Lugano vs. Locarno: Which is better?

Unable to decide between Lugano and Locarno? The Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, Canton Ticino, is a charming, sunny region filled with treasures – from flowered promenades, turquoise rivers, quiet valleys, Grotti, museums, mountains, castles, and beautiful villages.

For those wanting to visit Ticino for the first time, the question would normally be – should I visit Lugano or should I choose Locarno? Which town in Ticino is better to visit? And which one would be a better base to explore the rest of the region? Let’s have a closer look.


Towns: Lugano vs. Locarno

Both towns are similar in that they are heavily influenced by the Italian culture, they sit along the banks of a lake, and they are near the Swiss-Italian Alps.

Lugano

Lugano, the largest town in Ticino, is bigger than Locarno. The town itself has more shops to peruse, restaurants to dine in, and hotels to choose from.

Image of Lugano Lake by Andreas from Pixabay

Lugano is the largest town in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino and the ninth-largest in Switzerland. It has the largest Italian-speaking majority outside of Italy. The town lies right along Lake Lugano. 15 minutes away is the Province of Varese in the Italian region of Lombardy. Lugano is also easier or faster to reach from Zurich and Lucerne by train compared to Locarno. However, there will be more traffic coming into the city by the car.

Locarno

Locarno is the third-largest town in the canton of Ticino, following Lugano and Bellinzona. The town lies right along the northern side of Lake Maggiore and the northeastern part of the river delta of Maggia. Across the river is the town of Ascona, also a popular tourist destination alongside Locarno.

Image of Locarno’s Piazza Grande of vco24 from Pixabay

The key differences are as follows:

LuganoLocarno
Population: approx. 62,615 Population: approx. 16,000
Lake: LuganoLake: Maggiore
Elevation: 273 mElevation: 200 m
the largest town in Ticinothird-largest town in Ticino
bigger and more vibrant compared to Locarno,
more hotels, restaurants, and shops
smaller and more laid back
the third-largest financial hub of Switzerland
after Zurich and Geneva
has well-known major events like
Locarno Film Festival,
Locarno Triathlon, or the Moon & Stars

In a world where I would have to make a decision and stay in one place for a day or two, I would choose Lugano. The city of Lugano has more attractions to offer, restaurants to eat at, and is, in general, larger and livelier. Locarno would be my choice, however, if I had several days to explore other nearby places. Locarno is a good base for exploring Verzasca and Maggia valleys. It is also near the Ascona and Brissago Islands, which are beautiful places to visit. 


Places to Visit: Lugano vs. Locarno

Places to Visit in Lugano

Image of the Passion and Crucifixion Fresco. Credits: Wikimedia
  • Church of Santa Maria Degli Angeli  – It is the most important church in Lugano. Despite its simple exterior, the interior is absolutely stunning. “Passion and Crucifixion”, the massive Renaissance fresco with more than 150 faces and figures, is located in the church. As the painting’s title suggests, the artist depicts the crucifixion of Jesus Christ alongside Gestas and Dismas.
  • LAC Lugano Arte e Cultura – Those interested in arts and culture should visit LAC Lugano Arte e Cultura. Built only in 2015, the center supports various art forms, from visual arts to music. In this modern building on the banks of Lake Lugano, you’ll find events and shows for all ages.
  • Via Nassa for shopping for watches, jewelry, bags, and clothes.
  • Piazza della Riforma and Palazzo Civico – Piazza della Riforma is the main square of the city of Lugano. Different events (concerts, Christmas lights) may take place in this city square. It also houses the Lugano Hall called Palazzo Civico.
  • Catedrale San Lorenzo – The Cathedral has beautiful frescoes and valuable Baroque decors. It was founded back in the 15th century and completed in 1517.
  • San Salvatore – Monte San Salvatore is a mountain in the Lepontine Alps above Lake Lugano and the city of Lugano in Switzerland. Monte San Salvatore is accessible by funicular from the city. 

There are 17 heritage sites around Lugano that are designated as Swiss heritage sites. The city of Lugano as well as the districts of Barbengo, Brè, Gandria, and Biogno. Likewise, Cantine di Gandra and Castagnola are all part of the Inventory of Swiss Heritage Sites.

Places to Visit in Locarno

Image of Castello Visconteo in Locarno by Wikimedia
  • Piazza Grande – The largest urban square in Ticino. Every Thursday, it hosts a market with local produce. Piazza is surrounded by arcades, a lake, and gardens.
  • Old Town – The historical old own of Locarno goes way back to the 16th and 17th centuries.
  • Castello Visconteo – Near the old town is Castello Visconteo (also known as Castello Rusca). The Castello Visconteo was built back in 1497 for Giovanni Rusca.
  • Museo Civico – The museum exhibits a beautiful collection of glass objects from the Roman era. There are also artifacts from the bronze age.
  • San Francesco Church – The Church built back in 1316 is the Catholic Church for the German-speaking residents in Locarno. In 1538, it was reconstructed with the stones of the Visconteo castle.
  • Pinacoteca Comunale Casa Rusca – It is housed in a restored 18th-century building. The museum was opened in 1987 and has collections by both Swiss and foreign artists.

