Switzerland Guide, Europe 2017-03-11T09:24:08+00:00

Switzerland Travel Guide, Europe

A Cog Railcar grinds up the steep incline of Mount Pilatus, near Lucerne, Switzerland

A Cog Railcar hauls a weighty tourist load up the steep incline of Mount Pilatus, near Lucerne, Switzerland.

Why visit Switzerland?

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 statue, Switzerland

Montreux Palace Hotel and BB King in Montreux Pictures.

Downsides

– 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.

Weather

Best: June-September for summer activities and December-March for winter sports.

Where to go in Switzerland

South-west (Lake Geneva, French-speaking)

**Geneva (Geneve), 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 giant fork near Vevey, Switzerland

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.

*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 of Chillon. ‘

The middle (Mittelland, German-speaking)

Switzerland, Chateau de Chillon, Lake Geneva

Chillon Castle near Montreux on Lake Geneva. Photo by Eric Hill

***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 fortifications.

Berne old town clock and tram, Switzerland

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 model.

Lucerne, Chapel Bridge and Wasserturm, Switzerland

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.

Zurich National Museum glitter ball, Switzerland

The Swiss National Museum Dance Party in Zurich (! )

The 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 Moritz.

**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 and Wissberg peak, Switzerland

Engelberg in summertime. Photo by Mussklprozz.

Ticino, 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.

Transport

Swiss domestic 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 for information on the incredible, integrated, no-motor network.
Lake ferries are famously scenic (only June-September).

International Transport. Roads and railways from the rest of Europe are superb, while boating from Germany, France and Italy is also possible. Buses are a less comfortable option.

Language

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.

Visas

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.

Money

Contrary to some 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.

Electricity

Electric sockets are 230v and are built for three round pin plugs but will accept the usual 2 round pin plugs, fortunately.

Accommodation

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.

Food

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.

Safety

Switzerland is just about the safest place in Europe though pickpockets are still around so keep valuables buttoned up and preferably back at your hotel in the safe.
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.

Lake Lucerne ferry at sunset. Switzerland

Lake Lucerne ferry at sunset.

Activities

Switzerland has a network of fully integrated, non-motor transport routes

The network covers around 20, 000 kms (12, 500 miles) of superb trails for walkers, cyclists, inline skaters, mountain bikers and canoeists over 169 routes.

Furthermore, Switzerland Mobility – as the umbrella organisation is known – also runs a fleet of vehicles that conveniently transport baggage to the next destination for anyone who prefers to travel light (and has a very fat wallet, we abandoned Swiss biking plans recently due to costs), while bicycles can be rented at one station and dropped off at another, or carried on trains and some buses that are equipped with bike racks. Some bikes even have a battery-powered assist feature if a cyclist needs help up hills.

Hiking

With magnificent views of mountains, flower-carpeted meadows and alpine valleys, waterfalls and superbly organised and supported trails, this is a must-trek destination. Possibilities are too many to list with 6, 300 kms (4, 000 miles) of hiker-dedicated footpaths out there!

Cycling or Mountain Biking

There are over 150 well designed mountain bike routes in Switzerland, ranging from the easy to the insane, all with breathtaking views and totalling 3, 300 kms (2, 000 miles) . For regular cycles there are over 8, 500 kms (5, 300 miles) of mostly asphalted trails.

Inline Skating

Around 1, 000 kms (625 miles) of specially asphalted, reasonably flat, scenic routes, such as the Rhine, Lake Constance and around Mittelland lakes, make this possibly the world’s best wheel-based skating destination.

Canoeing

SwitzerlandMobility has set up 410 kms (256 miles) of waterways for kayaks and canoes. The Muota River (Schwyz) and the Doubs (Jura) are most wanted.

Windsurfing

Wind can be erratic due to altitude or rock interference, but some popular spots are these lakes: Estavayer-le-Lac, Leman, Bieler, Urner, Alpenmacher, Maggiore (north), Lugano.

White-water rafting

The Rhine and Saane rivers are well known but the Alps provides many more possibilities.

Climbing

Zermatt, Pontresina and Meiringen are areas favoured by serious climbers.

Paragliding off Mount Pilatus, Switzerland

Taking the easy way down. Catch the cog railway up Mount Pilatus, walk 80m and jump.

Para/Hangliding

Yet another use for those huge hunks of rock. . . hang/paragliding are well provided for in most larger resorts, including first-time tandem flights where no experience is necessary; particularly popular at Interlaken and Engelberg.

Winter sports

Vast quantities of the white stuff are just about everywhere of course, but what makes this country a bit special is firstly, doing the white thing in the shadow of a truly awesome mountain, such as Zermatt near the base of the Matterhorn, adds infinitely to the experience, and secondly that in some places the snow is available nearly all year.
Zermatt and Verbier St-Bernard are the best targets for skiing (tho’ not, perhaps, for beginners) and nightlife.
Apart from skiing, dog sleds and horse-drawn sleigh rides are popular with tourists.

Wellness

With pure alpine air and a teutonic attitude to health, Switzerland offers a mass of spas, saunas and therapy centres in stunning locations.

Unusual activities

Switzerland goes in for some off-the-wall sports too, such as canyoning, zorbing (rolling down a mountainside in huge transparent ball) or house running (abseiling down tall buildings at high speed). Interlaken and Lucerne are centres for these mad moments.

Swiss Festivals

Snow freaks have plenty of wacky winter festivals to attend, such as:

Music festivals at 1, 800m in deep snow (Fuchstival, mid March or Kleine Scheidegg early April).
Dog sled racing (Zinal, mid March or Chandolin early April).
Waterslide Contest (Bettmeralp, late March or Valais, April).
Downhill mountain bike races (on snow) from 3, 600m (Allalin, early April).

Feb/March (Mon-Thurs after Ash Wednesday), Fasnacht (carnival) – especially colourful in Basel where up to 20, 000 masked revellers take to the darkened streets and make mad music, starting at 4. 00 am on the Monday!

July, Montreux Jazz Festival.

August 1, Swiss National Day – with various activities including fireworks, dancing and accordion performance overload.

Some ‘Secret’ Swiss ski resorts

St Luc
This charming and tranquil village is in the Valais region of south Switzerland. It’s hidden away at 1, 650m and accessible via twisting roads with views of the Matterhorn. St Luc has 75km of slopes and a funicular that takes you to pistes that are best for intermediates and beginners.

Surlej
Just three miles from St Moritz in the Engadin Valley but in a world of its own next to the gorgeous Lake Silvaplana, Surlej has a couple of small restaurants, an old boulangerie, and a small cluster of chalets and hotels. It is just a short trip via shuttle buses to the cable car that takes you to the mass of St Moritz ski slopes.

Veysonnaz
This village is part of the Four Valleys ski region that is dominated by Verbier. It is the most attractive of Verbier suburbs, and offers a great selection of bars, cafés and restaurants. Veysonnaz is close to more than 400m of ski runs.

Riederalp
Lurking on the mountainside in the Upper Valais close to the stunning Big Aletsch glacier, Riederalpis a tiny, car-free village. It’s adjacent to a number of calm, family ski slopes that connect to Bettmeralp and Fiesch-Eggishorn. The area sports 104km of runs including roomed slopes that are suited to beginners and intermediates.

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