A city of music, bridges, and medieval turrets in the heart of Switzerland, Lucerne is among the countryâ€™s most popular stops, and itâ€™s immediately apparent why. Whether youâ€™re visiting for the first time or even the fifth, youâ€™ll find charm to spare â€” and, just a short boat or train ride away, more than a few mountains to climb.
While sojourning in Weggis during the summer of 1897, Mark Twain declared the lakeside village to be â€śthe charmingest place we have ever lived in for repose and restfulness.â€ť I know this because itâ€™s inscribed (albeit in paraphrased form) on a commemorative plaque at the base of an ancient oak tree where Twain is said to have spent many hours smoking his pipe and gazing out at the placid blue waters of Lake Lucerne. Whether heâ€™d recognize the place today I canâ€™t say; Weggis has evolved into a bustling little holiday resort with a vertigo-inducing cableway that carries hikers and sightseers three-quarters of the way up the mountain that looms behind it, Rigi. But restful it remains, at least compared to the tourist-packed streets of Lucerne, a 40-minute boat ride away.
I donâ€™t hold Lucerneâ€™s popularity against it, by the way. Iâ€™ve visited the quintessential Swiss city twice now, and each time has been transporting. Surrounded by an amphitheater of mountains on the shores of its glittering namesake lake, itâ€™s a town of medieval towers and gable-roofed bridges and palatial lakeside piles that has inspired visitors for more than a century and a halfâ€”from Leo Tolstoy, who wrote that the view from his room at the quay-side Hotel Schweizerhof â€śliterally dazzled and overwhelmed me,â€ť to Queen Victoria and Richard Wagner, who composed the last act of Tristan und Isolde here.
Still, weâ€™re talking about a city of 80,000 inhabitants that these days welcomes as many as five million visitors a year. Beguiling as it may be, sometimes youâ€™ve just got to get out of town. And the options for that are plenty. Nature is everywhere on Lucerneâ€™s doorstep, or at least a short boat ride away. For starters, thereâ€™s Mount Pilatus, the highest peak in these parts. One popular half-day excursion is the Goldene Rundfahrt, which admittedly sounds more appealing in translation (â€śgolden round tripâ€ť). This takes you up to the mountainâ€™s craggy summit by gondola and cable car, down the other side via the worldâ€™s steepest cog railway, and back to town by steamship. Or thereâ€™s Rigi. While not as tall as Pilatus, the views from its main peak, Rigi Kulm, are stupendous, encompassing a dozen lakes and countless mountains all the way to France and Germany. To quote again from Twain, who took in the sunrise at Rigi Kulm after a leisurely three-day hike up from Weggis, â€śWe could not speak. We could hardly breathe. We could only gaze in drunken ecstasy and drink it in.â€ťÂ
These days, signposted trails enable a fit hiker to climb the 1,400 meters to Rigi Kulm in under five hours. Alternatively, you could do what most people do and either hop aboard the cogwheel train in nearby Vitznau for a ride on Europeâ€™s oldest mountain railwayâ€”in operation since 1871â€”or take Weggisâ€™s cableway up to the resort area of Rigi Kaltbad (where a Mario Bottaâ€“designed spa overlooks green cow pastures) and meet the train there for the rest of the ride to the summit. Walk back down if you have the time and energy: the route takes you though forests and meadows seemingly plucked from the pages of Heidi.
But donâ€™t head back to Lucerneâ€”or Luzern, as its mostly German-speaking residents spell itâ€”just yet. One bus stop away from Weggis is Haldi Hof, a seven-hectare farm and orchard perched prettily above the lake. Here, Bruno Muff, his wife Rebecca, and their son Julian produce organic gin, schnapps, aquavit, mustards, and a variety of vinegars and preserves, all made with very local ingredients. Theyâ€™ll happily show you around their year-old distillery, clad in Rigi pine and filled with shiny copper fermenters and boilers; but itâ€™s the on-site shop, housed in an old farm building, thatâ€™s the main attraction. The shelves and tables here groan with the Muffsâ€™ impressive range of products, each a perfect souvenir. These include handmade soaps, wool scarves from the farmâ€™s alpacas, and a line of small-batch spirits infused with herbs and flowers from the slopes of Rigi, without a single foreign chemical or additive. Julian calls their philosophy â€śproducing with nature instead of against nature.â€ť
Iâ€™m sold. Purchasing a flask of kirsch labeled Wanderwasser (â€śhiking waterâ€ť), I sit out on the farmâ€™s cafĂ© terrace and knock it backâ€”the cap conveniently doubles as a shot glass. Chickens scratch in the dirt nearby, and a peacock unexpectedly struts past. Cowbells clang in the distance. And the views are sublime, stretching across the glinting surface of Lake Lucerne to the wooded flanks of Mount Pilatus, its peak shrouded in wisps of cloud. I suspect Twain would have approved.
