This large area, the heart of Switzerland, holds the cantons of Uri, Schwyz, Obwalden, Nidwalden, Lucerne and Zug. But it’s also the heart and soul of the country, from a historical and sentimental stance. Moreover, it’s here founding myths, iconic imagery, quintessential landscape and much of the national character combine to create the essence of ‘Swissness’.
This is the place where the William Tell legend shot straight to the core of the apple and also the independence that the Swiss pride themselves on. Here is where you’ll see a mountain swathed in clouds looming above a mesmerizing lake and married to folkloric tales of dragons. Over there is another regal peak, able to silence visitors with majestic sunsets and sunrises.
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The region’s lakes dazzle with the constantly changing play of light and shade, wind and wave. They beckon you to swim, stride around and simply try to do justice to the beauty before you. This is a place where a million photos are never enough.
The jewel in the crown is Lucerne, its glittering perfection matched only by its popularity. Furthermore, the towns of Lake Lucerne offer a pleasing mix of understated local life and luxurious creature comforts. Check out Weggis, Vitznau, Seelisberg et al.
Swiss innovation and infrastructure combine to transport you to whichever breathtaking spot you deem unmissable whether you travel via an open-topped cable car, a stunningly steep or funicular and panoramic train trips. Clued-in locals are keen to share the splendor of their home, with any number of tours, trips and businesses geared to helping you make the most of your time here.
We’ve included a handful of listings for outdoors-specific places such as Engelberg and Andermatt (Obwalden and Uri cantons, respectively). Lucerne (the city) has more detailed coverage, as befits its status as one of Switzerland’s most popular places to visit.
To book a suitable hotel or other accommodation in or around Lucerne, you can use the map below, which shows current prices for hotels and apartments. If you wish to book further afield, then just enlarge the map (+/-) to see more properties or, if you have somewhere particular in mind, enter your preferred resort/town/village in the ‘Where are you going?’ box.
Central Switzerland is a year-round destination, although it pays to remember that many mountain resorts close for a few weeks in the fall. If you’re primarily after an urban break, with a few day trips planned, then any time of year will suit you.
However, if you’re after snow sports at their finest, the winter and spring skiing seasons offer great opportunities for all sorts of snow bunnies: think family-friendly resorts with snow parks and hotels with child-minding facilities (so that the grown-ups can cut loose on the slopes); low-key spots primarily habituated by locals; luxury hotels and resorts imbued with jets-set allure and off-piste dream destinations. Other activities in this season include tobogganing, show-shoeing and relaxing in stunning thermal baths.
In summer, walking and hiking takes center stage, with trails for everyone, from easy-does-it sightseers, to the mobility impaired and serious onward-and-upward enthusiasts. Many ski slopes morph into mountain bike trails during the peak season.
Central Switzerland is a compact area, but initial appearances can be deceptive: mountains take time, whether you’re on foot, in a car, in a cable car or on skis.
The city of Lucerne, for all its charms, can easily be covered in a 48-hour jaunt (see our 48 Hours in Lucerne itinerary for the perfect two-day visit), but if you’re looking to explore famous mountains such as Pilatus and Rigi, it’s worth setting aside a whole day for a return trip (to Lucerne or one of the Lake Lucerne towns, for example). Spending a night on Rigi is well worth it though, as sunrise is spectacular, and from there you continue down the mountain and take your car, a train or boat to your next destination.
If you’re traveling by car you’re only ever a few hours at most from the destinations mentioned here. If you plan to ski or hike, it’s worth setting aside at least two days to really enjoy the experience. We recommend taking two days to do the Swiss Path, for example, although it can be done in a day. Likewise skiing in relatively unknown resorts such as Andermatt and Engelberg: give yourself a little extra time and get to know the pistes that locals love.
Lucerne is busy all year long, but especially during the summer holiday months, the Lucerne Festival, the Easter and Christmas holidays and on long weekends.
In the mountain areas, the ski season generally lasts from late November or early-mid December until mid-April. Resorts will close for a few weeks in the off season (generally from mid-October until the ski season starts up).
The peak summer season is in July and August when hikers swarm the trails — going in June or early September is often a good idea.
Central Switzerland has a temperate climate with no great extremes. Seasons, which are distinguishable, are known for activities such as swimming (Lake Lucerne in summer), hiking (spring, summer and autumn) and, of course, skiing and snowboarding (winter).
Summer storms (dark clouds, lashing rain and howling winds) whip up suddenly and dramatically on the lakes: even if your day has started with blue skies and sunshine, it pays to have some wet-weather gear to hand.
Altitude always plays a role in temperature variations, so remember to pack warm clothing if you’re planning on spending time hitting the heights, even in summer. Mountain temperatures decrease sharply at night.
