I explored Lucerne's Old Town on foot, passing churches and bridges and venturing into narrow cobbled streets and colorfully painted Renaissance squares. The Swiss are unabashedly proud of their history as the world's oldest democracy: I discovered this on a Sunday afternoon when I got caught up in a parade of traditionally costumed citizens who were eager not merely to wave their Swiss flags but also to toss them in the air.
The Swiss are justifiably proud of their hospitality as well, and many of Lucerne's hotels and restaurants are worth visiting for their atmosphere alone. The Schweizerhof, which dates from 1845 and has been magnificently restored, has perhaps the most character. At the newest end of the spectrum is the Hotel, designed by Jean Nouvel, whose idea of luxury is ultra-minimalist furnishings, plus bedroom ceilings decorated with fleshy scenes from the films of Almodóvar, Bertolucci, Lynch, and other titans of seriously salacious cinema.
And everywhere, or at least a short boat ride away, is nature—to be walked in, climbed on, or simply enjoyed from the terrace of a good dining room. Alpine peaks rise behind tiled rooftops. At Kehrsiten, 13 miles southeast of the city, a funicular took me to a dramatic plateau, the Bürgenstock, with a view of the entire region and trails offering gentle Alpine hikes. A 45-minute walk brought me to the terrace of one of the area's luxurious spa hotels, where I had a bountiful Italian lunch and gazed on a scene out of Heidi.
Back in Lucerne, I had a drink at the city's most spectacular bar, on the terrace of the Hotel Montana, an Art Deco hillside palace. As I sipped my Prosecco, I watched a balloon float lazily across the pink and blue sky, then pause to hover directly over my destination for the evening: the great green music box on the other side of the lake.
Nouvel's hall embraced me subliminally as I made my way through the city's open-air sparkle and into the broad, canopied lakeside plaza, where I joined my fellow concert patrons milling about an illuminated fountain, pre-concert drinks in hand. I felt as if I were boarding a ship as I entered the sleek lobby, where strategically placed windows, both grand and miniature in scale, drew me toward them for a fleeting glimpse at the outside world.
That night, I was electrified by the clarity and vibrancy of the Festival Orchestra's performance of Mahler's Fifth Symphony, conducted by Abbado. Never before have I felt such a balance between intimacy and spaciousness, a balance the city of Lucerne embodies as well.
CHARLES MICHENER writes a column on classical music for the New York Observer.