Romance stares me in the face as soon as I exit the train station in Lucerne (Luzern). Lovely Lake Lucerne lies to the right, its steely waters mirroring the Alpine peaks that border its other edge. Mount Pilatus stands sentinel, all snow-covered and shrouded in legend. To the left is the River Reuss cutting through the Old Town. Couples huddle under colourful blankets at riverside cafés, their misty breath mingling with the steam from their rösti and hot chocolate. Even the buildings of the Old Town ooze character, with their painted facades telling stories of a long forgotten time.
There’s no denying it: Lucerne plays in to every cliché about the Swiss romantic getaway. Perfectly poised at the foot of the Alps in the Swiss-German speaking part of central Switzerland, Lucerne’s location is gorgeous, but also strategic from a traveller’s perspective. It is the ideal base from which to make day trips to nearby Mt. Pilatus and Mt. Titlis.
Getting There And Around
The Swiss railway system runs like clockwork and is an effective way to get around the country. The closest airport is at Zurich, from where the hour-long train ride to Lucerne costs CHF29/₹1,880. Lucerne is neatly divided into the Old Town (Altstadt) and New Town (Neustadt), the former being the most atmospheric quarter and easy to navigate on foot and by bus. A good option is to get the Swiss Travel Pass, which allows unlimited travel on trains, buses, and boats as well as discounts on mountain railways. (www.swisstravelsystem.com; a 3-day travel pass costs CHF210/₹13,608)
The Old Town is chock-full of impressive hotels housed in medieval buildings, a stone’s throw from the River Reuss and most of Lucerne’s attractions. Hotel Des Balances is one such property, housed in a 13th-century building with Lucerne’s typical painted facade, opening onto Weinmarkt (www.balances.ch; Weinmarkt; doubles from CHF220/ ₹14,068). An alternative option is to stay lakeside, still close enough to the Old Town to reach on foot. For luxury and stunning views of Lake Lucerne and the Alps, opt for a lake-facing room at the grand Palace Luzern.
Start your exploration at the Old Town—a warren of medieval squares and cobblestone alleys lined with brightly frescoed facades. Most of the Old Town is spread across the north bank of the River Reuss. On the south bank is the 17th-century baroque style Jesuit Church of Saint Francis Xavier, defined by its dull-green twin onion domes and grand marble stucco interiors (www.jesuitenkirche-luzern.ch; Bahnhofstrasse 11; 6.30 a.m.-6.30 p.m.). The flower-lined, 14th-century wooden Chapel Bridge (Kapellbrücke) runs diagonally across the river, past the octagonal Water Tower (Wasserturm) to a string of hotels and cafés lining the north bank. Both the tower and the bridge were originally a part of the inner city’s fortifications. No longer open to the public, the tower has in the past served many purposes as a prison, a torture chamber, and a treasury. Much of Chapel Bridge was destroyed in a fire in 1993 and reconstructed the following year. Its gabled roof remains adorned with 17th-century paintings on triangular panels. Further down the river is Lucerne’s second covered wooden footbridge, the Spreuer Bridge or Mill Bridge, built in 1408. The bridge, in the city’s lower end, connected the mills to the baker’s quarter, and this was the only place in the city from where it was allowed to dump chaff (spreu) into the river. Triangular panels on the roof depict a macabre series of paintings that show grinning skeletons in everyday human scenes. These were painted by 17th-century local artist Kaspar Meglinger. Next to the bridge, the Needle Dam regulates the water level of Lake Lucerne with wooden water spikes or needles.
Cross over either bridge and linger over cheese platters and hot chocolate at al fresco riverside cafés, where menus are scrawled on blackboards and dragged over to your table. The brick-roofed Rathaus, the 17th-century town hall and meeting place, now houses its own brewery and restaurant in the basement. Locals recommend the white sausage and pretzel, which costs CHF16/₹1,066 (www.braui-luzern.ch; Unter der Egg 2).
Behind the line of hotels along the river, lie Lucerne’s centuries-old squares with fountains and elaborately frescoed buildings, now housing boutiques and cafés. Many of the facades are restored originals, depicting stories of the tradesmen who lived and worked here. Notable among the squares is the sloping Weinmarkt or Wine Square. Facades to look out for include the peeling yellow frontage of the former apothecary, emblazoned in Latin with the phrase “There is no medicine to cure the lovesick.” At Kappellplatz or Chapel Square—the site of the annual Lucerne carnival—stands the iconic Fritschi fountain, an ode to one of the notable guild families called Fritschi, the intricately painted Fritschi restaurant in a 17th-century building, and St. Peter’s Chapel, Lucerne’s oldest church built in 1178. Mühleplatz or the Mills Square, the former location of Lucerne’s markets, leads to the Spreuer Bridge. In winter, stalls sell marroni, or roasted chestnuts, by the river. At Kornmarkt, keep an eye out for the intricate family tree painted on the Zunfthausrestaurant Pfistern. The restaurant is in a medieval guild house, dating to the 1300s, where decisions were taken on politics, society, and laws. Try their traditional fondue (www.restaurant-pfistern.ch; Kornmarkt 4; fondue costs CHF33.50/₹2,170 per person).
