Best: June-September for summer activities and December-March for winter
Yet another quirky little European country, Switzerland is a wonderful combination of
spectacularly bumpy landscapes, perfectly aligned fantasy, wooden villages (albeit with modern concrete monstrousities scattered around too), ancient lakeside cities and great efficiency.
Clichés of course but best Swiss experiences involve
a combination of the following - viewing of incredible mountains and lakes, taking part in a variet of sporting activities (summer or winter) in stupendous locations,
chowing down and drinking up in stylish, old but lively towns or quaint hillside villages.
Getting from place to place is a breeze via the precise domestic transport system - both buses and trains that are only overtaken for punctuality by Japan. Cycling is encouraged with thousands of kilometres of bike lanes both in and out of cities and easy rentals at train stations (if they haven't run out). Cars drive ever-so correctly and parking is readily available.
In addition Switzerland is super-safe, many locals speak two or three
languages including English and the country is loaded with terrific
beers, rich food, amazing pastries and chocolate.
Montreux Palace Hotel and BB King in Montreux Pictures.
- Switzerland is not a cheap destination.
- don't try anything remotely illegal, (such as crossing
the road when the little man is red), this is a very law-abiding
state with eyes everywhere (and discreet grey speed cameras that do not register with satnavs!).
- Swiss people - about 65% Germanic - though extremely polite, are,
like their climate, cool towards foreigners.
- climatic conditions change suddenly so forget weather forecasts and build flexibility into your schedule; if it's sunny, go up a mountain; if it's cloudy, rent a bike; if it rains, go shopping.
Activities Guide | Switzerland
to go in Switzerland:
(Lake Geneva, French-speaking):
attractively situated at the southwest tip of Lake Geneva, near
France, is cultured and metropolitan, but more of a business and
diplomatic centre than party place. Geneva offers a spectacular view of Mont Blanc, a French joie de vivre and lots of lakeside action, including swimming in the summer as well as a great selection of museums and some decent
architecture including the ubiquitous old town.
**Lausanne, (pronounced loz-anne) on the other hand and
the other side of the lake, really knows how to play, due partly
to the university's youth contribution. Steeply tiered, it 's stylish
and pleasantly walkable, particularly along the big and tourist-buzzy waterfront but a bit short of the wow factor. Travelling up and down the fairly steep hillside is easy on the autopiloted 'metro' tram.
Lake Geneva in Vevey Pictures
On the east side of Lake Geneva lie three smaller locations of interest:
***Vevey, just a few klicks along the coast, is a small and appealing market
town surrounded by grape vines, with a magnificent, quirky promenade, sensational views across the lake, a summer sandy 'beach', various lake activities and not too many tourists, unlike neighbouring Montreux.
6km further along the lakeside is the affluent and bijou home to the world's best Jazz Festival in July, but spoilt by tourist herds bussed in from Lausanne for a quick wobble along the prom followed by a steamboat trip back to Lausanne (or boating from Lausanne and bussing back).
The 13thC **Chateau
de Chillon is a star attraction in this area, next to Montreux and beautifully
located, if you can ignore the autoroute humming overhead. This well-preserved castle was popularised by Lord Byron's 'Prisoner
Chillon Castle on Lake Geneva, backed by Dents du Midi mountain range
Picture © B Lazar
middle (Mittelland, German-speaking):
***Bern's (Berne) tiny, quiet, riverside elegance
is not at all what you would expect of Switzerland's capital. The
old town's river-hugged, cobbled streets and arcaded buildings date from the 11thC
to the 18thC, though they are not dark, narrow or medieval in aspect, though they do possess a certain grisly humour with statues around dedicated to both bears (the city symbol) and the worst aspects of Grimm's fairy tales (no shortage of ogres!).
Just south of Bern the Lake Thun area affords castle freaks the
opportunity to pleasure themselves repeatedly on fine 12th and 13thC
Berne old town in Bern Pictures
***Lucerne (Luzern) is more than just
another gorgeous Swiss city. Mix lake, river, mountain, alpine meadows and a colourful, well-preserved old town, throw in a lively youth-oriented street culture, plenty
of activities (on and around the lake, up Mount Pilatus
or 40 minutes away at Engelberg), simmer gently and you've got the foreign traveller's #1 Swiss role
Lucerne lake view in Luzern Pictures
*Basel is wealthy, cultured and convenient,
with a pleasant old town and fine museums, but too preoccupied with
business to be much fun.
