Switzerland is a land of charming stereotypes…..idyllic mountain meadows nestled below soaring peaks…..Heidi-like villages where the Alpine air resonates with the clang of cow bells and church bells…..a country where fast trains whisk you between bustling cities and old lake steamers glide lazily between centuries-old villages. What makes the country so fascinating is that the stereotypes are real, so real, in fact, one could argue that they barely scratch the surface…..
By Jim Ferri
Little Switzerland has always been one of Europe’s most popular travel destinations.
Ask just about any traveler who’s been there and you’ll be regaled with descriptions of spectacular scenery, great hotel experiences, après-ski chicness, Heidi-like mountain villages and a modern, comfortable transportation system that runs with Swiss-clock-like precision.
Experience it for yourself and you’ll discover there’s much more, once you peel back the stereotypical veneer. You’ll discover a multi-faceted destination that transcends the tourist-brochure hype, one that provides a world of experiences for just about any type of traveler. No wonder it’s on so many bucket lists.
If it’s on your list, here are some must-see’s to get you headed in the right direction.
A Good Place to Begin
When flying in or out of Switzerland I’ve found that Zürich is a good place to begin or end a vacation since its airport is top-notch.
It’s not only modern, but also close to the city by train, only a 10-minute ride. And you can take a train from the terminal and connect to anywhere in the country or throughout Europe, for that matter, since Zürich’s main railway station is regarded as a central European railroad hub.
Set on the northern shores of Lake Zürich with a magnificent view of the snow-capped Alps on the horizon, Zürich has a multicultural flair. The city’s downtown offers a unique mixture of attractions – over 50 museums and more than 100 art galleries, shops selling international and local fashion labels, and the most flamboyant and lively nightlife in the country. Recreational activities range from sailing on the lake in the heart of the city, to a spectacular hike on the Uetliberg Mountain. There are some very good tours both in and outside the city.
Set between nearby Alpine peaks and the hilly terrain of the Jura, French-speaking Geneva lies in the bay where the Rhone leaves Lake Geneva. With its humanitarian tradition and cosmopolitan flair, Geneva is the European seat of the United Nations and headquarters of the Red Cross, adding to its reputation as the “Capital of Peace.”
Travelers find the city’s old town, with its quays, lakeside promenades, elegant shops, parks and lively side streets, an inviting place to stroll. The famous Jet d’Eau, a fountain with a near-500 foot-high water jet that is set in Lake Geneva, is an icon of the city.
Culturally, this city on the westernmost fringe of Switzerland has much to offer. International artists perform in the Grand Théâtre and the Opera House, and there’s a diverse range of museums including — what else — the Musée international de l’horlogerie, a watch museum with a collection of jewelry watches and musical clocks.
The Essence of Switzerland
For many travelers Lucerne is the essence of Switzerland. It sits picture-perfect on Lake Lucerne, below a beautiful panorama of the Alps, with a car-free old town with gable paintings; a covered, medieval bridge in the center of town (one of the oldest in Europe); old houses decorated with frescoes; and charming town squares
Travel outside the city to experience the beautiful views on a trip up one of its nearby mountains, or enjoy a steamship cruise along the beautiful lake. Lucern is also a good starting point for excursions about central Switzerland.
Guides to Switzerland I Recommend
DK Eyewitness Travel Guide Switzerland These are my go-to guides all over the world since they are packed with information and illustrations found nowhere else.
Lonely Planet Switzerland These guides are also excellent and have developed a wide following among travelers worldwide.
Switzerland: A Guide to Exploring the Country by Public Transport The unique Bradt’s Guide tells you how to get the most from traveling through Switzerland on the world’s finest public transport network – which explains why so many Swiss don’t own cars.
Interlaken, the Adventure Capital
Interlaken, in Switzerland’s Bernese Oberland Region between Lake Thun and Lake Brienz, is presided over by the three mighty mountains: the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau.
It’s considered the adventure capital of Switzerland, thanks to its 45+ mountain railways, cable cars, chair lifts and ski lifts that bring skiers and hikers to 150 miles of slopes and a dense network of trails.
In the warmer months paragliders head for Beatenberg-Niederhorn, a popular area just 7 miles away, while those with less lofty ambitions enjoy cruises on Lake Thun and Lake Brienz aboard excursion boats, including historic paddle steamers.
Lake Geneva Region
The Lake Geneva Region, encompassing Lausanne. Lauvaux and Montreux, boasts two UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Beautiful Lausanne is built on three hills, and surrounded by vineyard-covered slopes, with Lake Geneva at its feet and the Savoy Alps of France across the lake. Its old town, dominated by a cathedral that’s the country’s most impressive piece of early Gothic architecture, with cafes and peppering the medieval city center. It’s so picturesque it’s not surprising the International Olympic Committee has been based here since 1914.
