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 with Bert Parks belting out the "There she is" song. 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 Gemütlichkeit 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 Transportation Museum, 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.
Exploring the Region
Auto travelers should plan to park their vehicles and explore the city and the lake region by rail, boat, bus and cable car. The locally-available Tell Pass costs 146 Sfr. ($83) first-class, 131 Sfr. ($75) second-class, and is good for two days free travel and five days half-price travel throughout central Switzerland on all forms of public transport. The same pass for five days free and 10 days half-price travel costs 206 Sfr. first-class and 179 Sfr. second-class.
Train travelers with a Swiss Pass, Eurail or Europass will be covered for most journeys in the area.
Everywhere in Switzerland are cable car and funicular rides to mountain tops. At the top of each is a great view and a restaurant. Lucerne is no exception. Take nearby Pilatus, for example, which not only has restaurants but a pair of hotels, one with conference facilities. There is a lunchtime Swiss folkloric show on the mountain and the last train down at 9:20pm allows visitors to stay for a sunset buffet dinner.
In 1868, Queen Victoria (who reportedly traveled in Switzerland under an assumed name) went to the 7,000-foot summit on a mule, but the most comfortable way to get there now is via boat to the Pilatus-Kulm station where you board the worlds steepest railway. Or, the top can be reached via a series of cable cars from the Lucerne suburb of Kriens. It is best, however, to combine the two; go up one way come down the other. The boat/railway journey is a little over two hours from Lucerne and the cable car ride back down to Kriens takes 30 minutes. From there, it's a five-minute walk to the bus station and another 15 minutes by bus into Lucerne. Of course you can always walk. From the Pilatus-Kulm rail station in Alpnachstad the climb up is about five and a half hours. The decent is just under four hours.
The stress-free way to see Lake Lucerne and environs is via lake boat. The Vierwaldstättersee (a.k.a. Lake Lucerne) is a substantial, irregularly-shaped body of water with many inlets, bays, and lakeside villages. A fleet of 20 passenger vessels crisscrosses it regularly to serve such ports of call as Weggis, Bürgenstock, Vitznau, Brunnen, Rütli and Flüelen. The ride is free with most rail passes or you can purchase an all-day ticket for $37 first class and $25 second class. In addition to the regular service, there are special lunch and dinner cruises.
A three-day Lucerne visit might include one day for the main in-town sights as described in the Michelin Green Guide for Switzerland; another for a trip to Pilatus, and the last a day on the lake, stopping where the spirit moves.
The hotel in Lucerne is The Hotel. Across from a park in a quasi residential/commercial neighborhood, not far from the rail station, this sleek marvel of glass, steel and hardwood is without doubt the most stunningly designed hotel we've seen. It is a creation of famed Paris architect, Jean Nouvel, winner of this years Royal Gold Medal for Architecture, whose credits include Lucerne's new lakeside congress center, Berlin's Galeries Lafayette, and the acclaimed Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris.
Here there are no "singles" or "doubles," only deluxe studios, junior suites, and garden and park deluxe suites. Stepping into one from the unremarkable, industrial hallways serves only to enhance the experience of being in these extraordinary guestrooms. All feature giant, single-pane windows; pivoting matte stainless steel cabinets for storage and entertainment components; minimalist furnishings designed especially for The Hotel by Nouvel; Brazilian cherrywood table surfaces; deeply-polished floor planks; and, on the ceiling of each room, in soothing, muted colors, a scene from one of 25 films. At night, wall sconces illuminate these guestroom ceilings, creating an extraordinary exterior view for passersby.
The Hotel's stylish Restaurant Bam Bou features Asian/French dishes prepared by a California chef, Andrew Clayton. Choose from such starters as Crab Cakes with Saffron Chilli Hollandaise (18.50 Sfr.), Five Spice Foie Gras Terrine (24 Sfr.) or Thom Kha Curry (17 Sfr). Main dishes are in the 38 to 44 Sfr. range and include Rack of Lamb Tandoori, Indonesian Marinated Duck Breast, and Wok-Fried Tagliatelle with Squid & King Prawns. The imaginative desserts are all 13 Sfr.
Though Bam Bou is below street level it uses a clever arrangement of canted windows and mirrors to essentially "pipe" daylight into the black-walled room. In addition, the system allows pedestrians to see down into the restaurant for a glimpse of the kitchen's carefully prepared and arranged dishes.
Our sole reservation about the five-star The Hotel other than its pretentious name is that comfort may have been compromised in guestrooms in order to accommodate design. There are no couches, only one pleasing-to-the-eye but rather severe leather easy chair. If there are two people in the room, someone has to sit in a straight-backed chair or on the bed.
The Hotel is currently offering discounts of 10% to 20% at its website, making the deluxe studio at about $180 per night an excellent value in a city with Zürich-like prices.
