Nestled between mountains and a lake, Lucerne looks like a fairytale Swiss town while offering all the excitement and cultural richness of a city. Here’s our pick of the top 10 things to see and do when visiting Lucerne.
Lucerne Festival Orchestra, 2014 | Courtesy Lucerne Festival
The most famous of Lucerne’s music festivals is the 75-year-old Lucerne Festival in Summer, which sees the world’s top orchestras, conductors, and musicians arriving in the city for a month-long celebration of their arts. Past guests have included the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and legendary pianist Martha Argerich. A smaller festival in March focuses on religious music, and the Lucerne Festival at the Piano in November features both jazz and classical talents.
The snowy peaks of Mount Pilatus loom over the city, and offer great opportunities to enjoy the outdoors a mere 20 minutes away from the city. Visitors can take the world’s steepest cogwheel railway, and even ride in the driver’s cabin past the spectacular alpine scenery. Alternatively, you can take a panoramic cable car trip to the top from Kriens. On the mountain itself, a host of activities like hiking, climbing and even summer tobogganing are available.
Located in a 19th century house in Lucerne’s suburbs, this little-known museum focuses on the history of the region. Innovative exhibitions pair modern-day artifacts with antiques, and showcase the local arts scene. Previous exhibitions have included Krienser Masken (Masks of Kriens): 1920-1970, on the famous folk art masks crafted by the people of Kriens, and Die Ersten Hundert Tage der Siebziger Jahre (The First 100 Days of the 70s), a look into the archives of 20th century gallerist Pablo Stähli.
Lucerne’s 17th century Rathaus (town hall) comes with its very own brewery and pub, where visitors can enjoy the full-bodied, fragrant Rathaus Bock, a strong beer that is especially popular in winter and during Lent. An extensive menu of traditional food is also available. Be sure to try some Weisswürst (spiced white sausage) or Luzerner Käsekuchen (a savory cheese tart).
The streets of Lucerne’s Old Town are lined with elaborately decorated buildings, some dating back to the Middle Ages. Keep an eye out for the frescoes – they decorate the facades of almost every other building. Some of the most beautiful are on the Pfistern Guildhouse (Kornmarkt 4, Lucerne), the Hotel des Balances (Weinmarkt, Lucerne), and the Restaurant Fritschi (Sternenplatz 5, Lucerne). Make sure to also check out the ancient St. Peter’s Chapel on Kapellplatz.
In addition to the more famous Chapel Bridge, Lucerne has a second covered wooden footbridge, the Spreuerbrücke. A walk down the bridge is practically like a museum tour — the interior is decorated with a series of 17th century paintings depicting a Danse Macabre-style meditation on mortality and human existence. This is definitely not an ordinary tourist attraction: skeletons, priests, courtiers and angels perform fantastical and sometimes violent scenes in 45 expertly executed paintings.
This magnificent turn-of-the-century hotel, located on a hill next to Lucerne, can be reached via a long staircase or a brief hike through the Gütsch forest. At the top, the reward for the hard journey is a superb view of the city and Lake Lucerne, and an opulently decorated bar and restaurant. Offerings on the restaurant’s menu are based mostly on seasonal, locally-sourced ingredients. The blue-painted ikat walls, green velvet upholstery, and panoramic windows make the bar alone well worth the climb.
The Rosengart Foundation has one of Switzerland’s best collections of modern art, with big names like Picasso, Klee, Monet and Chagall all making an appearance. Private tours of the collection in English are available, and German speakers can participate in weekly public tours. Don’t miss the many drawings and sketches by Picasso and Paul Klee, which offer a rare glimpse into the artists’ methods.
Accessible from the Sonnenberg highway tunnel, a massive bunker lies hidden under Lucerne. Constructed during the Swiss bunker-building craze in the late 60s and 70s, Sonnenberg Bunker provided enough space for 20,000 of Lucerne’s residents in the event of a nuclear attack. This never happened, however, and now that the Cold War is over, visitors get to tour the bunker every last Sunday of the month. The tour through this underground time capsule takes you past hospital facilities and decontamination stations complete with vintage washing machines, and massive ventilation systems.
This independent cheese store near Löwenplatz offers a wide selection of international and Swiss cheeses, fondue ingredients, and freshly baked cheese pies. The raw milk cheeses, in particular, are a must-try, especially as many varieties are not easily found outside of Europe.