top of page
  • Writer's pictureDeborah Kade

Luzern, Switzerland

Updated: Oct 14, 2019

Luzern (Lucerne), with a population of approximately 81,000 people is the most populous city in central Switzerland.

Around 750 the Benedictine Monastery of St. Leodegar was founded, which was later acquired by Murbach Abbey in Alsace in the middle of the 9th century, and by this time the area had become known as Luciaria.

The origin of the name is uncertain, it is possibly derived from the Latin name of the pike, lucius, thus designating a pike fishing spot in the river Reuss. Derivation from the " has been suggested but is phonetically implausible. In any case, the name was associated by popular etymology with Latin lucerna "lantern" from an early time.

In 1178 Luzern acquired its independence from the jurisdiction of Murbach Abbey, and the founding of the city proper probably occurred that same year. The city gained importance as a strategically located gateway for the growing commerce from the Gotthard trade route.

By 1290, Luzern had become a self-sufficient city of reasonable size with about 3000 inhabitants. About this time King Rudolph I von Habsburg gained authority over the Monastery of St. Leodegar and its lands, including Luzern. The populace was not content with the increasing Habsburg influence, and Luzern allied with neighboring towns to seek independence from their rule. Along with Luzern, the three other forest cantons of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden formed the "eternal" Swiss Confederacy, known as the Eidgenossenschaft, on November 7, 1332.

Later the cities of Zürich, Zug and Bern joined the alliance. With the help of these additions, the rule of Austria over the area came to an end. The issue was settled by Luzern's victory over the Habsburgs in the Battle of Sempach in 1386. For Luzern, this victory ignited an era of expansion. The city shortly granted many rights to itself, rights which had been withheld by the Habsburgs until then. By this time the borders of Luzern were approximately those of today.

Sights to see around Luzern

Church of St. Leodegar

The twin needle towers of the Church of St. Leodegar, which was named after the city's patron saint, sit on a small hill just above the lake front. Originally built in 735, the present structure was erected in 1633 in the late Renaissance style. However, the towers are surviving remnants of an earlier structure. The interior is richly decorated. The church is popularly called the Hofkirche (in German) and is known locally as the Hofchile (in Swiss-German).

I lit many candles for family and friends. I also wrote intentions in the prayer book.

You are allowed at this altar to read today's Bible verse and read the message by the candle.

Chapel Bridge

Constructed in first half of the 14th century as a part of the city's fortifications and named after St. Peter's Chapel, which is located nearby.

The paintings that were added in the 17th century illustrate scenes of Swiss and local history, including the biographies of the city's patron saints, St. Leodegar and St. Maurice.

The bridge is known for its hanging flower display.

Luzern is especially well-known for its wooden bridges. Today, the Chapel Bridge runs from the Luzerner Theater on the southern bank of the Reuss to St. Peter’s Chapel at Rathausquai, zig-zagging as it passes the older Water Tower. Built in the middle of the 14th century, the Chapel Bridge rests on stone columns beneath the river’s surface. Originally, the bridge was a part of Luzern’s fortifications. For this reason, the bridge’s lakeside wall is higher than the other side; that made it easier for soldiers to rest their weapons on top of it. Two additional bridges served similar purposes during the Middle Ages: the Spreuer Bridge, which links Kasernenplatz with the Mühlenplatz, and the Hof Bridge, taken down in the mid-1800s, once linked Schwanenplatz to St. Leodegar’s Church.

What is especially remarkable about Luzern’s wooden bridges is their artwork: the triangular paintings under the eaves of their rooftops. The series of works decorating the Chapel Bridge was created in the first quarter of the 17th century. Municipal clerk and scholar Renward Cysat developed the concept. Artist Hans Wägmann painted the pictures and councilman Hans Rudolf von Sonnenberg wrote the accompanying text. The images show scenes illustrating the history of Luzern and Switzerland, as well as legends from the lives of city patrons Mauritius and Leodegar.

Unfortunately, a fire on August 18, 1993, destroyed a large portion of the bridge and the paintings.

The Water Tower

The Water Tower is one of Luzern’s most well-known landmarks. Built in the first half of the 14th century, it predates the Chapel Bridge. The old stork’s nest, which hasn’t been occupied in a century, isn’t its only noteworthy characteristic. The tower is octagonal in form, a shape that Kaiser Friedrich II loved and favored for his most beautiful buildings.

From its roof to the ground, the water tower measures 34.5 meters. Believe it or not, it is actually thicker than it is high; its circumference is a full 38 meters.

In its long history, the enormous structure has served various purposes. First it was a defense and watchtower, and later it was used as an archive, treasury and preparation chamber. With walls measuring 4- 5 meters thick, the lowest room was used as a prison cell. Its interior was completely dark, and the poor prisoners who came there had to sit on a toggle and be lowered into the cell through a hole. There was also a torture chamber in the late Middle Ages. Today, the middle floor is home to the headquarters of the Luzern Artillery Association. Meanwhile, a colony of Alpine swifts has been roosting under the rooftop for decades. When these black and white birds return from their winter home in Africa, they bring springtime back to Luzern.

