Lausanne is attractive and vibrant, set on a succession of south-facing terraces above Lake Geneva, with the Old Town at the top, the train station and commercial districts in the middle, and the former fishing village of Ouchy, now prime territory for waterfront café-lounging and strolling, at the bottom. Switzerland’s biggest university makes this a lively, fun city. For chilled-out bars, head for the trendy Flon district.
To reach the central Place St-François from the train station, walk up the steep rue du Petit-Chêne, or take the metro to Flon; from the metro platforms, lifts raise you to the level of the giant Grand Pont, between Place Bel-Air on the left and Place St-François on the right. From here, Rue St-François drops down into a valley and up again to the cobbled Place de la Palud, an ancient, fountained square flanked by the Renaissance town hall.
From Place de la Palud the medieval Escaliers du Marché lead up to the Cathedral, a fine Romanesque-Gothic jumble. Opposite, in the former bishop’s palace, is the Musée Historique, covering the history of the canton of Vaud.
Next door is the MUDAC Musée de Design et d’Arts Appliqués Contemporains displaying contemporary glass and temporary exhibitions upstairs. Lausanne suffered many medieval fires, and is the last city in Europe to keep alive the tradition of the nightwatch: every night, on the hour (10pm–2am), a sonorous-voiced civil servant calls from the cathedral tower “C’est le guet; il a sonné l’heure” (“This is the nightwatch; the hour has struck”).
Ten minutes’ walk west of Palud on Avenue Vinet (or bus #2, #3 or #21 to Beaulieu) is the fascinating Collection de l’Art Brut. This unique gallery is devoted to utterly absorbing “outsider art”.
Lausanne’s big party is the free Festival de la Cité in early July (festivaldelacite.ch), featuring music, dance and drama on open-air stages in the Old Town. Late June is also a great time to visit, with the Fête à Lausanne, a weekend of fairground attractions, the Chocolate Festival (chocolate-festival.ch) of electronic music, and the Fête de la Musique (lausanne.ch/fetedelamusique).
Ouchy’s waterfront hosts regular free music events all summer, and people come down here to do a spot of café sunbathing or blading (rent blades or skates from beside Ouchy metro). In a waterfront park just to the east sits Lausanne’s vacuous Olympic Museum, which isclosed for renovations until end of 2013 – bypass it for the Musée de l’Elysée, an excellent photography museum in the same park.