Lakeside Lucerne is a city of charm, culture, sparkling vistas and soul-stirring mountains. It also has a network of delightful forms of transport. Here's how to make the most of it...
Lovely, laidback, lakeside Lucerne is a city of charm, culture, sparkling vistas and soul-stirring mountains; a place where you can stroll cobbled lanes lined with little boutiques, view world-class art, eat the finest Swiss cuisine or take a hike into the luxuriant hills.
It’s also the gateway to central Switzerland. As well as being well-placed for exploring the surrounding peaks and pastures, it’s endowed with a network of convenient and down-right delightful forms of transport to take you there. Here’s how to make the most of it...
Mount Rigi, looming 1,797m over Lake Lucerne, is a local icon. Europe’s first mountain railway was built here in 1871, and over the years numerous royals, celebs and Grand Tour-ists have ascended to take in the sacred waters and the spectacular views. There are various ways to reach and range over it. Most fun is the classic round trip: take the vintage paddle steamer from Lucerne to Vitznau, where you can hop on the original cogwheel train to Rigi Kulm, Mount Rigi’s highest peak. Enjoy the walking trails, cafés and panoramas around the summit. Then take the cogwheel train back down to Rigi Kaltbad, change for the scenic cablecar down to Weggis and finally board a boat back to Lucerne.
Arguably the tastiest mode of transport in the Lucerne region is the so-called ‘Fondue Ship’, running from October to December. This culinary cruise combines an elegant evening’s trip around the lake by handsome steamboat with two of the country’s most delicious dairy dishes: classic gooey fondue and raclette, where you melt cheese under a grill before slathering it all over your potatoes, bread, meat and more. All the food is unlimited while you’re aboard, though be sure to take time out from the table to digest on deck, with magical views. If you're not around for the Fondue Ship though, there are other culinary cruises to sate your appetite: From April to November, you can enjoy a candlelit cruise with dinner; from May to September you can enjoy a burger cruise; and every day you can enjoy a dessert cruise, where tea and cake awaits.
The massive massif dominating Lake Lucerne’s western edge is Mount Pilatus, so named because Pontius Pilate was reputedly buried there. That may be open to debate, but what isn’t is the fact that this 2,132m peak is home to the world’s steepest cogwheel railway. Opened in 1889, this gravity-flouting ride has an average gradient of 35%, with some stretches tilting at a vertiginous 48%. To get there from Lucerne, take a boat or train to Alpnachstad, from where the cogwheel takes around 30 minutes to grind scenically up to the top. Once there, you’ve entered a whole new alpine world. Perhaps head out on an ibex safari, stay at the summit-perched hotel or follow the family-friendly Dragon Trail to learn some of the legends of the mountain.
The Alpine resort of Engelberg is just 43 minutes from Lucerne by Express train. That’s less than an hour to swap the city for a mountain idyll. Engelberg (‘Angel Mountain’) is renowned for its superb slopes (heaven for skiers in winter) and its beautiful Benedictine monastery and cheese factory, where you can watch the dairy production within the ancient holy walls. New for 2019 is Engelberg’s Alpine Cheese Trail – a 45km hiking and biking route that will delve deeper into the heritage of this fromage-famed valley; you can meet the makers at their farms, stay in cosy Alpine inns and sample a lot of amazing cheese.
Perhaps the ultimate Engelberg experience, though, is following the Four Lakes Walk, a classic high-peaks hike that starts from the train station and takes in a handful of many-hued lakes, wild moorland, cheeseries and superb views of Mount Titlis and the Bernese Alps beyond.
Lake Lucerne is big, beautiful and bustling. So for a quieter waterside excursion, take a short bus journey to little Rotsee instead. Just north of the city, the ‘Red Lake’ is part of a nature reserve; many species of bird breed or overwinter here, and rare plants grow near the shores. Protected from the wind by the surrounding hills, and with very little current, it is ideal for rowing – Rotsee has hosted many international regattas. There’s also a lido for refreshing lake swims and a hiking trail around the edge for easy, peaceful strolls.
An extensive fleet – five paddle steamers, 13 motor vessels, a panoramic yacht, the Bürgenstock shuttle – ply the waters of Lake Lucerne, linking ports at all points on the shore and opening up many, varied and wonderful walking possibilities. They make it easy, for instance, to complete linear walks along the lakeshore without having to retrace your steps. The classic is the Waldstätterweg hiking trail, which starts in Brunnen, ends in Rütli and wraps right around Lake Lucerne. It’s 115km long but can be broken into stages: you could take a boat from Lucerne to Brunnen and walk via Mediterranean-like forest to Vitznau (15km), from where boats run back to the city. Or start with a train or boat trip to Alpnachstad and walk on to beautiful Bürgenstock (16km) before returning to Lucerne.
Break out into the wider Lucerne region aboard one of the most marvellous and masterly of Switzerland’s trains. The Gotthard Panorama Express follows the historic Gotthard line, which was pioneered in the 19th century and features some of the greatest feats of railway engineering. It begins with a beautiful boat ride from Lucerne to Flüelen, where you can step aboard wide-windowed first-class carriages and glide into the countryside. The train sweeps amid an array of lakes and peaks; it also runs alongside the Rütli meadow, where Switzerland was founded in 1291, and William Tell’s Chapel, where the Swiss folk hero allegedly leapt into Lake Uri. Eventually it passes Wassen church – not once but thrice, as it negotiates a complex system of helical tunnels. Then, having snuck under the mountains it pops out in the Italian-flavoured Ticino, where palm trees sway and the gelato is deliciouss. A whole different side of Switzerland.
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