Löwendenkmal , the Lion of Luzern

The Lion Monument (German: Löwendenkmal), or the Lion of Luzern, is a sculpture designed by Bertel Thorvaldsen. It commemorates the Swiss Guards who were massacred in 1792 during the French Revolution, when revolutionaries stormed the Tuileries Palace in Paris, France. The American writer Mark Twain (1835 – 1910) praised the sculpture of a mortally-wounded lion as "the most mournful and moving piece of stone in the world."

From the early 17th century, a regiment of Swiss mercenaries had served as part of the Royal Household of France. On October 6, 1789, King Louis XVI had been forced to move with his family from the Palace of Versailles to the Tuileries Palace in Paris. In June 1791, he tried to flee abroad. On the August 10, 1792 insurrection, revolutionaries stormed the palace. Fighting broke out spontaneously after the Royal Family had been escorted from the Tuileries to take refuge with the Legislative Assembly. The Swiss ran low on ammunition and were overwhelmed by superior numbers. A note written by the King has survived, ordering the Swiss to retire and return to their barracks, but this was only acted on after their position had become untenable.

Of the Swiss Guards defending the Tuileries, more than six hundred were killed during the fighting or massacred after surrender. An estimated two hundred more died in prison of their wounds or were killed during the September Massacres that followed. Apart from about a hundred Swiss who escaped from the Tuileries, the only survivors of the regiment were a 300 strong detachment which had been sent to Normandy a few days before August 10th. The Swiss officers were mostly among those massacred, although Major Karl Josef von Bachmann — in command at the Tuileries — was formally tried and guillotined in September, still wearing his red uniform coat. However two surviving Swiss officers went on to reach senior rank under Napoleon.

The initiative to create the monument was taken by Karl Pfyffer von Altishofen, an officer of the Guards who had been on leave in Luzern at that time of the fight. He began collecting money in 1818. The monument was designed by Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen, and finally hewn in 1820 – 21 by Lukas Ahorn, in a former sandstone quarry near Luzern.

The monument is dedicated Helvetiorum Fidei ac Virtuti ("To the loyalty and bravery of the Swiss"). The dying lion is portrayed impaled by a spear, covering a shield bearing the fleur-de- lis of the French monarchy; beside him is another shield bearing the coat of arms of Switzerland. The inscription below the sculpture lists the names of the officers, and approximate numbers of the soldiers who died (DCCLX = 760), and survived (CCCL = 350).

The pose of the lion was copied in 1894 by Thomas M. Brady (1849 – 1907) for his Lion of Atlanta in the Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta, Georgia.

Jesuit Church

It is the first large baroque church built in Switzerland north of the Alps. The Jesuit order, founded by Ignatius of Loyola in 1534, were active participants in the Counter-Reformation, the Catholic fight against the birth of Protestantism. Protestant reformers such as Zwingli in Zürich and Calvin in Geneva divided the predominately Catholic Switzerland. In response, the Jesuits were called in to Luzern by the city council in 1573 to establish a college. Ludwig Pfyffer, mayor of Luzern, offered annual financial support to the Jesuits out of his private funds. The Jesuit College of Luzern was established in 1577 in Ritter Palace, a building originally erected in 1557 as a residence for mayor Lux Ritter. Construction on the associated church began in 1667. By 1673 the shell of the church and the main façade were completed. The church was consecrated in 1677, though the interior was not yet really finished. Several side altars were still missing and even the high altar was only erected four years later, due to financial problems. The onion topped towers were not completed until 1893. The vault was redecorated in the mid-18th century. The original vestments of Brother Klaus, a famous Swiss patron, are stored in the inner chapel.

Michael and I sat in back in the Jesuit Church. We had hoped to attend mass before our bunker tour. Mass ran longer than anticipated as they had a dancer from Thailand dance by the altar.

Michael and I both have mixed feelings about the dancing. The interpretive dance to organ music was beautiful but somehow it seemed out of place during a mass.

We came back after the bunker tour to light candles.

Michael and I left early to Luzern as we were going to take the bunker tour.

Berbel packed us breakfast so we could eat on the train to Luzern.

We had to meet in front of the Jesuit church at 11:00 AM for the English tour of the Sonnenberg bunker.

Opened 40 years ago at the height of the Cold War, the Sonnenberg bunker in Luzern was one of the largest public fallout shelters in the world and is still operational today. Now, you can tour the bunker.

We went through tunnels and climbed down and then up 7 stories.

Air filtration system

They had a plan. It seemed like a brilliant one. The city of Luzern would provide shelter from nuclear fallout for 20,000 people – a third of the city’s population at the time – in two motorway tunnels under the Sonnenberg mountain.

You bagged your poop and pee when you had to go potty.

