Surrounded by towering snow-capped mountains and lush green valleys, Lucerne looks like an old postcard brought to life. Like a snapshot of an idealized European town from Hayao Miyazaki’s imaginarium, Lucerne is filled with preserved medieval towers, small balconies under charming rooftops, old wooden bridges, and gorgeous terraces and walkaways lining Lake Lucerne, with elegant swans and cute ducks gliding across the tranquil waters. According to a popular legend, the name “Lucerne” originates from the Latin word “lucerna”, meaning “lamp”. As the story goes, an angel with a beam of light flowing from his fingertips illuminated a spot, signaling to a group of eighth-century Benedictine monks where to build the city’s first chapel. The city that developed around the chapel is now known as Lucerne or “Leuchtenstadt” in German, meaning, “The City of Light”. Throughout its history, Lucerne was a popular destination for European aristocracy and elite, inspiring the likes of Wagner, Goethe, and Queen Victoria in the 19th century. Today, the city still enchants with its historic sights and magnificent landscapes, although there are a couple of surprises thrown into the mix, with modern museums and festivals, a couple of futuristic, high-tech landmarks, and exquisite boutique shops only adding to the city’s already legendary allure and charm.
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WHAT’S THE BEST TIME TO VISIT LUCERNE?
With plenty of things to do in Lucerne year-round, the city is not really a typical tourist destination in the sense that it depends on just one or two seasons. Every time of year has something to offer. While it’s never particularly hot in Lucerne (the Alps are very close), the summers are pleasant and balmy, with the comfortable temperatures continuing into the autumn months. The majority of visitors come to Lucerne between June and September. The temperatures hover between 12°C and 24°C even in July and August, making this the best time to visit Lucerne if you are interested in hiking and exploring the outdoors.
If you want to save a bit on accommodation, skip July and August, two of the busiest and most expensive months to visit Lucerne. October is the perfect middle ground for great travel deals. The skiing season starts already in November and lasts until mid-April. The weather is very cold even in springtime (March-May), although there are numerous exciting things to do in Lucerne during the carnival festival in February/March.
A FEW FACTS ABOUT LUCERNE
In spite of the popular legend linking Lucerne and the Latin word “lucerna”, many historians believe that the city derives its name from “Luciaria”, meaning weir-basket. This theory implies that Lucerne was initially a small fishing village, with later generations trying to distance themselves from the city’s humble origins.
The oldest monastery in Lucerne was built in 750 not far from the original village of Lucerne and consecrated to St. Leodegar. The city’s religious history is an exciting historical topic. During the Protestant Reformation, Lucerne was the only major city in Switzerland to side with the pope and stay on the side of the Roman Catholic Church, even during the four civil wars caused by the dispute between 1529 and 1712.
In addition to chapels and monasteries, Lucerne is also famous for its many bridges. One of the notable bridges in the city is the Chapel Bridge, the oldest wooden covered bridge in Europe. The official language in Lucerne is German, although you may have a hard time understanding the locals even if you are fluent in Standard German. The Swiss variety of Standard German and especially Alemannic Swiss German (which is mainly spoken in Lucerne) are a very special dialect that takes time getting used to.
ONE DAY IN LUCERNE ITINERARY
Follow this guide and make the most of your trip even if you’re short on time. These are the top sights and things to do on your one day in Lucerne.
Start Your Day on the Shores of Lake Lucerne
You will notice that a lot of Lucerne’s museums and galleries don’t open before 10 AM. That means that you will only have enough time to squeeze in two or maybe three (depending on your preferences) between 10 and 5. Luckily, there are many other things to do in Lucerne apart from hopping from one museum to the next. In fact, you should try to spend as much time as possible outdoors, enjoying the city’s beautiful architecture and breathtaking scenery.
Early in the morning, nothing beats the sight of Lake Lucerne, especially the area between the Lucerne Culture and Congress Centre and the sailing club (Segelclub Tribschenhorn). Park Ufschötti is a popular green space on the waterfront with a nice beach and great views of the old buildings and church towers across the water. Go for a long stroll along the shore, take your time and enjoy the gorgeous scenic views of the fourth largest lake in Switzerland.
Board an Old Steamer and Take a Boat Tour
Less than 500 meters from the University of Lucerne, right next to the beautiful Inseli Park, you will notice a couple of larger ships, including several beautiful old steamboats, elongated, yet with a broad center, with ornately decorated prows and a single large black chimney in the middle. The steamboats belong to the Navigation Company of Lake Lucerne (SGV) AG (Schifffahrtsgesellschaft des Vierwaldstättersees (SGV) AG in German).