Back in Lucerne, Iâ€™m staying at Hotel Schweizerhof, a grand old family-run hotel across the road from the lake. I urge you to stay here too. The neoclassical landmark has been around for more than 170 years and has hosted seemingly every famous personage who has come through town, from Tolstoy and Wagner to Winston Churchill, B.B. King, and Claudio Abbado, the late, great Italian conductor who was instrumental in the revival of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra. Such laurels wouldnâ€™t count for much if the place wasnâ€™t so genuinely hospitable andâ€”thanks to a recent refurbishmentâ€”supremely comfortable. Stepout of your modishly furnished room and into the hotelâ€™s marble-columned lobby, however, and youâ€™ll feel transported back to the gilded age of the Grand Tour.
Itâ€™s also an easy walk from the Schweizerhof to pretty much anywhere youâ€™ll want to go. The heart of the Old Town area is just steps away, and while its cobblestone streets and colorfully muraled Renaissance squares throng with snap-happy tour groups, only a curmudgeon wouldnâ€™t want to spend at least an hour strolling around the area. When you tire of that, the quiet residential lanes behind the more touristed stretch of town lead up to the old city wall, which extends 800 meters from the River Reuss to somewhere behind Hotel Schweizerhof. If walking along medieval ramparts is your thing, you wonâ€™t want to miss this. Four of the nine towers along the wall are open to the public, including the must-see Zyt Tower, which houses the oldest clock in the cityâ€”a hand-wound contraption that has been ticking since 1535.
On the other side of the Reuss in the Neustadt district, there are plenty of quieter sites to explore. One is the Ritterscher Palace, built 460 years ago in the Florentine Renaissance style. Today housing the cantonal government offices, itâ€™s off the radar of most sightseers, which leaves you pretty much aloneâ€”barring the bureaucrats who work thereâ€”to admire both its handsome inner courtyard and the haunting, seven-piece Dance of Death canvases by 17th-century Swiss painter Jakob von Wyl that hang upstairs. Near at hand is Lucerneâ€™s Jesuit Church, just downriver from the covered medieval Chapel Bridge. By all means venture inside; the baroque beautyâ€™s hushed, light-filled nave was updated to the rococo style in 1749 with wonderful wedding-cake detail, including ornate side altars and an elaborately frescoed ceiling. Take a pew and look up â€”the central painting depicts Francis Xavier on a chariot pulled by an elephant and a pair of camels.
And there are museums to exploreâ€”10, at least, that can be accessed over two consecutive days with the Lucerne Museum Card, a steal at 36 Swiss francs per person. Among them are the family-friendly Swiss Museum of Transport, a sprawling attraction on the outskirts of town that charts the development of travel by rail, air, road, and water. Itâ€™s also the most popular museum in the country, so be prepared for crowds. A decidedly more sedate alternative is the stately lakeside villa in Tribschen where Richard Wagner lived and composed between 1866 and 1872. Or for lovers of post-impressionist and modernist art, thereâ€™s the Museum Sammlung Rosengart, which I eagerly revisit on this trip. Housed in an imposing former bank building on Pilatusstrasse, itâ€™s a three-story trove of works by CĂ©zanne and Chagall, Matisse and Braque, and especially Klee and Picasso. Art dealer Angela Rosengart, now in her eighties, was a close friend of Picassoâ€™s, and he left her with more than 100 of his sketches and paintings, including some of Angela herself.
