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One of the most famous bridges in all of Switzerland is the Chapel Bridge in Lucerne (Kapellbrücke).
A gorgeous medieval wooden footbridge that allows you to cross over the Reuss River with an octagonal water tower (Wasserturm) attached.
Not only is this bridge one of the oldest covered bridges to exist in Europe, it’s also the longest surviving truss bridge in the entire world!
Today, it’s an icon for Lucerne and is also one of the main tourist attractions in Switzerland. So, you simply must pay a visit if you’re in the city.
For me, this is one of my favourite bridges on the planet. I loved admiring all the beautiful paintings inside not to mention the gorgeous views you can get from here.
This is a complete guide for the Chapel Bridge and Water Tower in Lucerne with the history, highlights, and how to visit!
What is the Chapel Bridge or Kapellbrücke?
The Chapel Bridge in Lucerne is a historic footbridge that allows you to cross over the River Reuss.
It was originally built as a throughway in the 14th-century and acted as part of the cities fortifications.
The word Kapellbrücke in German translates to ‘Chapel Bridge’ and it was named after St Peter’s Chapel nearby.
Initially, its length was a whopping 270 metres long but, over time, this has gotten shorter and now stands at only 204 metres.
This truss bridge is built with carved wooden panels and triangular trusses. It’s also unique as it has a series of fine triangle paintings inside that tell the story of Lucerne’s history.
It’s one of three historic wooden footbridges in Lucerne. The others were the Hofbrücke (unfortunately this has been destroyed) and the Spreuerbrücke.
Before the Chapel Bridge was built, there was an octagonal water tower or wasserturm that stood here.
The history of the Chapel Bridge and Water Tower in Lucerne
Before the Chapel Bridge, there was a Water Tower that used to sit in the middle of the River Reuss. This is thought to have been built around the 1330s.
The name Wasserturm translates in English as ‘tower standing in the water’ as opposed to it being used to store water itself.
This octagonal tower that stands around 35 metres high has had many uses over the years.
It has been a city treasury, prison, and even a torture chamber for criminals in the city! I guess, if the tower is isolated in the river, you couldn’t escape easily.
Later, the Chapel Bridge was built in 1365. It was constructed to create an accessway from the Old Town in Lucerne to the ‘New’ Town or Rathausquai.
It also acted as a defensive fortification for the city, to help prevent attacks from foreign ships that would arrive from Lucerne Lake.
The triangular Chapel Bridge paintings
The beautiful triangle paintings that hang above the trusses in the bridge came much later in the 17th century.
There were originally 158 of these paintings by Hans Heinrich Wägmann. These all told the story of Lucerne’s history.
The storyline starts with Lucerne’s patron saint St. Leger and depicts his life and death with a few famous legends thrown in.
Many of these paintings were influenced by Catholicism and created during the Swiss Counter-Reformation. Almost like modern-day propaganda as a reminder to remain true to the Catholic faith!
Notable city council members of the time sponsored the panel paintings. In return, they were allowed to have their coat of arms featured on it!
Unfortunately, many of these original paintings were burned in a fire. It was a tragic event that almost saw the whole bridge destroyed in 1993.
What was the Chapel Bridge fire?
On the 18th of August 1993, the Chapel Bridge caught fire in the early hours of the morning.
Although the exact cause of the fire is still unknown, it is thought that it was someone being careless in putting out a cigarette!
Due to the bridge being made almost entirely of wood and spiders webs in the gables, it set ablaze quickly and spread rapidly. Within 10 minutes, a large part of the footbridge was destroyed.
It is also thought that a large amount of plastic bags from the souvenir shop in the Water Tower caused the fire to further spread and explode.
Luckily, it was quickly contained. However, It still took eleven hours to completely put out the fire and make sure it couldn’t spread further.
In the end, two-thirds of this historic bridge was destroyed! What was left was just a charred skeleton.
The fire also saw over 86 of the original triangular paintings by Wägmann ruined too. You can still find burn marks on the bridge today.
The Chapel Bridge fire was an event that shook Lucerne, Switzerland, and the world.
It saw thousands of people in the city gather at the River Reuss to see the damage the fire had caused. It was a huge loss and the news soon reached headlines around the globe.
The city government reacted quickly and decided that very day they would reconstruct the bridge.
The Chapel Bridge reconstruction project took place just weeks later and it required hours of research and historic records to ensure it was recreated sympathetically to the original style.
By November 1993, the building started and within eight months the new bridge was complete.
The entire project cost the city 3.5 million Swiss Francs (CHF) and reopened to the public in April 1994. It saw Lucerne’s director of tourism, Kurt H. Illi’s, cry tears of joy!
Thankfully, this time, the chapel bridge was rebuilt with modern fire protection measures so nothing like this could happen again! There is also a huge fine for smoking anywhere near it.
Highlights and what to expect on your visit
Today, the Chapel Bridge is still the icon of the city and is one of the most photographed landmarks in the whole of Switzerland.
So, if you’re visiting the fairytale city of Lucerne, you must prioritise this bridge as a stop on your itinerary!
Not only is the building itself gorgeous but the views you get from here are beautiful too. You can admire the historic buildings, the swans on the River Reuss and even Lucerne Lake.
As you traipse across the wooden panels, you can stop a while to take it all in and watch the world go by.
I spent way more time here than I thought I would. There is so much to see here including the water tower, the paintings, and the details in the architecture!
Even if you’re not into photography in a big way, this bridge is amazing to photograph. So, make sure you have your camera at the ready.
Although the water tower is not open to the public, there is a small gift shop that sells some tourist souvenirs if you wish to buy them.
Unfortunately, many of the famous triangular paintings were destroyed in the fire. There were 47 collected but only 30 were fully restored. You can still see the effects with some of the triangle paintings being completely charred.
During the carnival months of January and February, the city replaces these with modern paintings. So, if you have your heart set on seeing the historic ones, I’d avoid those months.
Where is the Chapel Bridge located in Lucerne
This landmark in Lucerne will certainly be hard to miss when you visit the city! It sits proudly over the Reuss River in the city centre.
You can easily see it from the modern Seebrüke Bridge and it allows you to cross over from the Old Town of Lucerne on the Bahnhofstrasse Road to Rathausquai.
It doesn’t really matter what way you enter the bridge to see the paintings as they are on both sides. But, I ended up walking up and down the bridge a couple of times to see it all!
The Chapel Bridge is around a 15-minute walk from the central Lucerne Train Station. It’s easiest to access the bridge on foot.
Chapel Bridge opening times & prices
The chapel bridge is open 24 hours a day and 7 days a week in Lucerne. So, you can cross over it at any time throughout the day.
I’d allow at least 30 minutes to an hour to visit the bridge. You may find you spend a lot longer here due to all the amazing artwork.
The Wassertum Souvenir Shop is open daily from 10 am – 6 pm.
It’s also completely FREE to visit, so it’s a great budget activity!
Looking for more things to do in Lucerne?
Lucerne is the stuff of fairytales and it’s also one of the most romantic cities in all of Switzerland!
From boat rides on the lake, the ancient colourful buildings of the old town, lively markets, restaurants by the river, and this bridge.
There are countless amount of things to do plus some hidden gems to discover.