Last Updated on April 15, 2021 by Jim Ferri
By Jim Ferri
With the Alps providing a dramatic backdrop, Montreux, Switzerland, is tucked away on the eastern shore of beautiful Lake Geneva. Known as Lac Léman to the French, it’s the largest lake in the Alps. Dotted with towns and villages along its length, it’s also one of the most beautiful.
One of these towns is Montreux, a cosmopolitan city less than an hour from much larger Geneva but centuries away from the bustle of any major metropolis. A colorful little city, it’s easy to get to, as well as being a great place to get away from it all.
It’s also renown as a city with great food and wines, great hotels, spectacular scenery, and an annual world-renowned international jazz festival. No wonder UN officials sometimes fly off to this charming city to host international negotiations.
With Montreux being so quiet and laid-back, it’s somewhat astounding that nearby Chillon Castle is the most visited tourist attraction in all of Switzerland. Or that the Montreux Jazz Festival brings in 250,000 enthusiasts every July.
The Swiss Riviera
Lake Geneva, east of Lausanne to beyond Montreux, is known as the Montreux Riviera in Switzerland due to its microclimate. That’s a godsend to both winegrowers and the local tourism people.
The region first became known in the 18th century. It gained international renown in the early years of the 19th following publication of Lord Byron’s The Prisoner of Chillon. In the ensuing decades, other celebrities and notables came and sometimes lived there, including Victor Hugo, Gustave Eiffel, Charlie Chaplin, Ernest Hemingway, Igor Stravinski, and rock star Freddie Mercury of Queen fame. All helped enhance Montreux’s international pedigree.
Today the city underscores its international appeal through the Montreux Jazz Festival. It’s the most famous in the region and one of the top music festivals in the world.
Sometimes you feel Montreux’s international flavor in more subtle ways. I remember one evening in Montreux, where I sought out Swiss specialties for dinner. I wound up in a small Swiss restaurant managed by an Ecuadorian, with an Irish waiter and a Spanish cook. Say hello to the new Europe.
Montreux Riviera Card
Montreux, Switzerland has a program for tourists that is ingenious: the Montreux Riviera Card, which is given only to hotel guests upon arrival. The Card provides free- or a reduced-entry fee to several popular sites, including some museums you’ll likely want to visit. And there’s also a welcome gift awaiting you at the casino.
Better yet, though, it also provides you with free public transportation on trains and buses in much of the area throughout your hotel stay. It makes getting around very easy on both your feet and wallet.
The Spectacular Lavaux Vineyards
Although most people don’t think of Montreux and Switzerland as wine producers, although both do produce some outstanding wines. It’s not better known overseas because the Swiss consume most of it themselves, exporting only about 1% of their production.
One of its most famous wine-growing regions in Switzerland is the Lavaux, a UNESCO World Heritage Site adjacent to Montreux. The largest contiguous vineyard region in Switzerland, it covers more than 2,000 acres (800+ hectares) along the north shore of Lake Geneva. You can see the vineyards on foot, by bike, boat, or car.
Its beautiful steep terraces, spectacular in every season, were cleared and planted by monks back in the 12th century. It’s one of the most famous attractions in the area and encompasses more than 14 well-preserved villages.
Late one morning, my guide took me to a wine tasting in Domaine Bovy in Lavaux. As have many of the other vineyards in Lavaux, Bovy has been in the same family for generations. The wine was delicious, as was our lunch at the Au Lion d’Or (Golden Lion) restaurant in the village of Chexbres. The restaurant was just a few minutes’ walk from the vineyard.
As delicious as the food and wine were the spectacular views out over the lake everywhere one turned. I became fascinated with the Belle Epoque steamers gliding back and forth between towns on the lake below.
Getting to the vineyards is relatively easy with the Montreux Riviera Card since it’s only a 15-minute train ride from Montreux Station to Chexbres Village. It’s well worth taking the train out to the vineyards, then walking back downhill to Montreux.
If You Go:
Rue du Bourg de Plaît 15
Tel: +41 21 946 51 25
Au Lion d’Or
Tel: +41 21 946 50 70
Montreux’s Chillon Castle
After leaving the vineyards, I took a train and bus to the other side of Montreux to visit Chillon Castle, the most pouplar tourist site in Switzerland.
The castle is in a beautiful setting and a strategic one and dates back to the 13th century. It was built by the powerful Dukes of Savoy, who lived in it until the 16th century.
Constructed on a tiny island only yards from shore, it once controlled all of the traffic that moved from Italy up through Europe to London and vice versa. Obviously, control also meant they could tax everyone who passed through.
