In the center of Switzerland, lovely Lucerne is a city that offers beauty and history and art. Sitting on the edge of Lake Lucerne, with a panorama of mountains in the background, Lucerne is a place to relax and leisurely stroll from one highlight to another. As it’s on a main trainline through Switzerland and only a 30-minute train ride from Zurich, it’s easy to devote a day to exploring Lucerne as you zip about Switzerland or Europe.
We spent a day walking around the city and enjoying every minute. I’ve also visited for a day and spent my time on a boat on the lake and then venturing up to Mt. Pilatus. Your decision on how to spend a day will depend partly on weather. If it’s cloudy or wet, the experience of ascending to a mountain with a socked in view may not be worthwhile. Or if you’re partway into a European trip and would welcome a day to find interesting sights at an unhurried pace, you could choose to spend your time in the center of the city.
Here’s what we found on my last visit. We arrived by train from Heidelberg late in the morning, so our hours were limited. We decided not to try to fit in Mt. Pilatus but to hang out in the city center. I’ve included information on Mt. Pilatus at the end of the post, as that is popular. Whatever you do during your day in lovely Lucerne, I sure you will be quickly reeled in by its charm and picture book scenery.
Walk Through the Chapel Bridge
Right in the heart of the city, this diagonal bridge connects the north and south banks of River Reuss. Built in the 14th century, it’s thought to be Europe’s oldest covered bridge. With its hanging baskets of bright-colored flowers and the trusses set in the river, it’s quite picturesque.
The water tower is about 100 years older than the bridge. It’s served as a lookout tower, a treasury, and a prison.In 1993, Chapel Bridge suffered a major fire. Only the tower and ends of the bridge survived. The devastation of this icon of Switzerland so moved people that funds were collected, and the bridge was restored about a year later.
Take time to climb the few steps on the bank and enter the bridge. Walk from one side to the other. Look up at the painted panels set into the ceiling. These date from the 17th century and depict scenes of Swiss history.
Pay Respects at the Lion Monument
This world-famous stone carving surprised me with both how beautiful and how emotional it is. And the Lion of Lucerne is much larger in real life than it looks in photos.
The dying lion pays homage to the Swiss Guard heroes who died in Paris. In 1792, the Swiss tried to protect the life of King Louis XVI, but they were all killed when revolutionaries stormed the palace.
Admire this sculpture from different angles and think about those who gave their lives in a country that wasn’t even their own. As the American writer Mark Twain wrote: “The Lion of Lucerne (is) the most mournful and moving piece of stone in the world.”
Walk the Musegg Wall
Next, we walked through residential streets to find the Musegg Wall, the historic fortification that protected the city since its founding in the 1100s. The current wall dates from the 1400s and features nine watchtowers.
Enter by stone stairways and make your way along the walkway between the edges of the double wall. Have fun stopping at the towers to go inside. The portions of the wall are at different heights, so you can look down (way down!) from the higher elevations onto other sections.
Venture to the Spreuer Bridge
As you cross the bridge, imagine the days centuries ago when locals brought chaffs of wheat here and tossed them into the river. Also, notice the locks of the river on the side of bridge; they form a “waterfall.”
A plus of the Spreuer Bridge is that it is not as well known and won’t be as crowded as the Chapel Bridge.
Look for Fascinating Facades
Enjoy at least one meal sitting in a café along the water. While we ate lunch at a little restaurant on a side street, we chose to have dinner outside on one of the many restaurants lining the shore. Yes, it’s touristy, but do it anyway. You’ll always remember this! I can highly recommend Da Ernesto for a scrumptious Italian dinner.
Savor Sunset on the Lake
And if you have more time …
Ride a Cogwheel Train and Gondola at Mt. Pilatus
If you have at least half a day for this activity and the weather cooperates, a visit to Mt. Pilatus will be a memorable adventure. On a different trip to Lucerne, I booked a boat ride on the lake, then set out for Mt. Pilatus.
The journey begins with a 30-minute ride on the steepest cogwheel train in the world. As you gain altitude, you are soon far above Lucerne. At the top of Mt. Pilatus, you can choose to hike or embark on various adventurous activities.
Descend the mountain via the Panoramic Gondolas, as you enjoy views of the lake and Lucerne.
The official website offers more information on planning a visit to Mt. Pilatus.
If you are flying in or out of Zurich, or if you are crisscrossing Switzerland, plan to include at least a day in Lucerne. I almost booked a nondescript hotel in Zurich near the airport because we were flying home to the U.S. the next day. I’m so glad I booked a night in Lucerne instead. The train from Lucerne to Zurich stops right in the airport, so it was easy to get to Zurich and check in for our flight the next day. And we were able to see so many sights in just a few hours in lovely Lucerne!