Nestled among Germany, Belgium, and France, Luxembourg is an oft-forgotten centerpiece of European culture and history. Strangely so, really, given its location at the crossroads of the continent. Indeed, an anchor of political and cultural development for more than a millennium, Luxembourg City is a fascinating go-to for those who want European flavor and history – without the tourist hordes. So let us introduce you to this dynamic (though underrated) destination in the heart of Europe…
Once upon a time in Luxembourg City
It all began in the 10th century when Siegfried I, a king from the Ardennes region, built Lucilinburhuc Castle in what is now present-day Luxembourg. Like you do. Slowly, churches and markets sprung up around Siegfried’s fortress, serving traveling Roman citizens.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, Luxembourg City came into its own. Not only did commerce grow, but defenses did as well. In fact, in 1340, under the reign of John the Blind, the city was enveloped in a stone wall.
As European powers peaked and ebbed, Luxembourg City fell victim to repeated usurpations and invasions. First the Burgundians, then the Spanish, then the Austrians, then the French, then the Spanish again, etc. It was altogether dizzying. All of this more or less resolved by the late 19th century when Luxembourg was awarded its independence.
Unfortunately, however, celebrations wouldn’t last long; the city was occupied by the Germans in WWI and again in WWII. Given its protracted history of vassal-hood to conquering states, Luxembourg was outright tired of the demands placed on its people. When the country was finally liberated, it became a founding member of several intragovernmental organizations, including the European Court of Justice, designed to keep countries’ integrity intact. It is this devotion to European Union-wide oversight that has earned Luxembourg City a nod of distinction as one of Europe’s foremost capitals.
Getting to Luxembourg City and getting around
But enough history. How do you get there? As with most European capitals, Luxembourg City boasts an efficient international airport. It’s not terribly big, but that’s actually a boon to most travelers; navigation is easy given the single arrival and departure concourse. Still, if you get stuck for a few hours, there are several restaurants and shops to keep you busy. When you’re ready to head to your hotel, ample car rental, taxi, and options are available.
If you’re coming by train from another European locale, you’ll likely arrive at the Gare Centrale in downtown Luxembourg City. From here, you can easily take a bus to another location in the city, grab a taxi outside the station, or walk to your destination.
Where to stay in Luxembourg City
While Luxembourg City clocks in at around 20 square miles, most of the spots you’ll want to visit are right in the center of the city, so it’s recommended you book a hotel nearby – ideally right downtown or in the Bellair/Hollerich neighborhoods. Hôtel JJ32, steps away from the train station, is a solid modernist stop, though City Hotel Luxembourg is an equally comfortable, if utilitarian, option a block or so away.
For our money, you can’t beat the quaint B&B La Pipistrelle. Right next to the downtown park and the Notre Dame Cathedral (yes, Luxembourg has one, too) this cozy 18th-century spot has plush suites (get the Grand-Duc Jean suite if you can), sumptuous breakfasts, and all the modern conveniences you could want – including free WiFi, TVs, minibars, and designated living areas en suite. It certainly doesn’t hurt that you can walk to many key landmarks in the city. Expect prices that run 200+ Euros ($220+ USD) per night.
What to see in Luxembourg City
Fair warning: Luxembourg City is brimming with historical landmarks, both big and small, so you’ll have to be a bit choosy when setting up your daily itineraries. That said, we prefer visiting the following standouts – collectively, they are an exceptional showcase of Luxemburg City’s character, history, and innovative spirit.
Unfortunately overshadowed by its big sister, the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, Luxembourg City’s Notre Dame is arguably just as impressive. The cornerstone for the building was laid in 1613 under the direction of the Jesuits, who were heavily invested in the city at the time; less than 10 years later, in 1621, the church was consecrated and opened to the public.
A monumental showcase of Gothic architecture, Notre Dame features much of what one expects of grand European churches erected in the late Middle Ages – towering arches, rows of columns, and a layout that mirrors a cross from a bird’s eye view. The stained glass, used to depict countless biblical stories, rings the outer walls of the cathedral, while alabaster angels “serenade” the faithful to the tunes of a grand organ, towering on the far end of the nave. Several expansions over the centuries, including the addition of choir bays and two towers, add to the cathedral’s imposing presence.
The cathedral is free to visit, though can also be included as part of paid, guided tours of the city.
