Located on Lake Lucerne, in the middle of an incredible mountain panorama, the City of Lights, as it is known to most, is a must-see for anyone visiting Switzerland. The small, hospitable and decidedly human-sized town offers numerous unmissable attractions and a lively cultural life. With its old town centre, historic wooden bridges, lakeside promenade and high mountains, it is the perfect Swiss holiday destination for any time of the year. In this article we list the must-see attractions, events and some useful tips for a weekend in the city.
Situated on Lake Lucerne and surrounded by a magnificent mountain landscape, Lucerne represents a perfect synthesis of all that Switzerland has to offer to visitors and, also for this reason, it is an unmissable stop for those visiting the country for the first time. The small, hospitable and people-friendly town has a quaint, well-kept old town centre, an elegant lakeside promenade and numerous attractions not to be missed. Despite its small size, the town has a lively and first-class cultural offer. There are many museums to visit, and even more shows and concerts for all tastes at the city theatre and the larger KKL, a modern cultural centre on the lakeside in the city centre.
Lucerne is perfect in every season of the year: in winter, the surrounding high mountains are the ideal destination for winter sports enthusiasts and snow lovers; in summer, on the other hand, the lake comes to life, with its perfect bars for a sunset aperitif and its well-equipped beaches.
We are really in love with this town, which we have been calling home for two years! In this article we point out the attractions not to be missed during a weekend trip, the most important events to mark on the calendar and some useful tips for a visit here.
Arriving by train
Lucerne can be easily reached by train from Switzerland’s main cities and neighbouring countries. From the main station in Zurich, a direct train takes about one hour to the city. From Basel, the direct train takes about an hour and twenty minutes, while from Bern, the journey can take about an hour or an hour and a half, depending on the train chosen. Travellers coming from Geneva can also opt for a direct train, but it takes about three hours via Bern. Finally, visitors coming from Lugano will have to travel for about one hour and forty-five minutes.
In addition, the city is well connected to northern Italy, with direct and fast connections from Milan, Padua and Venice, with the need to change trains in Arth-Goldau.
The main station is located right in the heart of the town, on the shores of the lake and a stone’s throw from the old town centre, which is easily accessible on foot. All main city bus lines run directly in front of the main station.
Tickets can be purchased through the SBB website or through the SBB app and, as always, we suggest to check in advance the updated timetables and the different travel options.
Arriving by car
Lucerne can of course also be reached by car via the excellent motorway network that connects it to the main Swiss cities. From Zurich it takes about 45 minutes to reach the city on the A4 and A14. From Basel and Bern, the car journey takes just over an hour and fifteen minutes via the A2 motorway and the A1/A2 motorway from Bern. From Geneva, it is advisable to pass through Bern and follow the above route, for a total travel time of about three hours. Finally, from Lugano, the city of Lucerne can be reached in about two hours via the A2 and the Gotthard tunnel.
The city offers many paid parking areas, some of which are in the centre or in the immediate vicinity. As always, we recommend that you arrive here by public transport and leave your car at home – you won’t need it in the city! And leaving it parked in a pay car park would really be a waste of resources! However, at this link (in German) you will find a map of the city’s car parks, their current availability and their websites.
Arriving by plane
Lucerne does not have its own airport. The city can therefore be reached by air via Zurich International Airport or Basel Airport, both of which are connected to Europe and the world by many traditional and low-cost airlines. By train, Zurich airport is only an hour and 15 minutes away from Lucerne, but you will probably have to change trains in Zurich city. If you prefer to travel by car, you can reach Lucerne in about 50 minutes.
From Basel Airport, Lucerne is about 1 hour 45 minutes by train (change in Basel city) and about 1 hour 15 minutes by car.
Top attractions in the city
St. Peterskapelle and the Kapellbrücke
The Kapellbrücke, one of the city’s most famous landmarks and a symbol of the city worldwide, is an old covered wooden bridge that connects the two sides of the city, separated by the River Reuss. Today’s crossing, which measures just under 200 metres, has a special charm and offers a privileged viewpoint over the historic city centre. If you walk along it, you won’t be able to resist taking dozens and dozens of photos, especially at sunset! The bridge was originally a little longer and gave direct access to the St. Peterskapelle, a small chapel slightly elevated on the river bank, from which the bridge takes its name. The original core of the structure dates back to 1300, but the bridge visible today is actually the result of a reconstruction in 1994. During the night between 17th and 18th August 1993, perhaps due to a carelessly thrown cigarette butt, a fire broke out on board a small boat anchored just below the base of the bridge. The fire quickly grew and enveloped the bridge, completely destroying the central part of the structure up to the foundation piles. Only the two ends of the bridge were saved, but they required extensive consolidation. In addition, of the more than one hundred painted panels from the 17th century that adorned the bridge, just over 20 were saved. After extensive restoration work, they were relocated to the reconstructed bridge and are now fortunately visible again. If you would like to know more about this terrible event, you can find images of the devastating fire and the subsequent reconstruction work in this short Youtube video.
