10 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions & Things to Do in Lausanne
Lausanne rises elegantly in terraces on three hills above the north shore of Lake Geneva in Switzerland's French-speaking region. High bridges span the gorges of two rivers that cut through the city, combining with the steep rise from the lakeshore to give Lausanne a dramatic and scenic terrain with views of the Savoy Alps across the lake. An old university city and now a busy commercial one, it is popular for congresses, trade fairs, and conventions, with a number of outstanding meeting venues. Lausanne is the world headquarters of the Olympics, and an Olympic museum is among its most popular tourist attractions.
The Romans established a trading colony here in the first century BC, and by the Middle Ages, Lausanne's cathedral was already important as a pilgrimage stop on the Way of St. James. To sense this old city, wander the winding streets below the cathedral; and to capture the elegance of its late-18th-century grandeur as a highlight of the Swiss Riviera, descend to the shore where Belle Epoch hotels line its lakeside promenade.
See also: Where to Stay in Lausanne
1 Cathedral of Notre-Dame
Medieval pilgrims following the Way of St. James to Santiago de Compostela in Spain entered the cathedral through its 13th-century Apostles Doorway, adorned with beautifully painted stone sculptures. Inside, immediately to the right, is the Chapel of St. James, where they prayed and received their tokens. Beyond, in the south transept, is a glorious rose window with 105 panels of beautiful 13th-century stained glass. Look under the window to see the originals of the stone sculptures from the Apostles Doorway, preserved here. The interior of the cathedral is beautifully proportioned, its focal point an organ of 6,000 pipes. The south aisle has carved choir stalls from 1509, and in the choir are some early Gothic stalls. In the crypt, lie the remains of an eighth-century basilica with tombs. The early Gothic cathedral, which is now Protestant, is a landmark with its five towers rising above the city from the hilltop. From the 72-meter-high central tower, a night watchman calls out the hours from 10pm until 2am, as one has been doing each night for more than six centuries.
Address: Place de la Cathédrale 4, Lausanne
2 Place de la Palud
Below the cathedral, the winding streets of the old city are reserved for pedestrians and converge on Place de la Palud, where you'll see Lausanne's oldest fountain, with Justice represented on its center pillar. On the steps around the fountain, you'll often find people sitting as they await the clock above, which shows animated scenes from local history every hour from 9am to 7pm. On Wednesday and Saturday mornings, market stalls selling local farm produce fill the square and its radiating streets. Overlooking the square is the Hôtel de Ville, the town hall, built in the 15th century with 16th-century stained glass and 17th-century modifications. It has arcades on the ground level, and on the façade are two copper gargoyles shaped as dragons.
3 Escaliers du Marche
One of the most picturesque sights in Lausanne is the long covered flight of steps leading from just above Place de la Palud to the terrace in front of the main door to the cathedral. Built in the 13th century, it connected the market in Place de la Palud to the one above. Beside the steps and rising with them in layers of terraces is a row of buildings that date from the 16th century. If you're climbing up, you can break the climb by stopping at the historic Café le Barbare on one of the terraces for a coffee or hot chocolate.
4 Olympic Museum
Along with the artifacts and history of the competitions, the museum overlooking Lake Geneva focuses on the spirit and values of the Olympics and the qualities that have made them endure. The recently renovated displays span the entire history of the games, from their origins in ancient Greece to the most recent, and include Olympic torches, historic posters, equipment, and clothing worn by Olympians. You can relive great moments from the Olympic Games through film clips and follow the evolution of sports technology and even fashion design. In addition to the exhibits and interactive experiences in the building, the lakeside campus includes manicured grounds where you can see sculptures and other works of art depicting Olympic themes, as well as the Olympic flame.
Address: Quay d'Ouchy 1, Lausanne
5 Chateau d'Ouchy and Promenade
Below the busy center of Lausanne is the lakeside neighborhood of Ouchy, whose elegant Belle Epoch hotels are connected by a flower-lined promenade between the old and new ports. At the center of this stands a 12th-century castle, the Château d'Ouchy, in which the peace treaty between Turkey, Greece, and the Allies was signed in 1923. The chateau is now a luxury hotel and fine-dining restaurant. Near the Hôtel de l'Angleterre, across the street from the chateau, a plaque commemorates Lord Byron, who wrote The Prisoner of Chillon here. Several historical treaties were signed in the famous grand hotels along the shore, including the Accord de Lausanne, where European powers agreed to suspend World War I reparations payments, signed at the opulent Beau-Rivage Palace in 1932.
