Perched on the glamorous fringes of the sparkling Neuchatel Lake – the largest lake in Switzerland – the capital of Swiss Canton of Neuchatel is a romantic fairy tale medieval village beautifully preserved from as far back as the 12th Century.
Neuchatel might well be called the city of many names. As well as its obvious name which translated to English mean new castle, it is also known as the City of 140 Fountains, and alternatively as the Yellow City, because Neuchatel is a stunning collection of incredibly preserved 17th and 18th Century buildings, many of which were built out of yellow sandstone.
The small French speaking town in the area of western Switzerland known as Suisse Romande, is home to an elite university and a bustling café culture all encapsulated in a pretty setting by a glorious breeze ruffled lake. Complete with an effervescent free commune or commune libre, the delightful small town is full of history, charm and activity.
Historians have documented traces of human activity in the area dating right back to 13000 BC, from treasures found when the city was busy constructing the massive A5 highway at La Coudre in Monruz in 1990. An exciting discovery just 5 m below the surface of the road unearthed beautifully preserved fire pits, carved flints, bone artifacts and 3 small lignite earrings. This astounding showcase uncovered some of the oldest Swiss art ever found, and brought to light some fascinating historic aspects.
Nine years later when more construction took place connecting the lower railway station to the university, another site was discovered and documented as being a middle Neolithic village from the Cortaillod culture. With artifacts dating right back to 3571 BC, which further adds to the charisma of such a unique and appealing town.
The Best Time to Go
Neuchatel has a cool to cold climate with very cold winter temperatures. That however, doesn’t stop the visitors pouring into the city in their hoards during the festive season to shop at all the Christmas markets and bundle up warmly, hot chocolate in hand to experience the festivities in the snow and cold.
The summer months run from June, July right through to August and the temperature heats up rather nicely and everybody gets out into the fresh air. Expect average day time temperatures from 19°C right up to 24°C (66-75°F). The summer is obviously a favorite time for visitors, but expect the prices to rise in tune with peak season; not that Switzerland has a reputation for being a cheap destination in the first place.
There might be queues to get into to the sights and attractions, but it is worth it if you are not a fan of the below freezing temperatures in the winter. The banks of Lake Neuchatel are packed with sunbathers and water sports enthusiasts who are all out and about enjoying the lovely weather. Cyclists meander along the boardwalks, swimmers frolic in the lake and hikers dust off their boots and head into the hills, enjoying the fresh air and the mountain trails.
So it all depends on your travelling style and your ability to handle the cold as to which time of the year is best for you. September may be good if you are looking for a compromise, the summer crowds will have gone, but the weather is still nice and warm.
Getting Around in Neuchatel
Neuchatel is best explored by bicycle or on foot, as everything is nicely compact and many of the popular sites are in close proximity to each other. There are easy to read maps that you can easily navigate the city by if you want to meander around at your leisure. If you are visiting during the summer time you can pick up a bicycle for free from 2 bicycle rental stations right up to 9.30pm. Just pay a small deposit and you can tour around all day, just take the bike back later that same night and you will receive your deposit back and you can walk to your hotel.
There is a good public transport system as well, and being Swiss, it is pedantically on time and never runs late. There are buses and trains that depart every 20 minutes and if you are planning on exploring the surrounding towns and UNESCO world heritage sights like Le Locle or Chaux-de-Fonds, this is the perfect method of transport to get you there.
Further afield you can head out to Cressier, Boundry and Vaumarcus where you can experience some beautifully preserved castles hidden away in the hilly countryside, as well as do some wine tasting at some of the boutique vineyards or head out on a hiking trail. But you would be better off hiring a car to get you there.
Major Attractions and Sights
Commune Libre du Neubourg et Alentours was established in 1979 and is the sister commune to well-known French counterpart Montmartre which has been a self-declared free commune since the 1920s. Basically just a good excuse to party, the commune can be found in the heart of the Old Town near Rue des Peintres.
Église Collégiale is a vast Gothic cathedral with a fascinating past and beautiful Roman architectural features. Opposite the main entrance of the cathedral is the statue of Guillaume Farel who famously integrated reformation into the town, which was when the cathedral had to swop religious allegiances.
Old Town is the perfect place to get a feel of a very pretty and vibrant city and to experience the history as it comes alive right before you. Take a walking tour through old town and head out to meander along cobbled streets and enjoy a quiet coffee at one of the sidewalk cafes.
Lake Neuchatel is the perfect place for a picnic, a BBQ and a swim if you can handle the chilly waters. The views are spectacular; rent a boat and bob around on the water or take a bike ride along the windy paths. Fresh Swiss air and crystal clear waters are something quite rare these days.