Taste Swiss chocolates and speciality cheeses along the way. Handmade on-site are the creations at Max Chocolatier (www.maxchocolatier.com; Schweizerhofquai 2; Tue-Fri 10 a.m.-6.30 p.m., Sat 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Mon 1-6.30 p.m.) or Heini (www.heini.ch; Falkplatz). Chäs Barmettler is an independent cheese shop with a range of regional variants, including the famed Swiss Gruyère (www.chäs-barmettler.ch; Hertensteinstrasse 2; Mon-Fri 7.30 a.m.- 6.30 p.m., Sat 7 a.m.-4 p.m.).
Near the 17th-century Hofkirche or Church of St. Leodegar is the Lion Memorial. A dying lion is carved into a sandstone rock rising above a pond of water, commemorating the Swiss guards who fell fighting for King Louis XVI in 1792 during the French Revolution. The adjacent Glacier Garden displays natural remnants from the last Ice Age 20,000 years ago—polished boulders and deep glacial potholes, fossilized mussels, and palm leaves (www.gletschergarten.ch; Denkmalstrasse 4; 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; entry CHF15/₹972). Children will enjoy the Alpineum Museum just opposite the monument specially its lifelike diorama of Alpine peaks including Pilatus, Jungfrau, and Matterhorn (www.alpineum.ch; Denkmalstrasse 11; Apr-Oct only, 9 a.m.-6 p.m.; entry CHF5/₹333).
Nearby, the Bourbaki Panorama features a gigantic circular painting of the Franco-Prussian War created by Edouard Castres, a Red Cross volunteer who experienced the war. It is one of few surviving 19th-century panoramas—a visual entertainment feature predating cinemas (www.bourbakipanorama.ch; Löwenplatz 11; daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; entry CHF12/₹800).
If you’re still not stuffed from all the cheese and chocolates, enjoy a quiet dinner by the riverside at Wirtshaus Taube—a quaint café in a medieval building, with both indoor and al fresco seating; try the bacon-and-cheese-laden Chapel Bridge rösti (www.taube-luzern.ch; Burgerstrasse 3; lunch CHF30/₹1,979).For those craving Indian food, hop across to Kanchi and dig into their tandoori treats (www.kanchi.ch; Zürichstrasse 4; CHF50/₹3,360).
Art buffs, head towards the railway station (Bahnhof) for a morning browse. Next to the Bahnhof is the ultra-modernist, steel and glass Kultur- und Kongresszentrum Luzern, or KKL. Designed by French architect Jean Nouvel, Lucerne’s Culture and Convention Centre may seem at odds with the surrounding architecture, but is the life of the town as a venue for concerts and festivals. The Museum of Art with constantly changing exhibits of contemporary art is located within the KKL (www.kunstmuseumluzern.ch; Europaplatz 1; Tue-Sun 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; entry CHF15/₹ 972). Five minutes away, the Rosengart Collection is a museum with over 300 works by 19th- and 20th- century great masters including Picasso, Paul Klee, and Renoir. These were once the private art collection of father-daughter duo Siegfried and Angela Rosengart, and the latter still runs the museum (www.rosengart.ch; Pilatusstrasse 10; 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; entry CHF18/₹1,200).
A lake cruise is a beautiful way to take in Lucerne’s scenic charms. Board the panorama yacht M.S. Saphir from just across the Bahnof for an hour-long trip. With a convertible roof that’s left open on days when the weather is good, the cruise covers the main sights, includes an audio guide, and affords grand views of the Alps (buy tickets and board from the boat station across the railway station; 1st boat departure: June-Sept 10.15 a.m., Oct-May 12.45 p.m.; adults CHF25/₹1,620 and children CHF15/₹972).
After the cruise, stroll and people-watch along the lively waterfront promenade. When the weather is warm, the stretch is full of young people rollerblading and old men playing pétanque—an age-old ball game. Hop across to the art deco Hotel Montana (across the road from Palace Luzern on the waterfront) for lunch at the chic Scala restaurant (www.hotel-montana.ch; Adligenswilerstrasse 22). The terrace is open when the weather is suitable, affording grand lake views. Otherwise, the heated conservatory is always comfortable. The lamb chops with leek, apple, and beetroot gnocchi (CHF48/₹3,200) and the potato gnocchi with celery cream and horseradish (CHF23/₹1,533) are good options.