They are historic paddleboat steamers that take visitors on sightseeing boat trips on the lake and also connect Lucerne with the small towns and villages on the other side of the shore. The trips are available year-round and start as early as 6:15 AM. If you can, treat yourself to a nice hourlong cruise aboard one of the old steamers and revel in the gorgeous exterior and interior of these pieces of history, with stunning carved wooden details, gorgeously decorated salons, and the kind of classic, timeless beauty that is only surpassed by the pristine landscape along the lake shore.
Choose a Museum to Visit – Option One: Wagner
Once you’re back on solid ground, it will likely be around 10 AM, meaning you should be able to visit one of Lucerne’s many museums. There are several museums close to the docks, including Kunstmuseum Luzern, Richard Wagner Museum Lucerne, and Sammlung Rosengart. You will probably only have time for one of the three, however, so pick the museum that sounds the most interesting to you.
If you love opera, especially Richard Wagner, then you absolutely must see the Richard Wagner Museum Lucerne (opened from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m. from Tuesday to Sunday), housed inside a 15th-century country villa that was once the famous composer’s home. Students of music and passionate fans of classical music typically spend around 2 hours at the museum exploring the place and studying the sheet music and letters.
For the average person, one hour should be enough to tour the three buildings that make up the museum and to get a good understanding of the life and works of Richard Wagner. His letters, clothing books, paintings, musical instruments, and other artifacts are all there on display and represent a compelling slice of history even if you are not familiar with Wagner’s life.
Choose a Museum to Visit – Option Two: Sammlung Rosengart Museum
Of course, there’s a chance that you can make it and visit both of these museums, but if you like art more than classical music, skip Wagner and head straight to Sammlung Rosengart Museum, located at 10 Pilatusstrasse. The museum houses a large collection of priceless 19th and 20th century art, with a particular focus on Pablo Picasso.
You can tour the museum on your own or sign up for a guided tour and learn everything about the period between Impressionism and Classic Modernism, when Picasso, Paul Klee, Henri Matisse, Fernand Leger, George Braque, Joan Miró, and Marc Chagall marked an entire epoch and irrevocably changed the world of art. With seminal paintings by these artists, in addition to Monet, Kandinsky, Cezanne, Modigliani, and many others, Sammlung Rosengart Museum houses one of the most incredible and eclectic collections of art in Switzerland.
Walk to Chapel Bridge
Once you’re done touring the museums, take a short walk to Chapel Bridge (Kapellbrücke), one of the most fascinating places to visit in Lucerne. It takes about 30 minutes to get there from the Richard Wagner Museum Lucerne along the shore. From Sammlung Rosengart Museum, it takes three minutes or less since it’s only 200 m from the museum down Theaterstrasse.
A recognizable landmark of Lucerne, Chapel Bridge is a covered wooden pedestrian bridge across the Reuss River, connecting the Old Town north of the river with the new town to the south. The oldest truss bridge in the world and the oldest wooden covered bridge in Europe, Chapel Bridge is an important historical landmark, constructed in 1333 as part of the city’s fortifications. The bridge is also notable for the paintings that were added in the 17th century, mostly depicting important events and scenes from Swiss history.
Cross the Bridge and Explore the Old Town
Take your time crossing the diagonal Chapel Bridge and feel free to stop and enjoy the view or take a closer look at the paintings. Once you’re on the other side, you’ll find yourself in Lucerne’s Altstadt, one of the most beautiful Old Towns in all of Europe. Explore the quaint pedestrian-only streets lined with historic half-timber houses and old ornate façades. For the best possible experience, walk to St. Peter’s Chapel (Peterskapelle) as soon as you cross the bridge. St. Peter’s Chapel is where Chapel Bridge got its name from.
Walk west on Kapellgasse behind the chapel, a vibrant street lined with charming shops, cafés, and restaurants. After a few minutes, you will reach Kornmarkt Square with the painted Pfistern guildhall, the Lucerne Town Hall, and the gorgeous old clock tower. Weinmarkt is another Old Town square, just 100 meters west of Kornmarkt. It is a beautiful square with colorful paintings adorning the surrounding buildings, notable for being the square where the Canton of Lucerne swore a federal oath in 1332 and united with the cantons Schwyz, Uri and Unterwalden.
