Many times the best cultural immersion in Europe can be experienced by losing yourself in a smaller lesser known city. Of course marquee destinations like London, Paris, and Madrid can’t be missed and offer gargantuan doses of culture, native cuisine, and international panache. But small to mid-sized cities like Munich, Lyon, Stuttgart, and Milan, have sophistication and vibrant arts scenes, along with the intimacy needed to dig in and be as close to local as possible.
But small to mid-sized cities like Munich, Lyon, Stuttgart, and Milan, have sophistication and vibrant arts scenes, along with the intimacy needed to dig in and be as close to local as possible.
Switzerland’s Lausanne on the shores of Lake Geneva also fits this category, combining the best of historic sites, artisan gastronomy, a diverse arts scene, and an efficient public transit system that takes you from the city’s wide blue shoreline to the furthest hilltops within minutes.
Dubbed the “Olympic Capital” with its state of the art Olympic Museum overlooking a majestic expanse of Lake Geneva and mountain vistas looming in the background, Lausanne is a vibrant city populating three hills with historic cathedrals and hotels interconnected with cobbled streets. Locals outnumber tourists popping in and out of bustling shops, artisan bakeries, and yes, even Starbucks and McDonalds.
A modern subway system treats you to underground rides up some of the most vertical hills where even the subway station floors are slanted. As you approach each stop, the intercom plays sounds like a fountain, cow mooing, or applause matching activities that can be found nearby. Museums, the lake front promenade, and year round festivals inevitably lure you into exploring more of the surrounding Montreaux Riveria.
Getting Here and Getting Around
The closest and most convenient airport is Geneva. From here take the Golden Pass Line for approximately one hour to Lausanne. Upon check-in at your hotel, be sure to get your Lausanne Transport Card giving you free use of all city buses, trains, and discount access to cultural events.
This card is valid for the duration of your stay from the minute you check into your hotel through the end of your departure day. With a population of roughly 125,000, Lausanne is the smallest city in the world with a subway system. Combine this convenience with a Swiss Pass rail card (more on this later) for your planned day trips outside the city and you’re set to go!
Consider this your must-see sightseeing list:
Sauvabelin Observation Tower
Begin your adventures by climbing the 151 steps to get your bearings before exploring the further reaches of Lausanne. This 35 meter high monument, built exclusively out of recyclable materials, treats you to a 360° panoramic view of the Lake Geneva basin.
Architecturally integrated into the forest surrounding it, this tower’s design was inspired by Archimedes screw. A turnstile allows free admission to exactly 80 visitors per hour for safety reasons. A well-marked trail from the Castle St-Maire in Lausanne leads you on a steep half hour climb directly to the entrance.
Learn the secrets of Swiss chocolate making, a very much hands-on tradition, that can be tasted in local shops such as Durig Chocolatiers or in a savory hot chocolate at Le Barbare. The main distinction of chocolates here is that they are made with unpasteurized milk. So although Swiss-made Nestle and Lindt chocolates are indeed sold in the U.S., they are of an inferior grade since they aren’t exported using these same standards.
Durig Chocolatiers, run by Dan Durig who learned chocolate making from his father as a 12 year-old, uses organic, fair trade cocoa beans imported from Ecuador and Peru. Dark and milk chocolate is poured into molds and hand decorated with garnishes like rose petals and pistachios.
Durig: Avenue d’Ouchy 15, 1006, Tuesday to Friday 8:30 to 6:30, Saturday – 8:30 to 5:00, Closed Sunday and Monday.
Le Barbare, a cafe tucked in a granite storefront just below a set of stairs from Notre Dame De Lausanne, is the place to go for hot chocolate as thick as pudding. Just to prove it, check out the picture above illustrating my teaspoon sticking straight up. At first sip, it did taste like warm pudding but after a few minutes, the milk and fine mellow chocolate permeated my palate like a top quality cocoa confection. So I left with the notion of having just imbibed a liquid truffle.
