Whenever we think of Switzerland, the first things that come to mind are Swiss cheese, snow-capped mountains and gorgeous mountain lakes. While we were in from Zurich, we took a day trip to Lucerne and Mount Pilatus. That journey has it all, every icon you can probably think of.
Getting to Lucerne
Switzerland has very efficient train service, which runs throughout the country. Our train ride from Zurich to Lucerne was beautiful and we enjoyed dozens of photo-worthy views along the way.
Looking at the Alps as we rode to our destination, we were happy we'd decided to see Mount Pilatus first. Actually, we had a practical reason: Many mountain ranges get cloud cover as the day wears on. Not knowing the Alps, we didn't want to risk a poor view.
Find train schedules options here.
Why visit Mount Pilatus?
Legend has it that Mount Pilatus is the resting place of Pontius Pilate's body. Another legend says that it was once the home to dragons.
True or not, Pilatus is a beautiful mountain in its own right. Aside from the many activities on it slopes, on a clear day the mountain offers a panoramic view of 73 Alpine peaks. Not surprising, I suppose, considering its impressive height: Mount Pilatus is well over 2,100 meters (7,000 feet) high.
If you love the outdoors, Mount Pilatus is a dream destination. Just take the cable car halfway up to can hike through the verdant mountain forest, do a zip line, traverse a long rope bridge, or let your kids play at the massive children's playground. You'll also find a long toboggan run, a rope park and a restaurant there.
How to get from Lucerne to Mount Pilatus
From the city of Lucerne, the mountain's summit can be reached via two different routes: cogwheel train or gondola. You have a number of other options as well, from guided tours to self-guided excursions.
Speaking of self-guided excursions, we found an excellent one that we'd have loved to do. We just couldn't fit it into our plans; it required more time than we could manage. (We needed time in the day to see Lucerne too!)
Golden Round Trip from Lucerne to Pilatus
We try to avoid using the word ultimate (it's so overused!, but this self-guided Golden Round Trip could count as an ultimate experience. This is a full-day excursion from Lucerne that looks to be truly memorable. (There's also a Silver Round Trip that includes a train instead of a boat.)
We're talking about a boat trip on a mountain lake, the steepest cogwheel train in the world, a cable car, and a gondola. The whole shebang. Between the views and the transportation, it would definitely be worth the time and cost.
We'd be remiss if we didn't mention that you can also take an organized day tour from a number of Swiss cities. If your budget allows, this is the easiest option. It is also an advantage to have a native guide and to be able to do everything on your own schedule.
- From Basel: Pilatus Trip and Lake Boat Cruise
- From Bern: Mount Pilatus Golden Round Trip & Lake Cruise
- From Zurich: Lucerne & Mount Pilatus Day Tour
- Mt. Pilatus and Mt. Titlis 2-Day Tour from Zurich
If guided tours interest you, you can find more options here.
How to get from Lucerne to the cogwheel train on your own
If you're not fond of heights, you might prefer to take a cogwheel train to the top of Mount Pilatus. To get there, you can either take the boat or the train from Lucerne to the town of Alpnachstad. The cogwheel ticket office is near both.
Important: The gondola and cogwheel railway do not run year-round. This site has the schedule and timetable.
Mt. Pilatus gondola
The gondola to the top of Mount Pilatus leaves from the town of Kriens. To get there, you can take either a bus or a train to Kriens from Lucerne. Conveniently, Lucerne's bus and train stations are right next to each other.
We thought it might be fun to see the little towns along the way, so we chose to take the bus. It's only a 15-minute ride. You take bus line 1 to the bus stop called ‘Kriens, Zentrum Pilatus,' then follow the signs to the gondola ticket office.
There, you'll buy a ticket for the Mount Pilatus gondola and enjoy the ride to the summit.
The gondola does not go nonstop to the top. Expect a couple of rides and transfers due to the mountain's topography.
Riding the gondola to the top of Mt. Pilatus
That gondola ride was a surreal experience in itself. We could see local farms and hear a bell tinkle on the occasional Swiss cow as we rose. Iconic, right? Enchanting houses that could have been straight out of Heidi begged to be photographed, but we passed them by too quickly to catch them.
At least Dan grabbed a photo of a belled cow in someone's yard. Such a memento.
Our cable car stopped on the way up to disgorge all its passengers and return those waiting to the base of the mountain. Everyone changed to a different kind of cable car for the steep, final leg of the journey.
At the summit
When the cable car spit us out between the mountain's two pinnacles, we found ourselves in the Visitor Center, complete with a restaurant and shops. Not wanting any souvenirs, we headed outside onto the large concrete viewing platform, a historic hotel, and some paths for any visitors who wanted to take a walk.
