Lausanne does not immediately jump to mind at the mention of Switzerland, but the capital of Suisse romande every bit as Swiss as Bern, Zurich, Lucerne, and Jungfraujoch. Thanks to Switzerland’s noted neutrality, modern history has never seen a domestic invasion or battle. That means Lausanne’s medieval history, Romanesque and Gothic architecture, and post-war constructions can be admired all in one stroll around town.
The city was built among three steep slopes–rumour has it that the women of Lausanne have the best legs in Switzerland–rising out of the north shore of Lake Geneva. Whether you want to be out in nature or exploring museums and cultural attractions, you’ll find something hip and exciting to do in Lausanne. Here are 12 unique things to do in Lausanne:
1. Visit the Collection de l’Art Brut
When it comes to creativity, there was no bigger believer in the idea that there’s a fine line between genius and insanity than Jean Dubuffet. He recognized that madness was a source of creative genius and began collecting creations by people relegated to the fringes of society: inmates of psychiatric hospitals, prisoners, outcasts, and so on. He called this work, untouched by artistic conventions, “Art Brut” (Naïve art).
Today, the collection boasts more than 70,000 pieces by 1,000 artists, making this museum in Lausanne the world’s finest collection of Art Brut. You could spend hours browsing all four floors of the museum’s permanent collection and temporary exhibitions trying to understand just what was in the mind of the creators.
LOCATION Beaulieu Estate HOURS Tues–Sun 11AM – 6PM
2. Go see a Watchman
The imposing Gothic-style Cathedral of Notre-Dame sits high atop the city, overlooking the town and lake below. While the cathedral was only consecrated in 1275, its construction began in 1170, making the oldest parts nearly 850 years old. This cathedral is unique because it’s one of the few structures remaining in Europe that were built during the Golden Years of exponential growth from the 12th to the 14th centuries.
On top of that, this Lausanne cathedral has a Night Watchman–one of just seven in Europe continuously employed since the Middle Ages. For more than 600 years, a watchman has looked out from his perch 75 metres above the city, keeping an eye out for fires and calling out the hour between 10PM at 2AM.
LOCATION Place de la Cathédrale HOURS Mon–Sun 9AM – 5:30PM
3. Follow the ‘wine’ding roads of Lavaux Vineyards
Switzerland is more than cuckoo clocks and cheese–in fact, the country has been producing wine since the Roman era and has the terraced vineyards to prove it. With 95 percent of Switzerland’s wine production destined for local consumption, a trip to the Lavaux vineyards is a rare opportunity to sample wine that’s too good to be exported.
The vineyards are nestled into the steep hillsides between Lausanne and Montreux. In every town between, you can visit family-owned vineyards, stone terraces, and medieval villages that date back to the 11th century.
4. Shop around the Place de la Palud
Place de la Palud is the main square of Lausanne’s Old Town, and it dates to the 9th century. The former bog land is now the home of the town hall and the entrance to the steps of the Escaliers du Marché. The earliest recorded mention of this covered wooden stairway dates to the 13th century, while the adjacent cobblestone street was built in 1717–demonstrating the way Lausanne is a living museum of a city that developed organically.
5. Climb the Sauvabelin
Google Maps will tell you that this tower is permanently closed–just one more reason not to believe everything you see on Google! This winding timber tower in the heart of Sauvabelin forest is open to the public and coils 35 metres into the sky. The helix construction was inspired by the Château de Chambord in France—said to be in part the work of Leonardo da Vinci—and is composed mostly of Douglas fir, cut from local forests.
Climb the 151 steps for a lofty view of Lake Geneva, the French Alps, and Lausanne’s cityscape and neighbouring countryside. On a clear day you’ll even see to Mont Blanc, western Europe’s highest peak. It’s an ideal place for a picnic and a stroll surrounded by birds, peacocks, and deer.
LOCATION Sauvabelin Forest HOURS March – October 5:45AM – 9PM, November – February 6:30AM – 5PM
6. Ready, set, go to the Olympic Museum
Visiting the Olympic Museum doesn’t sound like a ground-breaking activity, but this place has more than just your average artifacts and exhibits. The rich collection has pieces that span the ancient period through to the present day, telling the story of how the modern Olympic Games were born and continue to progress.