As castles often have, Chillon had a prison. If not the most famous, one of its famous prisoners was Francois Bonivard, prior of a monastery outside Geneva. He was imprisoned for his opposition to the Dukes infringing on the liberties of Geneva. He was freed six years later when the Bernese took control of the castle in 1536.
Almost 300 years later, Lord Byron visited Chillon while it still had a prison. At the time, he was only able to visit the downstairs, where he carved his name into the stone on one of the pillars, which you can still see today. Byron also wrote the long poem The Prisoner of Chillon about Bonivard, which made the castle world-renowned.
Rent an audio guide when you enter or, as I did, just get a brochure at the ticket booth. It provides the layout of the small castle with a short description of each of the rooms.
If You Go:
Avenue de Chillon 21
Tel: +41 21 966 89 10
– Admission: Adults 13.50 CHF; Children (under 6) 7 CHF; Seniors 11.50 CHF; Families 35CHF.
– 50% discount with the Montreux Riviera Card.
– Entrance tickets are timed with not more than 230 people allowed in the castle at any one time.
– Open January – March (closed on 1 January) Tuesday – Sunday (closed on Mondays) 10:00am to 5:00pm (last entry at 4:00pm).
April – December (closed on 25 December) Monday – Sunday 10:00am to 6:00pm (last entry at 5:00pm).
A Walk Along the Quay in Montreux
Whatever you do in Montreux, don’t miss taking a walk along the lakeside promenade. It’s one of the beautiful experiences on the Montreux Riviera.
The six-mile-long promenade runs from the town of Vevey, thru Montreux, and on to Chillon Castle, a two-hour walk. From downtown Montreux, Chillon is an easy 30-minute-walk along the promenade.
Looking out across the azure waters to the French Alps, you stroll through lovely gardens while swans paddle slowly beside you. It’s one of those walks that is almost dreamlike given the right weather and time of day. Because of Montreux’s mild climate, you’ll find beautiful sub-tropical vegetation all along the way.
Walking on the promenade back to my hotel from Chillon one afternoon, I watched mothers and their children playing by the water’s edge. Swans swam slowly by while fishermen standing on a saucer-shaped piece of wharf dropped their lines into the lake. As the afternoon sun started its run towards the horizon, a Belle Époque steamer slid quietly by, completing the scene. I felt as if I was viewing a painting.
Along the promenade, as elsewhere, I discovered pieces of outdoor art. On the quay near the Montreux Casino, I found the famous life-size statue of Freddie Mercury, the former lead vocalist of the rock band Queen. Mercury adopted Montreux as his home and lived there until he died in 1991. Locals revered him then and, judging by the candles and bouquets of flowers set by his statue, still do.
If you enjoy Queen, you’ll likely want to visit Queen, the Studio Experience, a museum dedicated to the group. Located in the Casino Barrière de Montreux, a 15-minute walk from Montreux train station, it’s more than a museum, however. It’s actually the studio in which the group made their recordings from 1978 to 1995.
If You Go:
Walking About the Old City
I found it quite enjoyable walking about Vieux-Montreux, the old-city area of Montreux, just taking in the ambiance. I loved the various colored buildings with colorful flowers on window terraces or cascading over fountains along the streets. Beyond it, the views of the lake continually changed with the moods of the weather and time of day.
I found museums in the area as well, such as the Musée du Vieux-Montreux in Montreux’s Old Town, and others dedicated to such subjects as Swiss cameras, games, and “Belle Époque” trains, peppered about the Riviera.
Cog Railway Montreux – Rochers-de-Naye
You can also take a cog railway up to the summit of the nearby Rochers de Naye, one of the towering Alps. The railway operates year-round, and the trip takes 54 minutes to reach the 6,699-foot summit. There you’re rewarded with an incredible view over the Alps, Montreux, Lake Geneva, and a good swath of Switzerland.
You’ll also find over a mile of hiking trails. Take one to “La Rambertia,” an alpine garden with a collection of 1,000 alpine plants. They’re mainly from Switzerland and the Alps, but it also includes alpine plants from other mountainous regions. The garden is open from mid-June to the end of September. Admission is free.
At the summit, you’ll also find Marmots Paradise, which gives you a peek at different species of marmots from all over the world in their burrows.
For lunch or a snack before you head back down, enjoy a meal in the panorama restaurant “Plein Roc.” It’s set in the rock face of the mountain.
If You Go:
Compagnie du Chemin de Fer MOB SA
Rue de la Gare 22
Tel : +41 (0)21 989 81 90
– Tickets: from CHF 17.50
Sail on the Belle Epoque Fleet
If you’re looking for something that’s uniquely Swiss, take a cruise on Lake Geneva aboard one of the old-fashioned steamboats or paddle wheelers. They’ve been part of the lakeside scenery in Montreux and Switzerland for about 100 years.
