The full beauty of Lausanne, Switzerland, doesn’t reveal itself at first blush. Think of it as a coffee table book, the appealing cover being a picture of the glittering expanse of Lake Geneva before the backdrop of the towering Alps. But when you open the book and turn the pages, you’ll discover one enchanting sight after another.
To fully appreciate lovely Lausanne, you’ll need time -- more than one day if possible -- and good shoes. The city is built on three steep hills, and you’ll have to climb and descend cobbled streets and alleys and negotiate many stairs, although there are some public elevators that will help you to get from one level to another. If you need a break from all that exertion, head for the flat, palm-bordered promenade in Ouchy along the shore of Lake Geneva.
All that exercise will burn lots of calories, so you can indulge in Lausanne’s handmade chocolates, fondues, and other sweet specialties without feeling guilty.
You likely know that Lausanne is the seat of the International Olympic Committee, but the city also boasts a fantastic art scene, lots of history and monuments, and thriving nightlife, not to mention chic shops.
Here are just a few reasons you should consider visiting enchanting Lausanne.
Its Flon Neighborhood Has An Interesting History
Let’s start with Flon, the pulsating heart of the city. At one time, Flon was a wooded valley through which a river of the same name flowed. At the beginning of the 19th century, the area became an industrial center.
Tunnels were dug to connect Place Saint-Francois in the city center to the port of Ouchy. The soil was used to fill in the valley, and the river was diverted and covered upstream from the Great Bridge. Today, you can’t see a river at all in Flon.
Warehouses and tanneries sprang up, and Flon got a reputation as a very undesirable place to live and work because it was ugly and smelly.
In 1999 the transformation from ugly duckling to beautiful swan began with the conversion of the warehouses into modern offices and elegant apartments. In 2003, the Esplanade du Flon -- a square and pedestrian zone lined with chic boutiques, cafes, and restaurants -- was opened. Today, Lausanne’s many festivals always include Flon.
A hopping business district during the day, Flon is also home to bars and nightclubs that attract revelers until the wee hours of the morning.
Visitors will appreciate that Flon is totally flat, a relaxing change of pace from the many steep areas elsewhere in the city.
It’s Home To The Largest Gothic Church In Switzerland
Lausanne’s majestic Notre-Dame Cathedral was built between the 12th and 13th centuries; it’s the largest Gothic church in Switzerland.
An impressive and well-kept building, the cathedral has two unique features. One is the pipe organ, installed in 2003 and boasting 7,000 pipes. The other is the lookout, or watchman. From 1405 to this day, the church watchman has climbed up the 246-foot belfry to call the hour in each direction between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. Take a moment to listen for him at night.
Next to the cathedral is the Esplanade de la Cathedrale; from there, you can walk down the wooden steps of the Escaliers du Marche. This is a shortcut that leads to the Place de la Palud, one of the city’s central squares, which dates to the 1700s. A wooden roof shelters the steps.
You’ll Find A Peculiar Clock
The Place de la Palud is home to the Renaissance-style Town Hall as well as the city’s oldest fountain. The fountain features a column on top of which stands a statue of the blindfolded Justicia.
For a truly unique experience, take a look at the clock on the facade of the Town Hall. When it chimes on the hour, painted and carved figures emerge to tell the history of the city.
The Hammered Chocolates Are Delicious
From there it’s only a few steps to Rue du Bourg -- once Lausanne’s busiest thoroughfare, and today a tree-shaded (and rather steep) pedestrian zone lined with townhouses and boutiques.
Here you’ll find Lausanne’s most famous chocolatier, Blondel. Try some of the hammered chocolates that resemble paving stones. A box of these makes a great souvenir.
Saint-Francois Church Houses A Permanent Art Installation
Next, stop at Saint-Francois Church. This church houses a unique permanent art installation -- several half-burned ladders, a reminder of a big fire in the church centuries ago.
Its Ouchy Neighborhood Is Perfectly Elegant
Ouchy is located on the shore of Lake Geneva. It's home to glorious buildings like the Chateau d’Ouchy (now a five-star hotel) and the even more famous Beau-Rivage Palace Hotel, favored by celebrities like Coco Chanel, Ernest Hemingway, and many others.
The great charm of Ouchy lies in the long, flat promenade where you can stroll along, sit on a bench and people-watch, hire a paddleboat, or even have a swim in the nearby lake.
It Offers A Number Of Romantic Cruises
From there, you can travel to Montreux, Switzerland; Evian, France; or Geneva, Switzerland, but I recommend that you take the sunset dinner tour. The cruise will take you past vineyards, Montreux, and Vevey, Switzerland, and you’ll enjoy a candlelit four-course dinner while watching the sun turn the water and the Alps a brilliant orange and purple.
It’s Home To Several Stunning Museums
Lausanne has always been closely connected to sports and the Olympic Games, so it’s no wonder that the city’s Olympic Museum is one of its top attractions.
The museum is located in Ouchy and faces Lake Geneva. Broad steps leading to several terraces bring you up to it. You’ll walk past gardens and bronze statues of Olympians from the time the Modern Olympics began back in 1896 in Athens.
The interactive museum documents the history of the games from antiquity to our times. There is also a nice cafe that serves very good coffee and cakes, as well as a gift shop.
A unique museum of a very different kind is the Collection de l’Art Brut. Housed in a magnificent mansion, the Chateau de Beaulieu, the museum features a permanent collection of works of art by outsiders -- self-taught artists, marginalized people like prisoners, and even the mentally ill. It came into being thanks to a donation by artist and collector Jean Dubuffet, and there are temporary exhibitions, too.
Connected to the home and the work of writer C. F. Ramuz is the rather cozy Pully Museum.
It’s One Of The Greenest Cities In The World
You can enjoy a different view of Lake Geneva from the Esplanade de Montbenon, a park that also houses one of Lausanne’s best restaurants, Brasserie de Montbenon. I enjoyed great service, a gorgeous art deco interior, and one of my favorite Swiss dishes -- emince de veau, finely cut strips of veal in a mushroom, cream, and brandy sauce with roesti.
The area, just south of Flon, is home to the Casino de Montbenon, which has nothing to do with gambling but is the seat of the Swiss Film Archive and an outdoor cinema with a giant screen.
With 865 acres of parks and gardens, Lausanne has the reputation of being one of the greenest cities in the world. Many of the parks were once part of family estates; now they are maintained by the city for the enjoyment of all citizens.
Admire the tropical plants in the vast gardens of the Beau-Rivage Palace Hotel, and, if you have the time, stroll through the cemetery Bois-de-Vaux. There is a broad main avenue flanked with lime trees as well as flower beds, ponds with water lilies, and evergreens, all of which provide a home for birds and other wildlife. Pause at the graves of Pierre de Coubertin, Tina Onassis, and Coco Chanel (whose wish to have her dog buried next to her, however, was not fulfilled).
A bit outside Lausanne is another green area you shouldn’t miss: the park and lake of Sauvabelin. Make an effort to climb the Sauvabelin Tower, made entirely of wood with 151 steps leading to a viewing platform.
Pro Tip: I took the train to Lausanne from the Geneva Airport. A local told me to take the slow train, which follows a scenic route with fantastic views of Lake Geneva. I didn’t regret the 30 extra minutes it took.