The Belle Époque in Neuchatel – a walk back in time

Belle Époque in Neuchatel: statue of a fancy lady

The lady at the lake-shore is wearing a voluminous dress with a corset and a large hat. Like the nearby courteous gentleman, she is part of a walk to explore the Belle Époque in Neuchatel. Besides the two bronze statues, we have already accidentally encountered some traces of this walk and of the Belle Époque in Neuchatel. For instance, a fresco of children in old-fashioned clothes.

Fabulous times in the Belle Époque in Neuchatel

The Belle Époque was a period around 1900 – from about the 1880s until the start of World War I – that seemed (in retrospect at least) promising, flourishing and full of life and elegance. Meaning “beautiful period” in French, the Belle Époque may not have been a paradise for everyone. But many things got cheaper or more available. So, at least a larger part of the middle classes could afford small luxuries and travel.

iron wrought Art Noveau roof in Neuchatel

At the tourist information in Neuchatel we receive a bag containing a leaflet describing the Belle Époque walk, a photo viewer, a key tag and some vouchers.

Do we look silly, turning around on the harbour front looking into the small plastic box of the photo viewer? Never mind. The stereo photo viewer shows us how the Post Hotel looked before 1900 when the International Postal Union was founded in Neuchatel. Its headquarters had a tower for the telegraph services to distant countries such as Japan or Mexico. Their names are inscribed all around the façade of the building.

Isa with a steamer mural, on our Neuchatel Belle Epoque walk

Next, we admire a restored steam ship that cruised on Lake Neuchatel since 1913. Road transport had just replaced boats for most trading needs, and ship traffic was in decline. Instead, ship builders discovered tourists as their new target group! Those days, French tourists flocked to Neuchatel because it was beautiful and easy to reach.

Isa reading, with a mural of Marthe Robert

A strong woman swimmer

Likewise, the lake’s importance shifted from transport to tourism and leisure, or sports. Marthe Robert, a woman from Neuchatel, was the first person ever to swim across Lake Neuchatel in 1904. She and her sister trained every day in the lake. Marthe Robert went on to become – and stay – a Swiss swimming champion for years! She was particularly good at endurance swimming.

Just beyond the harbour, we have a look into the Neuchatel Museum of Art and History. Its large staircase is an orgy of art nouveau paintings and arts and crafts decorations!

Student housing and children’s games

A whole town quarter developed when water regulations made the lake’s water level drop and thus cleared new ground near the lowered lake-shore. Beautiful, multi-storied stone houses with wrought-iron balcony railings rose up. Apparently, many of them housed boarding houses for German and English speaking girls who should improve their French in Neuchatel. This remained a thriving business even when the wealthier tourists moved on to fashionable resorts in the higher mountains and in Geneva

In the park “Jardin Anglais” that does not look like an English Garden at all, we get to try some Belle Époque games. There is a hopscotch game called “Game of the Goose board”, and also wooden hoops that must be rolled and directed with a stick. On our travels we have often seen children in various countries rolling a hoop with sticks – but we have never done it ourselves, and it turns out quite challenging to keep the hoop rolling. Gladly we provide some entertainment to the people sitting in the park with a drink … The unusual hopscotch board was originally designed to discourage people from drinking too much alcohol, but the rules seem rather complicated for our leisurely Belle Époque walk and we quit after some half-hearted hopping and stone throwing.

And more serious drinking

Absinth tasting in Neuchatel

The Belle Époque coincides with art styles such as Impressionism, Art Nouveau and Symbolism, and we remember various paintings of that period in various museums showing people in bars. Often, it’s impoverished artists and writers sipping Absinth. An extraordinarily strong alcoholic drink made from Artemisia Absinthium, aniseed, fennel, and other plants, Absinth must be mixed with water.

There’s another reason to dilute it: Thujone, a toxic substance. It is found in plants like oregano and sage, but in larger quantities in Artemisia Absinthium. Thus, the most popular and infamous drink of the Belle Époque killed some of its most important chroniclers. Absinth was subsequently forbidden for decades. Today, the ingredients are strongly regulated, and Absinth is again available. On our Belle Époque tour we get to taste some Absinth as well.

Later, the Belle Époque walk leads us to the first chocolate shop of the Suchard chocolate empire, where we get a tasting package of different types of chocolate and see a selection of turn-of-the-century chocolate advertisements. The founder, Philippe Suchard, used a newly developed system to make chocolate creamy and elastic. He also tried his hand at silk worm growing and flew in a hot air balloon!

Sign of a historical chocolate shop

Modern dishes

Eating habits and food preparation also changed during the Belle Époque due to new inventions like the refrigerator and the iron stove. Carrots and spinach had previously often been eaten sweet, with sugar and cinnamon. Now they became more popular with salt and pepper. Potatoes also moved from a sweet to a savoury dish. More importantly, since vegetable oils such as peanut butter oil were more available and cheaper than butter, one particular potato dish exploded in popularity: Fried potatoes – i.e., French Fries.