From Lausanne's old harbor at Port d'Ouchy, the lakeside promenade runs one kilometer east to the 1823 Haldimand Tower and the attractive Parc Denantou. There you can see the Thai Pavilion, a gift from Thailand; all along the promenade are views across the lake to the Savoy Alps. Departing regularly from Place de la Navigation are boats that stop at points all along the lake between Geneva and Montreux, and across the lake to the French shore.
Address: Place du Port 2, Lausanne
6 Collection de l'Art Brut
One of the world's leading museums for outsider art was founded by French artist Jean Dubuffet's contribution of his private collection of works by untrained artists. Works by more than 1,000 artists outside the mainstream creative community make up the collections, which include naïve paintings, sculpture, masks, and works in a wide variety of media. The exhibitions change, following various themes that interpret the art and explore the creative process.
Address: 11 av des Bergières, Lausanne
7 Musee des Beaux Arts (Fine Art Museum)
The 1906 Palais de Rumine houses an art collection that although modest in numbers is impressive in the quality of French artists represented. You'll find works by Paul Cézanne, Edgar Degas, Auguste Renoir, Pierre Bonnard, Albert Marquet, Henri Matisse, and Maurice Utrillo here, along with a good collection of graphic works by Swiss artists. In the same palace are several other canton museums. The Archeological and Historical Museum exhibits archaeological finds from the area, including Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Age, and Roman artifacts. The Natural History and Zoological Museum shows animals from throughout the world, some of them extinct species.
Address: Palais de Rumine, Place de la Riponne 6, Lausanne
8 Lausanne-Vidy Roman Museum
In Roman times, Vidy, west of Ouchy along the lake shore, was the port of Lousonna, an important trading colony at the intersection of routes from the Mediterranean and the Rhine. The city of 1,500 to 2,000 traders, fishermen, and craftspeople thrived from the late first century well into the fourth, and their story is told at the Roman Museum. Here, you'll see the remains of a wealthy residence, with painted rooms, an atrium, and luxuries such as heated floors. Through exhibits based on the artifacts unearthed here - bronze objects, coins, ceramics, glass, and household implements - you can get an idea of daily life in a Roman outpost two millennia ago. An archaeological walk takes you among the ruins of Lousonna's ancient forum.
Address: Chemin Bois de Vaux 24, Lausanne
9 Flon Quarter
At the opposite end of the architectural spectrum from the ancient lakeside Roman settlement is Lausanne's ultra-contemporary new art zone, where designer-architects have created buildings that are not just 21st-century but border on futuristic. The former area of 19th-century warehouses is now a lively quarter of dramatic and colorful buildings filled with shops, restaurants, business offices, designer galleries, and artists' studio space. Its central avenue opens into plazas where locals gather in good weather in cafés and on benches under a giant abstract tree. The entire area seems constantly alive: in the winter an open space becomes a skating rink, and at night, the buildings are dramatically lighted. As if to underscore the quarter's dynamic and forward approach as well as Lausanne's position as one of Europe's greenest cities, Flon metro station has a lush green roof, which you can see best from the footbridge connecting the station to the Lausanne Palace Hotel, above.
10 St. François Church
The hub of Lausanne's traffic is the Place St.-François, where you'll find the former Franciscan church of St.-François. The church dates from the 13th and 14th centuries; its tower was built in 1523. Be sure to see the beautiful stained glass windows in the choir, which date from 1907. The church was once part of a major Franciscan convent, which was dissolved in the Protestant Reformation, at which time the church interior was stripped of its decorations and imagery. Lausanne's Christmas market is held in the street here.
Where to Stay in Lausanne for Sightseeing
Lausanne's attractions are divided between the hilltop Old Town and lakeside Ouchy, so either or any place in between is a good choice. Hotel rooms come with free transit cards that include Europe's steepest metro line, connecting the two neighborhoods. Those traveling with a Swiss Travel Pass can stay in nearby Vevey and "commute" free on the frequent boats or trains that connect lakeside towns. Here are some highly-rated hotels in Lausanne:
- Luxury Hotels: In a picture-perfect setting with lake and mountain views, Beau-Rivage Palace has a spa, outdoor pool, Michelin-starred restaurant, and a glamorous Belle Epoch interior. Equally grand, in the upper town, with lake and mountain views and an easy stroll to the lively Flon arts district or atmospheric old town, Lausanne Palace & Spa has large rooms with balconies and one of Europe's finest restaurants. In a nicely renovated lakeside castle at the steamer landing and near the Olympic Museum, Le Chateau d'Ouchy has well-designed rooms and an outstanding restaurant.
