Luzern – Lucerne in French and commonly used in English – has become one of Switzerland’s leading tourist centres largely by virtue of its location. Not only is it beautifully situated in a fold of gentle hills on the edge of one of Europe’s finest lakes, it is also close to several of the country’s best-known mountains.
It grew up around a Benedictine convent founded in 750 and achieved some autonomy when it became a parish in 1178, but it was the opening of the Gotthard Pass to trade that acted as a catalyst to Luzern’s growth.
What to see and do in Luzern
The old town
Luzern is a compact city, and most of its principal attractions can be reached on foot or by a short bus journey. The historic core of the city is pedestrianised and a booklet of suggested walks taking in the best buildings is available from the tourist office. Besides these buildings there are scores of smaller vernacular buildings and small courtyards with fountains, which make a stroll round the traffic-free parts of Luzern a pleasure.
The station (and tourist office) is only a few minutes’ walk from Luzern’s most famous attraction, the Chapel Bridge (Kapellbrücke); from both you can see the end of the main road bridge across the River Reuss where it leaves the lake. Make for it and the Chapel Bridge is to the left.
Built in the first half of the 14th century and largely destroyed by a tragic fire in August 1993, the bridge formed part of the city fortifications and was named after St Peter’s chapel at the northern end of the bridge. The Water Tower near the south end of the bridge was built in 1300 and used at various times as a treasury, archive, prison and torture chamber.
Naturally the bridge had been rebuilt many times between its construction and the fire, but it was the loss of most of the paintings that decorated the bridge which was particularly sad. However, even these were the subject of repeated restoration and replacement. The originals were executed in the early 17th century and used Swiss history and Christianity as the principal themes. Although the bridge has been shortened by 44m (144ft) since it was built, it survived several threats of demolition during the 19th century.
Jesuit Church of St Francis Xavier
From the southern, Bahnhofstrasse end of the bridge continue walking along the riverbank away from the lake, past the Municipal Theatre to the Jesuit Church of St Francis Xavier. This was only one of many Jesuit buildings in Luzern, their college at one time teaching about 400 pupils. Work on Switzerland’s first large Baroque church began in 1666, and it was consecrated in 1672. The identity of the architect is not known.
Inside the shell niche on the façade stands a figure of St Francis Xavier. The Jesuit origins are evident in the absence of a choir. The transition from the dark porch into the bright white interior is striking. The stucco-work and delicate colours are restrained, creating a beautiful interior, dominated by the monumental high altar built in 1681 of red stucco marble. A detailed English guidebook is available.
Cross the river by the Geissmattbrücke and turn right to reach the lowest of the towers on the surviving stretch of town wall, the Nölliturm. The nine surviving towers and wall between them are a fragment of the town walls, built in 1350–1408 and largely torn down during the 19th century. The wall is a divide between old and new Luzern, and cows still graze the slopes to the north, up which an enemy would have attacked.
Some of the towers can be climbed; it is quite an ascent up the series of open steps but worth it for the view on a clear day. If you have time or energy only for one, the Zytturm is probably the most interesting on account of its 16th-century clock; the mechanism is open to view, revealing its long pulleys and crude weights in the form of lumps of rock. The Watchturm provides access to the wall-walk, but its top is sealed off.
The colourful fruit and vegetable market is held on Tuesday and Saturday mornings from 06.00 under the arcades of the Rathaus beside the River Reuss. A handicrafts market is held from 07.00 to 17.00 on the first Saturday of the month (Apr–Dec) on Weinmarkt.
A flea market is held every Saturday (May–Oct) from 07.00 on the Unter Burgerstrasse/Reusssteg. A Christmas Market is held in Franziskanerplatz from early December to a few days before Christmas from 11.00 to 21.00.
Close to the main station, the original Art Gallery was opened in 1933 but moved in 2000 into the striking new Culture and Convention Centre designed by Jean Nouvel.
Its collection focuses on Swiss art from the 16th to 20th centuries, with smaller sections on Dutch and Flemish 17th-century paintings, 20th-century German and French expressionist works, and contemporary art. However, very little if any of this permanent collection is on display, since the museum has switched to temporary exhibitions only, some of very esoteric appeal.
Swiss Transport Museum
Europe’s largest transport museum could easily take a full day for anyone interested in the subject. Opened in 1959 and twice enlarged since, it attracts about half a million visitors a year. It includes not only rail, air, water and road transport but also space travel, telecommunications, tourism, a cosmorama and a planetarium.
Switzerland’s first IMAX film theatre opened at the museum in 1996. The rail and water sections are understandably almost entirely Swiss-oriented, but the other sections are more international, with 35 aircraft from Britain, the United States, France and the Netherlands as well as Switzerland, and cars from a similar range of countries. Labels to exhibits are in four languages, including English.
Travel to Luzern
Luzern station is a terminus, delightfully situated near the edge of the lake, though only a single arch remains of the original handsome station which was damaged by fire in 1971 and rebuilt in 1991. Though lacking the character of the old station, the new one is a model of convenience.
At the end of the platforms is a large concourse with the usual facilities. On a lower level, reached by escalator and to the right, are showers and banks of luggage lockers. For those catching a bus at the large terminal outside, a board indicates the right platform (perron) for the listed destinations. To the left on this lower level is a large shopping arcade and a pedestrian subway under the road to bring you up beside the post office on the corner of Bahnhofstrasse and Zentralstrasse.
The tourist office is reached by descending to the lower level under the concourse and bearing left to pass under the road, emerging near the corner of Frankenstrasse and Zentralstrasse. It has an excellent variety of publications on the city, including the City Guide (also found in most hotels). It is worth asking for special offers on, for example, a rail and cable car excursion to Mount Titlis.