48 hours in: Luxembourg
The small but perfectly formed Grand Duchy’s beguiling capital city is in a very festive mood for the summer, says William Cook
Why go now?
A bizarre, beguiling blend of metropolis and market town, the Grand Duchy's compact capital is one of Europe's best-kept secrets. Though better known as a financial centre, it has a thriving cultural scene and its picturesque streets are never overrun by tourists. Until September 15 it really comes alive with al fresco concerts, films and stage shows during the Summer in the City festival (summerinthecity.lu).
Fly from London City with Luxair (tel: 020-7055 5005; luxair.lu) or City Jet (tel: 0871 6633 777; cityjet.com), or from Heathrow with British Airways (tel: 0844 493 0787; ba.com). Findel airport is 6km east of Luxembourg City. Board bus 9 or 16 at the airport: both leave every 10 minutes and take half an hour (fare €1.50) to reach the central train station. A taxi costs about €20.
Alternatively, arrive by train via Brussels with Eurostar (tel: 0870 518 6186; eurostar.com) from London St Pancras, Ashford or Ebbsfleet. Buy an ‘Any Belgian Station’ ticket from £81 return. When you arrive in Brussels, buy an additional ticket from Arlon (a Belgian town near the border) to Luxembourg City, from €10 single.
Get your bearings
Perched on a rocky plateau, protected by a deep ravine, the Grand Duchy's ancient capital has a breathtaking setting. The historic centre is encircled by the river Alzette and its tributary, the Pétrusse.
The modern districts of Gare and Bonnevoie are on the south side of the river, linked to the centre by several vertiginous bridges. Hidden in the river valley are the quaint old villages of Grund and Clausen. Kirchberg, to the north, used to be the site of the city's fortress; today it's the new cultural and commercial district.
The national tourist office (tel: 00 352 4282 821; ont.lu) is located in the train station (open weekdays 9am-6.30pm, weekends noon-6pm). Staff sell two-day Luxembourg Cards (€19) that offer free public transport, plus free or reduced admission to attractions.
You can also buy this pass at the city tourist office on Place Guillaume II (tel: 00 352 222 809; lcto.lu), open 9am-7pm daily (except 10am-6pm Sundays).
Le Place d’Armes at 18 Place d'Armes (tel: 00 352 27 47 37; hotel-leplacedarmes.com) is a five-star hotel converted from a row of 18th-century houses. It is a debonair blend of old and new with a popular brasserie. Doubles from €320, room only.
Parc Beaux Arts at 1 Rue Sigefroi (tel: 00 352 26 86 761; parcbeauxarts.lu) is a good four-star, housed in an antique townhouse with contemporary furniture and striking modern art, 10 suites and a convivial restaurant. Doubles from €169, including breakfast.
Luxembourg also has a splendid Youth Hostel at 2 Rue du Fort Olisy (tel: 00 352 2627 6640; youthhostels.lu). It's in a peaceful riverside spot, surrounded by woods and fields. You'd never guess the city centre was a short walk away. A bunk bed in a six-berth dorm costs €19.90pp, with breakfast, plus €3 for non-members. Double rooms cost €5 more per person.
Take a hike ...
... through the historic centre. Collect your sightseeing bumph from the helpful tourist office on Place Guillaume II, then cross the city's most handsome, historic square and into Rue du Marché aux Herbes. Stop to admire the ornate Grand Ducal Palace — a 16th-century edifice and the first city hall. Walk right up to the main gates and gawp at the splendid sentries. If you're lucky, you might see the Grand Duke. Head right, downhill on Rue du St Esprit.
Built on several steep hills, divided by perilous gorges, Luxembourg is full of stunning vistas. One of the best is from the terrace of the quirky Musée d'Histoire de la Ville de Luxembourg at 14 Rue du St-Esprit (tel: 00 352 4796 4500; mhvl.lu). The ride up to the terrace, in a glass lift, is a panoramic treat in itself. The current exhibition, ABC Luxembourg (until March 31, 2013), explores the symbols and clichés associated with this enigmatic little nation. Open 10am to 6pm daily except Monday, Thursday to 8pm. Entry €5; free Thursdays 6-8pm.
Take a ride
From Rue du St-Esprit, cross the giddy viaduct, then stroll south past the chain stores of the lively, unpretentious Avenue de la Gare until you reach the train station. For a DIY bus tour, board the No 16 (tel: 00 352 2465 2465; mobiliteit.lu; fare €1.50), alight at Philharmonie, Luxembourg's beautiful modern concert hall at 1 Place de l'Europe (tel: 00 352 26 02 27 1; philharmonie.lu). The European Parliament is just across the road. Hop back on the bus as far as Royal to take you back into the centre.