Pick a Nice Spot for Lunch
Apart from sightseeing, you can peruse some of the nearby shops (including exclusive watch stores, jewelry shops, cosmetics stores, and so on), or you can pick a nice spot and enjoy a good hearty meal to regain your energy. The Old Town has some great restaurants to offer, such as Brasserie Bodu, a charming French brasserie with a beautiful little terrace by the river. The place serves primarily French classics such as magret de canard (duck), a number of seafood options (excellent seabass with vegetables), delicious bouillabaisse (a fish stew), and tasty sirloin steaks. The desserts are just as mouthwatering as the main dishes. The Crème brûlée and mousse au chocolate are to die for.
For something a bit more laid back, consider Soul Chicken, a cozy little spot that serves all kinds of chicken dishes in a unique setting that feels remarkably homey. It is great place for a quick bite, although you may want to spend some time there to enjoy the warm, welcoming atmosphere.
Hurry up and Visit the Swiss Museum of Transport
The Swiss Museum of Transport is the next attraction, an extremely popular place with more than 5,000 reviews on Google Maps. The Museum, called Verkehrshaus der Schweiz (“Transportation House of Switzerland”) opened in 1959 and has since become the most popular museum in the country. Since the museum closes at 5 PM, and there are other things to do in Lucerne after that time, you should hurry and visit the museum as soon as you finish lunch.
The museum is located 2.5 km east of Kornmarkt Square along the shore of Lake Lucerne. You can get there on foot in 30 minutes or you can grab a cab and be there in 7. You can also hop aboard bus line 8 or 24 from Schwanenplatz to Verkehrshaus/Lido (5 stops total). The bus takes under 10 minutes. The museum exhibits every form of transport and also includes a planetarium, an extensive collection of works by Hans Enri, and a massive 1:20,000 scale aerial photograph of Switzerland.
The museum’s Filmtheatre is the largest cinema in Switzerland, and its interactive attractions include a large construction area where children can play with excavators, dumpers, a small steam train, and other exhibits.
Check out Hofkirche St. Leodegar
Hofkirche St. Leodegar is a historical church in Lucerne whose two slim Gothic towers can be seen from basically anywhere in the city, especially from the lake shore. If you took the bus to get to the Swiss Museum of Transport, you can take the same route back, only this time get off at Luzernerhof Station near the big intersection.
Hofkirche St. Leodegar is right around the corner, surrounded by gorgeous old buildings and wooden houses. It is the most important church in Lucerne, occupying the same spot where the 8th century abbey was originally built. The original Gothic-style church stood there until 1633, when it was destroyed in a fire that left only the towers intact. The new church was constructed in 1645, incorporating the old towers. The interior of the church is truly remarkable, with gilded statues, ornate alters, and white stone lining the walls. Hofkirche St. Leodegar is a gorgeous example of the German Renaissance style.
Take a Short Walk to Löwendenkmal (Dying Lion Monument)
Approximately 500 meters north of the church, there is a small park with tall trees and a cliff hanging over a miniature pond. There are three museums surrounding the park: Alpineum Museum (with paintings and miniatures of the Alps), Spiegelmuseum Luzern (the Museum of Mirrors), and Gletschergarten Luzern (history museum focusing on the Ice Age and glaciers).
The Dying Lion of Lucerne is the oldest figurative monument in Switzerland and a beloved landmark among locals and visitors alike. It was designed by Bertel Thorvaldsen and carved by Lukas Ahorn in 1821 to commemorate the regiment of the Swiss Guard that was massacred by French revolutionaries in 1792 while defending King Louis XVI. A total of 760 soldiers died. The inscription under the sculpture reads “To the loyalty and bravery of the Swiss.”
Visit the Ancient City Walls and Towers
The old medieval ramparts of Lucerne are among the few surviving ancient city walls of its type still standing in Switzerland. A large section of the wall is perfectly preserved, as well as 9 towers that are open to the public between Easter and October 31. The walls are among the best places for a walk in Lucerne. The climb there can be challenging, but you are awarded with amazing sweeping views of the city, extending far into the distance in all directions over the rooftops.
Museggmauer, as the ramparts are called, closes around 7 PM, which means you should just about make it if you head straight there after the Dying Lion Monument. West to east, Dächliturm is the first tower, only 500 meters from the monument. Of the nine watchtowers along the 870-metre wall, four can be accessed: Heuturm (Watch Tower), Schirmerturm, Zytturm (Time Tower), and Mannliturm.
Treat Yourself to a Real Swiss Dinner
There are several great restaurants with authentic Swiss cuisine under the ramparts. Visiting one of these places is high on the list of things to do in Lucerne if you are looking for the complete experience. However, choosing the right place depends on a number of factors, for example, whether you prefer something large and boisterous or small and private. Reussbad, located in a solitary building right next to the Nölliturm watchtower, perfectly fits the latter description. The understated, tasteful and comfortable interior provides the setting for quality French-inspired dishes complimented by an impressive selection of great to exceptional wines. The restaurant is very popular among the locals and the few tourists who know how to recognize a good dining experience.
