Don’t be fooled by the dirndls and schnitzels, the chocolate box houses and the cuckoo clocks. Lucerne’s Alpine charm hides an up-to-the-minute city crammed full of attractions from minimalist, boutique hotels like *The Hotel to the sleek KKK (Culture and Convention Centre) perched on the lake, both designed by Jean Nouvel. What’s more to the point, Lucerne has achieved this modernity without losing its old-fashioned charm, allowing it to be both hip and graceful at the same time.
Years ago, the best way to arrive in the city was by the white Rolls Royce of the Schweizerhof Hotel. Today, one effortless hour on the smooth, comfortable train from Zürich airport decants you on to the lakeside quay where you are face-to-face with picture postcard Switzerland – paddle steamers criss-crossing the lake backed by a panorama of snow-capped mountains, the Rigi, Pilatus, and the the pinnacled range of the Uri and Engelberg. Grand hotels of the Belle Epoque that played host to poets, writers and musicians (as well as Queen Victoria of England), line the promenade.
An elegant city, medieval Lucerne with its fairytale-like turrets and covered wooden bridges, is one of the world’s most agreeable cities in which to spend time. It is an easy place to get around: it offers not just stunning scenery and sightseeing, but year round artistic events and enough Museums to keep any culture-vulture happy for weeks. Among the best are the Rosengart Collection on Pilatusstrasse (a treasure chest of Klees, Braques, Picassos), The Picasso Museum featuring original paintings by the artist and the quirky Museum of Art housed in the KKK which offers eclectic exhibitions at different times.
Like Florence and Venice the outdoor artwork is equally attractive. The KKK is a sleek, polished cube of over 7,000 sq. metres of entertainment and conference space which appears to float on the waters of the lake, a modernist contrast to the old town just a few steps away. Here, frescoes of knights and their ladies cover the Renaissance façades of buildings in the cobbled streets and squares and glimpses of ancient Swiss architecture, turrets and balconies meet your eye wherever you look.
Lucerne is bisected by the fast-flowing Reuss River which is crossed by two famous wooden bridges. The larger of the two, the Kapellbrucke – burnt down in 1993 but since rebuilt – is the oldest preserved wooden bridge in Europe and displays a series of 17th century paintings on 67 triangular panels under its eaves, depicting the Dance of Death. The nearby Water Tower originally formed part of the city fortifications.
The second most photographed site is probably the Löwendenkmal, which Mark Twain described as “the saddest and most moving piece of rock in the world”. Carved into a natural sandstone wall in the centre of the town is a statue of a lion pierced by a lance and resting a paw on a shield depicting the Bourbon Lily. It was erected to commemorate the massacre of Swiss mercenaries fighting on the royalist side after the French revolution and Twain’s remark is understandable because it is, without doubt, the saddest looking lion you are ever likely to see.
There is a thriving music scene throughout the year, but the hills really come alive with the sound of music in August and September when Lucerne takes the world stage with a classical Music Festival that attracts performers and an audience, from around the world. Inaugerated in 1938 when Arturo Toscaninni conducted Richard Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll in Lucerne, the festival now offers more than 100 events comprising concerts, ballet, opera, chamber music, dance and theatre, in the acoustically perfect KKK and at various venues around the city. And every week-end sees magnificent firework displays which make the waters of Lake Lucerne sparkle and glow – especially when watched from the open air terrace of the KKK.
June sees the very local Altstadtfest (Old Town Festival) when the streets resound to the music of the local oompah bands and visitors are invited to join in the dancing. And if it’s jazz your after then make sure you’re there for the Blue Balls Festival in July with music from soul to R. & B. and funk.
For a spot of retail therapy, both sides of the Reuss can be recommended. For top name watches go to the Bucherer and Gübelin stores which are easy to find: just look for the long queues of Chinese shoppers outside the store. If you’ve already got a Rolex, then you can wander along the right hand bank of the river every Tuesday and Saturday morning and enjoy the fruit, flower and vegetable market, perhaps stopping off at the Rathaus Brauei for a beer or a coffee, or the famous Swiss Chocolate. Authentic Swiss cuisine can be found at Galliker, Wilden Mann Burgerstube, and Old Swiss House.
Cuckoo clocks, musical boxes and Swiss Army Knives, are well made, traditional gifts from Switzerland that are usually appreciated, and a fine collection of these can be found at the Old Swiss Shop nestling at the foot of the Hofkirche and run by the charming multi-lingual Madam Lydia who has thoughfully placed a table and chair outside her shop for weary sightseers.
Switzerland has a surprisingly good nightlife and Lucerne has the coolest clubs and bars. The Grand Casino Luzern offers live entertainment and in summer, the Stadkeller, an excellent restaurant, hosts some great concerts, but the really good thing to do is to take the night boat out on the River Reuss to listen to traditional Swiss music and join in the dancing.
As well as trips on the old-fashioned paddle-steamers to surrounding towns and villages like Viznau, Interlaken, and Brienz (if you don’t fancy this, just relax and enjoy the ravishing views from the steamer while you sip a coffee or have lunch), no one should leave Lucerne without making an excursion to the summit of the city’s own snow-covered Mount Pilatus from which the views are stunning.
Factor in lunch on the summit to get maximum enjoyment from a trip that utilises lake steamer, cable car, gondola, and the world’s steepest cogwheel railway that climbs through flower-carpeted meadows dotted with clumps of intense blue gentians and wooden Swiss chalets hung with red and pink geraniums. You won’t hear much yodelling here but you will be aware of the chiming of the bells around the necks of the gravity defying brown and white cows grazing on impossibly steep slopes.
If this whets your appetite for mountain views, then make for Stanserhorn where there is a 100 kl. Alpine vista of 10 Swiss Lakes and Gerrmany’s Black Forest. There are opportunities for easy hiking at the summit, as well as lunching on the classic local dish of Luzerner Kügelipastete, a large puff-pastry shell filled with a rich stew of veal and mushrooms in a creamy sauce!
Lucerne has something for everyone and an evening cruise on the lake or a stroll along the promenade, will allow you to experience the essence of Switzerland in the place the Swiss call City of Lights – an essence that is in the air, the changing shapes of the mountains, the changing colours of the water and, above all, the magical light.
** The Hotel, a “concept” hotel (member of the Autograph group) where the ceilings are painted with scenes from art house films (think Fellini, Fassbinder). Tel: +41 41 226 86 86 www.the-hotel.ch
Don’t leave home without your Swiss Pass which entitles you to either unlimited travel or half-price travel, plus entrance to Museums, depending on which one you purchase. In the UK contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Ten minute outside town with magnificent views, the family-run Hotel Balm Meggen (Tel: +41 41 377 11 35 www.balm.ch