Pretty, pristine and lakeside, with a striking mountain panorama as a backdrop, Lucerne has long been Switzerland’s tourism capital.
Since the Romantic era in the 19th century, it’s been a regular stop on the "Grand Tour" of Europe for the likes of Mark Twain and Queen Victoria. And with a charming old town, a pair of picture-perfect wooden bridges, a gaggle of fine museums, an ultramodern concert hall, and its famous weeping lion, there’s still enough in Luzern to earn it a place on any Swiss itinerary. It’s an ideal home base for exploring central Switzerland.
Lucerne offers an enticing, I-could-live-here glimpse of the appealing and uniquely Swiss urban quality of life. You’ll find efficient buses gliding around town, pedestrian bridges spanning the crystal-clear river, a scenic lake plied by an array of cruise boats, and a few choice museums.
Simply strolling the streets and bridges, and cruising Lake Lucerne is enough for a happy day of sightseeing. But Lucerne also offers some fine attractions. Art buffs flock to the Rosengart Collection for its Picasso exhibit; gearheads have a ball at the Swiss Transport Museum; and rock hounds dig the city’s Glacier Garden.
Lucerne began as a fishing village at the spot where the Reuss River tumbles out of Lake Lucerne. By the 13th century, with traffic between northern and southern Europe streaming through the nearby Gotthard Pass, Lucerne became a bustling trading centre. All that traffic brought the construction of two river bridges that are now icons of the city.
In the 14th century, the Chapel Bridge (Kapellbrucke) was oddly built across the river — spanning its banks at an angle to connect the town’s fortifications. Under its rafters hang about 100 colourful 17th-century paintings showing contemporary and historic scenes. There’s a legendary giant who dates to the Middle Ages, when locals misidentified newly discovered mammoth bones as human. The panels also landscapes of Lucerne in about 1400 and portraits of its two patron saints.
The other famous bridge — Mill Bridge (Spreuerbrucke) — also has fine 17th-century paintings, which show Lucerne’s favourite giant again, with the blue-and-white city and cantonal banners under the double eagle of the Holy Roman Empire — a reminder that the emperor granted free status to the city. The flip side shows Judgment Day, with some going to heaven and others to hell.
Another emblematic sight is the Lion Monument (Lowendenkmal). This free, famous memorial is an essential stop if you’re visiting Lucerne — if only because when you get back home, everyone will ask you, "Did you see the lion?" Open from sunrise to dusk, the huge sculpture (some 10-metres-long by 7-metres-tall) is carved right into a cliff face, over a reflecting pool in a peaceful park.
Though it’s often overrun with tour groups, a tranquil moment here is genuinely moving: The mighty lion rests his paws on a shield, with his head cocked to one side, tears streaming down his cheeks. In his side is the broken-off end of a spear, which is slowly killing the noble beast. (Note the angle of the spear, which matches the striations of the rock face, subtly suggesting more spears raining down on the lion.)
This heartbreaking figure represents the Swiss mercenaries who were killed or executed defending the French king in the French Revolution. The inscription reads, "Helvetiorum fidei ac virtuti" — "To the loyalty and bravery of the Swiss."
Along with its historic landmarks, Lucerne also has distinctive modern architecture. On the waterfront is a huge building with a big overhanging roof — the Lucerne Culture and Conference Centre. Lake water is pumped up, into, through, and out of this building; if you were to wander around its far side, you’d see open channels that go right through the middle of the structure (blocked by benches, so distracted visitors don’t fall in).
One of the best ways to experience Lucerne is by boat. Gorgeous Lake Lucerne, with a total area of 114-sq-km, has a variety of boat routes and destinations (35 stops in all). Cruises range from a one-hour sampler tour (around Luzern’s "harbour") to a full-blown, six-hour exploration to the far end of the lake and back again.
Some routes are round-trip dinner or sightseeing cruises, but most boats have scheduled stops and are designed for you to get out, explore, and then take the next boat back. Romantics will want to hitch a ride on one of the old-fashioned paddleboat steamers.
From its dramatic scenery and quaint old town squares to its modern, urban efficiency, Lucerne is one of Switzerland’s gems. No visit to Switzerland is really complete without sampling its urban charms, and Lucerne sparkles as perhaps the brightest of all.
Rick Steves (ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public TV and radio. E-mail him at email@example.com and follow his blog on Facebook.