For such a modest sized city, Lausanne has an incredible array of museums (22 total). Just be sure not to leave without visiting the Olympic Museum or at least walking the grounds and eating lunch on the cafe terrace overlooking Lake Geneva. A fitting location since Lausanne serves as Olympic headquarters, this marble and glass shrine opened in 1993 with everything from winning Swiss bobsleds to Carl Lewis’ legendary pair of running shoes. Exhibits cover over 2,200 years beginning with the ancient Greeks up to the latest games held in Vancouver.
Poignant moments are memorialized in both artifacts like the complete collection of Olympic torches & medals and through recorded memory in their multimedia exhibits and 45-seat 3D theater. Be sure to take a stroll through the museum’s Olympic Park dotted with sculptures featuring Niki de Saint-Phalle’s colorful Footballers and André Ricard’s The Cauldron with its eternal Olympic Flame.
Open daily 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. (Closed Mondays except Easter Monday from October 1 – April 30; also closed on December 25 and January 1).
Make it a point to savor a warm flavorful cheese fondue for one of your meals. Sure it’s touristy, but keep in mind that even the locals secretly have fondue restaurants staked out for special occasions. You might as well complete Swiss’s holy trinity of cheese, chocolate, and artisan breads and dig into the thick creamy fondue at Cafe du Grutli. Here they recommend pairing this addictive dish with Chasselas, a prominent white wine with a light acidity that most flavorfully enlivens the blend of melted Gruyere and Vacherin cheeses. Owner Willi Prutsch adds cherry kirsch and a touch of garlic to his 25 year-old recipe.
You can’t possibly visit the shores of Lake Geneva without taking a cruise on its vast blue waters. You have your pick of several traditional and solar powered vessels. These ferries depart the terminal carrying only passengers and bicycles. Two commuter ferry routes, the Navi Mobilité N1 (Lausanne-Evian) and N2 (Lausanne-Thonon) each make about 30 crossings per day. The first departure is 5 a.m. and the last one about 11 p.m.
The Lausanne-Evian ferry crosses Lake Geneva in approximately 30 minutes. Round-trip fare averages CHF 32.
The Lausanne-Thonon ferry makes the crossing between 27 and 50 minutes for under CHF 32 round-trip.
During summer, round-trip excursion cruises take you to the further reaches of Lake Geneva. Here is where your Swiss Pass that I mentioned earlier comes to the rescue. This pass gives you unlimited national rail, bus, and boat use during your stay so you don’t have to keep track of fare tables, transfers, or currency exchanges. Pricing depends on your length of stay and is well worth the money if you plan to frequently venture outside Lausanne:
The Beautiful Panoramic Cruise connects Lausanne and Geneva twice per day in just less than four hours. Boats stop in many Swiss towns en route (including Nyon, Rolle, and Morges) as well as in France (usually Yvoire).
The Chillon Castle Cruise offers four daily excursions to the most popular medieval castle in Switzerland, Chateau de Chillon.
The Famous Lemanic Vineyards Cruise sails three times per day from Lausanne to Montreux’s UNESCO World Cultural Heritage-listed vineyards of Lavaux in about 90 minutes.
Take the S1 train from Lausanne as it winds its way through Lavaux wine country and it’s easy to see why the area is listed as a UNESCO world heritage site. Stone terraced vineyards cling almost vertically to the mountains overlooking Lake Geneva as far as the eye can see. Wine growing here is a family tradition perfected over many generations.
Get off at the Rivaz station, cross Rte Cantonale, a busy highway, and you’ll be in front of the Lavaux Vinorama. Here you get an intensive all-in-one wine experience. Vintages representing all regional appellations of the Montreaux Riviera are united in one underground building tucked into rock cliffs with a waterfall cascading alongside. A rotating selection of 8 out of the 200 regionally produced wines (crus) are served each day at the wine bar.
Or head downstairs and give their state-of-the-art Enomatic wine-by-the-glass serving system a try. While there, step down further into the basement theater and watch their big screen film In the Year of a Lavaux Winemaker which chronicles wine making tasks that span all 4 seasons.
Open Wed. – Sun. 10:30 – 9:30, Admission free, tasting packages range from 12-20 CHF