Modern Europe at its best, Switzerland appeals to visitors who travel to surround themselves with spectacular scenery — and want to travel. from point to point via clean, reliable, and affordable public transportation.
In this compact yet geologically diverse nation, mere miles separate the glaciers and Alpine meadows of Switzerland from her sparkling lakes and swaying palm trees.
The Swiss Travel System — an impressive network of trains, boats, and buses — is what connects the dots. In fact, this first-rate transportation resource is an apt symbol of the country’s vaunted friendliness, efficiency, and intelligence.
Year-Round Attractions in Switzerland
Regardless of the season, there’s always something new to travel to see in Switzerland. Annual spring events include Snow & Symphony in St. Moritz, set against a backdrop of still-white Alps.
Every April, Zurich’s traditional Sechselaeuten is held: Guild members parade through the streets in historical costumes, eager to torch Boegg, an effigy who represents winter. In June, Art Basel – dubbed the “Olympics of art world” by The New York Times — brings together masterpieces and avant-garde works from the world’s most prestigious galleries.
July marks the yearly Montreux Jazz Festival, which today hosts blues, rock, world music, and soul performances as well as classical jazz sets. Hear more beautiful sounds in beautiful surroundings during the annual Music Summer in Gstaad and at Lucerne’s International Music Festival.
Basel’s Autumn Fair, a celebration dating back to 1471, declares the arrival of the colorful season. The Lugano Wine Festival features parades of flower-bedecked floats and tasty cuisine.
Come November, Bern’s annual Onion Market engulfs that city in foods fragrant from the bulb while jesters dressed as onions add a welcome note of silliness. Winter revelry surrounds Ash Wednesday, at carnivals in Lucerne and Basel alive with parades, masked balls, and other high-spirited celebrations.
Museums of Switzerland
Visitors who travel around a country come to understand what it venerates by what it conserves in its museums. Switzerland’s range from the artful to the historic to the downright quirky. Whatever your interest, you’re likely to find a fascinating place to explore it.
The fun and enlightening Swiss Transport Museum in Lucerne features interactive displays, the Zeiss Longines Planetarium, Cosmorama, IMAX Theater, and St. Gotthard Tunnel multimedia show. And its HiFlyer — a helium-filled balloon seating up to 25 people — floats 360 feet above the museum for a bird’s-eye view of the surrounding Alpine panorama.
The Olympic Museum in Lausanne captures the most moving moments of Games past in riveting presentations, while the Swiss Open-Air Museum Ballenberg reveals what the country was like before the industrial revolution. It features working artisans, original buildings (many are centuries old), horse-drawn carriages, and serves farm-made fare.
With a BaselCard (available at a 20 percent discount to Swiss Pass holders), you can explore not only the city’s world-class museums; you can also take a city tour, attend the theater, dance performances, and concerts, and get into many other performances free or at reduced rates.
Sporting Life in Switzerland
With more than 2,000 miles of biking paths, Switzerland is a haven for bicyclists of all levels. But you needn’t bring your bike to travel on two wheels: Many Swiss train stations are stocked with current models available for rent.
The price includes insurance, and a Swiss Travel System ticket entitles you to a special rate. Designed for convenience and to help you get rolling, many trains feature special compartments to transport bikes. Rented bikes can be stashed for free, and there’s a minimal charge to carry ones that are not property of the Swiss Travel System.
Since many visitors travel to Switzerland intending to ski the world-famous peaks (at altitudes above 3,000 feet, there’s perennial snow cover), Swiss Rent-a-Sport offers the latest gear, ranging from skis to snowboards.
The soaring Alps have challenged some of history’s greatest explorers and athletes. Although Europeans shunned the peaks for centuries (fearing them to be inhospitable realms of icy terror that harbored dragons, witches, and demons), locales such as Davos, St. Moritz, Gstaad, Interlaken, and Zermatt are today choice destinations for skiers, sight-seers, and sophisticates. Each has distinct charms.
The name Interlaken means “between the lakes,” and water flows from its clear mountain streams to waterfalls that spill into Thun and Brienz lakes. Since the early 19th century, this village has been the tourist hub of the Bernese Oberland, and through the ages visitors have admired the awesome views of the Jungfrau Massif.
Most rail lines in this part of Switzerland lead to Interlaken. That makes traveling here convenient and provides easy access to nearby resort area for day trips. Europe’s highest railway, the Jungfrau railway weaves through Interlaken’s Alpine meadows, then plunges into a stone tunnel on its ascent to permanent snowfields and spectacular sights. Other excursions include the Schilthorn aerial cable car, the Schynigge Platte cogwheel railway, and the Brienz-Rothorn-Bahn with its antique steam-driven locomotives.
Ski the Swiss Alps
Also located in the Bernese Oberland, Gstaad is a Swiss resort of fairy-tale and grown-up fantasies, renowned for luxury hotels, shopping, heel-clicking service, and the bevy of international stars it attracts as guests. At night the town’s Palace Hotel is beautifully illuminated, and every little village chalet twinkles with light.
The epitome of ski-scene elegance, St. Moritz is a true winter-sports wonderland. In addition to downhill and cross-country skiing, tobogganing, ice skating, snowboarding, and winter hiking, there’s an unrivalled menu of uncommon diversions. Looking for a new experience? Play winter polo, golf, or cricket in the snow.
