Twenty-Four Hours in Lucerne
For my mother and her husband’s first trip to visit Arnaud and me in Switzerland, I wanted to find an overnight trip for the three of us—Arnaud had to work, so he couldn’t join the fun—somewhere not far from Lausanne.
Alas, as I watched the weather in all the possible destinations a short train trip away from Lausanne (I gave myself a radius of no farther than a three-hour-or-so travel duration), I saw that even the place reputed as the sunniest in Switzerland, Ticino, had rain in the forecast for most of the week.
We watched the days of their trip progress and decided—with only about a day’s notice and a lot of finger crossing on the accuracy of the forecast—that the weather in Lucerne made for our best overnight-visit bet.
We lucked into an AirBNB available walking distance from all the major urban attractions, looked into train times, and packed our bags for our first trip to central Switzerland.
Old Town Lucerne
Unabashedly tourist-driven, Lucerne’s old town has everything you could want from a medieval central European small city: Winding streets, cobblestones, façades painted with tableaux of characters and scenes from medieval times, fortified ramparts, picturesque fountains in the middle of small squares, and charming shops and vibrant restaurants.
Therefore, you shouldn’t feel any measure of surprise when you find yourself on the streets of old town Lucerne jostled by tourists lugging huge cameras and selfie sticks and clustered in hordes behind leaders with tourist-guide pennants raised above their heads.
Though we enjoyed the streets even with the tourists afoot, we had our greatest moments of peace when we ventured out before the tourist groups finished their breakfasts, when we had the streets mostly to ourselves. If you don’t mind skipping breakfast or eating quickly, you’ll find real pleasure in the 9 a.m. streets of Lucerne.
Lucerne has two historic wooden bridges spanning the Reuss River in the old town. Arguably, the most famous is the Kapellbrücke, which our Lonely Planet guidebook starred as a must-see.
Therefore, when we left our AirBNB to walk over the river into the old town for lunch, we thought certainly we’d seen the famous wooden bridge in the book when we crossed the Spreuerbrücke. After all, the Spreuerbrücke has a small altar to the Virgin Mary at its center point and features restored early-Renaissance paintings of the plague—all of which aligned well with something called “chapel bridge.”
Turns out this bridge is slightly newer than the Kapellbrücke (1400s, rather than 1300s), and it doesn’t have a water tower in the center—or paintings of Swiss history. To be honest, I felt that the Spreuerbrücke had a more bewitching vibe than the Kapellbrücke, given its plague paintings and altar-behind-a-metal-grille.
When the tourist guidebook mentioned a pathway along old city walls, I imagined the Great Wall of China. Not so. Don’t budget more than half an hour to walk the Museggmauer—yet don’t miss it, either.
From what’s left of the city ramparts of old Lucerne, you can see over the city’s rooftops to Lake Lucerne and the mountains behind it. And though you walk uphill for about fifteen minutes to reach Museggmauer from the old city center, getting to the top of the city walls involves no more than two flights of stairs. Once at the top, you can walk from one end to the other in less than five minutes.
There are three stairways from the bottom of the walls to their top walkway; don’t miss the ones with the old clockworks on the insides. One shows the pendulum system quite clearly, and another features the connection to a large clockface at ground level.
Thinking we’d done it already, we merely happened upon the Kapellbrücke—and then only after my mother’s husband joked at how unfunny we’d all find it if we’d visited the wrong wooden bridge and got our comeuppance when people saw our travel pictures and told us otherwise.
The Kapellbrücke, or chapel bridge, has paintings of Swiss history in its roof panels and an octagonal water tower at its midpoint. Otherwise, it feels like a much more crowded version of its sister bridge just down the river.
Lucerne’s Lion Monument
A tour guide could easily have led us to the lion monument and saved us some grief.
With little more than Apple Maps and our Lonely Planet guidebook, we required a couple of tries before we found the famous Lucerne lion monument tucked into a little alcove behind a kitschy tourist restaurant. (On our first false attempt, we ran into a homemade sign someone had put in plastic angrily declaiming the path “private” and assuring all passers-by that no lion monument lay ahead. Credit this person’s grievance to Apple Maps, which clearly pointed in that direction.)
Though the gangs of tourists—and a performance-art project taking place on the viewing platform—likely affected the carving’s ability to move us as much as it could have affected someone who had a little more peace and quiet, the feat of the artwork, the choice of location, and the emotion with which the artist rendered the lion makes it a powerful sight nonetheless.
The lion, carved into the rock face in a verdant alcove with a small pool below it, honors the Swiss soldiers who died serving French King Louis the 16th during the French Revolution. (To save you the Wikipedia-lookup: Louis the 16th didn’t survive the guillotine, despite his armed guards.)
The Bourbaki Panorama’s description sounded just intriguing enough for us to head over there before Sammlung Rosengart opened for the day. Turns out, the museum didn’t just fill our time before we headed off to something else—we truly enjoyed it.
Named for the defeated French general who led his troops across Switzerland in retreat from the Germans during the Franco-Prussian War, the Swiss artist Edouard Castres created the Bourbaki Panorama in the late 1800s to provide an immersive view of the French army’s disarmament at the Swiss border. The Bourbaki Panorama museum provides historic background on the war and on Switzerland’s neutral role in supporting wounded troops on both sides—an early chapter in the history of the Red Cross—and showcases the methods by which society in the era before moving pictures told stories visually through optical illusions.
Sure, you’ll find historic bridges and a picturesque old town and carved lions in Lucerne—yet you might all too easily overlook what you truly should not miss (and what would make Lucerne worth even a quick visit, if you don’t have more than a couple of hours to spend between other places): Sammlung Rosengart.
The museum houses the personal collection of a woman and her father, who spent their careers as art brokers and collectors. Over the course of their lives, they built personal friendships with today’s most famous artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, such as Pablo Picasso.
I’d never had more than an appreciation of Picasso. Sammlung Rosengart’s thoughtful presentation of the breadth of his output gave me a genuine enjoyment in his oeuvre for the first time, as did its display of the photography of David Duncan, the one artist Picasso let see him work. Further, the museum houses on three architecturally modest floors an impressive collection of Klee, Cézanne, Matisse, Monet, and Kandinsky.
Start on the third floor and watch the full thirty-minute video about the history of the collection, including its patron and her father; seeing the video helps give the overall museum experience context. (Also, if nothing else, you get to sit around the green baize–covered round wooden conference table in the board room of an old Swiss bank that formerly owned the building.)
Believe the Hype about Lucerne
I conjecture that Lucerne has done an impressive job with marketing, given how many people told me they knew Lucerne when I told them Arnaud and I planned a move to Lausanne. (The two cities have little in likeness other than similar-sounding names, believe me.) When I corrected them—Lausanne, not Lucerne—almost no one had ever heard of Lausanne.
So perhaps Lucerne has done a better job at self-promotion—I saw more tourists there than I can recall ever seeing in Lausanne, without question—yet with all its beauty and culture, it deserves its status as a town to see in Switzerland.
Lucerne deserves its hype.