Created | Updated Jan 28, 2002
The city of Lucerne is by far the largest central population town in central Switzerland, and is home to approximately 100,000 people, with another 200,000 or so living in the immediate area.
Although Lucerne has some heavy industry, most notably in the satellite towns of Kriens and Emmenbrücke, it was probably one of the first cities in the world to make tourism a major source of income. Upper-class British tourists 'discovered' it in the middle of the 19th Century. John Ruskin wrote excitedly about what a beautiful place it was, and no less a personage than Queen Victoria came to see for herself a few years later. Since then, Lucerne has maintained its position as a Mecca for tourists. No self-respecting Japanese coach party or American student 'doing' Europe can feel satisfied unless they too have come to sample what the Swiss like to call Leuchternstadt, and the English speaking world calls the City of Lanterns.
What's in a Name?
Lucerne is spelled Luzern in German, and so this is the name that will be shown on Swiss railway timetables, road signs, etc. Many are the times that confused tourists have been found wandering around the French Swiss town of Lausanne, wondering why they can't find their hotel.
Where It Is
As stated above, Lucerne is in the middle of Switzerland. If you enter Switzerland from the north (including Zurich airport) it's about an hour's drive or train-ride away. If you enter Switzerland from the south, the journey will take about two hours, and will involve travelling through the fearsome St Gotthard tunnel. From either direction, road and train links are excellent. Travellers approaching the city from the east or west will have a more complicated and longer journey.
The main feature of Lucerne is its position at the western end of Lake Lucerne, which the Swiss call Vierwaldstättersee. It is here that the traveller from the north will see his or her first glimpse of the Alps, with the two most imposing mountains visible from Lucerne being the Rigi and Mount Pilatus. The Rigi has a flat triangular shape and today is easily identifiable by the large radio mast perched on its summit.
Mount Pilatus is taller, a lot craggier and rather more interesting, in that the locals long believed it to be the haunt of dragons and therefore never ventured to the top, although it is a relatively easy climb. The cloud that seems to hang almost continually around the mountain summit probably nurtured this legend. The name 'Pilatus' actually comes from the biblical character of Pontius Pilate - a local legend has it that his ghost used to inhabit a small lake near the mountain's summit. Neither the lake nor (presumably) the ghost are to be found today, however.
For people who want to actually go on Lake Lucerne, rather than simply look at it, pedaloes can be hired from a stall at the northern end of the Seebrucke (the big road bridge). Alternatively, you could book a trip on one of the steamers which regularly tramp between Lucerne and the other towns on the lake's shores. These tend to get very full when the weather is good, but the views of the lake and mountains when the weather is not so perfect can often be more spectacular.
Although Lucerne is on the whole a very safe and pleasant experience, the industrial towns of Emmen, Littau and Kriens on its northern and western boundaries have a terrible reputation in Switzerland as a whole for a wide range of social problems. Actually, they're not that bad, but there is no real reason to visit them.
Meggen, on the east side of the city, is extremely nice and posh and home to several celebrities. Not even stalkers would be able to find many reasons to justify more than a short visit there, however.
Lucerne has a central European climate; ie, hot in summer and cold in the winter. In winter, although it's very unusual for snow to lie on the ground for more than a few days, drivers should fit winter tyres if possible. These have a thinner profile and a chunkier tread than normal ones. They're not exactly obligatory in Switzerland, but if you have an accident and the police find your car fitted with 'normal' tyres, they tend automatically to assume you were at fault, regardless of the actual circumstances.
Visitors also need to be aware that Lucerne is situated in perhaps the wettest area of Europe and should be prepared for torrential downpours at any time of the year. The following rhyme refers to the clouds around the summit of Mt Pilatus:
When Pilate hides his head,
Sunshine below will spread.
When Pilate's head is bare,
Of rain beware.
In this Researcher's experience this is complete nonsense. A sudden build-up of cloud around the mountain is often the first indication that a thunderstorm is on its way.
What to See and Do
The Reuss River runs from the lake through the centre of Lucerne, and is bridged by two justly famous wooden bridges, which the tourist board at least considers to be the symbol of Lucerne. The larger of the two, the Kapellbrucke, burned down in 1993. It has since been rebuilt, but it's still easy to tell the new and the old wood apart.
