Luxembourg remains something of a hidden gem - better known for business, banking and EU administration than as a holiday destination. But what does this small country offer tourists? Nick Elvin hops on a train from St Pancras to find out

AT first glance, Luxembourg's capital has the look and feel of a prosperous provincial European city. Which is a slight understatement. According to the International Monetary Fund, this small country, the world's last grand duchy, has the highest GDP per capita in the world.

Luxembourg City is a magnet for commuters (there being more jobs than residents here), EU delegates and bankers. But in tourism terms the country is, for many people, the missing piece in their Benelux jigsaw, with a weekend in Bruges or Amsterdam usually being preferred. But there is plenty to see and do in this city of 100,000 people representing more than 150 nationalities.

As I leave the train after the five-hour journey from London, I'm impressed by the sense of order, centuries-old architecture, natural beauty and the busy yet not crowded streets. The city is built around the gorges of the Pétrusse and Alzette rivers, boasting rocky, forested cliffs and high viaducts. My companions and I cross one of those bridges, the magnificent Pont Adolphe, built at the beginning of the 20th Century to span the Pétrusse, and make our way to the Place Guillaume II in the historic centre of town.

Outside the neoclassical City Hall, guarded by statues of lions, a food market emits sugary smells into the warm air. We press on through this city of fairy-tale towers, passing the Flemish Renaissance splendour of the Grand Ducal Palace, which is not subject to high railings and high security, but guarded by a lone soldier who marches back and forth along the pedestrianised street outside. This is the official residence of Grand Duke Henri, the country's head of state.

Luxembourg grew up around its fortifications. The remains of Luxembourg Castle sit on a rocky outcrop called the Bock, offering dramatic views over the old town below. This location has been fortified since the 10th Century, and a succession of controlling powers including the Spanish, Austrians, French and Dutch strengthened the fortifications to such an extent that it gained the nickname "the Gibraltar of the north". Beneath the castle are the UNESCO world heritage listed Bock Casements: tunnels dug through the sandstone that date from the 18th Century. Most recently they were used as bomb shelters during World War Two. Cannons poke out of lookout holes, as if waiting for the next wave of attack, adding to the eerie feel of these tunnels.

The claustrophobia is lifted later with a walk through the broad pedestrianised shopping precincts of the city, where you can buy anything from delicious madeleines to high end watches. We hire some bikes and travel a little further, discovering that one thing this city is not short of is parks. We head over a viaduct to a part of town called Kirchberg. A number of EU institutions have ultra-modern buildings here, and there is also a national concert hall and an art museum.

That evening we dine at Restaurant Apoteca .  I can recommend the salmon carpaccio, followed by daurade fillet en croute, complemented by lovely local wine from the Moselle region in the southeast of the country. Over dinner we have the chance to talk with Gust Muller from the Luxembourg Cycling Initiative (Lëtzebuerger Vëlos-Initiativ in Luxembourgish), who will be our guide for the next couple of days when we set out on two wheels to explore the country beyond the capital. Gust tells us that ten years ago it was unusual to see many cyclists in Luxembourg, but now the sport is growing in popularity rapidly. Since the initiative began a quarter of a century ago, 600km of signposted routes with hard surfaces have been introduced running alongside rivers and down disused railway lines, among other places.

Next day we take the bus to Beckerich, a small town near the Belgian border. Luxembourg measures about 80 by 50 kilometres, and it's the 50 or so we're going to be tackling today, with the help of the electric bikes that have been delivered to us here by van. From Beckerich, we join cycle route 12, and make fast progress, despite the now heavy rain, along a former railway line, without the need to use our motors - when we do have to use them for occasional steep gradients it feels a bit like cheating. When I'd heard that Beckerich and our destination Vianden were on opposite sides of Luxembourg, I'd envisaged having to engage in Bradley Wiggins-esque feats of training to prepare. Suddenly riding across a whole country doesn't seem such a daunting prospect. Our bikes are heavy, yet road tyres minimise resistance. The motor assists you rather than powers the bike and will only propel you up to 6km/h before you have to start pedalling. The cycle routes do include some stretches of road, which require a bit more concentration, but these rural byways are generally quiet, and drivers seem courteous towards cyclists.

