Zurich vs Lucerne: Which Swiss City to Visit?

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by Neota Langley

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Switzerland’s cities are full of wonder and fairytale-esque charm. It’s no doubt Zurich vs Lucerne leaves you comparing two of this country’s most show-stopping destinations. At first glance, these cities may seem interchangeable.

Both Zurich and Lucerne offer their own sparkling alpine lakes, a rabbit warren of mediaeval streets and plenty of high-end restaurants, but dig a little deeper, and you will discover several key differences that will help you decide which city to stay in.

In general, choose Zurich if you want a big-city vibe with lots of things to do and easy access to other cities in Switzerland. On the other hand, choose Lucerne for a smaller, more intimate city that can serve as a gateway to the Alps.

However, there is a lot more to unpack when deciding between these two Swiss cities!


Switzerland’s largest city, Zurich, is the very definition of a bustling metropolis. Renowned for its financial prowess, Zurich is emerging as a city that blends modern corporate culture with a newer, hipster vibe thanks to its contemporary art scene and vibrant nightlife.

Nestled by Lake Zurich and the Limmat River and surrounded by picturesque mountains, it also offers a taste of the breathtaking views this country is so famous for and is a truly delightful place to visit.

Old Town of Zurich
Old Town of Zurich


When it comes to accessibility, Zurich is easy to reach with excellent air, rail and road connections.

Zurich International Airport, Switzerland’s largest, serves as a major hub for international flights. Direct flights connect Zurich to major cities in Europe, North America, Asia, and beyond. From there, make use of the city’s modern public transport options such as the tram or the trains to reach the city centre. You can also book a private transfer here.

If you are travelling from elsewhere in Switzerland or even Europe, Zurich’s excellent rail network makes the train a popular choice. High-speed trains link the Zurich train station to Geneva, Vienna, Paris and even Milan. You can view schedules here.

If you would prefer to take the scenic route and travel by road trip, the roads in Switzerland are excellent, well-maintained and easy to navigate. That being said, if you want to drive on the motorways, you will need to purchase a vignette for your car. You can view car rental options here.

This sticker that goes on your windshield allows you to travel on all the toll roads. If you have picked up a hire car in Switzerland, don’t worry, the vignette will be included. 

Zurich is the largest city in Switzerland, so it is not anywhere near as walkable as the much smaller city of Lucerne. Exploring the city centre can be done on foot, but when you want to discover the attractions on the outskirts, there are several options to transport you across the city.

Zurich is home to one of the most efficient public transport systems anywhere in the world. A combination of trams, trains, buses, taxis and bicycles are available to whisk you from A to B in a matter of minutes. You can consider purchasing a Zurich Card if you plan to use a lot of public transport.

Zurich's main train station
Zurich’s main train station


It’s no secret Switzerland is one of the most expensive countries to visit, and Zurich definitely does not escape this reputation. It even holds a spot in the top 10 most expensive cities in the world, alongside New York and Singapore. 

This doesn’t, however, mean this city is off-limits to the savvy budget traveller. There are plenty of tips and tricks that will help you make the most of this city without splashing the cash. 

Accommodation options in the city centre may be off-limits but head out of the centre and along Lake Zurich to find a better deal. You will find a wide range of options from hostels to B&Bs, hotels to luxury spas. 

One of the biggest outgoings for any trip to Switzerland is eating out. Whilst there are several incredible restaurants and cafes where you can sample some of the finest Swiss cuisine, making up a packed lunch before you head out for the day is an excellent way to save money.

When it comes to Zurich vs Lucerne, the smaller city of Lucerne is noticeably cheaper so if budget is a deciding factor, it’s something to keep in mind. From accommodation to souvenirs, food to activities, Lucerne is the more affordable city. 


Things to do in Zurich

Immerse yourself in the city’s rich culture by exploring the historic Old Town (Altstadt) with its cobbled streets, medieval buildings, and iconic landmarks such as the Grossmünster and Fraumünster churches.

Here you will find a concentration of boutique stores, local producers, cafes and restaurants. The Niederdorf area along the Limmet River is particularly special and has a quieter feel to it than the central squares. You can take a walking tour to learn more about the history of the city.

Just outside of the Old Town, The Swiss National Museum is a captivating institution housed in a grand castle-like building since 1898.

It showcases Switzerland’s rich heritage and history through an extensive collection of artefacts, artworks, and exhibitions. From prehistoric artefacts to medieval treasures and modern exhibits, the museum offers a fascinating journey through time for the whole family.

If you are a shopping enthusiast, visit Bahnhofstrasse, one of the world’s most exclusive shopping streets.

A combination of high-end boutiques, designer shops and department stores await. Or, for a slightly more down-to-earth shopping experience, explore the vibrant neighbourhoods of Kreis 4 and 5 for trendy boutiques, cafes, and bars.

