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Lucerne or Zurich: Which City is Better as a Base?

(Last Updated On: October 22, 2023)

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Considering whether Lucerne or Zurich is the better fit for your upcoming expedition in Switzerland? Lucerne and Zurich are both attractive cities in the German part of Switzerland, each with its own lake, restaurants, museums, and historical buildings. There are many advantages to each city – whether it be its proximity to destinations, shopping, or family-friendly offerings.

If you’re spending a couple of days in Switzerland and aren’t sure which city to pick as your base, we’ve compared Lucerne and Zurich and outlined their advantages to help you decide which one to pick. In this article, we’ll address whether Lucerne or Zurich is the more suitable city for your needs.

Overview: Lucerne or Zurich

The key differences between Lucerne and Zurich are as follows:

LucerneZurich
Population: approx. 80,000Population: approx. 415,000
One of Switzerland’s most famous tourist destinationsSwitzerland’s most populous city
Elevation: 435 mElevation: 408 m
Area: 37.4 km²Area: 87.88 km²
Highlights: Chapel Bridge, Lion Monument, Glacier Garden, Old Town, Transport MuseumHighlights: Switzerland’s Financial Capital, Grossmünster Church, Lindenhof, Swiss National Museum, Uetliberg
River: ReussRiver: Limmat
Lake: LucerneLake: Zurich
Canton: LucerneCanton: Zurich
Lucerne vs. Zurich

Lucerne or Zurich: Which is Better?

Image of Lucerne by TouringSwitzerland.com

When considering whether Lucerne or Zurich is the better destination for your trip, it’s important to weigh the distinct advantages each city offers.

Lucerne, nestled against the picturesque backdrop of majestic mountains and the serene expanse of Lake Lucerne, presents a truly breathtaking setting. The city’s charm is exemplified by its quaint and laid-back atmosphere, making it an ideal choice for those seeking a relaxing escape. The iconic Chapel Bridge, with its historic significance and picturesque surroundings, adds a touch of old-world charm to Lucerne’s already enchanting ambiance. The compact nature of Lucerne allows for easy exploration on foot, granting visitors the opportunity to immerse themselves in the city’s beauty at their own pace.

Image of the Limmat River, Zurich by TouringSwitzerland.com

On the other hand, Zurich boasts a more practical appeal, particularly for international travelers. Its status as a major financial hub and international gateway lends itself to a well-connected and efficient infrastructure, making it an advantageous starting point for those arriving from abroad.

The city’s cosmopolitan nature is reflected in its diverse array of restaurants, numerous museums, and cultural institutions. Its vibe is characterized by a strong work ethic and a serious approach to business and may appeal to those seeking an authentic urban experience.

My opinion: Ultimately, the choice between Lucerne and Zurich depends on the type of experience you seek. If you’re drawn to a charming and laid-back ambiance set against a backdrop of natural splendor, Lucerne’s compact size and stunning scenery might be the perfect fit. On the other hand, if you value the conveniences of a bustling city with a focus on practicality, cultural exploration, and a more business-oriented environment, Zurich may better align with your preferences.

Both cities offer their own unique charm and attractions, making the decision a matter of personal taste and the kind of journey you envision for your time in Switzerland.

Advantages of Choosing Lucerne

Image of the Lake Lucerne by TouringSwitzerland.com
  • Lucerne city itself is more picturesque than Zurich – with its cobbled stones, Chapel Bridge, Water Tower, and an impressive mountain backdrop.
  • Lucerne is closer to the Alps. From Lucerne, it is easy to get to Mount Pilatus and Mount Rigi.
Panorama from Mount Titlis by TouringSwitzerland.com
  • Lucerne is also closer to the village Engelberg from which Mount Titlis is easily accessed. Titlis is fascinating to visit due to its rotating cable cars Rotair, the Cliff Walk, and the Glacier Cave (with ice up to 5,000 years old!). The last part of the cable car leads to a glacier. Even in summer, snow tubing is available in the glacier park.
  • Lake Lucerne is larger than Lake Zurich. Furthermore, lake towns on Lake Lucerne are more tourist-friendly (Vitznau, Weggis, Bürgenstock). Towns on Lake Zurich are more residential.
  • Two other mountains close to Lucerne worth visiting are Stanserhorn where you could ride the world’s first Cabrio (open) mountain cable car and Bürgenstock – a beautiful mountain resort overlooking Lake Lucerne.

