A Day Trip Doesn't Do Lucerne Justice


LUCERNE, Switzerland -- A 14th century torture chamber here is among the most-photographed landmarks in all of Switzerland, and the Lucerne Tourist Board promotes what is now known as the "Water Tower" to camera-toting tourists.

Lucerne at nightFrom the Lucerne train station, the Water Tower and the adjoining Chapel Bridge come into view immediately. Regrettably, that is all many visitors see during brief stays in this city of 63,000. Despite the distinction of being Switzerland's most-visited city, Lucerne suffers from a sort of day tripper's dysfunction: Tourists come and tourists go, usually in the same day.

Lucerne's 900,000 bed nights pale in comparison with the 4 million day visitors who pass through each year. Peter Anderegg, sales manager of the tourist board, said persuading a few of the 4 million to spend more than an afternoon is a challenge.

But that is the opportunity I was afforded recently when I spent three days checking out the sights and sounds of this "City of Lights" -- so named for a legend that credits an angel with showing Lucerne's first settlers where to build a chapel. Had a few more of those snap-happy tourists stayed a night or two, they, too, would have discovered what makes this city on the Reuss River so pleasing.

If this country is "Europe in a nutshell," as Switzerland Tourism is so fond of saying, then Lucerne is a good fit for North American tourists: big enough to feel cosmopolitan, yet small enough for visitors to use the word "quaint" in postcards home.

Any visit to Lucerne should start with the Water Tower and Chapel Bridge. Nearly 700 years old, both once served as part the city's fortifications. Today, the Water Tower serves as a gift shop, and the Chapel Bridge, although nearly destroyed by a fire in August 1993, remains the oldest wooden bridge in Europe. A walk on its wooden planks reveals a network of elaborate paintings under its eaves. The 17th century artwork details Swiss and local history.

After the fire, a portion of the bridge was replaced, and a number of the paintings had to be recopied or heavily retouched. Some of the original artwork remains, and a careful eye can discern the originals. Try nighttime viewing, when the floodlights of the bridge bring the artwork's detail into focus.

More bridge artwork awaits at the nearby Mill Bridge, which features a series of 67 paintings. Executed by Kaspar Meglinger in the early 1600s, these works portray the "Dance of Death," with the artist portraying himself as a skeleton.

Once off the bridges, visitors soon will discover Lucerne's dedication to its past extends to all corners of the city. The Musegg Wall, built in 1386, is well preserved, and three of its towers are open. From here, visitors can catch a great glimpse of the city. The Zyt tower houses Lucerne's oldest clock. In addition, the clock chimes precisely one minute earlier than any other clock in town.

Numerous museums and attractions are a short distance from most of the city's hotels. The best-known museum is the Swiss Transport Museum. Because it was off the beaten path, I would have been wise to catch one of the many city buses that whizzed past at five-minute intervals. But after a 30-minute walk, I found myself more fully appreciating the displays of various modes of transportation, including more than 100 aircraft, locomotives, automobiles, cable cars and boats.

A stop at the Zeiss Planetarium or the IMAX theater, both located next to the museum, might be on a visitor's list.

Other museums worth visiting include the Richard Wagner Museum, the former home of the composer, which includes a collection of antique musical instruments. On the lighter side, the Museum of Natural History offers a fun and hands-on approach.

Crossing back over the Reuss, a short walk up a hill brought me to the Lion Monument, featuring the dying lion of Lucerne. The rock sculpture was created in memory of the Swiss mercenaries killed while protecting the French monarch in Paris in 1792.

A few blocks from this monument, a bustling marketplace outside Town Hall serves, fittingly enough, as a town meeting place as well as a spot for visitors to pick up handiwork from local artisans.

Sixty or so restaurants, many on the water, make up the culinary landscape of Lucerne. Prices are very Swiss -- a touch on the expensive side -- but more reasonable than those in larger cities such as Zurich, which is, by the way, only an hour away via Swiss Rail.

Switzerland Tourism, Phone: (212) 757-5944

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