Ramble around the old town
Sketch a pretty central European city in your mind and you might just imagine Lucerne, with its medieval covered bridges spanning the rushing waters of the River Reuss, baroque churches, old-town squares and elaborately frescoed facades that recount the town’s history in images.
Before setting out on your travels around the lake, spend a day exploring the alleyways of this delightful city. Start by criss-crossing the river to take in both covered bridges, Kapellbrücke and Spreuerbrücke, famous for the painted panels under their eaves – the latter with a series of macabre scenes of the Dance of Death.
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To get a sense of the city’s glorious setting, next clamber up one of the towers of the old town defences. From here you can look out over the church spires and lake to the hazy peaks beyond.
Look the other way instead, and no, your eyes aren’t deceiving you if you spot a pair of alpaca and a few highland cattle grazing in a meadow. This is the adorably quaint Hinter Musegg nestled just beyond the town walls, a mini-farm (with mini pigs), microbrewery and farm shop – an incongruous taste of village life just minutes from the heart of the city.
Cruise the lake in a vintage paddle steamer
Said to be the most beautiful lake in Switzerland – and there’s stiff competition – Lake Lucerne’s appeal comes from its unusual shape, with four fingers of water sprawling out over the landscape, forming in turn both wide expanses of crystalline blue and narrow passages framed by looming peaks.
The only way to get a sense of its shape and the drama of the scenery is from a boat. Five majestic vintage paddle steamers, dating from the early 1900s, sedately tour the lake and its villages.
Kept in pristine shape, the steamboats’ engines churn below deck, while you relax on the sun deck and watch as the scene shifts around you.
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Brave the steepest cog-railway in the world
Switzerland is the sort of place where cities have their own “home” mountain, and Lucerne’s is Mount Pilatus, a starkly dramatic solitary peak that rises directly above the city, giving rise to all sorts of legends about dark histories and resident dragons.
When Queen Victoria made the journey here she was carried on mule-back, but in 1889 they built an eye-wateringly steep cog-railway, which hits 48-degrees at its steepest, to take travellers up to the top. From here, the views over the lake towards the mountains of the Bernese Oberland are stupendous.
The route down is via cable car, and you can stop-off halfway for a go on a toboggan run, if you feel like you slow holiday needs a modicum of speed.
Hike through wild flower meadows on Mount Rigi
While Pilatus is all rocky outcrops and splendid isolation, Mount Rigi, to the east of Lucerne, offers a gentler scene, with its green slopes and lush meadows scattered with wild orchids, while cow-bells clang in the distance.
Take the boat across the lake to one of the villages of Weggis or Vitznau from where you can take a cable car or cog-railway – the oldest in the world, dating from 1871 – up to Rigi Kaltbad. From here you can set out on numerous easy walking routes that link the mountain resorts, though pause first at the delightfully rustic Chalet Schild thirty minutes beyond Kaltbad for a slice of Chäs Cheuche (if you can pronounce it), a wedge of tangy buttery cheese pie, a celebration in a slice of this dairy nation.
Finally, you can either tackle the nearby cliff walk or push on up to the peak at Rigi Kulm, from where you can see lake after lake stretching into the distance.
Image by keith ellwood on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Go swimming in Lake Lucerne
By now, the cool, clear water of Lake Lucerne is surely tempting you to take the plunge. If you’re lucky enough to stay at one of the grand lakeside hotels – the super luxurious Park Weggis or the classically classy Hotel Vitznauerhof – then you can enjoy a dip from a private beach.
Never mind if you aren’t – Lucerne itself and each village along the lake has a public swimming spot or two, such as Weggis’s lido, or even better, Rachmaninoff’s meadow (the composer had a home nearby), a small stretch of grass by the lakeside in Weggis, where locals gather to gossip and swim.
If you’re staying in Lucerne, then the low-key but stylish vintage wooden-framed Seebad pool, which bobs by the lake in front of the grand hotels that line the promenade, might just be the spot for you. Go in the early evening, then finish the day with an aperitif at its bar as the daylight fades over the lake and the mountains cast shadows all around.
For more information on Switzerland visit MySwitzerland.com; for packages, trains and air tickets [email protected]. The Swiss Travel System provides a dedicated range of travel passes and tickets exclusively for visitors from abroad. Swiss International Air operates more than 170 weekly flights to Switzerland from London Heathrow, London City, Manchester, Birmingham, Edinburgh (seasonal during summer) and Dublin.