There are a great many things that Switzerland is commonly associated with. Perhaps the most obvious is its expertise in manufacturing high quality watches and clocks that boast precision and reliability. Then there’s Swiss chocolate — which is prized for its velvety smooth consistency, and has been distributed the world over through brands such as Lindt and Frey.
But another aspect that’s emblematic of Switzerland is its postcard-perfect scenery. We’re talking azure blue waters fringed with majestic mountains, medieval architecture, and quaint shophouses. While the various cities within the European country possess most (or all) of these characteristics, an excellent starting point for first-time visitors is Lucerne, which is situated in central Switzerland within close proximity to the Alps and iconic Lake Lucerne.
The place is just an hour away from Zurich airport via train, making it easily accessible. The journey there is also a particularly scenic one, as you whizz by modern cityscapes before passing through old-school towns, rolling hills, and lush pastures where cows graze. Evidently, Lucerne is where nature, historical and urban elements co-exist in harmony.
During our recent visit to the heritage-rich city, we spent a few days exploring its many attractions, as well as traversed to the summits of some of its highest peaks — where we could enjoy sweeping, unobstructed views of its naturally beautiful landscapes.
We stayed at the newly refurbished, four-star superior Palace Hotel, which is part of Bürgenstock Resort. A 20-minute drive away from Lucerne city, the sprawling resort is perched on Bürgenberg mountain, 500 metres above Lake Lucerne. Its four hotels all boast unbeatable views of the pristine waters below, and the Alps in the distance.
First built in 1904, the Palace Hotel underwent a major eight-year restoration before opening its doors with the rest of the resort on 28 August. It still retains some of its original structure, but certain elements such as its old ornamental plasterwork and faux marble pillars were replaced during the overhaul. Its 108 rooms and suites have also been updated with a contemporary palette of beige and wood hues.
Apart from offering a stellar view of Lake Lucerne through its ceiling-high windows, our Superior Room was a plush and elegant space outfitted with everything one could possibly need. There was a work desk (with ample power sockets nearby, so you don’t have to go hunting around the room or reaching into obscure corners just to charge your laptop), a sofa, and a king-size bed, which was so comfy it took every ounce of self control to get out of it in the morning.
Two master switches were installed on the wall, on either side of the bed, which we appreciated as we didn’t need to fumble with a gazillion different buttons before turning in. There was a Nespresso coffee machine too — so caffeine junkies could be guaranteed of their morning cup of joe. Equally luxurious was the bathroom, which was decked out in chic wood and Nero Assoluto granite, and equipped with a rain shower. The sink area was also well-stocked with Bulgari toiletries.
For breakfast, we headed to Ritzcoffier Restaurant, where we were greeted by a lavish spread of dishes such as cold cuts, cheese, and eggs cooked according to our preference. The eatery operates as a full-service restaurant in the evenings, and is also open for brunch on Sundays.
Other restaurants in the hotel include Spices Kitchen & Terrace, which specialises in Asian cuisine spanning Thai, Indian, Japanese and Chinese flavours. We stopped by for dinner, and devoured platters of sashimi, spring rolls, and tender lamb chops, and washed these down with a fiery and tear-inducing bowl of tom yum soup.
Delicious food can be found within Lucerne city as well. One of our favourite spots was Heini, a bakery and café that runs four branches in Lucerne. We visited its Falkenplatz flagship outlet for a tea break, and were thoroughly overwhelmed by the extensive selection of cakes, breads and pastries. A standout was the Rahmtruffes-Torte, a rich and decadent cake layered with chocolate and raspberry jam. Paired with a hot cappuccino, it was the perfect tea time treat.
For a more unconventional dining experience, opt for a lunch cruise along Lake Lucerne. The cruise is operated by Schifffahrtsgesellschaft des Vierwaldstättersees (Lake Lucerne Navigation Company), and stops at places such as Weggis and Vitznau. Visitors who dine there can expect to feast on scrumptious dishes such as Swiss chicken breast roulade, octopus salad, and saffron risotto.
We particularly enjoyed the roasted veal schnitzel — which was served with gnocchi and brussels sprouts, and drizzled with a light but tasty lemon cream sauce — and our dessert of mocha parfait with blackberries. Paired with the incredible view outside, everything made for a satisfying meal.
Don’t forget to try classic Swiss dishes such as rösti (fried shredded potatoes) and macaroni and cheese with applesauce, a traditional dish popular in the Alpine regions. We savoured the latter at Restaurant Pilatus-Kulm, an eatery perched on the top of the breathtakingly beautiful Mount Pilatus (more on that later).
The macaroni was covered in a creamy cheese sauce and studded with crispy shallots, and came with a separate bowl of thick apple purée. Stirring dollops of the applesauce injected bursts of sweetness into the dish, and prevented the cheese from becoming too cloying.
Having eaten our fill, we embarked on a walking tour of Lucerne city. The place is divided into the Old Town and New Town, with the river Reuss running between the two areas. Both are within walking distance to Lucerne railway station, an easily recognisable landmark thanks to the giant arch located in front of it. The arch is actually a historical relic that dates back to 1896, when the original railway station was built before it was gutted by a fire in 1971. All that remained was the arch, which served as the station entrance back then.
