The oldest clock tower in the city chimes a minute ahead of the rest; historic rank over the many that add their song to the wind every hour on the hour in the ancient city of Lucerne, Switzerland. Built in 1178, St Peter’s chapel enjoys a vantage point on the hill with enchanting views to the lake below.
Yet this is not the musical note for which Lucerne is famous. Their international musical standing lies in the Lucerne Festival that brings an assortment of concerts to venues throughout the city each year, providing a feast of classical music that has been a highlight of the Swiss cultural calendar since 1938 and is certainly one of many reasons to visit. My visits to Lucerne, or Luzern as it is known in this German part of Switzerland, are of a more exploratory nature. To take in the lake, mountain and iconic historic bridges, to indulge at the Swiss Christmas markets and to recognise that cities such as this one, are made for all seasons.
Found at the north end of Lake Lucerne where the impressive River Reuss meets the open water, it holds the position as one of Switzerland’s great tourist attractions. With its well-preserved medieval core, elegant historic buildings and opportune access from the capital, I understand why Queen Victoria, Mark Twain and Goethe were known to frequent the city.
Lucerne’s origin stems back as far as 840 when it first appeared in the records as Luciaria after the Benedictine monastery founded here about a century prior. Yet it’s only after the opening of the St Gotthard pass in the 13th Century that it developed into an important trading town. Today Lucerne is an image of preserved beauty with its ancient wooden bridges, murals on the walls, churches and high-end shopping stores. The is young and vibrant, there are bicycles everywhere as the residents go about their day and the Old Town is entirely pedestrianised, encouraging exploration on foot.
On arrival stop in at the tourist office at the central station, a perfect place to find maps, guides, useful and current tips about where best to eat as well as any exhibitions and shows that may be in town. From there you have a perfect view of the Culture and Congress Centre or Kultur- und Kongresszentrum as it is known. The famous architect Jean Nouvel designed this multi-functional and impressive building which offers a free flow of water from the lake through the reception hall, an impressive play on the eyes and a concert hall famed for its acoustics.
Then take an easy walk to include the main attractions starting with the city’s most iconic feature, the Chapel Bridge, a romantic wooden bridge built in 1333 that not only served as an important connection between the right and left shores of the Reuss but who’s Water Tower formed part of the city’s fortification. Hanging from the timbers of the roof are more than a hundred 17th century paintings showing local saints and scenes from the town’s history. Sadly the Chapel Bridge was gutted by fire in 1994 but has since been completely rebuilt and restored.
Head to the Old Town and Town Hall, where the ground floor once served as grain storage whilst the upper parts of the building served as the town hall. Today the city administration is found on the other side of River Reuss, yet right here in front of the town clerk has become a popular spot for marriage ceremonies. Find historic buildings clad in frescos in the picturesque squares, each depicting the trade of the business that once stood here; jewellery, clothing, musical instruments. The Weinmarkt fountain, which dates back to 1481, can fill up your bottles with sweet drinking water.
Higher up the river, the wooden spikes of the Needle Weir are still used to regulate the water level of Lake Lucerne. These were partly destroyed during the 2005 floods, but have since been restored. You can even see the difference in colour between the old and new. The Wooden Spreuer Bridge with its Dance of Death paintings under the roof is a highlight and must be slowly walked.
Visit Lucerne’s Jesuit Church, the first large baroque church built in Switzerland north of the Alps. An expression of the Catholic Church’s 17th century struggles to regain spiritual leadership and perfectly placed in the country’s capital of Catholicism. Today it is a major tourist attraction and occasionally serves as a concert hall, has become almost irrelevant from a religious point of view. The painted ceiling has a wonderful elephant by an artist who I’m told had never seen one.
By far the most popular of the 19th-century highlights is the Lion Monument by Lukas Ahorn, a 10-meter long sculpture of a dying lion carved into the rock face in 1820, it commemorates the Swiss soldiers who died during the French Revolution. Mark Twain is quoted to have called it the ‘saddest and most moving piece of rock in the world’. I must agree.
Also in Lucerne is the Swiss Museum of Transport, the country’s most-visited museum that showcases the fascinating history of transport, its achievements and its vehicles. Located in a large complex of halls and outdoor exhibits it even includes air and space travel, tourism, railroad locomotives, ships, aircraft rockets and automobiles. The largest pinball machine in the world with its entry in the Guinness Book of Records is also to be found here, as is the Planetarium.
The fascinating Glacier Garden has giant rock formations from the last ice age while the Bourbaki Panorama houses one of the world’s only panorama paintings still in existence and the Richard Wagner Museum is where the composer once lived. Other similar attractions in and around Lucerne include the Alpineum, History Museum, Military Museum and Natural History and the Sammlung Rosengart’s photos of Picasso collection.
For many people though its the Fasnacht or Lucerne Carnival that draws them. Held annually from Fat Thursday and lasting five days with three big parades and many festivities it brings strange characters with masks and costumes who parade the narrow streets while musicians blow their instruments in joyful harmony, dancing away the spirits of winter. Certainly sounds like something to be added to the experience wish list.
My visit included all the envisaged offerings of Swiss chocolate, fine cheese, nut tart, alpines, funiculars, cowbells and watches, hiking poles, peaceful neutrality and incredible shopping. At the end of a rewarding day, we stopped for craft beer and a snack at the Rathaus Brauerei, peacefully next to the cobalt lake people watching, the resident swans oblivious to the fairytale beauty of their city of lights and all it has to offer.
In the Springtime, my arrival was onboard a 108-year-old paddle-wheel steamer called Uri, a journey that brought me from the Ticino region. Named the William Tell Express, this is recognised as one of Switzerland’s most panoramic routes and combines the magic of train and boat travel. From crimson coloured carriages, I watched quaint villages on hills and valleys, church steeples peeping out above tree lines and freshly fallen snow-capped mountains in the distance, leaving the train to take to the water in Flüelen. After a three-course meal in the Belle Époque style dining room onboard, I enjoyed the air on deck as we glided past Schiller Stone and Tell’s Chapel, approaching Lucerne in old school style.
My return to Lucerne was more direct, arriving in Zurich I took the scenic hour’s commute by train through picturesque snow-capped mountains, drinking in the European winter scenery. Especially in winter, make time to visit Engelberg Titlis, only an hour away by train and offering stunning views over snow-clad mountains. At 10,000 feet, Mount Titlis is Central Switzerland’s loftiest peak attracting ski lovers from across the world. It has Europe’s tallest suspension bridge too. This village of Engelberg oozes ski resort charm and standing at that height is exhilarating.
Views from the 108-year-old paddle-wheel steamer called Uri across Lake Lucerne.
Swiss International Air Lines offers direct flights between Johannesburg and Zurich and Edelweiss seasonal direct flights between Cape Town and Zurich. For more information look to Switzerland Tourism, Swiss Travel System and Luzerne Tourism. Save by getting the Lucerne Museum Card that allows you to visit any number of museums on two consecutive days. If you’re spending some time in Switzerland it is worth buying a SWISS Pass suited to the number of days that you will be travelling. There are flexible options available that include panoramic routes, public transport in 75+ cities and towns, entrance to over 480 museums and additional discounts.
If time is of the essence, take a day trip from Zurich. But you’ll want to stay over and accommodation on offer is varied to suit any budget.
A shot of me below, walking the city on a December evening.