Luxembourg City, capital of the small European country that bears the same name, isn’t an obvious short break destination for most British travellers. In fact, if you’re over 45 years old, you’re more likely to know it because of the the radio station that was based there and beamed pop music across Britain every night in the 60’s and 70’s. Now it’s better known for hosting some of the big institutions of the European Union.
And the reason for that is clear. Luxembourg is at the heart of Western Europe, bordered by Belgium, France and Germany. All of those neighbours have influenced life here. The buildings appear similar to those in Northern France and the official languages are French, German and the native Luxembourgish, which my tour guide, Gaby Limpach-Theis used to greet me. It sounded like a cross between French and German.
Luxembourg City is the same size as Worcester or Wigan but the retail options and restaurants are what you’d expect to find in a major world capital. That’s because Luxembourg is a key player in many European institutions. It’s where the European Union started and today it’s home to the European Court of Justice. You’ll see the blue flag with yellow stars flying everywhere. The city is also a major financial centre and home to major multinationals like Amazon and Microsoft, who are based here because of the favourable tax regime.
Luxembourg is an unusual city because it effectively has two city centres. Gaby told me that both the modern cultural centre and the Old Town are both worth visiting. The newer area is called the Kirchberg and architects have really gone to town designing incredible buildings to house EU bodies, banks and the arts. The main pedestrianized shopping streets are in the Old Town and are on top of a sandstone promontory, a clue to the fortified history of the city. It’s got plenty of handsome old architecture and feels very familiar to a British visitor. Away from the high street shops, you’ll also find high-end boutiques and bars that, midweek, are filled with bankers.
Down the hill in the city centre, known as the ‘Low City,’ there are pretty historic districts called Ville Basse and Grund. You can walk down the steep steps or take a lift. This leafy area is sought after – the mustard and terracotta painted Georgian-era houses are very attractive.
The cobbled streets descend to the small river, the Alzette, which winds through the city at the bottom of this gorge. You can stroll along a terrace a few hundred feet above, clinging to the side of the hill, which runs along the formidable city wall. The wall is up to 50 feet high and is cut into the rocky side of the valley. It almost looks like it’s holding back the hill. This walk, known as Le Chemin de la Corniche, offers picture postcard views of the church spires, old forts and the new city on the adjacent hill. Gaby said writers have described it as ‘the most beautiful balcony in Europe’ because of the superb vista over a thousand years of history.
Simon the concierge at my hotel, Le Royal, recommended that I walked down to the valley to visit the Benedictines’ Abbey. They set up their base when they had to leave France following the revolution. “Between this church and the river you have the most amazing views of the old fort, the Vauban, St Michaels church and the upper part of the town,” he told me.
Luxembourg City was founded in 980 and its strategic location means that it’s been fought over on many occasions. There were once three thick city walls ribboning the capital, making the whole town effectively a fort and leading to the nickname ‘the Gibraltar of the North.’ Some of the 53 forts along those military defences have been razed, but what remains is still impressive and has been listed by UNESCO.
One of Luxembourg City’s biggest attractions is located here but it’s hidden from view. The Bock Casemates are a network of tunnels stretching 15 miles under the city. They were started in 1644 by engineers working for the Spaniards, the controlling power in Luxembourg at the time. This underground maze linked the military fortifications and also provided storage.
Cross the high Queen Duchess Charlotte bridge, which spans the valley and gorge, and you reach the newer town centre of Kirchberg. There’s another fort here with more underground tunnels dug by the Prussians when it was their turn in charge – I told you that Luxembourg has changed hands a lot! The former Fort Thüngen was in disrepair but has been restored as a museum charting the country’s history to 1900. There’s a real guillotine on show. Mind your fingers. It’s named the Musée Dräi Eechelen after the finials on its three turrets, which resemble acorns.
As you walk around the city you’ll notice cartoon pictures of a mermaid everywhere. This is local folklore character Melusine and there’s a statue to her down by the river, near the Abbey Neimënster. Gaby recounted the sad tale for me:
“Count Siegfried of the Ardennes, the founder of Luxembourg, saw a beautiful woman singing while he was out riding by the River Alzette. He asked her to become his wife and she accepted on one condition – he couldn’t see her on Saturdays. Years passed after they were married and he always respected her wish to be alone on that day. But eventually, he couldn’t resist the temptation to find out why. He took a quick glimpse through the keyhole of her bathroom and gasped in horror when he saw that she was a mermaid. She promptly disappeared into the river and he never saw her again.”
