Lucerne: An Engaging Swiss City

ByABC News

Aug. 16, 2004 -- Lucerne, an engaging Swiss city with a striking alpine backdrop, has been a draw since the Romantic era, when travelers made it a stop on their "European Grand Tour."

Today, it offers you a pleasant way to spend a day or two, strolling the charming streets, wandering through the local museums, and sightseeing Lake Lucerne from a lazy boat cruise.

This week, Lucerne is gearing up for their annual music festival. Running from mid-August to mid-September, it's one of Switzerland's biggest music events (www.lucernefestival.ch). The festival will be held in the brand new conference center, which echoes Lucerne's watery beauty by…get this…routing manmade streams through the building. Benches keep distracted tourists from falling in.

Back in medieval times, Lucerne began as a fishing village. By the 13th century, traffic streaming between northern and southern Europe made Lucerne a bustling trading center. In the 14th century, locals built the landmark Chapel Bridge to span the Reuss River, the city's lifeblood. The bridge's purpose was both practical and pious: to provide a place to protect the town (it's lined with small, defensible windows) and to connect the Jesuit church and the Benedictine Monastery.

After sightseeing Lucerne's famous covered bridges in the morning, spend the afternoon picking and choosing the museums that interest you most: art buffs will visit the Rosengart and Picasso museums, while gearheads will have a ball at the Swiss Transport Museum.

Rosengart — and the Rosengart Collection — is the first and last name in Lucerne art. In the 1930s and 1940s, wealthy Siegfried Rosengart palled around with all-star modern artists, financing and collecting their works. This museum displays the fruits of his labor, with three floors of all the big names, including Monet, Renoir, Miró, Chagall, Cézanne, Matisse, and Picasso (www.rosengart.ch).

Speaking of Picasso, true aficionados won't want to miss the Lucerne Picasso Museum. While the Picassos here are nothing special, Picasso himself is: the museum has over 200 black-and-white candid photographs of the artist, making it a must-see experience for Picasso fans.

For an art break, visit the top-notch Swiss Transport Museum, located across the lake. (It's a long 25-minute walk, most of it along a beautiful promenade.) This enormous complex is the Smithsonian of Switzerland. The vast museum grounds include hundreds of exhibits in several different buildings. It covers virtually all modes of transportation, from a 1910 biplane to a train nicknamed the "Crocodile," and includes both a planetarium and an IMAX theater (www.verkehrshaus.ch).

Like many great European cities, just about everything of interest in Lucerne is easily accessible by foot. The train station is the transportation hub for all of Central Switzerland. You can easily head out for a scenic day trip (which I'll cover in next week's column) or continue on for other destinations. But if the lure of Lucerne keeps you in town an extra day, remember: There's always another train.

Sleeping in Lucerne

Like many Swiss hotels, Lucerne accommodations are expensive. Hotel zum Weissen Kreuz is good for a splurge, if you want to pay a premium to sleep in the heart of the Old Town (doubles for about $240, tel. 041-418-8220, www.hotel-wkreuz.ch).

Hotel zum Schlüssel brags it's the oldest hotel in town, hosting guests since 1543. Today it's a fine, low-key place (doubles for about $180, tel. 041-210-1061). City Hotel has 38 basic rooms in an urban-feeling location — but the rooms are well-priced (doubles for about $150, tel. 041-240-2323, www.hotel-cityhotel.ch).Calm and well-run Backpackers Lucerne is the city's best hostel option ($44 per person in a two-bed room, tel. 041-360-0420, fax 041-360-0442, www.backpackerslucerne.ch).

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