Lucerne, Switzerland Part 1: Storybook Old Town, Iconic Bridge & Cliff Sculpture That Wowed Mark Twain

Europe boasts numerous famous cities which draw tourists in with their grandiose architecture.  Lucerne is different.  It’s charming, it’s quaint, it’s small (and it’s still very safe).  From wooden bridges, to alpine sleds, to cog-wheel trains, this small city and its surrounding region packs a big punch for its size.

If you’re looking for a destination with the perfect blend of old town nostalgia and jaw-dropping natural scenery, Lucerne may be the spot for you.

This is Part 1 of a two-part series on Lucerne.  In this post I cover the basics of Lucerne, Old Town, sights such as the Chapel Bridge and the Lion Monument, and how to get to Lucerne inexpensively.  In Part 2, I’ll cover the magnificent Golden Round Trip and how to stay cheaply in Lucerne.

The Basic Overview of Lucerne, Switzerland

Lucerne sits on the edge of its namesake lake, about 50 km south of Zurich.  It is the largest city in central Switzerland and its residents speak Germanic Swiss.  Flanked by Mounts Pilatus and Rigi of the Swiss Alps, the city has a moderate climate with summer highs in the seventies Farenheit.

Lucerne, Switzerland, situated at the nexus of the River Reuss and Lake Lucerne, boasts nostalgic waterfront buildings. Photo ©The Honeymoon Guy.

Lucerne’s Old Town is the Epitome of Idyllic

Set on the northern bank of the river Reuss, Old Town Lucerne pulls you in with charming buildings and a special serenity.  You’ll find ducks and swans merrily swimming and chowing down food scraps offered by visitors.  There are multiple footbridges to allow easy crossing of the river.  There are brick-paved streets and courtyards, often filled with the sounds of street bands performing live sets for passers-by.

Many of the buildings are decorated with traditional artistic elements.  You’re left feeling like you’ve been transported back to a bygone European era.

The beautiful and ornate decoration of some of the Old Town buildings impresses! Photo ©The Honeymoon Guy.

There are of course a variety of restaurants like you’d expect in a city frequented by tourists.  I don’t view the food as Lucerne’s strong suit though.  Our meals at city restaurants were certainly not bad but they weren’t memory-making either.  In a way though that wasn’t important – sitting feet away from Lake Lucerne with the beautiful Swiss Alps in view rendered the taste of the food secondary.

Kapellbrücke – The Chapel Bridge – Is An Iconic Centerpoint of the City

One of the most famous sights in Lucerne is its historic, covered wooden footbridge.  It’s known locally as Kapellbrücke, which translates to Chapel Bridge, a reference to the nearby St. Peter’s Chapel.

Lucerne’s Chapel Bridge (known locally as Kapellbrücke) is beautiful and historic, originally built in 1365.  With a painting-lined interior, it provides a charming path across the River Reuss. Photo ©The Honeymoon Guy.

Originally built in 1365, it is considered the oldest wooden footbridge in Europe.  The interior of the bridge is appointed with numerous paintings.  It sustained major damage in a 1993 fire but has generally been restored.

The bridge should be your first sight to visit after you check into your hotel given its iconic status and easy accessibility (and it’s free).

The paintings inside Kapellbrücke harken back to a bygone era of Switzerland. Many were destroyed in a 1993 fire but some remain and they are well worth a viewing. Photo ©The Honeymoon Guy.

The Lion Monument Is A Somber, Impressive Sculpture

Roughly a kilometer north of Kapellbrücke sits a unique sculpture chiseled out of a cliff wall.  The sculpture of a dying lion is at once impressive and sad.  It is a monument to the more than 700 Swiss guards who were killed at the Tuileries Palace during the French revolution.

The lion is nearly 10 meters long, impaled by a spear, with one shield under the lion’s body and another adjacent to it.  When Mark Twain saw the lion he proclaimed it “the most mournful and moving piece of stone in the world.”

Also manmade, but entirely different from Kapellbrucke, the Dying Lion Monument of Lucerne is an emotional piece of art. Photo ©The Honeymoon Guy.

