The city of Lucerne is tucked neatly into the north-west corner of Lake Lucerne, amid lovely Alpine scenery. It is little more than an hour by train from either Basel or Zurich, yet it has a completely different feel from those "lowland" cities. Once a small fishing village, it has become one of Switzerland's most popular destinations, attracting more than five million visitors a year. The main tourist office is by the west exit of the railway station (Zentralstrasse 5; 00 41 41 227 17 17; www.luzern.org), next to platform 3. It opens 8.30am-6pm from Monday to Friday (until 7.30pm mid-June to mid-September), 9am-7.30pm at weekends (9am-1pm in winter).
The oldest part of Lucerne is on the north shore, at the point where the River Reuss flows into the lake. It is connected to the opposite bank by a series of bridges, the oldest of which are the Kapellbrücke, both covered as they were in medieval times when they were built, although the Kapellbrücke has been restored following a fire in 1993. On the south bank is the modern commercial area, with shops along Pilatusstrasse; there are also many smaller boutiques in the old town. The railway station is on this side of the river, at the southern end of the Seebrücke, and in front of it are the landing stages for the steamers (00 41 41 367 67 67; www.lakelucerne.ch), which connect Lucerne with the other towns on the lake.
There are plenty of hotels in the city. For cutting-edge design book into The Hotel (Sempacherstrasse 14; 00 41 41 226 86 86; www.the-hotel.ch). Designed by Jean Nouvel, this painfully hip "deluxe boutique hotel" has five stars but considers it vulgar to mention them. There are lots of smooth surfaces, sharp edges and subtle lighting and, unforgettably, blown-up stills from erotic films on the ceiling of every bedroom. In summer, doubles are available from Sfr410 (£181) - breakfast in bed is extra. The four-star Hotel Wilden Mann at Bahnhofstrasse 30 (00 41 41 210 16 66; www.wilden-mann.ch) is a charming old townhouse hotel with loads of character, serving excellent food. There are single rooms from Sfr200 (£117) including breakfast. Not far away, and conveniently placed for the river and the railway station, is the three-star Hotel Schlüssel at Franziskanerplatz 12 (00 41 41 210 10 61). You may need to book ahead to secure one of only 10 rooms, which will cost Sfr95 (£42) for a single, Sfr140 (£62) for a double, including breakfast. The atmosphere is friendly and there is a pleasant bar-restaurant.
Lucerne has an unspoilt, and now pedestrianised, medieval town centre with a warren of narrow alleys, cobbled squares and painted façades - many dating back to the 13th century. It is also an important destination on the cultural circuit: the Lucerne Festival (00 41 41 226 44 80; www.lucernefestival.ch) is in any music lover's calendar. This year it starts on 11 August and runs until 18 September. There is also a November piano festival (22-27 November this year), as well as the spring festival, Ostern, which runs for 10 days each March. The concerts in the summer festival are divided between the extraordinary concert hall at the Lucerne Culture and Convention Centre (known in town as the KKL, or Ka-Ka-El) and several of the town's churches. Two concerts not to miss will be the appearances of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Simon Rattle, on 1 and 2 September. Tickets are available now by mail or e-mail; telephone booking opens 17 May and the box office at the KKL (00 41 41 226 70 70; www.kkl-luzern.ch) will sell tickets from 8 August.
On the other hand, if your idea of culture is the yeast that ferments beer, Lucerne has an alternative venue: the Rathaus Brauerei (Unter der Egg 2; 00 41 41 410 52 57; www.rathausbrauerei.ch), a riverside brewery and restaurant with its own shop. Down a glass of Rathaus Bockbier and you'll be yodelling within seconds.
Apart from walking across the old bridges, the best way to appreciate Lucerne's medieval origins is to walk along what remains of the 14th-century city walls with their old towers and admire the panoramic views over the town and across the lake. The grand Hofkirche is a short walk from the end of the walls, but Lucerne's most attractive church is on the other side of the water. The stunning Jesuit Church (00 41 41 419 94 02; www.jesuitenkirche-luzern.ch) with its two onion-domed towers, is the oldest baroque church in Switzerland and a marvel of elaborate Rococo design. It opens daily 6am-6.30pm.
Even if you don't go to any concerts, you still have to visit the Lucerne Culture and Convention Centre at Europaplatz 1. Walking around the Kunstmuseum ( www.kunstmuseumluzern.ch), the modern art collection on the top floor, is the best way to get a feel for the design of the building. The museum opens 10am-5pm daily except Monday, until 8pm on Wednesday; entrance costs Sfr10 (£4.40). The Rosengart Collection at Pilatusstrasse 10 (00 41 41 220 16 60; www.rosengart.ch) houses more than 200 major works from the 19th and 20th century, including about 50 Picassos and a large collection of paintings by Switzerland's best-known artist, Paul Klee. It opens 10am-6pm daily, and admission costs Sfr15 (£6.65).
Even if you're not a natural train spotter, it would be hard not to be impressed by the Swiss Transport Museum at Lidostrasse 5 (00 41 41 370 44 44; www.verkehrshaus.ch). The hands-on exhibits cover all forms of transport in Switzerland. Tickets for the museum cost Sfr24 (£10.60) and there is a combined ticket for Sfr32 (£14), covering the Planetarium and IMAX cinema on the same site.
FIVE FOR FOOD AND DRINK
Opus at Bahnhofstrasse 16 (00 41 41 226 41 41; www.restaurant-opus.ch) is a buzzing riverside restaurant and winebar with good modern European cuisine, a few typically Swiss dishes, and a wine list boasting more than 700 wines.
