Choosing between Switzerland's two premiere destinations, Lucerne and Interlaken, is never a simple thing.
So, in this detailed guide I will break down exactly how long it takes to get to each place, what each one offers both locally and in the area. All in an effort to help you make an informed and simple decision.
If you want to jump to a specific section you can use the Quick Navigation below. And any questions, feel free to leave a comment at the end.
Lucerne with the Kapellebrucke and Pilatus in the background
Image courtesy of Horst Michael Lechner
Lucerne is in the German speaking part of Switzerland, on the Northern side of the alps in the center.
If you are also on the Northern side of the alps (Bern, Basel, Zurich or around that area) you will find it easy to reach Lucerne by either road or train.
If you choose to come by train, one of the easier and more relaxing ways to enjoy Switzerland, these are the approximate travel times:
The great thing about Lucerne is that it is a city right in the heart of the alps. That means it comes with all the benefits of a city (shopping, restaurants, hotels, attractions) while still having great outdoor activities and sights.
Let's start with some of Lucerne's biggest and most impressive attractions:
The Kapellbrücke or Chapel Bridge (seen in the large image above) is probably the most impressive and historic bridge in all of Switzerland. It combines a wooden foot bridge which spans the Reuss river in the heart of Lucerne, with a work of art.
Spanning the length of the bridge are 17th century paintings that should actually be in a museum. You can see a few in the image on the left.
Lucerne was a fortified town in it's day and fortunately for us a whole swathe of this wall is still intact. It's well worth the climb to get up on the wall and also visit the fully functioning clock from the "inside". You get to see the moving parts as you climb the Zyt tower - which goes off on the hour, just be aware, it can be loud!
The beauty of Lucerne is not only it's location and attractions, but it also contain quite a large and car-free old town that is a joy to walk in. This is where the Chapel Bridge is located, so you will likely come here on your visit. And while roaming the cobble streets, you can check out some of the other attractions including:
Lucerne has not only one painted covered bridge, but two! This one is hidden a bit more in the back of the town (walk through the old town along the river and you can't miss it).
If you are strapped for time, then you can certainly just visit the chapel bridge, but this is a great way to avoid the crowds and see another side to Lucerne most miss
You will certainly enjoy the Ruess River and it's southing sounds as you wander the town, but don't forget to also head down to the lake. One of the gems of Lucerne.
What other great cities in the world are in the heart of the alps on a picturesque lake? My recommendation is to take a walk along the left hand side, for as long as you like, just enjoying the views (which are stunning with the mountains around) and peaceful surroundings Lucerne is famous for.
There are too many wonderful attractions to mention in this article, but here are a few more if you have some time to spare:
, designed by leading French architect Jean Nouvel, is one the architectural highlights of the town.
Lucerne is in such a prime location that you can do some stunning day trips right from the heart of town, most of the time using public transport. What more could you ask for?
With the city right on the shores of Lake Lucerne and mountains surrounding the lake, you are spoiled for choice. And on top of that, there are also some other fun attractions you can make a day out of:
Listed from most to least expensive.
Compared to Lucerne, Interlaken is a lot smaller - a town more than a city. As such, there is a lot less of the big stuff (restaurants, shops, big hotels) however there is still a lot to see.
Unlike Lucerne though, most people come to Interlaken for the mountains and outdoor activities, including some pretty crazy stuff that might be right up your alley. (More on that below)
Zurich to Lucerne: 2 hour (approx)
Basel to Lucerne: 2 hour (approx)
Bern to Interlaken: 55min (approx)
Geneva to Lucerne: just under 3 hours
Lucerne to Interlaken by train:
If you are coming from the north and have more time to get here, a more scenic journey from or via Lucerne is the Golden Pass.
Note: Find out exact travel times and departures on the Swiss Railway website - SBB
Zurich to Lucerne: 1.5 hours (approx)
Basel to Lucerne: 2 hours (approx)
Bern to Lucerne: 45min (approx)
Geneva to Lucerne: 2.5 hours (approx)
Note: Find out exact travel times on Google Maps
Interlaken is not the drawcard Lucerne is in terms of "top things to see in town" but there are still a lot of highlights nonetheless.
After all, Switzerland is full of history and spectacular views no matter where you are.
Running right through the middle of town the Hohenweg promenade is a highlight of a stroll from Interlaken Ost (East) to Interlaken West. It is a strip of park surrounded by local hotels, restaurants and shops and also comes with some spectacular views of the distant peaks you will likely visit while here. It is also a great place to relax after a day out and about in Interlaken or the surrounding mountains!
Spotting Ibex (long horn goats) or Marmots in the wild is not always easy, which is why the Game Park is such a treasure to visit. Located adjacent to the Hard-Kulm Cableway, the park has Ibex and a colony of Marmots. So, if want a chance to see some local Swiss wildlife, with a 100% chance of a sighting (:>) this is your spot.