Your other option is Stadtkeller, located in the Old Town, slightly to the north of the Chapel Bridge. This restaurant is a must if you like amazing shows, partying, and delicious food. The restaurant’s entertaining show is a major draw – with a band performing on stage, yodeling and playing different Swiss instruments such as alpine horns and cow bells. After a few drinks, you may find yourself joining the band and the other guests, singing, dancing, and having fun.
If you want to keep partying, check out ROK Klub across the river, with great mood and good music.
WHERE TO STAY IN LUCERNE?
Hotel Schweizerhof Luzern
SchSchweizerhofquai 3a, 6002 Luzern, Switzerland
Hotel Schweizerhof Luzern is the best Luzern has to offer, whether you look at the hotel’s premier lakefront location in the heart of Old Town or the tasteful, comfortable rooms, each individually designed in line with a specific personality of an actor, writer, or musician who has stayed in the hotel. The hotel’s exquisite spa facilities include a bio sauna and a Finnish sauna, with sweeping views of Lake Lucerne and Mt. Pilatus in the distance.
Kanonenstrasse, 6003 Luzern, Switzerland
Château Gütsch is not a hotel, it is a fairytale castle whose unparalleled beauty and spectacular hilltop location put the best of Disney to shame. The interior of the 19th-century castle was designed and completely renovated by Martyn Lawrence Bullard, one of the best interior designers in the world. No less impressive in wintertime, with snow-covered hilltops, the hotel shines as a welcoming retreat with large, comfortable rooms, hot tubs, massages, great food and desserts, and creative drinks at the bar.
Hotel Anker Luzern
Pilatusstrasse 36, 6003 Luzern, Switzerland
A new property that opened in 2016, Hotel Anker Luzern boasts a first-class location in a historical building in the city center, overlooking Pilatusplatz square. The great location and the amazing design of this lovely hotel is matched by the friendly, welcoming service, helpful personnel, and delicious breakfast offering plenty of variety.
Alpenquai 42, 6005 Luzern, Switzerland
Friendly and attractively decorated, Backpackers Luzern stands out as a great choice for travelers looking to see as much of Lucerne as possible. The free city pass offered at the front desk certainly helps in that department, as does the hostel’s convenient location near the bus station and the central train station. Lake Lucerne is literally meters away, providing unlimited opportunities for sightseeing, tours, and recreational activities. Various little details make a big difference, such as the elevator, the two shared kitchens, the complimentary soap and paper towels, the comfortable rooms, the clean, large washrooms, and the helpful, accommodating staff.
DAY TRIPS FROM LUCERNE
While certainly beautiful, Lucerne is not a particularly large city. What makes Lucerne special is not its size, but the extreme wealth of historical, cultural, and natural wonders within the city, as well as in the surrounding area. If you keep that in mind, you will never hit a wall and ask yourself what to do in Lucerne.
You can always opt for one of the many exciting day trips from Lucerne, such as the magical Lucerne Chocolate Making and Tasting in a Family Owned Factory or the private Lucerne Day Trip to nearby castles and villages, where you can step into a magical fairy-tale world of castles, palaces, and ancient monasteries nestled between towering black cliffs or sitting atop high forested ridges. For the adventurous types, you can always go hiking in the Grindelwald – Jungfrau – Eiger Region, the very heart of the Swiss Alps. If you would like to know more about these opportunities, check out this overview of the best Lucerne day trips.
EXTRA TIPS FOR VISITING LUCERNE
-Lucerne, just like Switzerland in general, is very safe and welcoming. You should still keep an eye on your valuables just in case, but no need to be paranoid.
-Switzerland is among the most expensive countries in Europe. That said, when eating out, service is usually included, so you are not expected to tip. You can add 5-10% if your water or waitress was particularly outstanding.
-Switzerland is a country where people love to do things by the rules. Certain behaviors are frowned upon at best – jaywalking would be a good example, not to mention littering.
-Euros are not accepted, so make sure to get Swiss francs.
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Anca is a travel writer and the founder of One Day Itinerary - the biggest collection of travel itineraries for those who are time-limited or just want to maximize their time while traveling. Although she easily becomes homesick for Croatia, she thinks travel is essential to her happiness. She has traveled to more countries than she is years old and doesn’t plan on changing that fact. In her travel guides she aims to inspire people to travel whenever they have a spare day (or two).