The Belle Époque Fleet, the only fleet of its type in the world, links the towns of Vevey Marché, Montreux, and Villeneuve. La Suisse, the belle of the fleet, has been described as the most beautiful steamboat in the world.
It’s an incredible experience dining as you sail on the lake. The steamships’ restaurants are first-class in every respect. They are delightful, with prices similar to those of good quality Swiss restaurants onshore.
You can bring along your own picnic if you like – picnicking is allowed out on the open decks – but the onboard restaurant experience really enhances the trip. If you opt not to have lunch or dinner on board, you can also have coffee and cake in the restaurant as seats become available after the meal. Book in advance since space can be limited.
If You Go:
Tel: +41 (0)900 929 929
– Riviera Tour – from CHF36 (every Sunday “if the weather is nice” from Vevey, Montreux, Le Bouveret, etc.)
– The Captain’s Table – Gastronomy and a lake getaway – from 55 CHF (every Sunday and on public holidays from Vevey, Montreux, Le Bouveret, etc.)
– Lunch on the Lake Cruise – daily from 50CHF
– Riviera Tour Cruise – daily from 47CHF
Montreux Jazz Festival
The Montreux Jazz Festival is world renown, although the term “jazz” is a bit of a misnomer since it now features all types of popular music. Held annually in July, in past years, it’s hosted such international artists as Ray Charles, Quincy Jones, Miles Davis, BB King, and David Bowie, among many others.
While the 2020 festival was canceled due to the pandemic, the 55th Montreux Jazz Festival is set to go ahead. This year it will be held July 2–17, 2021, with a completely re-imagined format.
A stage will be constructed on the lake about 75 feet (25 meters) from shore. Hosting ticketed performances, it will have a maximum capacity of 600 seats on a tiered terrace. Three stages with a smaller capacity will be set in the Fairmont Le Montreux Palace hotel’s spaces and gardens. They will host jazz concerts, jam sessions, workshops, and more.
There will be 16 days of the festival this year with 380 concerts, of which 250 will be free. 250,000 festival-goers are expected to attend.
If You Go:
Fondation du Festival de Jazz de Montreux
2m2c / Avenue Claude Nobs 5
Tel: +41 21 966 44 44
– Some Montreux Jazz Festival events are free; others require tickets. Ticket prices depend on the individual concerts. Events in the Auditorium Stravinski and Miles Davis Hall typically range from approximately CHF75 for standing to around CHF240 for the best seats.
– Special passes are also available for all concerts. The All Music Pass is valid for all shows in the Auditorium Stravinsky and Miles Davis Hall and is approximately CHF1500 for standing room. A pass for the Auditorium Stravinski’s best seats is approximately CHF2000 per week for the three-week festival.
Vevey and Charlie Chaplin
Vevey is a charming town that anchors the northern end of the six-mile promenade that runs to Montreux and Chillon Castle.
It’s a lovely town that still flaunts its Belle Epoch roots with its majestic hotels and flower-bedecked lakeside. Walking along that lakeside, you can’t help but notice the giant fork in the water. It belongs to the Alimentarium, a nearby museum with a permanent exhibition on food. The museum also includes displays on Nestlé, whose world headquarters is in Vevey.
Near this lakeside spot, you’ll also find a statue of Charlie Chaplin, Vevey’s most famous citizen. Chaplin spent the last 25 years of his life here, and his former home, Le Manoir-de-Ban in Corsier-sur-Vevey, is now a museum called Chaplin’s World. It contains many of Chaplin’s personal items, re-created film sets, and an interactive studio.
Near the train station in Vevey is the Musée Jenisch with works by prominent 19th – and 20th -century Swiss artists.
Vevey experienced its first heyday in the Belle Epoch period at the end of the 19th century. Even today, majestic hotels and a flower-bedecked lakeside promenade lined with palm trees continue to serve as reminders of this age.
If You Go:
Quai Perdonnet 25
1800 Vevey, Switzerland
Tel: +41 21 924 41 11
– Admission: from CHF1; Family from CHF28
Route de Fenil 2
Tel: +41 842 422 422
– Admission: CHF 18-27; Family CHF 73
You’ll find plenty of hotels in Montreux, Switzerland ranging from modest to grand. I stayed at the three-star Tralala Hotel in the older area of the city, which was comfortable, run with typical Swiss efficiency, and provided everything I needed, including breakfast. The rate is currently $187, including taxes and fees. Of course, there are many other hotels in Montreux that are more or less expensive.