Am Tunnel (Underground Art Gallery)
Art galleries take all shapes and sizes, but seldom are they as utilitarian as they are aesthetically intriguing. Fortunately for history and art-lovers, the Am Tunnel in Luxembourg City checks both boxes. Situated in the underground casements of the city’s old fortress (more on that below), the tunnel was originally conceived as a practical way to connect four buildings of Luxembourg’s third-largest bank. This plan was quickly agreed upon in the late 1980s, but discussions soon followed about how to make the most of the space. It was decided that art would be a fitting use of the tunnel, and the Am Gallery was born, opening to the public in 1993.
At more than 1,100 feet long, the tunnel is able to host several permanent and touring exhibits. This includes portraiture from American Edward Steichen and landscape photography from Luxembourg’s own Christophe van Biesen, as well as art from lesser-known and up-and-coming artists. Additionally, am adjacent bank museum gives guests the opportunity to learn about the history of banking – both in Luxembourg and throughout the world – via interactive exhibits.
Admission is free and open to the public.
Here’s something you might not know about Luxembourg: It’s a duchy. Well, technically, it’s a parliamentary democracy, but the Grand Duke is nonetheless the head of the executive branch of government. No wonder, then, that the Grand Ducal Palace in the center of Luxembourg City is where the country’s head of state performs many of his governmental functions.
Centuries old, the palace was erected in the 16th century as a city hall. It wasn’t until 1817 that it became the headquarters for the Luxembourg government. It was expanded in the late 1800s to include guest quarters, meant to accommodate visiting friends and family of the Grand Duke. Unfortunately, the palace was converted to a raucous hall and tavern during the Nazi occupation, but restored very shortly after liberation.
Today, the opulent, history-rich palace is open to the public on a limited basis; guided tours give guests an inside look at the many rooms and functions of the building and its residents. Who knows? You might get a glimpse of the Grand Duke himself if you slide into a tour.
As mentioned above, the roots of Luxembourg city were planted between the 10th and 14th centuries. To get a glimpse of the former city’s ruins, head to the Archaeological Crypt in the Bock Casements. Here, you can tiptoe along catwalks suspended above the old city’s crumbled walls, then walk through several preserved rooms from the old fortifications – including a guard’s room, a canon room, and a tower room with gorgeous views of modern Luxembourg City. Preservation of this UNESCO World Heritage site is ongoing, so don’t be surprised if you bump up against some closures – it’s always good to check online in advance of your trip to see if you can access these old town ruins. If you can get in, expect to pay a 7 Euro ($8 USD) entrance fee. A small price to be a part of history.
Where to eat (and drink) in Luxembourg City
So you’ve walked and toured and ogled all day. You’re hungry. What is there to eat in this cosmopolitan city? Well…
A triumvirate of French, German, and international flavors, the restaurant scene in Luxembourg City is truly fit for a Grand Duchy. You can find any flavor our cuisine you like here, though there are a few stops we highly recommend.
For starters, make a reservation at Restaurant Clairefontaine. A hop from Notre Dame and in the thick of it all, this high-end French destination leans heavily on prix-fixe experiences. They run upwards of 180 Euros ($200 USD) per person, though, so if you want a more affordable meal, order à la carte: Duck Liver with Black Truffle and Artichoke or Fattened Hen with Mashed Potatoes and Truffles both get our stomachs growling.
For simpler, far less expensive pub fare enjoyed while overlooking the Alzette River downtown, Scott’s Pub is a must. Local beer, smoked ribs, and piles of crispy fries with a Belgian edge – this is the kind of comfort food you just crave sometimes. Or, in our case, always.
Last (but not least) on our list is Le 18 inside the Hotel Le Place d’Armes. It’s not where you go to get a meal; it’s the perfect place for a nightcap after a day exploring Luxembourg’s capital. Thoughtfully curated rums and whiskeys are the stars here, so prepare yourself from some neat sipping (though cocktails are on offer if you absolutely must indulge in a mixed drink).
Well, that’s it for day one in Luxembourg City.
Just kidding, of course – these are our highlights from a multi-day trip; we urge you to spread out these adventures over several leisurely days so that you enjoy every moment. And while these sites and experiences make us sing, you’ll likely want to see what else the grand old city offers. For a deeper look at the many offerings of this extraordinary capital, visit the Luxembourg City website.