The world’s Olympic Capital, the city of Lausanne is draped on steep slopes on the north shore of Lake Geneva. Both the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Court of Arbitration for Sport are here, and there’s a new world-class Olympic Museum if you want to pull that sporting thread. The Romanesque and Gothic cathedral is Lausanne’s reference point, and still bursting with medieval decoration despite the turmoil of the Reformation.
Given the city’s almost vertiginous layout there are dozens of places where you’ll be stopped in your tracks by the sight of Lake Geneva and its mountains. And on the shore is Ouchy, a chic setting for easy walks, bathing in the lake and a place to catch ferries or pleasure cruises on one of Europe’s great lakes.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Lausanne:
1. Lausanne Cathedral
The city’s solemn cathedral went up during the 13th century and was consecrated in 1275. That sound in the dead of night is the Lookout, who barks out the hours between 22:00 and 02:00 365 days a year and one of the last of his kind in Europe.
One of the people to thank for the cathedral’s current appearance is the French master restorer Viollet-le-Duc.
He led the restoration in the 1870s as his last big project before he passed away.
Look for the sandstone image of the Virgin and Child in the Narthex, and the 13th-century sculptural figures on the southern portal where there are still traces of medieval paint.
Also from the 13th century on the southern facade is the rose window, ahead of its time and painted even before the famous rose window at Chartres.
2. Collection de l’Art Brut
Up the slope, in the outbuildings of the 18th-century Château de Beaulieu is one of the definitive collections of Art Brut.
Most of these works were gathered by Jean Dubuffet, founder of the movement.
The pieces come from all sorts of backgrounds: There are children’s drawings, pieces of folk art and paintings by patients in psychiatric hospitals, but one uniting characteristic is that all the artists exhibited here were on the margins of the art world.
For this reason, and because they weren’t creating art for attention or financial gain, their art is regarded as more authentic.
Each piece is accompanied by a fascinating biography of the artist.
Maybe the most acclaimed was Aloïse Corbaz, a woman born in Lausanne and suffering from schizophrenia.
3. Olympic Museum
As the home city to the International Olympic Committee, Lausanne is essentially the Olympic Capital.
So it’s apt that you can get the inside track on one of the world’s great sporting events.
The museum is south of the centre at Ouchy, commanding a view over Lake Geneva from the top of the Olympic Park.
The permanent exhibition is arranged over three floors, each dealing with the Olympics from a different angle: Olympic World on the ground floor chronicles the games’ ancient history and their modern resurrection at the end of the 19th century.
Olympic Games documents all the sporting events held at each Olympics.
And on the top floor in the interactive Olympic Spirit exhibition you can find out the skills needed to be an Olympian, testing your physical and mental prowess.
4. Ouchy Promenade
When the sun is out, the kilometre-long walkway beside Lake Geneva is a slice of heaven.
On weekends the promenade thrums with families and couples out for strolls and pausing to savour the sight of the lake and the Chablais Alps.
There’s a lot happening on Place de la Navigation, be it a market, public concert.
And if you’re by yourself you can bring a book for an hour or so, and watch the CGN ferries coming and going at the busiest port on the whole lake.
This quarter is as posh as any in Lausanne, where stately hotels like the Château d’Ouchy and the Beau-Rivage take prime position on the lakefront.
Come here from the centre of Lausanne on the M2 line descending an almost impossible gradient.
5. Musée de l’Élysée
One of Europe’s great photography museums is in another elegant 18th-century mansion overlooking the lake.
There are more than 100,000 photographs in these galleries, many produced with the earliest techniques: You can study daguerrotype , albumen and ambrotype prints and follow photography’s evolution right through to digital prints.
Feted Swiss photographers like Ella Maillart and Nicolas Bouvier bequeathed their life’s collections to the museum.
And in 2011 the museum purchased Charlie Chaplin’s personal album, containing 10,000 photographs recording his whole career.
A new, state-of-the-art museum building is under construction, and everything will be transferred in 2020.
6. Place de la Palud
A wedge-shaped pedestrian square in the centre of Lausanne, Place de la Palud is ruled by the 17th-century City Hall and old apartment buildings.
On the ground floor the building’s arcade leads you to a passageway continuing through to Place de la Louve.
On the east side of the square is the Fontaine de la Justice, started in the 1500s.
From here you’ll get a good view of the City Hall’s tower, as well as the Horloge de la Palud, which was assembled for the Swiss National Exhibition in 1964: At the chime of the hour figures representing Lausanne’s big historical personalities make a round of the clock before returning inside.
7. Esplanade de Montbenon
So we know that Lausanne is blessed with exhilarating panoramas.
But the one at Esplanade de Montbenon rivals the best in the city.
In this manicured, verdant space you’ll be inclined just to sit and stare at the scenery.
But there are some interesting monuments to seek out Montbenon.
At the top of the esplanade is the Palais de Justice de Montbenon, a grand Beaux-Arts edifice from the 1880s.
