48 hours in Lucerne

Britons have been taking the mountain air in Lucerne since Victorian times. So why not give yourself a winter boost in Switzerland's angelic 'city of lights'?

Why go now?

Why go now?

The lakeside lanterns and floodlit edifices of this "city of lights" will brighten up the gloomiest winter night. Legend links the name "Lucerne" (from lucerna meaning "lamp") with an angel who, with light streaming from his fingertips, indicated to eighth-century Benedictine monks the site on which they should build the city's first chapel. Plus, a sunny winter's weekend spent contemplating the snow-covered mountains is sure to restore your sense of well-being. Follow in the path of the 19th-century Brits (including Queen Victoria) who came here to take the curative mountain air. If you still need persuading, from 22 February, the carnival kicks off. Work stops for five days as the city surrenders itself to eating, drinking, discordant music and dressing up.

Beam down

You can fly direct to Zürich airport from Birmingham, Edinburgh, Heathrow, London City or Manchester on Swissair (0845 758 1333; www.swissair.com) or its subsidiary Crossair, and from Heathrow and Gatwick on British Airways (0845 77 333 77, www.britishairways.com). Expect to pay around £130-£200 return for a restricted economy ticket from one of these airports. The cheapest flights, though, are with easyJet from Luton (www.easyJet.com; 0870 600 0000 - £5 surcharge if you book by phone). Book early to get the cheapest flights in the peak winter skiing season. From the airport there are direct trains to Lucerne taking around an hour for a return fare of Sfr38 (£15).

Get your bearings

The city is divided into two parts, the old and the new, with the river Reuss running between them. The northern boundary is marked by the Museggmauer, part of the original city walls built to keep out marauding armies. The medieval Kapellbrücke (chapel bridge) over the Reuss, and its distinctive octagonal water tower also formed part of the same fortifications, but the one now standing is a replica since the original was destroyed in the devastating fire of 1993. Its surviving twin, the covered wooden Spreuerbrücke (mill bridge), connects the lower parts of the city. Alternatively, get your bearings from the mountains: Pilatus, looming over the city, is instantly recognisable, and with a bit of practice you'll soon pick out Rigi, Bürgenstock, and Stanserhorn from the many peaks surrounding the lake.

Check in

For five-star luxury, stay at the very grand Grand Hotel National or Palace hotel on Haldenstrasse. Make sure you get a room with a lake view though, not least because, on the other side, building work on a new fitness centre is carrying on well into 2001. Prices at both hotels start from around Sfr240 (£96) per single room per night in January and February, or from Sfr340 (£137) for a double room. The three-star Hotel Krone in the historic Weinmarkt is a friendly family-run hotel, with prices starting from Sfr100 (£40) for a single person or Sfr150 (£60) for two sharing. Or from Sfr49 (£20) per night (or Sfr79/£32 based on two sharing), you can stay in a converted cell in the former jail at the Löwengraben, situated in the heart of the old town.

The icing on the cake

Colourful frescos are a cheerful feature of Lucerne's architecture, and were originally commissioned by a family or guild to show off their wealth to the outside world. On the Zunfthaus zu Pfister you can see the coats of arms of the bakers, millers and pastry-makers. Painted more recently are the "Wedding at Caana" on the Haus zur Sonne in the Weinmarkt, and the bright masks and carnival figures on the Restaurant Fritschi. Don't miss, either, the macabre "death dance" pictures in the gables of the Spreuerbrücke, depicting the skeleton of Death tapping his unsuspecting victims on the shoulder.

Sunday morning, go to church

The Jesuits were originally invited into Lucerne in order to stop Zwingli and the reformers from ousting the wealthy mercenary population. Unfortunately, they went on to become too powerful and were in their turn expelled (twice), but not before building the baroque Church of St Francis Xavier. Like most of the churches in Lucerne, it is now Roman Catholic. The interior is Rococo and ceiling paintings, dark pink stucco "marble" and golden angels abound.

Demure dinner

Lucerne has a long tradition of links with Italy, dating from the time when the lake was an essential stage on the route from south to north. So, if you've had enough red meat by dinner time, opt for pasta instead. Padrino's, in the Grand Hotel National, has disturbing "empire meets modern art" decor and a formal atmosphere, but the food is fantastic. La Gondola, off the Weinmarkt, is warmer, friendlier and more reasonable, but the food isn't as good. Merged, they would together form the perfect restaurant.