Completed in October 1976 at a cost of 40 million francs, the Sonnenberg bunker was built in response to a unique Swiss law, passed in 1963, that required every citizen to have a place to shelter in the event of outside attack. Most Swiss homes, apartments, businesses, hospitals, etc. had their own shelters.

The Sonnenberg bunker sits high on a hill. Some houses by the lake could not build bunkers because of the water level so people had to rely on bunkers built by the community.

The Sonnenberg bunker is comprised of a seven-story logistics center built underground, on top of two motorway tunnels. In the event of nuclear threat, the tunnels would be closed to traffic and instead become home to 20,000 people, housed in bunk beds set up along the length of the 1.5km tunnels. Containing a command room, hospital, prison, radio studio and a staff of 700, the logistics center would ensure life underground ran smoothly.

Visiting the bunker, the immense size and ambitions of this project are evident.

Inside, the communications room still has the switchboard that operators could use to contact the outside world. Then, there’s the hospital, which was so well stocked with medicines, operating rooms and surgical equipment that it required 250,000 francs ($253,000) a year to maintain.

The guide book of rules

Showers for patients.

Traffic flows through the two motorway tunnels today, so visitors can only get a glimpse of one through a service door from the logistics center.

Imagination is required to picture where those many thousands of people would have spent all their time in dorms of 64 tiny bunk beds.

It doesn’t take much to understand how difficult it would have been to sleep against a chorus of coughing, snoring and crying. Nor to imagine the smell of 20,000 unwashed bodies (the bunker’s few showers were reserved for hospital patients) or the horror of sharing a block of around 20 toilets with hundreds of other people.

“It gives you an idea of how organized everything must have been to prevent chaos,” says guide Zora Schelbert.

Indeed. But would they have succeeded? Thankfully, the bunker has never had to be used, but the tour highlights some fundamental flaws that suggest that, despite Swiss organizational skills, the whole project was destined to fail.

In peacetime the shelter’s 450 tons of flatpack beds, portaloos and other essential equipment had to be stored in the logistics center, since the tunnels were open to traffic. In the event of nuclear threat, it would take two weeks to close the tunnels and set everything up before the public could arrive. Hardly ideal.

“This was the biggest gap in the concept of the plan,” says Schelbert. “There was no way they could get it operational in time.”

Project Ant showed the carts did not have brakes nor were they easy to push, pull or turn.

The laundry for the hospital.

And there were other ‘gaps’, too.

Though there was a kitchen, it only catered for staff and hospital patients. It wasn’t possible to cook for 20,000, so each person had to bring two weeks’ worth of ready-to-eat food with them to the bunker, storing it – and eating it – on their already cramped bunk bed.

Just add water.

People might bring these with them

Why two weeks? Because this hugely ambitious, expensive structure could only house people for two weeks before the water supply ran out.

Two week water supply

Who knows what horrors the bunker’s inhabitants would face once they were sent back above ground so soon after a nuclear attack.

Though attempts have been made to repeal Switzerland’s bunker law, a version of it is still in force today. In 2006 the Sonnenberg was downsized, and its motorway tunnels can no longer be converted into dorms, but the logistics center is still operational and is retained as a shelter for 2,000 people.

More than anything, its presence underneath the city of Luzern serves to remind us of the fear that existed in the Cold War and Switzerland’s unique position as a neutral country caught, geographically, in the middle.

This fascinating tour suggests that Luzern’s grand plan to save its population from attack could never have worked. Not least because rumor has it that the shelter’s 350-ton concrete blast doors, that would have protected its inhabitants from nuclear fallout, didn’t actually shut properly.

Zora has had some people whom took part in a drill named Ant said the doors did not shut properly.

The Luzern police use a section of the center as a jail when it is needed.

It is quite a fascinating tour. I was so happy to find this tour on the Internet. Michael and have toured another bunker in the Luzern area years ago but there is no comparison in size.

Michael and I went to our favorite restaurant, The Old Swiss House, for lunch.

We had our favorite- wienerschnitzel prepared at our table.

Very tender cutlets of veal are dipped in their own top-secret blend of beaten egg, Swiss cheese and herbs. The cutlet is then coated in specially prepared breadcrumbs and cooked in a huge amount pure butter at your table. They serve the delicious wienerschnitzel with half a lemon and fresh egg noodles.

The Old Swiss House has been serving this specialty for more than fifty years; with up to one thousand servings per month, it remains their most popular dish!

The recipe…

  • 150 grams of best-quality veal, pounded till very tender

  • Five lightly beaten eggs, 50 grams grated Parmesan cheese, salt and pepper

  • Homemade breadcrumbs

  • A generous quantity of butter, 125 grams per person

  • Half a lemon

  • Serve with: fine egg noodles garnished with roasted breadcrumbs

A nice bottle of Gérald Clauieu Sauvignon Blanc complimented the meal.

Michael and I had Scropino, lemon sherbet whipped with vodka and prosecco, for dessert. Yummy.

Even though it was a long day, we had a terrific time eating and touring the city of Luzern.

33 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page