White swans, a low-flying vintage aircraft, colourful boats, and a seven hundred-year-old bridge battle for my attention as I gaze out across the still waters of Lake Lucerne, Switzerland. In the end, the bridge wins. The Kapellbrücke is a covered wooden footbridge with more than 100 17th-century pictures hanging from the roof rafters. It is my lasting image of Lucerne.
For a city of only 75,000 Lucerne punches way above its weight in terms of visitor appeal. It’s almost too picture-perfect, sitting on the lake with the hills all round. A highlight is the Old Town, which we explore on foot, with its churches, bridges, narrow cobbled streets, and colourfully painted Renaissance squares.
Many of the defensive walls and towers that once surrounded the city were demolished in the 1860s, but we find we can still walk the surviving stretch around the northern perimeter of Old Lucerne – for excellent views across the town and lake.
To the north of here we find the famous Lion Monument, a huge figure of a dying lion hewn from the face of the rock ledge. Two hundred years old, the monument commemorates the death of 26 officers and more than 700 troops of the Swiss Guards, who were killed while protecting King Louis XVI during the French Revolution in 1792.
Apart from the old town, there are several other buildings worth seeing. A visit to Tribschen, the lakeside villa of Richard Wagner, gives a glimpse into the domestic and social life of the 19th-century composer. You can walk to it along the southern shore of the lake or take a bus from the train station.
The extraordinary Sammlung Rosengart Museum is housed in a former bank. It comprises one of the greatest private collections of 20th-century art, including more than 100 paintings by Picasso, as well as dozens more by Klee and Matisse.
The Jean Nouvel-designed concert hall next to the railway station has a sweeping cantilevered roof which reflects the sparkling lake. This is the main home of the outstanding Lucerne Festival, established eighty years ago by Arturo Toscanini, which presents great classical music each year.
Then there is the Swiss Museum of Transport which offers an entertaining history of planes, trains and automobiles. There’s also an Imax Theatre and a planetarium.
Swiss food is all about schnitzel, cheese, potatoes, and chocolate and Lucerne is a great place to indulge. Schnitzel is normally meat coated with flour, beaten eggs and bread crumbs, and then fried, but some variants are not breaded. Fondue, which is melted cheese served in a communal pot in which small pieces of bread or potatoes are dipped, is a very popular cheese dish. Thinly grated potatoes, pan-fried until crisp and golden, called rosti is one of Switzerland’s iconic national dishes.
The smooth, delicious chocolate we know and love today was invented in Switzerland and the country still produces some of the world’s finest. Until the Swiss entered the chocolate scene, chocolate was only a hot beverage.
Into the mountains
The nicest relaxing way to see Lucerne and its surroundings is aboard the handsome ferries which criss-cross the lake. Boats depart from beside the central station and dock at about a dozen scenic spots around the lake.
Lucerne’s top attraction is probably Mount Pilatus, the 2,132m-high peak that towers over the city. You reach the top by cable car from Kriens or on the world’s steepest mountain railway from Alpnachstad. The mountaintop itself is a tourist trap, but the views are spectacular.
We instead decide to go to Mt Rigi. This offers a gentler scene, with its green slopes and lush meadows scattered with wild orchids.
We take a leisurely boat ride along Lake Lucerne to the town of Vitznau. Here the bright red Vitznau-Rigi Railway train is waiting, with cogwheels and toothed racks especially designed for steep climbs. The Rigi was the first mountain railway in Europe, launched in 1871.
From the toy train, we watch the lake recede and the views grow more dramatic. We see mountain flowers, forests, and ski resorts, and ride past peaceful farms with cows wearing cowbells. Then we are swamped with cloud. At the top it is just a short walk uphill to an outdoor terrace but we see nothing but fog.
On the way down we get off at Rigi Kaltbad, a mountain station along the route, and catch the steep Rigi Kaltbad Aerial Cableway car. In less than 10 minutes, we reach the lakeside town of Weggis. Soon we are cruising back to Lucerne. Despite the cloud, we have enjoyed the experience very much and would recommend it to anyone.
IF YOU GO
There are many international flights to Zurich, Switzerland then there are regular trains from Zurich airport to Lucerne, bus connections twice a day, or you can travel by taxi.