Advantages of Choosing Zurich

Image of Zurich by TouringSwitzerland.com
  • Zurich, being the largest city in Switzerland, is naturally a bigger and more bustling city compared to Lucerne. Zurich has more restaurants, nightclubs, and bars compared to Lucerne.
  • Zurich has a beautiful old town filled with restaurants and shops. Walking near the Limmat River and Lake Zurich is also relaxing and beautiful.
  • There are also beautiful churches in Zurich – Grossmünster, Fraumünster, St. Peter, and Predigerkirche.
  • Shopping is better in Zurich. Although Swiss souvenirs are abundant in Lucerne, there are more shops along the main shopping street in Zurich – Bahnhofstrasse.
  • Zurich has less mass tourism compared to Lucerne. Large tour buses normally stop in Lucerne and there are moments when it feels overrun by tourists.
  • Zurich is logistically easier to get to from abroad by plane as it is closer to the Zurich Airport and by train due to the Zurich Train Station.
  • There are lots of beautiful towns close to Zurich that can be visited for a day trip – Einsiedeln, Arbon, Stein Am Rhein, Aarburg, Lenzburg, Rheinfelden, and Laufenburg.

Places to Visit: Lucerne or Zurich

Places to Visit in Lucerne

Image of Chapel Bridge, Lucerne by TouringSwitzerland.com
  • Chapel Bridge – The Chapel Bridge in Lucerne is the city’s most famous landmark. This wooden bridge over the Reuss River is one of the oldest in Europe. The bridge was built in 1300 as part of the city walls. Even though it burned down and got badly damaged, it was rebuilt in 1994.
  • Old Town – You can wander around restaurants and boutiques in Lucerne’s Old Town. Apart from the Chapel Bridge, you have the Spreuer Bridge crossing the Reuss River. Nearby is a beautiful Jesuit church
  • Lion Monument – The Lion Monument was created by Danish artist Bertel Thorvaldsen in 1821 to honor the Swiss Guards that lost their lives during the revolutionary siege of Paris on August 10th, 1792. It was in vain that the Swiss Guards tried to keep King Louis XVI alive, and they paid the price by dying. In the monument, a dying lion lies across broken pieces of the French monarchy.
  • Bourbaki Panorama – Featured in this 360-degree panorama is a scene depicting the retreat of General Bourbaki’s army in the Swiss Alps in 1871. This is one of the largest panorama paintings in the world.
  • Glacier Garden – The Lucerne Glacier Garden has some impressive glacier potholes from the last ice age 20,000 years ago, proving that Lucerne was covered in glaciers then. Shell fossils and palm leaves show that there was a subtropical sea beach here 20 million years ago.
  • Verkehrshaus – The Transport Museum in Switzerland is one of the most visited museums in the country. At Verkehrshaus, you’ll see cars, ships, submarines, planes, trains, trams, and cable cars. In addition to transport exhibits, there’s also a Planetarium, a Swiss Chocolate Adventure, a Communications area, and a 2D or 3D Film Theater.   