There’s another good statue story in the upper town. The Gëlle Fra, or Golden Woman, is a gilded statue on the top of a 60-foot tall granite obelisk. The Nazi’s removed the figure and it disappeared for years. “Workers found her hidden beneath the main stand of the national football stadium in 1980,” Gaby told me. “She was renovated and returned to the obelisk in 1985. She represents the freedom of Luxembourg.”
There’s quite a bit of public art around the city. The strangest I saw was on 32 Rue de l’Eau where there are holographic heads on 20-foot high poles. Their eyes follow you as you walk around!
Opposite the heads is the monarch’s city residence. Luxembourg’s royal is the Grand Duke, a title used since 1815. You can tour the public areas of the palace and a flag flies when he’s in the building working. He normally lives in his second home, a palace in the countryside. Gaby explained: “In Luxembourg we have a constitutional monarchy and a parliamentary democracy. Grand Duke Henry is not allowed to get mixed up in the work of the government.” The Grand Duke can’t get involved in politics but all residents are expected to. If you don’t vote, you get fined although over 75-year-olds are exempt.
You could easily spend a whole weekend exploring the various upper and lower levels of the Old Town, but you should try to fit in a visit to the Kirchberg – the newer part of the city. This district is filled with award-winning modern architecture, futuristic structures of steel and glass set between landscaped squares and plazas.
Thousands of people work for the EU here and alongside the convention centre you’ll find a small wooded area where there’s a tree for every EU nation. “There are 28 trees that were planted to represent the states of the European Union,” said Gaby. I found our tree. I wonder if they’ll have to chop it down when Britain leaves?
Luxembourg was the first city to hold the European Capital of Culture title for a second time and there’s a busy arts programme in the city. I went to meet Matthew Studdert-Kennedy, who used to plan the music at the Edinburgh Festival and moved to Luxembourg to oversee the programme at the Philharmonie, a striking, purpose built opera house. “It seats 1400 people, the right size for this city, and it’s a wonderful shape, being both intimate and large at the same time,” said Matthew. “There’s always something that visitors might enjoy, from piano recitals, to jazz to classical concerts. Artists want to come back here because the acoustics are so wonderful.”
Sometimes the Philharmonie screens movies accompanied by a live soundtrack played by the resident symphony orchestra. Recently they played along during a showing of 2001 – A Space Odyssey. “A lot of places are doing this now and it’s becoming very popular,” said Matthew, “especially as so many classics of the cinema have such great soundtracks.”
There’s another art space next door. Luxembourg’s Museum of Contemporary Art – the Mudam. The building is incredible. It was designed by the architect who helped renovate the Louvre and features a main hall with a 43m high interior space. “During the day there’s great light, even if it’s raining,” said the Mudam’s Anna Loporcaro. She told me that Luxembourg always has something for visitors to discover from their vibrant arts programme. “We change the exhibitions four times a year so there’s always something new to discover,” said Anna. “It’s a great way to bring people to Luxembourg and ensure they don’t just think of us as a banking place, but also a cultural place.”
The Mudam is not one of those fussy art venues where you walk around in silence. It’s open until 11pm on Wednesdays and you can call in for a drink at their large bar with a chill out area and enjoy some live music. They’ve set up long tables under a mock up of market stall awnings. It’s very relaxed.
Art and beautifully presented food can be found in one place back in the Old Town – a venue called Ca(fé)sino in the Casino Luxembourg. Nadine Clements told me that, contrary to its name, Casino Luxembourg has never been used for gambling – it’s always been a public meeting space. “It’s for photography, video, installations and all kinds of contemporary art,” explained Nadine.
It’s a popular lunch spot. The steak tartare – uncooked minced beef served with raw egg, onions and pickles – is a speciality. You dine in an imposing hall with a high ceiling and long communal table. “You can sit next to people you don’t know and can start a conversation. It’s a nice way of dining,” said Nadine. While you eat, above your head is a neon sign formed in the shape of two sound waves fused together. This piece represents the sounds from the time of the casino’s opening in 1882 and its 1995 refurbishment.
Léa Linster is a well-known TV celebrity chef in Luxembourg and German-speaking countries. I went to meet her at her city centre bakery and café. While we chatted, a man came over asking for an autograph!
Léa says Luxembourg really is a foodie place. “When I was a child people just talked about food. Even then, I found out how much food means to Luxembourg. Léa runs a Michelin starred restaurant and her signature dish is loin of lamb with a potato crust. I asked her what to expect on a typical Luxembourg menu. “I love bouneschlupp very much. It’s a green bean soup and you have it with bacon and sausage. We also have pike fish from the River Moselle as well as crayfish.”
