Luxembourg: How to Spend a Day Here

Fall colors by a canal in Luxembourg. Katherine Walker photos.
Fall colors by a canal in Luxembourg. Katherine Walker photos.

24 Hours in Luxembourg

By Katherine Walker

Ville Basse, Luxembourg.
Ville Basse, Luxembourg.

Most visitors to the world’s one and only Grand Duchy content themselves with a stay in the fairy-tale capital, Luxembourg City. But the short distances in one of Europe’s smallest countries make it possible to see plenty more in a 24-hour stint.

I booked a room in the NH Luxembourg hotel next to Luxembourg City airport for two nights in late October and, despite some pretty dismal weather, found plenty to do in between.

Luxembourg City

Castle bridge at Viendan.
Castle bridge at Viendan.

I couldn’t ignore Luxembourg City altogether: it would have been perfectly possible to spend the whole weekend there.

The city tumbles romantically down a steep cliff, with the guard-patrolled Ducal palace at the top, and the pretty, old-town streets at the bottom, punctuated with pointed church spires and allotments polka-dotted with pumpkins.

It’s all very Brothers Grimm – you could be in the Ville Basse, Luxembourg.middle of a Germanic fairy-tale were it not for the French shutters on the mairie and crépe-serving cafés.

Breakfast in the Capital
It’s probably fair to say that the NH Luxembourg has seen better days. I, however, was happy to trade the insufficient soundproofing for a great rate that meant a double room for two cost only marginally more than had we stayed in a Youth Hostel dormitory.

Seeing as the special rate didn’t include breakfast, we walked across the road to the airport. From there, in exchange for €2 for a 25-minute journey, you can take buses 9 or 16 to the city center, where breakfast opportunities abound.

Ducal Palace
Ducal Palace, Luxembourg.

In the historic Ville Haute quarter at the top of the hill, either of the two main squares makes an excellent spot for breakfast and people watching. This is especially true on Saturdays when a busy flea market can be found at Place d’Armes (every second and fourth Saturday of the month), and a great food and flower market is held at Place Guillaume II (every Wednesday and Saturday, 07.30 – 13.00).

At the latter, you may find yourself being serenaded by a flat cap wearing, accordion- and clarinet-wielding folk band: it was certainly one way to lighten up an otherwise gray day.

Lining the plazas, charming old buildings have baskets of flowers at the upstairs windows and cafés spilling onto the pavement from the ground floors.

You can choose from Paul, a fairly wallet-friendly French chain for a baguette or pastry with your café au lait, or some of the more upmarket cafés for set breakfast menus, omelets or crepes – thin, French-style pancakes, very different to the thick, American kind.

Once you’ve had your fill of caffeine and tasters of cheese from the market, it’s worth calling in at the tourist office, also in Place Guillaume II. This friendly and efficient little place has brochures for everything and succinct advice for all-comers in all languages. They will also be able to help you rent a car: I traveled with my own vehicle, but well-organized little Luxembourg is sure to be navigable by public transport if you prefer.

Lunch in Clervaux

It took about an hour of driving through October’s orange-brown mosaic countryside to reach Clervaux, a small town in the north of Luxembourg, sandwiched between Germany and Belgium.

Clervaux’s position in a steep-sided, fall-colored valley is lovely, but that’s not why you’re here: raised on a rocky plinth in the middle of town, the grand 12th century Clervaux Castle – all fresh and white after the recent restoration – is now the permanent home to a photography collection, The Family of Man. The curator, Edward Steichen (1879-1973), a world-renowned photographer and one of Luxembourg’s most famous sons, called the exhibition the ‘culmination of his career’.

The Family of Man

To visit the wheelchair accessible exhibition, you’ll need €6 (€4 if you qualify for a reduced rate), a quiet hour or two spent moseying through the modern display rooms and about five minutes for the less than a generously-sized gift shop.

Chapel at Vianden castle

The photos themselves are fascinating. Just over 500 black and white prints from 68 countries – some the size of the whole wall, others only a hand in width – are arranged roughly into themes, accompanied by quotes ranging in the source from the big names of European philosophy, to proverbs from unknown Hindu spiritualists and African tribes. This is Man; humanity at its most vain and most humble; its most exotic and most homely.

