Katie Roberts went beyond Switzerland’s watches and chocolates to explore the beautiful old towns of Lucerne and Basel.
See all the photos from Katie’s Switzerland trip in the gallery above
Guide Sonya Schwegler is a bundle of infectious enthusiasm as we set off on an afternoon walking tour of Lucerne’s old city. At our meeting point in front of the railway station at Bahnhofplatz, she explains that the ornate 1896 gate is the only remnant of the majestic old station that was destroyed by fire in 1971.
The Swiss have a knack of mixing modern and medieval. The sleek new railway station is a companion for the incredible KKL or Culture and Convention Centre just across the road. Housing a concert hall and gallery, the monolithic building is perched on the edge of Lake Lucerne, a stark contrast to the 14th-century Chapel Bridge and Water Tower just a few hundred metres away.
Chapel Bridge is the longest covered bridge in Europe and, as we cross, Sonya explains that CCTV records the face of everyone who walks across, to prevent theft of the priceless paintings. Fire also caused havoc here in 1993, after which parts of the bridge were reconstructed. Thankfully, some of the 17th-century paintings were rescued from the fire by quick-thinking locals.
Navigating the car-free streets of the old town, Sonya points out the colourful paintings on the exterior of many old buildings. Apparently, this art form was the height of fashion at the end of the 19th–century, and it adds a charming individuality to the city.
The intricate paintings of family crests of the 19th-century backeri guild are a striking reminder that baking was, and remains, an important trade. In nearby Weinmarket, Sonya explains that Lucerne is 90-percent Catholic and points out a 1928 painting of the Wedding of Cana on a wall in the cobblestone square. Another painting on the old pharmacy tells a visual story of the building and its former use.
Walking around a corner, we politely pick our way through a crowd of Chinese tourists standing outside one of the city’s most prominent watch shops. It’s said that some one billion Swiss francs were spent last year on watches and jewellery in these narrow, pretty streets. For those on a smaller budget, chocolate is the other must-buy souvenir.
A clock chimes and Sonya points out the eight different towers of the medieval city wall, three of which can be visited for spectacular views of the old town and the lake. Chiming clocks are a notable sound in this city; interestingly, the oldest in the town has the right to chime one minute before the others.
Crossing the Reuss River again, this time via the covered Spreuer Bridge, Sonya explains the grim 17th-century paintings known as Dance of Death. They are a bleak testament to the plague that killed a third of the population. More quaint half-timbered houses and intriguing narrow lanes lead off in numerous directions on the other side, but Sonya leads us to the imposing Baroque Jesuit Church.
We crane our necks to look up at the ornately decorated ceiling. The late-17th-century paintings depict Francis Xavier’s chariot pulled by a menagerie of animals, including an elephant with a pig’s snout. Sonya laughs, explaining that parishioners could hardly argue with the artist at a time when few people had seen the exotic animal.
As we finish the tour she strongly suggests I carry on independently to see the Lion Monument, the eight towers of the medieval city wall and the beautiful Church of St Leodegar. But I need a coffee and a chocolate first.
Stay: Art Deco Hotel Montana
The world’s shortest funicular journey takes less than two minutes. It’s fitting that a hotel built a century ago, in the golden age of mountain engineering, should boast its own private railway. The ride from street level to hotel lobby not only saves the huff-and-puff, especially with a bulky suitcase, but offers a spectacular view of Lake Lucerne and the surrounding mountains. This view is a big reason to stay at this 66-room hotel. Another is the authentic Art Deco period features: geometric forms, ornamentation, contrasting materials and surprising colour combinations. Hotel Montana is well known and loved by locals for the fabulous Mediterranean-inspired food served at Scala Restaurant, and music fans flock to Louis Bar for weekly jazz and jam sessions. The hotel is just a five-minute bus ride from Lucerne’s train station and old city.
How to get to Lucerne
Regular trains depart from Zurich Airport to Lucerne, a journey of about one hour.
A few decades ago, Basel’s citizens demonstrated their passion for the arts when the city’s government called a unique plebiscite. They voted yes to the government’s proposal for a six million Swiss franc loan to fund the purchase of two Picasso paintings. When the artist got wind of this, he invited the city’s mayor to his residence in France and gave him three additional paintings to take home to the art-obsessed city. These now sit in the Kunstmuseum along with others that have been acquired since.
Located on the Rhine at the crossroads of France and Germany, Basel’s vibrant arts and culture scene contrasts with its reputation as Switzerland’s industrial hub: the headquarters of some of the world’s largest pharmaceutical and chemical industries are located here. While not boasting the natural beauty of other Swiss cities – the beautiful Lake Geneva or the mountains of Lucerne – Basel is undoubtedly a cultural melting pot, drawing from the nearby German Baden-Württemberg and French Alsace regions.
