Lake Lucerne lies at the geographical and spiritual heart of Switzerland. It’s the country’s most beautiful and dramatic body of water by far. At the lake’s western tip, Lucerne is a stunning city steeped in history and a natural gateway to Central Switzerland. Plan your trip to Lucerne with our guide to Lucerne, based on The Rough Guide to Switzerland, your travel guide for Switzerland.
What to expect when visiting Lucerne — your Lucerne travel guide
Boasting invigorating mountain views, lake cruises and a picturesque old quarter, Lucerne (in French and English, Luzern in German, Lucerna in Italian) has long been one of Europe’s most popular towns.
When Queen Victoria came for a long holiday in August 1868 (checking in under the pseudonym of the “Countess of Kent”), the town was already well known; these days five million admirers pass through annually.
The River Reuss splits the town, flowing rapidly out of the northwestern end of the lake. The pedestrian-only alleys of the Old Town occupy the northern bank, with the city walls ranged on the slopes above, as well as a small part of the southern bank.
Both banks are clustered with medieval squares, frescoed houses, ancient guildhalls and churches. Two surviving covered wooden bridges span the River Reuss, both formerly part of the city’s fortifications.
The newer town, a classic continental grid of wide boulevards, spreads south, and is worth venturing into for its lively bars and restaurants, away from the tourist throngs of the river banks.
The Sammlung Rosengart, one of Switzerland’s finest art museums, lurks on the busy Pilatusstrasse, while the excellent Verkehrshaus – an entertaining complex devoted to transport – is just a short boat- or bus-ride away.
But Lucerne is no museum piece: the city’s large population of young people and the busy schedule of festivals and events provides cosmopolitan buzz.
Into slower, more sustainable travel? Discover why Lake Lucerne is the ultimate slow travel destination.
Lucerne's loveliness is also one of the reasons you voted Switzerland one of the most beautiful countries in the world.
Top attractions and things to do in Lucerne
1. Paddle steamers on Lake Lucerne
Watch the hazy blue tones of beautiful Lake Lucerne shift and change from the deck of an old-time steamer. The main loop hops across to the Verkehrshaus/Lido before cruising over to Weggis and Vitznau, for Mount Rigi, then on to Brunnen and lastly Flüelen.
Visiting for a special occasion? You could book a first-class cruise with gourmet lunch.
2. The town walls and towers
A short stroll west Mühlenplatz along riverside St Karliquai from the Spreuerbrücke brings you to the Nölliturm, a fortified gate marking the southwestern extent of a lengthy stretch of the surviving fourteenth-century town walls, the Musegg. Pass through the gate and head right up the hill to gain access to the battlements and their impressive views.
Take a guided walking tour of Lucerne to uncover a host of Old Town highlights — sure to be a memorable highlight of your Lucerne vacation.
Just northeast of Löwenplatz is one of the highlights of Lucerne, the terribly sad Löwendenkmal (Lion Monument). This wounded beast – dubbed “the Dying Lion of Lucerne” – was hewn out of a cliff face in 1821 to commemorate the 700 Swiss mercenaries killed in Paris in 1792.
The Gletschergarten (Glacier Garden) centres on a set of geological potholes and ridges, evidence that Lucerne was covered by glaciers twenty million years ago. Surrounding this are a hotchpotch of attractions, including a museum showcasing geological specimens, and a wonderfully archaic Mirror Maze.
5. Bourbaki Panorama
Encased within a modern glass building, the Bourbaki Panorama is a giant 114m-by-10m circular mural depicting the French Eastern Army's retreat into Switzerland during the Franco-Prussian War. With a nice café, and a couple of cinemas, the whole building is now an appealing arts complex.
The grand structure of the Hofkirche sits on the site of the first monastery of Lucerne, which dated from the mid-eighth century and was dedicated to St Leodegar (St Leger).
7. Sammlung Rosengart
Away from the crowds of the Old Town, the elegant Sammlung Rosengart gallery of modern art in central Lucerne boasts a phenomenal collection of works by Picasso and Klee. For culture vultures, this is a top Lucerne travel experience.
Which areas should you visit in Lucerne?