The Chateau is located on a hill overlooking the rest of Old Town. Take a tour through a castle that has been standing for centuries. You can’t see the castle without a tour guide, so make sure you get a good one who will take you through a stunning location and on a fascinating journey through spectacular history.
Creux-du-Van is one of the most beautiful scenic day trips just outside of the town of Neuchatel. In breathtaking countryside you can hike, drive or cycle the paths; just stay inside the demarcated areas and take heed of the many danger warnings to stay far away from the cliffside especially when it is cloudy: Exhilarating and well worth the visit.
Chaumont Panoramic Funicular Railway is a great day trip for the entire family as there is a great play park for the kids to enjoy while you relax with a cup of coffee. The views from the funicular over the town below are awesome.
Place Pury is a wonderfully ambient part of town where locals and tourists alike hang out enjoy a meal at a sidewalk café, drink a nice glass of wine at one of the restaurants. Not so much an attraction, just a great place to mingle and hang out with the locals.
Shopping in Neuchatel
Being a small Swiss town, there isn’t a vast supply of sprawling malls, which would actually ruin the charm and atmosphere anyway. There are however, plenty of small, quaint boutiques and stores tucked away in Old Town, where you can buy fashion items and necessities.
There is one shopping centre called Maladiere which is located near the waterfront and there is a soccer stadium right next door. But the items to buy in this city are watches; most of the world’s biggest brand name in watch making have their homes here and the best place to hunt one down is in the Val-de-Travers.
Eating Out in Neuchatel
Swiss cuisine is known for being anything but fat free, and is reminiscent of the best home cooked comfort food you have ever experienced. Fondue which is a Swiss specialty is available as a standard menu item listed as Fondue Neuchateloise in cafes and restaurants all over the town. Delicious homemade bread dipped into hot, melted cheese sings gastronomic songs of delight, so best to leave your skinny diet plans at home.
There is a sheer abundance of cafes and restaurants right throughout the town, as well as many delicious bakeries that are heaving with delicious pastries and freshly baked items and chocolatiers offer small, heavenly Swiss chocolate delights and sugar loaded treats.
But one of the absolute best place to eat is the Shawarma or kebab stand – Munzure Kebab, which is located right in the heart of Place Pury. It’s great if you have been out on a bit of evening spree as it provides some of the best late night grub in town and it is open until the very early hours of the morning.
Famiglia Lecesse is your chance to experience a little slice of southern Italian hospitality and great Italian food. Draped in fairy lights, friendly and tucked away in a small apartment, the locals fiercely guard the secret of this delightful restaurant.
Nightlife in Neuchatel
There are loads of little nooks and crannies that offer some of the best entertainment, pubs, cafes and bars all over the town. Be welcomed like an old friend and enjoy great ambience, comfort and good food. Friendly locals and owners have an array of entertainment options available for visitors who are looking for everything from a quiet beer, a mouth-watering plate of nachos or a bit of a boogie.
You can spend a night checking out the theatre, listening to some live music, chilling out, playing some darts or dancing the night away, depending how you like to spend your down time.
La Maison du Concert is an old theatre that has been refurbished and is busy combining their venue with a cozy little bistro and watering hole that is hugely popular among the locals. William Shakespeare’s is the place to boogie if you are looking for a good party, and is situated right in the heart of party central- in the middle of the commune.
La Chase a Chocs is the place to be if you are looking for a bit of a vibe and some live music entertainment.
Of Local Interest
There are many events right throughout the year and numerous festivals take place throughout the seasons. Right through summer there are concerts and celebrations that offer things like art, sport, music and historical events. So no matter what time of year you decide to visit you can be sure you won’t be missing out on any of the excitement. There is everything including ice skating, skiing competitions and to art festivals, as well as the legendary Buskers Festival, garden shows, antique fairs and even an entire festival dedicated to Absinthe – that green alcoholic drink that puts everyone on a serious buzz.
Music Festival Promo in Le Locle
This is Switzerland’s only open air festival that is also free to the public. Loads of different bands and musicians perform one after the other and it is a true musical feast. Lots of variety and with a carnival atmosphere which welcomes clowns, acrobats, jugglers and loads of fanfare, the fun takes place in July every year in Le Locle.
Organized by the International Watch Making Museum of La Chaux-de-Fonds, this fair is a real tribute to that great Swiss achievement – watch and clock making. And what a better venue than the heart of the town that all of the world’s watches are made in – Neuchatel. It is a real networking event for watchmakers and vintage dealers and collectors, who come from all over the world to meet up, sell goods, exchange ideas and buy up antique clocks and watches. It is held every year during November.