Swiss chocolate is famous worldwide, none more so than Lindt. The Lindt Chocolate Museum in Zurich is a delightful treat for chocolate enthusiasts.

Nestled within the Lindt & Sprüngli factory, here you can experience an immersive tour detailing the history and production of this world-renowned chocolate brand. You can pre-purchase tickets here.

There is an underground hipster scene emerging in Zurich, helped along by the number of art museums. The Kunsthaus Zurich features an impressive collection of Swiss and international art, while the Migros Museum focuses on contemporary works. The Rietberg Museum showcases non-European art, and the Museum Haus Konstruktiv highlights modern and concrete art. 

Nature lovers can escape to Uetliberg Mountain, where hiking trails lead to breathtaking panoramas of the city and surrounding landscapes. Easily accessible by train, its summit provides panoramic views of the city, Lake Zurich, and the Swiss Alps.

As the evening draws in, you are sure to have worked up a considerable appetite. Zurich’s food scene is a delightful blend of traditional Swiss dishes and international flavours. Savour iconic Swiss specialities like cheese fondue, raclette, and rösti. Indulge in hearty sausages, delicious pastries, and the famous Luxemburgerli macarons.

There are several options, depending on your budget, from 1 or even 2-star Michelin restaurants to affordable, local restaurants. You can also take a food tour.

Zurich is a city that never sleeps, with plenty of nightlife options if you are hoping to dance the night away. Explore the trendy bars and clubs in the Old Town, bustling with energy. The Langstrasse district boasts a lively scene, while riverside lounges provide a relaxed atmosphere.

St Peter's Church in Zurich
St Peter’s Church in Zurich

Where to Stay in Zurich

Motel One Zürich – Mid-range visitors to this Swiss city will love this 3-star hotel in Zurich. Located in the centre of Zurich, they have several great rooms to choose from, there’s an on-site lounge bar and they even happen to be pet friendly.

Sorell Hotel St. Peter – Those looking for a luxury option in Zurich will love this opulent hotel. Situated in the centre of the city with easy access to all the top sites, there are an array of gorgeous rooms to choose from and plenty of other amenities, as well.

HITrental Stauffacher Apartments – If you’re after your own holiday flat in Zurich then this aparthotel is a good choice. They have a number of fully-furnished apartments to choose from along with being situated in a great location for exploring the city.

Zurich Youth Hostel – Budget and solo travellers will love this hostel in the centre of Zurich. Highly-rated, they have both private rooms and dorms on offer along with clean facilities and great common areas.

Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more Zurich hotels!

Beautiful Zurich
Beautiful Zurich


Lucerne, nestled amid the Swiss Alps and overlooking Lake Lucerne, is one of the country’s prettiest cities. Much smaller than Zurich, Lucerne is not to be overlooked, for there are plenty of activities and sights to see here in the city as well as in the surrounding snowcapped Alps. 


Chances are, if you are travelling internationally, you will pass through Zurich on your way to Lucerne. This city is easily accessible, but seeing as it doesn’t have an airport of its own, travel times are a little longer than if your final destination was Zurich. 

If you are flying into Switzerland, Zurich Airport is just 65km away from Lucerne. There is a direct train from the airport into the city which takes just over an hour. 

Lucerne is also accessible by train from other Swiss cities such as Basel, Geneva, and Bern. The rail service in Switzerland is incredibly efficient and relatively affordable, so it’s a great way to travel through the country if you don’t have a car. You can purchase a Swiss Travel Pass if you plan on using a lot of Swiss trains!

If you do have a car or have hired a car for the duration of your stay, arriving in Lucerne is straightforward whether you are taking the motorways or the scenic route. If you are bringing your own car, however, don’t forget to check whether your route includes toll roads. If so, you will need to purchase a vignette sticker for your windshield. 

Being the smaller city of the two, Lucerne is much more walkable than Zurich. You could walk from one side to the other, taking in the old town and the shores of Lake Lucerne in just over an hour.

Although Zurich is better connected for specific day trips to nearby cities, Lucerne is the gateway to the Alps, so for those of you hoping to experience the typical snowcapped mountains, cowbells and alpine meadows, Lucerne is the best place to stay. 

Lucerne's Old Town
Lucerne’s Old Town


When considering the differences when you visit Lucerne or Zurich, budget is an important factor. Switzerland has a pricey reputation but don’t let that put you off. Generally speaking, Lucerne is the more affordable destination. It is a smaller city, a world away from the high-rise corporate environment of Zurich. 

Whilst you won’t notice a huge difference between the cost of museum admission or other activities, you will see start to notice the savings with accommodation, eating out and groceries. 

Lucerne itself has a more homely feel, with plenty of family-run restaurants, B&Bs and artisan souvenir shops that tend to have a more ‘tourist trap’ like feel in Zurich. 

