On a recent weekend, I’ve explored the thousand-year-old city of Neuchâtel, situated on Switzerland’s largest lake.
The town’s name ironically translates to “new castle” in English, but Neuchâtel’s old town serves as a well-preserved collection of history. Its castle and a church even link all the way back to the 12th century!
Before my stop at Neuchâtel, my mind was spinning with train times and navigation logistics. Like many solo travelers, I find a sense of stability and control when I know how to get to “the next big thing” in a country that is vastly unfamiliar to me.
But here, I was allowed to ease into the breezy, Mediterranean-esque vibe of the city. The still waters along the lake promenade invited me to sit and journal for a while. And for a history nerd like myself, it was pleasant to read up about Neuchâtel’s rich medieval history as I walked through the old town by myself.
Neuchâtel is an absolute dream for the introverted, curious solo traveler in need of a break from all the hustle and bustle. Here’s how I explored the city on my own:
Neuchâtel tourism in the Belle Epoque era
I’m a big fan of guided tours, but I shy away from them when I’m traveling alone. I really can’t imagine myself enjoying a group tour surrounded by families and couples as I stand idly on the sidelines.
Luckily for me, I found a self-guided walking tour that encourages you to wander through the city at your own pace and pick up some historical knowledge along the way. Neuchâtel à la Belle Epoque is a roughly two-hour tour centered around life in Neuchâtel during the golden years.
First off, a quick history lesson: from 1896 to 1914, the Belle Epoque was an era marked by Europe’s exponential economic growth and technological advances. Transportation services, electricity, and running water began to spread beyond wealthy circles in the industrial revolution, and society began to reshape itself around the modern commodities we use today.
This immersive walking tour took me to 22 essential treasures of the old town and surrounding area, complete with free chocolate and absinthe tastings. You also receive a little badge that unlocks hidden experiences. It makes this tour a lot more hands-on than your typical walk, stop, listen, repeat experience.
Note: I suggest taking this self-guided tour of Neuchâtel on a Saturday rather than a Sunday, as the absinthe and chocolate shops were closed when I arrived.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t try absinthe myself, but I did learn plenty about the mystical green fairy drink. Each absinthe distillery has its own secret technique, some even with recipes that date back to the drink’s invention in the 18th century.
Back then, some batches contained high levels of thujone, a substance known to cause brain damage. The drink was banned entirely until 2005, but distilleries continued to produce absinthe in secret. Its prohibition is why the distilled liquor is so closely tied to the Val de Travers region.
For the super-curious, there are some nearby absinthe distilleries you can also visit while in the region to learn more.
Old town explorations
Self-guided tour pamphlet in hand or not, there are still some noteworthy sites to see on your own. Here are a few of my favorite spots I ran into:
La Rue du Neubourg
Welcome to the free borough of Neubourg! This district was designated to be a communal gathering area since the 1920s. As one of Neuchâtel’s oldest streets, the colorful La Rue du Neubourg also brings the community together. Neighborhood artists give the street a new painted design every two years.
It’s also a great spot for Instagram photos. I shamelessly tried to ask two parents to take my photo, but then one of their toddlers started crying. But here’s what it looks like:
Parks are always a great spot for solo travelers who want to feel like they are a part of a larger community. My book kept me in great company as I sat at Jardin Anglais’ outdoor eatery. In between pages, I watched families play giant chess in the central square, and children run around the playground.
This French-style garden is only two blocks away from the lakeshore and near the old town, so it’s accessible to anyone making their rounds in Neuchâtel.
At this little market square, visitors can see the authentic Renaissance facade of the Restaurant Le Banneret, along with the Banneret fountain and the red clock on the Tour de Disesse.
For an afternoon snack, there are plenty of restaurants and coffee shops nearby. The Neuchâtel Castle and red-stone Collegiate Church are also up the road.
Neuchâtel lake-side adventures are a must
There are many ways to enjoy the scenic Lake Neuchâtel: you could walk along the Quai Ostervald, board the Neuchâtel paddle steamer, or play and swim at Les Jeunes-Rives. Or you could do a mix of all three. They are all pretty great options to embrace Neuchâtel’s lake-side.
Neuchâtel’s port previously functioned as a utilitarian hub for fisheries, transportation services, and export ships. But today, it’s the ideal place to enjoy coffee or a dinner with views of the Bernese Alps in the distance.
If you find yourself there in the summer months, it’s also an opportune place to find live music in the evenings.
When the sun begins to fade, head over to the Waves Rooftop located on the top floor of Hôtel Beaulac for a large selection of drinks and fusion bites.
The rooftop bar’s stunning views allow a solo traveler’s mind to wander. But it also has an upscale, social vibe for those who might want to strike up a casual conversation with other tourists. Their grilled omelet skewers are vegetarian approved, too.
Impressed by the restaurant? You may want to book yourself a room at Hôtel Beaulac a few stories below the bar. Given its prime location, very nice views of the lake, and complimentary breakfast in the morning, the Hôtel Beaulac is ideal for the traveler who wants to explore this Swiss town.
Pro-tip for travelers on a budget: always shamelessly have your fair share of complimentary hotel breakfast before you head out for the day. It’s only cost-effective...
Meet the world-famous Jaquet-Droz automata at the MahN
If you walk along the river or through the old town, you are bound to eventually run into the Musée d’art et d’historie (MahN).
The building’s magnificent staircase showcases three paintings that represent the agricultural, intellectual, and industrial life of the Neuchâtel canton. I follow the stairs as they lead me into a lovely collection of contemporary art.
To the left of the stairs is the Jaquet-Droz automata, three doll-like automated figures comprised of the same inner workings as a clock to perform specialized tasks.
There’s a writer who can be programmed to write any message up to forty characters, letter by letter. Then there’s the draughtsman who can sketch four different drawings and occasionally blows on his paper to remove pencil dust. The third figure is a musician, a young girl who can play five tunes on an independent organ.
First introduced to the public in 1774, the three were so impressive that they performed to spectators across major European cities in a showcase tour.
Every first Sunday of the month at 2 PM, 3 PM, and 4 PM, you can attend one-hour demonstrations of the automata. I was lucky enough to receive my own little tour, but feel free to check the museum website for information on additional viewings and private tours.
Final thoughts about Neuchâtel for solo travelers
My stay in Neuchâtel, which admittedly was less social than my time in Lucerne or Interlaken, was exactly what I needed as I approached the halfway mark of my month-long trip across Switzerland.
My Sunday strolls almost brought me back to my life in the States, where I would cross the Bay to visit the beloved, quaint Sausalito in an effort to escape from the city noise in San Francisco.
So, to my fellow lovers of art, culture, and history, indulge in the rich offerings of Neuchâtel, and don’t be afraid to unwind and reflect!