Lake Lugano: A Beautiful Lake in Italy and Switzerland

Lake Lugano (or Lago di Lugano) is a glacial lake located on the border between Northern Italy and Southern Switzerland, right in the middle between Lake Maggiore and Lake Como. It is located in one of the most beautiful regions of the two countries.

Lake Lugano Stats

Lake NameLake Lugano
Surface area49.000
Maximum depth288.0
Average depth134.0
Lake typeGlacial
Catchment area566.00
InflowsVedeggio, Cassarate, Cuccio, Laveggio, Magliasina, Bolletta, Scairolo
SettlementsLugano, Melide, Ponte Tresa
Trophic stateEutrophic
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63% of the lake’s surface is located in Switzerland, while the remaining 37% belongs to Italy. The glacial lake is surrounded primarily by mountains: Monte Bre is located at the east with 925 meters high peak, Monte San Salvatore lies on the west with its highest peak reaching 912 meters, whilst Monte Generoso can be found on the southeastern end of the lake, with its 1701 meters tall peak. Monte San Giorgio, located on the south, is an official World Heritage Site because of its fossil deposits. The culminating point of the lake’s drainage basin is the Pizzo di Gino summit, of 2245 meters in the Lugano Prealps.

The Tresa River exits Lugano on the west, heading towards Lake Maggiore. It belongs to the catchment area of the Ticino River. The lake is of glacial origin, formed after the last Ice Age which happened some 10 000 years ago. Its three main tributaries are the Cassarate, Vedeggiio and Cuccio Rivers. The lake’s retention time differs in its two basins. The northern basin’s retention time is 11.9 years, more than four times larger than in the southern basin, which has a retention time of 2.3 years.

These two basins are separated by the Melida causeway. The northern is 27.5 km2 and the southern one is 21.4 km2. A bridge can be found in the causeway, allowing waterflow and navigation. Because of the Mediterranean climate governing the lake area, Lugano is a popular destination all year round.

Fish Population

Lake Lugano is rich in fish and fishing is permitted nearly everywhere, except for a few places such as the mouth of River Cuccio near the town of Porlezza. Some of the lake’s native fish are the cagnetta, goby po, grayling, and Danube roach. The arctic char, Persian trout, savetta and tench are none-native species of Lake Lugano. Two fish, the bleak and the white-clawed crayfish are protected species. The former is almost extinct in Lugano, contrary to Maggiore, where its populations thrive. A controlled repopulation is in plan for the future.

In 1985 the brook trout was successfully introduced from Lake Zug. Between 1894 and 1897 they managed to introduce the common whitefish to Lugano. Attempts of introducing another type of whitefish from Lake Neuchatel were made in the ‘50s, although the project was unsuccessful. The common roach is present in the lake in large numbers. Other fish currently living in Lugano’s waters are the European chub, tench, carp, European perch, largemouth bass, zander and burbot.

Fossil Findings

The region around Lugano, especially behind the lake’s southern shore, is quite rich in fossils. The local focal point can be found at the San Giorgio Heritage site, where many fossils dating back to the mid-Triassic period (220 million years ago) were found in the 19th century. These deposits stretch westwards to Italy, until the deposits of Besano. Fossils from the Jurassic period, dating back 180 million years, were also found on the southeastern shores of Lake Lugano.


Lake Lugano was first mentioned by Gregory of Tours in 590 by the name “Ceresio”, derived from the Latin word “cerasus”, meaning cherry. This name referred to the abundance of cherry chees which used to fill the shores of Lugano in the past. After this, the lake appears in documents from 804 under the name “Laco Luanasco”.

The first mention of a political body leading the Lugano area dates back to 818. Because of its optimum situation, the lake was part of the dominion of the Sperio County. In 1000 the Bishop of Como governed the area. Lugano served as a war site between 1218 and 1227, which occurred between Como and Milan regarding the control over Alpine traffic.

Lugano and its coast slowly became incorporated to the Duchy of Milan and it was the subject of political and territorial contention in the 15th century. It was during this time that Lugano became the official town of the lake, from where the latter got its name from.

After the transalpine bailiwicks were established,Lugano ceased to belong to a single sovereign political entity at the beginning of the 16th century. The Treaty of Varese set the official Italian-Swiss border in 1752 which remained unchanged ever since. In 1848 the Melide Causeway was constructed on a moraine between Melide and Bissone with the goal to carry a road across the lake and serve as a direct route between Lugano and Chiasso. Today this causeway also carries the Gotthard Railway and the A2 motorway.

Human Impact and Pollution

The lake is navigable and is used by a lot of private vessels as well as passenger tour boats which connect Lugano to other settlements on the lakeside. Both fishing and navigating are regulated by agreements between Switzerland and Italy.

Pollution is a serious problem in Lake Lugano, which aggravated in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Since then a large number of sewage treatment plants were introduced to the lake, but because of the continuous lack of oxygen in the lake’s waters, and the increase of phosphor concentration, it is unclear if the lake will recover.

Visiting Lake Lugano

The blue lake, with its shores dotted with picturesque Venetian-style villages clinging on the rugged coast with tall mountains serving as a backdrop are reasons enough to visit Lake Lugano. But the lake has even more to offer, since it is one of Italy’s prime destinations for watersports, hiking, trekking, mountain biking, horse riding and sailing. One can get to the lake either by driving or by train. Getting around is easier through public transportation routes like the train, bus, boats or minibuses.

Many small towns and communities around Lake Lugano have a lot to offer: medieval churches, historic sights, art galleries, museums, bars, shopping centers, beaches and parks. Lugano City on the northern shore is famous for its vibrant nightlife and abundance of bars, cafes, pubs and restaurants. Morcote is known mostly for its grand mansions, the church of Santa Maria del Sasso and the Parco Scherrer, an outdoor haven where architecture and sculptures are mixed with cedar trees. Gandria is the perfect little Italian fishing village known for the Swiss Customs Museum, where the history of smuggler trading is presented. The Swiss miniature park is located nearby, having Switzerland’s must-see attractions on display at a scale of 1:25. Montagnola is perfect for literature-lovers, since it is home to the Hermann Hesse Museum.

Portalezza, on the eastern shore, is the perfect starting point for mountain hikes. It also has a number of medieval churches and monuments, and even though it is small, it is great for pursuing outdoor activities and ideal for relaxing. Brusimpiano is also a small town but has some of the most stunning views of the mountains and the lake. Lavena Ponte Tresa is the go-to place for those in search of natural beauty.

The lake area is also a great base for trips around Italy, since it’s close to Saint Moritz, Venice, Milan and Como and Maggiore lakes. The view from Monte Generosso can be admired after a rock railway ride from Capolago resort. There is also a cable car leading up to the sunny plateau of Serpiano.

Lake Lugano Map