Luxembourg is one of the smallest countries on earth. The small slither of meat in a sandwich made up of France, Belgium and Germany, it covers less than 2600 square kilometres (somewhere between Samoa and Mauritius), is home to few more than 600,000 people (roughly the population of Baltimore, Bristol or Bremen over the border), and you can drive from one side of the country to the other in less time than the average Londoner’s commute. Home to the European Court of Justice and loads of other boring EU offices (yawn), backpackers often write off this nanoscopic nation as a bit of a snoozefest. But these 14 things to do in Luxembourg might convince you to squeeze the Grand Duchy into your Eurotrip. Come on, it can fit — it’s only tiny.
Stroll a UNESCO Heritage listed Old Town
What’s the first thing that pops into your head when you read the words ‘medieval’ and ‘Europe’? Cobblestoned streets? Steep church towers? Time-worn castles? That’s pretty much Luxembourg City. Sitting high up on a hilltop surrounded by fortified walls, winding valleys and lofty bridges, exploring the historic centre of the capital is one of the best things to in Luxembourg for a trip back in time.
Much like the rest of the country, Luxembourg City isn’t huge, making it perfect to navigate on foot. Start at Place Guillaume II — the central square covered in sculptures — next door to the Palais Grand-Ducal, the indulgent home of the royal family. A cosmopolitan capital in the heart of Europe — half the population are foreigners, which is only natural given a border is never more than half-an-hour away — Luxembourg City is a historic, half-pint-sized treat.
See the Notre Dame
No, not that Notre Dame. There’s no hunchbacks or Disney movies or hordes of annoying cruise ship passengers here. Luxembourg’s version of the Notre Dame was built by Jesuits in the 17th Century — a lazy half a millennium after Paris built theirs — and it looks very different to its French cousin, not just because this one has been spared from devastating recent fires. This modern cathedral is a mishmash of architectural styles — a bit of Gothic, a bit of Baroque, a bit of Renaissance — with three piercing towers and generations of royalty buried in the crypt.
Marvel at the Museum of Modern Art
For the art lovers, one of the best things to do in Luxembourg lies inside Fort Thüngen, a contemporary gallery which is almost 300 years old, but was transformed by a $100 million makeover by Ieoh Ming Pei (the genius architect behind the Louvre pyramid) in the new millennium. So while from the outside, the Museum of Modern Art (MUDAM) looks anything but, today it showcases Andy Warhol and Steve McQueen on the walls, with a series of modern sculptures outside, framing a majestic view of the city. It’s open 10am-6pm daily except Tuesday, with an admission fee of €8, or free for under-21s.
Museum buffs will also love the National Museum of History and Art (10am-6pm except Monday, free) and the Luxembourg City History Museum (same hours, €5, free for under-21s), while culture vultures should also swoop on the Philharmonic of Luxembourg, not far from MUDAM.
Delve into the Bock Casemates
Like the Leaning Tower of Pisa or Donald Trump’s combover, these ancient cliffside fortifications are a miracle of engineering. First carved out of the Luxembourg City cliffs by the Spanish in the 17th Century, the Bock Casemates are a web of underground passages dug into the stone — basically big holes to point cannons out of and tunnels to move soldiers around.
Superpower after superpower used the fortress over the years. Being wedged between France and Germany put Luxembourg right in the firing line, until a treaty led to their demolition in the late 1800s. But 17 kilometres remain, having housed tens of thousands of people during the two World Wars. They’re ours to explore on one of three tours every day between April and September (€14). Gaze up at the Bock from the Luxembourg City Hostel — a custom-built HI property in an enviable location.
Scale the Walls of the Corniche
La Chemin de la Corniche — a pedestrian walk along the city’s old ramparts — is billed as the most beautiful balcony in Europe, and it’s hard to disagree. This 500-metre stretch snakes along the curves of the Alzette River, offering one of the city’s most stunning vantage points.
Sniffing out these postcard-perfect photo spots is one of the best things to do in Luxembourg. The Passerelle Viaduct is as impressive as it was when a British company built it in the mid 19th Century, while the Adolphe Bridge — a double-decker arch — is another one of the city’s most towering landmarks.
Visit Vianden Castle
Towns don’t get any more scenic than Vianden, but don’t tell the masses — it’s seriously tiny, and seriously serene. In fact, it’s basically just a row of houses on the Our River ringed by a medieval wall, sitting in the shadow of a 13th Century hilltop castle that rivals anything you’ll find in Transylvania. Vianden Castle is probably the most famous château in Luxembourg — open daily from 10am until 4pm in winter or 6pm in summer, costing €7 to get in.
Everyone should tuck into walnut cake, a local specialty, and book nerds can also check out the Victor Hugo museum in the house where the legendary French author lived in political exile in the late 19th Century. He’s the bloke who wrote Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, just in case you missed that day of class.
Hunt hobbits at the Schiessentümpel
This scenic stretch of the Black Ernz River is a scene pinched straight out of a Lord of the Rings movie. Situated in an area known as Little Switzerland for its pristine landscape, the Schiessentümpel is a mystical waterfall that splits into three cascades around a mossy boulder, like water flowing through a giant’s fingers. It’s a picture that could’ve been written by JRR Tolkien himself, with glowing forest and a quaint rock and wood bridge over the ravine adding to the elvish Middle Earth vibes.
