Oft-eclipsed by its larger and more illustrious neighbours, Sasha Arms discovers that for good looks and luxury you can’t go far wrong with Luxembourg city.
Tiny, picturesque and astoundingly internationalised, is how you would have to sum up Luxembourg if you were short on words.
As the founding member of the European Union, its old quarters and fortifications make the City of Luxembourg a UNESCO World Heritage City, and it received the accolade of being the European Capital of Culture in 2007. Globalism is central to the country’s vibrancy – current figures put the proportion of foreign residents at 43%, with the expectation that international inhabitants will continue to grow and outnumber Luxembourgers in the next ten years (STATEC, Luxembourg’s Institute of Statistics).
It’s also not insignificant to mention that the nation sized at just 51 by 32 miles (an iceberg the size of Luxembourg broke away from Antarctica last year) and a population of just over 500,000, is also a rather rich little country. Ranking 24th on the UN Human Development Index, it also has the world’s highest per capita income. You’ll notice the wealth in many ways, some subtle (like the streets lacking in litter) and some quite glaringly obvious (the abundance of super-flash cars parked for maximum visibility on the streets).
The country and city of Luxembourg are practically as one; wherever you are in the country, the city is easily accessible. Inhabitants of neighbouring countries even make the commute into Luxembourg for work. Together with the country’s increasingly inherent internationalism, it’s therefore unsurprising to learn that the country has three official languages – German, French and Luxembourgish.
With so many accolades and points of interest under its belt, you have to wonder why you don’t hear about Luxembourg as a travel destination more. Maybe those who’ve discovered it are trying to keep it a secret…
Best of the Beaten Track
The brilliant thing about being a visitor in Luxembourg is that you don’t particularly feel like a tourist, given the cacophony of languages you hear as you wander along. There’s no real ‘tourist trail’ that travellers feel obliged to avoid, meaning that everyone feels more comfortable visiting the country’s more obvious points of interest.
Luxembourg is the world’s only remaining Grand Duchy – the country’s head of state is H.R.H. Grand Duke Henri. The Grand Ducal Palace is his official residence and is found in the city centre, on a busy shopping street (Rue du Marché aux Herbes) in fact. The impressive and pristine residence, minded by a guard, is definitely worth a look (especially from the chocolate café – Chocolate Company Bonn – across the road).
Around the corner is Place Guillaume, home to the Town Hall fronted with statues of lions, a statue of Grand Duke William II, and the tourist office. The impressive seventeenth century Notre Dame Cathedral is just a stone’s throw away too. If you happen to be there on a Wednesday or Saturday morning, catch a glimpse of Luxembourgers trading in the vegetable and flower market on ‘Knuedler’, a street that runs alongside Place Guillaume. Place d’Armes – Luxembourg’s ‘sitting-room’ – is also nearby – the pedestrianized road is rammed with pavement cafés in the summer.
By far the most picturesque parts of the city are the Old Town, the remnants of the fortress and the riverside. Luxembourg City has an upper and lower level – you can find a cobbled street down, or else take a lift to the Grund (lower level) from Fëschmaart Square. The enclosed pathways both at the top and bottom of the lift feel a bit claustrophobic and edgy but worth it for the riverside walks and bars/cafés at the bottom.
It’s also worth ditching the cobblestones of the Old Town for the gleaming Kirchberg financial district – Luxembourg’s alter-ego. The area has the highest concentration of banks in Europe and is also home to the likes of the European Court of Justice and the European Investment Bank. You have to see it for the contrast of the city, but if banking and high-rise isn’t your idea of fun, cross back to the Old Town via the Pont Grande Duchesse Charlotte – probably the most majestic bridge in the city.
If you like your more alternative attractions, you can get your fill in Luxembourg. For starters, there’s the ‘Art on Cows’ festival that happens every summer. This is where anyone is invited to paint (models of) cows with their own designs, although the artistic license is broad. As long as it’s bright, apparently – the festival is a celebration of the beginning of summer.
If getting into a good old debate in French is your thing, then head over to the impressively renovated Neumünster Abbey. The former Abbey’s ‘Les Mardis de la Philo’ is an informal gathering where participants discuss philosophy and sociology. For the less vocal, the Abbey also puts on theatre performances and live classical performances, some of them outdoors.
Most of Luxembourg’s charm lies above ground, except that is, for the casemates of the previous fortress. They once comprised a thirteen-mile network of tunnels in the rock – you can get inside from the entrance on Montée de Clausen.
Experience & Events
Oddly enough, the more original events Luxembourg has to offer relate to Luxembourgers’ take on extreme sports. ‘The Night Run’ happens every June and does what it says on the tin. More than 10,000 runners choose to do the full marathon, a half-marathon or a mini-run (just over 4km) by night. It’s really very beautifully done – the route is candle-lit, with a backdrop of hot air balloons glowing in the sky, and there are fire-eaters, Bengal lights and bands accompanying the run with live music. While you could of course do the energetic thing and take part, no-one would blame you for instead watching the runners from one of Luxembourg’s bars, or better still join a local family on the street, who have been known to bring their sofas outside to get a comfortable ring-side view.