Normally I’d include only a short quote in a post like this, but Mark Twain’s eloquent words about the monument bear inclusion.  If his description doesn’t leave you wanting to visit, I’m not sure anything would.

“The Lion lies in his lair in the perpendicular face of a low cliff — for he is carved from the living rock of the cliff. His size is colossal, his attitude is noble. His head is bowed, the broken spear is sticking in his shoulder, his protecting paw rests upon the lilies of France. Vines hang down the cliff and wave in the wind, and a clear stream trickles from above and empties into a pond at the base, and in the smooth surface of the pond the lion is mirrored, among the water-lilies.

Around about are green trees and grass. The place is a sheltered, reposeful woodland nook, remote from noise and stir and confusion — and all this is fitting, for lions do die in such places, and not on granite pedestals in public squares fenced with fancy iron railings. The Lion of Lucerne would be impressive anywhere, but nowhere so impressive as where he is.”

— Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad, 1880

Getting to Lucerne Ain’t Too Bad

Though part of the allure of Lucerne is its scenic location among the Swiss Alps it’s not incredibly difficult to reach.  The “standard” approach to visiting Lucerne, if you’re coming from outside of Europe, is to fly into Zurich and head south to Lucerne from there.

Nonstop flights from the US to Zurich are available out of major airports including New York’s JFK and EWR, Chicago’s ORD, LAX, SFO and MIA, mainly on United and Swiss Airlines (a nonstop flight or two is currently showing for American and Delta out of JFK).

United and Swiss Airlines are both part of Star Alliance, meaning you can use miles earned in either program to book award flights on the other (United’s program is MileagePlus and Swiss is part of the Miles and More frequent flyer program).

For our trip Patty and I redeemed 30,000 United MileagePlus miles each for economy seats on a nonstop flight out of Newark (EWR) to Zurich.  That may seem like an average redemption at first but given Zurich’s status as a business mecca, flights into and out Zurich can be extremely expensive.  For example, economy seats on flights from EWR to ZUR in July are routinely selling for about $3,000!  That makes a redemption of 30,000 miles equate to about 10 cents/mile.  That’s tremendous!

Zurich is a global banking and finance center so flights in and out of it are Expensive with a capital E!
There is often decent Economy Saver award availability on some nonstop flights to Zurich. At a redemption rate of 30,000 miles, for a flight that costs nearly $3k in cash, you’re getting an astonishing 9 to 10 cents of value per MileagePlus mile!

The flight we took for our trip was undramatic – nothing amazing, nothing terrible.  As always though, knowing that we didn’t drop any money (other than $5.60 in taxes per person) on the flight made arriving at the vacation destination that much sweeter!

The Swiss train system is clean, reliable and timely (like a Swiss watch!), making taking a train from the Zurich Flughafen (airport) to Lucerne a great option. Photo ©The Honeymoon Guy.

Once you arrive at the Zurich airport, you’re a short journey away from Lucerne.  You could of course rent a car and drive to Lucerne but having a car in the small city while on vacation isn’t all that valuable.  The better option is to hop aboard the clean, reliable train system.  Trains run from the Zurich airport to Lucerne (Luzern as it is known locally) roughly every half hour or so, with many of them direct (not requiring you to change trains at all).  The direct ride takes a hair over an hour.

Part 2 Coming Up: Staying in Lucerne Luxuriously and Inexpensively and the Golden Round Trip!

In Part 2 of my series on Lucerne I’ll share a boatload of details about the astonishing Golden Round Trip, a journey that involves a boat, a cogwheel train and a cable car.  The journey takes you through incredibly scenic areas, peaking atop a mountain with postcard vistas of Lake Lucerne and the Swiss Alps!  I’ll also share tips on how to stay in Lucerne without breaking the bank.  Those tips are especially valuable given Switzerland’s incredibly expensive cost of living!

Here’s a video preview….

Are you planning a trip to Lucerne?  Share any thoughts or questions in the comments below!

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