Lucerne may not be Switzerland’s oldest city, but it was its first when the Swiss Confederacy was formed seven centuries ago. Today, it is not the country’s largest or most important city, but it is the most beautiful. Nobody seems to know when Lucerne was founded, but the mesmerizingly beautiful aquamarine waters of Lake Lucerne are known to have lured travelers, and settlers, since at least Roman times. These days, Lucerne’s magnetic personality draws tourists, and more settlers, from around the world. Should you be drawn, as I was, to Lucerne, what would you do with a long weekend there? Here’s my 36-hour strategy for visiting Lucerne: Getting There Lucerne lies at something of a crossroads for travelers between the heart of Europe and Italy in the south. It is the gateway to the Gotthard Tunnel system that facilitates much trade and transportation between the regions. As such, Lucerne can be reached easily and conveniently by road or rail transportation.
What Lucerne doesn’t have – which is unusual for a city its size – is an international airport. (Zurich’s airport is only about 40 minutes away by train.) Assuming you arrive on a Friday afternoon by train, as most visitors seem to do, you will be deposited in the center of the town, at the huge train station. It is part of sprawling complex of buildings that also include the city’s famous opera house.
Where to Stay? No shortage of really excellent, historic hotels here. For more than a century, lavish Beaux Arts hotels have lined Lucerne’s lakefront. At one time, there were more than 30 – including the Palace, the National, the Schweizerhof and the Monopole. Which should you pick? I picked the one that wasn’t on the lakefront: The Montana Hotel, which is perched on a hillside overlooking the waterfront. Now celebrating its 100th anniversary, the Montana has added “Art Deco” to its name,
due to a recent renovation that has adopted colors and styles of Miami’s rococo Art Deco District. In Lucerne, the Art Deco Montana is tough to top. Especially with six new penthouse suites, with indoor and outdoor jetted tubs, and an unparalleled view of the city, the sparklingly clear lake, and the surrounding glacier-covered Swiss Alps. Whether you stay at the Montana or not, treat yourself to a four-star dinner at its terrace restaurant, overlooking the city. Or, order an unforgettable drink in its “Louie” bar – named after Louis Armstrong, who once played there. The bar has an extensive selection of scotch whisky, including an exceedingly rare 40-year-old Bowmore single malt that goes for $1,000 a shot. Saturday market After breakfast in the hotel restaurant (included in the room price), take the hotel’s funicular railway (the world’s shortest – in the Guinness Book of Records) down the hill for a stroll, weather permitting, into the city center along the “see” (local-speak for lake).
Lucerne’s greatest landmark is arguably its Water Tower and wooden Chapel Bridge (over the Reuss River, where it flows out of Lake Lucerne). A short walk across the 14th century bridge, decorated with more than 60 historic murals, deposits you at a small Saturday morning market. A second wooden bridge, the Spreuer, can take you back across the river and into the narrow cobblestone streets of the old town. You should find a craft market there, as well as dozens of shops full of unique handmade goods.
Enter the Dragon In summer, you can take a paddle-wheel steamer (operating on Lake Lucerne for more than 150 years now) around the massive lake. The route is a big loop, back to the docks in front of the train station, where you got on. An even better trip, however, is to take one of the boats to Alpnachstadt, at the other end of the lake. Get off, and walk across the road to the terminal for the cogwheel train (the Pilatus-Bahn, world’s steepest) to the top of Mount Pilatus – the imposing peak that overlooks Lucerne. (Then, complete the loop by taking the gondola back down to Lucerne – this ideal half-day excursion is called the “Golden Round Trip” and can be booked at http://www.pilatus.ch) The mountain gets its name from the dragon that locals say lives atop it; the sunset behind the peak often glows like dragon’s breath.
Two hotels, the Kulm and the Bellevue, cling tenuously to the 2,132-meter summit; only the most adventurous and flexible travelers are advised to stay there. Winds howl most days atop the mountain; the weather is iffy; and, the cogwheel train and gondolas servicing the summit can’t be counted on to run every day. So a one-night’s stay may morph unexpectedly into three. A restaurant up there serves the most delicious green salad I’ve ever eaten – full of freshly picked mountain herbs. The view, on a clear day, is magnificent and reveals most of Switzerland. On many days, though, it is just pea soup. A gondola ride down to the Lucerne suburb of Kriens completes the steamer/cogwheel loop. Take the #1 bus back to the train station.
Authentic Swiss cuisine For dinner, you owe it to yourself to make reservations at the Old Swiss House restaurant – near the city’s famous Crying Lion sculpture.
Everything on the menu is spectacular, but the house specialty (for the last 150 years or so) is the wienerschnitzel, which is prepared tableside. The wine list is unforgettable, with a selection of Chateau Mouton-Rothschild vintages back to 1867 (no kidding). Highly recommended, however, is one of their Swiss reds – among the world’s truly underrated wines. Past diners here have included Richard and Pat Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Perry Mason – er, Raymond Burr, and Frank Sinatra.
A River Runs Through It Something is going on almost every night, it seems, at the dramatic KKL Luzern opera house complex – including, occasionally, opera. Don’t like opera? There’s also an art gallery and museum, the concert hall, an the auditorium, a convention hall, a café and a rooftop bar.
The building itself is an attraction, and an architectural triumph; a little tributary of Lake Lucerne runs right through the building. Sunday Sendoff Much of Lucerne closes on Sunday – in fact, most shops (except those around the train station) close at 4 p.m. Saturday and don’t reopen until 10 a.m. Monday. So stock up, if you need special treats to tide you over. Your hotel, however, provide a fine champagne Sunday brunch before sending you on your way. What to do with your final hours in town?
The train station/opera house complex is the jumping-off point for a large network of bicycle, hiking and even rollerblading trails. A favorite one crosses the bridge to the lakefront promenade. You may take that about a mile (or take the #6 bus) to the Verkehrshaus. Better known as the Swiss Museum of Transport, this 200,000 square foot complex includes Lucerne’s only IMAX theater, a planetarium, a media center, a space flight simulator and several museum buildings devoted to antique trolleys, trams, trucks, buses, trains, planes and automobiles. It’s hard to miss; its exterior is festooned with 5,000 wheels.
The whole thing is Europe’s most popular museum – and nearly a million people visited it in 2009. The cheeky way the exhibits are presented, with a lot of hands-on fun in mind, is what makes this place special.
(I could – and have! – devoted a whole separate article to this museum.) How long to allot here? The adults can easily spend a whole afternoon. The kids – and the kid in you – will not want to leave. As you inevitably have to head for home, you will probably feel the same way about the city.
March 7, 2010