Day Trips from Lugano vs. Locarno

Day Trips from Lugano

Morcote, Ticino
Image of Morcote by TouringSwitzerland.com
  • Morcote – It is one of the most beautiful villages in Ticino. The village of Morcote sits on the peninsula of Ceresio about 10 kilometers south of Lugano, in the canton of Ticino in Switzerland. Located on the shores of Lake Lugano, it offers a panoramic view of various Italian villages in the Varese region. 
  • Sentiero dell’Olivo – In Sentiero dell’Olivo we learn about the history and nature of olive tree growth along 3.5 kilometers of trails. There will be 18 information boards where you learn about olives and the olive oil they produce.
  • Gandria – Gandria is another picturesque village in the Lugano region. The buildings date from the 16th and 17th centuries and are decorated with frescoes and stucco. From Lugano, it can be reached by boat. 
  • Carona – Carona is a charming village at the foot of Monte San Salvatore, just above Lugano. Despite its small size, it has an exceptionally rich cultural and historical heritage. During the 15th and 18th centuries, local craftsmen (architects, decorators, painters, and sculptors) worked all over Europe leaving traces of their expertise behind in Carona. 
  • Monte Genoroso – This mountain can be found in Switzerland’s Lugano Prealps, near the Italian border. This mountain is situated between Lake Lugano and Lake Como. Monte Generoso is nestled in a nature reserve that is known beyond our borders. The spectacular “Fiore di Pietra” (stone flower) stands majestically on the mountain’s rugged crest. The building, designed by Mario Botta, features picture windows that frame the breathtaking views. 
  • Monte Brè – The mountain is located east of Lugano on the flank of Monte Boglia, and it offers views of the bay of Lugano and the Pennine Alps as well as the Bernese Alps. It is considered one of the sunniest places in Switzerland.

Here is a more detailed article about the day trips you can take from Lugano: 8 Best Day Trips From Lugano.

Day Trips from Locarno

Image of Waterfalls in Verzasca Valley by TouringSwitzerland.com
  • Cimetta-Cardada – The mountain Cimetta is located in the Lepontine Alps, above Locarno and Lake Maggiore. Locarno – Madonna del Sasso funicular connects the city center with Orselina. Cable cars connect there to Cardada, where a chairlift takes guests to the summit. It offers stunning views of Lake Maggiore and the Swiss Alps. There is also a playground and a treasure hunt for kids.
  • Valle Verzasca – Verzasca Valley is one of the beautiful valleys near Locarno. There are several beautiful villages (or hamlets) in the valley, such as Corippo, Sonogno, and Lavertazzo. Lavertazzo is famous for its  Ponte dei Salti bridge, which is frequented by swimmers. It is a must-see if you are in the area.
  • Ascona – On the picturesque shores of Lake Maggiore, Ascona is a town with lots of Mediterranean-style architecture. Public transportation can take you there in 7 minutes from Locarno.
  • Valle Maggia – Ticino’s largest alpine valley. This valley is formed by the Maggia River and lies between the Centovalli and Lago Maggiore.
  • Brissago Islands (Isole di Brissago) – Brissago Islands are a pair of islands in Lake Maggiore close to Ronco sopra Ascona and Brissago. Isola Grande is a big island with many subtropical plants native to both the northern and southern hemispheres. Open since 1950, the big island has been a popular tourist spot since then. It is possible to reach them by boat.

Here is a more detailed article about the day trips you can take from Locarno: 12 Best Day Trips From Locarno.

Summary

It is indeed difficult to choose between Lugano and Locarno. Each town has beautiful churches, museums, a lake, and nearby mountains where you can spend time exploring. Additionally, both locations are near other places worth visiting on day trips.

If you are not sure what to do, what would I recommend? If you have limited time, like an overnight stay or two days, you should stay in Lugano and explore the sights there. The Monte San Salvatore mountain is also nearby. It can be reached directly from the city. 

However, if you have a couple of days to spare and want to explore more than just the town, I think Locarno’s surroundings are better. I particularly love the valleys of Verzasca, Maggia, and Bavona. There is something unique and beautiful about each valley. Additionally, the Brissago Islands and Ascona are worth a visit. 

From both cities, Bellinzona with its three famous castles is also close and definitely worth checking out.

Regardless of where you go, have a great time! 

Related Posts: Lugano

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