Located on a beautiful lake and surrounded by a breathtaking panorama of snowy peaks, the picturesque Swiss city of Lucerne is more than just a pretty face.
First things first, 48 hours is not long enough to experience the wealth of historic, cultural and culinary delights that this beautiful lakeside city has to offer. It is however just about enough time to sample a small taste of the city’s sensual feast and whet your appetite for a longer visit. In this whistle stop guide to a weekend in Switzerland’s City of Light, I will share my tips on the best places to eat, drink and sleep, as well as the must-see museums, galleries and other attractions that make Lucerne the ideal city break destination.
Approximately one hour by rail from Zürich airport, Lucerne is a relatively small city with a population of around 80,000 people. Walking is the best way to get around if you want to explore the cambered cobbled streets of the old town and stumble upon medieval squares with hand-painted murals and water fountains. But if you’re headed a little further afield, are pushed for time or not so good on your feet, the Lucerne Visitor Card - issued to all overnight guests - allows tourists to travel zone 10 of the city’s bus and train network for free. Other perks of the card include discounted admission to many cultural attractions, reductions on mountain excursions to Rigi, Titlis and Stanserhorn, and free wifi hotspots all over town.
More than seven million tourists visit Lucerne every year with the vast majority arriving by train at the city’s quayside rail terminal. From here most hotels are only a short walk away including my pick, Art Deco Hotel Montana. Reached via a scenic 15 minute lakeside stroll or a few stops on the bus, the Montana offers stylish, elegant accommodation and impeccable service. I’ve stayed here a few times and it’s definitely worth spending the extra francs for a lake view room since the hotel’s elevated position provides some of the region’s most memorable vistas. Other popular accommodation options include Hotel Des Balances, Hotel Wilden Mann and if you’re really pushing the boat out the five star Hotel Schweizerhof, where Wagner reportedly completed the opera Tristan and Isolde, has a prime lakeside location and all the luxuries you can imagine. Even if you don’t have deep enough pockets to stay here, the hotel’s famous outdoor terrace is the perfect spot to drink in the view with a glass of your favourite tipple.
The first time visitor to Lucerne will likely want to acquaint themselves with the city’s layout and the location of all the major landmarks before diving into their personal wish list. A great way to do this is to begin with a walk along Chapel Bridge and through Lucerne’s pedestrianised old town, marvelling at the wooden bridge itself, the 17th century paintings that run the length of its insides and the ornately decorated architecture that lines the quaint cobbles of the old town. From here, you can continue your walk, zig-zagging back across the Reuss via the less famous Spreuer Bridge or heading up to the Schirmerturm tower and the city walls (Musegg) for a bird’s eye view over Lucerne, the lake and the surrounding mountains. To keep your energy levels up, pick up a coffee (and a cake of course!) from Confiseur Bachmann - a Lucerne institution - or head out of town to Café Tacuba (around 30 minutes on foot) for arguably one of the best speciality coffees in Switzerland.
Back in the centre, pay a visit to the Lion Monument, created to honour the Swiss Guards who died in the Storming of the Tuileries in 1792. Despite being something of a tourist trap, if you choose your time carefully (early morning is best) the beautiful sculpture, carved directly into a sandstone rock-face, is the perfect spot for quiet contemplation. I’ve stopped by the monument at least once on every visit to Lucerne, and it’s easy to see why Mark Twain called this ‘...the most moving piece of rock in the world’. If it happens to be lunch or dinner time, there’s a fantastic restaurant practically next to the monument called Old Swiss House which serves an outstanding traditional menu including its signature Wiener Schnitzel, and is also famous for a wine cellar comprising more than 30,000 bottles. Premier labels from Bordeaux dominate the wine list along with a number of acclaimed Swiss varieties, and the collection on display includes every single vintage of the prestigious Château Mouton-Rothschild from 1911 to the present day!
Lucerne is renowned as a city of culture, so visitors here can expect world-class museums and art galleries, as well as everything from classical music to arthouse cinema and contemporary dance.
Amongst the best places to visit - and definitely worth squeezing into your 48 hours - is the Sammlung Rosengart - a superb art collection occupying what was once the Swiss National Bank. With more than 200 important works by Picasso, Klee and Cézanne amongst others, the exhibition is also noted for a series of photographs of Picasso in his private moments. Worth your attention too is the Richard Wagner Museum where you’ll find the composer’s piano along with original scores / manuscripts and various other exhibits, and the Swiss Museum of Transport, which sounds somewhat bland unless you’re a train fanatic or a plane spotter, but honestly it’s one of the best museums I’ve ever been to anywhere in the world!
If you’re visiting in August or September be sure to book tickets for one of the concerts at Lucerne’s annual month-long classical music festival, a highlight of Switzerland’s cultural calendar since 1938. The festival is known to attract some of the world’s leading classical musicians and most of the performances take place at the renowned KKL concert hall, considered to have amongst the best acoustics in the world. The KKL (Culture and Congress Centre) also houses the Lucerne Museum of Art and a number of restaurants / bars including Michelin starred Lucide. Dinner here isn’t cheap but it’s definitely worth it for the stylish interior, contemporary creative menu and excellent wine list. Other food options to recommend in the city include Thai Garden with its authentic, skilfully prepared far-eastern delicacies, and Sauvage - a classic French / Mediterranean fine dining restaurant in the Hotel Wilden Mann.
So there you have it - 48 hours in Lucerne; two whole days jam-packed with art, culture, coffee, food, wine and magnificent scenery that just about scratches the surface of this charming, beautiful city.
Written by Lisa Rowlands
Lisa Rowlands is Vinorandum’s voice on Switzerland. With a passion for wine, food and travel journalism, as well as a growing affinity for German and Italian, Lisa is well placed to offer insight into this small but quality focussed country.
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