In 1992, I was stepping out of the train, full of luggage, on the platform of the train station in Lucerne. I left Austria around 5 o’clock in the morning and until there I changed 3 trains and I still had one more train connection to the village of Entlebuch, where I was supposed to stay. More than that, I had to arrive until 4 o’clock in the afternoon. But, despite the tiredness, the baggage and the pressure of arriving on time at a certain hour, I HAD to go out of the train station to enjoy the panoramic view of Lucerne. Since then, I came back to Lucerne a couple of times and each time I felt the same joy of that first July day in 1992.
It is said that Lucerne was founded when an angel showed where to build a chapel to a group of settlers. And he was right. Today, even the most determined atheist must admit that Lucerne is located in a paradise – hills, mighty mountains, a fast and fresh river and a superb blue lake. It has everything that represents the quintessence of Switzerland – lake, mountains, green hills and a river. And the human kind completed the nature – Lucerne is on the big transalpine commercial road that links Germany to the Italian Peninsula so it prospered, building a superb medieval town.
For many, the discovery of Lucerne (or Luzern in German) starts from the train station. It’s a good place to begin your journey because the train station is a couple of steps away from the old town and also from the Luzern Lake. The first monument that comes your way is the Chapel Bridge or Kappelbrucke, a wooden bridge build around the 14th century to link the two shores of the river Reuss. It’s one of Switzerland’s symbols and one of my favorite buildings. It’s not as monumental as the Taj Mahal, not as mysterious as Machu Picchu, but for me, it gives me a feeling of beauty, of good. It somehow resembles the wooden tunnel in the Romanian old city of Sighisoara, only it’s over a river…Unfortunately what you see today is not the original. This one burned down in august 1993, apparently due to a negligently thrown cigarette. I do have the satisfaction to have seen it in the original form one year before the fire. Immediately after the disaster, the Lucerne City Hall began the reconstruction of the bridge and for its loyal reproduction, the authorities asked those that took pictures or short films with the original bridge to send them to Luzern.
Fortunately though the big majority of frescoes that decorate the bridge, painted by Heinrich Wagman in 1614 showing moments of Switzerland’s history were saved out of the fire and still decorate one more time the new Bridge of the Chapel. If you look closely, you can observe the part of the bridge that remained and the one that is new – there’s a difference in color that is still pretty obvious.
But let’s take a few steps towards the old town, as well. It is as colorful and elegant as many other historic centers in Switzerland. You’ll discover squares with statues and fountains in the middle, buildings with outside mural paintings, restoring characters that are more or less mythological. I cannot indicate a certain spot there, maybe except the Fritschi restaurant, with a façade resembling like the place is on fire… Let yourself get lost on the streets and enjoy the beautiful garnished corners of the city. Like any self respecting medieval towns, it isn’t possible for Lucerne not to have a defense wall. You do not have to be passionate about military architecture in order to visit the fortress…if you simply walk down the wall you will enjoy a splendid panorama.
Don’t miss out on the Lowendenkmal monument, or the Lion Monument. It’s a statue of a sleeping lion, sculptured in a rock, dedicated to the Swiss soldiers that gave their life in 1792 to defend the life of the French king Louis, the 16th and of the queen Marie Antoinette during the French Revolution. In fact, it has to be told that Switzerland wasn’t always a symbol of prosperity as it is today. All throughout the Middle Ages, the Swiss suffered from a lot of poverty and numerous mountaineers left their cattle and mountain meadows to serve as mercenaries all across Europe. Let’s remember that even today, the Pope from Rome is defended by a Swiss Guard…The mountain men were courageous, strong and tough guys!
Don’t miss out on a stroll on the shore of the river. You can visit the baroque church of the Jesuits on the right side of the river, but you simply cannot but be attracted by the Gutsch castle, a hotel where even Great Britain’s Queen Victoria sleped… Climbed up on one of the hills that dominate the town, it probably holds the best panoramic view in all Lucerne. Unfortunately the last time I set foot in Lucerne, in the summer of 2008, Gutsch was closed and I think it hasn’t yet been reopened because I couldn’t find anything online to suggest that it came back in the hotel circuit. Opened or not, it’s definitely worth the climb to its gates (on foot or by a funicular) to be thrilled by the image of medieval Lucerne, of sumptuous villas that have been build on the shores of the lake and, last, but not least, by the blue color of the Luzern lake.
