A beginner’s guide to Luxembourg
To get from the airport into the city of Luxembourg it’s either taxi or a bus. I opted for the bus, which is inexpensive – it dropped me right in the centre of the city and it was a short walk to my hotel.
To make the most of the late afternoon, I headed to L’Observatoire – the bar at the top of the Sofitel Luxembourg Le Grand Ducal. This is a cool spot with a big cocktail list, but its big draw is the spectacular panoramic views across the old city. It was the perfect spot to drink Kir Royales and watch the sun set – an orange ball descending through the clear sky of the evening, the light bathing the city’s ancient walls making it seem as if we had been suspended in time.
On my way back to the hotel and I headed for a beer at nearby bar Al Bacio which was busy with an after-work crowd enjoying bottles of Battin and free snacks. I went for a walk to explore and find somewhere for dinner. Eventually opting for French restaurant La Fourchette, which dished up a light and modern twist on the traditional cocotte. Really good.
I like to learn a bit about the places I visit. After fuelling up on breakfast the next morning, I headed to the Musee d’Histoire de la Ville de Luxembourg.
With an international reputation associated with finance, tax avoidance, and opaque banking regulation, the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg is lumbered with the perception of not being a particularly exciting place. But its history is fascinating.
The museum is worth a visit. Particularly good are the wooden models that visually demonstrate how the city’s walls and fortifications were established and developed through the centuries.
The origins of this country can be traced back to Roman times, when it was established as a fortress. Later, it developed into the site of an important castle during the Middle Ages, and then an important trading point with Spain during the 16th and 17th centuries – changing ownership and occupancy through the years as the various European powers waxed and waned.
Luxembourg, as we know it today, was devolved from the French Empire in 1815 – following the defeat of Napoleon. It was finally granted independence in 1839. A landlocked country bordered by Belgium, France, and Germany, Luxembourg is geographically one of the world’s smallest countries – it has a population of just over 500,000.
The country’s motto translates as ‘We want to remain what we are’. It’s almost ironic – in many ways, Luxembourg has been at the forefront of much of the political and economic change that has shaped modern Europe.
In 1957 Luxembourg was one of the six founding members of the European Economic Community – which has since evolved to become the European Union. Luxembourg was also a founding member of the United Nations, NATO, and forms part of the BENELUX economic zone with Belgium and the Netherlands.
I grabbed a coffee at Conter espresso bar on the Grand-Rue.
It’s exciting to listen to the life of Luxembourg as it swirls around you, primarily because of the language. Most official information seems to be in French, but German is also widely spoken. The national language though is Luxembourgish and it’s the language that locals use to speak with each other. A Franconian language, it sounds something like a blend of French and German. Speaking Luxembourgish during the Second World War – when Luxembourg was occupied by German forces – became a symbol of resistance and national cohesion. In addition, Luxembourg feels like a very international city – as I drank my coffee I was surrounded by languages from across Europe.
Lunch was at Brasserie Pless in the Hotel Place d’Armes. The special of the day was a delicious monkfish bouillabaisse and then they hit me with a dessert trolley that would have been offensive to refuse. I opted for the mille feuille which was spectacular.
Dinner was at Am Tiirmschen restaurant where they serve traditional Luxembourger food. I was struggling along with my awful French, but there was an American couple on the table next to me who were quizzing the gruff waitress in English about the menu.
“The Kniddelen…” asked the woman. “ Is that kind of like…”
“No…” snapped the waitress, speaking crisp, perfect English. “It’s not like anything else.”
Out of solidarity with the American couple, I ordered the Kniddelen. It was a bit like a floury gnocchi – quite delicious.
The next morning, it was the farmers’ market in Place Guillaume II – it happens every Saturday. After a bit of wandering around and trying a few of the different cheeses, I headed to the Chocolate House which looks out onto the Palace of the Grand-Dukes. This is a good place to sit and enjoy a hot chocolate while watching the tour groups taking photos of the smartly-dressed but unsmiling palace guards.
Feeling the need for some exercise, I headed to the swimming pool – the Badanstalt. It’s right in the centre of town. This is a recreational pool but it’s a great facility.
I stopped for a quick lunch at Cafe Venziano – uniquely, it has windows looking out over both of Luxembourg’s major squares. It got me ready to embark on the Wenzel walk around the fortress walls of the city. You can do this either as a self-guided walk or with a guide from the tourist office.
I was glad that I’d opted for the guided version – there’s so much complex history in this place that it’s difficult to take it all in and piece it all together. What’s particularly mind-boggling are the casemates – a complex system of tunnels carved into the rock, forming part of the defence system of the fortress.
“Of course, the city was more often conquered by way of marriage rather than force…” our guide informed us. A useful reminder of the power of marriage.
It wasn’t the warmest of days – at the end of the tour I grabbed a coffee and a whisky in Insomnia Bar.
I was feeling a bit indecisive for dinner. Braving the cold night, I went for a long walk but ultimately ended up at Brasserie Guillaume right next to the hotel. This is an impressive place. They specialise in big platters of seafood and there was a regular stream of people calling in to pick up pre-ordered platters for take-away. I needed comfort food so went with a big plate of fritto misto washed down with beer.
My final day in Luxembourg and it was sunny and warm. Once a month, they have a special Sunday shopping day with flea markets in the main square. I walked over the big red bridge to the Kirchberg district – full of big glass constructions and offices related to the European Union.
In this area, you’ll find the Musée Dräi Eechelen – a museum in an ancient fort. This is a must for military history buffs. You’ll also find the MUDAM Museum, which focuses on modern art. The MUDAM is a modern and wonderfully light-filled space designed by Ieoh Ming Pei – the architect who designed the Louvre’s glass pyramid. I grabbed some lunch in the MUDAM’s airy restaurant and felt a little sad that my assault on Luxembourg had come to an end.