At the foot of the Jura Mountains, flanked by vineyards and facing southeast, the city of Neuchâtel enjoys panoramic views of Lac de Neuchâtel and the range of the middle Alps, including the majestic mass of Mont Blanc and the Berner Oberland. Lac de Neuchâtel, at 38 km (24 miles) long and 8 km (5 miles) wide, is the largest lake entirely within Switzerland. (The much larger lakes of Geneva and Constance are shared with France and Germany, respectively.) A prosperous city, Neuchâtel has a reputation for precision work, beginning with watchmaking in the early 18th century. In fact, the region is often referred to by locals as "Watch Valley." The city itself lies on the Watchmaking Route—a 200-km (125-mile) heritage trail with 27 stops running from Geneva to Basel. There are traditional workshops, museums, and countless other insights into the ingenuity of this craftsmanship and time itself.
Visitors to Neuchâtel city note the neo-Romanesque yellow-sandstone buildings along the broad avenues in the lower part of town bordering the lake, which inspired author Alexandre Dumas to call Neuchâtel "a city with the appearance of an immense joujou [toy] dressed in butter." The Collegiate Church and the 12th-century castle, which today houses the cantonal government, sit gracefully above the city's bustling old marketplace. Stroll (or cycle) along the lakeside promenade as far as Hauterive, the next village to the north.
Neuchâtel's biggest annual festival is the winemakers' three-day celebration of the grape harvest, the fête des vendanges. It's celebrated the last weekend of September (www.fete-des-vendanges.ch) with parades and fanfare throughout the city. Also of note are the many absinthe distilleries in the area. Absinthe originated in Val-de-Travers, 26 km (16 miles) to the west of Neuchâtel city, in the 18th century, and since 2005 (when Switzerland relegalized absinthe), the regional distillers have become famous for brewing some of the best absinthe in the world. At a restaurant in town, it's worth ordering this local specialty just to observe the elaborate serving ritual.