Take a ride

Lake Lucerne is known in German as the Vierwaldstättersee, "the lake of the four forest cantons" (although there are now actually five), and a circular cruise takes you past wooded slopes, sheer precipices and mountain meadows. One of these is Rütli Meadow, where a pact between three neighbouring cantons (Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden) led to the founding of the Swiss Confederation in 1307. A day-pass for unlimited boat travel will set you back Sfr42 (£17), but individual journeys cost less. To get your lungs working, take the connection from Alpnachstad on the steepest cogwheel railway in the world (gradient 1:2) up to the summit of Mount Pilatus and inhale hard as the view from the 2,000ft-high terrace at the top takes your breath away.

Bracing brunch

Work up an appetite for a hearty Swiss breakfast of bread, meat and cheese by taking the early boat to Vitznau and a marginally less steep cogwheel railway 1,000ft up Mount Rigi to the Hotel Edelweiss at Staffelhöhe (breakfast costs Sfr18.50/£7.50). If the city is swathed in fog in the morning, you can rise above it here and marvel at the mountain panorama. If it's nearer lunch time, try the Alpler-Mägronen, a kind of macaroni cheese also containing potatoes, topped with fried onions, and served with apple sauce (Sfr17/£7). Good Alpine farmers' fodder.

Take a hike

Work off your brunch by hiking from Staffelhöhe up to the summit at Rigi Kulm (about an hour's walk). Around 100km of hiking paths are maintained on the mountain throughout winter, and on a clear day you can see as far as the Black Forest in South Germany. Mark Twain said, "We could not speak. We could not breathe. We could only gaze in drunken ecstasy and drink it in." If you're feeling adventurous, sledge part of the way down, or take the cable car from Kaltbad down to Weggis and catch the boat back to Lucerne from there. A round trip comprising boat, railway and cable car costs Sfr58 (£23.50), but if you're staying in a Lucerne hotel, you get a 10-per-cent discount.

An aperitif

Warm up with a Kaffee Luz, made by dropping a five-franc coin into a glass, half-filling it with coffee, then adding schnapps until the coin reappears. Best consumed while appreciating the snowscape from a window seat at the lakeside Schwanen Café. Alternatively, take the short funicular rail trip (Sfr2/80p per person) up to Château Gütsch, perched high above the city. Fabulous views, but the prices are as steep as the railway.

Window shopping

Perhaps it's the Swiss watches that make the people so punctual; shop for Omega, Rado, Tissot and Swatch at Bucherer or Casagrande. There are plenty of designer stores in the old part of the city, but unless you're as wealthy as the resident insurance-brokers, it's probably best to stick to Swiss chocolate. Au Cachet, on the Pfistergasse, is the oldest chocolate shop in Lucerne and a definite contender for chocolate heaven. Wood carvings, clothes embroidered with Swiss flowers, and Swiss Army knives are ubiquitous.

A walk in the park

On a sunny afternoon, join the locals and their dogs in a promenade around the lake. Set out from the city, going clockwise towards Küssnacht, and walk as far as you like. Restaurants, sailing boats, moorhens and weeping willows line the route, while flocks of seagulls mew in the expectation that you'll feed them. Returning at sunset, the clouds and mountains blush while the lake turns gold.

Cultural afternoon

Lucerners are inordinately proud of their post-modern glass-walled Kultur und Kongresszentrum (culture and convention centre). As well as a modern-art exhibition, the centre has an acoustically acclaimed concert hall, so look out for musical events. The Picasso Museum has a handful of the artist's important works, but is more notable for its collection of almost 200 intimate photographs of the man himself, taken by David Douglas Duncan as he followed Picasso around for two years. The giant glacial potholes and hall of mirrors at the Gletschergarten (glacier garden) are good fun, and you can take in the majestic "dying lion" monument at the same time.

Lunch on the run

Take advantage of one of the two Swiss Mövenpick restaurants. Salads start at about Sfr9 (£3.50), main courses at Sfr20 (£8), and their speciality ice-creams range from Sfr3 to Sfr30 (£1.20 to £12), depending on how indulgent you want to be (and how frozen your fingers are). On a warm day, sit outdoors under the arches by the river at the Hotel Schiff restaurant; the food is typical Swiss fare, typically at a price.

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