The city of Luxembourg is surprising in many ways. One surprise in particular was the sheer amount of history packed into such a small space. The dramatically situated fortifications of Luxembourg are an integral part of that history; they are also a part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Historic Fortifications Of Luxembourg
Although the area was inhabited in Roman times, the fortress of Luxembourg dates back to 963 CE. We now know Luxembourg as a city and a country, but for many centuries it was effectively a fortified dukedom, whose ownership passed backwards and forwards between the great powers of Europe.
The oldest fortifications sit on top of a massive rocky outcrop, surrounded by a gorge cut by the Alzette river. Although the town walls were later pulled down, you can still see ramparts, gates and turrets. A particular feature is the Bock Casemates, miles of tunnels and rooms cut into the rock to be used during times of siege.
Luxembourg is sometimes known as the “Gibraltar of the north”. I could see why: the design and setting of the walls and tunnels immediately reminded me of Gibraltar, another fortified rock!
A UNESCO World Heritage Site
The inclusion of the fortifications in a World Heritage Site is a recognition of the significant role played by Luxembourg in European history. UNESCO also notes that the city “preserves major remains of its impressive fortifications and its old quarters, in an exceptional natural setting”.
Built at different times during the city’s long history, the fortifications played a crucial role in protecting the city and its citizens. The later structures in particular are regarded as an outstanding example of military engineering. The Old Quarters of the City of Luxembourg include the Rocher du Bock and its associated fortifications, as well as some of the oldest buildings on the other side of the gorge.
Further fortifications can be seen in the Grund, the “Lower Town” which sits beneath the Bock. As you walk through the Grund and up to the Raum plateau you will see restored medieval towers and the later Vauban Towers, added in the 17th century. You will also come to the 15th century Tour Jacob (or “old gate of Trier”), one of the original gateways into the city.
As well as the Old Quarters and the Grund, the World Heritage Site also includes the Government Quarter and the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in the Upper Town.
Exploring The Fortifications Of Luxembourg
By far the best way to get around is on foot, but be warned that there are lots of ups and downs and that surfaces may be uneven! However, buses will take you along the main streets – and they have the benefit of being entirely free of charge (the only transport you will have to pay for is the tourist Hop-On-Hop-Off Bus). There are also lifts to take you from the Upper Town to the Grund.
To reach the Bock from the Upper Town you will walk across the two-storey Castle Bridge, built in 1735 to replace a drawbridge across the gorge. Here you can explore the historic fortifications and possibly also take a tour of the Bock Casemates (check before visiting as they were closed when I was there at the beginning of 2023).
If you’re going to the Grund and the Vauban Towers you could take the lift down from Plateau du Saint-Esprit, close to the Palais de Justice. Alternatively take the scenic route by walking along the Chemin de la Corniche. This is a leisurely cliffside path with breathtaking views across the valley.
Back in the Upper Town, stop by the Lëtzebuerg City Museum to have a look at the UNESCO Visitor Centre. Here you can learn more about the World Heritage Site before setting off to find out what else Luxembourg has in store for you.
This article is now available as a mobile app. Go to GPSmyCity to download the app for GPS-assisted travel directions to the attractions featured in this article.