Not only will you learn about the change in sport technology and the inspiration behind the Olympic movement, you can challenge your friends to races on the 100m track and re-live some of the most inspiring opening ceremonies in history.
LOCATION Quai d’Ouchy 1 HOURS Tues – Sun 10AM – 6PM
7. Dance the day away at the Paléo Festival
The Montreux Jazz Festival may more familiar to people the world over, but Paléo is the most anticipated event of Romandy’s social calendar. For six days and six nights in July, 230,000 people attend more than 210 concerts and shows, making it the largest open-air festival in the country.
The festival takes place in a field in Nyon, just a couple towns east of Lausanne. Past festivals have featured Arcade Fire, Christophe Maé, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, Blur, David Guetta, and Stromae. The 2018 lineup has yet to be announced, but you can be sure it will be electrifying.
LOCATION Nyon, Vaud DATES July 17 – 22, 2018
8. Dine at Pinte Besson, the oldest restaurant in Lausanne
Mr. Besson, a wine merchant, opened Pinte Besson in 1780, making it the oldest restaurant in Lausanne. The Old World charm of wood beams and stained glass windows have been preserved–as has the traditional Swiss menu. It’s no secret this restaurant serves up the best fondue in Lausanne–a rich moitié-moitié made of Gruyère and Vacherin (apparently sourced from the happiest cows in the world) served with potatoes and bread for dipping.
Beyond fondue, the restaurant serves high-quality local wines and seasonal dishes at average Swiss prices. Like any great restaurant, this one is super popular so it’s best to book in advance!
LOCATION Rue de l’Ale 4 HOURS Mon–Sat 9:30AM-Midnight
9. Explore five museums in one building, the Palais de Rumine
From the outside, this building appears to have fallen into disrepair but its former opulence is still perceptible. In 1871, Russian aristocrat Gabriel de Rumine bequeathed money to build this Florentine Renaissance style palace for the enjoyment of the public–and that purpose has certainly been achieved. Today, the Palais de Rumine serves as museum, library, government building, study area, meeting place, and conference centre.
Though you’ll find the world BIBLIOTHEQUE (library) engraved on the building, the palace now houses a network of museums, including the Cantonal Museums of Fine Art and the Cantonal Money Museum. Inside, the grand staircase and atrium allow you to see the palace’s significance.
LOCATION Place de la Riponne HOURS Tue-Thu 11AM-6PM, to 5PM Fri-Sun
10. Take a stroll along the Port of Ouchy
Ouchy was once an autonomous community and walking around it’s no surprise that locals wanted to keep it to themselves. The lakefront promenade provides striking views of Lausanne’s pastoral beauty, France across the lake, and the city rising from shore. A walk from Ouchy station to Vidy will take you to Lausanne’s fitness park where the city’s Olympic spirit is made real with tennis courts, a skate park, outdoor track, and plaques with facts and tidbits about the Olympic Games to discover.
A boat trip from the port of Ouchy means you can see more of the shoreline or make a quick crossing to Evian-les-Bains–yes, that Evian. Sit down for a crepe at the Creperie d’Ouchy or on a grass patch by the lake to feel the inspiration luminaries like Charles Dickens, Mary Chelley, Coco Chanel, and Josephine Baker flocked to Lausanne to admire.
11. Get your groove on in Flon
The innovative Flon district may be one of the hot spots of Lausanne nightlife now, but it was once a natural valley run through by the river Flon. During the industrial revolution, the river became lined with tanneries which emitted a smell that repelled locals. In the 20th century, Flon became a warehousing district and eventually fell into disrepair.
Flon, officials recognized, is the centre of the city, and they made plans to bring life back into the area. The old warehouse district is now full of hip clubs, trendy bars, cool shops, and modern restaurants.
12. Enjoy the outdoors in an SUP in Lutry
Lausanne gets hot in the summer and that’s when you’ll find locals fleeing to the lake to cool off in the crystal blue waters of Lake Geneva. Lutry, a short bus ride from the centre of Lausanne, has the clearest water in the area with direct sight lines to the Lavaux vineyards and the little French towns across the lake. Hire a paddleboard or kayak from Paddle-Center and relax in the middle of the lake or see how close to France you get. Paddle-Center is right next to the buvette, so you can grab a local wine and chips when you’re done.