Some brief historical notes
The city does not appear to have been officially founded. There was probably a small settlement here near the lake during Roman times or earlier. The St. Leodegar monastery has existed since the early 8th century and was first mentioned in documents in the year 840. An important marketplace developed around the Reuss Bridge, which connected the monastery with the feudal court to the south. Historians regard 1178 as the year of the birth of Lucerne, because it was then that the parish was transferred from the monastery to the city. The opening of the Gotthard Pass around 1220 created new impetus for growth. The first fortification wall with towers was constructed during this time and stretched from the Grendel via Grabenstrasse to the Mühleplatz square. It also encompassed the still-insignificant left bank of the city, ending near the lake with the Chapel Bridge and Water Tower.
Lucerne was sold to Rudolf von Habsburg in 1291. The city population protested against the limits on their autonomy and in 1332 pledged to form an eternal pact with the other forest cantons. The year 1332 is considered one of the most important in Swiss History. For the first time, city and country populations enjoyed the same rights under an agreement that would last for many years, and this was of great importance to the Confederation of States. Lucerne’s decision to join was probably the factor that ensured the survival of the young Confederation, which rapidly evolved into a city-state.
The Confederation’s victory at the Battle of Sempach in 1386 permanently freed Lucerne from its ties to Austria and paved the way for the formation of the territorial state of Lucerne. A visible sign of the power gained was the outward expansion of the fortification ring around the city and the construction of the Musegg wall, which was completed in 1408. Thereafter, Lucerne’s City Council was able to rule over 14 provinces. At the end of the 18th century a patrician group of only 29 families ruled the entire city state. Yet, in 1800 Lucerne was still a small town with only 4,300 inhabitants, despite its dominant position as the centre of Catholic Switzerland and focal point of a large subservient region.
As the first city in the Confederation, Lucerne had always held a special position, and its geographical location should have predestined it to be the Swiss capital. But since the canton of Lucerne had led the “Sonderbund” Alliance, which was defeated in 1847, and then in 1848 voted against the Federal Constitution, Bern was finally chosen as the capital. In the mid 19th century the city gratefully seized the opportunity offered by tourism to recapture some of its lost glory.
On a sightseeing tour
Already in the Middle Ages, Lucerne was a city of bridges. In 1400, Lucerne was the only city in Europe to boast four bridges. The Hof Bridge, constructed ca. 1250 (demolished in 1834) and the Chapel Bridge, built ca. 1300 formed part of the city fortifications. The Mill Bridge (Spreuer Bridge) served to connect the lower parts of the city. It got its name from the chaffs of wheat that were thrown into the River Reuss at this point. The nowadays less attractive Reuss Bridge was the oldest river crossing and contributed considerably to the city’s development. It was not until the 19th and 20th centuries that four more bridges were added: the “Seebrücke” (1870), the Geissmatt Bridge (1890), the St. Karli Bridge (1908) and the motorway bridge (1974).
Lucerne is also a city of palaces, churches, and squares. In the late Middle Ages passion plays were performed on the Weinmarkt square. The city instituted a public market hall on the Kornmarkt around 1370. This also served as a storage house for grain and was later converted into a town hall. The squares Kapellplatz, Hirschenplatz, Mühleplatz and Franziskanerplatz also retain vestiges of their past history. The Hof Church, the Town Hall and the Rittersche Palace are important monuments dating from the late Renaissance, while the Jesuit Church is one of Switzerland’s finest baroque churches. The Franciscan Church is considered to be the finest Gothic church in Central Switzerland.

The Water Tower and the Chapel Bridge, both built ca. 1300, are Lucerne’s trademarks. The oldest preserved wooden bridge in Europe displays a series of 17th century paintings on triangular panels under its eaves. A major part of the bridge, including the paintings, was almost completely destroyed by fire on August 18, 1993. The reconstructed bridge was reopened on April 14, 1994. In the meantime, many of the paintings have been replaced or recopied. The octagonal Water Tower, like the Chapel Bridge, formed part of the inner city fortifi­cations and has served as an archive, a city treasury and a prison. Lucerne’s second wooden bridge, the Mill Bridge, was built ca. 1408. It boasts its own series of 17th century paintings featuring the famous «Dance of Death» on 65 panels by Caspar Meglinger.
The 800-meter-long Musegg Wall with its nine towers was built in 1400 after the Battle of Sempach and is nowadays considered one of the longest and best-preserved city rampart walls in Switzerland. The Dying Lion Monument created by the Danish sculptor Thorwaldsen is world-famous. It is dedicated to the memory of the Swiss mercenaries who were slaughtered while protecting the French monarch at the Tuileries in 1792. The Bourbaki Panorama is one of the few remaining monumental circular paintings in the world. In it, Edouard Castres depicts a moving scene from the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/71: General Bourbaki’s defeated army crossing the border into Switzerland.
Lucerne and tourism
Lucerne remained a small medieval town until the end of the 18th century, but with the beginning of tourism around 1830, it began to change and grow. River and lakeside promenades like the Jesuitenquai, “Unter der Egg” and the Schweizerhof Quay were built on landfills during the first half of the 19th century. These were followed by the National Quay with the Casino. At the same time the Hof Bridge and a continuation of the rampart walls with over 40 towers and portals were demolished to open up the still-enclosed city. After 1875 the Musegg hill became built up. In the middle of the 19th century 10,000 inhabitants lived on 57 hectares of land. By 1890 there were over 20,000 living on three times that area. Shortly before the outbreak of the First World War the city counted 40,000 inhabitants.
Several large, lavish hotels had already been constructed before 1900, as well as other buildings for tourist purposes. The era of steamboats on the lake began in 1836, and from 1859 onwards Lucerne could be reached by railway. There was even a Swiss aeronautics base at Tribschen before World War I.