Built on three hills overlooking Lake Geneva, historic French-speaking Lausanne offers a cosmopolitan buzz and small-city cosiness with easy access to the delights of the water
As Switzerland’s fourth biggest city, Lausanne mightn’t receive the same attention at its larger cousins Zurich, Geneva and Basel. But what it lacks in size, the historic city more than makes up for in charm and contrasts.
Locals talk proudly of the city’s cosy atmosphere and two decades of regeneration that have seen former rundown areas turned into cosmopolitan destinations.
The city was originally located on the shore of Lake Geneva (Lac Léman in French), but after the fall of the Roman Empire, it relocated to the more defendable trio of hills that overlook the water some 500 metres below. Framed by the Alps, on a clear day you can spot Évian-les-Bains to the south on the predominantly French side of the lake.
Bridges connect each hill, although today there are few signs of the city’s two rivers – the Flon and Louve – which 19th century planners channelled beneath the city’s streets to counter the challenges of flooding, cholera and typhoid.
This wedding cake-tiered topography affords Lausanne the claim to be Switzerland’s hilliest city. So thank goodness then for Switzerland’s only underground metro, a driverless system that links the main commercial and tourist areas with the shore at Ouchy. Visitors can ride the metro (and bus network) for free with a transport card given to all tourists at hotel check-in.
Atop the highest hill, the 12th century Cathedral of Notre Dame looms over the city. The largest gothic monument in Switzerland, the sandstone pile escaped demolition by the invading Protestant Bernese army of 1536 who sliced statues, removed the organ and left Lausanne without a bishop ever since. It is the only church in Europe to retain a night watchman, a tradition that dates back to a fire in the 13th century. Every night between 10pm and 2am, his voice echoes across the rooftops as he shouts the hour.
Descend the Pilgrim Staircase, towards the sleepy old town. Hot chocolate at Le Barbare restaurant is a Lausanne institution. The Italian octogenarian owner still blends her own powder, earning the bolthole the moniker of the ‘best hot chocolate in town’.
As with most Swiss cities, immigrants make up a sizeable chunk of the city’s population – 40 per cent of its 128,000 residents – with global firms British American Tobacco and Nespresso in situ. Philip Morris famously shifted it’s operational headquarters here from New York in 2002.
Café du Grütli is a charmingly traditional, family owned fondue restaurant with dark wood-panelled interior, that’s also famed for its schnitzels.
The capital of the Canton of Vaud since it joined the Swiss federation in 1803, Lausanne boasts 2.5km of pedestrianised streets and markets which bustle on Wednesdays and Saturdays with shoppers stocking up on cheese, flowers and local produce.
In the squares and upmarket shopping streets of St Francois, stop to admire the Fontaine de la Justice in Place de la Palud, one of Lausanne’s 300 fresh spring water drinking fountains. With her bandaged eyes and scales in hand, Lady Justice is an 18th century reminder to never judge with your eyes. Time your visit right to watch the wall-mounted mechanical clock opposite chime the hour and you’ll see the procession of ornamental figurines of the city’s forefathers.
Sympathetic restoration over the last decade has seen the rundown streets of the Rôtillon cleaned up, with restaurants, cafes and independent retailers. Culture vultures should head to Rippon Square with its seven museums that include geology and zoology, while the grand former bishop’s palace houses the museum of modern art.
The ‘new centre’ of Lausanne is the Flon on the site of a former freight terminal. Goods were brought up by rail until it fell into disuse in the 1950s and became a byword for drugs and crime. The converted warehouses, painted in traditional chocolate and subdued pink hues, have been converted into offices, shops, restaurants and music venues while Lausanne’s oldest nightclub, Mad, still pulls in thousands of clubbers every weekend. (Tellingly, 25,000 of Lausanne’s population are students.)
The turreted former Casino de Montbenon in the gardens of the Esplanade de Montbenon to the south is home to the Swiss film archive and the Brasserie de Montbenon serving a French menu with commanding views over the lake.
As one of the greenest cities in Europe with 17 parks, Lausanne is a sporting city with 60 sports federations and 300 sports clubs calling it home. This is underlined by its status as the Olympic capital: the International Olympic Committee has been based here since 1915 – despite Lausanne never having hosted an Olympic games – and the lakeside Olympic Museum is a modern treasure trove of torches, medals, clothing, stadium scale models and even Olympic marketing memorabilia.
On warm days, an outdoor spot at Château d’Ouchy beside the lake affords you views of the beautiful paddle-wheeled Belle Epoque steamers that cruise in timeless fashion to Montreux, Evian and other French and Swiss destinations across the water. Wash down the fresh catch with a glass of locally produced Chasselas from the Unesco world heritage vineyards at Lavaux, or take one of the fast, frequent (and set-your-watch-by them) trains to the shoreline for a tour. High export costs and tariffs mean just two per cent of Switzerland’s wine leaves the country. The Swiss say it’s too good to let go, so stock up while you can.
Lausanne slideshow (click to enlarge)
Director stayed at the Lausanne Palace hotel. Rooms start from SF374 (approx £300)
SWISS flies to Geneva from Gatwick, Heathrow and London City. Other carriers fly from airports across the UK. Four trains an hour serve Lausanne from Geneva Airport, taking up to 51 minutes. Read our flight review Geneva to Heathrow here