Lucerne’s fasnacht takes place over six days, starting with the Fritschi Parade on Dirty Thursday and continuing until Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday). Guggenmusigen (bands) roam the streets, rowdy crowds dressed in colorful costumes and masks let loose and party like there’s no tomorrow, making this a must for fans of local festivals (and hell on earth for light sleepers!)
Another important day is Switzerland’s national day, which takes place on August 1. The Rütli meadow is the scene of fervent patriotism and innumerable Swiss flags, given that this is the (supposed) place where the Rütlischwur (Rütli Oath) took place and Switzerland took its first steps towards independence.
Assumption (August 15) is a public holiday in Lucerne, Uri, Obwalden and Nidwalden cantons.
Central Switzerland is located in the CET (Central European Time) zone.
Daylight Saving Time (DST) happens in the Spring (last Sunday in March at 1AM) when clocks are advanced one hour. In the Autumn (last Sunday in October at 1AM), clocks shift back one hour to standard time to give more daylight in the morning.
Like much of the country, locals dress in comfortable, weather-specific clothing: Switzerland is not a major fashion hub but you will find plenty of stores dedicated to outdoor gear and sensible footwear! Unless you fancy paying for these things in Swiss francs, you’re best off bringing gear from home.
In all but the fanciest restaurants you’ll be welcome in your regular sightseeing or outdoor gear, although it’s always good form to leave wet or snow-covered clothing at the cloakroom or clothing rail.
Central Switzerland, with its tourist magnet Lucerne, is by no means a budget destination: accommodation (other than hostels), food (even from supermarkets), alcohol, gas (petrol) and transportation are expensive compared with other European destinations.
Activities such as skiing and snowboarding can be very expensive if you need to hire or buy gear, and day passes/lift tickets (for adults) are pricey.
Iconic attractions such as the Pilatus Golden Round Trip or the Stanserhorn CabriO can really bite into a travel budget — it pays to check for every possible discount (Swiss Travel Pass etc) available.
Price ranges are quoted in CHF (Swiss francs).
See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
€ => Tickets less than CHF10 per person
€€ => Tickets CHF10-CHF25 per person
€€€ => Tickets CHF25 per person
€ => Rooms less than CHF250 for a double
€€ => Rooms CHF250-CHF400 for a double
€€€ => Rooms CHF400 for a double
€=> Less than CHF30 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
€€ => CHF30-CHF75 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
€€€ => CHF75 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
N/A => Not applicable
€ => Tickets less than CHF10 per person
€€ => Tickets CHF10-CHF25 per person
€€€ => Tickets CHF25 per person
One annoying and expensive payment is the (compulsory) reservation surcharge for trips on the Wilhelm Tell Express (William Tell Express) — in summer/winter you’ll fork out an extra CHF49/39 just to reserve your seat. It’s much the same story for seat on the Glacier Express (which you can board in Andermatt), albeit a little cheaper: CHF33/13.
As with the rest of Switzerland, transportation infrastructure is well planned and well maintained: roads are in good condition, transportation links are excellent and a number of trips are attractions in their own right (the William Tell Express, the region’s numerous cable cars and funiculars.
Lucerne is easily reached from Switzerland’s major airports (Zürich, Basel-Mulhouse and Geneva), either by car or train. Lucerne can also entered and exited by train from Milano Centrale (Italy). Connections between cities such as Zürich, Basel, Lausanne and Geneva are regular, allowing people to continue by train to and from other European destinations such as France, Germany, Austria and Italy.
Central Switzerland is a relatively compact, albeit mountainous area, and can easily be toured by car (although bear in mind that mountain passes near Andermatt will often be closed during winter; car-train services run during this time, but on a limited schedule).
Public transport within the region is excellent: you can glide across Lake Lucerne and Lake Uri by romantic paddle steamer, zip between towns on whisper-quiet trains, take a bright yellow Post Bus to remote spots reached via hairpin bends and whoosh up to a mountain top via cable car, funicular or, ahem, your own feet.
Prices are comparatively high, but you can ease the pain with discounts and passes.
Lucerne, with its large train station, dense bus network and boat routes, is the region’s transportation hub. Getting from here to other points in the region is a relatively straightforward affair.
The following websites offer detailed timetable and route listings.
The Tell Pass grants visitors to Central Switzerland unlimited travel by train, boat, bus, mountain railway and cable car throughout the region. It costs CHF170/200/220/230/280 for 2/3/4/5/10 days and also offers discounts on various regional attractions, including 20% off the admission to the Verkehrshaus.
The children’s Tell Pass is a bargain CHF30.
To give you an idea of ticket prices, here are some popular one-way trips (adult, 2nd class price) in the region.
Lucerne to Andermatt (train): CHF38.20
Lucerne to Brunnen (train): CHF17.10
Lucerne to Brunnen (boat): CHF39
Lucerne to Engelberg (train): CHF17.80
Lucerne to Stans (train): CHF7.60
Lucerne to Weggis (boat): CHF19.60
The spiritual home of a Swiss myth or two, Central Switzerland is where the national character comes to the fore, the famous Swiss flag appears in abundance and the jaw-dropping scenery goes on for miles.