After viewing the collection at the Kunstmuseum, there are five more Picassos to see. Tucked away on the city’s outskirts is the unassuming Fondation Beyler. The low-key Modernist building in Riehen’s Berower Park overlooks paddocks and apple trees. This private collection turned public museum houses a roll call of artists such as Warhol, Monet, Miró, Calder, Rothko and de Kooning.
Basel’s 40-odd museums and galleries are dedicated not only to some of the world’s best art but to other equally important objects; paper and printing, coaches and sleighs, ethnology, funerary objects, fire-fighting paraphernalia and even teddy bears. Plus there are sculptures and street art dotted throughout the streets. One of the most prominent was designed by Swiss artist Jean Tinguely: Tinguely Fountain is a series of water-driven sculptures created with cogs, chains and metal which spray and splash water in a large pond.
Getting about the city is easy with a free mobility ticket; available at most hotels, it entitles visitors to use the fabulous tram network. The phrase Guten tag will come in handy as Basel is German-speaking, but English and French are also widely understood.
When to visit
Basel has a busy calendar of annual events. February is Carnival time. Those with serious money head to town for the Watch and Jewellery Show in late March. The modern and contemporary Art Fair, one of the world’s biggest, is in June. The Basel Tattoo in July is second only to the Edinburgh event. For tennis fans, Roger Federer is a son of Basel, and the Swiss Indoors is held in October. Christmas markets, mulled wine and a sprinkling of snow mark December.
Stay: Fit for a king
Grand Hotel Les Trois Rois, or The Three Kings, is a Basel institution – partly for its age and history, partly for its sheer grandeur and partly for the well-heeled clientele it attracts. It’s rumoured a Middle Eastern sheikh put up his party of 100 family and friends there for six weeks while he underwent treatment in one of the city’s well-regarded medical facilities.
Hotel records date back to 1681, but the current building was constructed in 1844. Historic highlights include the period of French rule in 1798, when kings were out of favour and the hotel was temporarily known as “Hotel aux Trois Magots”.
A complete refurbishment in 2006 saw the Leading Hotels of the World property updated with conveniences that guests a century ago could only dream of, but some old things remain. Each of the 101 suites has a marble bathroom, is furnished with antiques and has wonderful views of the Rhine and the old town. Striking blue textured wallpaper, plush chairs, quality linen and thick carpet are a feast for the senses. Double doors open onto a tiny balcony overlooking the city and river, a perfect spot to watch the sun go down with a beverage from the complimentary mini-bar.
Dining options include Cheval Blanc; with two Michelin stars it is the ultimate in European elegance and has stratospheric prices to match. Lunch in the casual Brasserie or a buffet breakfast (with Prosecco, why not?) is another alternative. From the friendly staff to the sumptuous surroundings, a stay at this hotel is an unforgettable experience. This is just one of the Leading Hotels of the World iconic properties located around the world.
Undoubtedly the best way to see any European city is to walk. Five easy, signposted walks begin and end at Marketplatz, in the city’s old quarter. Basel has been occupied for 22 centuries and there’s history on every corner. The 800-year-old Romanesque and Gothic cathedral in Munsterplatz offers a fabulous view over the city, the Rhine, Germany’s Black Forest and France’s Vosges mountains.
The cute medieval alleyways of Heuberg and Spalenberg are now home to boutiques and exclusive shops. Pop into the courtyard of the Rathaus, the striking 15th-century city hall, to see its enormous, stunning frescos. Find treasures old and new at the Saturday flea market at Petersplatz or the weekday fruit and vegetable market at Marketplatz.
If your walk takes you to the Rhine, jump on a sightseeing cruise which can include lunch, entertainment and pretty views of the area. The Rhine is an important transport route with much traffic headed either upriver through Switzerland or down to the North Sea in the Netherlands.
Barfusserplatz is the entertainment hub of the city, with many restaurants and bars. Among them, Kohlmanns is famous for regional specialities and the highly recommended veal schnitzel, tartes flambées and European-style salads. Across the square is Brauner Mutz Beerhall, a casual pub serving Swiss favourites and cold beer on tap. Italian seems to be the second best-loved cuisine in Basel and there are many trattorias to choose from including Picobello, which overlooks the Rhine at Blumenrain 12.
Make it happen
Singapore Airlines flies direct to Zurich, Switzerland. Or fly Turkish Airlines through Istanbul into EuroAirport Basel, about 10 minutes from Basel. Trains depart regularly from Zurich Airport to Basel and Lucerne, each a journey of about one hour.