A number of trails run along the mountain top. With no clue where any of them went, we chose one that looked like it went to the highest point. The rock steps were steep and narrow enough in spots to require turning sideways to pass those on the way down. Thank goodness the path had places to rest, because it was a workout, especially at such a high altitude!
Unused to such strenuous activity, I took my time going up. This allowed a chance to appreciate the many colorful alpine flowers growing in the crevasses along the way. Anyway, why rush? The journey is part of the fun.
Let me tell you: The spectacular 360-degree view at the top makes the tiring climb worthwhile. Do it! In one direction, we could see miles of sparkling blue lakes and verdant farmland. In another, there were snow-capped mountains, including glacier-topped Mt. Titlis. I'm not sure if all of them were even in Switzerland. We could've been looking into another country, for all we knew.
While we stood there, we watched someone riding the thermals with his parachute. His was an even better view than the one we had.
Cogwheel train down the mountain
The gondola had carried us up one side of the mountain to get to the top, and the unique Pilatus Railway took us down the other. This is the world's steepest cog railway, reaching as much as a 48 percent gradient. That's really steep!
Commissioned in 1889, the little train travels between the summit and the Swiss town of Alpnachstad. It's a scenic 30-minute ride, offering views of dense pine forests, rolling alpine meadows, and craggy rock formations. We were almost sorry when it arrived at the base station, but our Lucerne day trip segment was waiting.
Walking tour of Lucerne Switzerland
With about 80,000 people, Lucerne is the economic and cultural center of central Switzerland. There are too many things to see in Lucerne to do it all in one day, or even a week. With only a few hours in Lucerne, we focused on walking around the city center and the lake around it.
Looking back, we probably should have taken a guided tour like this one. The price was affordable and we would have found all of the best things to see in Lucerne. As it was, we saw a lot, but we missed a lot, too.
Switzerland is picturesque, but Lucerne's Old Town is often considered one of the prettiest in Switzerland.
We really didn't have any plan or itinerary for Lucerne. Nothing wrong with that, really, but even though each place has its own ambiance, it's hard to share how a city feels. So here are some photos and impressions from Lucerne. Or as the Swiss spell it, Luzern.
Lucerne Chapel Bridge
Called the Chapel Bridge (Kapellbrücke), Lucerne's wooden covered bridge is probably its best-known sight. Spanning the azure lake and lined with boxes of colorful pansies, it's also seen more than its share of selfies and Instagram shots.
The 200-meter bridge was originally built in 1333, which makes it the oldest covered bridge in Europe. It's also the world’s oldest surviving truss bridge.
Tip: Make a point to walk across the bridge and look up into the ceiling pediments. You'll see triangular paintings depicting events from Lucerne’s history. There are 30 paintings date from the 17th century. Sadly, there used to be many more but some were destroyed when the bridge caught fire in 1993.
Midway across the bridge, there's a well-preserved, octagonal stone tower. Also built in the 1300s, over the years it has served as a fortification, a dungeon & a treasury.
You can't climb it, but you can enter the gift shop on the ground floor.
Built in the late 1600s, the Lucerne Jesuit Church's claim to fame is that it was Switzerland's first baroque sacred building. It is one of the most important churches in the city.
Hofkirche St. Leodegar (also called the Court Church of St. Leodegar) is Lucerne's parish cathedral and is the most important Renaissance church in Switzerland. It dates from the 8th century, when it was founded as a Benedictine monastery.
The original Gothic church was destroyed by fire in 1633. Little survives except for the spires, St. Mary's altar, and a few religious objects.
With mountains that drop straight into the water, Lake Lucerne seems more like a fjord than a lake. Fed by the Reuss River, this is Switzerland's fourth-largest lake, and it has plenty to entertain.
Adventurous visitors can hike the 34-km (21-mile) Swiss Path, or bicycle around the lake. Those who prefer something a little more relaxing can feed the swans, go boating, or take a paddlewheel steamer to other spots around the lake.
Though food is always a highlight, sometimes it's more about where you eat it. Lucerne is a fantastic city that makes great use of its lakefront, and there are plenty of shops and stalls offering many things to eat and drink. To strengthen us for our trip back to Zurich, we chose an economical slice of pizza from a stall and sat by the lake to enjoy it.
Pizza in Switzerland? I hear you ask. Yes, friends, some things are universal.
Set against the backdrop of a deep blue mountain lake and the Swiss Alps, this is one city that deserves more than the paltry amount of time we were able to give it. If you've been to Lucerne, please leave your tips, thoughts and impressions in the comments.