Bam Bou, the restaurant at The Hotel (Sempacherstrasse 14; 00 41 41 226 86 86; www.the-hotel.ch), offers a mixture of Asian and French cooking in surroundings that easily justify claims that it is the most stylish restaurant in the city. But beware that such stellar cuisine comes with prices to match, although the Japanese-style bento box, served at lunchtime, is good value at Sfr25 (£11).
Chocoholics should visit Restaurant Fritschi on Sternenplatz 5 (00 41 41 410 16 15) and dive into the Swiss Chocolate fondue. Various cheese fondues are also on the menu, starting at Sfr24.50 (£11), as well as meat fondues and raclette.
For dinner or Sunday lunch with a panoramic view of the lake, take the world's shortest funicular railway - the ascent only takes a minute - from Haldenstrasse up to the elegant but relaxed Hotel Montana at Adligenswilerstrasse 22 (00 41 41 419 00 00; www.hotel-montana.ch). The à la carte dinner menu in the Scala Restaurant is good value at Sfr62 (£27).
Conditorei Heini on Falkenplatz (00 41 41 412 20 20; www.heini.ch) is a stylish cafe that serves a wide selection of cakes and light lunch dishes and also sells traditional breads and cakes to take away.
ITALIAN STYLE, SWISS PERFECTION
Although at the opposite end of the country from Lucerne, Switzerland's Italian-speaking region of Ticino is on the high-speed rail line heading south to Milan. Trains depart hourly from Lucerne for the dramatic journey to the Ticinese capital, Bellinzona - an elegant old town that has been a fortress since Roman times. Occupying a prime position on the floor of the Ticino valley, Bellinzona was fought over during the medieval period before the Swiss finally wrested the city - and all of Ticino - from the Dukes of Milan in 1503. Since then this chunk of land south of the Alps has been thoroughly Swiss: after Napoleon came through, threatening to annexe the area, Ticino held out for independence under the banner Liberi e Svizzeri! ("Free and Swiss!") and joined Switzerland as a republic in 1803. The Ticinesi, though linguistically and temperamentally Italian, remain resolutely Swiss, and have little truck with outsiders who can't tell the difference.
Their capital, Bellinzona, shows its history in three magnificent castles, connected by fortifications strung along the valley floor. In the heart of the town is the biggest, Castelgrande, overlooked by the 13th-century White Tower and 14th-century Black Tower, which show distinctive Lombard-style winged battlements. Castelgrande's Museo Storico offers an engaging tour through the city's ancient past. Across the valley, a path rises to the picturesque Castello di Montebello, and continues even higher to the Castello di Sasso Corbaro, perched some 230m above Bellinzona. The panoramic view from its ramparts is splendid. All three castles are protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Castelgrande (00 41 91 825 8145; www.bellinzonaturismo.ch). Museo Storico: Sfr4 (£1.75). Montebello (00 41 91 825 1342), Sasso Corbaro (00 41 91 825 5906).
All open daily 10am-6pm.
A quarter-hour west of Bellinzona is the sun-drenched resort of Locarno. This characterful old town enjoys the most glorious of locations - on a broad sweeping curve of a bay in Lake Maggiore, which clocks up the most sunshine hours of anywhere in Switzerland. The arcades and piazzas of the town centre are overlooked by subtropical gardens of palms, camellias, bougainvillea, cypress, oleanders and magnolias, which flourish on the waterfront promenades and cover the slopes that crowd in above the town centre.
The cobbled alleys of Locarno's old town, lined with Renaissance façades, lead down to the arcaded, Belle-Epoque Piazza Grande - Locarno's meeting-point, social club and public catwalk. Warm summer nights serve up some great people-watching, as exquisitely groomed locals parade to and fro beneath the street lights.
A funicular from near Piazza Grande climbs the hillside to the ochre Santuario Madonna del Sasso, a Franciscan church founded on a wooded crag - sasso means rock - in 1487.
Madonna del Sasso (00 41 91 791 0091; www.maggiore.ch). Daily 6.30am-7pm. Free.
With its compact cluster of piazzas and extensive palm-lined promenades, Lugano is the most alluring of Ticino's lake resorts. Set on a bay in Lake Lugano, its views are astonishing: the city is framed by wooded, sugarloaf hills rising sheer from the water.
At the centre of town is the broad Piazza della Riforma, a café-lined square perfect for eyeballing passers-by. Tucked away in the web of lanes behind the square is the wonderful Gabbani delicatessen - an Aladdin's cave of fine salsiccia made especially for the shop, cabinets full of local Alpine cheeses, pastries and foodie delights galore. Perched on a terrace above is the Cattedrale San Lorenzo, with a Renaissance portal and fragments of 14th-century frescoes within.
From Piazza della Riforma, the boutique-infested Via Nassa heads southwest to the medieval church of Santa Maria degli Angioli, which dates from 1490. Inside is a magnificent fresco painted in 1529 by Bernardino Luini, depicting the Passion and Crucifixion, along with Luini's copy of his master's Last Supper. Nearby, the Museo d'Arte Moderna is currently showing a major exhibition of Jean-Michel Basquiat's work, due to run until June 19.
Gabbani, Via Pessina (00 41 91 911 3080; www.gabbani.com).
Museo d'Arte Moderna, Riva Caccia 5 ( www.mdam.ch). Open 9am-7pm daily except Monday; Sfr11 (£4.80).
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