Just as it was for Queen Victoria and composers Richard Wagner and Sergei Rachmaninoff, gorgeous Lucerne is on the itinerary of virtually every visitor to Switzerland.
If there was a beauty contest for Swiss cities, Lucerne might be the one taking that stroll down the runway. Tucked up against rolling green hills on a shining lake, ringed by snowy peaks, and with a wide river running through it, the town and its setting are flat-out gorgeous.
To the southeast, across the lake on a high, rounded hill, is the exclusive Bürgenstock enclave, with its five-star hotels and golf course. Nearer, on the peninsula straight east and hidden in the trees near the shoreline, is the estate of the Russian composer, Sergei Rachmaninoff. The view from his private beach is said to have inspired the famed Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini. On the opposite shore, German composer, Richard Wagner, lived for a time in a modest villa where he was moved to compose the charming Siegfried Idyll as a gift to his wife Cosima.
Though such beauty, history and culture attract masses of visitors, Lucerne manages to remain a bit above the fray. Though virtually every tour bus in Switzerland stops here, and one in four overnight visitors is an American, the town seems to have fewer than its share of the depressing pizza parlors, tee-shirt stores and souvenir shops that blemish so many of Europe's leading destinations.
The independent traveler will find Lucerne's sheer physical beauty outshines its cultural enticements. You can see most of it in two days - three at the most. Excursions, of course, would extend that.
The center of visitor activity is in the old town on the north bank of the Reuss River, where the main attractions are the Altes Rathaus, the painted buildings on the Weinmarkt, a museum devoted to Picasso's late works, the much photographed Kapellbrücke, and just sitting at an outdoor table along the river.
A short walk across the river is the large rail station, the lake port, and an impressive congress center designed by Jean Nouvel.
Two recommended sights not in this area are the magnificent Swiss Museum of Transport, for which you should allow half a day, and Tribschen, the Wagner house.
Though tacky souvenirs are not flaunted, expensive ones are. At the very center of the city is glittering Bucherer, where watches and jewelry with five-digit price tags are the norm. The store is worth a stroll through its several levels if only to rub shoulders with the clientèle of oil sheiks, Asian package tourists, new-rich Eastern Europeans, and American dot.comers who sold before the crash.