* Daily Rates: Deluxe studio CHF 390, junior suite CHF 460, deluxe suite CHF 510
* Rating: Quality 18/20, Value 14/20
Art Deco Hotel Montana
There are few better places to appreciate Lucerne's splendid setting than from the balcony of your lakeview room at this four-star hillside hotel. Built in 1910 after the completion of the Gotthard tunnel which spurred tourism in the region, the Montana has high ceilings, wide hallways, large windows that characterize hotels constructed during that period.
Spacious guestrooms, most with lake views, are decorated in shades of rose and light pink, and have marble baths.
The funicular which carried guests to the hotel from the main street at lake level has now been replaced by an automatic elevator-like cable car. Very handy.
The hotel's classic Louie-Bar, with its splendid views, frequently offers live music; accomplished jazz and blues groups.
This is a pleasant, lively hotel. We wish, however, it was a little less expensive.
* Daily Rates: Singles CHF 150-230, doubles CHF 260-395
* Rating: Quality 14/20, Value 9/20
This palatial but sterile hotel on the lake has long been considered Lucerne's premiere stop. Ownership has been in the same family since 1861 and guests have included Mark Twain, Leo Tolstoy, Richard Wagner, Napoleon III and Kaiser Wilhelm.
However, its imposing marble columns and pilasters, crystal chandeliers, mirrored ceilings, huge paintings and overstuffed, flower-patterned furniture failed to inspire us. When compared to The Hotel, the Schweizerhof seems dowdy and stuffy. Perhaps the venomous way in which a senior woman employee publicly chastised a much younger female clerk at the reception desk soured us on this Grand Dame.
* Daily Rates: Singles CHF 240 to 280, doubles CHF 290 to 495. Breakfast not included.
* Rating: Quality 15/20, Value 8/20
Hotel Wilden Mann
Cozy, well-run hotel in the center of Lucerne's shopping district, five minutes walk from the train station. The building was a staging post for travelers crossing the St. Gotthard pass over the Alps in 1517, centuries before the tunnel was built.
Everything here is fresh and clean and there is a relaxed atmosphere in the small, comfortable lobby and dining rooms. The lounge has a wood-burning fireplace. Most of the 50 guestrooms are larger than average, all are individually decorated, and some are reserved for nonsmokers. The best are the newer "romantic" rooms such as Numbers 209 and 217, the latter with beam ceiling.
A warm welcome, comfortable accommodations and a considerable amount of old-world charm give this hotel "Editors Choice" status.
See our review of the hotels Burgerstube restaurant later in this story.
* Daily Rates: Singles CHF 165-195, doubles CHF 260-360
* Rating: Quality 15/20, Value 15/20
Hotel Rebstock / Hotel Hofgarten
The well-located Hofgarten and Rebstock are under the same management and both are housed in separate 12th century buildings near the main cathedral (early morning bells) and the Lion Monument.
Both are attractively decorated and liberally endowed with modern pictures and sculptures, though the Rebstock's Art Nouveau-style guestrooms, with their unconventional color schemes, are more imaginative. Number 122 is a spacious double with a notable antique door to the bathroom. At the Hofgarten our choice would be cozy Number 226 under the eaves.
The hotels are under the benevolent and capable rule of owner Claudia Moser, who is responsible for choosing the art that is the hallmark of both establishments.
* Rebstock Daily Rates: Singles CHF 160 to CHF 180, doubles CHF 260 to CHF 280
* Rating: Quality 14/20, Value 14/20
* Hofgarten Daily Rates: Singles CHF 160 to CHF 195, doubles CHF 260 to CHF 295
* Rating: Quality 13/20, Value 13/20
Easily the best value we found in Lucerne and completely renovated earlier this year. Though the clientèle of this traditionally modern hotel is primarily business, the well-furnished, sparkling new guestrooms; convenient location next to the railway station; efficient, friendly, management; and low prices, are powerful pluses.
To those who book via the Internet, the hotel offers complimentary parking, no access fee for phone calls, a free fruit plate upon arrival, and a free room upgrade (if available).
Rooms available for nonsmoking and disabled travelers.
* Daily Rates: Singles CHF 105 to CHF 170, doubles CHF 160 to CHF 250
* Rating: Quality 14/20, Value 16/20
This onetime prison, last used in 1998 but now converted to a hotel with restaurant, gallery and performing arts venue, offers the most unusual sleeping accommodations ever reviewed in these pages. Virtually all guestrooms are in former inmate cells and, though such necessary amenities as a private toilet and shower have been added, most remain in the jail house configuration: one small, barred window high on the wall; the original reinforced door with only a peephole, and two basic cots. The beautifully refinished hardwood floors, too, are original.
Some rooms are larger and several have unusual décor. The Library Suite (CHF 222), for example, still has the shelves and books that were in the original prisoners reading room. In the Barabas Suite is a mural painted by an inmate, Barabas, while incarcerated in that very room. He was released only a few years ago and is now a well-known Lucerne artist and customer of the Löwengraben's restaurant.
In fact, not only are several former inmates customers of the hotel and restaurant, they hold regular reunions there.