Just a short walk away is the KKL Luzern (Culture and Convention Centre Lucerne), which houses a concert hall, restaurants, and art museum. The building is known for its distinctive large roof, which spans 12,000 square metres — equivalent to two soccer fields. It’s part of the New Town and situated close to the lake, so visitors can expect picturesque views.
Another highlight of the New Town is the Jesuit Church, a beautiful 17th century Baroque church with a soaring arched ceiling, lavish gilded columns, opulent chandeliers and elegant murals.
After admiring the church’s ornate details, head over to the nearby Kapellbrücke, or Chapel Bridge, a sheltered wooden footbridge built in the 14th century. It is adorned with over 150 17th-century paintings, and includes the Wasserturm, or water tower, beside it. Contrary to its unassuming façade, the latter was once used as a treasury, torture chamber and dungeon. Today, it’s home to a souvenir shop, event space, and the headquarters of the Lucerne Artillery Association.
Cross the bridge over to the Old Town, where historical buildings, tourist attractions and shops abound. A must-visit is the Fritschi fountain, which is one of 225 fountains around Lucerne. It is a striking landmark embellished with colourful masks and topped off with a statue of a standard-bearer. Water pours out of four spouts crafted to resemble goats’ horns. All fountains in Lucerne dispense clean, drinkable water — unless otherwise stated — so you can simply have a drink if you’re feeling parched.
While exploring the Old Town, look out for the vibrant murals emblazoned on shophouse fronts — which make for some excellent photo-ops. Standouts include the carnival-themed one on the façade of Restaurant Fritschi (which depicts a carnival scene and whimsical characters tossing oranges), and the elaborate painting of the Wedding of Cana on the building housing Mammut Store and H Weber.
If you’re yearning for some retail therapy, wander down the cobblestone streets and you’ll pass stores such as Pandora, H&M, and Läderach — which specialises in Swiss chocolate. For luxury watches, venture further to Schwanenplatz along Lake Lucerne, where a massive Bucherer boutique takes pride of place. It stocks prominent watch brands such as Audemars Piguet, Jaeger-LeCoultre, and Panerai, so you’ll be spoilt for choice.
Another must-see highlight of the Old Town is its famous lion monument, which features a rock carving of a dying lion clutching a shield. Above it are the words “Helvetiorum Fidei ac Virtuti”, which translates to “To the loyalty and bravery of the Swiss”. The sculpture was created in the 19th century to commemorate the Swiss Guards who perished during the French Revolution.
Naturally, a trip to Lucerne isn’t complete without visiting its glorious mountains, which have also provided many a backdrop to the song and dance segments of countless Bollywood movies. We made our way to Mount Pilatus via a cogwheel railway from Alpnachstad, which can be accessed by train, car or boat. Built in 1889, the cogwheel railway is the world’s steepest with a maximum incline of up to 48 percent. The 30-minute ride is a scenic one that passes undulating hills, verdant meadows, and mountain goats grazing in the pastures.
Standing at a towering 2,132 metres above sea level, Mount Pilatus is the place to be for outdoor and extreme sports enthusiasts, with its array of activities such as hiking trails, paragliding sessions, and a rope park. The temperature there hovered at a rather comfortable four to seven degrees when we visited last month, so a warm coat and sturdy shoes proved sufficient. Do come prepared with sufficient layers to keep yourself warm, though, as it gets much colder towards year end.
For those intending to spend more time up on the mountain, accommodation options are available at the three-star superior Hotel Pilatus-Kulm and cosy Hotel Bellevue. The former gets our vote for its luxurious facilities and in-house restaurant serving up delectable regional cuisine such as Swiss barley soup, and macaroni and cheese with applesauce.
Over at Mount Titlis, another highlight of Lucerne’s alpine attractions, expect to find yourself in a winter wonderland. Temperatures easily go beneath zero degrees up on this mountain — which measures a soaring 3,020 metres above sea level — and its vast landscapes are blanketed in snow. Fun fact: Mount Titlis was a filming locale for the 1995 Bollywood classic Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, and there’s even a life-size cardboard cutout of the movie’s lead actors Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol placed on a terrace.
Take in the stunning vistas from its cliff walk, a suspension bridge on the summit that passes through an underground tunnel and leads to a viewing platform. You can also enjoy incredible views from the Ice Flyer, a chair lift that carries riders over the lofty peaks and snowy hills, to a glacier park equipped with well-groomed pistes ideal for skiing and winter sports.
Like many of the other attractions around Lucerne, Mount Titlis is easily accessible from the city. Its alpine town of Engelberg is only a 40-minute drive or 43-minute train ride away from Lucerne. Visitors can then take a cable car up to the mountain.
(Main, featured and selected images by Sweet Escape, a holiday photography service that connects travellers with local shutterbugs based in the cities they are visiting. All you need to do is inform Sweet Escape about your destination, preferred date and time, and any concepts you have in mind. Each photography session lasts for two hours and comes with 40 edited photos. More details here)