A weekend in Luxembourg City

By William Cook

Luxembourg used to be one of the most fortified cities in Europe, and you can still walk along its ruined battlements. Photo / Thinkstock
Luxembourg used to be one of the most fortified cities in Europe, and you can still walk along its ruined battlements. Photo / Thinkstock

WHY GO NOW?

A bizarre, beguiling blend of metropolis and market town, the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg's compact capital is one of Europe's best-kept secrets. Though better known as a financial centre, it has a thriving cultural scene and its picturesque streets are never overrun by tourists. Until 15 September it really comes alive with al fresco concerts, films and stage shows during the Summer in the City festival.

TOUCH DOWN

British Airways offers connections between New Zealand and Luxembourg City via London Heathrow.

Luxair and City Jet also fly from London City Airport to Findel Airport, six kilometres east of Luxembourg City.

Board bus 9 or 16 at the airport: both leave every 10 minutes and take half an hour (fare €1.50) to reach the central train station. A taxi costs about €20.

Alternatively, you can arrive by train from the UK via Brussels with Eurostar from London St Pancras, Ashford or Ebbsfleet. Buy an "Any Belgian Station" ticket from £81 return. When you arrive in Brussels, buy an additional ticket from Arlon (a Belgian town near the border) to Luxembourg City, from €10 single.

GET YOUR BEARINGS

Perched on a rocky plateau, protected by a deep ravine, the Grand Duchy's ancient capital has a breathtaking setting. The historic centre is encircled by the river Alzette and its tributary, the Pétrusse.

The modern districts of Gare and Bonnevoie are on the south side of the river, linked to the centre by several vertiginous bridges. Hidden in the river valley are the quaint old villages of Grund and Clausen. Kirchberg, to the north, used to be the site of the city's fortress; today it's the new cultural and commercial district.

The national tourist office is located in the train station (open weekdays 9am-6.30pm, weekends noon-6pm). Staff sell two-day Luxembourg Cards (€19) that offer free public transport, plus free or reduced admission to attractions.

You can also buy this pass at the city tourist office on Place Guillaume II, open 9am-7pm daily (except 10am-6pm Sundays).

CHECK IN

Le Place d'Armes at 18 Place d'Armes is a five-star hotel converted from a row of 18th-century houses. It is a debonair blend of old and new with a popular brasserie. Doubles from €320, room only.

Parc Beaux-Arts at 1 Rue Sigefroi is a good four-star, housed in an antique townhouse with contemporary furniture and striking modern art, 10 suites and a convivial restaurant. Doubles from €169, including breakfast.

Luxembourg also has a splendid youth hostel at 2 Rue du Fort Olisy. It's in a peaceful riverside spot, surrounded by woods and fields. You'd never guess the city centre was a short walk away. A bunk bed in a six-berth dorm costs €19.90pp, with breakfast, plus €3 for non-members. Double rooms cost €5 more per person.

DAY ONE

Take a hike...

... through the historic centre. Collect your sightseeing bumph from the helpful tourist office on Place Guillaume II, then cross the city's most handsome, historic square and into Rue du Marché aux Herbes. Stop to admire the ornate Grand Ducal Palace - a 16th-century edifice and the first city hall. Walk right up to the main gates and gawp at the splendid sentries. If you're lucky, you might see the Grand Duke. Head right, downhill on Rue du St Esprit.

Take a view

Built on several steep hills, divided by perilous gorges, Luxembourg is full of stunning vistas. One of the best is from the terrace of the quirky Musée d'Histoire de la Ville de Luxembourg at 14 Rue du St-Esprit. The ride up to the terrace, in a glass lift, is a panoramic treat in itself. The current exhibition, ABC Luxembourg (until 31 March 2013), explores the symbols and clichés associated with this enigmatic little nation. Open 10am to 6pm daily except Monday, Thursday until 8pm. Entry €5; free Thursdays 6-8pm.

Take a ride

From Rue du St-Esprit, cross the giddy viaduct, then stroll south past the chain stores of the lively, unpretentious Avenue de la Gare until you reach the train station. For a DIY bus tour (website in French), board the No 16 (fare €1.50), alight at Philharmonie, Luxembourg's beautiful modern concert hall at 1 Place de l'Europe. The European Parliament is just across the road. Hop back on the bus as far as Royal to take you back into the centre.

