Renowned for its scenic setting, on a beautiful lake surrounded by Alpine peaks, Lucerne was once a major stop on the Grand Tour. When Queen Victoria came for an extended holiday in 1868, checking in under the pseudonym of the "Countess of Kent" (and valiantly ascending the nearby Mount Pilatus by pony), the town was already well known to admiring outsiders. Now, as then, both banks of the River Reuss, which splits the town, are clustered with medieval squares, frescoed houses, ancient guildhalls, churches and chapels, these days interspersed with designer shopping boutiques and lively street cafés that belie the city's age. Arriving by train is an impressive experience: as you emerge from the concourse, the lake glitters a few metres away, with the spires and towers of the old town flanked by distant snowy crags.
Lucerne's most alluring hotel is The Hotel at Sempacherstrasse 14 (00 41 41 226 86 86; www.the-hotel.ch). This is a chic, boutique affair designed by the Parisian architect Jean Nouvel in a townhouse overlooking a city-centre park. Suites and studios feature contemporary styling in dark, matt tones and brushed steel. Each guest room has a giant still image from a classic movie on the ceiling.
The Hotel currently has a weekend special: deluxe studio with park view, breakfast and five-course dinner at the hotel restaurant Bam Bou starts at around Sfr550 (£245) for two.
For a touch of traditional Swiss quality, head to the splendid Romantik Hotel Wilden Mann at Bahnhofstrasse 30 (00 41 41 210 16 66; www.wilden-mann.ch). This historic property, dating back to 1517, occupies seven adjoining houses; opposite is an antique pharmacy, behind is the medieval mint. Doubles start from Sfr265 (£117), including breakfast.
Snaking across the River Reuss in the town centre is the early 14th-century wooden Chapel Bridge, adorned with a series of double-sided triangular panels in its roof that were painted in the 17th century with scenes from the city's past. Some survived a devastating fire in 1993; others are facsimile copies.
Overlooking the octagonal Water Tower, a medieval structure in an angle of the bridge, is the stunning Culture and Convention Centre, or KKL. Another design by the French architect Jean Nouvel, this is a bravura work in glass and steel, with an impossibly extended cantilevered roof that seems to float over the lake. A floodlit fountain plays on the broad apron, as reflecting pools draw water into the building's complex interior. This is one of the venues for the Lucerne Festival.
Lucerne's leading gallery is the Rosengart Collection, devoted chiefly to works by Picasso and Paul Klee. Rosengart Collection, Pilatusstrasse 10 (00 41 41 220 16 60; www.rosengart.ch); admission Sfr15 (£6.50).
Eating and drinking
Lucerne's trademark dish is Luzerner Kugelipastete, a plate-sized puff-pastry shell filled with a rich concoction of diced veal and mushrooms in a cream sauce. A fine place to sample it is the tavern-like restaurant Galliker at Schützenstrasse 1 (00 41 41 240 10 02). For fresh-caught fish, head to the riverside restaurant Reussbad at Brüggligasse 19 (00 41 41 240 54 23; www.reussbad.ch). The fillets of perch sautéed with almonds is excellent.
Adjourn to the nearby Rathaus Brauerei at Unter der Egg 2 (00 41 41 410 52 57; www.rathausbrauerei.ch). This echoing cross-vaulted beer hall beneath the town hall offers some powerful home-brewed ales.
Lucerne's medieval town centre bustles with commerce: shops fill the frescoed squares and cobbled alleys. Bodum, famous for kitchen and homeware designs, started out in Denmark, but has been headquartered in Lucerne since 1980; the city has one of Switzerland's few Bodum home stores at Weinmarkt 7 (00 41 41 412 38 38; www.bodum.ch). On the theme of design, Pieks at Mythenstrasse 9 (00 41 41 410 00 90; www.pieks.ch) is a wonderful outlet for luxury cloth and textiles. Don't miss the colourful food markets which spill over both banks of the river every Tuesday and Saturday morning.
Lucerne's biggest party is its massive six-day carnival, ending on Shrove Tuesday. Otherwise, apart from the Lucerne Festival of classical music (see box), the town hosts Fumetto, an international comics festival, in April, while 1 July is the Altstadtfest, when the old town fills with oompah bands and beer stalls. July also sees the high-quality - if unhappily named - Blue Balls festival of blues and jazz, as well as a world-class international rowing regatta on the nearby Rotsee lake.
For more information, contact Lucerne Tourism ( www.luzern.org; 00 41 41 227 1717).
On a high note
Lucerne plays host to one of Europe's most prestigious annual classical music events, the Lucerne Festival, now well into its seventh decade. The festival was inaugurated in 1938 with a concert conducted by Arturo Toscanini in the grounds of Richard Wagner's lakeside home at Tribschen.
Major names graced Lucerne in the years following, including Furtwängler and von Karajan, at the head of orchestras such as the Vienna Philharmonic, Milan's La Scala and the Berlin Philharmonic.
The event has gone from strength to strength and these days over 100,000 festival-goers visit Lucerne each year. The festival comprises three elements, spread over the year. "Sommer" is the main one, presenting around 80 events during August and September at venues ranging from the superb KKL concert hall to town churches and open-air settings. Smaller offshoots - "Ostern" at Easter, with a mix of classic and contemporary, sacred and secular music; and "Piano" in November, focusing on keyboard soloists in jazz and the classics - fill out the annual programme.
For 2006, the highlights are varied. At the Ostern event, look out for the Hilliard Ensemble singing 16th-century English vocal works, the celebrated countertenor Andreas Scholl and, on Palm Sunday, Cecilia Bartoli with the Freiburger Barockorchester.
The Sommer festival is a star-studded affair, ranging from Anne-Sophie Mutter performing Mozart's violin sonatas to a cycle of vocal works presented by the Lucerne Festival Academy under the artistic direction of Pierre Boulez.
The programme for the Lucerne piano festival in November is still being finalised. Lucerne Festival: Ostern (1-9 April), Sommer (10 August-17 September) and Piano (20-26 November). For full details, including dates and ticket prices, see www.lucernefestival.ch.Reuse content