The images are labeled only with the photographer and where it was published (if it was ever published at all), but not with the location. And that is the point: people across the globe are all essentially the same. One series of photographs is the exception. Each print, labeled by country, captures the same scene: laughing children holding hands in a ring, playing a version of a timeless game that, it seems, keeps kids amused from Russia to Mexico, and from China to France.

The entry fee includes the loan of an iPad mini with interactive, multi-language app detailing the history of Steichen and his exhibition. The commentary is rarely about the images, which I found very distracting: unless you’re a real pro multi-tasker, you may want to listen to the app first before embarking on the photography.
It’s all interesting stuff, though: without it, I might have gone home still wondering why on earth the world famous images – after an extensive tour of the globe – ended up in a little town in Luxembourg.

Looking at photographs doesn’t tend to work up much of an appetite, which is lucky, since you won’t exactly be spoilt for choice with lunch options in Clervaux.

Band in Place DArmes

Unless you’ve got time to spare and fancy a three-course affair in a hotel dining room, make a quick stop in one of the unassuming cafés before heading back to the car – you are near France, after all, so make the most of it with a fresh and crusty French baguette.

Dinner in Vianden

After negotiating the hairpin bends out of the valley, you’ll leave Clervaux behind as you take a pretty, half-hour drive southeast to picturesque Vianden.
There is a little more to see in the town this time, but follow the winding streets up to the chateau first – it closes at 5 pm in October (4 pm in winter, 6 pm in summer).

The approach up to where Vianden Castle perches on a precipice overlooking the town and river valley is spectacular; the huge stone bulk of the chateau dwarfs the quaint terraced houses and their leaf-strewn gardens below.

The clouds had finally cleared, I made my way through the afternoon sunshine to the entrance: a massive stone archway in the shadow of a huge tower topped by a pointy, witch’s hat roof. I paid my €6 fee and followed the sloping cobbled path past brand-new, but not-quite-ready, buildings that will soon house a visitor center and restaurant.

Inside, the grand scale of the rooms, mighty stone walls and impractical suits of armor are still impressive, even after learning just how much of the castle was re-built from scratch in the 1970’s. Perhaps the strangest exhibit is the circular tower room – the highest point of the tour – where the flag of Luxembourg flaps across the views over the valley below.

Vianden Castle in Luxembourg. Enjoy a 24 hour visit to this compact history filled European destination!
Vianden Castle in Luxembourg. Enjoy a 24 hour visit to this compact history filled European destination!

Vianden castle

Arranged in chronological order on the whitewashed walls are photos of visiting dignitaries – from US presidents, to middle-eastern Sheiks, to various members of European royalty. One of the final entries on this patchwork of importance is a signed picture of Patrick Swayze: it turns out that his movie ‘George and the Dragon’ was filmed here, putting Mr. Swayze on a par with Europe’s kings and queens.

Diamond Pane Windows

Once I had had my fill of stonework, history and valley views, I made my way back down the hill to choose from the many restaurants beckoning me inside from diamond-pane windows glowing in the dusk. As with every meal in Luxembourg, the choice is between German and French cuisine, not really a hybrid between the two.

At least there was no problem understanding the menu – most restaurants cater for French, German, English and speakers of Luxembourgish, and the staff switch seamlessly between all four before I even get halfway to attempting a merci beaucoup.

Finally, on a cool, dark October evening, it was time to tear myself away from my cozy corner in a Vianden restaurant. Getting back in the car was an unwelcome thought until I realized that my hotel in the capital was just a smooth, well-signposted and for the most part traffic-free 50-minute drive away.

After a full day taking in three towns, but never having driven for more than an hour at a time, I can safely say that – in Luxembourg at least – bigger is not always better!

Katherine WalkerKatherine Walker is a freelance travel writer from Britain who has recently moved to Cologne, Germany via Austria and Argentina. Visit her website.

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