We stop in the village of Useldange. It has a feudal castle dating back to the 12th Century, and you can climb up the restored keep to take in the view of the surrounding countryside. The scenery is picturesque rather than stunning with plenty of farms and woodland. The sun breaks through as we near the village of Bissen, where we stop for a hearty lunch.

Later on we pass Colmar-Berg, where we have a grand view of the grand duke's main residence, Berg Castle, which despite looking much older was build a hundred years ago. There's no flag flying on the tower, so the duke is not in. We change onto route 15, then 16, which follows the Sûre river along a flat, pleasant path. The landscape becomes more impressive as the river cuts into the hilly countryside of the Ardennes. We stop for a much-needed beer at a campsite bar by the river in Reisdorf, about a kilometre from the German border. Soon after, we tackle the last ten kilometres north following the river Our, which marks the frontier and across which we can see the homes and farms of Germany.

At the pretty medieval town of Vianden, we ascend a final steep, cobbled street with our motors on the "power" setting. Switching this on feels like suddenly hooking onto a ski tow. We dismount and put our bikes away, and despite a relatively easy ride, I mumble to myself something about being able to eat a horse.

But dinner will have to wait. We are due for a tour of Vianden's main attraction, its castle , which is perched on a rocky outcrop, its high walls seemingly impenetrable. Vianden's strategic position - overlooking the Our valley - was realised by the Romans who built a fort here, and later a medieval castle followed. Subsequent owners included William I of the Netherlands who sold the castle off. The person he sold it to then decided to sell it off again, stone by stone, tile by tile, to villagers who used the materials to rebuild or extend their own homes. Vianden Castle was left a ruin.

The castle's guide tells us that when he used to play in here as a child in the 1970s - sneaking in with his friends - there was very little left within the walls, and you could look up and see the sky. Restoration work began in 1978, and today it is the most visited historic building in Luxembourg, which is no surprise. The job of rebuilding and fitting it out with suits of armour, four-poster beds, a replica kitchen, restored knight's hall and everything else a medieval castle ever needed, could not have been easy, and the result is truly breathtaking.

We are staying at Auberge Aal Veinen, a fine old inn on the main street. The first thing we do is take our bike batteries to our bedrooms to recharge. Then it's time for dinner in the cosy upstairs restaurant with its old beams. My earlier comment is about to come back to haunt me. One word on the menu in particular catches my eye - cheval. The chargrilled horse is very good says the waitress. Well, there's a first time for everything. I don't quite know what I was expecting, but I'm surprised at it's similarity to beef steak, and I'm impressed by the flavour, and by the fact that it's perhaps the thickest chunk of meat I've ever eaten.

Next morning, armed with a fully charged battery, and some extra horsepower of my own, I saddle up for what promises to be a different kind of journey to yesterday. Route 22 takes us up into the Ardennes, which although in this area reach no higher than about 500m, still offer a chance for us to give the bikes a good test. It's a sunny, warm day, and there's a pleasing contrast of blue sky, yellow rapeseed fields and green forests. The tougher route is certainly worth it.

Just as my battery is running low, I have to leave the group, due to my train schedule, so Gust leads me on a final downhill sprint along a track through a forest to get to the station in the village of Wilwerwiltz, where the van is waiting to pick up my bike. Then it's the train all the way, via Luxembourg City and Brussels, back to London.

If I ever bothered to compile a bucket list I'm sure the challenge of cycling across an entire country would sneak onto it. My choice probably would have been somewhere like France or Spain, however cycling across this interesting little country is certainly something worthwhile to tick off the list.




  • Luxembourg National Tourist Office:
  • Luxembourg City Tourist Office, Place Guillaume II:



  • Rail travel from London St Pancras to Luxembourg City, via Brussels:
  • Railbookers has a number of city break offers to Luxembourg City. Two nights in the four-star Grand Mercure Alfa Luxembourg Hotel including breakfast daily and return train travel from London from £215 pp (Friday arrival):