Lausanne, Switzerland: The picturesque city where most Swiss would like to live

Two gorges cleave Lausanne in two, and the city tumbles down hillsides in a tangle of steps and rooftops and bridges. Old-town streets hunker under arcades and huddle around the cathedral.

You could spend a lot of time looking downwards and inwards in Lausanne, but look up and you'll be thrilled by its setting. Below, Lake Geneva is a mirror of beaten silver, across which the fangs of the French Alps bite the horizon.

Lausanne is self-confident enough to almost turn away from its alpine panorama, which becomes more fabulously in-your-face when you drive into surrounding vineyards. As you should: the Route des Vignerons starts just beyond the suburbs and is one of Europe's great scenic drives. There's good reason, though, to linger in the city on your way along Lake Geneva's shores.

Only Swiss modesty prevents Lausanne from being more celebrated, because its splendid setting is matched by its sweep of history. Founded by the Romans, then a powerful medieval bishopric and retreat for Enlightenment writers, this is a cultured, graceful destination whose large university-student population adds edge and youthful enthusiasms. Many French-speaking Swiss cite it as the place in which they'd most like to live.

You'll be mighty pleased if you make a start at the summit of the city at Switzerland's grandest Gothic cathedral, from whose terraces you can eyeball France's borrowed alpine scenery. Statues of saints congregate around the cathedral entrance like tourists waiting for their tour coach – except that here there's scarcely a tourist in sight.

This quiet, austere corner of Lausanne's old town is hung with old-fashioned wrought-iron shop signs spruiking antiques and leather-bound books. A trim castle – more a mansion – cascades with geraniums. Trek just beyond into the newer surrounds for the Collection de l'Art Brut, a fascinating museum featuring the works of the deranged, depressed and criminally insane, many on a travel theme.

It's hard not to be hooked by this mixture of madness, travel and art, especially as it erupts so unexpectedly in the middle of such a well-ordered Swiss city. For me, this is the city's must-see, though Lausanne has several other excellent museums. Musee de l'Elysee displays contemporary photography, some of which also startles and challenges.

Pause for coffee at old-town Place de la Palud, with its sword-wielding Justice fountain – a pope is getting trampled – and ornate Renaissance town hall whose drainpipe ends turn into snarling dragons. Then let gravity propel you on downwards through shopping streets to the Flon district centred on Place de l'Europe.

Here avant-garde buildings in multi-coloured glass panels and tangled metal screens blossom among former industrial buildings, creating a newly invigorated quarter of offices, apartments, restaurants and nightclubs. If you care for cocktails, sushi, a puff on a hubble-bubble or a blast of Swiss indie rock, this is the place to linger.

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Eventually, past the train lines and through residential streets, you arrive on the lakefront at Ouchy. The former fishing village is now firmly a Lausanne suburb of smug villas, pop-up summer bars and flower-lined promenades that lead you along the lake for kilometres in either direction.

Ouchy is also the headquarters of the International Olympic Committee, and its chief attraction the Olympic Museum. Exhibits are breathlessly positive, so don't expect a considered look at the Olympic movement's many scandals and shocks.

Still, the museum is exceedingly visit-worthy, displaying ancient Greek athlete-decorated urns, Jesse Owens' running shoes and Olympic medals among its memorabilia. You can also stand on a virtual medals podium, view great historic footage of top Olympic moments, and test your sprint time against Usain Bolt.

Brian Johnston travelled courtesy of Etihad, Switzerland Tourism and Lake Geneva Region.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/switzerland

myswitzerland.com

region-du-leman.ch/en/

FLY

Etihad flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Abu Dhabi (14.5 hours) with onward connections to Geneva (seven hours). Phone 1300 532 215, see etihad.com

RIDE RAILS

The efficient Swiss rail system connects Geneva Airport directly with Lausanne in 30 minutes, and onwards to other destinations around Switzerland. See swisstravelsystem.com

STAY

Chateau d'Ouchy is a medieval castle renovated in considerable designer style, with a tranquil setting, magnificent lake views and a tastebud-tingling Mediterranean restaurant. See chateaudouchy.ch

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