- Mid-Range Hotels: One of Switzerland's most luxurious hotels, but without Lausanne's price tag, Grand Hotel du Lac, in Vevey, has a magnificent lakeside setting with mountain views, impeccable service, Michelin-starred dining, and sumptuous rooms with balconies. Featuring a pool and the understated elegance of a lakeside villa, Angleterre & Residence Hotel in Ouchy is a few steps from the Metro and steamer landing. Just below the train station on the Metro line from the lake, Agora Swiss Night is topped by a glass-domed breakfast room with panoramic views.
- Budget Hotels: Near the Musee de l'Art Brut, at the edge of the old town and shopping district, ibis Lausanne Centre has easy bus access to the train station. Nearby and a short walk to the cathedral and art museum, Hotel du Marche has free parking. Just above the train station and an easy walk to Flon and Place de la Palud, boutique Hotel Elite has free parking and good breakfasts.
Day Trips from Lausanne
Château de Chillon
Rising directly out of the lake outside Montreux, Chateau de Chillon dates to the 9th century, and is the setting for Byron's The Prisoner of Chillon, based on a true story. The stronghold of the Counts and Dukes of Savoy commanded the road from Burgundy over the Alps into Italy, and was given its present form in the 13th century. The oldest parts, which you'll see on the well-organized and well-signed route through the castle's 20-plus buildings, are the keep and the Duke's Tower, which are linked by an internal wall, the living quarters, and the square tower above the entrance. Only the crypt remains of the 10th-century St. Pantaleon Chapel, containing one of the region's first Christian altars. In the underground vaults, massive pillars and Gothic ribbed vaulting are carved out of bedrock, and here you'll see the iron ring that restrained François de Bonivard, the famed prisoner of the Duke of Savoy.
The entire complex is interesting and well interpreted by signage and costumed guides, but especially noteworthy are the large kitchen, the banqueting hall, the adjoining Bernese Room decorated with floral motifs, and the splendid Heraldic Hall. In the old tower are the Duke's apartments, where you can see traces of the rich 13th- and 14th-century decoration with birds and flowers. The vaulted St. George's Chapel is completely decorated with figures and tendrils. The Count's Great Hall has a 15th-century coffered ceiling and four windows with quatrefoils above two 13th-century Gothic arches.
Address: Avenue de Chillon 21, Veytaux
Vevey sits on Lake Geneva's shore beneath Mont Pèlerin and the 1,364-meter Plèiades, and in the 1800s became a major destination for affluent tourists. Its buildings are a harmonious blend of medieval, 19th-century, and Belle Epoch, and its waterfront is still lined by elegant hotels. Foremost among these is the beautiful Hotel du Lac, setting for the Booker prize-winning novel of that name, which was written there. The Grand Place, an unusually large market square, is the scene of a market of local produce, flowers, and handiwork on Tuesday and Saturday mornings. Near the monument to local resident Charlie Chaplin is the outstanding Alimentarium, a fascinating interactive museum of the history of food. Its lively exhibits explore the history of cooking, examine food sources and production, consider flavors and what makes foods appealing, and showcase some eccentric food-related collections.
Address: Quai Perdonnet 25, Vevey
From Montreux, you can take the Glion-Rochers-de-Naye Railway, an electrically operated rack railway to the mountain top of the Rochers de Naye. The line operates via the village of Glion, on the mountainside above Montreux, where it connects with the Territet-Glion funicular, which begins close to Chateau Chillon. At the summit, along with breathtaking views and skiing in the winter, are precipitous Alpine gardens filled with rare flowers and a Marmot house where you can watch and learn about these Alpine mammals. Above the station in Glion is the opulent Hotel Victoria with a restaurant on its vine-draped terrace high above the lake. You can link to the Rochers-de-Naye Railway through the GoldenPass, a series of rail lines between Bern and Lake Geneva that bring back the19th-century elegance of rail travel.