When was the last time you thought about Luxembourg? Think hard. Are you still thinking? OK, admit it: This wee country -- and its oh-so-petite and eponymous capital city -- probably hasn't figured into your conscious thoughts.
So, after returning from three full days in Luxembourg City, I pressed my friends and colleagues as well as acquaintances I met at networking events and well-traveled strangers I stopped in New York City about their views on Luxembourg City. I polled them on what came to mind when they thought about the nightlife, the arts scene, transportation, the cuisine, safety. All the topics of prime importance when visiting a capital city.
Who knew one city could generate so many myths? And, by the way, despite the fact that my friends thought a three-day trip was two days too long, I could've used another three days to explore the myriad shops and cafes down cobbled back streets, as well as to bicycle a couple more dozen kilometers.
1. It's expensive to travel around Luxembourg City.
Hardly. The Luxembourg Card -- it costs €19 for a two-day pass and €27 for three days -- gives you access not only to the city buses but also buses and trains all over the country, as well as entry to museums, a cruise on the Moselle River and dozens of other activities.
2. You need a taxi to get from the airport to the city center.
No. For just €1.50, you can board a bus right outside the terminal bound for downtown. (It takes under 25 minutes.) Plus, you can hop on and off the bus within a two-hour window. If you've got the energy after your international flight, this is a way to get a head start on your vacation. Or, if you want to catch up on the sights you missed, take advantage of this option on your way back to the airport at the end of your travels.
3. This financial metropolis is studded with mega-tall skyscrapers.
Not unless you consider 27 stories (the twin Cour de Justice Towers) mega tall. The City of Luxembourg does have gleaming skyscrapers (most from the 1960s) but these are all low-lying that don't overpower the clusters of Medieval ruins that pepper the landscape.
4. You need a car to commute around the city.
Given the city's small size (just 20 square miles) and the number of pedestrian-only streets as well as the bicycle and other paths coursing through a necklace of green spaces, walking and cycling are efficient ways to travel. It makes this resident's comment all the more revealing, "If you have to commute an hour to work, you're in a different country." No wonder, considering Luxembourg is embraced by Germany, France and Belgium.
5. The cuisine is largely home-style cooking that's meat-laden and generally unremarkable.
Luxembourg has more Michelin stars per capita -- it has 11 starred restaurants -- than any other place in the world. (The city is home to the only two Michelin star Italian restaurant outside of Italy.)
Michelin stars aside, even if you're not committed to eating seitan, brown rice and broccoli, the low-key and authentic vibe at Mesa Verde, a vegetarian restaurant, makes it worth experiencing. The cuisine is as boldly hued as the decor that features a circus of colorful murals, glowing paper lanterns and mosaic sculpture. Owner Lucien Elsen, a multi-talented world traveler, professional chef, party promoter and professional clown, imbues his laid-back eatery with his ethos of universality: "You treat the salad like a flower you would offer to a loved one. Every leaf has a different texture; on the plate you are making a landscape. And what you're eating is a painting."
Another fave of mine is two-floor Restaurant Apoteca Essenza that's renowned for its razor-thin carpaccio, including the swordfish in a lemon marinade with pomegranate and toasted pine nuts. And the entree fish preparations are a fusion of some unlikely flavors, such as the rare tuna steak topped with caramelized red onions and drizzled with an orange and mint sauce.
6. The city isn't exactly a bastion of contemporary art.
In fact, aficionados of edgy art will find plenty to satisfy their tastes. The Casino Luxembourg, a contemporary art gallery very similar in tone to New York City's PS1, recently held an exhibition of Belgian artist Wesley Meuris that exposes the displays behind museums exhibits, which get little, if any, attention. Here, they become the art itself.
More than a dozen galleries, many in spaces reflecting each building's old-world history, exhibit the sometimes abstract, experimental, or Impressionist oeuvre of artists from around the world. Recently, the Galerie Bernard Ceysson displayed sculptural pieces by Bernard Pages, a Frenchman whose off-balance objects have a resemblance to serrated swords that are about to take root in the barrel-ceilinged stone space. Shadowy clouds with a 3-D quality, waves and rocks that take on a volcanic appearance, and a confusion of land and sea. The dramatic photographs of Italian Giacomo Costa appear to deliberately throw off the viewer who steps into Galerie Clairefontaine.
7. City residents are a buttoned-up lot, so don't expect a vibrant bar culture.
After work, it's de rigueur for Luxembourgers to flock to some lively bars for cocktail hour or apero. Among the most vibrant are those clustered along Rue du Marche-Aux-Herbes, including Le Palais, recently rated one of the best in town, and Go Ten that's across the street. Unlike in most of the U.S. where states prohibit drinking alcohol on the street, here, in the summer, the crowds spill onto this pedestrian lane with beer bottles and cocktail glasses in hand. Even more remarkable is that this boozy after-work scene is just about 30 feet from the Palace of the Grand Duke.
