If you’re planning a trip with a few days stop in Switzerland, you may have a difficult time deciding whether to choose Lucerne or Zurich as your basecamp.
Lucerne, or Luzern, is a small (population of 80K) and picturesque town surrounded by exceptional lake and mountain scenery. Zurich is much larger (population of 400K) with a business city feel, but is nonetheless also beautiful with a stunning medieval old town crossed by a gorgeous lake.
Lucerne is a gateway to popular places in the Alps and is highly touristy, while Zurich is recognized for its luxury shopping, history, food, and arts. Both places are quite expensive.
Lucerne or Zurich: what travelers say
- Lucerne is closer to the high Alps than Zurich. Being on the edge of the mountains, it’ a better base for those looking to hike in nature or ascend mounts Pilatus, Rigi, and Titlis .
- Both Lucerne and Zurich have picturesque medieval old towns, but Lucerne’s scenery is more spectacular with the mountains dropping into the lakes. There are also many scenic lakeside villages easily accessed from Lucerne
- Lucerne is much smaller than Zurich with a very different and much more compact old town. The town is easy to get around in. Lucerne is more “picture book quaint”. The lake of Lucern is stunning, the area around the Flüelen municipality near Lucerne looks like a Norwegian fjord.
- Zurich is a business and financial center, however it’s a beautiful city with an impressive old town and lakefront. It has a very laid-back atmosphere, particularly in the summer. It has lake beaches, beautiful parks, excellent museums, restaurants and cafés, and upscale shops.
- Lucerne is increasingly overrun with tourists and tour groups. In Zurich, on the other hand, there are mainly locals.
- Lucerne offers endless choices of day trips into nature. If you’re not the outdoor type, however, Lucerne is nice for a day or two but Zurich has a lot more to see and do for 3 or 4 nights, namely for art museums. Zurich is also much less tourist-centric.
- Zurich is a very international place and is considered the world’s most expensive city. Travelers who choose to stay in Lucerne (also expensive) still take a few hours to see Zurich.
- While most travelers agree Lucerne is prettier and more scenic than Zurich, some prefer to stay in Zurich for the art, culture, food, and shopping, and do a day trip to Lucerne to experience Mount Rigi and the villages, vs the other way around.
Lucerne or Zurich: access & transportation
There is a direct train from the Zurich airport to Lucerne and the trip lasts only an hour and 15 minutes. Many travelers who choose to stay in Lucerne stay the whole time and catch the train to Zurich on the day of their international flight – they get off right inside the airport terminal.
Others, however, prefer staying in Zurich the night before, e.g. for a 10:30 am or earlier flight, as the total commute time from a Lucerne hotel to the Zurich airport can be around 2 hours. There are 6 to 8 trains per hour from Zurich’s main station to the airport (a 10 to 20-minute ride).
Travelers who choose Lucerne for their stay suggest exploring Zurich the first day (when arriving in Switzerland) before moving to Lucerne, keeping your luggage in a locker at the train station.
An alternative to the train is the bus from Lucerne to the Zurich airport (see this site) which runs even earlier than the train and also takes you right to the airport entrance.
For those looking to travel a lot in Switzerland, the Swiss Pass can save you money as it gives you access to city transits and lake boats, while also including free entrance to close to 500 museums and sights (including in Lucerne). The Half-Fare Card is another competing discount pass.
Check out this site for detailed info on Swiss transport.
Lucerne or Zurich: vibe & people
Lucerne’s owes its attractiveness in large part to its proximity to great nature sights like Mounts Rigi and Pilatus. This makes it a better base than Zurich for experiencing Alpine excursions.
The town itself also has a few noteworthy attractions such as the Kapellbrücke – Chapel Bridge, an iconic covered bridge lined with art – and a few good museums (see next section).
Besides nature trips, Lucerne is great for strolling around the lake and feeding swans, taking a boat cruise, wandering in the nice shops, or enjoying a comfortable hotel with views and a spa.
Some travelers who used to enjoy Lucerne some years ago now complain about the large number of tourists. Buses are constantly flowing into the old town and masses of tourists flocking into the stores (small souvenir shops, Bucherer watch store etc), lake, Lion monument, etc.
Other travelers, however, feel that while a few stores and attractions like Chapel Bridge do tend to get packed with tourists, most restaurants do not get so overcrowded.
