Lake Lucerne is known for its scenery and the many old-world villages along its shores. Many poets have praised the area's beauty. You may be lucky enough to stay in a hotel room that commands a view of the lake.
Lake steamers and mountain railways can get you to most points of interest around Lake Lucerne. Boat cruises are free if you have the Swiss Card, or a Eurailpass or InterRail pass. Mountain railways can whisk you to elevations of 3,000m (9,840 ft.) or more in a very short time. Our first adventure will be a major mountain excursion to Mount Pilatus, a 2,100m (6,888-ft.) summit overlooking Lucerne.
Pilatus-Kulm is located 15km (9 miles) south of Lucerne. Its German name derives from an old legend: During medieval times, it's said, the city fathers of Lucerne banned travel up the mountain because they thought that its slopes were haunted by the ghost of Pontius Pilate; they feared that Pilate would be angered by intrusive visitors and cause violent storms. For many years after the ban was finally lifted, only a few souls were brave enough to climb the mountain. Queen Victoria made the trip in 1868. Today, the ascent to Pilatus is one of the most popular excursions in Switzerland.
Between May and November, weather permitting, the cog railway -- the world's steepest -- operates between Alpnachstad, at the edge of the lake, and the very top of Mount Pilatus. From the quays of Lucerne, take a lake steamer for a scenic 90-minute boat ride to Alpnachstad. If you have a rail pass, remember that it will be valid on this steamer.
At Alpnachstad, transfer to the electric cog railway, which runs at a 48-degree gradient -- the steepest cogwheel railway in the world. Departures are every 45 minutes daily from 8:50am to 4:30pm May to September only. At Pilatus-Kulm, you can get out and enjoy the view. There are two mountain hotels and a belvedere offering views of Lake Lucerne and many of the mountains around it. For the descent from Mount Pilatus, some visitors prefer to take a pair of cable cars -- first a large cabin-style téléphérique, then a small gondola. The cable cars end at Kriens, a suburb of Lucerne. Here you can take bus no. 1, which will carry you into the heart of Lucerne. The round-trip fare on the cog railway and cable car is 94F, 50% off for children 15 and under.
A similar excursion to Pilatus is possible in the winter, but because the cog railway is buried in snow, you must alter your plans. You'll have to ascend and descend by cable car, which many visitors find exhilarating. From the center of Lucerne, take bus no. 1 from the Bahnhof to the outlying suburb of Kriens. At Kriens, transfer to a cable car that glides over meadows and forests to the village of Fräkmüntegg, 1,380m (4,526 ft.) above sea level. The trip takes half an hour. At Fräkmüntegg, switch to another cable car, this one much more steeply inclined than the first. A stunning feat of advanced engineering, it swings above gorges and cliffs to the very peak of Mount Pilatus (Pilatus-Kulm). Unlike the cog railways, these cable cars operate year-round. The round-trip ride by cable car from Kriens to Fräkmüntegg costs 42F. Insider tip: Visit Pilatus early in the day. Clouds and fog sometimes move in after the noon hour and mask the magnificent view from the top of this mountain peak. You can be fooled by a clear view at the bottom of Pilatus, only to reach the top later to be engulfed in the clouds.
For information, consult the staff at the city's tourist office or call tel. 041/329-11-11. They're well informed about these excursions, as are the desk personnel at most of Lucerne's hotels.
For another panoramic view from a hilltop belvedere, go to Rigi, 24km (15 miles) east of Lucerne. The view from Rigi is different from that atop Mount Pilatus, so if you see both, you won't be replicating your experience. Pilatus offers the more panoramic vista, but the view from Rigi is more beautiful. By most accounts, Rigi (1,680m/5,510 ft.) is the most famous mountain view in the country. However, you may be disappointed if the weather's not clear. Rigi is called the "island mountain" because it appears to be surrounded by the waters of lakes Lucerne, Zug, and Lauerz. It's accessible by two cog railways and a cableway.
Adventurous visitors making the "grand tour" in the 19th century spent the night at Rigi-Kulm to see the sun rise over the Alps. Victor Hugo called it "an incredible horizon . . . that chaos of absurd exaggerations and scary diminutions." Later, Mark Twain also climbed to the top to see the sun rise across the Alps. But he was so exhausted, as he relates in A Tramp Abroad, that he collapsed into sleep, from which he didn't wake until sunset. Not realizing that he had slept all day, he at first recoiled in horror, believing that the sun had switched its direction and was actually rising in the west. This experience continues to be one of nature's loveliest offerings in all of Europe. For those wanting to partake of the tradition, many hotels are perched on the mountainside.