Lunch on the run
Luxembourg is a city relatively free of sightseers, with lots of locals working in the heart of town, and it has plenty of good-value, good-quality lunch options. A La Soupe at 9 Rue Chimay (tel: 00 352 2620 2047; alasoupe.net) is a sleek, bustling café serving healthy stews and sandwiches. (Try their minestrone with white beans and parmesan.) A soup or salad and dessert, plus a hot or soft drink, costs €9.90. It opens 7am to 8.30pm daily except Sunday.
La Grand Rue is Luxembourg's smartest shopping street with lots of upscale designers, including Max Mara and Gérard Darel, as well as smaller boutiques. For chocolates, visit Namur at 27 Rue des Capucins (tel: 00 352 223 408; namur.lu). A Luxembourg institution since 1863, this chic confiseur is heaven for anyone with a sweet tooth. A box of its exquisite homemade chocolates costs anything from €7 to €78.
Right next door to Namur is Le Vis-à-Vis at 2 Rue Beaumont (tel: 00 352 460 326), an old-fashioned Luxembourgeois bar thick with cigarette smoke. (You're still allowed to smoke in bars in Luxembourg, so long as people aren't eating.) A glass of the local lager, Diekirch, costs €2.30. It's open from early morning until 1am Monday to Saturday, 3-8pm Sunday. If the tobacco smog inside gets too much, you can take your drinks outside.
Dining with the locals
In virtually any other European capital the Bistro de la Presse at 24 Rue de Marché aux Herbes (00 352 46 66 69; bistrotdela
presse.lu) would be a tacky, overpriced tourist trap. Here in homely Luxembourg it's an unpretentious restaurant, serving hearty regional staples, with a bar propped up by convivial locals rather than camera-clicking sightseers. A vast, nourishing tureen of bouneschlupp (green bean soup with sausage) costs €13.50. Half a litre of wine to wash it down will set you back €6.20.
Sunday morning: go to church
Luxembourg's Notre Dame (tel: 00 352 222 9701; cathedrale.lu) hardly qualifies as one of Europe's great cathedrals, but its modest proportions and humble ambience are part of its appeal. An odd melange of Gothic and Renaissance architecture, mainly built in the 17th century, it feels like a living, working church. Services every Sunday at 9am, 10.30am and noon.
Out to brunch
Most eateries remain shut on Sunday mornings, but the café at Chocolate House, 20 Rue du Marché aux Herbes (tel: 00 352 2626 2006; chocobonn.lu), serves a continental breakfast of croissants, ham and cheese for €6.50. Downstairs is the chocolatier, with all sorts of creations (try the chocolate chilli) to eat in or take away. A cup of hot chocolate and a huge slice of cake costs €7. It's open 10am-8pm Sunday, from 9am Saturdays and 8am on weekdays.
Luxembourg's cultural kingpin is the Musée d'Art Moderne at 3 Park Dräi Eechelen (tel: 00 352 453 7851; mudam.lu; open Saturday to Monday 11am-6pm, to 8pm Wednesday to Friday; €5). Built within the ruined walls of an old fortress, it's not just a challenging forum, but an artwork in its own right. Designed by IM Pei, this graceful new building completes his ‘European Trilogy’, alongside his Louvre extension in Paris and the German Historical Museum in Berlin.
More traditional tastes are met by the National Museum of History and Art on Marché-aux-Poissons (tel: 00 352 479 3301; mnha.lu; 10am-6pm daily except Monday, to 8pm Thursday; €5). The fine art includes works by Cézanne, Picasso and Magritte, but the highlight for British visitors is a pair of Turner watercolours depicting Luxembourg's old town and the dramatic landscape.
Icing on the cake
Luxembourg used to be one of the most fortified cities in Europe, and you can still walk along its ruined battlements. Start at the Bock Casemates, a labyrinth of tunnels built to withstand the fiercest siege, and follow the signposts for the Wenzel Path down the valley, across the river Alzette and through the Neumünster Abbey.
Follow the Pétrusse, the Alzette's tributary, along the leafy Vallée de la Pétrusse. The path rises into the city beneath the spectacular Adolphe bridge. The end of the Wenzel Path brings you to the pretty Municipal Park. The park's main landmark is Villa Vauban (tel: 00 352 4796 4900; villavauban.lu). This 19th-century mansion is now a smart art museum, currently hosting works by Dutch and Flemish masters.