Zurich is much less touristy and has an interesting urban life with many nice bars, restaurants, cafés, and clubs. Some travelers feel Zurich’s old town is more beautiful than Lucerne’s with more things to see. Zurich also has a lake as well as two rivers with pristine water.
Zurich is further from the high Alps than Lucerne, but it also has beautiful nature surrounding it such as the scenic Üetliberg hills right outside the city. Travelers generally find Zurich has Swiss character despite being a bigger city.
Zurich is a popular place for luxury shopping on the Bahnhofstrasse, eating out in upscale restaurants (e.g. Terrasse at Baur au Lac), or tasting delicate Swiss confectionary (e.g. Spungli or Laduree Confiseries).
Lucerne or Zurich: sights & culture
Some of the main sights in Lucerne are:
- Chapel Bridge: a 14th century covered footbridge over the Reuss River, the oldest in Europe, with a 34m-high tower (destroyed by a fire and rebuilt in 1994). The Bridge is lined with 17th-Century paintings and is one of Switzerland’s most popular tourist attractions.
- The Swiss Museum of Transport: Switzerland’s most popular museum, displaying all forms of transports (train, automobile, ships, aircraft, communication technology). Travelers generally rate it highly.
- The Lion Monument, a 19th-century rock relief picturing a mortally wounded lion, which commemorates a historical massacre. One of the most famous monuments in Switzerland.
- Rosengart Museum: Picasso paintings collections housed in a beautiful neoclassical building.
Lucerne has scenic lakeside paths. They can get crowded with many tourists taking photos near the main bridge connecting the old town to the modern shopping street and train station. You can also take a boat ride for enjoying the great view on the snow-capped mountains.
The Tourist Office offers 2-hour walking tours which travelers often appreciate. Others prefer to visit Lucerne on their own, purchasing tickets for the attractions the same day.
As mentioned, Lucerne is on the edges of Mount Rigi (1800 meter high), Mount Pilatus (about 2100 meters), and Mount Titlis. These can be ascended while also visiting picturesque mountain villages such as Engleberg, and lakeside villages such as Weggis and Vitznau. You can also spend time in the mineral spa at Rigi-Kaltbad.
Travelers often recommend staying at least 2 nights to see everything in and around Lucerne.
In Zurich, visitors enjoy the old town’s picturesque, pre-medieval era narrow streets on both sides of the Limmat River. The Limmatquai riverfront promenade runs all the way to the 17th-century town hall.
The Augustinergasse medieval lane is lined with former merchant houses with carved windows. Visitors easily spend a day wandering around the beautiful old town.
Among the main sights in Zurich is the Grossmünster 16th-century Romanesque-style protestant cathedral with its twin towers offering panoramic views over the lake and Alp mountains.
The elegant 9th-century Fraumünster Church is another one of the city’s major churches. It features a copper-topped spire and modern tinted glass windows by Marc Chagall (1970).
Great museums include the Kunsthaus art museum with its impressive Swiss art collections spanning several centuries, and the Swiss National Museum (Landesmuseum, Swiss history) located in a beautiful 19th-century building.
Besides the old town, the museums, the impressive number of restaurants and stores, travelers enjoy taking ferry rides or renting a boat on the lake. Travelers often take the paddle steamer ferry to the Rapperswil town to visit the castle and rose gardens,
Many visitors take the little train up the Utlieberg small mountain for the great views of the city, the lake, and the snowcapped high mountains. Some nice hiking options are available. Most travelers agree the Zurich zoo, which is a short and pleasant tram ride from the center, is well worth a visit.
Lucerne or Zurich: nightlife
In Lucerne, there are many restaurants on the left bank riverfront, relatively expensive. Manora Restaurant, on the rooftop of the Manor department store, offers fresh-made food (and nice views) at about half the price of other places.
Tibits, located in the train station, is another affordable option, offering vegetarian food. Some travelers also recommend Ristorante Mama Leone which offers good pizza.
There’s also an English pub next to the Hotel des Alpes which offers affordable hamburgers. In general, though, Lucerne has very limited nightlife.
As you might expect, there are a lot more options for going out in Zurich at any hour. Niederdorf is a popular area for nightlife in the heart of the old town. It has a long and beautiful avenue with endless shops, cafes, restaurants, old buildings, and pedestrian alleyways.
