In my head, Lausanne was a train station. I’d never heard of this Swiss town on the shores of Lake Geneva until I was catching a train and its name appeared as one of the stops. Someone I spoke to mentioned that it “was lovely” and another explained how they’d been hiking in the mountains nearby.
A year later, I got the opportunity to attend a conference in Switzerland’s fourth largest city and find out more. Yes, there is a train station. The town is lovely. There are mountains. It is also where I cooed over cute shop fronts, ate a vegetarian sandwich the size of my head, got lost in a trendy district filled with gorgeous street art, crossed about a billion bridges and wondered why I’d never heard of this place before.
The first thing you may notice in Lausanne is the fact that the metro station platform you’re standing on is at an incline. Really. The Lausanne-Gare stop is at such an angle that if your suitcase has wheels and you don’t hold on to it, it will be at the other end of the platform in about 2 seconds.
The city’s M2 metro has the honour of being home to some of the steepest slopes used by any similar system in the world, climbing and descending from the lower lakeside to various points around the city.
The entire town is an exercise in elevation – roads turn sharply upwards, bridges turn districts into multi-level suburbs and steps wind up and down hills in an effort that functions both as a means of access and a serious leg workout.
Lausanne has a charming atmosphere and architectural style that reminded me of parts of Paris. Much of the central city retains its link to times gone by with cobbled streets and the tendency for visitors to randomly stumble across stunning gothic-era building on their wanderings.
I visited in autumn, and the city really showed off for the season, with trees with leaves of every colour from the brightest yellow to dark maroon lining the streets.
One of the city’s icons is the Cathedral of Notre Dame of Lausanne (no, not that Notre Dame), which is set on a hillside and overlooks the town below with its towers and stained glass marvels.
The Cathedral itself dates back to as early as 1170, with a consecration date of 1275 and a nearby lookout point that is popular with present day photographers.
The stairs leading to the Cathedral from the city’s Palud Square (with its colourful fountain and large cookoo-style clock complete with robotic marching soldiers) are an attraction in themselves. The Escaliers du Marché date back to 1717, and are lined on one side by a row of houses and restaurants which date back to the 16th century.
Nearby, among various shopping streets, you’re likely to come across Blondel, the city’s renowned chocolatier (situated next to the go-to option for luxury macarons, Ladurée). While Blondel’s hand-crafted sugary goodness is definitely worth a taste, it does come at a price (I had two small dark chocolate nougat bon bons that cost more than a slab of Lindt in a supermarket).
If you’re looking for Swiss chocolate to take home in larger quantities, I suggest trying a local store like Coop or Migros, which stock enough lesser-known varieties of Callier and Lindt to satisfy your family back home.
The best way to explore the city is leisurely, by foot and metro. Take the Ours, Bessières or Riponne – Maurice Béjart metro stops and you’ll emerge in streets lined by cafés and quirky independent retailers selling everything from handmade jewellery and ceramics to Scandinavian-inspired furniture and textiles.
With its considerable student population, the city is also filled with more modern creative expressions, from colourful mural-style graffiti to typographic wonders. The area around Lausanne’s school for music and jazz is filled with interesting bars, restaurants, shops and a cinema.
Strolling along the shores of Lake Geneva is also a great way to spend an afternoon, especially as Lausanne’s Ouchy area is filled with parks, public art works and a harbour full of yachts and swans.
Grab a crêpe or ice cream, wander around the park or take a seat on a bench overlooking the lake and breathe it all in.
This area is also where you’ll find to one of the city’s biggest tourist attractions, the Olympic Museum, just a few hundred meters along the lakeside.
With (approximately) a billion street-side cafés and restaurants, finding somewhere to eat in Lausanne requires exercising your decision-making skills.
One of my favourite finds was Blackbird Café, an (all day) breakfast place situated in a double-storey building overlooking one of the main roads. Besides the people-watching opportunities on offer, Blackbird also provides a vegan and vegetarian-friendly menu and quirky décor alongside your coffee.
Their Green Man sandwich almost defeated me, with its three layers of bread wedged between every green substance imaginable, from sprouts to avocado and rocket.
Another option is Swiss burger chain Holy Cow, which has a few branches in Lausanne, stocked with locally-made craft beer and ice tea to accompany its meals.
Vegetarians have three burgers to choose from (I had the salsa-laden ‘Veggie zest’), which they can devour in a minimalist and casual restaurant space complete with mint green tiles I would have stolen had they not been affixed to the walls.
As I packed my bags after five days in the city, I realised I wasn’t quite ready to leave. Between its cobbled streets and creative culture, Lausanne surprised me with its mix of medieval charms and modern personality.
It wasn’t a city that originally featured on my bucket list, but it’s one that I’m incredibly grateful to have experienced and spent some time exploring.
Au revoir, Lausanne.