Dress warmly (and stylishly) if you’re planning to overnight in an igloo, ride a horse-drawn sleigh, go dog sledding, curling, ice climbing, or ice sailing. You won’t be alone in your newfound passion.
Trains depart from Zurich for St. Moritz frequently, bringing adventurers and bold-face names to the mountain. Après-ski, take your cues from the glitterati: Sip cafe fertig (coffee with a shot of schnapps)… shop at Armani and Cartier…dine at the famous La Marmite…and meet up with fellow sophisticates at the majestic Badrutt’s Palace hotel.
Below the famous Matterhorn, Zermatt is a pristine Alpine village that offers glacier skiing year-round. Since no cars are allowed, you can only arrive in town by narrow-gauge railway or horse-drawn sleigh. The 12,500-foot cable car ride will lift you to the summit of the Klein Matterhorn.
The ultimate challenge for skillful skiers, Haute Route is a back-country circuit connecting Zermatt with Chamonix, France. It crosses some 20 glaciers with a total ascent and descent of more than 25,000 feet and can be hiked in late summer or skied in spring.
Those who prefer their scenic mountain views from the safety, warmth, and comfort of a train will appreciate a journey on The Glacier Express, the “slowest express train in the world,” which connects St. Moritz and Zermatt in just under eight hours. Between them lie 291 bridges, 91 tunnels, and the 6,700-foot-tall Oberalp Pass. Narration provided by STS points out some of the most spectacular scenery in Europe: dense forests, snow-peaked caps, rushing mountain streams, and centuries-old villages.
While scenic Alpine regions are a must for any visit, Switzerland’s cosmopolitan cities are also well worth a visit.
Most incorporate Old Town districts with well-preserved scenic squares, ancient churches, and handsome monuments that attract walkers, picture-takers, and history-lovers. Bustling markets (especially around holidays) keep these areas lively — and especially tempting to shoppers.
Among the most notable: Basel, Switzerland’s only port, has a 15th-century city center that serves as the backdrop for its daily market. Architectural gems from that era include the Town Hall and Basel Cathedral, a symphony in pale red sandstone topped with Gothic towers.
Train travelers to Bern, Switzerland’s capital, arrive in one of the country’s most vibrant and modern train stations. It belies the historic city that stands above it. Thanks to its perfectly intact Old Town, Bern was designated a UNESCO landmark in 1983.
Zurich, at the edge of Lake Zurich and surrounded by forests, is Switzerland’s largest metropolis and a haven for shoppers. Large department stores, small boutiques, flea markets, and world-class auction galleries all contain treasures. Like most big cities, it has museums and galleries, dance clubs, bars, and cultural events to keep visitors entertained. Zurich West is the trendy neighborhood to see.
If you want to explore Zurich on foot, start from the train station, a focal point thanks to its central location and proximity to the wealth of shopping on Bahnhofstrasse. Then head for the Old Town. Climb the hill to arrive at historic Lindenhof plaza, originally settled by the Romans. Its three distinguished churches include the Fraumünster, whose fanciful stained glass windows by Marc Chagall delight and inspire.
Serious without being stuffy, Geneva is home to the European headquarters of the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and many other global organizations. While it’s common to see their representatives hobnobbing in hotel lobbies, the view few can ignore is Mont Blanc, the continent’s highest mountain.
Closer in, Jet d’Eau, a 420-foot-tall water geyser, streams into Lake Geneva. Inline skaters, lovers strolling arm-in-arm, and entire families licking ice cream cones are all drawn to the waterfront parks. The young – and young-at-heart – visit the bistro by the beach for a snack and to watch mouettes (small boats) sail between the banks.
Geneva’s shopping district, with its luxury boutiques and markets, occupies the Left Bank. A waterfront park sprinkled with sculptures and the world’s largest flower clock completes the picture. Its Old Town is dotted with antique stores, art galleries, and small boutiques. And do take time to visit the Watch & Clock Museum.
Sunny communities nestled between Lake Geneva, Montreux and Vevey sport lush vegetation not usually seen in these latitudes, such as palm trees and magnolias, and fig and almond trees. A 9.4-mile lakeside promenade connects the two locales, which are favorite vacation destinations that boast hotels dating back to the Belle Époque and world-class cultural events.
Since these areas’ mild climate yields wonderful wines, pause for a tasting. Vineyards can be explored on foot or by bicycle. Their well-marked trails afford spectacular views, and pleasant beaches invite you to test the waters. A number of train excursions bring visitors to the nearby mountains. The MOB train Golden Pass connects Montreux to Gstaad and continues further to Lucerne.
Beside a lake surrounded by mountains, picture-book-pretty Lucerne is yet another easy-to-reach Swiss city. Its lakeside promenade; historic, car-free Old Town; museums; and cultural events all inspire guests to linger. If you set out on a walking tour, stop and marvel at the covered Chapel Bridge that spans Reuss River.
In the afternoon, take refuge in one of the town’s ten museums – including the Swiss Transport Museum and the Picasso collection. Scenery lovers can hop a steamboat and tour Lake Lucerne, or take a nostalgic mountain railway to one of the surrounding summits. Life looks better, and the air is sweetest, at such aeries.