Though Luxembourg is a small city, we were never at a loss for things to do. Countless museums, cute cafés, shady parks, and historic sites were all within walking distance of our hostel. Picking my favourite part of Luxembourg seems impossible. The whole city seemed to be conspiring to win me over from the delicious pastries to the friendly people.
Every person I talked to was incredibly kind, and not once did I get glared at for butchering the French language. Perhaps that was because I didn’t try my hand at the local language, Luxembourgish. A unique dialect of German, Luxembourgish is hard to describe. I am used hearing German from my roommate, and this sounds just odd enough to confuse me. Luckily, like Belgium, everyone in Luxembourg is at least bilingual if not trilingual, and most everyone spoke some English.
Our exploration of historic Luxembourg began with a wander around the city itself. We strolled through the main square, the Place d’Armes, down one of the streets lined with restaurants and very fancy looking shops. Eventually we turned and hit the edge of the old town. Luxembourg is strategically positioned at the top of a hill. The old town centre is bounded by the landscape.
There were several beautiful gardens around the edge of the old city, just below where we stood, and as Dev and I tried to find our way down to them, we passed the Place de la Constitution. Standing on top of a large column rising out of the square’s centre was the Gëlle Frau (Golden Lady). Originally constructed in the 1920s, this monument is dedicated to Luxembourgers that fought in the World Wars and the Korean War. She was taken down during World War II, and it took until the 1980s for her to be replaced. She is now happily back where she belongs, watching over the city centre.
We walked past her, still looking for a way down to the gardens we had spotted before. We never found a way into the beautifully kept gardens, but we did stumble upon a little piece of heaven. Two rivers form several deep valleys around the city centre itself, and the green spaces around them have been turned into parks.
One of these green spaces, Vallée de la Pétrusse, holds some old ruins of one of the many historic fortifications of the city. If you make your way down to the base of the valley, you can see some of them up close. It was like walking into a fantasy forest. You are only a few metres below the main city streets, but it is incredibly quiet and mysterious in the woods themselves. Apparently there is a mini-golf course down there as well, but I sadly didn’t have enough time to go find it.
Aside from her natural beauty, Luxembourg has countless gorgeous historic buildings to ogle. The first building we were greeted by each morning was the Église Saint-Michel. Following the main road into the city, you reach the main square, Place d’Armes. The gazebo in the centre is surrounded by dozens of al fresco seating areas for the restaurants surrounding the plaza. Just next to the main square, there is a second, slightly bigger square, Place Guillaume II. During our stay, we saw one flea market set up in the main square, and a food market in the larger square. I was tempted to buy a Texas themed bottle opener, but I decided to go with a bag of madeleines from a sweet old lady instead.
The palace of the Grand Duke is just past Place Guillaume II, and you can go watch as the guards diligently pace back and forth beside the main door. A visit to the palace would be incomplete, however, if you didn’t stop in at the Chocolate House. It goes without saying, Devon and I love cake. If eating cake were a profession, we would both do quite well. We are both proud of the quantity of cake we can eat in a single sitting. Our pride definitely got the best of us this time.
Walking into the shop, you are greeted by a display case full of huge, colourful, mouth-watering cakes and cookies. Turn to the left and you can peruse the many flavours of ‘chocospoons’ for sale. These are fundamentally blocks of chocolate attached to a spoon. When dunked into heated milk, they make perfect hot chocolates. Not too sweet, not too bitter. Turn to the right and you will see a vision of chocolate. Hundreds of tiny chocolates in all shapes, colours, and sizes. My favourite were the ones shaped like hedgehogs, but all of them were beautiful.
Craving a little something sweet, Dev and I ordered two chocospoons and two pieces of cake, one square chocolate layer cake covered in a layer of marzipan and chocolate, the other a chocolate peanut layer cake with buttercream frosting. In other words, chocolate overload. Little did Dev and I know, each piece of cake would be as big as our faces. We couldn’t finish it. We were defeated. Lucky for us, the café was equipped for this sort of humiliating defeat, and we grabbed a box to take our cake home with us.
Near the Grand Palace, we found the Musée de l’Histoire de la Ville de Luxembourg (catchy, I know). I figured it would be a small local museum that would take less than an hour to breeze through. It was actually five levels of exhibits (three permanent, two temporary) that chronicled the history of the city, its environment, and its future. We only went through the first three levels, and it took us a few hours. Throughout the museum there are different models of how the city would have looked over the centuries. You can really see how the small fortress developed into a political power.
My favourite part was the old footage they had playing in several of the rooms. There were old parades and military displays and documentaries about the Grand Duke and his family. I found this history fascinating as I knew next to nothing about this country before this trip. Even in my AP European history class we never really discussed Luxembourg at length. Though it is small, Luxembourg has an incredibly rich history.
The story I liked the most involved the Nazi occupation during World War II. On the census Luxembourgers refused to write ‘German’ as their nationality, native language, and ethnicity and instead wrote ‘Dräimol Letzebuerg’ (three times Luxembourgish) in defiance of their occupiers. The language itself was retained and celebrated as a symbol of the unique identity and history of this nation throughout uncertain times. It was definitely an afternoon well spent, especially as I got in for free with my student card!
An incredible feature of many European cities is the ability to get up close and personal with history. One of my favourite sites in the whole city of Luxembourg was the Bock Casemates. These are old fortifications from the fort constructed in the 1600s. You can wander through the tunnels, poking around old wells and side tunnels whilst attempting to find your way out. You get some beautiful views of both the upper old town and lower neighbourhoods such as the Grund.
Though the name may sound a bit grumpy, the Grund is actually an amazingly beautiful area of Luxembourg. Nestled deep in one of the surrounding valleys, the buildings of the Grund all cozy up to the river. As we walked down into the valley, I couldn’t help feeling dwarfed by the big buildings of the Upper town. I felt like they would come crashing down on me. I felt so small. We walked down streets lined with cute townhouses and small shops, crossing the river on an old stone bridge. Devon and I spent our last night in Luxembourg eating pizza at Scott’s Pub while watching countless ducks swimming around in the river.
I wasn’t looking forward to the walk back up the hill, but lucky for us, the city planners of Luxembourg had already thought ahead. Turns out there is an elevator that can bring you up and down between the two levels of the city. Upon exiting the elevator, we found ourselves smack in the middle of some sort of building complex for various government services and other businesses. As we wandered out, we came across a war memorial with an eternal flame dedicated to those lost in World War II and other conflicts. The sun was setting just as we passed by, and it was quite peaceful.
I found it amazing how Luxembourg kept surprising me. Every street corner seemed to have some little quirk, some little secret just waiting to be discovered. I’d love to go back and spend more time there, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. I am baffled how it is really off the radar in terms of tourism, but I also don’t want everyone to show up and steal my European gem. I’m just glad we got to enjoy it when we did.