16 Top-Rated 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 lake shore 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.
Contrasting sharply with the ornate 18th-century and Belle Epoch buildings are the sleek lines of contemporary buildings, such as the new Platform 10 arts and culture center and the buildings of the Flon neighborhood. You can be sure to see all the best places to visit with this list of the top attractions and things to do in Lausanne.
See also: Where to Stay in Lausanne
1. 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
Official site: www.olympic.org/museum
2. See Lake Geneva (Lac Léman) by Boat
For most of its crescent-shaped length, Lake Geneva separates France and Switzerland, giving Lausanne, on its northern shore, beautiful views of the French Alps with the lake in the foreground. The shore from Lausanne east as far as Montreux is known as the Swiss Riviera, a sun-drenched landscape of terraced plantings dropping to a shoreline of gardens, palm trees, and picturesque villages.
The best way to enjoy the lake — and among the most popular things to do for tourists in Lausanne — is to board one of the lake steamers that stop here and either take a cruise or use it to hop between towns. Ferries shuttle between Lausanne and two French towns across the lake. The most popular of these is the spa town of Évian-les-Bains, a scenic 35-minute ride away.
Equally scenic are the rides to Geneva and Montreux, or you can take a dinner or lunch cruise. The most popular cruises are on the Belle Époque paddle steamers Montreux (1904) and the elegant La Suisse (1910). You can buy day tickets for unlimited CGN boat travel or use a Swiss Railway pass, which is valid on CGN boats.
Official site: https://www.cgn.ch/en
3. 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
4. Château 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 that stretches 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
5. 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. The collections are housed in the splendid Château de Beaulieu, an 18th-century patrician residence in the center of the city.
Address: 11 av des Bergières, Lausanne
Official site: https://www.artbrut.ch/en_GB
6. Hermitage Foundation
A newcomer, as great art museums go, Fondation de l'Hermitage Collection began in 1984, and has since grown with the donation of several more important private collections. Now more than 650 works represent prominent artists, especially Impressionist and post-Impressionist painters.
Artists represented include Manet, Cézanne, Degas, Monet, Boudin, Van Gogh, Fantin-Latour, Vuillard, and Braque. The museum also exhibits a major collection of works by 20th-century artists of the Vaud region, and special exhibitions bring retrospectives of other Swiss artists, such as the Lucerne-based painter Hans Emmenegger. The foundation is housed in an elegant lakeside house surrounded by gardens.
Address: Route du Signal 2, Lausanne
Official site: https://www.fondation-hermitage.ch/index.php?id=54&L=1
7. 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.
8. Platform 10 Art Museums
Three of Lausanne's outstanding art museums are joining other cultural institutions in a new purpose-built complex in the heart of the city, near the rail station. PLATEFORME 10 is the nucleus for a future arts neighborhood, and its galleries are already venues for changing exhibitions. But with the move of the three major museums, it will become a one-stop center for arts and culture.
Formerly housed in the 1906 Palais de Rumine and already open in the new venue, the Musee des Beaux Arts (Fine Art Museum) holds 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.
Entirely devoted to photography, Musée de l'Élysée collects the momentous along with the trivial moments as they have been captured on film. Created by some of the great names in the art and by total unknowns, images reflect local and worldwide subjects, early and contemporary subjects, all dedicated to showing the many ways photographs have represented people, places, and events. The museum also tells the story of the medium itself, in examples of early processes, including ambrotypes, albumen paper, and Photochrom.
The Museum of Contemporary Design and Applied Arts began as a collection of decorative arts, but has grown into a forum for the interplay of applied and fine arts, especially in the context of modern design. A program of five or more exhibitions annually gives particular attention to young and emerging designers and their work.
The latter two museums remain closed until the inauguration of the new exhibition areas, which is scheduled for June 2022.
Address: Place de la Gare 16, Lausanne, Switzerland
Official site: https://plateforme10.ch/en
9. Climb the Sauvabelin Tower for the Views
Built to mark the turn of the millennium, the 35-meter Sauvabelin Tower stands in the middle of a forest on a hill above Lausanne. Constructed of locally harvested wood, mainly Douglas fir, this unusual round structure is filled by a wide spiral staircase of 302 steps, leading to an observation deck high above the treetops.
From this vantage point, the 360-degree view encompasses the city of Lausanne, Lake Geneva, the Swiss Alps, and into the Jura region. The tower is built in a park with a small lake, where you can take boat rides, and there is a playground and small animal park for children. The park and tower are free, and from March through October the tower is open until 9pm. It's a favorite place to watch the sunset.
Official site: http://www.tour-de-sauvabelin-lausanne.ch
10. Escaliers du Marche
One of the most picturesque sights in Lausanne is the long flight of covered 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. It takes its name from the city market that was held in a square next to the staircase until the 14th century.
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 a café on one of the terraces for a coffee or hot chocolate.
11. Day Trip to 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
Official site: www.chillon.ch
12. Gallery Hop in the Flon Quarter
In Lausanne's ultra-contemporary new art and leisure zone, 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.
13. A Day in Vevey
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. Surrounding streets are lined by small shops, boutiques, and galleries of art and works by local craftspeople, a good place to go shopping.
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. Standing out from the lake in front of the museum is a giant metal fork.
Address: Quai Perdonnet 25, Vevey
14. 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
15. Ride the Rochers-de-Naye Railway
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.
16. 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:
- 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.
- 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 above the train station and an easy walk to Flon and Place de la Palud, boutique Hotel Elite has free parking and good breakfasts.
- 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.
- 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.