Why go now?
This central Swiss city on the shores of Lake Lucerne, or Vierwaldstattersee, sparkles in the sunshine. Its allure is bolstered by the Lucerne Festival (00 41 41 226 4480; lucernefestival.ch), a vast array of concerts performed in venues throughout the city between 10 August and 18 September. This annual feast of classical music, a highlight of the Swiss cultural calendar since 1938, features some of the finest musicians in the world.
Even if you're not a classical music fan, Lucerne is still a great destination for a short summer break, with plenty to see and do around town, the Alps on your doorstep, and a lovely lake in which to cool off after a hard day's hiking in the hills.
The nearest international airport is Zurich. British Airways (0844 493 0787; britishairways.com) flies from Heathrow and London City, with competition on both routes from Swiss (0845 601 0956; swiss.com) and its fellow Lufthansa subsidiary BMI (0844 8484 888; flybmi.com) – which also flies from Birmingham, Edinburgh and Manchester. The only no-frills airline is easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com) from Gatwick, Luton and Manchester.
Direct trains (00 41 900 300 300; sbb.ch) run from Zurich airport to Lucerne every hour, taking 62 minutes for Sfr13.50 (£10). Lucerne's central station (1) is on the quayside, opposite the ferry terminal and a short walk from all the city centre sights.
Get your bearings
The tourist office at Zentralstrasse 5 (00 41 41 227 1717; luzern.com) is right next to the station (1); it opens daily 9am-7.30pm.
Lucerne is at the northern end of the Vierwaldstattersee – one of Switzerland's largest and most dramatic lakes. The compact city centre straddles the mouth of the Reuss river.
The pedestrianised Altstadt (old town) on the north bank is the prettiest (and most touristy) part of town.
The Neustadt (new town) on the south bank is an attractive mix of old and modern architecture, with more traffic but fewer sightseers.
The Kapellbrucke (2), a romantic wooden bridge built in 1333, is Lucerne's main landmark, and the most convenient route across the river.
The Schweizerhof (3) at Schweizerhofquai 3 (00 41 44 218 8888; schweizerhof-luzern.ch) is one of Switzerland's oldest, most distinctive grand hotels. Built in 1846, it has been run by the same family for five generations. Richard Wagner wrote Tristan und Isolde here. Subsequent guests include BB King, Iggy Pop and Deep Purple, though not in the same room at the same time. Doubles start at Sfr360 (£270), room only.
If your budget doesn't stretch to five stars, the Hotel zum Weissen Kreuz (4) at Furrengasse 19(00 41 41 418 8220; altstadthotelluzern.ch) is a homely three-star hideaway in the heart of the Altstadt, on the north bank of the Reuss. The bedrooms are small but stylish, and the dining room doubles as a chic Italian restaurant. Doubles from Sfr230 (£174) including breakfast.
An even more economic option is The Bed + Breakfast (5) at Taubenhausstrasse 34 (00 41 41 310 1514; thebandb.ch). Housed in an attractive old villa in the new town, it has eight pleasant bedrooms. Doubles cost Sfr120 (£90) including breakfast.
Take a hike
Follow the lakeside path from the central station (1) along Inseliquai and Alpenquai. The pedestrianised Inseliquai leads past the lush and leafy Inselipark (6), through atmospheric docks and boatyards (7) to a beautiful, secluded beach, Strandbad Tribschen (8), (00 41 41 360 4567; www.hallenbadluzern.ch), where well-maintained swimming platforms reach out into the lake. There's beach volleyball on shore and table tennis in the adjoining garden. Open 9am-9pm daily, Sfr4 (£3).
After you've dried off, walk along the quiet Alpenquai to the Richard Wagner Museum (9) at Richard Wagner Weg 27 (00 41 41 360 2370; richard-wagner-museum.ch; open 10am-noon and 2pm-5pm, daily except Monday; Sfr8 (£6). The controversial composer lived and worked in this splendid villa for six years. Its rooms, full of his personal effects, still reverberate with the power of his personality. Allow about half an hour each way for the hike and about an hour for the museum.
Lunch on the run
Goldener Stern (10) at Burgerstrasse 35 (00 41 41 227 5060; goldener-stern.ch) is a family-run restaurant in the new town, with a cosy canteen downstairs that serves traditional Swiss food in a homely, unpretentious style. The pork or beef sausage with fries and onion sauce costs Sfr17 (£12.75).
The Altstadt may be more picturesque, but the best shops are in the Neustadt. A particular treat is Caroline Felber's idiosyncratic hat shop, Hutte & Mutzen (11) at Moosstrasse 1 (00 41 41 210 5363; huete.ch). You can watch her milliners at work on site, buy off the peg for as little as Sfr15 (£11.25) or commission one of her bespoke creations from Sfr 70 (£52.50) upwards.