The Schiessentümpel is the highlight of the Müllerthal Trail, a 112km trail wandering through quirky rock formations like the Hohllay Cave. Müllerthal is a must-visit for outdoorsy backpackers wondering what to do in Luxembourg.
The oldest town in Luxembourg is also the biggest in the Müllerthal region — a gorgeous little chocolate box brimming with cobbled streets and medieval masterpieces. Sitting on the banks of the Sûre River dividing Luxembourg and Germany, Echternach’s gothic delights provide the perfect backdrop for the town’s famous Dancing Procession festival each spring. Echternach’s big-ticket attraction is the Benedictine abbey of Saint Willibrord (open April to October, 10am-5pm, €3).
Further south along the border lies Berdorf, a town plonked on a sweeping tableland overlooking acres of pristine forest. Here, the Müllerthal Trail continues through some more dazzling sandstone formations and leafy valleys carved by the Black Ernz, Sûre and Aesbach rivers.
Take a dip in Esch-sur-Sûre
Yep, swimming belongs on the list of things to do in Luxembourg. This landlocked country isn’t blessed with golden beaches or lakes galore, but this dammed swimming hole in the Upper-Sûre Natural Park is Luxembourg’s favourite place for a splash. Esch-sur-Sûre is a hub of swimming, canoeing, windsurfing and sailing during summer, and also boasts a ruined manor house with more than 1000 years of history under its belt.
Learn about World War Two
Despite remaining neutral, WWII took a heavy toll on Nazi-occupied Luxembourg. A German counter-offensive in the Ardennes region of Belgium and Luxembourg late in the conflict — better known as the Battle of the Bulge — is the most bloodstained chapter. The battle is commemorated by a museum inside Wiltz Castle (9am-6pm, €2.50), as well as the National Museum of Military History in Diekirch (open daily except Monday, 10am-6pm, €5).
American backpackers might also want to add the large US cemetery just outside the capital to their list of things to do in Luxembourg. This is the resting place of more than 5000 US service members, including General Patton, who died in a car crash nearby soon after the War ended.
Check out The Family of Man
Not long after WWII, Luxembourgish-American artist Edward Steichen began curating a photographic exhibit at New York’s MoMA in a bid to promote peace in a wounded world. The Family of Man collection gathered photos of everyday life from every corner of the globe and toured the planet before settling permanently in Luxembourg’s Clervaux Castle in 1994. The exhibit gathers 500-plus snaps from 273 artists from 68 countries inside this 12th Century château, which itself had to be fully rebuilt after the War. Open Wednesday to Sunday 12-6pm (€6, free for under-21s), this lesson in empathy feels as poignant today as when Steichen began building it all those years ago.
Conquer more castles
Rome has ruins. Munich has beer halls. Paris has bistros with snooty waiters. And Luxembourg has castles. Lots and lots and lots of castles. There’s Beaufort Castle and Bourscheid Castle. There’s Walferdange Castle, famous for its flowers. Larochette is greedy, showing off not one but two castles. And the Guttland region is even greedier — the Valley of the Seven Castles links Mersch, Schoenfels, Hollenfels, Septfontaines, Koerich and two châteaux in Asembourg over a 37km trail. Seriously, Luxembourg features more castles than a fairytale storybook.
Drink world-class wine
A glass of vino belongs on any to-do list. But when it comes to things to do in Luxembourg, wine is particularly worthy. The hillsides of the Moselle River give us some of the world’s finest Riesling grapes, and Schengen — the three-way border with France and Germany — is surrounded by about 50 cellar doors that specialise in sparkling wines. Does that town’s name sound familiar? The Schengen Zone is named after the landmark agreement signed here in 1985, which basically axed border checks between a stack of European countries.
Luxembourg chocolate pairs beautifully with the local drops. And at the Chocolate House in the capital, just across the road from the Grand Duke’s joint, you can watch the changing of the guard with a hot chocolate in hand. Aside from the sweets, Luxembourgish cuisine is like French food and German grub tossed together in a blender. Gromperekniddelen (potato dumplings), wäinzoossiss (sausages) and f’rell am rèisleck (trout in a Riesling sauce) are some typical dishes to sink your teeth into.
Chill out in Mondorf-les-Bains
If wine and chocolate can’t relax you, Mondorf-les-Bains will. This spa town in wine country fizzes with thermal springs, where mineral waters feed saunas, pools, steam rooms, whirlpools and every kind of therapy a wellness influencer could possibly stuff into their Instagram feed. Minett Park — open-air museum of industry — is also in the south of the country, but those mines and steam trains are probably a little less relaxing than an afternoon at the spa with slices of cucumber over your eyes.
And if you’re wondering where to stay in Luxembourg, just check out all the great hostels in Luxembourg City and across the country.
About the author:
Tom Smith is an Australian writer living in Manchester. Obsessed with sport and travel, Tom has watched cricket in Cardiff, football in Fortaleza, baseball in the Bay Area, and there’s still plenty more to tick off the bucket list yet. Read more of his work here.