A place of great importance to the national psyche, the region combines achingly beautiful lakes, verdant meadows and pastures, special hiking trails and mountains that simply beg you to explore them a little bit longer, either with your hiking boots or a pair of skis.
Tourism has long been a staple industry and famous 19th-century visitors to the region include Queen Victoria, Mark Twain and JMW Turner (who immortalized Rigi). Today, tourism is still a mainstay of the region, and you’ll find plenty of attractions and distractions, for all sorts of travelers.
As the repository of Switzerland’s premier folkloric legend, and also the home to numerous founding documents, you’d not be surprised to find out that this is a region known for its patriotism and strong sense of national character. For the most part, this translates into a marked belief in self-reliance and hard work. At times, though the region has been caricatured as xenophobic and even racist, although a reliance on tourism means that such tendencies are more likely to be revealed around
political issues such as immigration.
Lucerne has been a tourist hot spot since the 19th century and unfortunately this has left a small number of business owners a little jaded — waitstaff can be less than keen to help, hotel staff somewhat indifferent, shopkeepers sure enough of continued custom that they don’t feel they have to work for a sale. In other areas of the region, you’ll find staff keen to please and full of pride in their establishment.
Little is known of Lucerne’s early history, although a Benedictine monastery (St Leodegar) was here in the 8th century. The monastery was acquired by an Alsatian Murbach Abbey, in whose hands it lay until 1178. The opening up of the Gotthard route provided ample commercial opportunities for Lucerne.
By the 13th century, Lucerne was under strong Habsburg influence, which was resented, and so Lucerne joined with Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden (the three Swiss cantons who first formed the Old Swiss Confederacy) in resisting Habsburg rule. By 1386, Lucerne was able to defeat the Habsburgs at the Battle of Sempach.
Central Switzerland is the setting for a (much-disputed) historical tale whose imagery you will encounter time and time again in the region: the legend of William Tell.
A Swiss folk-hero par excellence, Tell (so the story goes) was a strong and proud man (and also a talented marksman) from Bürglen, in Uri Canton, who refused to submit to Austrian authority. The Habsburg bailiff, Albrecht (or Hermann) Gessler, who was sent to Altdorf to impose some order on the locals, raised a pole with his hat atop and ordered passing locals to bow to it. William Tell refused, was seized, and ordered to shoot an arrow off the top of his son’s head, in front of Gessler. Tell had two arrows packed in his quiver, and Gessler asked Tell (after Tell shot the arrow without harming a hair on his son’s head) what the second arrow was for, to which Tell replied that it was for Gessler, should Tell have failed.
Tell was seized again, sentenced to life in prison at Küssnacht and bundled into the boat that would transport him there. During transit, a wild storm whipped up the lake and Tell made a daring leap to freedom at the spot now called Tellsplatte (just near Tellskapelle), killing Gessler in the process, and escaping.
If you want to know more about the history of the region, and of the importance and contentiousness of the Tell legend, then visit the town of Schwyz (the capital of Schwyz Canton), with its Museum of Swiss Charters and a branch of the Swiss National Museum, the Forum of Swiss History.
Like the rest of the country, Central Switzerland plays to its strengths, so many dishes are based on plentiful and seasonal local ingredients and recipes tend to remain unchanged for generations. A great many menus will have a certain sameness to them: veal in cream and mushroom sauce, schnitzel, lake fish in butter and herb sauce, and plenty of potatoes. They will generally be of a high standard (and comparatively high price) but you may well find yourself craving variety and a little experimentation after a few days.
Dishes worth trying in the region include Lucerne treats Chügelipastete (like a big puff pastry with veal, mushrooms and cream) and sweet pear bread. Apple-based desserts are simple but splendid affairs and near-ubiquitous. This being the German-speaking region of Switzerland, you’ll find a rösti on almost every menu: make sure you try at least one.
German is the official language of the region, but many locals will speak Schwyzerdütsch (Swiss-German). Primarily an oral language, there are variants of the dialect in many of the German-speaking cantons, meaning that someone from Lucerne and someone from Basel will often switch to Hochdeutsch (High German), or even English, in order to chat.
You’ll find that most people working in hospitality or anything associated with tourism will speak French (one of the country’s four official languages), Italian and English, and maybe a few other languages besides.
Good web resources for travel in the region include the following:
Central Switzerland (www.centralswitzerland.ch)
Lucerne Tourism (www.luzern.com/en)
Mt Pilatus (www.pilatus.ch/en/)
Mt Rigi (www.rigi.ch/Home-en)
Great nation-wide hiking information abounds at www.wanderland.ch/en/; with special itineraries at a local, regional and national level.