When you’re confronted with the grandeur of Switzerland—when you find yourself looking down on Europe’s biggest glacier from the top of a snow-covered mountain, gazing across a crystal clear lake, or hiking through a meadow covered in wildflowers—it’s easy to forget that Switzerland is actually a pretty small country. Yet at only 15,942 square miles, (it takes just three hours by train to cover the 216 miles from east to west) it offers some of Europe’s biggest adventures in food, culture, art, and the great outdoors.
From conquering the Swiss Alps and enjoying the country’s multi-cultural cuisine to cruising on aqua-blue lakes and wandering orderly small towns, there’s such a wide range of things to see and do that Switzerland begins to seem larger than life. No matter what you choose to do on your trip, don’t miss at least a few of these excellent Swiss adventures.
Ride a train to the top of Europe
With the Alps running right through the country, Switzerland provides countless opportunities for hikers and mountain climbers to conquer a mighty summit. For the rest of us, there are other options. Switzerland has an extensive network of mountain railways and cable cars that make getting to the tallest peaks easy (if not inexpensive). One of the most famous options is a tour of Jungfraujoch; opened in 1912, the train station here is Europe’s highest and sits at 11,333 feet (3,454 meters). On a clear day, you see four countries: Italy, France, Germany and Austria, and once you arrive, there’s plenty to do aside from gawking at the view.
Start up at the Sphinx, a viewing tower which looks like what you envision as the secret lair of the stereotypical “evil villain,” and is perched on the ridge between the Mönch and Jungfrau mountains. Once you’ve gotten your fill of the view, you can ski, zipline, tube, hike or climb. There are several restaurants, bars and snack shops on the mountain, but if you’re on a budget, bring your own snacks and water or plan to stop for lunch in Lauterbrunnen or Kleine Scheidegg on your way down.
Vineyards with a view
Switzerland has three main wine tasting regions. Near Montreux, the Lavaux region is one of the most striking, with terraced vineyards cut into the hills that rise out of Lake Geneva. This UNESCO Heritage Site has been producing wine since the 11th century and includes 14 villages and 830 hectares of vineyards, which produce mostly white wine. Most towns in the region have a wine cellar that offers samples from several of the vineyards, while other vineyards are open by appointment. Domaine Bovey may be one of the most picturesque with a tasting patio that overlooks the vineyard and sparkling blue Lake Geneva below.
You can pick a town and arrive via train or boat, or take the leisurely route hiking through the vines. There is also the Lavaux Express summer tourist tram that travel through the vineyards and stop for wine-tasting.
Commune with cows
Swiss cliché or not, there really are cows just about everywhere you look outside the major cities in Switzerland. You’ll pass them on trains, come across them while hiking, and zip past them on mountain bikes. You’ll hear them before you see them; just listen for the gentle clanking of their bells. If you visit at the end of summer you’ll even get to see the cows dressed in their finest to celebrate the end of the season and the moving of the cows from the high mountain meadows to stables closer to town. The cows that have produced the most milk over the season are given special wreaths or wear the biggest bells.
Float on a clear blue lake
There are more than 1400 lakes in Switzerland and you’d be missing out if you didn’t take a boat ride on at least one. The sparkling clear waters of lakes like Lucerne, Thun and Geneva are an almost eerily bright blue thanks to the glaciers that melt and keep them full. On many of the larger lakes, you can take a lunch or dinner cruise, or just use the lake boats as another means of transport.
Eat your weight in cheese…or chocolate…or both
Another Swiss cliché, cheese is a not-to-be-missed part of experiencing Switzerland. The “real” Swiss cheese bears little resemblance to the hole-ridden variety found in the US and there are several varieties to choose from and ways to enjoy it. Fill up on gooey fondue or raclette, try a traditional Alpmagronen (a creamy Swiss mac n’ cheese) or visit the town of Gruyeres to learn all about how the famous cheese is made.
For dessert, there’s the equally decadent Swiss chocolate. The Swiss were the first to invent milk chocolate; in the early 1800’s chocolatier François-Louis Cailler gave one of his factories to his son-in-law, Daniel Peter, who decided to combine his chocolate with the milk of his neighbor, Henri Nestlé. The Nestle company eventually acquired the Cailler chocolate brand, and today you can visit the factory for a tour and tasting of its famous treats.
Spend a morning at the market
Visiting a local market is one of the best ways to learn about life in Switzerland’s small cities and towns. You can shop for snacks like wine and sausage, buy handmade art and crafts, or listen to traditional music at markets all over the country. At the weekly Vevey market, on summer Saturdays there’s a “folkloric” theme with traditionally-costumed vendors, alphorn players and a public wine tasting.
Take the easy way down
Over the years, the Swiss haven’t made many changes to the methods for going up a mountain—you can get there on your own power or via a train or gondola—but they have managed to find many a creative way to go back down. In winter you can ski, snowboard, sled, and tube, while in summer you can ride a mountain bike or its more unusual sibling, the trotti bike. The trotti bike is a cross between a scooter and a mountain bike, with two fat tires and handlebars, but no pedals or seat. You ride it standing up while balancing on the middle beam, gripping the handlebars (and brakes) and…in most cases, trying not to fall over and tumble down the side of an Alp as fearless young children happily zip past.
Go for a hike
Switzerland boasts more than 60,000 kilometers of hiking trails throughout the country. There are 440 designated hikes, each of which is clearly sign-posted with the time it will take to complete, so even if you’re not an experienced hiker, it’s easy to hit the trails and not worry about getting lost or taking on more than you can handle (and if you do, there’s nearly always a bus, train, boat, or cable car nearby). The Switzerland Mobility website is a great resource to help you plan the route best for your interests and fitness level; the site also offers free maps and can help arrange for luggage transfers and bike rentals.
Buy a watch
That stereotype about the punctuality of the Swiss? It’s true. Swiss trains run with astonishing efficiency and Swiss watches are among the most prized in the world for their quality. Those fascinated by the art of watchmaking can travel along the official “watch route,” which has 27 stops including the Patek Philippe museum in Geneva and the Timekeepers Museum in Oberhofen, the latter of which is fascinating even if you’re not a connoisseur. In addition to watches and clocks, the museum also showcases antique music boxes and other timekeeping machines from days of old.
The best watches come with a hefty price tag; for a cheaper souvenir you can opt for your very own Swatch watch straight from the source.
- Katie Hammel