Our requirements for a European city in which to celebrate a milestone birthday were simple: It needed to be walkable. Old-world charm was a must. And a sense of history and culture was imperative.
The Old City of Luxembourg, named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1994, checked off all the boxes for my partner, Doug, and me.
We booked a three-night stay at the Hôtel Vauban on Place Guillaume II, or William Square, and asked for the Vauban room, overlooking the Cathédrale Notre-Dame of Luxembourg.
Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban, a 17th century French military engineer and marshal, extended and reinforced the imposing fortifications surrounding Luxembourg City, a.k.a. the Gibraltar of the North, so we felt immersed in history from the moment we unpacked.
Church bells awakened us every morning, and we threw open our French windows to see what was happening on William Square.
When we arrived, the city's Portuguese community was hosting an all-day festival, with couples in traditional costumes dancing the vira and boisterous vendors serving fried dough filhóses and beer. On Wednesday morning, local farmers arrived with crates of oranges and fresh produce to sell at the weekly market.
Every afternoon, we stopped at the Palace of the Grand Dukes on Rue du Marché-aux-Herbes to watch the changing of the royal guards, who strutted with a stiff military gait and presented arms with rifles held in white-gloved hands.
We always looked to see whether the palace flag was flying, which signaled Grand Duke Henri Albert Gabriel Félix Marie Guillaume, Grand Duchess Maria Teresa and their children were in residence. His royal highness, who became grand duke in 2000, is quite a celebrity, and formal pictures of the grand ducal family appear on postcards sold at gift shops.
We discovered the city's breathtaking views on the Chemin de la Corniche, dubbed the "most beautiful balcony of Europe." From the serpentine walkway along the edge of the upper Old City, we gazed down at the Grund, once an infamous penal colony and now home to trendy bars and restaurants as well as arts and entertainment venues.
To the northeast, we admired the Bock promontory, the natural fortification where Siegfried, count of Ardennes, erected his castle of Lucilinburhuc in 963, laying the cornerstone for the country. The rugged cliffs harbor the Bock Casemates, a network of man-made tunnels and chambers that sheltered the city's military defenders and residents during wartime.
After shopping at posh boutiques along Grand Rue, we joined the evening crowd on historic Place d'Armes, also called the Parlor of the City, to listen to contemporary bands performing in the central pavilion.
On our last night, we splurged on a gourmet French dinner at Le Bouquet Garni, a favorite of the grand duke. Seated at a table beneath 500-year-old wood beams, with a window overlooking the palace, we felt a little like royalty ourselves.
Walk in the cliff tunnels that shielded the city's defenders from attackers
No visit to Luxembourg City's Old Town is complete without a couple of tours, which carry visitors back in time:
The casemates were originally a 14-mile network of underground passages and chambers built inside the city's rock cliffs in the 17th and 18th centuries to protect thousands of defenders and house equipment, horses, artillery workshops, kitchens, bakeries and slaughterhouses.
Today, the Bock casemates are open to the public. You can enter the Bock Casemates on Montée de Clausen at the Bock Cliff. Visitors can roam through the eerie labyrinth, descend into claustrophobic caverns and peer at the Grund through "loopholes" once used by artillery gunners. Adults $4.50, students $3.35 and children $2.50.
The Wenzel Circular Walk covers 1,000 years of history in 100 minutes. The well-marked walking tour wends around the Bock Casemates, the Bock promontory, Upper and Lower Old Town, the Wenceslas ring wall, the Alzette Valley and the city's unique fortifications.
The Luxembourg City Tourist Office (www.lat.ms/1FntAAy) on Place Guillaume II has a leaflet describing the walk and sells tickets for organized tours at 3 p.m. on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Adults $16.75, students $14.50, children $8.40.
5 spots to check out in prison-area-turned-arts-hot-spot the Grund
Several decades ago, the Grund, or Luxembourg City's Lower Old Town, harbored two prisons and enjoyed a less-than-stellar reputation as an enclave of the poor and newly arrived immigrants.
