Tips on getting to Lugano

This item appears on page 12 of the November 2008 issue.

While my wife, Paula, and I didn’t find Lugano, Switzerland, to be the most exciting or interesting of destinations, the city is the southern terminus of two of Swiss Rail’s most scenic train routes: the William Tell Express and the Bernina Express. That is its primary attraction for many travelers, but its mountainside location on picturesque Lake Lugano (shared with Italy) provides another good reason to visit.

The city certainly doesn’t fit the stereotypical image of an Alpine village populated with German-speaking folk eating lots of raclette and rösti. Italian-speaking Swiss live in Lugano and the surrounding Ticino region, which has a distinct Italian flavor. If that isn’t sufficiently disorienting to the visitor, the occasional sighting of a palm tree certainly is.

Paula and I decided to begin our May ’08 trip to northern Italy and southern Switzerland in Lugano. We planned to ride both the William Tell Express and Bernina Express, connecting those two routes in the north with the Glacier Express to form a loop. But how to get there?

The major airports nearest to Lugano were outside Milan, across the border in Italy. From our home in Charlotte, there were reasonably priced one-stop connections to Milan using a combination of US Airways and Lufthansa flights. That was the easy part. The hard part was getting from the airport to Lugano.

We were to fly into Terminal 1 of Milan’s Malpensa Airport (MXP) and needed to transfer from there to Lugano’s train station, where we could walk to our nearby hotel. The Lonely Planet “Switzerland” guidebook was silent on how to get to Lugano from MXP, but its Rick Steves counterpart suggested taking a Malpensa Express bus to Milan’s Stazione Centrale (50 minutes). There, we could catch a train to Lugano 1½ hours away.

That didn’t sound too bad, since we were scheduled for a very early morning arrival at MXP; however, checking a map of Italy, we saw that this route included a lot of backtracking. The only other likely alternative, a taxi, would cost a ridiculous amount. There had to be a better way.

Our solution was found on Lugano Tourism’s informative website, Two different companies, Star Bus ( and Malpensa Express by Giosy Tours (www.malpensa, provided transportation connecting MXP, Lugano and nearby towns. (Both websites are in Italian only.)

Star Bus provided hourly service with shuttle buses (one hour, 20 minutes), while Malpensa Express runs full-size buses (one hour, 10 minutes) every other hour during their hours of operation. Both charged €20 or CHF30 (about $30) for an adult one-way ticket. Star Bus’ website stated that reservations were required; Malpensa Express offered advance reservations but didn’t require them.

The Star Bus schedule worked best for us, but I was hesitant to reserve because of my lack of confidence in an on-time arrival at MXP. We decided to chance it, and this was our first trip in recent memory where all of our flights were on time.

MXP’s confusing arrival hall held several likely looking sales points for bus and shuttle tickets, but the ones we needed had yet to open for the day. We exited the terminal into a beautiful, sunny day and located a Star Bus shuttle. It was empty, but after a few minutes’ wait the driver appeared and was happy to sell us tickets.

The comfortable bus seated only about eight people, so reservations are certainly a good idea. We were two of only four passengers in the shuttle’s first trip of the day to Lugano.

The bottom line — for approximately the same cost, we traveled from MXP to Lugano in half the time and with much less hassle on the Star Bus shuttle rather than taking the Malpensa Express bus to Milan’s Stazione Centrale followed by a train to Lugano.

At the end of our trip (the final days of our trip were spent in Milan), we took a Malpensa Express bus from Milan’s Stazione Centrale to MXP. Our bus was on time, comfortable and, surprisingly, completely filled for its 4:35 a.m. departure on a Friday.

Based on our experiences, I can recommend both Star Bus and Malpensa Express if you’re traveling between MXP and either Lugano or Milan.


Charlotte, NC