***Zurich, up north, is a far, gnomic
cry from its stuffy banking image these days. Gorgeously located
astride a river and boxed in by Lake Zurich and distant snowy mountains,
the city is a hive of creativity, with a modestly
medieval old town and a huge variety of imaginative new establishments
to relieve you of your wad.
The miniscule principality of Liechtenstein is two hours away but offers little of interest.
The Swiss National Museum Dance Party in Zurich Pictures ( say what?!)
Alps mountains (south):
*** The Jungfrau Region towards the country's centre offers
the highest and most scenic rail trip, connecting three peaks, the
Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau, though some argue that the Schilthorn
cable-car is cheaper, quicker and more scenic.
**Murren and **Grindelwald towns are
good bases for both winter and summer sports, but local hub *Interlaken is
too frenetic and a bit too far from the snow action to be a good sports base.
***The Matterhorn is a gloriously peaky Swiss icon and
the original model for Toblerone chocolate, while...
***Zermatt at the base of the Matterhorn (picture top of page) is a delightful car-free town where transport is either horse sleigh or electric bus;
mountain views are no less than staggering and snow activities are nearly year-round though the skiing is a little strenuous for beginners. Zermatt
is pricey but adventurous tourists can jump on the Gornergrat railway and head uphill to the hyper-active, low-cost Iglu Village and sleep in a romantic igloo! (Christmas to mid-April).
There's a ravishing, day-long, panoramic Glacier Express train from Zermatt to St
**St Moritz. Very posh, very beautiful,
and very expensive, though St Moritz-Bad would be less bad for your
wallet than snooty St Moritz-Dorf.
Engelberg view and Wissberg peak, in summertime.
Picture © Gary718
Italian region, south Alps:
Warmer and culturally very different from the rest of Switzerland,
Ticino sports palm trees, piazzas and pizzas along with the usual
lakes, woody hills and medieval old towns. Prime targets are **Locarno
and ***Lugano, both on lakes, with the latter offering more
views, style and sights.
Swiss transport is brilliant and trains are the way to go if available.
InterRail or Eurail passes offer well-discounted tourism, though
not on a few spectacular mountain routes. See Switzerland Activities page for information on the incredible, integrated, no-motor network.
Lake ferries are famously scenic (only June-September).
Roads and railways from the rest of Europe are superb, while boating
from Germany, France and Italy is also possible. Buses are a less
Not a problem in this country which has more multi-lingual ability
than any other on earth. A twisted German is the dominant tongue
and French second, but everyone can handle English.
Minimum worthwhile stay, not including flights: Berne or Lucerne
for a romantic weekend, or Zermatt for a sports break.
Recommended: 10 days to get totally knackered at your choice of
EU citizens and nationals of USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand
and Japan do not need a visa for up to 3 months, though you should
always carry your passport.
Contrary to expectations, the local currency is the Swiss Franc
(also used by their little brother Liechtenstein), but most places
in tourist areas will accept the Euro - though at a cost.
Tipping is not necessary anywhere as 15% service charge is applied
to just about everything including taxis.
Costs are on the high side, though cheapish holidays in Switzerland
are possible if you eat fast food, use a railpass and stay in hostels.
Electric sockets are 230v and are built for three round pin plugs
but will accept the usual 2 round pin plugs, fortunately.
Tourist offices are efficient in listing local rooms/hotels
available, often with boards placed outside rail stations. They
also hand out 'guest cards' that secure various discounts.
Hotels are not necessarily expensive but hostels are, of course,
the cheapest option, though still good quality.
Campsites are good too, mostly open only in summertime. Free camping
is not permitted.
If you're a non-dairy eater then you'll have a problem in Switzerland, though vegetarians will be unusually fulfilled.
Cheese appears frequently and is the star of Swiss specialities
like fondue (dipping bread or potato into melted cheese), raclette
(similar) and rosti (cheese-topped grated potatoes).
Lake fish are a popular dish and vegetarian restaurants common.
Those on a budget can find good value set lunch menus or self-service
restaurants in department stores.
Switzerland is just about the safest place on the planet. Apart
from overeating and snow accidents the biggest dangers are likely
to be altitude
sickness (AMS) or hypothermia when you overestimate your climbing/hiking
ability or getting caught by a flash flood while canyoning in summertime.