Just on the other side of the river in Interlaken Ost is the Harder-Kulm Cableway. A spectacular way to get a panoramic view of the surrounding mountains. You can see the two lakes that give Interlaken (between lakes) its name - the Brienz and Thun Lakes, as well as the infamous Eiger and its partners - Jungfrau and Monch. And for those with a stomach for heights (see above) you can take a leap out into the abyss (kind of) and get an even better view!
A short walk across the river in the center of Interlaken is this gem of an old town. Featuring building as old as the 13th century, you will feel like you have stepped back in time! Switzerland keeps it's old towns in very good nick (condition) and you will love this one. You can also find such Interlaken sites as:
Interlaken Monastery & Castle - explore the 13th century monstery.
Museum of Tourism - 3 floors or history on Tourism in the region
If you are taking a walk along the river in Interlaken you might just stumble across this gem. The covered bridge just near the Spielmatte island (a little closer to Interlaken West than Ost) is worth a look, especially if you don't make it to Lucerne. It is a well-maintained example of the kinds of bridges that were common in Switzerland way back when.
Lake Thun & Lake Brienz - Interlaken means "between lakes" and it sits between some realy blue gems! Both lakes offer some great activities including boat rides, stand-up paddling and mountain cablecars. More on this in the next section.
As a base for exploring the Bernese Oberland and the impressive local peaks, Interlaken is perfect.
A trip to the Jungfraujoch is by far one of the most amazing experiences you can have in Switzerland, bar none.
If you come to Interlaken, or any other nearby town (more on that below) this is an absolute must.
Jungfrau mountain itself is one of the highest in the area, and sits in a row with Eiger and Monch. The Jungfraujoch is a mountain saddle that sits between the Jungfrau and Monch.
The Swiss have ingeniously carved a railway line literally through the Eiger & Monch up to the saddle to create Europe's highest railway station.
Not only is the journey itself quite amazing, passing through mountains, but there are stops along the way to give you direct views to the valley below via windows in the mountain face and another view onto a nearby glacier (at Eismeer).
Once at the top, you can see Europe's longest glacier, the Aletsch, in all it's icy glory as it runs from the back of the Jungfrau for some 24km or 14miles. A stunning site indeed.
There is also lots of fun things to do up there including:
And a lot of people also come here for the adrenaline rush of:
Also check out all the things you can do at First ski resort, including the awesome cliff walk and other adventures. There is no other place in Switzerland with as much adrenaline!
Of course, if you are NOT up for adrenaline, there are more walks and hikes in the region than you can poke a stick at. This is a hikers paradise!
View of the Eiger from First above Grindelwald
There are also lots of other stunning places to see in the area, including mountain towns, hiking destinations and train rides to the top of the Europe. Most of them complete with jaw-dropping views of 4000m (12000ft) peaks and glaciers!
It's also possible to visit other areas from here such as Meiringen/Hasliberg ( where the famous Sherlock holmes waterfall is as well as the nearby Aare Gorge & Grimselpass and the stunningly blue Lake Brienz with the local mountain - Brienzer Rothorn.
St Beatus Caves - Just a 15minute bus ride outside Interlaken on Thun Lake are the Beatus Caves. They have over 1 kilometer of walkways through some spectacular caves buried deep in the mountains along the lake's shore.
Mystery World - Interlaken's answer to Disney World featuring 6 pavillions with historical mysteries, multi-media shows and even a submarine simulation.
Listed from most to least expensive.
There is no easy answer when it comes to choosing between these two beautiful destinations.
For me it comes down to a couple of key points:
1. The kinds of things activities you like to do on vacation
2. How active you want to be
Lucerne is a larger city so has far more of those kinds of things - shops, restaurants, hotels. Also, landmarks, historical buildings, bridges, walls and so on. So, if you want a lot that, then Lucerne is better than Interlaken by a long shot.
Because of it's location, Lucerne also has some amazing views, right from the lake shore, as well as some very easy day trips you can start right from the center of town (by train, bus or boat). So, if you want to avoid lots of moving around, or you don't have a car, then Lucerne is perfect for that. Everything is right at your door step.
The mountains and views from Lake Lucerne are superb, but they cannot beat the 4000m (11000ft) mountains of the Bernes Oberland and the local glaciers. Lucerne has Rigi and Pilatus. Interlaken has Eiger, Monch, Jungfrau and quite a few more massive and impressive peaks.
So, if you want to focus on the outdoors and all the associated experiences, Interlaken wins here.
Although you can do a lot of things from Lucerne and in the local area (mountains, lakes, rivers) you just cannot beat the range of outdoor activities and thrill seeking satisfaction you can get in Interlaken. It really is the adrenaline capital of Switzerland (canyoning, sky diving, paragliding, tubing and oh so much more). Interlaken is the home of the thrill seeker!
Of course, if you happen to choose one over the other and think you are going to regret it - never fear, they are both worthy of a trip on their own and you can always come back and see the other one next time! Or, if you have enough time, you can even do a day trip from one to the other (like Lucerne to Jungfrau) - Switzerland is far smaller than you think.
Related Post: 1Week Itinerary In Switzerland
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!