This Adorable City Is an Emerging Cultural Capital Near the Swiss Alps
Backdropped by mountains, lakes, and artists.
Let’s be real: Switzerland sometimes suffers from a bit of a snoozy reputation. But Lausanne, the country’s fourth-largest city and the capital of the French-speaking side of the country, should not be slept on. In recent years, the lakefront town has carved out an unlikely new reputation as an arts and cultural powerhouse, giving cool-kid capital Basel a run for its money. New on the scene is a just-opened cultural district, Plateforme 10, home to three ultra-modern museums, plus a crop of creative businesses dreamed up by a young generation of artists—from funky tailoring shops to a hip café that doubles as an artist residence.
As cool as the cultural scene is, we can understand coming to Lausanne and not wanting to spend any time indoors. The hilltop city is seriously breathtaking, with a cobbled Old Town, panoramic views of Lake Geneva and the Alps, and Gothic landmarks like the Cathedral of Notre Dame. It’s no wonder 20th-century European intellectuals, including T.S. Eliot and Percy Shelley, spent their OOO here.
Of course, plenty of visitors come to Lausanne—the headquarters of the International Olympic Committee since 1915—to tour the Olympic Museum and the Olympic Sculpture Garden. Personally, I can think of, like, 100 things I’d rather do than read about the history of sport, but hey, legends are there to be remembered. Among other top contenders: go on a sailboat ride on Lake Geneva, take a brisk walk through the picturesque Parc de Mont Repos, and—a personal favorite—hike along the UNESCO-protected vineyards that flank the city.
If you get hungry, there are plenty of tasting rooms where you can pop in for a refreshing glass of Chasselas, the region’s signature grape variety, along with a couple slabs of gruyère and some smoked duck terrine. Plus, through the city you’ll find gooey vats of fondue, since melted cheese is perfect for warming yourself up on a cold day.
Whatever you choose, here are the best things to explore in Lausanne.
Check out the city’s new cultural district
Strolling around Plateforme 10 is like entering a whole new part of Lausanne, with nary a medieval spire or stained-glass window in sight. The brand-new cultural district is a playground for the city’s most daring art and architecture, with three of the city’s top museums—MCBA, Mudac, and Museé de l’Elysée—housed inside ultramodern buildings designed by international architecture studios Barozzi Veiga and Aires Mateus.
The compound’s pretty esplanade is scattered with outdoor sculptures, along with various galleries, art studios, and dining hotspots Arcadia restaurant and Le Nabi bar. To see Plateforme 10 at its peak, visit in summer, when the site is taken over by the open-air Locarno Film Festival and the live music and dance performances of the Festival de la Cité de Lausanne.
Warm your soul with melty fondue
Lausanne may be the capital of French-speaking Switzerland, but it still takes the Swiss tradition of fondue seriously. In the winter, countless restaurants fire up their caquelons, which are traditional fondue pots. Most offer the traditional moité-moitié version (typically made with equal amounts of Gruyère and Vacherin Fribourgeois cheese) or else creative iterations like curry fondue or even variations served over steamed potatoes and topped with olives and sun-dried tomatoes.
At Le Café de l’Évêché, there are 13 different options on the menu, including a 100% Vacherin Fribourgeois fondue served in a “hat” of bread. For an experience straight out of a postcard, head to the atmospheric Café duGrütli, where you’ll dine under 14th-century exposed beams while listening to the chime of the old clock on Place de la Palud. Le Chalet Suisse is just as quaint, with its sylvan setting in Park Hermitage and its crackling wood fireplace and cow bell décor.
Chill with Lausanne’s new creatives
Lausanne is having something of a creative renaissance—and it’s all thanks to a young generation of artists and entrepreneurs who are making the city their canvas. At Sole Savaz, a former gas station turned “sneaker barber” on Avenue d’Échallens, artists Tyson Lewis and Olukorede Aiyegbusi use vibrant paints, rainbow-hued laces, and other materials to transform worn-out sneakers into practically new again, as well as personalize collectible pairs.
Just as innovative is the new Deli Social café and cultural incubator on La Place du Tunnel, where founders Emily Groves and Rhys Williams have dreamt up a multidisciplinary space where you can order drip coffee and a scoop of Jamaican ginger soft serve, flip through a selection of indie magazines, and attend workshops on ceramic-making and knife-sharpening. At the back of the café is an experimental test kitchen that functions as a creative residency for culinary artists and chefs.
For a unique souvenir, swing by La Trame—a tailoring shop founded by three fashion-loving, environmentally-conscious friends—to sift through racks of vintage clothing, enroll in a free sewing or darning class, or simply chat about textiles over coffee.
Sleep in a lakeside palace
In a city as pretty as Lausanne, we’d expect nothing less than castle-like accommodations. For out-of-this-world opulence, there’s the Beau-Rivage Palace, a grand dame dating to 1861 and decked out in elegant interiors by French designer Pierre-Yves Rochon (who also did the George V in Paris and the Savoy in London).
Just as aristocratic though a touch more accessible is the Hôtel Royal Savoy Lausanne, an Art Nouveau icon where the Spanish royal family hid out in “exile” for many years (hey, beats prison camp). Apart from a seriously blissful spa, the hotel’s crown jewel is a 360-degree panoramic rooftop terrace—the dreamiest in the city—with a drinks menu and décor that change with the seasons.
In the center of town is Lausanne Palace, the last of Switzerland’s high-end palace hotels from the 19th century. While it doesn’t have a lakeside perch, the Belle Époque beauty has a Coco Chanel suite and the atmospheric Brasserie Grand Chêne restaurant, where you can get your fill of French classics like escargot and steak frites, washed down with the best local wine.
Get a taste for Chasselas grapes and the oldest wine in Switzerland
Thanks to a flourishing student population, the wine-drinking culture in Lausanne is hip and pretension-free, and usually comes with a side of local culture. Sample wines pulled straight from the vat at Street Cellar, where the walls are covered in murals by local artists. Or enjoy traditional Swiss hot wine and DJ-spun tunes at the year-round Le Perchoir, an all-seasons rooftop bar and music venue located on the top of the city’s iconic Vortex building. Head over to the Arsenic Museum to discover why the female-run cafe has become a hotspot for low-intervention wines. The team behind the city's Vins Vivants collective has also started Switzerland's first "living wines festival," now entering into its third year, which brings together the best natural Alpine winegrowers every spring.
Lausanne is also a 20-minute car ride from the vineyards of Lavaux, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the source of Switzerland's Grand Crus, where you can go on e-biking and driven tours through terraced vineyards that were built by Cistercian monks in the 12th century. Get in your steps by walking along the region’s hiking trail, the Swiss Wine Route, or enjoy pampering treatments at a traveling spa that moves between the area's wineries. Lavaux is also home to Domaine Clos de la République, the oldest winery (and business) in Switzerland, as well as the Instagram-famous Le Deck restaurant, which offers sweeping views of the lake and the hillside vines. With Swiss wines slowly gaining international acclaim (less than 3% is exported), Lausanne is the place to discover what the hype is all about.