Any tour of Lucerne must begin with the fourteenth-century covered Kapellbrücke (Chapel Bridge), the oldest road bridge in Europe, angled around the octagonal mid-river Wasserturm.
Just downstream of the Kapellbrücke, the Spreuerbrücke is, if anything, more atmospheric, thanks to its macabre “Dance of Death” roof panels.
The succession of images shows a grinning skeleton leading kings, gallant princes, lawmen, nuns, merchants, prostitutes, peasants and maidens alike to their inevitable fate.
The Old Town
The north bank of the Reuss is home to the Old Town’s most atmospheric cluster of medieval houses, with Mühlenplatz, Weinmarkt, Hirschenplatz and Kornmarkt forming a compact ensemble of cobbled, fountained squares ringed by colourful facades.
Modern commerce is definitely the motivating force of the place these days, though it takes little imagination to conjure up the Middle Ages in the narrow maze of streets, even with the welter of shoppers and familiar brand names.
Jesuitenkirche and around
The Old Town extends to the south bank of the Reuss. Facing Unter der Egg is the huge Jesuitenkirche, dominating the riverside with its twin onion-domed towers.
Completed in 1673, its interior is a frothy Rococo concoction of gilt stucco and marble. Among the profusion of frescoes is one on the ceiling that, intriguingly, depicts the church exterior as it was three hundred years ago.
Best places to stay in Lucerne
Accommodation covers the gamut from dorms to palaces, with a parade of grand hotels lined up along the northern lakefront.
Summer is especially busy, with room prices in many hotels rising by almost fifty percent. At the top end in particular, prices can be much lower off-season, with discounts for advance booking.
A per-person city tax is charged per night, but includes a pass for local buses.
- Best for style-seekers: Art Deco Hotel Montana. This classy hotel on a hillside above the lake is reached by its own funicular and boasts spectacular views. It's often rated the best four-star hotel in Switzerland.
Best hotels in Lucerne
- Best for nature-lovers: Seehotel Kastanienbaum. Ideal if you want to combine city sightseeing with relaxation — it's in a village outside the city, with a lovely lakeside terrace offering gorgeous views and lounging spots.
- Best for romantics: Wilden Mann. This historic hotel dates back to 1517 and occupies seven adjoining townhouses amid the atmospheric south-bank Old Town lanes. Rooms are tastefully decorated with rich wood and heavy fabrics.
- Best for chilling out: Backpackers. This laidback hostel on the lakeshore 800m southeast of the station boasts pleasant dorms and basic doubles.
Best hostels and camping in Lucerne
- Best for outdoor types: Camping Lido. With a great location (right by the Verkehrshaus and public lido), this friendly campsite also offers a few dorm rooms.
Explore more places to stay in Lucerne.
Eating in Lucerne - best restaurants and cafés
Lucerne has a fine range of cafés and restaurants, which crowd the waterfront and the Old Town squares. A small amount of backstreet searching will turn up plenty of less touristy options, particularly in less-trod corners of the New Town, such as Helvetiaplatz.
Local specialities to keep an eye out for are led by the celebrated Luzerner Kügelipastete – spelled by many Old Town restaurant menus in dialect, along the lines of Luzerner Chügelipastete.
This stomach-lining dish is a glorified vol-au-vent, a large puff-pastry shell filled with a super-rich concoction of diced veal and mushrooms in a creamy sauce.
If you're into cheese and chocolate, don't miss a taking food-focused walking tour that combines learning about Lucerne's history with top Swiss tasting experiences.
Otherwise, fish is the thing, in endless varieties: you’ll see Forellen (trout), Egli (perch), Felchen (a kind of white fish) and Hecht (pike) on most menus.
Wash it all down either with a Kaffee fertig, a coffee laced with Schnapps, or a Kafi Luz, traditionally seen in Canton Lucerne outside the city but nowadays easy to find in the Old Town cafés.
- Bodu: acclaimed French brasserie with superb meat and fish dishes. Decor is pleasant, service attentive and the wine superb, with the terrace and fine river view adding to its allure.
- Scala: this shamelessly romantic restaurant in the superb Hotel Montana serves top-notch modern-Italian-cum-international fish and meat creations. The terrace provides superb views over lake, mountains and city.