Other touristy things to look at are the Jesuit Church at one end of the Kapellbrucke, the Hofkirche out of town, and there's also the brand new and 'architecturally interesting' Concert Hall, which is a lot nicer inside than out.
You may also enjoy the Löwendenkmal, a beautiful statue of a lion carved into a natural rock wall in the centre of town to commemorate the massacre of Swiss mercenaries fighting on the royalist side in the unrest following the French Revolution. Mark Twain, who visited Lucerne and left an excellent diary to record his impressions of the area, called it 'The saddest and most moving piece of rock in the world'. He could just be right.
The Swiss Transport Museum, every trainspotter's dream, is situated close by the Lido Complex on the north side of the lake, and is also home to Switzerland's only IMAX Theatre. If you're tempted to go, however, you should know that it is a good 40 minutes' walk from the centre of town. Buses to and from the museum are regular, but expensive. Most tourists tend to miss what's left of Lucerne's medieval walls, to the north of the city, but they're well worth a visit, and you can get away from the endless coach parties clogging the city centre.
Only of interest to German speakers, of course, but Lucerne has two main theatres. The big Stadttheater can be found at the Southern end of the Kapellbrucke, and presents highbrow thespian culture. It offers proof that German Theatre has yet to break free from the dead hand of Brecht. The Kleintheater is a lot more fun, and most of the leading Swiss comedians, satirists and cabaret artists have played there over the years. The theatre can be found close to the Capitol cinema on Bundesplatz. If you are interested in going, you should book your ticket as soon as you can. As its name implies, the theatre is really tiny, and quickly sells out.
Opera-lovers may want to visit the small Richard Wagner museum close to the open-air cinema. It's worth visiting if only to gaze at the numerous photographs, paintings and busts of the composer, which all show the shape of his head to have been extraordinarily bizarre. Why have a Wagner museum in Lucerne? Well, the old boy had a holiday house there, which he used whenever he fancied a break from all that Sturm und Drang ('trouble and strife').
While even the Lucerners would not claim that their city is the liveliest in Switzerland, it does have its fair share of things to do of an evening. The Pravda nightclub is one of the coolest in Switzerland, while the Schür, the Boa and the Sedel (just up the hill from the hostel) alternate between concerts and dances.
Interestingly, the Sedel used to be Lucerne's prison. When it was decommissioned, each cell was rented out to a local band as a rehearsal room. So, wandering around there on an evening, you're liable to hear literally anything.
At the time of writing, a new and fearsomely trendy club called The Loft has just opened. It may develop into something, but most party goers, in this Researcher's experience, insist that Pravda is still the place to be.
For classical music buffs, Lucerne in September is the place to be. The annual music festival gives you the chance to see some of the biggest names around in the new Concert Hall (called the KKL). The symphony concerts sell out quickly, but for most of the other concerts you should be able to buy tickets on the night. Don't worry about getting a cheap ticket; the marvelous acoustics in the Hall mean that even if you end up sitting right under the roof you'll be able to hear everything.
Cinema-going is a major pastime in Switzerland, and Lucerne has about ten cinemas. Before going in, though, check the cinema programme. If 'E/df' is printed alongside the title of the film you want to see, this means it is shown with an English soundtrack and French and German subtitles. 'D' or Deutsch means it has been dubbed into German.
In summer there is an open-air cinema next to the ice rink on the southern side of the lake. There should be placards all over town telling you what the programme is.
The major spectator sports in Switzerland are football and ice hockey. Unfortunately, the local authorities seem unwilling to support local professional sport (presumably, ground hoppers aren't the sort of tourists they are interesting in) and Lucerne has no mega-rich corporations keen to sponsor the local team. Consequently, the ice hockey team went bust a few years ago, and the local football team, FC Lucerne, is currently in the first division, but usually makes headlines for the wrong reasons. 'Lovable under-achievers' would be about the fairest description of the team. If they were English they would be Manchester City. If you fancy seeing a game, they play in the Allmend Stadium about two miles out of town.
Another sport that must be mentioned is rowing. Lucerne hosts a top regatta every July at the Rotsee, a natural lake a stone's throw from the hostel. In Olympic years especially, every top rower in the world will be competing, trying to size up the opposition.
Lucerne also hosts a women's professional tennis tournament every summer, usually just after Wimbledon, but no-one seems to go to it.
