Fairy tales and dragons. Alpine peaks and mirror lakes. Trains that run like clockwork and clocks that chime like songbirds. Breakfasts to rise for. Chocolate to die for. The stereotypes of Switzerland are the superlatives of many other destinations. When we need our Swiss fix of medieval squares, church spires, and covered bridges, we head straight to Lucerne.
With the snow-capped peak of Mount Pilatus looming in the distance (look for its legendary dragons circling the summit), this city blends the best of tradition—cafés serving hot chocolate or Swiss wine along the Reuss River—with bracing innovation (the Swiss Museum of Transport is a monument to geek-chic marvels of momentum, from trains to cars to planes).
A classic way to bring Lucerne into focus is to cruise the lake; its German name, Vierwaldstättersee, means “lake of the four forested places.” But we love to grab our walking shoes and explore Old Town’s maze of cobblestone alleys and squares, working up an appetite for all the rösti (potato fritters) and LuzernerNusskuchen (hazelnut cake) a hungry traveller can eat. Whether crossing town by covered bridge or walking along the lakeside, a timeless feeling pervades. Ironic, given the Swiss obsession with timeliness. But in Lucerne, wonders never seem to cease.
Along the northern shore of Lake Lucerne sits the regal Grand Hotel National, a 41-room, neo-Renaissance-meets-baroque landmark. Co-founded around the turn of the 20th century by famed hotelier César Ritz and pioneering chef Auguste Escoffier, the hotel continues a tradition of culinary excellence with four restaurants, a café, and a lakeside terrace and bar (www.grandhotel-national.com). Perched on a forested ridge above Lake Lucerne, the Bürgenstock Resort has assembled three historic hotels—once frequented by such stars as Audrey Hepburn and Sophia Loren—into one glamorous, health-focused retreat. Spread over 148 acres, the 370-room resort includes a 1,07,000-square-foot spa, indoor and outdoor pools (one heated in winter), tennis courts, a nine-hole golf course, almost 70 kilometres of hiking and biking trails, and a private beach on the lake for water sports (www.buergenstock.ch). A renovation has brought new life, and a modern sensibility, to the Hotel Anker, housed in a turreted stone building that once was a gathering place for the local labour movement. A short walk from Lucerne’s train station, the 40-room hotel pops with bright colours and playful details. Groups with four to six people should consider reserving the tower suite, which comes with a private rooftop terrace and a hot tub perfect for chilly Swiss nights (www.hotel-restaurant-anker.ch).
Cross the Chapel Bridge, parade in costumed splendour, then hit the cog rails.
Lucerne is compact enough to explore on foot. A leisurely walk will take you past many of the city’s highlights, including the well-preserved Old Town; the 351-year-old, onion-domed Jesuit Church; the poignant Lion Monument, carved into a cliff face near the city, which Mark Twain called “the most mournful and moving piece of stone in the world”; and the famous Chapel Bridge, a flower-bedecked wooden bridge decorated on the inside with paintings depicting events in Swiss history (www.luzern.com).
The city plays hosts to festivals year-round. The blues roll into town in November, when everyone from John P. Hammond to Buckwheat Zydeco take the stage for the Lucerne Blues Festival (www.bluesfestival.ch). In February it’s Carnival, with parades and hundreds of costumed revellers (www.lfk.ch). August brings the Lucerne Festival, a feast of classical music held since 1938 (www.worldbandfestival.ch). September is the World Band Festival, Europe’s largest wind-music event. (www.worldbandfestival.ch).
Ferries and paddle steamers regularly crisscross Lake Lucerne, offering everything from short cruises to nearby resort towns such as Brunnen and Weggis (which Mark Twain called the “loveliest place”) to half-day tours of the entire lake, visiting more distant spa towns—and leading to a network of lake and mountain hikes. This being Switzerland, you also will find recreational water-sport options, including windsurfing, kayaking, waterskiing, and stand-up paddle boarding (www.luzern.com/en/water-sports).
The world’s steepest cog railway hauls visitors to the 6,983-foot summit of Lucerne’s Mount Pilatus. From there, a 10-minute walk brings you to the Esel observation platform, with horizon-spanning views of Lucerne, its lake, and the Alps. Another popular option is the “Dragon Ride” aerial cableway, which seems to fly from the mid-mountain station of Fräkmünteggto the top of Pilatus (www.pilatus.ch). Train fan? Get your rail knowledge on track at the Swiss Museum of Transport (www.verkehrshaus.ch).
Flavours and languages (German, French, Italian, Romansh) converge in convivial Lucerne
At Wirtshaus Galliker, a tavern run by the same family for four generations, you’ll find potato rösti, cheese tarts, veal in puff pastry with mushroom sauce, and other traditional dishes (Schützenstrasse; +41- 41- 2401002). Pfistern occupies a medieval guild house with a view of the Chapel Bridge and serves up such local favourites as lake fish and “giant farm” bratwurst (www.restaurant-pfistern.ch).
The riverside Rathaus Brauerei specialises in seasonal beers—dark-malt Christmas beer, fruity summer beer—brewed in-house and serves up a weekly menu of salads, soups, and local meat dishes (brauerei.lu; group brewery tours are by appointment). City-based Luzerner Bier, established in 2009, uses local ingredients in its beers, which include a lager and a smoky Schnitter beer (brauerei.lu; tour by appointment).
It’s easy to go vegetarian in Lucerne: Numerous restaurant menus feature farm-fresh salads and cheese-based raclettes and fondues. Then there is Tibits, part of a Swiss chain of casual vegetarian eateries created by three brothers, which prepares more than 40 vegetarian and vegan dishes, from risottos to cheesecakes, with special emphasis on seasonal produce (www.tibits.ch).
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Three venues in one, Ampersand houses a wine bar, a cigar lounge, and a grill, where dry-aged meat cooks over an open fire and a vinotheque (wine collection) pours some of Switzerland’s top varietals (www.ampersand.lu). Restaurant Anker’s funky chandeliers and jewel-tone accents will have you lingering over its plates of grilled meat and fish specialties.
The Swiss are the world’s leading chocoholics, consuming some 20 pounds per person per year. Start your Lucerne chocolate experience on a 90-minute, small-group chocolate tour that begins and ends at Confiserie Bachmann, a confectionery bakery with a “flowing chocolate wall” (www.confiserie.ch). At boutique Max Chocolatier, goodies—truffles to pastries to chocolate spreads—use natural ingredients, so flavours vary by season, from edelweiss in spring to pumpkin in fall (www.maxchocolatier.com; prearranged tours of the chocolate-making facility are available). Confiserie Kurmann is one of the few big-name shops that haven’t expanded to other cities; here you’ll find everything from chocolates and tarts to pralines and cakes—including Luzerner Nusskuchen, traditional cakes infused with hazelnut filling. The shop also crafts chocolate sculptures, should you want to bring home a chocolate replica of Lucerne’s Lion Monument or Chapel Bridge (www.art-confiserie-kurmann.ch).