Places to Visit in Zurich

  • Grossmünster Church – The Grossmünster Church (Great Minister) is a beautiful church in a central location.  The Church was built between 1100 and 1250. The end of the 15th century saw the towers added. Located along the Limmat River, the Grossmünster Church is only 950 meters or 12 minutes by foot from the train station. Zurich’s most famous landmark is a Romanesque-style church with slender and striking towers. The Grossmünster Church is known as the cradle of the Zwingli Reformation; Zwingli himself took over the house in 1519. 
  • Polybahn funicular – The Polybahn funicular has been running since January 1889. It brings visitors from Zurich Central to the Polyterasse. It is still a cool thing to do to go up from the city center to the vantage point 41 meters higher. To avoid crowds, come in early in the morning or late in the afternoon. It gets busy during lunchtime.
Image of Uetliberg by TouringSwitzerland.com
  • Uetliberg – Uetliberg is one of the four popular viewpoints near Zurich. You can also hike 400 meters up from Triemli or Albisgüetli instead of taking the train. But if you want the more comfortable option, it is accessible in 27 minutes with the S10 Train from Zurich Train Station. It is a steep standard adhesion railway, traveling with a 7.9% gradient. It is an easy walk to the peak from the train station. Uetliberg offers great views of Zurich city, the Glarus Alps, and Central Switzerland. If you want to eat, there’s a restaurant on the mountain called Uto Kulm. 
  • Landesmuseum Zurich (Swiss National Museum) is the most-visited museum in all of Switzerland. It is located next to the Zurich Train Station (Zürich Hauptbahnhof in German). Opened in 1898, the museum has had exhibitions from prehistoric times until the present. Landesmuseum contains over 820,000 objects. It has the largest collection of all cultural history and handicrafts in the country. The permanent exhibitions cover prehistory and early history. The museum has weapons, art, jewelry, clothing, and everyday objects from various eras. It also has temporary exhibitions, sometimes with subjects appealing to children as well. 
  • Fraumünster is the smallest of the 34 Evangelical Reformed churches in the city. Even so, it is very beautiful. There used to be an abbey on its grounds. The abbey was dissolved in the face of reformation. In 1898, the abbey was eradicated to give way (eventually) to what we now know as the Fraumünster Church. Fraumünster also contains the works of world-famous Marc Chagall and Augusto Giacometti. The installation of the windows by Giacometti was done in September 1945. The delay was due to the Second World War. It is the last of Giacometti’s over 20 glass paintings. This masterpiece is 9 meters high and twice as large as Chagall’s Christ Window. In 1970, Marc Chagall added the five-part choir windows of the church, as well as the rose window in the south transept.
Image of Claude Monet Painting at Kunsthaus Zürich by TouringSwitzerland.com
  • Kunsthaus Zurich is a fine art museum in Zurich. There are works by Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet, and Andy Warhol in the museum. Other renowned artists from various times and styles also contributed to it. In October 2021, a new section designed by David Chipperfield opened, effectively doubling the public space previously available. Kunsthaus Zurich is Switzerland’s largest art museum and in my opinion, the best.

Shopping: Lucerne or Zurich

Image of Zurich’s Main Shopping Street – Bahnhofstrasse by TouringSwitzerland.com

Both Lucerne and Zurich have a mixture of big international brands and small boutiques. For shopping, there is definitely more variety in Zurich compared to Lucerne.

An interesting shop for souvenirs is the Schweizer Heimatwerk with 5 locations in Zurich (2 in the airport and 3 in the city) and 1 in Lucerne. The Swiss label “Heimatwerk” represents top-notch quality and excellent design. This shop enables farmers to improve their income during winter by producing high-quality handmade products and toys. Among the souvenirs sold are richly ornamented bells, cuckoo clocks, fondue pots, wooden toys, and wooden cutting boards.

If you really do want to go shopping in Lucerne, there is a big mall called the Mall of Switzerland in Ebikon with 150 shops. It is the largest shopping mall in Central Switzerland and has numerous shops, restaurants, and even a movie theater. It is open from Mondays until Saturdays.


Travel with Kids: Lucerne or Zurich

Image of Verkehrshaus by TouringSwitzerland.com

Both cities have indoor and outdoor activities for families with children of all ages. Two of the most popular sites to visit for families are the Swiss Museum of Transport in Lucerne and the Zurich Zoo.

