15 Ways to Experience the Culture, History & Natural Treasure of Lausanne
Must Sees | Rest of Europe | By Christopher Litt
Lausanne serves as a splendid introduction to this intriguing and beautiful country at the heart of Europe.
This is a city that holds an astonishing variety of cultural, historical, and natural treasures, and reveals them in an appealingly pure fashion.
Standing on its lively waterfront, you can see the Alps reflected in the brilliant blue waters of Lake Geneva (Lac Léman in French).
In the course of a single stroll along the city’s avenues and alleys, you might come across an ancient landmark, a modern hive of technological innovation, and a thriving urban garden bursting with wildflowers.
As a microcosm of Switzerland, Lausanne is at once compact, diverse, and full of surprises. Here’s a list of just some of the ways you can get acquainted with this Swiss beauty.
15 Things to Do in Lausanne
1. Cosmic Collisions
As Einstein’s home for his annus mirabilis (the miracle year in which he produced some of his groundbreaking papers), it’s fitting that Switzerland continues to host some of the best minds in physics today.
The European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) is the world’s largest particle physics laboratory, and boasts the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest particle collider. (At 27 km in length, it actually straddles the Swiss-French border!)
This facility is open to the public with daily tours that reveal the fascinating world of cutting-edge physics research. You can hop on the efficient and punctual Swiss train service in downtown Lausanne and be there in 90 minutes.
2. Keeping Time
The Swiss have long been famous for the precision of their clockwork. The International Museum of Horology, located in La-Chaux-de-Fonds in the Jura mountains, offers an interactive and varied collection of timepieces, ranging from the very beginnings of the craft to the latest in digital technology.
You will also see how the Swiss applied these mechanisms not only to timepieces, but to automata: lively wind-up figurines of humans and animals that danced, walked, sang and even played musical instruments on their own to entertain the courts of Europe in centuries past!
3. Steam Power
Eager to see the city from a different perspective? Why not climb aboard one of the beautifully restored Belle Époque steamships of the Compagnie Générale de Navigation (CGN)?
From Lausanne, you can travel all over Lake Geneva, including across to Evian, famed for its pure spring water, and nestled under the towering Alps. Other lake cruise options include classic sailboats and solar-powered boats.
4. Wax Poetic
Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, Voltaire, Mary Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, to name just a few: a long list of literary luminaries, of many languages, have found their muse amid Lausanne’s culture-striking natural milieu.
Whether you choose the pastoral beauty of the Jura, the majesty of the Alps, or the stately lakefront promenades, the landscapes of Lausanne are certain to stir the soul and fire the imagination.
5. Cool Down and Chill Out
There is nothing better on a sunny day than relaxing on the sandy beach of Vidy and taking a dip in the fresh waters of the lake.
Would you rather just get your feet wet? There are pedal-boats, stand-up paddle boards, and lots of other fun options available for rent. There are also nearby aquatic parks complete with waterslides for the adventurous.
6. Follow in Charlie’s Footsteps
Charlie Chaplin, the whimsical icon of American cinema, lived in Lausanne for 25 years, and four of his children were born here.
Chaplin’s World, located at Chaplin’s former residence in nearby Corsier-sur-Vevey, is more than a museum: it’s a “total-immersion-space,” and it has gotten rave reviews!
Here you can roam replicas of Chaplin’s film sets to learn more about the personal life and artistic accomplishments of the Little Tramp who changed the world of cinema.
7. Early Traces
Before Switzerland was Switzerland, the Roman Empire had taken over Lac Léman and the Rhône waterway as a vital trade route.
The Roman city of Lousonna (sound familiar?) was established around 15 BCE. You can still see the identifiable ruins of the ancient city, including a forum, houses, and other features.
Crowned by its cathedral (pictured in the banner at the top of the post), among the finest examples of Gothic architecture in Switzerland, Lausanne displays myriad marvels for arts and architecture aficionados of all stripes.
Walk its streets and you will see examples of medieval, Renaissance, neo-classical, art nouveau, modernism, and every style in between, side by side.
In walks along the waterfront with its Belle Époque masterpieces, you can relive the heady days when Coco Chanel, Josephine Baker, Rita Hayworth and other luminaries mixed and mingled in this idyllic setting. Be sure to have lots of free memory on your camera!
11. …and a Feast for the Ears!
Every year, the Swiss Riviera bursts forth in sonic splendour with a panoply of musical festivals to please all audiences.
You can hear classical virtuosos play Bach fugues on the beautiful organ in the medieval cathedral; experience a bold, star-studded line-up at the world-renowned Montreux Jazz Festival; or dance the night away at Paléo, an electronic festival, or Lausanne’s many clubs, which offer everything from tango to trance.
You can also catch free concerts in parks and the Place du Flon, the always-lively square in the heart of Lausanne.
12. The Winding Wine Road
For such a small country, Switzerland manages to produce a wide variety of wines in several regions; maybe it is a well-kept secret because the Swiss keep most of it for domestic consumption!
Lausanne sits a mere stone’s throw away from the UNESCO-designated world heritage site, the vineyards of Lavaux. Here, you can explore the mesmerizing terraced landscape, where every square metre of sun-soaked slope is planted with vines (mainly the Chasselas, the region’s principal grape).
See the vintners at work, and explore the history and terroir of the region. Of course, the best way to learn is to drink the wine! You can do this by visiting wineries, or at sophisticated wine bars and shops in Lausanne. A good place to start is the Yatus wine bar and store in the city centre.
13. Impeccable Taste
As a city of bon-vivants and gourmands, Lausanne’s culinary selections shine with everything from Michelin stars to lively bistros and brasseries.
Among the countless fine options for more casual dining, a personal favourite of mine is the Café de Grancy, which offers a wide selection of Swiss wines and a fresh, sumptuous seasonal menu.
The ambience of Lausanne’s many historical dining rooms, immaculately preserved and restored, adds elegance and warmth to the dining experience.
14. Find it All…
Long known as a discerning and cosmopolitan city, Lausanne shopping sparkles with the best that Switzerland and the world have to offer. It’s no accident that Coco Chanel loved to visit the city!
Here, you can find that perfect watch or Swiss army knife, high fashion and designer accessories, or even an impeccable cigar for a walk by the lake. (After all, this is where Churchill came to ruminate during international summits…)
15. …and Get Refreshed
Switzerland has long been known as a place to revitalize and get healthy. In keeping with this tradition, Lausanne features numerous spa options, from the deluxe spa at the Lausanne Palace & Spa, to the Bodhi Thai Herbal Spa.
For a more natural option, try the thermal pools at the Bains de Lavey, which are fed by the hottest spring in Switzerland, which lies at a depth of 600m below the picturesque Alpine Valley floor where the baths are located.