- Schlüssel: the first-floor dining room at the Schlüssel hotel is the oldest hall in the city, and a cosy place to tuck into Austrian specialities – think veal Wiener Schnitzel and Tafelspitz (boiled veal).
Best restaurants in Lucerne
- The Queen Camellia Tea House: a lovely affordable place for afternoon tea and snacks. This rustic café has teas from all over the world, along with cakes and biscuits in a cosy setting.
- Heini: you’ll see Heini bakeries and patisseries all over Lucerne, but try their tearoom in the Old Town for top cakes and pastries on a broad, people-watching corner.
- Parterre: this relaxed and inexpensive locals’ hangout is a low-key café in the day with quality lunchtime menus and weekend breakfasts. It's also great for a beer in the evening.
Best cafés in Lucerne
Nightlife and entertainment in Lucerne
Lucerne’s nightlife scene is lively, with bars busy from Thurdays through to the weekend, with some packed-out after-work places just near the station.
There are some delightful lakeside summer-only options as well, and a good selection of live music venues and a few clubs.
- Buvette and Volière, Inseli Park: a small lakeside park becomes one of the places to be come summer, and you can see why as you sit out under the trees looking over the water, supping a cold beer. These two bars set up shop here each summer, sometimes putting on live music.
- Filou & Bengel: hip little spot next to a pleasant park – great daytime coffees and potent cocktails, and more relaxed than some of the after-work bars a few streets away.
- Jazz Kantine: this buzzing Old Town hub is open during the day for coffee and beers, and on into the late night as a lively bar and venue, with DJs and live music in the basement.
- Rathaus Brauerei: this wonderful cross-vaulted terrace bar below the arches of the Rathaus boasts a range of good beers, including changing specials, brewed on site.
Best bars and entertainment venues in Lucerne
How to get around Lucerne
Getting around Lucerne by train
Lucerne’s giant modern train station is on the south bank of the Reuss. A cluster of local bus stops are right outside the station, while the main Seebrücke takes traffic north over the Reuss alongside the Kapellbrücke.
Getting around Lucerne by car
If you’re driving, try to arrange parking with your hotel (who may have an arrangement with nearby car parks), or leave your vehicle in the suburbs: Lucerne has a fiendish one-way system.
Getting around Lucerne by boat
Departures are from the quays outside the train station and in front of the KKL (Kongresszentrum Luzern); fewer boats run in winter months. Check out the details.
Excursions and day trips from Lucerne
The craggy giant that rises just behind Lucerne is reached by riding the world's steepest cogwheel railway, or cable car. At the top station, you’ll find a couple of hotels and restaurants, a glass-walled panorama area, and the “dragon cave” tunneled-out walkway, with more dramatic views.
For a fun, family-friendly experience, book a trip on the Panorama Gondola.
Magestic Rigi boasts gentle walking routes, wildflower meadows and stunning views from its 2000m peak, which you can reach by cog railway. A steep-scarped grassy ridge with several summits, it offers wonderful views south to the Alps.
With three peaks to pick from – including mighty Titlis – this end-of-the-road village is a great destination for hiking, summertime mountain-biking and winter skiing.
Short on time? No problem. A half-day trip to Mount Titlis offers breathtaking views from a revolving cable car, plus the opportunity to visit the Glacier Cave.
Weg der Schweiz
Scenic lakeside walking route that follows the edge of the Urnersee, passing sites central to Swiss history and the legends of William Tell.
Switzerland’s most famous Alpine pass divides northern Europe from the south. Inaugurated in 1991 as part of the 700th anniversary celebrations of the founding of the Swiss Confederation, this scenic trail circumnavigates the Urnersee to Brunnen.
If you're into the idea of exploring further afield, read up on the best outdoor experiences in Switzerland.
Intrepid female travellers might also want to explore women only outdoor activities in Switzerland — all created by and for women.
Feeling inspired by this Lucerne travel guide? The Rough Guide to Switzerland and our run-down of things not to miss in Switzerland will help you plan — think of them as your personal travel guide to Switzerland.
Not a fan of planning? You could book a hassle-free tailor-made trip to Switzerland, with customisable itineraries curated by local experts covering everything from unforgettable highlights of Switzerland, to touring the Grand Circle.
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