Until 1921 this housed the Federal Supreme Court of Switzerland.
The Casino de Montbenon is another former home of the IOC, hosting the committee from 1915 to 1922 and today containing the Swiss Film Archive.
Check the schedule because the “Cinématographe” puts on some big events like the Lausanne Underground Film and Music Festival in October.
8. Tour de Sauvabelin
In the Sauvabelin Forest at the city’s loftiest point is a viewing tower constructed only from wood.
This was raised in 2003 and is unusual for its double helix staircase; one set guiding you to the observation platform and another to take you down again.
It is 151 steps to the top and once you’re there you can bask in dreamy views Lake Geneva, the Alps, The Vaud Alps, French Alps and Lausanne’s cityscape.
The timber for this 35-metre structure comes from the forests outside the city and it’s composed mostly of Douglas fir, but also spruce and some larch wood.
9. Fondation de l’Hermitage
In the Vaudois neighbourhood, up the slope from the centre of Lausanne is the handsome “l’Hermitage” manor house from the 1850s.
The house is nested in its own park, blessed with another dreamy perspective of the lake, mountains and the Cathedral towers.
This view was famously recorded by the great landscape artist Camille Corot.
In the 70s l’Hermitage was bequeathed to the city, and at the same time an art foundation was set up, with a collection that has now swollen to hundreds of works.
These are never permanently on display but are shown at superb temporary exhibitions.
Since 1984 there have been shows for Giacometti, Hopper, Magritte and Monet, and just in 2016 there were exhibitions featuring pieces by luminaries like Signac and Soulages.
10. Parc de Mon Repos
This rambling English park is planted with exotic trees like giant sequoias and is all you need for a bit of repose.
The layout that greets us today is from the first decades of the 19th century, when the French architect Louis-Emmanuel-Aimé Damesme reconfigured the park and its 18th-century villa.
From 1922-1967 this building was where the IOC would sit.
There are some minor sights around the park, like an outdoor theatre where Voltaire once produced a play and an orangery that is now a studio for the sculptor Yves Dana.
What looks like ruins of a medieval tower is actually a folly in the Romantic style from the time of the park’s creation in the 1820s.
11. Museum of Contemporary Design and Applied Arts (MUDAC)
MUDAC makes a name for its temporary exhibitions, and stages around six shows a year.
Some are designed by one artist alone, in which they go as far as creating their own scenography, while others are travelling exhibitions organised by museums around the word.
There are also a couple of permanent displays: One on the second floor showcases contemporary glass design.
And in the basement you can view the personal collection of the historian Jacques-Édouard Berger.
In the second half of the 20th century he amassed a very diverse assortment of artefacts from the Far East and ancient Egypt.
The stately building containing this museum is actually a compound of medieval houses, all with a 17th-century facade.
12. Palais de Rumine
When the Russian aristocrat Gabriel de Rumine passed away he left a fortune to the city to build a public venue.
The result is the Palais de Rumine, constructed at the turn of the century and with architecture borrowed from the Florentine Renaissance.
You can find the palace on Place de la Riponne, and there are no fewer than five museums inside.
The pick of these is the Cantonal Museum of Fine Arts, which has a fund of around 10,000 works.
There’s a large collection of illustration by the beloved Art Nouveau printmaker Théophile Steinlen, a native of Lausanne, as well as other Swiss-French artists like Félix Vallotton and Charles Gleyre.
13. Escaliers du Marché
Maybe the most charming walk in the Old Town is up the covered wooden stairway linking Place de la Palud to the Esplanade de la Cathédrale.
The first mention of these steps goes back to the 14th century, and the present design is from the 1710s.
Alongside it is a cobblestone street, which has terraces to make the slope less precarious.
You’ll be left in no doubt about the challenges of building a city on such steep ground, and the ingenuity to make this terrain navigable.
14. Rolex Learning Center
A little way west of the centre is an ultra-modern mixed space designed as the campus for the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne.
Under a wavy canopy are a library, food court, cafe, meeting places, workspaces, multipurpose hall and various other student resources.
The roof is riddled with openings for courtyards, and it all adds up to a mind-blowing construction, imagined by the Pritzker prize-winning Japanese duo SANAA. They were awarded the job ahead of big-hitters like Rem Koolhaas and Zaha Hadid, and the campus was finally opened in 2010. Visitors are free to come and look around, and you could grab a bite at the cafe.
15. Lake Excursions
You’d be missing out if you didn’t take some kind of boat trip from the port at Ouchy.
You could make a quick crossing in a modern vessel to Geneva or somewhere like Thonon-les-Baines on the French side of the lake.
But you may prefer a more leisurely pace, and for this CGN, the ferry operator, has a small armada of heritage boats built in Winterthur in the early 20th century.
There are five “Belle Époque Paddle Steamers” sailing to many places around the lake: Savoie and Simplon for example make slow sightseeing cruises to Geneva and back, while the Montreaux makes a round trip to the picturesque Château de Chillon on an island by the eastern shore.