50km (31 miles) S of Zurich; 90km (56 miles) E of Bern
Lucerne is a tourist favorite partly because it embodies the storybook image of a Swiss town. Located at the north end of the lake, the city abounds in narrow cobblestone streets, slender spires and turrets, covered bridges, frescoed houses, and fountains. Its residents are quick to tell you that you're "never very far from the snow" -- Mounts Rigi and Pilatus form the southern gate to the city, and the snowcapped Alps loom in the distance.
Lucerne's strategic gateway to the south and the rich markets of Italy lie between Rigi and Pilatus. The city's history has always been tied to the St. Gotthard Pass. During the 13th century, the routes leading to it were simple mule paths. By 1820 the road had been widened enough to allow the easy passage of carriages. By 1882 Lucerne had a railway tunnel. Once a satellite vassal of the Hapsburgs, in 1332 Lucerne became the first city to join the Swiss Confederation. Unlike Geneva and Zurich, Lucerne did not support the Reformation and has always remained a stronghold of Catholicism.
The city is a renowned cultural center. Richard Wagner spent several of his most productive years in Tribschen, on the outskirts of Lucerne (there's a Wagner museum here). Arturo Toscanini was a founder of the Lucerne Festival of Music, one of the most important musical events in Europe, which takes place annually in April, and its companion event, the Lucerne Piano Festival, an event that transpires every November.
The residents of Lucerne are a sports-oriented people. Every summer there are international rowing regattas on Rotsee. Swimmers go to the lido (lake beach) and golfers head for the 18-hole golf course on the outskirts, or to any of several others that lie within a 35-minute drive. Other sports include tennis, hiking, and mountaineering. Residents seem especially fond of horse races, and there are plenty of international horse-jumping contests.
You'll find Lucerne at its best between May and September on Tuesday and Saturday mornings, when it becomes a lively market town. The markets are sheltered by stately arcades on both banks of the Reuss River.