Towards the end of the walk we encounter the “tramorama”. The key in our Art Nouveau bag opens a door in a wavy Art Nouveau tramway kiosk built during the Belle Époque. Locals found the kiosk too modern at the time, and a disgrace for the beautiful square. Inside we find an animated multi-screen show of the square about 120 years ago, presenting beautiful ladies in large hats, Mr. Suchard in his hot air balloon, and the first automobile to roam Neuchatel’s streets.

Mural of the "Martini," the first car in Neuchatel

How to explore the Belle Époque in Neuchatel

The self-guided Belle Époque Walk in Neuchatel costs 10 € for the first person and 5 € for every other person. A 20 € deposit is also necessary. At the tourist information in Neuchatel you will get a bag with a Belle Époque leaflet. It also includes some additional requisites necessary for the walk. The whole Belle Époque walk took us almost 3 hours and was not only great fun, but also highly informative.

On some of the stations we encountered groups of lively children with clipboards. They were on the children’s version of the Belle Époque walk, where they had to solve quizzes to continue.

Note: We were not sponsored in any way to write this article. We paid the full price for the Belle Époque walk. We wrote this post because exploring the Belle Époque in Neuchatel was fun. Do you like self-guided walks or do you prefer guided tours? Let us know in the comments.


  1. That’s a lovely walk. Thanks for reminding me – I bought a small bottle of Absinth in Hungary years ago, never opened it as none of my friends would try it but where is it? – haven’t seen it since I moved.

    1. Same here – we bought a bottle once in Prague and were planning to try it with a friend, who even found an absinth spoon (for mixing sugar into the drink) in a drawer. And then we drank something else and never got into the mood for trying the Absinth. So, this one was a first – and not really to our taste.

  2. I also believe that it is always best to explore a place by self guided walk. That is when you discover so much about a place. I had never heard of Belle Époque before but it does look like a beautiful place. I wish to go there some day and see those places, especially learn about the girl and her sister who became the best national swimmers. And also see the girl’s statue.

  3. What a fun way to experience the Belle Epoche in Neuchatel. Those statues do bring back another point in time. How interesting that you can get a photo viewer and see how things used to look while you are walking around. We tried Absinth for the first time in Prague but did not know it was popularized in the Belle Epoch. I would surely head straight for chocolate and pass on Absinth!

    1. Yes, the photo viewer was fun. And I guess you have to drink a lot of Absinth before you enthuse about it. It is really an aquired taste.

  4. You convinced me! What a fun way to experience Belle Epoche with a self guided walking tour! It’s such a great idea that they have one tailored to children as well. Me, I would be in it for the chocolate!

  5. Nice place with detailed information. I would definitely take the Belle Époque Walk when in Neuchatel and try the local drink. Oddly Switzerland never got my attention but if I visit the country then would look for this place!

    1. Switzerland has beautiful mountains and endless wonderful hiking oportunities. If you like the outdoors you should definitely consider a visit.

  6. Belle Époque Walk sounds like something I’d like to do. It’s interesting to read about the restored steam ship and Marthe Robert the swimmer. I’d love to visit the Neuchatel Museum of Art and History and finish with trying Absinth and sampling the chocolate.

  7. Thanks for introducing me to Belle Époque. It is so fascinating, I actually tried Absinth with my group of friends at a pub in India but frankly I did not quite enjoy it, too bitter for me. Great to learn many interesting facts about the place, the chocolate experience is one I wouldn’t miss! I personally prefer guided tours for more historic areas, but definitely enjoy self exploration in areas where slow travel is sought after.

    1. I am with you – Absinth is really an acquired taste. The chocolate was actually only a very small sample, but if you like chocolate Switzerland is the place to go. They practically invented it.

  8. Today I learned something new from your post. Not just it’s the first time I heard about Belle Epoque, but I found so many interesting things about it. There’s a strong woman swimmer, and how how people started making French fries. I’m glad I don’t have to taste spinach with sugar and cinnamon though.

  9. You really had fabulous times in the Belle Époque in Neuchatel as this looks beautiful walk. I never knew about this place, so loved reading your post with some unique destinations adding up to my bucket list. I would be interested to see art nouveau paintings at Neuchatel Museum of Art and History.

  10. I didn’t know anything about Belle Époque before reading this. The photo viewer sounds like a great way to take a self-guided tour and learn more about the period and area. I had to laugh at the thought of hopscotch to stop people from drinking too much, I think it would encourage my friends to drink and laugh at each other

    1. We never figured out how it was supposed to prevent people from drinking. But I think it involved some reading connected with the hopscotch game.

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