Glaciers, alpine towns and mountain railways: exploring Lucerne and beyond
For a winter break that's not just about skiing, explore the resorts around Lucerne, where fairytail Swiss castles meet towering mountain peaks.
The dynamic city of Lucerne, set in the very heart of Switzerland where the river Reuss feeds into Lake Lucerne, is the ideal urban base for the traveller who wants a bit of everything from a winter break. The picture-perfect old town, full of gem-coloured houses and medieval bridges with frescoed vaulted ceilings, packs a serious historical punch, combined with hip hotels, contemporary restaurants and the striking avant-garde KKL Luzern concert hall.
With world-class skiing, Europe’s highest suspension bridge and panoramic mountain hikes all on the doorstep, however, adventurous types might want to save Lucerne’s urban delights for apres-ski hours. Two of Switzerland’s most celebrated ski resorts, Engelberg and Andermatt, lie within an hour’s drive of the city, as do several other, quieter little resorts such as Melchsee-Frutt, Weggis and Vitznau, so you’ll certainly be toasting some great days on the slopes.
Widely recognised as a freeriding wonderland thanks to extensive off-piste ski terrain, Engelberg also offers ample excitement for visitors when they’re not skiing. Ride the TITLIS Rotair, the world’s first rotating cable-car, up towards the snow-covered peak of Titlis mountain and take in ever-changing views of sheer rock faces, plunging crevasses and surrounding peaks as you near the 10,623ft summit.
Once at the top, it’s not just the sweeping vistas that will make your jaw drop. Brace yourself for the 150 steps it’ll take to cross the TITLIS Cliff Walk suspension bridge, which dangles from steel cables 1,640ft off the ground (and 9,977ft above sea level). Crossing complete, venture into a cave 10 metres below the surface of the Titlis glacier, exploring the luminous turquoise heart of the mountain before whizzing back either on skis or a snowtube.
South of Engelberg and an hour’s drive from Lucerne, the small Alpine town of Andermatt has attracted dedicated ski fans from far and wide for many years. However, the recent launch of new hotels, including the Chedi Andermatt and Radisson Blu Reussen, combined with the creation of new pistes and a ski train link with neighbouring Sedrun, have catapulted the resort to ski stardom. Encompassing 75 miles of pistes, from the thigh-bustingly steep black piste that drops from the 9,714ft summit of Gemstock into Andermatt to the gentle reds above Sedrun, the SkiArena Andermatt-Sedrun really does have something to offer every type of skier.
Those travelling with little ones can also stay close to Lucerne and still enjoy winter adventures galore: the charming town of Weggis, perched between the lake and the foot of Rigi mountain just 30 minutes from the heart of the city, offers skiing, sledging, snowshoeing, winter hikes and horse-drawn sleigh rides.
Zip through the air from Weggis to Rigi Kaltbad by cable-car before reaching the summit of the Rigi on Europe’s oldest mountain railway; the first Vitznau-Rigi cogwheel train inched its up the 5,895ft-high peak way back in 1871. Views from the ‘Queen of Mountains’ sweep over Lake Lucerne, 12 other lakes and a sea of mountains, including the Eiger, Jungfrau and Mönch.
Alternatively, follow in the footsteps of Lucerne locals and take the kids to Melchsee-Frutt. Just 40 minutes’ drive from the city, it has 14 lifts, 22 miles of gentle pistes and a snowpark (all free for kids aged six and under) as well as a fun-filled children’s snow garden and MiniClub for youngsters aged three to four.
Drop the car at Stöckalp and travel by cable-car to the car-free winter wonderland, where you’ll find sledging, snowshoeing, fat biking, cross-country skiing and even ice-fishing. Complete your trip by spending a night in an igloo, tucked up in sleeping bags on an ice bed strewn with furs at the Alpen IGLU Melchsee-Frutt.
With so much on Lucerne’s doorstep, it’s easy to forget the city itself, but be sure to save some time to browse the shops in the Old Town and stroll across the iconic Kapellbrücke (Chapel Bridge) as well as along the lakeside promenades. Plus, don’t miss the many festivals the city hosts, such as the Lilu Light Festival (9–19 January 2020), where global artists put on dazzling light installations across key city sights.
Three top trails
Rigi Panorama Trail
Allow two hours plus a lunch break to follow this five-mile walking trail from Rigi Kaltbad to Rigi Scheidegg, which offers mesmerising views over alpine lakes and mountains.
Get a taste for snowshoeing with the gentle, just under two-mile trail from Melchsee to the picturesque lake Blausee and back.
Engelberg has more than 30 miles of walking trails, including this three-hour stroll on the Brunni mountain. Climb to the Ristis lift station for unbroken views of Titlis and Engelberg.
To find out more, visit luzern.com
Getting there and around: Known as The Skiers Airline, SWISS operates up to 180 weekly flights to Zürich and Geneva from London, Manchester, Birmingham, Edinburgh and Dublin. Fares start from £51 one-way and the carrier also offers free ski carriage. The easiest way to get around is by train; from Zürich to Lucerne takes 45 minutes, while Arosa Lenzerheide takes a little over two hours. If you’re travelling to Valais, you’ll want to fly into Geneva, while the Bernese Oberland sits between the two and from both airports, the journey will around two hours.
When to go: Switzerland’s winter season runs from December until April, although it’s possible to ski on glaciers such as Glacier des Diablerets in the Bernese Oberland from October until May, and all year on Saas-Fee and Zermatt in Valais.
To find out more, visit myswitzerland.com
Published in the National Geographic Traveller (UK) Winter Sports guide
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