed for up to an hour (although double-check what the sign says) as long as your blue card is correctly set and clearly displayed. More infomation here.
Italian is spoken in Lugano as a primary language. English is spoken by many of the individuals that interact with tourists but away from the tourist trail it is much less common so some Italian and German would be useful.
Many major labels and designer boutiques (Versace, Hermes, Paul & Shark, Louis Vuitton, and Cartier) can be found here, as well as the usual Swiss and Italian knick-knacks. Via Nassa in the city center is the main place for shopping high street brands.
Not very common in this part of Switzerland. The ones you do find tend to be smaller than British or American ones.
If you like Italian-style cuisine with a Swiss twist, you're not going to go hungry here. The main draws are the Grotti, but there are many smaller ristoranti and caffè where you can get excellent food. Indeed it can actually be quite difficult to find non-classy food here.
In terms of "fast food", the locals love their piadine, an Italian-style wrap with various fillings (usually cold cuts, cheese and veg) and served grilled. Essentially an Italian version of a quesadilla; delicious right? Go try one now.
The main problem is that the locals don't seem to have discovered spicy food and you may have a hard time finding anything that requires chilli peppers. Oh well, you can't have everything.
Regarding times, note that mealtimes are rather strictly adhered to (this is Switzerland after all), so if you come from a 24-hour city then you may be in for a surprise when you find that absolutely nowhere is serving at 1545 when you finally decide to get out and go for a meal, and your stomach may just have to grumble a bit until you get to dinnertime.
If you need delivery then your best bet, aside from the ristoranti themselves is probably Home Sweet Home who have a reasonably wide selection of restaurants that will deliver, but you're going to miss out on the pleasantness and vibrancy of actually dining out in Lugano.
If you need groceries, then the main supermarket chains are Migros, Coop, Denner, Aldi. On Sundays, you're kind of screwed but the Picobello in Stazione FFS (which is also a good option for out of hours shopping as it opens fairly late), or perhaps a Migrolino (chain of shops attached to petrol stations) ought to tide you over. You could also cross the border but remember the import limits.
The cafeteria in the Manor Department store (Piazza Dante 2) offers a wide variety of tempting International dishes, ranging from sushi to pasta. Fresh fruits and vegetables arrayed in stylish displays are almost a painting themselves. Wine and beer are available as are a wide range of other beverages.
And if you simply get tired of delicious local cuisine, there is a McDonald's and a Burger King by the lakeside. Go ahead it's fine, no judgement here, honest. Turkish-style kebab places are also reasonably common, serving Doner and Felafel. There's even a Mexican taqueria near the parco civico, which is well-priced and tasty. Still not spicy though...
Don't focus too much on the list below, the numbers of places that serve pizza is far too high to list recommendations. Suffice to say that the vast majority are excellent and reasonably-priced for Switzerland.
In the summer your best bet is just to wander along the lakeside promenade and open air bar/cafes. Check local listings for clubs and shows as venues come and go with the seasons. Spring-Autumn, Bar Mojito (p.za Manzoni, directly at the lakeside)
There are clubs in the city (discos). Nix (under the Casinò), Privilege (near Manor, a department store), Tito's Place (quartiere Maghetti), Club One and The Cube are all located in the downtown.
Oops (via Maderno 24) and Bibliocafè Tra (Salita dei Frati, Piazza Molino Nuovo) are a great place to have beer in the evening. Near University . Another hint:
There are a wide range of hotel options right in town, from atmospheric B&Bs to posh four stars to comfy and communal hostels. Be sure to book ahead in the summer, but the rest of the year it's possible to just show up and find something as long as your budget is flexible.
Tourist offices (uffici turistici) (site):
There are also a few cafes that provide internet in and around town; some aren't that obvious with it however so perhaps a good opportunity to try out your Italian and ask around ("Avete wi-fi?" and "Che è il codice?" might help).
Lugano is as safe as most cities in Switzerland, but the density of expensive purses, watches, and sunglasses may make pickpockets more of a problem. The usual cautions apply to walking alone late at night, especially after bars and clubs close before dawn.
National Emergency Numbers
If you have a car, the awkwardness of driving in town in Lugano is entirely replaced by beautiful regional routes. Some are also accessible by the extensive Autopostale routes. Traffic in Switzerland is much lighter and saner than in Italy but some jams do occur near border crossings.
Lugano is well-connected by public transport if you're travelling North-South, but because of the terrain, terribly connected if you wish to travel East-West.
Nearby locations of interest