Montreux city guide: Where to eat, drink, shop and stay in the picturesque Swiss town

Montreux city guide: Where to eat, drink, shop and stay in the picturesque Swiss town

Mountains wearing white hats and an enormous lake suited in blue-green are the first things you see when arriving in Montreux. As the suburbs give way to well-dressed streets, the riviera-chic centre cascades down stairways past boulangeries and chocolatiers to the lakefront and a singsong view of the Alps that transfixes your eyes. Soon, you’re off walking a promenade, shaded in palm trees, towards a suite of over-the-top Belle Epoque-era hotels, or to begin your exploration of one of Switzerland’s most underrated - and understated - cities.

For starters, there’s jazz galore in cafes, bars and during summer at one of the world’s most prestigious music festivals. There is wine on tap, thanks to the town abutting the Unesco-worthy Lavaux terraces, a tightly knit matrix of refined vineyards to the north. There is the country’s most romantic castle, which looks out over the mirror-still lake. And there is a fist-pumping, four-octave soundtrack thanks to Queen and Freddie Mercury, who stayed and recorded dozens of their greatest hits in the town from the late 1970s until the frontman’s tragic death in the early 1990s.

This is not how you are used to travelling in the Alps. But like rock’s ultimate showman, Montreux is a free and flamboyant rhapsody - and a definite crowd-pleaser.

Where there is space in Montreux, the landscape brims with steeply raked vineyards and groves. Wine is an obsession along the east end of Lake Geneva and, between the houses and buildings, every square metre is accounted for. It’s like a Snakes and Ladders board of trellises.

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Throughout the year, Swiss wines come to the fore - more expensive than those from France and Italy, admittedly, but infinitely more minimal impact. Autumn though, is when it’s easier to connect with the landscape around you. In particular, October is when local wineries swing open their cellar doors, encouraging visitors to sample as many glasses of plonk as possible.

For the ultimate intro to Lake Geneva’s viticulture - and some of the 252 varieties of grape grown in Switzerland - the Swiss Wine Trail is a series of 22 hiking and biking trails that unfold through the Lavaux Vineyard Terraces. This offers up 830 acres of scenic vines and more than 10,000 stone-built terraces, the first of which was engineered in the 11th century.

If the sound of Montreux in autumn is of popping corks and sloshing bottles, then the sound of summer is clicking fingers. There’s something of the Manhattan basement club about Montreux and the town is home to one of the planet’s most prestigious jazz scenes - since the 1960s, it’s become a byword for live sessions, exclusive performances, collaborations and more.

The main draw is the annual Montreux Jazz Festival but there’s also the LP-spinning Boutique Officielle du Festival de Jazz de Montreux to pick up Keith Haring and Andy Warhol-designed pop art posters and merchandise, plus the almost sacred Montreux Jazz Cafe and adjoining Funky Claude’s Bar. Here, local improv bands and international players take the stage most nights to blast a saxophone or trumpet - and often when there isn’t a foreign tourist in sight.

Inside the unsung Casino Barriere, where you’d only really venture if you’re a high roller or bleary-eyed 3am blackjack player, you can happily waste an hour at Queen The Studio Experience learning the backstory of the beloved stadium rock band. They decamped to Montreux in the late 1970s, fell in love with the location and subsequently recorded many of their most famous songs here.

“We Will Rock You”, “We Are the Champions”, “Radio Ga Ga”, “Under Pressure”, “The Show Must Go On” - plus so many other earworms - were recorded in a studio that once formed part of the casino, and it’s now possible to remix a couple of tracks at the reconfigured recording desk (less drums is guitarist Brian May’s advice). There’s all sorts of memorabilia bequeathed by the band, including plenty of Freddie’s slinky catsuits, plus an array of mementoes to get die-hard fans all gushy.

Often, people visit Montreux singularly to see Chateau de Chillon, or Chillon Castle, the perfect union of history, drama and location on Lake Geneva (seven minutes away by train, 35 minutes on foot along the shore). In fact, it’s the most visited castle in Switzerland and the fortification is textbook dragon-slaying Game of Thrones territory: first comes the location on a lake island, then the great halls and courtyards, an arsenal and a prison.

It was once the stomping ground of the counts of Savoy, too, so there’s plenty of bloody history to chew over, plus the Alpine setting is a stunner at sunset. Classicists note, the castle was a major influence on English romanticist Lord Byron - he made Chateau de Chillon the setting for The Prisoner of Chillon. Supposedly, it also inspired the castle in Walt Disney’s The Little Mermaid.

Yuletide markets in Switzerland are an art form. You’ll get the idea when exploring Montreux Noel, a procession of 150 bauble-lit, chalet-style stalls, which extend for nearly a mile along Lake Geneva’s shoreline on Quai Edouard-Jaccoud. The centrepiece every December is the enormous frontier-style Logger’s Cabin, the town’s post-office meeting place near the train station - it’s hardly subtle, but it’s a hoot.

Families, meanwhile, are drawn to another of Montreux’s winter highlights: Santa and his flying sleigh, a mind-tricking spectacle for kids, which sees the man in red and his reindeer whoosh along wires above the light-spangled lakeside every night in the lead-up to the big day.

The grande dame of Montreux hotels is a marvel of Belle Epoque-era design, with a swish lobby, reception and pupil-widening balconies that lay on the Alpine eye-candy thick. Its reputation precedes it though, and its two restaurants (one the Peruvian-Japanese hybrid Nikkei Nine; the other, marquee Montreux Jazz Cafe) are as expensive as this town gets.

Superb Lake Geneva views are ten a penny in Montreux, but Eden Palace Au Lac on Rue du Theatre delivers the knockout punch - its gardens are on the lakefront and it really comes into its own in summer. The surrounding streets are full of cafes and bars, so you’ll never have to walk far, or there’s the hotel’s Chez Gaston for all the waistline-swelling cheese, fondue and charcuterie you’d ever need.

In a part of the world heaving with fondue restaurants, Le Tube à Fondues stands out for its sublime lake panorama from its Beaux-Arts-style glass structure and its oozy, boozy cauldrons of cheese. Eye-cocking varieties include gruyere and fribourg vacherin spiked with champagne or chasselas - a white wine common in the Swiss Riviera.

On the Train du Chocolate, which chugs between Montreux and the Cailler-Nestlé chocolate factory at Broc, you get buttery croissants and coffee, while the kids get pain au chocolat and the reward of visiting one of Switzerland’s most historic sweet palaces. Note, the chocolate train runs from May to September only.

Swiss Franc (CHF).


10 per cent will do - though tipping is not expected in Switzerland.

GMT +1.

It will take around 90 minutes from London, and just over two hours from Edinburgh.

On foot or by bike; Montreux is compact and easily navigable.

Standing beneath the Freddie Mercury statue on the lakefront, looking out to Lake Geneva, with legs astride and one fist punching the air as if you were playing Wembley.

Take a ride on the GoldenPass Express, Switzerland’s newest train and a sublime journey from Montreux to Interlaken, via the steeple-like peak of Rochers de Naye (the highest point overlooking the town) and the celeb swank of Gstaad.

Take the Eurostar to Paris, change to the Gare de Lyon to catch a Lyria TGV train to Lausanne, and from there an onward Swiss domestic train to Montreux.

EasyJet, British Airways and Swiss all fly direct from the UK to Montreux.

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