You can travel to the mountain by taking a 55-minute trip by lake steamer from Lucerne to Vitznau, a small resort on the northern shore of the lake. The rack railway from Vitznau to Rigi-Kulm was the first cog railway in Europe, built in 1871. You can also approach the mountain from Arth-Goldau, which is on the southern shore of Zug Lake. The Arth-Goldau cog railway to Rigi-Kulm opened in 1876. The maximum gradient is 21%. Both cog railways cost 65F for the round-trip. It's possible to go up one way and come down the other if you want to see both sides of the mountain. The trip from Vitznau takes 40 minutes and the trip from Arth-Goldau lasts 35 minutes. There are a dozen departures a day in season. An alternative ascent is strongly advocated by the local tourist office: Begin at the quays in Lucerne, and take a lake steamer to Vitznau. From here, after a stroll through the town, go to the top of Rigi-Kulm by cog railway and admire the view from the top. Then descend halfway down the mountain via the same cog railway, getting off midway at Rigi Kaltbad. Here you'll switch to the Rigi Seilbahn cable car, which will carry you the rest of the way downhill, a 15-minute downhill walk from the hamlet of Weggis. You can begin this trip daily between 8am and around 2pm, which is the last reasonable departure time, if you want to see the sights and return to Lucerne before dark. The tourist office or a staff member at the phone number listed below will recite the available times of departures. Many visitors, however, find that the most convenient departure time from Lucerne is at 8:32am and again at 10:32am. For more information about anything to do with ascents of Mount Rigi, call the Lucerne Tourist office at tel. 041/227-17-17. The ascents described in this section are possible only from March to October.
We were soon tramping leisurely up the leafy mulepath, and then the talk began to flow, as usual. It was twelve o'clock noon, and a breezy, cloudless day; the ascent was gradual, and the glimpses from under the curtaining boughs, of blue water, and tiny sail boats, and beetling cliffs, were as charming as glimpses of dreamland. -- Mark Twain, on "Climbing the Rigi"
The chic resort of Bürgenstock, lying 16km (10 miles) southeast of Lucerne, has become a virtual ghost town, except for construction crews. Audrey Hepburn, Sophia Loren, and other celebrities who used to vacation or live here temporarily are long gone, as is the resort's international reputation for glamour. That's the bad news. The good news is that the trio of hotels here have shut down for major renovations, not to reopen until 2014. Upon their return, predictions are that they will be among the most elegant and luxurious hotels in all of Switzerland.
One sweeping panorama of the region that rises immediately above the center of Lucerne (and doesn't involve a full day's excursion) is the panoramic plateau of Gütsch, 514m (1,686 ft.) above sea level. At the top is a belvedere platform that's the site of the Hotel Château Gütsch. Views from the belvedere are breathtaking. To reach this panoramic site, board bus no. 12 from the train station on Bahnhofplatz.
Mount Titlis, which is visited as an excursion from the little resort of Engelberg, is the highest point from which you can get a view over central Switzerland. The summit is always covered by snow and ice; there's an "ice cave," in addition to a glacier trail. The view from the belvedere, at 2,970m (9,742 ft.), takes in the Jungfrau and the Matterhorn, as well as Zurich and Basel on a clear day. There's a summer ski run with a ski lift. There are also two restaurants: the Panorama Restaurant Titlis at 3,000m (9,840 ft.), and the Gletscher-Restaurant Stand at 2,412m (7,911 ft.). They have the same phone number: 041/639-50-80.
To get to the summit, you take a funicular and three cable cars. The last stage of the cable-car trip is the most spectacular, as you're taken right over the glacier. Visitors with respiratory problems may want to forgo this trip because of the thinness of the air at such elevations. The terminal at the summit (which is referred to in some timetables as Kleintitlis, or Little Titlis) has an observation lounge and a large sun terrace.
To get to Titlis from Lucerne's Bahnhof, drive or take a train to Engelberg; the round-trip costs 57F in first class, 34F in second class. Then, to reach the summit, take the cable cars that run daily beginning at 8:30am, with the last one back at 5pm. In winter, skiers use this connection to get to the higher slopes. For more information and schedules, call tel. 041/639-50-50 or 041/639-50-61.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.