Nearby Lavaux is a wonderful world of vineyard terraces. At 800 hectares it is Switzerland’s largest contiguous vineyard area with terraces that not only offer magnificent views, but also produce such fine wines as St-Saphorin, Dézaley and Epesses. You can taste them on visits to one of the charming pintes, mini-restaurants typical of the Lavaux.
Further along the lakeshore Montreux hosts the world-famous Montreux Jazz Festival every June/July. This pretty lakeside city is surrounded by vineyards set against the breathtaking backdrop of snow-covered Alps and nearby Chillon Castle, immortalized by Lord Byron, is the most visited attraction in the entire country.
Basel, the Art City
Shoehorned between Germany and France, and bisected by the Rhine, Basel is the third largest city in Switzerland. Given its geographical position it comes as no surprise that it has a diversity of cultures, as well as a multifaceted history.
It also boasts a wealth of modern art and architecture, and its nearly 40 museums give it the highest density of museums in the country. Among them are the internationally known and popular Basel Art Museum, the Fondation Beyeler and the Museum of Cultures, all of which attract a great many visitors. Basel’s symphony orchestra, chamber orchestra and musical theatre features international productions.
Travelers know this “City of Art” for its historic landmarks, including the large market square with its richly decorated red sandstone town hall and the late Romanesque-Gothic cathedral. It’s a fascinating city that comes alive on several fascinating tours.
Zermatt and Its Matterhorn
In the Valais region of Switzerland, popular Zermatt lies at the foot of Matterhorn, the most photographed mountain in the world. It’s located in the middle of an enormous hiking and ski region that encompasses 63 mountain railways and more than 200 miles of slopes.
High above the city the area called the “Matterhorn Glacier Paradise“ is Europe’s largest and highest-lying summer skiing region, a place where many national ski teams train in the summer.
The region is legendary among mountaineers: the Haute Route, a challenging international route that takes several days to complete, leads from Mont Blanc to Zermatt. Over 400 kilometers of hiking trails lead through and out of the Matter Valley, including the mule traders’ trails, which date back to the 13th century.
Engadin St. Moritz
Located at 1,800 m above sea level in the alpine canton of Graubünden, the 13 towns and villages of the Engadin St. Moritz region are blessed with 322 days of sunshine a year, and enjoy a gloriously mild microclimate.
Travelers are lured to the area by its chicness, authentic village traditions and unspoiled nature. The Upper Engadin provides spectacular mountain views, a seemingly endless expanse of lake plateau and, to some, a magical quality in the light.
The area has a fascinating cultural heritage – while Romansch is its official main language, German is spoken in St. Moritz, Italian in the neighboring valleys, French at the Club Med and a lot of English at the Cresta Run, a toboggan track that winds its way from St Moritz down past the tiny hamlet of Cresta, to the village of Celerina.
Of all of Switzerland’s cities, it’s Bern, the capital, that’s most immediately charming. Crammed onto a steep-sided peninsula in a crook of a fast-flowing river, its quiet, cobbled lanes are lined with sandstone-arcaded 500-year old buildings that have changed little over time.
The hills all around the city, and the steep banks of the river, are still heavily wooded. The old town of Bern is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, thanks in part to its four miles of arcades, which the locals refer to as “Lauben,” making it the longest weather-sheltered shopping promenade in Europe. Views of the area, especially of both the Old Town’s clustered roofs and of the majestic Alps on the horizon, are beautiful.
Switzerland’s Little Italy
The Mediterranean region of Europe seems to begin on the south side of the Alps in Ticino. There’s a feel of Italy here, with palms and citrus trees scattered about, and streets winding their way down to little piazzas. It’s Switzerland’s only Italian-speaking canton and it shares the Italian love of food, wine and la dolce vita, the later somehow coexisting with the Swiss need for regulations and rules.
The city of Bellinzona, capital of the canton, boasts three castles, and a defensive wall and ramparts of the old market town that are listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. A half-hour to the south is the lovely city of Lugano, set on the lake of the same name.
In the Lake Maggiore region the lakeside town of Locarno enjoys what is probably the best climate in Switzerland, with nearly 2,300 hours of sunshine annually and an average annual temperature of 60°F. The town has several cultural events, including an international Film Festival.
Although not as popular, or as well known as the other Swiss cantons, the Canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden is known for rural customs and traditions such as the ceremonial descent of the cattle in autumn and cultural events such as folk music and rustic dances, as well as hiking and biking tours in the Alpstein region.
It’s the smallest Swiss canton with only about 7,000 inhabitants, something that makes it appealing for those who want to escape the tourist crowds.
If you go: