There are many underrated cities in Switzerland and of them is Lausanne. Normally overshadowed by the more popular Zurich, Geneva, and the Jungfrau area, Lausanne is just as charming as its neighboring cities. Its charm doesn’t immediately jump out at you when you arrive, but a quick stroll immerses you in medieval history, Romanesque and Gothic architecture, and breathtaking nature thanks to its location among three steep slopes. Also dubbed as the World’s Olympic Capital, skiing and winter sports are taken quite seriously here and you won’t run out of sporty adventures to challenge you.
Since Lausanne is built against slopes with an almost dizzying layout, there are many spots in the city where you’ll be surprised by the expansive views of Lake Geneva and the Swiss Alps.
From pedestrian centers to outdoor adventures, there are many things you can explore.
Exploring the streets of Lausanne can be quite a workout. You can start at the top at medieval Cite located in the pedestrian Old Town and make your way through the hill that spreads down to the main train station. Fortunately, there are many bridges, lifts, and escalators to help you work your way up and down the hills. The crisscrossing streets and metro lines can also feel disorienting, but getting lost is half the fun. At the top, you can visit the largest cathedral in Switzerland, the Cathédrale de Lausanne. From here, you can make your way to Old Town’s main square, Place de la Palud.
The location of Cathedrale de Lausanne high atop the city gives it a valuable vantage point to look over the whole of Lausanne. Construction of the cathedral started in 1170 making this 850-year old structure an imposing one during the medieval times. One unique aspect of both location and age is the employment of a Night Watchman – one of only seven in the whole continent of Europe. This post has been continuously filled since the Middle Ages so for more than 600 years, a Night Watchman has kept an eye out for fires from his perch 75 meters above the city. He also calls out the hour between 10PM and 2PM as part of his employment.
Art is very subjective, and none more so than what famous painter Jean Dubuffet termed as Art Brut. Art Brut refers to art forms outside the boundaries of normal art, and it can get very bizarre indeed. In Lausanne, you’ll find some of the world’s quirkiest collections in Collection de L’Art Brut. Here you will find important works from Dubuffet himself, mixed in with art collections of all kinds. From children’s finger paintings to paintings done by psychiatric patients, the collections definitely dangle off the fringes of art. The pieces are offbeat, intuitive, and definitely intriguing.
Palais de Rumine is known for its impressive collection of artwork from French artists. It was built in 1906 in Florentine Rennaissance style thanks to a generous contribution from Gabriel de Rumine, a Russian aristocrat whose mother came from Lausanne. The museum houses works by Paul Cézanne, Edgar Degas, Auguste Renoir, Pierre Bonnard, Albert Marquet, Henri Matisse, and Maurice Utrillo here, and graphic works by Swiss artists. It also houses cantonal museums such as the Archeological and Historical Museum, the Natural History and Zoological Museum, and the Cantonal Money Museum.
From local goods to international splurges, Lausanne has a lot to offer. Saturdays and Wednesdays are heaven for bargain shoppers. Market stalls pop up around Place de la Palud selling anywhere from souvenirs to boutique items and delicacies. Going down from the Old Town to the city center, you’ll come upon the trendy warehouse district of Flon. Here you’ll find a mix of high-end brands and vintage stores. You’ll find clothing, shoe boutiques, groceries, accessories, and even automotive accessories in this district. For more unique finds, independent boutiques line Rue Martery for a different kind of shopping experience.
For days when you just need a place to chill and still take in some breathtaking views, head over to the Ouchy Promenade. This one-kilometer lakefront district lures tourists and residents alike especially during warm summers and sunny afternoons. On the weekends, you’ll find families and children running around or having a small picnic. If you’re alone, you are more than welcome to read a good book and sit on one of the park benches while you watch CGN ferries pass by. You can swim in the lake or rent a stand-up paddle from the peddlers along the shore. While time might go slowly around this area, it’s still a very posh district where luxury hotels take the prime spot with coveted lakeside views.
As home to the International Olympic Committee, it’s but right to visit the Olympic Museum when you’re in Lausanne. It’s located at the center of the Ouchy and also boasts of commanding views of Lake Geneva. The museum has permanent exhibitions arranged over three floors showing the history and evolution of the Olympic games. The ground floor chronicles the Olympics from ancient history to modern times. The second floor documents all sporting events held at each Olympics throughout the years. The top floor is an interactive exhibition where you can test your skills and mental prowess in performing at the games.
Head west from the Ouchy towards Vidy to discover how life was in Roman times. Here you will find the port of Lousonna, which was an important trading colony due to its location at the intersection of routes from the Mediterranean and the River Rhine. This history is encapsulated in the Roman Museum, telling the story of how a city of around 2,000 traders, craftsmen, and fishermen thrived from the first to the fourth century. The museum is built within an exquisite residence, showcasing artifacts found in the site. The painted rooms and atrium provide a backdrop for bronze objects, ancient coins, household items and other ceramics. You can also take an archaeological walk among the ruins of Lousonna’s ancient forum.
There are numerous places in Lausanne to marvel at the great Lake Geneva, but none better than the Lavaux Vineyard. The vineyard is nestled between the sloped lakeside of Lausanne and Montreux. Within and around the vineyard, you can visit family-owned vineyards, stone terraces, and medieval villages that date back to the 11th century. At the Lavaux Vineyards, you can sample wine that’s good to be exported. The vineyard terraces stretch for about 30 km. It also a UNESCO World Heritage site for its historical relevance. The present vine terraces can be traced back to the 11th century and were controlled by the Benedictine and Cistercian monasteries.