Another annual event worth timing your visit with is the Echternach dancing procession, which happens every Whitsun Tuesday. A religious medieval event, it typically involves a bit of dancing and a bit of hopping through some of Luxembourg’s streets, ending at St. Willibrord’s grave. Especially good for hypochondriacs, the event allegedly dates back to the fourteenth century to ward off illness. It’s even achieved UNESCO world heritage status.
A great mid-range (for Luxembourg) hotel is Hôtel le Châtelet, walking distance from Luxembourg’s city centre. Especially convincing are the hotel’s romantic exterior complete with turret, and the large breakfast included in the price. If you love grandeur and are more than happy to blow the budget, then it has to be the five-star Hotel Le Royal for you. It’s centrally located and has all the usual trimmings of a luxury hotel, plus an enticing hammam. If sleek and boutique are more your thing, then try Hotel Albert Premier. It’s only got fourteen rooms which makes for an intimate stay, but the best thing about it is the elegant Italian trimmings mingled with British bookishness (and lots of books on the shelves). If you want to do Luxembourg on a shoestring and don’t mind whereabouts in the country you stay (remember everywhere is only a drive or bus ride away), then try the Youth Hostel in Wiltz (in the northern part of the country). Great for those with a penchant for hill-walking, the hostel is inside an ancient brewery on the top of a hill – although unfortunately you have to walk down the hill to buy beer from the supermarket these days.
The dining scene in Luxembourg ranges from squished cafés on easy-to-miss cobbled streets in the city, to Michelin-starred eateries filled with Luxembourg’s elite. An absolute must is Appayan – a restaurant in an Indian-born businessman’s living room. Found in the Hollerich area of the city, an outdoor terrace is opening at the restaurant/house this summer, and a two-course buffet lunch costs just 10.50 Euros. Chiggeri has a café, restaurant and ‘winter garden’, each with its own style from Moroccan and lantern bedeckings, to (tasteful) wooden trimmings. It hints at the quirkier and less polished side of Luxemburg’s tastes, and the shishas and wine list are particularly well-liked. For typical Luxembourgish food, head to Mousel’s Cantine. Beware – portions are huge and very meat-oriented. Luxembourgish food is heavily inspired by French and German cuisine and Luxembourg’s national dish is ‘judd mat gaardebounen’, which is smoked pork in a creamy sauce, served with potatoes and beans. Finally, if you’ve yet to pop your Michelin-star-restaurant cherry, then there’s no better place than Luxembourg to do so, where you can take your pick from more than ten Michelin-starred (some multiple) restaurants. Try Clairefontaine in Luxembourg city for French fare that everyone raves about – they often do eight-course taster menus for a real taste of opulence.
Luxembourg’s nightlife ranges from the dingy café-cum-late-night-bar options, so popular with Europeans, to the white-leathered spots attracting the elite, and wannabe elite, crowds. Tipples of choice include beer (Luxembourgish favourites include Bofferding, Mousel and Diekirch) and champagne. Note that you can easily get away with drinking champagne in a dingy café-cum-late-night-bar and beer in the white-leathered haunts. Despite the newly-built street of bars, like Rock Box or Life Bar, that’s recently emerged on Rue Emile Mousel, the place to be in Luxembourg is still the Old Town. Urban attracts a hip, international crowd. It’s often jam-packed, so you might have to push your way in. El Compañero is Luxembourg’s Latin bar – but it’s not limited to Hispanic clientele only. It’s perfect if you like proper Latin dancing, or simply the vibe of a packed Mediterranean bar. On the other end of the spectrum is V.I.P. Room – this is one of the more elite hang-outs and is open late. The champagne-gluggers feel right at home here. For live music check out the listings at Rockhal.
The quickest and easiest way to get to Luxembourg is to fly directly into Luxembourg Findel airport. While budget airlines don’t fly there, flights from other carriers including the native Luxair don’t cost the earth. Alternatively, budget airlines do fly into nearby Frankfurt-Hahn and Saarbrucken in neighbouring Germany, or Charleroi in next-door neighbour Belgium. Buses go directly from the airports into Luxembourg City.
Luxembourg Tourist Office’s website is always informative and up-to-date. The ‘News 352’ site is great for the latest news about Luxembourg so you can polish up on your Luxembourgish current affairs. The ‘Bonjour Luxembourg’ blog isn’t all about Luxembourg by any stretch of the imagination, but you might pick up some ideas and inspiration about what’s happening there before your trip.
352 Lux Mag is a magazine you can pick up for free at the Tourist Office. It’s especially good for local entertainment listings. If you want to take a travel guide with you, the Bradt Guide to Luxembourg is the only ‘mainstream’ travel guide that doesn’t lump Luxembourg together with a guide book of its neighbouring countries. For a bit of an insider view of what it’s like to live in Luxembourg, An Expat’s Life, Luxembourg and the White Rose by David Robinson makes for a good and uncomplicated read.