Lunch on the run

Luxembourg is a city relatively free of sightseers, with lots of locals working in the heart of town, and it has plenty of good-value, good-quality lunch options. À La Soupe (website in French) at 9 Rue Chimay is a sleek, bustling cafe serving healthy stews and sandwiches. (Try their minestrone with white beans and parmesan.) A soup or salad and dessert, plus a hot or soft drink, costs €9.90. It opens 7am to 8.30pm daily except Sunday.

Window shopping

La Grand-Rue is Luxembourg's smartest shopping street with lots of up-scale designers, including Max Mara and Gérard Darel, as well as smaller boutiques. For chocolates, visit Namur (website in French) at 27 Rue des Capucins. A Luxembourg institution since 1863, this chic confiseur is heaven for anyone with a sweet tooth. A box of its exquisite homemade chocolates costs anything from €7 to €78.

An aperitif

Right next door to Namur is Le Vis-à-Vis at 2 Rue Beaumont, an old-fashioned Luxembourgeois bar thick with cigarette smoke. (You're still allowed to smoke in bars in Luxembourg, so long as people aren't eating.) A glass of the local lager, Diekirch, costs €2.30. It's open from early morning until 1am Monday to Saturday, 3-8pm Sunday. If the tobacco smog inside gets too much, you can take your drinks outside.

Dining with the locals

In virtually any other European capital the Bistro de la Presse (website in French) at 24 Rue du Marché Aux Herbes would be a tacky, overpriced tourist trap. Here in homely Luxembourg it's an unpretentious restaurant, serving hearty regional staples, with a bar propped up by convivial locals rather than camera-clicking sightseers. A vast, nourishing tureen of bouneschlupp (green bean soup with sausage) costs €13.50. Half a litre of wine to wash it down will set you back €6.20.

DAY TWO

Sunday morning: Go to church

Luxembourg's Notre Dame (website in French) hardly qualifies as one of Europe's great cathedrals, but its modest proportions and humble ambience are part of its appeal. An odd melange of Gothic and Renaissance architecture, mainly built in the 17th century, it feels like a living, working church. Services every Sunday at 9am, 10.30am and noon.

Out to brunch

Most eateries remain shut on Sunday mornings, but the cafe at Chocolate House, 20 Rue de Marché Aux Herbes, serves a continental breakfast of croissants, ham and cheese for €6.50. For €6.55 you can order a glass of champagne to go with it. Downstairs is the chocolatier, with all sorts of creations (try the chocolate chilli) to eat in or take away. A cup of hot chocolate and a huge slice of cake costs €7. It's open 10am-8pm Sunday, from 9am Saturdays and 8am on weekdays.

Cultural afternoon

Luxembourg's cultural kingpin is the Musée d'Art Moderne at 3 Park Dri Eechelen (open Saturday to Monday 11am-6pm, to 8pm Wednesday to Friday; €5). Built within the ruined walls of an old fortress, it's not just a challenging forum, but an artwork in its own right. Designed by IM Pei, this graceful new building completes his "European Trilogy", alongside his Louvre extension in Paris and the German Historical Museum in Berlin.

More traditional tastes are met by the National Museum of History and Art (website in French) on Marché aux Poissons (10am-6pm daily except Monday, to 8pm Thursday; €5). The fine art includes works by Cézanne, Picasso and Magritte, but the highlight for British visitors is a pair of Turner watercolours depicting Luxembourg's old town and the dramatic landscape.

Icing on the cake

Luxembourg used to be one of the most fortified cities in Europe, and you can still walk along its ruined battlements. Start at the Bock Casemates, a labyrinth of tunnels built to withstand the fiercest siege, and follow the signposts for the Wenzel Path down the valley, across the river Alzette and through the Neumnster Abbey.

Follow the Pétrusse, the Alzette's tributary, along the leafy Vallée de La Pétrusse. The path rises into the city beneath the spectacular Adolphe Bridge. The end of the Wenzel Path brings you to the pretty Municipal Park. The park's main landmark is Villa Vauban. This 19th-century mansion is now a smart art museum, currently hosting works by Dutch and Flemish masters.

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