It’s an easy walk from the Zurich train station to Niederdorf. There you’ll find many indoor and outdoor restaurants and pubs. The area is always busy in the evenings, weekends, and whenever the weather is nice. From Niederdorfstrasse you can walk down to the lake and back up along the river and enjoy the lit-up city.
Besides, Niederdorf, Langstrasse is Zurich’s main area for bars and nightclubs (best avoided at very late night hours though) .
Lucerne or Zurich: shopping
In Zurich, Bahnhofstrasse, which stretches all the way from the lake to the train station, is the city’s main shopping avenue with many luxury boutiques and jewelers as well as international fashion names. The old town and the riverfront promenade also have upscale fashion stores.
These are very nice areas for walking around, window shopping, taking the tram, dining outside when the weather permits. In December, there are also many nice Christmas markets to visit. Many visitors in Switzerland enjoy spending their last day in the city before flying back home.
Lucerne or Zurich: lodging
In Lucerne, lakeside hotels offer the best views, though at high prices. The hotels located along the long promenade between the old town and the Transport Museum are the nicest, with panoramic views across the late and the mountains.
One of these hotels travelers recommend is Grand National. It’s very expensive with antiquely-decorated rooms and incredible views – the lakeview rooms, which are also the quietest, are much pricier than the street-facing ones.
The Schweizerhof is a comparable option to the Grand National but slightly closer to the commercial streets and restaurants.
Hotel Schiff, also located along the riverside facade, is considered relatively affordable with superb views of Mount Pilatus. The rooms are clean (though a bit dated), and the food is great.
Travelers also frequently recommend Hotel Restaurant Goldener Sternm which offers good value for Luzern. They find the rooms very comfortable, and the hotel is an easy walk to the river and to some of the attractions.
The Hotel Schweizerhof is praised for its spacious and very clean rooms, good food, and most of all, its spectacular views over the Alps.
The Renaissance Lucerne Hotel is also highly rated, namely for its concierge. There are also positive reviews of the Hotel Montana.
For travelers on a budget, there are a couple of basic but clean hotels farther from the lake but still decently situated. The Ibis Styles is only a 10-minute walk to the train station and town center, in a quiet location about a block away from the Lion Monument, and offers a nice breakfast.
Ambassador Hotel and Hotel de la Paix are also mentioned as decent budget hotels. Options in the Kriens suburb of Lucerne (e.g. the Ibis) typically have free parking. There’s also a Holiday Inn Express North of Lucerne in a highway rest area.
Some travelers choose to stay in smaller towns around the lake such as Weggis, Vitznau, or Brunnen, cheaper and less crowded than Lucerne, e.g. at the Beau Rivage Hotel in Weggis which has a pool and great lake views.
Zurich obviously has a very wide range of lodging options. Many visitors going for short a stay prefer a hotel near the Bahnhofstrasse or in a central location near the old town, e.g. around Zähringerstrasse or Weinbergstrasse.
Travelers highly praise Baur Au Lac Hotel which is considered to have some of the best services, bedding, and bathrooms.
Romantik Hotel Florhof is frequently recommended, an older and smaller property, nicely renovated and located about 4 blocks from the Old Town – travelers like to be close to the center but outside of it for a quieter stay. The hotel is relatively expensive but good value nevertheless.
Gasthof Hirschen in Regensdorf is also recommended although further from the center – some walking and a city transit ride are required.
Best Western Hotel Montana is close to the train station and within walking distance of most places of interest. Travelers find the hotel has pleasant rooms, nice and friendly staff, and excellent breakfasts.
Lucerne or Zurich: day trips
Lucerne has a plethora of great day trips to many places in central/south Switzerland, and even to the Grindelwald area for breathtaking Alpine panoramas.
Examples of day trips from Lucerne include:
- taking the Brunig Pass rail line to Interlaken-Ost followed by a mountain train to Grindelwald (glacier peaks and green meadows)
- Go to Bern and its covered paths (for bad weather) in the shopping streets of the center
- Go to the Stanserhorn to experience the open cable car
- Take a trip to the Open Air Museum at Ballenberg – farm animals, picnic areas etc
- Take a one-hour train ride to the beautiful, uncrowded Walensee lake for great views
- Take the cable car from Weggis to Rigi’s summit, walk back down to the lake via Vitznau
- Take the Golden Pass Line from Lucerne to Interlaken (amazing views)
Zurich is close to the Rheinfall and lake Konstanz so there are also nice day trips to take from the city.