Lucerne is one of Europe’s great storybook cities, gloriously huddled between its namesake lake, soaring alpine peaks and the lilting Reuss River. Little wonder that German composer Richard Wagner wrote of this Swiss gem, “I do not know of a more beautiful spot in this world!” Johann Goethe and Queen Victoria were similarly smitten when they had occasion to visit. Today, Lucerne still seduces with its invigorating blend of Old World charm and vibrant culture.
It is said that an angel shone a light on this heavenly location, pointing the way to the first settlers who established the lakeside city. Over the centuries, residents erected half-timbered houses and built a fortress on an adjacent hill. The fort’s eight impressive watch towers still keep an eye on the city. It gained notoriety as a stop on a major European trade route and, by resisting the rule of the Habsburgs, laid the foundations for an independent Switzerland.
Lucerne is perhaps most renowned for its bridges that span the Reuss River. The most famous, the pedestrian Kapellbrücke, or Chapel Bridge, strikes a fairytale pose with its stalwart Wasserturm, or water tower. The oldest covered bridge in Europe, it was initially built in 1333, though much of it was destroyed by fire in 1993. Today, it exudes its original glory and beauty, adorned with 17th-century panel paintings that tell the story of Lucerne. Downriver, the Spreuer Bridge zigzags across the Reuss. This fascinating structure was built in 1408 and it is also decorated with paintings; but rather than depicting the life of Lucerne, they memorialize the city’s plague years. The bridge’s Dance of Death series leads the visitor to a small chapel in the middle of the bridge.
Another memorial, the city’s famous Lion Monument, is tucked away in a small park off Lucerne’s Löwenplatz Square. Mark Twain called this bas-relief carved into a rock wall “the most mournful and moving piece of stone in the world.” Indeed, it conveys with somber poetry the sorrow felt by the city when Swiss Guards were massacred by an armed mob during the French Revolution.
Switzerland’s neutrality during wartime notwithstanding, the country has long pledged to protect its citizens. During the height of the Cold War, a 1963 federal law proclaimed the government would provide nuclear shelters for the entire population. One result of that decree was the Sonnenberg Bunker—two motorway tunnels bored into a mountainside. When they were completed in the 1970s, each tunnel could accommodate 10,000 people; a seven-story cavern between them housed a hospital, radio and telephone equipment, and even prison cells.
Thankfully, Lucerne’s plague, Swiss Guard tragedy, and nuclear shelters have been banished to history. Today, the city is a vibrant and thriving culture center that embraces its past in a remarkably preserved Old Town and looks to the future with its modern architecture and arts scene. Experience it all for yourself during a two-night stay on our new Swiss Alpine Jewels trip.