Löwengraben is not for everyone, most rooms are a bit claustrophobic. Even the more adventurous will probably find one overnight is enough to satisfy any curiosity about jailhouse life. The hotel offers five levels of accommodations and the least expensive "Budget" rooms are not recommended. "Upgrade" rooms have private toilet facilities but are still quite small. The "Up-couple" and "Unplugged" rooms are better but most comfortable will be one of the four suites. Don't misunderstand, the rooms are immaculate and were redone using good fixtures and furnishings. It's just they are so very small and basic.
For those who can't envision even one night in a jail cell, there are guided tours daily at 5:30pm (CHF 3.5).
* Daily Rates: Singles CHF 55 to 222, doubles CHF 80 to 222. Breakfast is included only in the "Up-couple," "Unplugged" and "Suite" categories, everyone else pays CHF 9
* Contact: Hotel Löwengraben Löwengraben 18, CH-6004 Lucerne, tel. +41/041/417-1212, fax 417-1211
* Rating: Quality 10/20, Value 14/20
Lucerne is not renowned for its cuisine. In and around the old town are many restaurants whose principal clients are here-today-gone-tomorrow-forever-tourists not a formula that makes for great meals. Michelin, in fact, confers not a single star on any restaurant. Only the tavern-like Galliker (Schtzenstrasse 1, tel. +41/041/240 10 02) gets a red "Menu" (good food at moderate prices) from Michelin.
Wilden Mann Burgerstube
Though it gets its share of tourists, the cozy, beam-ceilinged Burgerstube in the Hotel Wilden Mann also has a strong local following. And for good reason, the traditional Swiss cuisine with adventurous touches here and there is excellent, and the cozy, old-world room, with carved wood wainscoting, decorated ceiling beams and mullioned windows, is the perfect venue for it.
We were fortunate to be served by Sylvia Meier, a 23-year veteran of the Burgerstube who told us she has regulars who have been coming to the restaurant since before her time.
We began with a succulent little "gift of the house" consisting of three tiny slices of duck breast arranged around a dollop of light chicken liver mousse.
After fine mixed salads, we tested a pair of old war horses and were not disappointed. Thinly sliced calves liver sautéed in butter with Swiss fried potatoes (Geschnetzelte Kalbsleber in Butter Sautiert, Rösti) was richly delicious if not American Heart Association-approved. A dish we've had dozens of times, Wienerschnitzel, with French fries and vegetables (Riesenchnitzel Paniert mit Pommes-Frittes und Gemüse), fulfilled every expectation. Each cost CHF 33.
Prices of main dishes in the Burgerstube range from CHF 21 for roasted pork sausage with onion sauce and Rösti, to CHF 42 for sirloin steak. Interesting first courses include oven broiled pears with herbed cheese and salad (CHF 18) and marinated boiled beef carpaccio with grated cheese (CHF 22).
The Burgerstube gets Michelin's "two tire" symbol as offering a midweek "dish of the day"—usually lunch—at under CHF.
Hotel Wilden Mann, Bahnhofstrasse 30, CH-6000 Lucerne, tel. +41/041/2101666, fax 2101629.
* Rating: Quality 15/20, Value 16/20
Our experience at this first floor (our second) Italian restaurant is a lesson in how not to do it. First we allowed ourselves to be seated at a bad table and then accepted an English menu. We should have waited for a better table and we've found over the years that quite often that some dishes are not listed on the English menu. That turned out to be true here.
At least the place was popular, at 9:30pm every table was filled and the air hazy with cigarette smoke. Service was slow and impersonal but the food was worse. We couldn't finish the ponderous, heavily-spiced pasta dishes that each cost about $11.
Normally we wouldn't bother with a review of such a bad restaurant but this one is centrally located on a pedestrian-only street and could easily catch the unwary.
Restaurant Einhorn, Hertensteinstrasse 23
* Rating: Quality 5/20, Value 9/20
Another downtown Lucerne restaurant with a local following is the Hotel Rebstock Wirtshus. An eclectic clientèle of local celebs and business folk are attracted to this bustling room with its dark wood ceiling supported by thickly-hewn wood timbers. Main dishes are in the $18 to $24 range.
We can only report on a couple of tasty salads: Cerevalet-Kase Salat (wurst and cheese) in a light, vinegary dressing, and Randen-Apfel Salat (beetroot salad) with horseradish dressing tossed with raisins, walnuts, and apple slices. The wurst salad cost CHF 19 and the beetroot was CHF 18.
Hotel Restaurant Rebstock, St. Leodegar-Strasse 3, tel. 410 35 81. Can't rate based on this light lunch.
Two popular Lucerne spots Gemütlichkeit staffers have recommended from previous visits are Maihfli, (Maihofstrasse 70, tel. 420 60 60) and Zunfthaus zu Pfistern (Kornmarkt 4, tel. 410 36 50)
The latter is in an ornately decorated former guild house near the Kapellbrücke and serves the usual Lucerne and Swiss specialties.
The Maihfli is about a 15-minute walk north of the center and offers lighter, more modern dishes. Call ahead for reservations.
Prices current as of August 2001