However, what makes this wooden bridge so special is not only its turbulent history, but also the imposing presence of the Wasserturm (Water Tower), an old octagonal tower that was part of the city’s defence structure, along its route. The tower is still perfectly intact today and survived the devastating fire of the Kapellbrücke without too much damage. The 35-metre-high structure is probably older than the bridge itself and dates back to 1200, although there are no reliable sources on its origin. Unlike the bridge, which is freely accessible, the tower is not open to the public and therefore cannot be visited inside.
A stroll through the centre: our itinerary
The historic city centre is small and well-kept, and can easily be explored during a short walk. The advice is to walk slowly, carefully observing the alleys, squares and facades of the historic buildings and enjoying the peace and beauty of its streets, perhaps not during rush hour. After visiting the Kapellbrücke, we suggest you start your city tour at Kapellplatz, near the St. Peterskapelle. The square is small and elegant and the small church is certainly worth a visit. Leaving the church and keeping the front door behind you, turn right into the small Hans-Holbein-Gasse, where you will find a perennial taste of the city’s famous carnival: Restaurant Fritschi and the picturesque façade of the building that houses it. Immediately after the restaurant, turn right again to reach Weggisgasse, one of the city’s main shopping streets. Follow the street to Hirschenplatz, a small square in the heart of the old town surrounded by medieval buildings with painted facades and a small fountain. Just behind Hirschenplatz, in the direction of the river, you will find the Town Hall Square, Kornmarkt, where you can admire the town hall building and the 17th-century town tower. From here, at the top of the steps leading down from the square to the riverbank below, you can also enjoy a beautiful view of one of the city’s most charming bridges and the small theatre on the opposite bank. But don’t go down the stairs now! Instead, continue along the Kornmarktgasse and in a few steps you will reach the Weinmarkt (wine market). The square is home to the Weinmarktbrunnen, an old fountain from 1481 that is considered the most beautiful fountain in the city. From the fountain, continue along Weinmarktgasse and turn right to reach another of the city’s most beautiful squares, Mühlenplatz, in just a few steps. This square is one of the city’s living rooms and, especially in summer, is full of life and outdoor tables where you can have a drink, an ice cream or dinner. The square is enhanced by the presence of the Spreuerbrücke, the city’s second wooden bridge. Smaller but no less interesting, the bridge takes its name from the “Spreu”, the grain waste from the threshing process that was thrown over the edge of the bridge into the Reuss. Like its big brother, this bridge is adorned with painted triangular wooden panels made by the painter Caspar Meglinger in 1600. The works illustrate ‘the dance of death’, not the most cheerful of themes. With a touch of optimism, we like to interpret it as a permanent invitation to enjoy life in every moment!
Walk across the bridge, look at the small, characteristic votive chapel on your left and you are on the opposite bank of the river. From here continue along the narrow river walkway just behind the historical museum building to the Reusssteg fountain and then on to the Nadelwehr, the needle dam, a historical dam built between 1859 and 1861. The level of water flowing out of the lake is still regulated manually by removing or inserting so-called needles, wooden boards attached to a metal structure. From the dam, walk up Burgerstrasse, a quaint little street full of restaurants and outdoor cafes. At the junction with Bahnofstrasse, take a look at the old building of the Alte Apotheke, the town’s former pharmacy, and its unique shop windows. From here, follow Bahnhofstrasse for a few steps to Franziskanerplatz, where you will find the Franziskanerkirche, a Catholic church in the heart of the city. If you wish, visit the church inside as well: it is well worth a visit. Once outside, return to Bahnhofstrasse and continue on to the Jesuitenkirche. With its Baroque façade and two bell towers, it’s a permanent feature of every photo of the city. From the Jesuitenkirche, end your walk by returning to the opposite bank through the Rathausteg and having an aperitif or a bite to eat in one of the many bars along the river.
If you feel like expanding your city tour a little, we suggest a pleasant ten-minute walk to Musegg hill, where you will find part of the city’s old medieval walls. The portion of the wall still visible today is about 900 metres long and retains nine of the original thirty observation towers. Walking around the walls and in the gardens at their foot is certainly a pleasant experience. The wall is normally open from April 1st to November 1st and is closed during the winter months for safety reasons. When it is open, the Wall and its towers (Männliturm, Zytturm, Wachtturm and Schirmerturm) are accessible daily from 8 am to 7 pm. You can find more info at this link (in german only).