Do as the locals do and order a spritz that blends aperol with cremant, sparking water and citrus fruit slices.
Then head to El Companero Cafe, a Cuban tapas joint that serves up well-crafted mojitos and caipirinhas. (Late at night, the crowds flock here for the salsa dancing.)
8. Like in all capital cities, crime is a big issue.
Luxembourg is rated the best city for personal safety in the world, according to a 2011 quality of life survey by Mercer. I found that it's almost the norm for women to leave their handbags unzipped and perched on an adjacent chair at outdoor cafes, bars and restaurants seemingly without a care in the world.
9. If you're a chocaholic or crave delicate pastries, head to Paris or Brussels because Luxembourg City doesn't make the grade.
On the contrary, Oberweis is such a respected institution that the Grand Duke and Grand Duchess have been known to place orders for their creations that include rhubarb tartlets, dark chocolate mousse, and sour cherry kirsch trifle.
Housed in a building dating back more than 500 years, the Chocolate House produces 50 different varieties, including those flavored with pears and cinnamon, hot chili and wasabi. The chunks are impaled on a wooden spoon that you dunk in hot milk, producing hot chocolate at your table.
10. A visit to the History Museum of the History of the City of Luxembourg sounds like a complete snore.
This may be one of the few museums where the elevator experience is so surprising, you may not want to get off. Take the all-glass Panoramic lift and you'll travel through centuries of stratifications over six levels, from the Medieval vaulted depths all the way to the top with views over the fortifications.
Then, make a beeline for the circular Panoramic Room that's like a time machine, transporting you back to the 17th century, thanks to a circular trompe l'oeil painting that measures 55 feet long.
11. Luxembourgers may like their beer and cocktails but they're hardly oenophiles.
The country has a fine wine culture. The conditions are perfect for grape growing in the Moselle Valley, a mere 30 minutes from the capital, where the winters are moderately cold while the summers rarely become sweltering. Those who drive the wine route will find large and small independent producers (such as Schumacher-Knepper) where you can arrange tastings of some sophisticated vintages.
So it's no surprise the City of Luxembourg has a number of establishments with impressive wine cellars. Chiggeri is said to have the largest wine menu - it somewhat resembles a phone book - in the world. And the restaurant Apoteca Essenza offers diners a key to the stone wine cellar that's arranged by country.
12. Sure, there are well-preserved Medieval ramparts, but once you've seen one set of ramparts you've seen 'em all.
I've walked fortification walls all over the world, but the Bock Casemates, a network of tunnels, balconies, chambers and side passages, are unique. Deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site, these vaulted galleries were part of the city defenses in the 17th century. Some 500 meters of this sandstone labyrinth are open to the public. There may be a sign warning visitors about claustrophobia issues - because of optional sections that are ultra narrow with corkscrew stone staircases - but there are plenty of sections where sunlight streams in through arched portals in the precipitous cliffs that, from the city side, resemble prehistoric cave dwellings.
13. Star architects haven't made their mark on Luxembourg City.
Legendary architect I.M. Pei designed the angular and avant garde Musee d'Art Moderne (MUDA) that's set atop the remains of centuries-old Fort Thungen. Light floods the interior that also provides views of the surrounding forest as well as the ancient ruins. The museum's glass turret recalls the similar stone structure on the adjacent reconstructed fort that's set to open as a fortress museum later this month. The side by side museums make for a perfect melding of the old and the new.
14. The capital city is basically flat.
Built on different levels, the City of Luxembourg has a dramatic topography: it straddles hills and river valleys. From the city center atop the cliffs, you can trek downhill to Grund, the atmospheric old town with its slate-roofed, pastel dwellings. But, you should also make time to take the elevator from Citae Judiaire in Villa Haute (the Upper Town) that courses through the stone fortification walls itself. Once you're on the lower level, you'll find the tunnel lined with exposed rock that also provides an unusual venue for art exhibitions.
15. In Luxembourg City, clubs close early, even on weekends.
Actually, there are several clubs that shut their doors early in the morning. The lower level lounge at Apoteca Essenza, where a clawfoot bathtub is filled with champagne bottles on ice, is buzzing with activity until 6 am. (In fact, on weekends, the crowds don't begin to flock here until 1 am.) On Rue des Bains, White is a sophisticated lounge in an old townhouse where the staircase is lined with photos of the owner in the company of the city's mayor as well as the Grand Duchess. Join the chic crowd here until 3 am on so.
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