Lake Constance is one of Switzerland’s hidden gems. I spent two perfect days here, taking in the peaceful views and fascinating history.
In this post:
- Where to stay near Lake Constance
- Visit the Napoleon Museum at Castle Arenenberg
- Take the ferry to medieval Stein am Rhein
- Lunch at Hohenklingen Castle
Lake Constance is no secret to the generations of Europeans who have come here to get away from it all. Judging from the new construction dotting the countryside with luxe vacation homes, it won’t stay relatively undiscovered by the rest of the world for long.
Where is Lake Constance?
Lake Constance, called Bodensee in German, is divided into two parts. The larger obersee stretches to the point where Austria, Germany and Switzerland meet. The smaller untersee is a peaceful lake between two countries: Germany and Switzerland. Altogether, it is the third largest freshwater lake in Europe by surface area.
Weather around Lake Constance: Only a short train ride from Zurich, towns on the Swiss side of the untersee feel like a much different world from Switzerland’s finance and business center. The shores of the lake are a microclimate. That means the local weather can either be much warmer or much cooler than the seasonal temperatures you might expect in this part of Europe.
Getting to Lake Constance: Switzerland has efficient public transit, but you’ll have an easier time exploring the area if you have a car. Save money by renting a car through Auto Europe before you leave the US. I took a train from the Zurich airport to Frauenfeld, the capital of the Swiss canton of Thurgau. Friends picked me up for the scenic drive to Steckborn, passing through postcard-perfect Swiss countryside.
Nightlife in Lake Constance: Uh, no. Life moves at an agricultural pace; people rise with the chickens and head home with the cows. Even the beer places close early. The quaint village of Berlingen got the nickname “God’s waiting room” due to the number of lakeside retirement homes. Young people and active families make the most of the daylight hours for water sports of all kinds.
Where to Stay: Swiss Bliss at Lilienberg
Even if you don’t need to mix business and pleasure, you’ve come to the perfect hotel. The landscaped grounds of the Lilienberg hotel and conference center have expansive views over Lake Constance. There’s plenty of space for celebrating, meeting or relaxing. There were no large group events at the time of my visit, shortly after Switzerland lifted its Covid restrictions. I had the indoor pool and jacuzzi to myself!
My room looked onto the garden. The bottled water, soft drinks and beer in the fridge were included in the room rate at Lilienberg. Breakfast here is a simple but elegant affair in the restaurant overlooking the lake. I didn’t want to leave!
Sadly, the pandemic took a toll on small businesses in the surrounding area, with some of the smaller, family-run accommodations forced to close. However, there’s still a choice of inns and hotels in Steckborn on TripAdvisor.
Napoleon Museum at Arenenberg Castle
Taking a short walk from the hotel along the main road, I reached the Napoleon Museum at Arenenberg. This scenic mansion was a fascinating look at the extended family of Napoleon I. This was the home of Queen Hortense, wife of Napoleon’s brother. She raised her son, Prince Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, to become his uncle’s heir and successor.
The period rooms with gorgeous views from every window give a feeling for how they lived and entertained when they were out of power and in exile. It’s the elegant building you see at the top of this post.
Visitors must shuffle around in oversized booties, except when climbing the corkscrew staircase. You must also check your phone and bag in a locker at the gift shop next door. Don’t miss the royal bathtub in the rear of the shop.
Audio guide is included in the ticket price. The narration in English is quite well done, but it didn’t sync with the exhibits and I had to punch in the room numbers manually. A minor annoyance in an otherwise enjoyable museum. Two hours well spent.
Lake Constance Ferry from Steckborn to Stein am Rhein
Lake Constance offers plenty of opportunities to get in and on the water. You can rent standup paddle boards (SUP), kayaks, windsurfers and small sailboats in the warmer months. Or just jump in the crystal-clear lake for a refreshing cold swim. My friends loaned me some swimming shoes to protect my feet from the rocky, slippery bottom.
For a day trip on the lake, I took the ferry from the town of Steckborn. Like a floating bus, it zig-zags between the Swiss and German banks of the untersee with quick stops at cute villages and campsites along the way. Helpful maps are on each table and waiters are circulating the decks to take your drink order.
Stein am Rhein: Time Stands Still at Museum Lindwurm
On the present day border of Switzerland and Germany, the industrial revolution passed by the medieval town of Stein am Rhein, leaving behind the charm you see today. The main street of painted houses is extraordinary, although touristy. Busloads of day-trippers arrive from Zurich. And most of the tour groups passed right by the town’s hidden treasure: the historical Museum Lindwurm.
Descendants of a merchant family lovingly renovated this middle-class Swiss home as a tribute to how their ancestors lived in the mid 1800s. There was plenty of hard labor involved to provide for the basic needs of the family members and their servants. Kids will love the room where they can touch everything and dress up in vintage clothes.
Unfortunately, nearly all of the signs are in German only. There are a few explanatory cards in other languages, but they really need a good audio guide in English or more translations. Still, in a continent filled castles and palaces, it’s worth seeing this timepiece that preserves a more typical lifestyle. If you’d like to soak up more of the history, you can stay overnight in Stein am Rhein.
Lunch at Hohenklingen Castle
To get away from the crowds, head up the hill and enjoy the view from the restaurant at Burg Hohenklingen. The castle dates back to a tower built around 1200. There’s an accomplished chef at work in the kitchen so the food is as spectacular as the view.
Money in Lake Constance: Switzerland uses the Swiss Franc and is NOT in the Eurozone. Keep that in mind as you toggle between the German and Swiss sides of the lake. Except for a few restaurants in Stein am Rhein advertising “cash only,” most places accepted my Chase United Business Explorer Card. I didn’t need to change much spending cash.
Post-pandemic, the shores of Lake Constance are beckoning more families to settle down here. But Switzerland’s healthy lifestyle, efficient services and top-notch education system come at a price. Visitors may have a bit of sticker shock at how much things cost here compared to other European countries. This may account for why I met so many Swiss travelers in the Soča Valley of Slovenia, where a vacation in the alpine scenery is considerably less expensive.
But you’re on vacation, right? After a refreshing break at Lake Constance, you’ll consider every Swiss franc to have been money well spent. If you’d like more tips on saving money and traveling like a local, sign up for my FREE monthly newsletter.
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