Staying in Lucerne
Lucerne has some of the grandest, most sumptuous hotels you could find anywhere. The main ones are found on the promenade running along the north side of the lake between the city centre and the Transport Museum. The most lavish is the Schweizerhof, which has just been renovated. After Queen Victoria stayed there, she must have recommended it to her Grandson, Kaiser Wilhelm, as he also checked in a few weeks before the start of World War One.
Unfortunately, these hotels tend to be out of the price range of mere mortals. Budget travellers could try the hostel, but this is situated quite a long way out of town and you'll have to catch a bus.
One suggested trick is to find a cheaper hotel in one of the outlying towns (Stansstad, Hergiswil, Alpnach, Sarnen, Sempach and Sursee are possibilities) and travel in for the day using the excellent local train service. All the above towns are about a 15-minute ride from the centre of Lucerne.
It's fair to say the Swiss are not the world's most adventurous eaters. Lucerne has a host of good Swiss restaurants and even more Italian ones - too many to mention - but they're all good. For more exotic eating, Korean Town can be recommended, as can Movie (American Mexican.) The other main Mexican restaurant, Curacaracha and the two Chinese restaurants in the city centre are strictly for the brave and strong of stomach. Perhaps the best city-centre restaurant is the French Bodu - try the seafood. Good things have been heard about the Kyoto (Japanese) and Thai Garden restaurants, but be warned that these are extremely expensive. Unfortunately, the Swiss haven't yet got the taste for Indian food.
Non-Europeans should be warned that the Swiss do not usually separate their restaurants into smoking and non-smoking sections. The person on the table next to yours is therefore likely to light up just as your main course arrives.
The Eichhof Brewery is one of Switzerland's biggest and is based in Lucerne. Unfortunately, this means that they have gone to great trouble to make sure that in Lucerne you can only buy Eichhof beer. It is actually not that bad, but there's no real reason to drink it and it does get a bit boring after a while.
There is also a microbrewery right in the centre of the city. It's worth a visit, as the beer is served right outside the brewery, but the quality of the brew is actually even blander than Eichhof.
All this doesn't actually matter too much, because the best thing to drink in Switzerland, especially in winter, is schnapps. Ask for a 'Café Fertig' or a 'Café Trash' for a real Swiss experience.
Lucerne has a host of drinking establishments, most of which are broadly similar. Note that, in Switzerland, restaurants will accept customers who only want to drink. Most English-speaking tourists and expatriots seem to end up at the Pickwick Pub, a few yards from the north end of the Kapellbrucke. Be warned, however, that drinks here are hideously over-priced.
Just to pick out a few more places: the Maxx and Verrückt bars (close to the library) are trendy and the Jazz Cantine (near the city walls) is pretty groovy. The two bars of the KKL are both extremely smart and 'styled'. Probably the closest thing to an English pub, in terms of atmosphere, is the Helvetica, on the southern edge of the city centre. Also recommended is the Bistro du Theatre (to be found just behind the Stadttheater, surprisingly enough) for its pleasant clientele and excellent snacks.
The only bar that cannot be recommended is the Simplon, as it is the only place this Researcher has ever been asked out by an inebriated fellow-drinker whilst in Lucerne. (The invitation was declined.)
We've saved the best until last. Ever wanted to go to the carnival in Rio, but can't afford the airfare? Then go to the Lucerne Fasnacht - it's even better. For a whole week, leading up to Shrove Tuesday, the whole city goes crazy ape bonkers. The streets are full of amiable drunkards, many in fancy dress and scores of raucous and enthusiastic samba/mariachi bands (called Güügemusig in the local dialect) roam the city from dawn until dawn. It's no exaggeration to say that a lot of these people spend 51 weeks of the year getting ready for Fasnacht. The incredible thing is that it's almost totally self-policing - anarchy in the truest sense. If you're in Switzerland at this time, you must go, at least once.
Is it Any Good?
So is Lucerne's reputation as one of the most beautiful cities in the world justified? Yes it is! Not only that, but it's one of the few places where the locals neither resent the tourists nor spend all their time trying to rip them off. They're so used to them (and mostly so rich themselves) that they just get on with their lives, and leave the visitors to do their thing. Just don't try telling any Lucerner that another town in Switzerland is actually better. They won't believe you.