But today, the village-like quarter, crisscrossed by cobblestone streets, has reinvented itself as an up-and-coming arts and cultural hot spot where funky pubs and half-timbered houses overlook the meandering Alzette River.
An elevator at the Justice Quarter on Plateau du Saint-Esprit descends through the cliff to a cavernous opening leading into the heart of the Grund. The highlights of this quarter include:
Neumünster Abbey, built by Benedictine monks in 1606, served as a police station and prison for male inmates after the French Revolution. The Nazis used it during World War II to imprison resisters of the German occupation, including Luxembourg sculptor Lucien Wercollier. After extensive renovation, the massive cream-colored abbey reopened in 2004 as an ultramodern cultural center with a cloister displaying Wercollier's works.
St. John's Church, recognizable by its black steeple, is a familiar landmark in the Grund. The shrine is worth seeing for its decorative Baroque interior, 1710 organ and painting of the Black Madonna.
The National Museum of Natural History has undergone a redesign of its 10 exhibition rooms, which present the natural history of Luxembourg's people, regions and landscapes. Temporary exhibitions change periodically. Closed Mondays.
The Stierchen footbridge, a medieval stone structure across the Alzette, is one of the most photogenic historical features in the Grund.
Scott's Pub (www.scotts.lu) embodies the old-world character of the Grund with its wood-beamed interior and pleasant outdoor terrace overlooking the Alzette. It's a great place to relax over beer and brats.
If you go
THE BEST WAY TO LUXEMBOURG
From LAX, Lufthansa, Air France, KLM, Swiss, British and Delta offer connecting service (change of planes) to Luxembourg City Airport. Restricted round-trip fares from $1,230 to $2,008, including taxes and fees. From the airport, take a taxi (approximately $35) or bus No. 9 or 16 (approximately $3.50) to the Old City.
To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 352 (the country code for Luxembourg) and the local number.
Public city buses (www.autobus.lu) operate from 6 a.m. to midnight on routes in and around Luxembourg City. Bike rentals are offered at Velo en Ville, 8 Bisserweg, Luxembourg City; 47-96-23-83. The Petrusse Express (a little green tourist train) and City Sightseeing Luxembourg (a full-size tour bus) offer daily tours from Constitution Square. www.sightseeing.lu.
WHERE TO STAY
Hotel Vauban, 10 Place Guillaume II, Luxembourg City; 22-04-93, www.hotelvauban.lu. Doubles from $160 per night, including breakfast.
Hotel Francais, 14 Place d'Armes, Luxembourg City; 47-45-34, www.hotelfrancais.lu. Doubles from $160 per night, including breakfast.
Hotel Le Royale, 12 Boulevard Royal, Luxembourg City; 24-16-161, www.leroyal.com/luxembourg. During the week, doubles from $477 per night without breakfast; $522 with breakfast. Weekend rates are less expensive.
WHERE TO EAT
Le Bouquet Garni, 32 Rue de L'Eau, Luxembourg City; 26-20-06-20, www.lebouquetgarni.lu. Michelin-starred chef Thierry Duhr uses seasonal produce, meat and fish to create unique dishes with a French flair.
Restaurant Pizzeria Bacchus, 32 Rue du Marche-aux-Herbes, Luxembourg City; 47-13-97, www.resto.lu/restaurant/luxembourg/1728-luxembourg/11828-bacchus. Arrive early to beat the crowds at this popular Italian restaurant specializing in gourmet pizzas and veal dishes. Entrees $11-$35.
Café Francais at Hotel Francais Restaurant (see above). Enjoy regional specialties on the outdoor terrace overlooking Place d'Armes. Entrees $20-$35.
TO LEARN MORE
Luxembourg City Tourist Office, 30 Place Guillaume II, Luxembourg City; 22-28-09, www.lcto.lu