The city is dominated by a rocky and bald mountain. It’s the famous Pilatus peak and you’ll see commercials all over town that urge you to climb it. I was there as well, in 2008 and I assure you it’s an extremely pleasant daytrip…Don’t get scared, it’s not very difficult, there are lifts and trains racks everywhere, but with a complete tour you can have a superb image from the top that dominates a good part from the Northern Switzerland (practically the Central Switzerland massive begins with Pilatus), and also an excellent boat trip on the Lucerne lake.
Talking about the lake? Here’s another thing that is not to be missed when in Lucerne. Even without the climb on Pilatus, it’s worth taking a boat from Lucerne and enjoy the green clearings, the clear waters of the lake, the small villages that are drawn out of Heidi cartoons (I know, Heidi is Tyrolean, but whatever, Tyrol is more alike Switzerland than imperial Vienna) or try to discover some purple cow on the mountain meadows (I haven’t found any, except the ones from the commercials , but you can insist if you wind up in Switzerland). Unlike the other big lakes in Switzerland – Zurich and Geneva (known under the name of Leman outside the Geneva canton), the Luzern lake (or “the 4 cantons” as it’s called outside Lucerne) is a sinuous lake, not a linear, straight one. The lake infiltrates under the high heights, a twisted lake that reappears after every mountain top. If you wish to enjoy the whole lake, take a boat from Luzern until the Fluelen village, the trip lasts for about 2 hours with all the stop on your way. It’s not cheap, but what’s cheap in Switzerland ? One ticket from Luzern – Fluelen costs 45 Swiss francs (37 euro / 46 USD). On the way, you’ll be able to stop at the famous Rutli meadow where Switzerland was born in 1291…and also on this meadows, you’re at the home of the legendary Willhelm Tell, the undisputed symbol of this freedom loving country (there’s also a chapel of his and the whole legend of the famous archer takes place in the Uri area of the lake). From Fluelen, you can go back by train through Goldau. The train “only” costs 24 francs (20 euro / 24 USD) but it’s worth asking at the tourist info point or at the Luzern port for any special offers for daytrips on the lake.
The conclusion? If you happen to go through Switzerland, don’t miss a visit to Lucerne for anything in the world. For me it takes the first place out of all the Swiss cities. And on the second place there’s the federal capital, Bern. But about Bern in another post…
How to Get to Lucerne
Luzern doesn’t have its own airport so the closest is Zurich. However, there are not so many low cost airlines flying into this airport, so check what the Bern airport can offer – some low cost airlines fly there. From Zurich or Bern, you can go by train, there are plenty of trains.
There are numerous accommodation possibilities in Lucerne. Various offers can appear on booking.com. I, personally, slept in an awkward hotel – the former jail of the town , used as such till 1997 (probably in 1992 and 1995 when visiting Lucerne I passed by the jail as well, it’s a couple of steps away from the old town). Here is the site of the Jail Hotel.
When to Go to Lucerne
Summer. Usually it’s sunny, pretty warm but with a crisp air. The pastures are green, the lakes are blue, the cows are spotted (yet not purple!), it’s a miracle. Winter may also be a fine season when everything is white, but sunny days are fewer and the lake trips can be stopped if ice appears on the shores. To find out when it’s better to go to Lucerne, here’s the precipitations and temperatures average.
Where to Eat
Switzerland is really expensive and the restaurants do burn your pockets as well. If you wish for more than sandwiches from the supermarkets there an universal store in the historical center, Migros, where at the top floor there’s a canteen with excellent food at modest prices – well, what ever modest may be in Switzerland.
Top 3 Thing to Do in Lucerne
Almost any building in the old town could be a tourist attraction so it’s worth taking the city by foot, on the small streets and the shores of the lake. The major objective is the Chapel Bridge, then don’t miss out on a stroll across the center and go up to Gutsch castle.
*Image of Chapel Bridge in Lucerne, Switzerland via Shutterstock