Another day, another mountain to conquer. This time itâ€™s Titlis, a 3,238-meter summitâ€”the highest in central Switzerlandâ€”that straddles the cantons of Obwalden and Bern. Itâ€™s a different world up here, and yet just 50 minutes by express train from Lucerne. At the end of the line is Engelberg. What was once a remote monastery village has morphed into a mountainside mecca for winter sports, though there are plenty of summertime attractions as well: hiking, walking (including a barefoot track), braving Europeâ€™s highest suspension bridge, and trekking on the Titlis Glacier, which you can reach via a rotating gondola.
Down at Engelberg again, thereâ€™s the monastery to seeâ€”a 12th-century abbey (most of which was rebuilt in the 1700s) that is still home to about 30 Benedictine monks. It also houses the SchaukĂ¤serei Kloster, a cheese factory with a modern â€śshow dairyâ€ť where you can watch the cheese-making process unfold behind a circular wall of glass. Its most distinctive product is a brie-style fromage called Engelberg Klosterglocke, which takes its shape from the old church bell sitting in the monasteryâ€™s courtyard. Book a hands-on tour, and the young blue-eyed owner Walter Grob will show you the proper way to slice up a blob of curd. Itâ€™s more fun than it sounds.
All that fresh mountain air gives me a keen appetite for dinner, and once Iâ€™m back in Lucerne, I know just the spot: Burgerstube, at the Wilden Mann hotel. Lucerne has no shortage of atmospheric old-world restaurantsâ€”another favorite of mine, a wood-paneled tourist magnet called Zunfthausrestaurant Pfistern, occupies an old bakersâ€™ guild house on the north bank of the Reussâ€”but this one seems more authentically local than most. Under low wooden ceiling beams emblazoned with heraldic shields, the tables during my visit are occupied by a group of card-playing old men and smartly dressed younger couples on date night. The food is solid Swiss fareâ€”fried farmer-style bratwurst with onion sauce; veal and rĂ¶stiâ€”and the candlelit room is warm and cosseting. Amazingly, the place turns 500 years old this year. Howâ€™s that for history?
On my last day in town, I stroll up to the LĂ¶wendenkmalâ€”Lion Monumentâ€”to have a look at what Mark Twain once described as â€śthe saddest and most moving piece of rock in the world.â€ť Carved in relief into the face of a low sandstone cliff, the sculpture commemorates the regiment of Swiss Guards who died defending Parisâ€™s Tuileries Palace during the French Revolution. Perhaps ironically, the monument is regularly besieged by tourists. From here, itâ€™s a 15-minute walk to the Art Deco Hotel Montana, a century-old hillside property whose name tells you all you need to know about its architectural style.
Lunch awaits on the terrace of the hotelâ€™s elegant Scala restaurant. The Mediterranean-accented food is terrific, but the real reason you come here is for the views. All of Lucerne is laid out before you, from the distant bulk of Rigi to the BĂĽrgenstock plateau right around to the twin spires of St. Leodegar church and the Old Town beyond. Directly across the water from where Iâ€™m sitting is the train station and the Lucerne Culture and Congress Center, a strikingly modern building by French architect Jean Nouvel whose vast, cantilevered roof shelters one of Europeâ€™s premier concert halls. Lucerne old and new, natural and urban, all gathered around this celebrated Swiss lake. Who knows? It just might be enough to lure me back a third time.
Where to Stay
Hotel Schweizerhof Luzern
Schweizerhofquai 3;Â 41-41/410-0410; doubles from US$482.
Where to Eat
Hotel Wilden Mann, Schulstrasse 1; 41-61/901-5717.
Kornmarkt 4; 41-41/410-3650.
Hotel Montana, Adligenswilerstrasse 22; 41-41/417-3541.
What to See and Do
Museum Sammlung Rosengart
Pilatusstrasse 10; 41-41/220-1660.
Richard Wagner Museum
Richard Wagner Weg 27, Tribschen; 41-41/360-2370.
SchaukĂ¤serei Kloster Engelberg
Klosterhof, Engelberg; 41-41/638-08-88.
Swiss Museum of Transport
Lidostrasse 5; 41-41/370-4444.
This article originally appeared in the April/May 2017Â print issue of DestinAsian magazine (â€śCenter Stageâ€ť).