Hofkirche and Lion Monument
The Church of St. Leodegar in Court (German: Hofkirche Sankt Leodegar) is one of the city’s main churches and has a long history. It represents the founding center of the city and its oldest core dates back to the eighth century. However, its current appearance is largely the result of a reconstruction in the 1600s, after a violent fire destroyed the church, leaving only the two towers standing, which still retain their Gothic appearance with a square base. The 1600 façade has a Renaissance appearance, which creates an interesting contrast with the austerity of the two tall bell towers. The church, located near the lakeside promenade, is certainly worth a visit.
Just a few steps from the church is another of the city’s most famous landmarks, the Dying Lion Monument, the Löwendenkmal. This evocative sculpture stands in the middle of an idyllic green area of the town and depicts a dying lion, shot in the side with a broken arrow and with its head lowered onto a shield, continuing to protect it with its claws. The work in fact recalls the sacrifice of the Swiss Guards who died in Paris, in the Tuileries Tower, in 1792 in an attempt to protect the life of the King of France, Louis XVI, from the revolutionaries.
If you like long walks and if you are looking for the best way to admire the alpine panorama that surrounds the city without climbing to the top of Mount Pilatus, then we suggest you take the long promenade – the Seepromenade – that starts in the city center and ends at the Strandbad Lido, the city’s bathing beach. The promenade runs entirely along the lake shore and, especially in its first part, is mainly characterized by majestic hotel buildings built in the 19th century. Just before the Grand Hotel National, an elegant stage, the Pavillon, offers concerts and shows during the summer. The entire walk is about 2.5 km and takes about 45 minutes, at a relaxed pace. At Strandbad Lido, the Beach House offers coffee, food and cocktails even in winter and often organizes interesting events.
Events to put on your calendar
Lucerne offers many events throughout the year! Here are four not to be missed!
– LILU Light Festival Lucerne: The light festival transforms the city into a luminous stage! Light artists from all over the world put on light shows in different parts of the city, giving a new face to the city’s most famous monuments and offering original and colorful performances, often to the rhythm of music. This year, the LILU festival took place from 6th to 16th January, every day, from 18.00 to 22.00. You can read our full report here.
– Luzerner Fasnacht: The Lucerne Carnival is, for many Lucerne residents, the highlight of the year. It starts on Shrove Thursday and ends on Ash Wednesday, filling the city with music, food, fun and a touch of madness. Fasnacht this year took place from 24th February to 1st March but the city is already working for the next year’s edition!
– Lucerne Festival: One of the largest classical music festivals in Europe, the Lucerne Festival now produces three events a year, all held in the impressive lakeside building of the KKL. Events are normally held in April, summer and November. It must be said, however, that in recent years the usual programming has been largely disrupted by the Covid19 pandemic. Each festival offers a variety of first-class local and international musicians and is certainly worth a visit, of course if you are a classical music fan. This year, the Spring Festival took place between 08.04 and 10.04, and the Summer Festival is actually planned from 09.08 to 11.09. All information is available here.
– Luzerner Weihnachtmarkt: the city of lights also shines during the Advent weeks! The traditional Christmas markets take place in the city during the month of December on the intimate Franziskanerplatz, right in the middle of the old town and a stone’s throw from the train station. Here every year the old fountain is decorated with candles, lights and fir branches, transforming it into a giant Advent wreath.
But there are two other places in town that are also worth a visit: the Vögeligärtli city park, with its winter fun market, and Inseli-Park, where Rudolf’s Christmas has been taking place since 2019 and where you’ll find many stalls and a rich gastronomic offer.
If you are in town and if you love good food, there are two stores that you just can’t miss! The first is Max Chocoatier’s store, which offers a wide variety of handmade chocolate in all forms, from pralines to bars and even spreads. The small and elegant store has recently moved to a new location and is now located at Hertensteinstrasse 7, in the center of the city. A little further on, on the same street at the intersection with Museggstrasse, you will find Barmettler’s Cheese Shop (Chäs Barmettler), a historic store selling alpine cheeses and regional specialties. Enjoy a quick snack with a warm “Chaeschuechli” – a savory cheese cake.
Traditional Swiss cuisine is essentially characterized by a wide variety of sausages and cheeses, such as raclette or fondue. These dishes are often accompanied by potatoes or pasta preparations and the inevitable beer. In the city you can try the typical cuisine in many places, especially in the area of the riverside and the old town. But if you really want to pamper yourself, we suggest you go a little out of town to the Swisschalet in Merlischachen. The hotel-restaurant is easily accessible by car or public transport and offers excellent traditional cuisine of the highest quality with excellent service in a historic building absolutely fascinating. If, on the other hand, you love Italian cuisine and want to stay in the city, we suggest you make a reservation at the Barbatti restaurant, where we had the opportunity to try the best Italian cuisine in town.
Guests who decide to stay in one of the city’s hotels will receive the Visitor’s Card, which allows free use of buses and trains within zone 10 and a number of valuable discounts on cable cars, mountain railways, museums and excursions. The card also gives you access to “Free WiFi – Luzern.com” hotspots throughout the city. You can find all the information here.