In Lucerne, there is a well-known Transport Museum called Verkehrshaus which is a big hit with kids. It exhibits various forms of transport in Switzerland, including automobiles, ships, submarines, aircraft, trains, trams, and cable cars. Aside from the transport exhibits, there is also a Planetarium, the Swiss Chocolate Adventure, and a Film Theater (Movie House) in 2D or 3D.

Verkehrshaus is open 365 days a year. It costs CHF 32 per Adult to get into the museum. A day pass for the entire area costs more at CHF 56. The day pass covers the entrance to the Museum, a visit to the Swiss Chocolate Adventure and the Media World, and the daily screenings/shows in the Film Theater and Planetarium. Discounts are available from Coop Hello Family Club, KulturLegi, Raiffeisen (MemberPlus), SBB RailAway combi deal, Swiss Museum Pass, Swiss Travel Pass, and TCS Touring Club Schweiz.

Image of Zurich Zoo by TouringSwitzerland.com

If your child is a big animal lover, Zurich has a big zoo to visit – Zurich Zoo. The zoo is open daily, 365 days a year. It costs CHF 29 per Adult to get in.

Zurich Zoo is considered one of the best zoos in Europe. It is accessible from Zurich city center with Tram 6. The Zoo has a new 5.6-hectare African Lewa Savanna attraction which opened in June 2020. In the Savanna, we can see zebras, rhinos, and giraffes. Inside the Zoo, we can also find the following main attractions:

Image of Zurich Zoo by TouringSwitzerland.com
  • Tropical Masoala Rainforest – a heated and cooling system that mimics a real tropical rainforest and includes species such as lemurs, parakeets, doves, herons, chameleons, tortoises, and many more.
  • Kaeng Krachan Elephant Park
  • Australia – koalas, wallabies, emus, and other Australian animals
  • Aquarium
  • Pantanal – wildlife from the wetlands of South America such as capybaras, anteaters, capuchins, tapirs, squirrel monkeys, and many more.
  • Zoolino – a petting zoo containing several domestic and farm animals
  • Mongolian Steppe – home to camels, yak, and cashmere goats

Proximity to Alps: Lucerne or Zurich

Image of the Bernese Alps by TouringSwitzerland.com

If you want to see the highest peaks in Switzerland, Lucerne is nearer compared to Zurich. The highest peaks (4,000 meters and above) are in the Pennine Alps (Valais) and the Bernese Alps (Bernese Oberland).

Lucerne is generally half an hour nearer the Pennine Alps and the Bernese Alps if traveling by car.

Image of St. Moritz by TouringSwitzerland.com

On the other hand, Zurich is nearer Grisons where the Bernina Range is. Most of these mountains have peaks of more than 3,000 meters with Piz Bernina being the only mountain above 4,000 meters. Also worth visiting is the Engadine Valley, where St. Moritz is located.


Recommended Hotels in Lucerne and Zurich

Image of Hotel Schweizerhof in Lucerne by TouringSwitzerland.com

In terms of hotels, Zurich has more options than Lucerne. However, I don’t think this should be the deciding factor. Although Zurich has more options, Lucerne doesn’t lack hotel options for any budget.