A short trip from the city center brings you to Chalet-à-Gobet. It’s a grassy plain in Mauvernay is surrounded by woods. In the spring and summer, it’s a delight for joggers, bikers, and hikers for a sunny day outside. Come winter, snow covers the plains and becomes a wonderland for sledding and playing around in the snow. There is a small ski slope ideal for children as well. Chalet-à-Gobet is also home to the l’École hôtelière de Lausanne (Lausanne Hotel School) and the Lausanne Golf Club.
The Tour de Sauvabelin is a unique viewing tower in the highest point of the Sauvabelin Forest. The Tour de Suvabelin is constructed entirely out of timber from the forests outside the city, composed of Douglas fir, spruce, and larch wood. It was raised in 2003 and characterized by its double helix staircase. 151 steps take you up to the observation tower where you can take in dreamy views of Lake Geneva, the Alps, the Vaud Alps, French Alps, and Lausanne’s cityscape.
The oldest restaurant in Lausanne is also one of its most popular. The Pinte Besson opened in 1780 and has since served traditional Swiss dishes. Diners bask in its Old World charm with exposed wooden beams and stained glass windows still preserved over 200 years later. The restaurant is most known for serving up the best fondue in Lausanne – a rich mix of Gruyere and Vacherin served with potatoes and bread for dipping. Pinte Besson also serves great local wines and seasonal dishes at average Swiss prices. While the restaurant entertains walk-ins, it’s almost always packed so plan ahead and make a reservation.
All roads lead to the central market surrounded by banks, the post office, shops and impressive buildings. Anchoring both medieval and modern structures is Place St.-François, a 13th-century church marked by an elegant bell tower. It is named after the fact that it stood next to a Franciscan convent, which was then dissolved during the Protestant Reformation. Its original interior decor was stripped down then, but beautiful stained glass windows were put up in 1907. If you visit in December, this is where the Lausanne Christmas Market is held.
Musée de l’Élysée is one of Europe’s greatest photography museums. It’s housed in an elegant 18th-century mansion overlooking Lake Geneva. There are over 100,000 photographs taken using various techniques. If you’re serious about photography, you can study daguerrotype , albumen and ambrotype prints. The musuem follows the evolution of photography upto digital prints and exhibits collections from celebrated Swiss photographers like Ella Maillart and Nicolas Bouvier. A prized collection in the museum Charlie Chaplin’s personal album. It was purchased in 2011 and has 10,000 photographs that document his entire career.
The panoramic views of Lake Geneva and the Alps from Esplanade de Montbenon is only the beginning of an exhilarating experience in Lausanne. The manicured lawns and landscapes around the esplanade are tempting for a quiet day just enjoying the scenery. The Esplanade is also home to the grand 1880s edifice Palais de Justice de Montbenon. Its location at the top of the esplanade makes this Beaux-Arts structure even more impressive. There is also the Casino de Montbenon that currently contains the Swiss Film Archive. October is an active time at the Esplanade when the “Cinématographe” holds big events like the Lausanne Underground Film and Music Festival.
Another famous art collection in the city of Lausanne is Fondation de l’Hermitage in the Vaudois neighborhood. Visitors are welcomed by a handsome manor house built in the 1850s. The house has its own park and its own beautiful views of the lake, mountains, and Cathedral towers. The manor itself was turned over to the city in the 70s, which was when the art foundation was set up. The collection has now swollen to hundreds of works which change throughout the year. There are no permanent exhibitions on display, but superb temporary exhibitions always get visitors and locals coming back.
Parc de Mon-Repos is an English-style park built in the 18th century. The park is planted with exotic trees and has a long list of impressive features. There is an aviary with over 70 species of birds, an orange grove, a natural waterfall, and a neo-Gothic tower. In the park is an 18th-century villa where the IOC sate from 1922 to 1967. During the summer, the outdoor theater holds several events and holds outdoor screenings and musical performances. Voltaire once produced a play in this very park.
With a great location by Lake Geneva and an easy stroll to the Ouchy, you’ll definitely have to take an excursion from the lake. If you don’t have that much time, you can simply cross the lake in a modern vessel to Geneva. You can even cross country borders and head to the Thonon-les-Baines on the French side of the lake. If you have more time, take a leisurely ride aboard a CGN heritage boat, which was built in Winterthur in the early 20th century. There are several sightseeing cruises to Geneva and a roundtrip to Château de Chillon.
Lausanne’s Botanical Gardens was established in 1824. There are impressive botanical collections to explore including over 6,000 plants, flowers, ferns, and fungi. There are several informational place cards around the area so you can walk around at your own pace and get to know more about the plants. Many of the collection are Alpine plants, some even having medicinal qualities.
Thanks to efficient transportation and endless things to see and enjoy, Lausanne is a great jump-off point for cool daytrips. Head to Montreaux to see Chateau de Chillon. This 9th century stronghold commanded the road from Burgundy over the Alps into Italy. It’s also a quick trip to Vevey, sitting on the shore of Lake Geneva. It’s a popular destination for affluent tourists staying in elegant hotels lining the lakeshore. Vevey is a harmonious blend of medieval and 19th-century architecture and also a culinary seat for traditional Swiss and European cuisine.
Roger is a little obsessed with travel. He has been to over 40 countries, broken 3 suitcases and owned over 10 backpacks in 12 months. What he doesn't know about travel, ain't worth knowing!