Bear in mind, if you are relying on public transport, you will end up spending more to get to Lucerne, seeing as it is further removed from the main public transport hubs. So overall, the difference in living cost may end up evening out over time.  

Chapel bridge
Chapel bridge

Things to do in Lucerne

No trip to this medieval city is complete without visiting Chapel Bridge, the most iconic landmark in Lucerne. This covered wooden bridge is one of Lucerne’s most famous landmarks and is the world’s oldest surviving Tuss bridge, offering beautiful views of the Reuss River. 

From Chapel Bridge, make your way through the Old Town, weaving through the rabbit warren of cobbled streets. Discover street vendors, local producers’ markets and beautiful traditional Swiss buildings.

It’s impossible to miss the city’s walls as you stroll through the old town, and it’s well worth climbing up into one of the several towers for beautiful views across the city and beyond to the Alps. You can explore independently or with a guide such as on this city walking tour or this walking and boat tour.

Above the Old Town, you will find another famous landmark. The Lion Monument (Löwendenkmal) is a poignant sculpture carved into the rock, commemorating Swiss Guards who lost their lives during the French Revolution.

Lion Monument
Lion Monument

You will also find the Glacier Garden on this hill, where you can unearth the mysteries of glacial potholes and learn about the region’s geological history in this fascinating natural attraction.

There are also several museums to discover in Lucerne, including the Swiss Museum of Transport – interactive exhibits showcasing Switzerland’s transport history, from trains to planes and automobiles and the Richard Wagner Museum – dedicated to the renowned composer Richard Wagner, who spent a significant part of his life in Lucerne.

Lucerne acts as a gateway to the Alps, with several day trip options from your doorstep. You have Mount Pilatus, Mount Rigi and Mount Titlis just a short journey away.

You can take a cable car to the summit of these mountains and spend the day taking in the beautiful views, hiking or even participating in some of the adrenaline-fuelled outdoor activities on offer, such as paragliding or, in the winter months, skiing and snowboarding. There are also plenty of day trips you can take such as this half-day tour or this half-day tour.

Lucerne is also well-connected to the nearby town of Interlaken. A smaller town often referred to as the ‘Adventure Capital of Switzerland’. From here, you can take part in adventure sports or visit the fairytale destinations Grindlewald and Lauterbrunnen. 

Mount Pilatus
Mount Pilatus

Where to Stay in Lucerne

Hotel Central Luzern – This 3-star hotel in central Lucerne is perfect for those travelling to Switzerland on a mid-range budget. They offer a number of modern rooms, there is on-site parking and breakfast is available in the mornings.

Cascada Boutique Hotel – This boutique hotel is perfect for those who want to stay at the peak of comfort while visiting Lucerne. Centrally located close to all of the top attractions, they have a range of good rooms to choose from and fantastic amenities.

KoBi Apartments Hirschenplatz – Those after a self-catering option while visiting this Swiss city will love these fully-furnished apartments. Centrally located close to all Lucerne has to offer, they have a range of different flats available.

Backpacker’s Lucerne – This hostel is a great choice for those looking for a highly-rated budget option while exploring Lucerne. They have both private rooms and dorm rooms available along with a great location, good common areas and clean facilities.

Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more Lucerne hotels!

Lucerne waterfront
Lucerne waterfront

Zurich or Lucerne: The Verdict

It’s a tough call to choose between Lucerne and Zurich. Ultimately, the city you decide to visit will depend on what you want to achieve during your stay and whether you want to immerse yourself in the city vibes of Zurich or the fresh alpine air of Lucerne. 

If you enjoy travelling from city to city, feeling that rush of being in a new place full of life, Zurich is the perfect fit. Art galleries, restaurants, boutique stores and the fast pace of a vibrant city.

It may not be surrounded by the Alps, but you are no more than an hour or so away from the Swiss countryside, so if outdoor activities only take up a small portion of your agenda, then that shouldn’t be a problem. 

Lucerne definitely has a more relaxed feel. Whilst it is still a bustling city, there is an authentic, family atmosphere. If you are hoping to spend a few days exploring the mesmerising Alps as part of your itinerary, Lucerne will make a great base.

This city has all of the necessary amenities, but there are a few corners where you feel as if you’ve time-travelled back to mediaeval times.

Ultimately, these two Swiss cities are just 60 km apart, so whether you decide on Lucerne or Zurich as a base, if you want to visit the other, it’s easy enough to do so as part of a day trip.

Are you planning to visit Zurich or Lucerne? Have any questions? Let us know in the comments!

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Neota Langley

Neota is a writer for The World Was Here First. Born and bred in Cornwall, she can usually be found with hiking boots on, ready to embark on an adventure. For the last 6 years, she has travelled throughout Europe in her self-built campervan with her trusty canine companion, Ivy. She loves exploring France, the Nordics and spending time in Alpine destinations.

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