This Historic Lake Town Is An Ideal Home Base To Explore Switzerland, Per Rick Steves

People visit Switzerland for many reasons. They come for spectacular skiing, hiking, or just to savor the awe-inspiring snowy vistas of the Swiss Alps. They come to breathe the crisp mountain air or cruise the country's famous lakes. Foodies might relish tasting world-renowned Swiss cheese, chocolate, or fondue from the source. The majestic Alps are never far from view no matter what you are doing and grab most of the glory, but visitors shouldn't sleep on exploring Switzerland's many fabulous cities as well. One of Rick Steves' top picks is historical Lucerne (he plumps for the Swiss spelling, Luzern, per his website), a charming European destination that makes a great place to set up camp for visiting further afield.

Remains of a sunken village beneath the waters of Lake Lucerne in 2020 revealed that people built settlements in the area as long as 5,400 years ago, and its central location made it a booming trading post in the 13th Century. The modern city is ideally situated for excursions around the country. It is tucked in the foothills of the Alps, around a 45-minute drive from Zurich (the home of Lindt chocolate) and 90 minutes from the Swiss capital, Bern. With a relatively small population of just 57,000 people, it is a calm and walkable small city with plenty of art, culture, and history to draw your attention away from those glorious mountain ranges in the distance. For a little while, at least.

Things to see and do in Lucerne

With such a long and storied history, it perhaps comes as no surprise that Lucerne's older sights grab the most attention as you wander around its pleasant streets and squares. One of the most common images of the city is its curious Chapel Bridge, defined by its octagonal water tower rising from the River Reuss and its sheltered wooden walkway. Constructed in the 14th Century, it is regarded as Europe's oldest covered bridge, and its peculiar crooked span connects the New Town with the medieval old part of the city. 

Lucerne's other most famous landmark is the Lion Monument. Carved into a cliff face overlooking a pool, the sculpture dates back to 1821 and commemorates the 1,000 Swiss guardsmen who lost their lives defending the French King in 1792. Around 1.4 million people each year come to contemplate the statue, which movingly depicts a noble and brave lion dying in its den.

Walking is a great way to explore Lucerne, but taking a boat ride is a wonderful way to see the city from a different perspective. Lake Lucerne covers around 44 square miles, and all manner of craft ply their way between the 35 designated stops dotted along the shore. Enjoy a regular boat excursion or, if you're feeling flush, charter an elegant paddle steamer. If you're feeling energetic and want to do some paddling yourself, you can also rent a pedalo and do your own thing.

Day trips from Lucerne

Whether it is admiring the works of Picasso at the Rosengart Collection or studying fascinating geology at the Glacier Garden, there is plenty to keep you busy in Lucerne. However, as Rick Steves points out, the city also makes a great home base for exploring the surrounding region. The mountains are an obvious draw, and you can take the world's steepest cog railway to the 7,000-foot summit of Mount Pilatus overlooking the city. Also nearby, the world's oldest mountain railway will take you to the top of Mount Rigi, a slightly smaller peak that nevertheless inspired painter William Turner. Several landmarks around the lake are associated with the legendary William Tell.

Unsurprisingly, Lucerne is surrounded by great spots for winter sports and incredible hiking. One of the most choice destinations is the pretty alpine town of Engelberg, with its glacial lake, revolving cable car, and access to Mount Titlis (10,623 feet), the tallest peak in central Switzerland. If water sports are more of your thing, head along the lake to Brunnen, a resort well-known for its canoeing, windsurfing, and sailing opportunities when the weather is fine. Literary buffs may prefer to take their walks in the picturesque municipality of Meiringen, where you will find the famous Reichenbach Falls, the location Sir Arthur Conan Doyle chose to kill off Sherlock Holmes before bringing him back by popular demand.