Europe: Lucerne, Switzerland
Lucerne: City of Charming Views
Only an hour by train from Zurich, Lucerne (or Luzern as the locals spell it) is a fairy tale town set against a magical backdrop. Each step you take unveils a picture perfect setting, slowly enticing you to keep exploring - as if you'll understand the secrets of Lucerne if you take just one more step.
Lucerne is rolling hills of charm, neatly nestled at the base of the Alps. Originally a medieval city established in the 1100's due to its prime location for shipping goods, Lucerne sits at the intersection of the Switzerland mountain range and typical Swiss farm land. The sparkling gem Lake Lucerne is tucked into the city's core, whose peaceful water has become the vessel for commerce and possibility.
Our guide for all your transportation needs
The closest city is Zurich and you can find trains running directly to Lucerne (train stop named Luzern) almost every hour from the Zurich HB city center station or Zurich Airport (airport train station appears as Zurich Flughafen). To purchase a ticket, find the ticket machines in the terminal and follow instructions, selecting Luzern as your destination. Second class tickets are equivalent to coach seats on an airplane and should cost around $29 CHF. Keep in mind - on these particular trains, there are no assigned seats. When you get to a train, there will be either a big "1" or "2" painted on the side of the compartments. The numbers correlate to the class ticket you bought.
Once you have your ticket, you can find the terminal number on an overhead screen. Be sure to pay attention to which train is at your station number. Sometimes the trains only stop for one or two minutes, so if you are ahead of schedule, you could end up getting on the incorrect train. Most trains have electronic screens on their doors - if the screen name includes Luzern, it's headed to Luzern and you are good to go. At any point, if you are lost or confused, almost everyone speaks English so feel free to ask.
Just a quick note - if you are coming from the Zurich Airport, there are both direct trains and trains that require a change at Zurich HB. Know which one you are on so you can be prepared to change trains if necessary; but in terms of time, the commute is about the same. If the train you are boarding has Luzern in the destination, it's a direct train. Otherwise, just take a train to Zurich HB and then find the platform heading to Luzern. You can use the same ticket for either train.
Our top picks for exploring Lucerne in two days
1) Stroll through town exploring shops and restaurants
Lucerne is like your favorite book. With every turn of the page or step down the path, an enchanting discovery is made, each better than the other. And like any good adventure, the best doesn't necessarily lie at the beginning or end; the real adventure is the entire journey, catapulting you to a land of wonder.
Lucerne is best discovered this way. Walking through the city gives you the chance to uncover all the hidden gems. With each turn of the corner, you can find discoveries like city hall’s historical murals or German / Italian influenced architecture and hiking paths or the most spectacular views. A safe city and easily walk-able, no plan is the perfect plan for a day in the city.
While we recommend aimlessly exploring, if you prefer an organized route, we suggest the below itinerary. Start early and make your way up to Chateau Gutsch, a castle-like hotel with spectacular views, for a mid-day snack and drink:
- Start by the river / Old Town and explore the ancient covered bridges
- Heading northeast, pay a visit to the Lion Monument statue. Carved in 1820, this tragic lion commemorates the Swiss lives lost in the French revolution. Mark Twain, who visited this very carving, felt compelled to say, “the most mournful and moving piece of stone in the world"
- Head west and find the medieval wall. Staircases heading up allow you to walk atop the ancient structure while providing great views of the city. Lucerne was once fully surrounded by this wall, however the north section is the only part remaining
- Halfway on the medieval wall, you will find a clocktower dating back to 1535. Explore the numerous clocks that date back hundreds of years. Fun fact: this clocktower is allowed to chime one minute ahead of all other clocks in the city
- Keep heading west on the wall, until you hit the end. Look up into the west hillside and you will see a hotel and the sign GUTSCH. This is your destination for the best views of the city and mountain ranges
- Once there, try an aperol spritz - this lovely blend of prosecco and aperol bitters. All the locals spend their summers on the patio drinking this refreshing cocktail
Gutsch tips: There is a gondola that will take you up to the hotel (2.50 CHF) or if you prefer walking, take the pathway / road, Wilhemshohe. Total hike takes about 10 minutes (if you are looking at the hotel from the city, the pathway can be found on the left side).
Gutsch's full lunch menu ends at 2:00 pm but you can still purchase drinks and snacks at any time. Reservations are recommended for a full lunch, however not required. Even if you don’t plan on eating or drinking, the views are worth it.
2) Golden Tour of Mt Pilatus
Get outside of the city and explore the beauty of Switzerland with a trip to Mt. Pilatus. The Lucerne city website says it best, "A day trip to Mount Pilatus is an unforgettable experience. The boat takes you from Lucerne to Alpnachstad, where the world’s steepest rack railway will lead you to Pilatus Kulm. At a height of 2132 meters above sea level you can enjoy a unique panoramic view of 73 Alpine peaks and countless lakes. A spectacular ride in the aerial cable car and the gondola ropeway takes you back down into the valley to Kriens and finally, the bus will take you back to Lucerne. (http://www.luzern.com/en/the-golden-tour)
You can buy a ticket with your hotel or at the local tourist office. This ticket provides roundtrip transportation to Mt. Pilatus via five different methods of transportation: boat, cogwheel train, gondola, walking and bus. The tickets are pretty expensive, around $120 per person, but it’s worth the trip.
The great thing about this ticket is everything is included. One of our biggest stresses when traveling is logistics. The Golden Tour is facilitated perfectly by the Swiss, with the only timing you need to worry about is when you want to arrive at the boat dock! Every other mode of transportation runs frequently enough that you won’t have any issues. Once you decide what time you want to board the boat (runs around every hour), pencil in an additional 4-5 hours for the entire tour. The below is the schedule of the itinerary, in order of your transportation schedule:
- Boat ride: 50 minutes
- Cogwheel: 30 minutes
- Hiking / exploring / eating: 2-3 hours
- Gondola: 5 minutes
- Walk to bus: 15 mintues
- Bus ride: 10 minutes
Some tips to make your day perfect
- Once you have your ticket, be sure to keep it on you the entire time! You will have to show it multiple times along the trip
- Get on the boat before 10am to beat the crowds
- While the front of the boat seems like the best view, it gets windy and chilly quickly. Head to the back of the boat for just great views and protection from wind
- Explore the hikes once on Mt Pilatus. We adventured to the 7,000 ft altitude point, which was a 40 minute easy hike. Be on the lookout for goats and cows!
- Enjoy your views with a bottle of wine. Drinks are reasonably priced (a half bottle of wine and large beer costs $15) but be careful: the altitude can hit you fast!
- If you want to stop halfway down the mountain and explore more, there are a few options including adventure activities, restaurants and more hikes:
- Ropes and luge course - while it does cost additional money, this is a fun activity for all ages. Get off at the first gondala stop
- Enjoy local Swiss food - Restaurant Krienseregg at the gondola stop Kriensereg has reasonably priced food and just as delicious views
- Hike some more - any gondola stop offers additional hiking options. Get out and explore (just not too far - you need to save room for some more city exploring!)
- Walking back to the bus is a little confusing. Try to follow signs for Lucerne Bus. Once you think you’ve gone far enough (but aren’t sure) turn right down the road and there will be another bus stop with a big sign saying “Luzern City every 8 minutes.” Take any bus that says Luzern Banholf. This will drop you straight off at the train / bus station
No matter where your adventures take you, we hope you explored beyond.
Have you been to Lucerne before? If so, what were your favorite things? Wanting to go to Lucerne? What are you most looking forward to? Tell us in the comments below!