Léa was awarded the Michelin star in 1987 but she says her best achievement was gaining a gold medal in a prestigious world chef competition. “I’m so far the only woman who has won the Bocuse d’Or prize.” This small country boast a number of Michelin restaurants. “We have ten in the country and two or three just in the city,” said Léa.
Lea’s Old Town bakery shop is devoted to madeleines – little shell-shaped cakes, a cross between a fairy cake and a biscuit. According to folklore, madeleines are named after a woman cook who had to deputise for the chef to the French king. She couldn’t find the correct cake tins so she collected beach shells to bake the cakes in. You’d probably fail your kitchen hygiene inspection if you tried that today.
Lea’s quite a character and I can see why she’s on telly. She certainly doesn’t feel the need to be modest about her creations. “My madeleines are the best in the world. Once you eat one, you’ll never forget it again. People come here from all over for them.”
Cakes and patisseries are beautiful presented in Luxembourg. Just around the corner, 28-year-old Cathy Goedert has recently opened a bakery. She was trained in Paris but wanted to come home. “It was always my dream to open a shop and it was easier to do this in Luxembourg,” she told me. Cathy sells culinary works of art, delicately decorated desserts, which look incredible and taste amazing. “We have around fifteen different pastries including eclairs, apple tarts and cheesecakes.”
If you enjoy chocolate, then you’ll find plenty of products on offer in the city’s many impeccably presented cafes, but one business specialises. Nathalie Bonn set up The Chocolate House as a café and restaurant offering savoury meals as well as chocolate creations. She wanted chocoholics to be able to indulge alongside their friends who don’t have a sweet tooth. The place was packed at 3pm in the afternoon. She says she aims to create a unique chocolate moment for every individual taste, with chocolate blocks, spreads, cakes and fondues. But she’s famous for her flavoured chocolate lolly sticks that you dip into hot milk to make a rich drink. “I have sixty different flavours,” she told me. “The most popular are Bailey’s, cinnamon, Amaretto, macaron and caramel. There are people who come here every day. They’re chocoholics!”
Nathalie’s chocolate creations make great gifts to take home. If you’d like something different, then try out the 100% Luxembourg Shop in the city centre, which showcases the country’s best products, including beer, wine and liqueurs, art work, handicrafts, ceramics and books. A popular purchase is another national emblem – the bird-shaped, water whistles called peckvillerchen. They’re a traditional craft item formed from earthenware or glass and were used to attract customers to shops. You’ll also find plenty of clothing items in the country’s national colours – red, white and pale blue.
So where can you stay in Luxembourg City? I was kindly accommodated at the Hôtel Le Royal, a 5-star property with spacious, comfortable, recently-refurbished rooms. It is in a perfect central location near the Old Town but, as manager Mr Scheffer told me, you’re not far from nature in this small city. “You can see woods from the roof of the hotel. You won’t find that in many capital cities,” he said.
Three things stood out for me about the Royal. Every single corridor and public space had a pleasant aroma. They’ve created a bespoke fragrance for each area. They also had state-of-the-art Japanese loos installed, with fancy controls that will do lots of things including warming the seat! And the breakfast buffet was massive. I think they catered for every international or dietary need. Mr Scheffer explained: “In the hotel business there’s competition for who can create the best breakfast buffet. We have good cooks and understand different international clients and their needs.”
The hotel is used to helping fulfil their guests’ needs, no matter how unusual. Hotel concierge Simon, who’s worked at the Royal for 29 years, said he’s had some interesting requests during his time there. “I’ve organised a funeral and a wedding, but the toughest was a guest who requested 1,000 red roses just before midnight for his wife early the next morning. I called my colleague in Amsterdam, who went to the flower market and put 1,000 flowers in a taxi. It arrived next morning and the guest was very happy!”
I didn’t know what to expect of Luxembourg before I came and I was pleasantly surprised. I think it’s an interesting choice for a weekend break, whether you love fine dining or the arts or you just wandering through a pretty town whilst immersing yourself in history. There are plenty of green spaces and parkland and a summer trip would be perfect. It’s not cheap – you won’t find bargains in the shops but it is clean and if you’re a solo female traveller, a recent safety index rated Luxembourg first out of 200 cities. There are lots of good places to eat in Luxembourg City, as you’d expect in a major banking centre with all of those expense accounts.
You can fly from Gatwick or Stansted for as little a £20 with low cost carriers like Ryanair and Easyjet or use Flybe for the direct flight of just over 90 minutes from Manchester. Frequent buses make the 15-minute trip from the airport to the city centre and a new tram system should commence later this year.
For more information about Luxembourg take a look at the visitluxembourg.com website.