The best view of the city is from the Lake View Lounge of the Art Deco Hotel Montana (12) at Adligenswilerstrasse 22 (00 41 41 419 0000; hotel-montana.ch), a splendid pile perched on the hillside above Lucerne. It is open to non-residents from 4pm Friday to Sunday (from 5pm other nights). There's no need to walk up, unless you need the exercise; the hotel's free funicular runs from the lake shore right into the lobby. The bar's house speciality is its array of 80 single malt whiskies, with prices from Sfr7 (£5.25).
For cocktails, head for the Astoria (13) at Pilatusstrasse 29 (00 41 41 226 8888; astoria-luzern.ch). This sleek high-rise hotel was designed by Swiss architects Herzog & De Meuron, but with half a dozen debonair bars and a fabulous roof terrace, it's a great place to party. The penthouse special (tequila, peach liqueur, passion fruit) costs Sfr16 (£12).
Dine with the locals
In Switzerland, a Rathaus is as much of a meeting place as a seat of local government. Lucerne's Rathaus (14) at Unter der Egg 2 (00 41 41 410 5257; rathausbrauerei.ch) also brews its own beer, and its cosy basement is a convivial bierkeller serving hearty Swiss favourites. A plate of bratwurst and sauerkraut, washed down with half a litre of the house lager, costs Sfr28.80 (£21.60).
To sample classic Swiss cuisine in traditional surroundings, book a table at Wilden Mann (15) at Bahnhofstrasse 30 (00 41 41 210 1666; wilden-mann.ch). A tavern since the 16th century, this historic four-star hotel houses two fine restaurants in its old stables. Restaurant Sauvage is the gastronomic option, but the Burgerstube is the most atmospheric, decorated in glorious mock gothic style. The four-course menu (soup, scallops, veal, sorbet) costs Sfr82 (£61.50), excluding wine.
Sunday morning: go to church
The grandest church in Lucerne is the 16th-century Jesuitenkirche (16) at Bahnhofstrasse 11a (00 41 41 240 3133; jesuitenkirche-luzern.ch; daily 6am to 6.30pm, Sunday services at 7am, 3pm, 5pm & 8.15pm). Services are in German, but, unlike much of Switzerland, Lucerne is a Catholic city, and the ritual and settings are spectacular, even if you don't understand every word.
Out to brunch
Brunch means something entirely different in Central Europe. It's not half a meal, more like a meal-and-a-half. The Sunday brunch buffet at 1871, the lakefront restaurant of the five-star Grand Hotel National (17) at Haldenstrasse 4 (00 41 41 422 1871; 1871.ch) is a case in point – salmon, cheese, bacon, sausages, pancakes – all you can eat for Sfr44 (£33). It's not the cheapest meal in town, but you probably won't want to eat again all day (served 10am-1pm).
A walk in the park
Lucerne's prettiest park is the green ribbon that runs along the north bank of the Vierwaldstattersee. Start at the Grand Hotel National (17) and walk east for about half-an-hour along Carl-Spitteler-Quai to the lakeside Lido (18) at Lidostrasse 6a (00 41 41 370 3806; lido-luzern.ch). You can take a refreshing dip here any day from 9am to 8pm, for a price of Sfr7 (£5.25).
Take a ride
The nicest way to see Lucerne and its surroundings is aboard the handsome ferries (some paddle steamers), which criss-cross the Vierwaldstattersee (00 41 41 367 6767; lakelucerne.ch). Boats depart from the Bahnhofquai (19) beside the central station and dock at about a dozen scenic spots along the lake. The entire trip takes three hours each way, but most passengers opt for shorter journeys. A 40-minute return trip to the quaint lakeside town of Weggis costs Sfr35 (£26.25).
Angela Rosengart started out as an art dealer at 16, apprenticed to her Swiss father. Now 79, during the last 60 years she has accumulated a wonderful haul of modern art, and you can see it all in the Rosengart Collection (20) at Pilatus-strasse 10 (00 41 41 220 1660; rosengart.ch). Her elegant gallery houses more than 100 pictures by Paul Klee plus dozens of paintings (and hundreds of sketches) by Picasso, including five portraits he made of Angela as a young woman. Other famous names on show include Matisse, Miró, Braque and Chagall – all of whom she met in the course of her incredible career. Open daily 10am-6pm; admission Sfr18 (£13.50).
The icing on the cake
Lucerne's top attraction is Mount Pilatus, the 2,132m high peak that towers over the city. You can scale the mountain by cable car from Kriens (21) (reached in 15 minutes on bus 1 from Lucerne's central station (1) or on the world's steepest mountain railway from Alpnachstad (22) (20 minutes from Lucerne by train or 90 minutes by boat). The mountaintop is a tourist trap, but it's easy to escape the crowds on the hiking trails around the summit.
The adventure playground at Frakmuntegg, half way up, boasts Switzerland's longest summer toboggan run. Allow a whole day for the round trip, or half a day for a shorter section. Prices from Sfr9.50 (£7.10) for one section to Sfr94 (£70.50) for the round trip, by boat, bus, cable car and mountain railway (00 41 41 329 1111; pilatus.ch).