Continue along the promenade towards the Swiss Museum of Transport on foot or by bus (Bus no. 6, 8, 24 to Verkehrshaus). The museum traces the history of road, rail, water, and air navigation through simulators and multimedia displays. Don’t miss the vintage locomotives on display among the many exhibits. There’s a film theatre and a planetarium within the museum complex, but the grand bonanza for kids is the Chocolate Adventure. The interactive ride takes you below ground level, and explains the history and making of chocolate through visuals, smells, and tastings. Grab a light bite at the in-house restaurant Mercato, or get takeaway and hop across the street for a picnic at the lovely lakeside park where ducks waddle in and out of the water (verkehrshaus.ch ; Lidostrasse 5; 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Museum entry CHF30/₹1,944, free with Swiss Travel Pass; Chocolate adventure CHF15/₹972; lunch CHF25/₹1,672).
It’s a 20-minute walk or a ten-minute bus ride to Schwanenplatz where lively cafés and restaurants are located (Bus 6, 8, or 24). Stadtkeller, two minutes away, is a vibrant spot in the heart of the Old Town with live music and traditional folk performances. Local musicians often play here, while other times there are yodellers, alphorn players and other Swiss performnaces (www.stadtkeller.ch; Sternenpl. 3; meal for two CHF50/₹3,333). End the night with a characteristically Swiss dessert—a cheese platter. It features different cuts of cheese accompanied by dollops of relish, jelly, walnut, fig, mustard, and bread, and finds a place on almost every menu in town. Pop in to any café along the way and place an order (under CHF20/₹1,296); also works well as a heavy evening snack.
Towering over Lucerne at 6,995 feet, Mount Pilatus is swathed in tales of dragons. Make a day trip up to the mountain—the journey is as much fun as the destination—on the world’s steepest cogwheel railway. Board a train from the Luzern Bahnhof to Alpnachstad (20 min; CHF7.60/₹492). From here, jump aboard the fire-engine-red Pilatus Railway (30 min; CHF36/₹2,333; discounted with Swiss Travel Pass). The 126-year-old cogwheel rail trundles up the mountainside at a steep angle, sometimes as sharp as 48 degrees, and operates from May to November. The nearly five-kilometre-long rail track gains 5,365 feet in altitude from its start at Alpnachstad. Gently rolling up at 10 km/hr, the meadows slowly fall away as Alpine vegetation takes over. Fat cows announce their presence with cowbells. Occasionally, the train rolls through tunnels piercing straight through the rock face. The other option, in months when the rail line is not functional, is to take the bus to Kriens and a cable car up to Pilatus. (An easy option is to get a round-trip ticket which takes you from Lucerne to Alpnachstad by boat, up to Pilatus by cogwheel rail, down to Kriens by cable car, and back to Lucerne by bus; www.pilatus.ch; costs from CHF79.20/₹5,132.)
On my arrival, a melodious tune carried across the mountains. A lone sexagenarian, standing in the mist, played the alphorn—a long wind instrument usually carved from pinewood. Walti, the alphorn player, may graciously let visitors try the instrument, but be prepared for a hilarious outcome.
Long ago, claims of dragon sightings on the mountain were common up on Mount Pilatus. The legend goes that one winter, a young boy got lost on the mountain, fell down a deep hole, and fainted. When he came to, he found himself in a cave with two fearsome dragons. No harm came to the boy, and instead, the beasts kept him warm through the winter and nursed him back to health. Finally, he was sent to his home in the valley on a dragon’s back.
The Dragon Path winds around the mountain, through tunnels with large windows and viewing platforms, affording stunning vistas of Lucerne far below. Artwork depicting the dragon legend by noted Swiss artist Hans Erni adorns the walls.
In summer, indulge your active side at the Rope Park or the Toboggan Run. Grab a bite at the upscale Queen Victoria restaurant at Hotel Pilatus-Kulm or the self-service restaurant with a sun terrace at the Hotel Bellevue. There’s usually a choice of set meals, featuring pasta, traditional Swiss sausage, and rösti (a fried potato dish) or a vegetarian rice option (around CHF20/₹1,333 for lunch). The Panoramic Gallery linking the two hotels features a covered roof and is a good place to stop for breathtaking views of the mighty Alps.
Appeared in the February 2016 Swiss Special issue as “A Lot Like Love”.
Lucerne's buildings ooze with character. Photo: Chirodeep Chaudhuri
With this itinerary a family of four (2 adults and 2 children) can enjoy a 3 night/4 day stay in Lucerne for under ₹1.5 lakh (airfare not included). Costs include the couple buying Swiss Travel Passes (free for children under 16). The cost also includes 3 days packed with sightseeing and eating out. A family can save significantly by renting an apartment instead of a hotel room, and eating some meals at picnics and in-room by buying groceries at local supermarkets or farmer’s markets.
is a freelance journalist who writes about travel, culture, and food. She travels for the outdoors: to dive deep in the Indian Ocean, crawl through caves in Meghalaya, and hike through the Norwegian fjords.
is Photo Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. He is the author of "A Village in Bengal", a portrait of rural Bengal.
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