I found myself unexpectedly charmed by Lucerne (Luzern). Because we were staying with friends in the Geneva area, most of our itinerary was short half-day and day trips from their home. But I knew I wanted to do the Golden Pass train, which runs from Montreaux (near Geneva) to Lucerne, so my mom and I ended up with a little less than a full day in the city.
Little did I know that it would be the most surprising and hands-down favorite part of our trip.
This post is focusing on what you should do with a day or so in Lucerne. If you have more time, it would make an amazing base for 3-7 days as you explore the mountains and lakes in the area. I’ve also included some general tips for Switzerland travel at the end of the post
If you’re planning a trip in Switzerland, these posts might be helpful!
Lucerne (or Luzern) is located in central Switzerland, a beautiful ancient town perched on the shores of Lake Lucerne. It’s a super walkable little city, and the best way to enjoy it is strolling past the historic, brightly-colored houses and well-known medieval sights. It’s also surrounded by some of Switzerland’s most stunning mountain scenery in Mounts Pilatus, Rigi, and Stanserhorn—easily accessible by cableways, trains, and boats.
If you have time, Luzern is just a short boat ride away from Mount Rigi, which can be accessed via the first cogwheel train in Europe, with gorgeous and dizzying views of Lake Lucerne and over two dozen Swiss cantons.
What to do in Luzern with less than 24 hours
With less than 24 hours in the city, we got checked into our hotel and hit the pavement. We were staying at a cute little hotel called Hotel zum Schlüssel. It was very centrally located and our room overlooked a pretty Jesuit church in the square. It was only a 5-10 minute walk from the train station and the main sights.
First stop—Kappellbrücke, the oldest wooden bridge in Europe and oldest surviving truss bridge in the world. It’s also the symbol of Lucerne and super cute.
Also, continuing the theme of Switzerland’s obsession with swans…
Get out on the water (and go up the mountain if you can!)
In my trip planning, I’d REALLY wanted to take a boat over and then a cable car up Mt. Rigi, but it was already so late in the day that it just wasn’t possible. So we dithered a bit and tried to figure out a next step. And then at the last second we bought a ticket and hopped on one of the last boats of the day, over to Vitznau.
Where is Vitznau, you ask?? We had no idea!
It was an absolutely glorious day, perfect for getting out on the water—getting out on the water is always one of my top tips when visiting a new place. And the views from the boat were stunning! This is Switzerland at its best. The boat over to Vitznau does have a bar somewhere in there, so you can grab a coffee, wine, or snack.
Obviously given our impromptu boat trip, we had no specific plans upon reaching the insanely adorable Vitznau dock. We knew we needed to catch the next boat back (last of the day) so had an hour to wander the town.
After a quick walk around and a (terrible, dry) pastry, we found a cafe right next to the dock and settled in for a glass of wine with a view.
Then it was back to Lucerne! The boat ride was just as enjoyable going the other way, though late in the afternoon the light wasn’t quite as amazing for photos as it had been on the way there.
Catch a sunset
We knew we wanted to enjoy the sunset in the main area near Kappellbrücke, so walked around snapping pics. It was so quiet and peaceful…moments like this made it hard not to fall a little in love with Luzern. This chuch (in the second pic) is Jesuitenkirche, the first large Baroque church built in Switzerland north of the Alps, in the late 1600s. We didn’t go inside, but I thought its style fit in perfectly with the surrounding scenery.
Explore different aspects of Swiss cuisine
Once the sun finally sank below the horizon, we gave in to how hungry we were and looked up well-reviewed restaurants. We settled on Bellini, a Ticinese (Italian Swiss) restaurant. Everything on the menu looked so good that we decided to splurge on the prix fixe menu and sample tons of stuff.
After an amuse bouche, we had a delicious smoked trout tartare and the most amazing burrata with caramlized figs and tomatoes. There were two different soups, and then a couple main courses. Dessert was interesting, but honestly I was so stuffed by then (and the last few courses came out so far apart) that all I wanted to do was leave. But it was a really lovely meal, great wine, nice ambiance. Recommend!
Get an early start (and make sure to walk across the bridge!)
We pretty much crashed as soon as we got back to the hotel, since it had been a long and jam-packed day. But we made sure to be up early so we could take advantage of our last few hours in Lucerne. The quiet early morning light on the bridge and a couple of strong cappuccinos got us headed in the right direction.
Make sure to get to different sides of the bride (and walk across, obvs) since the perspectives and views change. Other than the main iconic view, this was my other favorite perspective.
We headed over toward those two church spires that have shown up in a couple of pics (like the red flag one above), but overall one of my favorite things about Lucerne was the random fanciness sprinkled throughout the city. The pics below are just a few examples, but I loved all the intricate building decorations and cool fountain details that just seem part of the city’s DNA.
Visit the Lion of Lucerne
The walk over to that church with the spires (above, Hofkirche St. Leodegar) is super easy, but the church itself wasn’t anything to write home about so I wouldn’t go out of your way. But we’d headed to that area on purpose, to visit the famous Lion of Lucerne monument. It was a little harder to find than I’d anticipated (there just weren’t a lot of signs, and they weren’t clear), but we got there eventually.
Probably the second-most famous thing from Luzern, this was carved in 1820 to remember over 700 Swiss soldiers who were massacred in the French Revolution. Swiss soldiers have long been known for being hired protectors of royalty (and other famous folks, like the Pope at the Vatican), and these died in their service to the French monarchy.
I have to say…this was possibly the most emotionally-moving statue I’ve experienced. I know that may sound strange, but honestly there is something about that lion’s face and the beautiful job the artist did that almost moved me to tears. I’m not known for being super into art…this was really extraordinary. Mark Twain called this “the most mournful and moving piece of stone in the world,” and I’m inclined to agree.
So that covers our time in beautiful Lucerne—less than 24 hours and we really got a pretty complete taste of the town! The only thing we missed with our short time was getting to explore the surrounding mountains, and if you’re there during the right times of year I’d definitely recommend making sure you have at least another day to include one of the mountains in your itinerary.
What to do in Lucerne
- Nothing is terribly far away, but I recommend staying very centrally (Hotel zum Schlüssel)
- Luzern is super easy to get to by train, though you could certainly drive as well. I’ve included super detailed tips for using the Swiss train system in my post on the Golden Pass train.
- The main sights to see in Luzern are Kappelbrucke, the Lion of Lucerne, and then using it as a base to explore nearby Mt. Rigi and Mt. Pilatus—which I *highly* recommend if you’re there in the right season and can spend a few days there
- If you’re looking for a delicious splurge, give Bellini a try for dinner
A few general tips for traveling in Switzerland
- My No. 1 tip is: keep your itinerary flexible if you plan mountain excursions. The weather is unreliable and cannot be planned. If the sky is overcast or even rainy, visibility will be zero, and I mean zero. You have seen all those beautiful photos of snow-capped mountains under a clear blue sky but take into consideration that not every day is like this, no matter which time of the year. Not even every second day is like this.
- There is no obligation to tip anybody in restaurants, cafés, bars, hotels – or in establishments like hairdressers. Swiss Federal law has required that all service charges be included in published prices since the early ‘70s. Waiters here are paid decent salaries
- However many people here in Switzerland do add a small tip, but by not generally the 10-20% that is added in some other countries though a higher percentage is more prevalent in some of the larger cities – Zürich for example. If you are satisfied with your meal feel free to round up the amount to the nearest five to ten francs. If you are really delighted with the service or you are in a larger group, add a little more. For a simple coffee or a beer people here will add from 50 cents to 1 franc or so.
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