It’s probably down to the country’s Calvinistic heritage that Switzerland has a long-standing reputation for sobriety.
Business is taken seriously, people are renowned for their punctuality, the trains run accordingly on time, and banking is the cornerstone of the economy. And it’s all so spick and span that it’s easy to get the impression that someone gets up very early each morning to paint the mountaintops white.
But there is a lighter side to the national psyche. In the small but vibrant capital city of Berne, considerable numbers of otherwise straight-laced office workers are given to jumping off the bridges and swimming home along the River Rhine, with their belongings in an inflatable waterproof bag.
The charming lakeside city of Lucerne reflects this innate ability to mix business with pleasure and to work hard at both.
There beside the leisure yacht and ferry dotted and tourist thronged waterfront you’ll find the KKL culture and convention centre (+41 41 226 7070, kkl-luzern.ch)– a masterpiece of French architect Jean Nouvel and acclaimed as one of Europe’s finest, most modern and best equipped such venues.
Facilities here include what has been lauded as one of the most acoustically perfect concert halls in the world.
Also based within the KKL edifice are state of art conference rooms and the city’s excellent Museum of Art (kunstmuseumluzern.ch), featuring exhibitions of international contemporary art and revolving selections of the museums own collection.
The city’s most unusual building is the circular Bourbaki Panorama (+41 412 3030, bourbakipanorama.ch) which besides containing the city library, five cinemas and a 200 capacity revolving bar and bistro, accommodates a spectacular diorama depicting the harrowing winter retreat of the defeated French army into Switzerland at the end of the Franco-Prussian war of 1871 – an event that led to the founding of the Red Cross movement.
One of Europe’s classic grand hotels, the palatial five-star Hotel Schweizerhof Luzern (+41 410 0410, Schweiserhof-luzern.ch) offers a stunning sweeping view across Lake Lucerne, the old town and the Alps from its panoramic Pavillon restaurant and terrace. Here you can find not just traditional Swiss haute cuisine but seasonal celebrations of gastronomic delights from round the world. Or you can opt for the exquisitely elegant Galerie Restaurant and rub shoulders with the great and good, maybe dining on the renowned speciality chateaubriand steak.
Opened in 1845 and owned by five generations of the Hauser family since 1861, this landmark establishment has a solid reputation for refined hospitality. It’s been the haunt of Emperors, kings, politicians, writers, composers and business magnates.
Richard Wagner completed ‘Tristan and Isolde’ while staying there and Mark Twain was a guest and wrote about his stay.
An ornate marble columned lobby opens the way to sweeping stairs, nine huge public rooms – the largest accommodating up to 800 – and spacious guest accommodations in a choice of 101 rooms and suites, all equipped with wi-fi and individual air-conditioning.
Up on the fifth floor there’s a wellness and beauty centre featuring high-tech Technogym workout machines and its own range of beauty-care products.
Additionally, this is a host venue for the Rose d’Or Festival, the Lucerne Blues Festival and the World Band Festival.
If you prefer smaller, more intimate style hotels there’s the newly opened Boutique Hotel Schlüssel (+41 622 0333, schlussel-beckenried.ch/english), a beautifully restored 1820 mansion, standing beside the lake, just outside town, which has just 11 letting bedrooms but can cater events for up to 50.
Wagner’s time in the city is celebrated at the appropriately named Richard Wagner Museum (+41 41 360 2370, richard-wagner-museum.ch) in the delightful house where the great German artist and his family lived between 1866 and 1872.
Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Claude Monet, Paul Cézanne, Joan Mirò, Marc Chagall and Paul Klee are among the greats whose work is featured at the Rosengart Collection (+41 220 1660, rosengart.ch). There are 32 Picasso paintings and 100 of his sketches, drawings, graphics and sculpture pieces on display.
A pleasant 20 minute lakeside walk from my hotel brought me to the imposing Swiss Museum of Transport (+41 41 375 74.72, verkehrshaus.ch), with its he collection of cars, motorbikes, trucks, trains, aircraft and associated memorabilia – over 3,000 objects in all – housed in a clever, award-winning contemporary building that makes a great venue for imaginative corporate events and has an IMAX theatre, as well as a purpose built conference facility.
There’s also a planetarium featuring a sensational 200 sq metres aerial photo of the whole of Switzerland, over which visitors can walk.
The 75,000-resident city’s most iconic attraction is the 14th Century Kapelbrücke (Chapel Bridge) covered wooden bridge. Set by the lake and cradled by the mountains, Lucerne benefits from an almost Mediterannean microclimate, where orchids, palm trees and vineyards flourish.
No visit is complete without venturing out into the mountains. Mont Pilatus can be ascended via the world’s steepest cog railway and is crowned by the now totally renovated Hotel Pilatus Kulm while 10,000 feet high Mont Titlis has the world’s first revolving cable car. I chose to take a comfortable ferry ride down the lake to the little town of Vitznau where I picked up the mountain railway – Europe’s oldest – for the half-hour ride to the summit of Mont Rigi, dubbed locally as ‘The Queen of the Mountains’.
Unfortunately, an unseasonal whiteout cut visibility to a few yards as it dumped a new blanket of snow but, as I started to descend, the cloud miraculously lifted in little more than a minute to reveal a truly breathtaking view.
Mont Rigi also has an aerial cable car and a cogwheel train alternative and at the summit there’s a unique all-season marquee for special events. I certainly ended my Lucerne weekend on a high note!
For further information: Luzern Turismus AG (+41 41 227 1717, Luzern.com). Hotel reservations: +421 41 227 17 27, Luzern.com.
Check out the useful Dine Around voucher, which can be pre-bought and enables you to choose from 23 carefully vetted restaurants around the city.
Switzerland has a number of bargain travel deals. For the whole of Switzerland, the Swiss Pass ( swisstravelsystem.ch) open up unlimited travel over a 20,000 km network of train, bus, tram and boat routes for a choice of four, with 15, or 22 days, or a whole month. A two or five day Telpass gives unlimited travel in the region without the need to pre-book your excursions. You can add a two overnight ‘Essence of Switzerland’ hotel voucher to your free ranging travel ticket, with prices from CHF310 (£210).
The LucerneCard-VIP offers discounted or free admission to various attractions.
Why should I go to Lucerne?
Apart from being a great place to hold meeting and do business, Switzerland’s lakeside gem was last year voted the world’s fifth most popular tourism destination by TripAdvisor users.