Luxembourg, Luxembourg. Not quite as famous as New York, New York, but still pretty darn fabulous.
While rattling off the list of countries I visited on my European trip, Luxembourg usually incites one response: “Oh interesting, where is that again?”
I don’t blame them. Luxembourg is one of Europe’s most underrated tourist destinations. It’s a tiny, landlocked nation smushed between Germany, Belgium, and France. I mean, it’s really squished in there. I wouldn’t have even considered it if my World War II buff of a brother hadn’t suggested the visit. It seemed like as good a place as any, with a week or so to kill before I had to be in Germany to house sit.
So when I left Amsterdam I decided to skip right over Belgium (don’t worry, Belgium, we’ll get back to you), and straight to Luxembourg City, the capital of this tiny tri-lingual nation. Yep, Luxembourg has three official languages: French, German, and Luxembourgish. I got by on my French 202 level of ability while gallivanting around the countryside but don’t worry, in the capital you really won’t need more than basic English.
Let me paint you a picture of this hidden gem of a city. It’s multicultural, it’s historic, and it’s the richest country on the continent. Record scratch. Hold on, fellow cheapskate travelers, don’t let that stop you from visiting. As a solo traveler to this diminutive nation I probably spent the least money here than anywhere else on my European excursion. How? Grocery shopping is a gift from the heavens. Fresh produce and gourmet gas station takeaway is what I very happily survived on during my 4 (ish) days here. But we’ll talk more about budgets another day.
This financial epicenter is made up of lush green spaces and a mix of modern and ancient architecture. You’ll find art deco streets that make you feel like a jazz age debutante, shiny new skyscrapers, Romanesque churches with colored glass, and imposing arched Gothic bridges. Oh and let’s not forget the Casemates du Bock, a series of man made tunnels dating to 1644 that were built as part of a massive defensive network of forts, ring-walls, and towers underneath the city’s original fortified castle. This mighty defense system earned Luxembourg City the nickname, “Gibraltar of the North”. The Casemates were so extensive (about 14 miles through varying levels and connected with tremendous staircases) they housed thousands of soldiers, their horses, kitchens, shops, and storehouses.
In the end, the complex proved so formidable that the 1867 Treaty of London ordered its destruction in an attempt to soothe tensions between France and Germany. The treaty also solidified Luxembourg as an independent and neutral nation, which put an end to the custody battle. Well, at least until World War II when the entire Luxembourg royal family was exiled through German occupation and fled to the United States.
Did anyone come here for a history lesson? Because Luxembourg has heaps of it, obviously. Unfortunately I didn’t actually make it to the Casemates on this trip. With less than a day total to explore the city itself I didn’t have the time to properly dedicate to the experience. If you have more time and have purchased the Luxembourg Card, photos and reviews tell me that it is completely worth a spot on the ol’ itinerary – and will be on mine if I make a return visit someday.
I arrived to the city on Monday as the sun was setting after a 7 hour bus ride from Amsterdam. No one said travel was always glamorous, or even comfortable. In spite of what the ticket claimed, the bus did not have electric outlets for charging my phone and my portable battery had mysteriously decided to stop working. With about 15 percent remaining and only a vague idea of where my hostel was located, I powered my phone down and spent almost the entire ride talking to my seatmate who happened to be a local. He gave me lots of suggestions on what to do in the city and even introduced me to the Scheuberfouer, a fun fair that got started by a guy named John the Blind in 1340. He was King of Bohemia and died fighting – well, blind – in battle. Hardcore, and he knew how to party. That’s a winner, kids.
No one really knows what Schueberfouer means, except for the “fouer” part which is Luxembourgish for “fair”, but it’s said to be named after the original marketplace where it was held. Schueberfouer has evolved from a bustling agricultural market to a neon carnival with beer halls, rides, games, and food that is both traditional and influenced by neighboring cultures. In short, lots of beer, sausages, and waffles. It’s events like these that start to take a toll on your wallet. I paid 10 dollars to ride the Ferris wheel for a panoramic view of the city. Worth it, mostly because I got to practice both my German and French with the girl who shared my pod, but I definitely didn’t pay for anything else.
I did buy an ice cream cone and meander through the crowds to take some photos, but the truth about solo travel is that there are just some things better enjoyed with company. Watching groups of friends laugh, get drunk, and fail miserably at carnival games is a surefire way to make you very aware of just how “solo” you are, so I got a McDonald’s salad to make up for my ice cream dinner and made my way back to the hostel.
There’s only one hostel in the city, aptly named Luxembourg City Hostel. This is not the sort of hostel you might be used to, it’s not a place where people come to make friends. You’re more likely to find school groups, families, or recent transplants calling it home for a short time while apartment shopping. It’s clean, in an excellent location, and has free breakfast (never settle for less in a hostel), but the atmosphere is lacking. As a solo traveler you might be better served making a splurge of the city’s luxurious hotels, or finding a welcoming host on couchsurfing.com.
To be honest, though, staying inside the city is unnecessary. You’ll find lots of great village accommodations in the country and catching a bus to and fro is easy as can be. If you do choose to stay in the city make it a Friday or Saturday night, you’ll find a much livelier crowd and there’s a free
party night bus to shuttle you around until 3:30 in the morning so you can take full advantage of what Luxembourg’s nightlife has to offer.
If you do stay in Luxembourg City Hostel, you’ll be situated nicely to explore Parc des Trois Glands, The Three Acorns Park, which features medieval forts, forest trails, and museums at the top of the hill where you’ll also find a panoramic view of old town. From the hostel, just take a left and follow the viaduct up the street, you’ll cross under it to enter the park. Even if you don’t stay there the park is a beautiful greenscape in the city and the forts are well worth exploring.
If you’re in the mood to indulge in some retail therapy, Luxembourg has some of the best luxury shopping in Europe. Take a stroll down the Grand Rue, the city’s main shopping street, to find local goods, top fashion brands, delis and speciality food shops. Just remember that most stores close around 8PM, so get your shopping in early. You’ll find restaurants open later, but never much past 10:30PM.
Luxembourg City was the cleanest, friendliest, and safest city I visited in Europe. There was always someone willing to lend a hand with advice or directions, and I was perfectly comfortable walking to my hostel alone at night. There’s a reason it made the top 20 for quality of life and number 1 for safety. The best way to describe this city is like Epcot if it had a quarter of the people and all of them had perfect manners and great fashion sense. I guess that’s what being extravagantly wealthy will do for you. It’s so practically perfect it doesn’t even feel real sometimes, do people actually live here? I found myself wondering that a few times. It’s not hard to imagine that the pastel coated buildings with their little flower box windows might just open up like a dollhouse. No evidence of litter, no traffic to dodge, and when you’re walking in the lamplight past the Place d’Armes all you can hear is the soft strumming of an acoustic guitar and the quiet hum of good conversation.