Forget what Orson Welles said about Switzerland – it’s much more than cuckoo clocks and cheese. Lucerne is a typical example: a super-modern city that fools the visitor into thinking it’s a village
Don’t be fooled by the dirndls and schnitzels, the chocolate box houses and the cuckoo clocks, for Swiss Heidi has now turned hip. From the minimalist, boutique The Hotel, where the ceilings are painted with scenes from art house films (think Fellini, Fassbinder) to the sleek KKK (Culture and Convention Centre), a sleek, polished cube of an acoustically perfect concert hall that seems to float on the lake, Lucerne today is at the cutting edge of modernity. What’s more, the city has achieved this modernity without losing its old-fashioned charm.
A promenade lined with grand hotels faces the lake, where swans dodge the white paddle steamers that criss-cross the waters, backed by a panorama of the snow-capped Rigi, Pilatus and Engelberg mountains. The old world elegance of the Palace Hotel is the perfect place from which to view the scene (even the spa overlooks the lake) or just outside town is the modest, family-run Hotel Balm Meggen with the same magnificent views.
Just off the lake promenade is the famous lion statue described by Mark Twain as “the saddest and most moving piece of rock in the world”. Carved into a natural sandstone wall, the statue of the lion pierced by a lance was erected to commemorate the massacre of Swiss mercenaries in the 17th century, and is one of the most photographed sites in the city.
Old Lucerne is a city of medieval turrets, cobbled streets and squares where frescoes of knights and their ladies decorate the facades of Renaissance buildings. The Kapellbrucke, with its 17th-century paintings on panels under the eves, is the oldest preserved wooden bridge in Europe, and is THE “must see” in Lucerne.
There is a thriving music scene throughout the year, but the hills really come alive with the sound of music in summer. June sees the very local Altstadtfest (Old Town Festival) when the streets resound to the music of the local oompah bands, and in July the Blue Balls Festival brings music from blues and soul to R&B and funk. In August and September Lucerne’s Classical Music Festival attracts the cream of the world’s performers to take part in over 100 events from ballet, opera and chamber music to dance and theatre.
Lucerne also has the coolest clubs and bars, Grand Casino Luzern with live entertainment, the Stadkeller with great food and music and, my favourite, the night boat on the River Reuss for traditional Swiss music and dancing.
For a spot of retail therapy, The Old Swiss Shop nestling at the foot of the Hofkirche is a one-stop Swiss gift shop stocked with beer steins, cuckoo clocks, music boxes, Swiss Army knives, and cow bells. Bucherer and Gübelin is the place for Rolex watches and Neff for embroidered tablecloths, but the produce market running alongside the river on Tuesday and Saturday mornings is the best place for local produce. While there, stop off at the Rathaus Brauei for a beer or a coffee.
Armed with your Swiss Travel Pass, which entitles you to either unlimited travel or half-price travel, plus entrance to museums, allow time for a trip or two on the lake, visiting villages like Viznau, Interlaken, and Brienz, but above all, travel to the summit of the city’s own snow-covered Mount Pilatus. Factor in lunch on the summit to get maximum enjoyment from a trip that utilises steamer, cable car, gondola, and the world’s steepest cogwheel railway, which climbs through flower-carpeted meadows dotted with wooden chalets hung with red and pink geraniums, and through fields of 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 an alpine vista of 10 Swiss lakes and Gerrmany’s Black Forest and where you can lunch 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.
Modern art features large in Lucerne’s museums, with original works by Picasso in the Picasso Museum plus a treasure chest of Klees, Braques and Picassos in the Rosengart Collection. Foodies will find gourmet restaurants and authentic Swiss cuisine all over town, but specially recommended are Galliker, Wilden Mann Burgerstube, Old Swiss House and, for great lake fish, Hotel Balm Meggen.
An evening cruise on the lake or a stroll along the promenade (try City Tours with a local “best friend” for the insider’s look at Lucerne) will allow you to experience the essence of Switzerland in the place the Swiss call the 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.
Where to stay
The Hotel, Sempacherstrasse, 14. This is a super modern hotel: interior corridor walls grey, furniture in bedrooms stainless steel (including the wardrobe, which is a cube on a swivel), chairs scarlet leather, and on the ceilings scenes from erotic films. The bar attracts a large crowd in the evening and the breakfasts are superb.
Palace Hotel, Haldenstrasse 10. The Old Lady of Lucerne, one of the older hotels, dating back to the 19th century when, it is said, it entertained Queen Victoria. Stately and luxurious with a gorgeous spa.
Hotel Balm Meggan, Balmstrasse 3. Just outside the city but a quick and easy bus ride to and fro, it has marvellous views, a garden overlooking the lake and the best lake fish menu I’ve ever seen.
Don’t leave home without your Swiss Pass for either unlimited travel or half-price travel, plus entrance to museums.