Lucerne (or Luzern) was founded in the 12th century mainly by being situated conveniently on the Gotthard trade route through the Alps. A century later it had grown to something like 3000 inhabitants, and today it’s more like a large town of something like 76,000 people. It is the largest town of the Canton of Lucerne and remained a confederacy Switzerland ever since the Habsburgs ceded control in the 14th century until the time of the French Revolution when French soldiers came in and turned the region into a democracy.
Luzern survived the reformation and remained a largely catholic city.
Luzern emerged as a major tourist destination in the 19th century when many new grand hotels were built there. This came about mainly due to its favourable lake-side position and its role as a gateway to the Alps.
Things to see in Luzern
The wooden Chapel Bridge (German: Kapellbrücke) over the River Reuss is the centre point of the city. Built in the 14th century it is the oldest covered wooden bridge in Europe, and the world’s oldest surviving truss bridge. It now provides the Swiss Tourist Office with a symbol for not just Luzern Tourism but for tourism to Switzerland as a whole. It is 170 metres long, somewhat shorter than it was originally (mainly because of developments on the river bank).
Until a devastating fire in 1993 the interior triangular frames had paintings in them dating back to the 17th century but were sadly lost. Notably, these paintings depicted scenes of the counter-reformation. Out of the original 158 paintings only 30 were fully restored. The bridge underwent a £1m restoration to bring it back to its original state.
The Water Tower is octagonal and built as part of the city walls in the 13th century. It has been used as a torture chamber, a prison, an archive and as a water tower during its life but now it passes as a permanent symbol of Luzern alongside the Chapel Bridge.
The Dying Lion of Lucerne was described by Mark Twain as one of the saddest sights in the world. Carved into a rock-face, it was meant as a tribute to the Swiss soldiers who fought during the French Revolution.
Next to the train station in Luzern and right on the waterfront is the KKl Opera House / Concert Hall incorporating a modern art gallery and convention centre. If you are in the medical industry it’s highly likely you’ll visit it as part of a conference.
The Sacral Jesuit Church near one end of the Chapel Bridge was built in the Baroque Style in 1666 and re-decorated in the 18th century. The original vestments of Brother Klaus, a famous Swiss patron, are stored in the inner chapel. The Franciscan church was built during the 13th century but more importantly it has a beautiful pulpit designed during the Renaissance which depicts major events in Lucerne during the middle ages.
Take a look at the “Water Spikes” built in the 19th century to regulate the level of the River Reuss, and the Spreuer Bridge built between 1626 and 1635, Kaspar Meglinger added 67 paintings which represent the “Dance of Death”. It is called the Spreuer Bridge because this was the only place that the chaff from wheat (Spreu) could be dumped into the river.
The city walls are almost entirely intact despite having been built in 1386. You can visit some of the towers, the most impressive of which are on the Musegg Wall which includes three towers that are open to the public, the Schirmer, Zyt and Männli.
As you walk around the old part of the city you’ll notice some of the Old Town Squares, namely the Weinmarkt, the Hischenplatz and the Kornmarkt. The Weinmarkt is particulularly attractive with its period buildings standing all around. You’ll also see the attractive Old Town Hall built in Italian Renaissance style, which is still very much in use today.
You can reach Luzern by train from London by taking the Eurostar to Paris, then transferring to the Gare de l’Est just five minutes away from Gare du Nord. From here you can join TGV Lyria to Basel. Book this through journey with Rail Europe. From Basel you can use a Swiss Pass available to buy online from the Swiss Travel System website.
If you prefer to fly, you should head straight for Swiss International Airlines who fly direct to Basel, Zurich and Geneva from London City, Heathrow, Manchester, Birmingham, Edinburgh and Dublin.
Where to Stay in Luzern
We stayed at the Waldstaetterhof Swiss Quality Hotel which is right across the road from the rail station and therefore close to all the sights of Luzern. Built originally in Art Nouveau style, it has been renovated recently and has an excellent breakfast at very reasonable rates.