After recently moving to Zürich from San Francisco, I’ve realized that Zürich is the perfect base for taking day trips or weekend trips around Europe. There are countless beautiful cities and mountains to visit that are only a train ride away from Zürich. Our first stop: Lucerne and Pilatus.
Lucerne or Luzern in German is still part of the German side of Switzerland. Most people speak Swiss-German and German but they understand English, so it’s quite easy to get around. Pilatus is a mountain with breathtaking views close to Lucerne therefore you can easily visit both places in one go. If you decide to visit both, make sure you go early in the day, it can easily take up the full day.
When to go?
Anytime between May and October. If you go in the summertime, you’ll be able to see colorful flowers along the famous Chapel Bridge and green pastures when looking down from Pilatus. Also, you’ll be able to take a boat ride on the lake without feeling too cold. However, if you go when the leaves start changing colors, you may not see flowers on the bridge anymore, but you’ll get trees with yellow and red leaves on your way up Pilatus.
If you go between December and April, the cogwheel railway up Pilatus will be closed, it doesn’t operate when it snows. The aerial cableway and gondola should still be open in the winter time, but make sure they’re not undergoing maintenance. In my opinion, Lucerne’s charm amplifies when there’s a summer breeze mixed in with the summer sunlight and flowers.
If you’d rather hike up Pilatus, check out this blogger’s experience hiking up Pilatus in May. Looks amazing but not for inexperienced hikers!
How to get to Lucerne and Pilatus?
Zurich to Lucerne:
Switzerland makes getting around very simple. All the timetables and prices are online. From Zürich HB (HauptBahnhof = main station) you’ll be taking a train that takes you to Luzern station. There will be a train around every 30 minutes and the train duration will be ~45-50 minutes. Make sure to choose the option where you don’t have to switch trains.
Lucerne to Pilatus:
I highly recommend doing the “Golden Round Trip” from Luzern to Alpnachstad to Pilatus to Kriens and back to Luzern. You’ll get a 360° view and experience different ways of going up and down and around a mountain. It is only available from May to October. But if you get seasick or you’re not a boat person, you can do the “Silver Round Trip” which is available from May to November. The only difference between Golden and Silver is the boat ride is replaced with a train ride.
Explaining in detail, the Golden Round Trip starts off with a 50-90 minute boat ride from Lake Luzern to Alpnachstad. You can purchase your tickets at the boat dock, which is in front of the Luzern railway station. There are discounted fares if you have a Swiss Half Fare Pass, Swiss Travel Pass, or Eurail Passes that include Switzerland. Children under 6 are free and children between 6 and 16 are free if you’re traveling with a Swiss Family Card.
As for the Silver Round Trip, you take the S5 train in the direction of Giswil and you can purchase your ticket at the Luzern railway station. The train will take 17 minutes from Luzern to Alpnachstad. Once you arrive at Alpnachstad, you’ll be taking a 40 minute ride on the world’s steepest cogwheel railway to Pilatus Kulm at 2132 m (7000 ft). Wave to the hikers as you’re going up!
For the way down, you can take the aerial cableway aka Dragon Ride to Främüntegg, only a 3.5 minute ride. Then you switch over to the 30 minute gondola to head down to Kriens. From Kriens, you can take the Line 1 bus that will get you to Luzern in 15 minutes. That marks the end of Pilatus and you can now explore Luzern!
PROTIP: Download the SBB app for Swiss trains and you’ll be able to purchase your tickets and check timetables from the app. Also, before you leave, check for special deals on the SBB website. When I went, there was a deal where any person with a Swiss Pass (half tax pass) can get discounted day passes for two other people if they’re all traveling together. This deal is no longer valid, but SBB comes out with new discounts frequently to encourage people to travel around Switzerland.
What to do on Pilatus?
- Take a million photos!
- Listen to the guy playing the 8-ft long alphorn (he was there when I went, but not sure if he’s there all the time!)
- Toboggan run (it is a long slide where you’re sitting on a sled-like thing) at Främüntegg.
- Rope park at Främüntegg, perfect for adventurous children.
- Grab a coffee or tea and enjoy the view. PROTIP: you can bring your own lunch and sit at their outdoor tables and have a little picnic.
- Eat! There are 3 restaurants up there. Check out their menu. It is Swiss pricing, so it’s not super cheap. (I didn’t try any of them so can’t vouch for whether they’re good or not, but I heard it’s satisfactory.)
What to do in Lucerne (Luzern)?
- Kapellbrüke aka Chapel Bridge: Built in 1333, the oldest wooden covered bridge in Europe. However, a lot was rebuilt in 1993 after a fire destroyed parts of it. The bridge is embellished in the summertime with flowers hanging over the edge and straddles the Ruess River.
- Wasserturm aka Water Tower: located adjacent to the Chapel Bridge
- Spreuer Bridge aka Mill Bridge: a close second in terms of beauty to the Chapel Bridge. It is also a covered wooden bridge. Make sure to look up when walking through it, there’s ancient paintings inside.
- Jesuitenkirche aka Jesuit Church (address: Bahnofstrasse 11a): no longer used in a religious point of view but used as a concert hall and a main tourist attraction.
- Lion Monument (address: Denkmalstrasse 4): This is a dying lion carved into the rock above a pond. It is a memorial for the mercenary soldiers from Switzerland who lost their lives during the French revolution. The Latin inscription above the Lion means “to the loyalty and bravery of the Swiss.”
- Museggmauer aka Musegg Wall & Towers (address: Schwanenplatz 4): This is one of the few walls and towers left from the medieval period in Switzerland. It’s a bit of a trek to climb up one of the towers, but totally worth it for a lovely view of Lucerne. It has 9 towers with 4 open to the public.
- Chateau Gutsch (address: Kanonenstrasse, Lucerne): You’ll probably notice this on a hill when walking along the Ruess. It looks like a white castle from a Disney movie. It is actually a 5 star hotel built in 1888. Apparently Queen Victoria wrote about staying at this beautiful hotel, which is what made it even more well-known. The cheapest double room costs around CHF 220 per night and a suite costs over CHF 800 per night. If you’re not staying overnight in Lucerne, make your way up to their bar and have a drink while enjoying the panoramic view of Lucerne from the hotel.
- Explore the Old town: the area on the side of the river that has Starbucks
- Take a relaxing stroll along the lake
- Gletschergarten aka Glacier Garden Museum: Not a must-see, since the glacier garden is quite disappointing (very small). However, what’s fun is that when you go past the Glacier Garden there’s a mirror maze inside! Fun for both adults and kids to get lost in the mirror maze.
The 2 myths about Pilatus
The first myth is about dragons! The myth is that from the medieval period, dragons with healing powers lived in the caves of Mount Pilatus. Locals consider dragons kind creatures since the myth includes a story about the dragons saving a young cooper. There’s a hiking trail called the Dragon Trail.
The second myth is that Mount Pilatus houses the ghost of the Roman governor Pontius Pilate after his body was sunk in the small lake on Oberalp on Pilatus. Only once a year on Good Friday does Pilate allow himself to be seen. Apparently the locals were able to keep his ghost away from year 1585.
Unfortunately I didn’t get to see a dragon and fortunately I didn’t see a ghost either. Phew! Having some mythical stories to listen to while heading up Pilatus makes the trip that much more memorable. Enjoy your trip to Lucerne and Pilatus!
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