Capital of Vaud canton, western Switzerland, on the northern shore of Lake Geneva (Lac Léman); built on the southern slopes of the Jorat heights, its altitude ranges from 1,240 ft (378 m) at Ouchy, its lake port, to 2,122 ft at Le Signal, its highest point. Two short streams, the Flon and the Louve, which formerly flowed through the centre of the city, have been filled in, leaving numerous depressions; as a result, Lausanne has a hilly appearance, built on many connecting levels.
The ancient Celtic Lausonium, or Lausonna, was originally on the shore of the lake southwest of the present city. During the invasion of the Alemanni (c. 379), the inhabitants took refuge in the hills above, building a settlement on the site of the present Cité district. In 590 Bishop Marius of Aventicum (now Avenches) established his diocese there. The settlement eventually joined with the Burgundian settlement of Bourg across the Flon and with a colony around the church of Saint-Laurent to the west. The bishops, princes of the Holy Roman Empire from the 12th century, retained their great temporal powers until 1536, when Lausanne, with the rest of the Pays de Vaud, was conquered by the Bernese, who introduced the Protestant Reformation. The Bernese occupation lasted until 1798, and Lausanne became the capital of the new Vaud canton of Napoleon’s Helvetic Republic in 1803.
Two major international treaties were signed at Lausanne: between Italy and Turkey in 1912 and between Turkey and the Allies of World War I in 1923. In 1932 a conference was held in Lausanne to liquidate reparations payments by Germany to the Allied powers. In 1964 it was the site of the Swiss National Exhibition, held every 25 years in a different Swiss city.
Historic buildings include the early Gothic Cathedral of Notre-Dame, consecrated in 1275 by Pope Gregory X in the presence of the Holy Roman emperor Rudolf I of Habsburg; the Saint-François Church, erected during the same period but partly rebuilt in the late 14th century; and the city hall (rebuilt 1674). The castle, now housing the Historical Museum of the Ancient Bishopric, is the only vestige of the 13th-century residences of the bishops. The Château Saint-Maire (1397–1431), the former bishop’s castle, is now the seat of the cantonal government. More recent landmarks are the Palais de Rumine (1903), the principal building of the university, which also houses the cantonal museums, and the federal court of justice (1927), seat of the Swiss Supreme Court.
Lausanne rivals Geneva as the intellectual and cultural centre of French Switzerland. Its university (1891) originated as a theological academy in 1537. The city was the birthplace of the noted Swiss literary figures Benjamin Constant de Rebecque, Alexandre Vinet, Juste Olivier, and Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz and of the philosopher Charles Secrétan. Many famous European men of letters, including Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Victor Hugo, Charles Dickens, and Edward Gibbon, resided there.
The headquarters of the International Olympic Committee are at Lausanne, and an Olympic Museum, surrounded by a public park, opened in 1993. Lausanne is also the site of the Federal Polytechnic Institute (founded 1853, present status 1969) and of the annual national fair Comptoir Suisse.
A junction for railway lines from Geneva, Fribourg, Bern, and Vallorbe (for Paris), Lausanne gained greatly in commercial importance when the opening of the Simplon Tunnel in 1906 placed it on the great international route from Paris to Milan. Principal industries include the manufacture of precision instruments and clothing, metal and leather work, printing, and food processing. The city is also an important tourist and convention centre. Pop. (1991 est.) 123,159.