Hotels in Lucerne

  • Hotel Schweizerhof Luzern (5-star) – Directly on the lake, this refined hotel is located in the old town of Lucerne. You’ll also find a gym, a spa, and modern furniture amid elegant interiors. A 10-minute walk gets you to the train station.
  • Grand Hotel National Luzern (5-star) – A luxurious hotel built in the 1870s. Close to the train station and the historic old town, this hotel has elegant interiors, fantastic lake views, and a swimming pool.
  • Hermitage Lake Lucerne (4-star) – Set on the shores of Lake Lucerne, this tranquil hotel is a great place to relax. While it’s a little outside of the city, it has stunning views and refined restaurants. There’s also a beach club with daybeds, lounges, drinks, snacks, and cool music. Party boats are available to rent or you can take public boats that stop right outside the hotel. My family has stayed here and has loved it. I highly recommend it. 
  • AMERON Luzern Hotel Flora (4-star) – Near the train station and the Chapel Bridge, this hotel has chic rooms and a great breakfast.  
  • Hotel Rebstock (4-star) – A historic, half-timbered hotel dating from the late Middle Ages, Hotel Rebstock is one of the 16 Unique and Historical Hotels in Switzerland. It is ideally located near the Hof Church, the Lion Monument, and the Glacier Garden.
  • Hotel Central Luzern (3-star) – In a central location near the train station, the chapel bridge, the old town, and the Rosengart Collection, Hotel Central Luzern offers bright, clean, recently renovated rooms, as well as a delicious breakfast. The rooms are reasonably priced. As a result of the hotel’s central location, you might hear some noise at night.
  • Backpackers Luzern (Hostel) – The Backpackers Luzern is on the shores of Lake Lucerne, in a quiet area. Besides free kitchen facilities and WiFi, this charming hostel has a common lounge area with table tennis and table soccer. Each room has comfortable beds and a balcony. Walking to Lucerne’s train station takes less than 15 minutes.

Hotels in Zurich

  • Storchen Zürich – Lifestyle Boutique Hotel (5-star) – Located in the heart of Zurich, this boutique hotel even has a boat stop in front of its doors. The hotel is within walking distance of the city’s most popular attractions, including Grossmünster Church, Fraumünster Church, Limmat River, and Lake Zurich. In the summer, enjoy breathtaking views of the Limmat River and Grossmünster Church from the picturesque terrace. The hotel’s classic and modern rooms and suites offer unique views of the picturesque Old Town.
  • Dolder Grand Hotel (5-star) – This fantastic hotel is located on the Zürichberg hill overlooking Zurich. Located next to a Cog Railway Station, Dolder Grand has 2 outstanding restaurants, an exclusive spa, fitness facilities, and superior service.
  • B2 Hotel Zurich (4-star) – One of the cool things about this hotel is its public thermal bath and spa, which features different swimming pools, a wellness area, and a steam bath, right in the heart of Zurich. In addition to that, it’s located in an old brewery.
  • Hotel Schweizerhof Zurich (4-star) – A short walk from Zurich’s main train station, this hotel is a great choice for people who want something stylish and convenient. Schweizerhof Zurich has noise-proof rooms, a great location, and free access to Holmes Place Fitness & Spa next door.
  • citizenM Zurich (4-star) – Located in a great location with a fantastic lounge offering free Wi-Fi, this hotel is a fantastic value for money. This modern hotel in the center of Zurich offers friendly service and the quality you would expect from a CitizenM hotel.
  • Motel One Zurich (3-star) – I’d highly recommend Motel One to anyone looking for something more inexpensive. Having stayed at Motel One Basel, I am 100% sure that the Motel One hotel in Zurich is just as nice, clean, and affordable. Plus, it’s incredibly close to the train station, Grossmünster, and the heart of the city.
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I highly recommend using Booking.com. It is a fantastic way to find wonderful hotels in Lucerne and Zurich.


Final Thoughts: Lucerne or Zurich

Lucerne is better if you like small, relaxed, and pretty towns close to the Swiss Alps. Zurich is better if you want a bigger city with lots of restaurants and nightlife.

My personal preference: I personally prefer the area near Lucerne more because it’s beautiful and interesting, but Zurich has its own good things too. Overall, Zurich might be more practical if you’re coming from another country.

In any case, travel between both cities is by train or car so you can easily visit one or the other for a day.


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Darla Uhl is the owner of TouringSwitzerland.com. Her home is in the German-speaking part of Switzerland. Having lived almost 20 years in Switzerland, she's traveled extensively all over the country.

Darla's favorite regions to visit in Switzerland include Engadin, Lake Geneva, Bernese Oberland, Ticino, and Valais. She loves spending time with her family, hiking, visiting museums, and reading books.

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