Think of Heidi and Peter, yodelling, divine chocolate and precision watches – this sounds so mundane but this small country in the heart of Europe is so much more. A land of towering mountains, medieval quarters, and numerous lakes, Switzerland not only consists of picture book scenery, it also steeped in culture.
The country is world renown for its banking, watch and chocolate industries. Although regarded as one of the most expensive countries in the world, it is certainly regarded as an ideal destination for that once-in-a-lifetime holiday, especially for those who revel in skiing, tobogganing, hiking and climbing. For a cultural break there are landmarks like capital Bern’s Zytglogge clock tower and Lucerne’s wooden chapel bridge among many others attractions.
Many Swiss cities such as Zurich, Geneva, Bern and Lausanne are steeped in history, offering museums and galleries, historic buildings, and well known music festivals. Germany, Italy, Austria, and France border Switzerland, and their languages and customs have great influence throughout the country. Perched on a peninsula of the River Aare, the Swiss capital of Bern exudes old-world charm, and the city’s medieval old town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city has the tallest cathedral in Switzerland, 16th-century fountains; the Zytglogge medieval clock tower with moving puppets; and six kilometres of shopping arcades, known as “Lauben” by the locals. The markets are held in the Bundesplatz (parliament square) with views of the Renaissance-style parliament building (Bundeshaus).
It would be impossible to visit Switzerland and not explore as much of the Alps as possible. A very popular outing in the Bernese Oberland is the train journey to Jungfraujoch, the “Top of Europe,” with an observation terrace and scientific observatory perched at 3 454 metres. The railway connects Kleine Scheidegg to the Jungfraujoch, the saddle between the Mönch and the Jungfrau, and has made the area one of the most-visited places in the Alps. The longest glacier in Europe, the Great Aletsch Glacier begins at Jungfraujoch, and is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Jungfrau, at 4 158m is one of the main summits of the Bernese Alps, located halfway between Interlaken and Fiesch. Together with the Eiger and Mönch, the Jungfrau forms a massive wall of mountains overlooking the Bernese Oberland and the Swiss Plateau. It is also where the famous Eiger Trail from the Eiger glacier station to Alpiglen begins, clinging to the rocks at the foot of the north face towards the tiara-shaped Wetterhorn and the sheer north face of the Eiger, one of the planet’s most dramatic and difficult climbs.
Other popular walks include Panorama Way to the sunny, south-facing First slope; the Gletscherschlucht (Glacier Gorge); and Öpfelchüechliwäg, the high-altitude trail from Holenstein to Brandegg through fields of flowers, alpine pastures, and woodlands. Those who are less energetic can ride gondolas and cable cars to scenic viewpoints over the Lauterbrunnen Valley.
Picturesque Grindelwald is a glacier village in the Jungfrau region, that nestles at the base of snow-cloaked mountains and is one of Switzerland’s oldest and most popular resorts.
Switzerland’s iconic pointed peak is one of the highest mountains in the Alps. On the border with Italy, this legendary peak rises to 4 478m, making it one of the highest peaks in the Alps. Its four steep faces lie in the direction of the compass points forming a near-symmetric pyramidal peak. Rising above the surrounding glaciers, four sides are split by the Hörnli, Furggen, Leone/Lion, and Zmutt ridges. The two valleys on its north and south sides, have been a trade route since the Roman Era. The north face is among the three biggest north faces of the Alps, known as “The Trilogy”. The west face, which is the highest of the Matterhorn’s four faces, was completely climbed only in 1962. It is estimated that over 500 alpinists have died on the Matterhorn, making it one of the deadliest peaks in the world.
The “Grave of the Unknown Climber” is located in the Mountaineers’ Cemetery as a reminder of the more than 500 deaths, which have taken place on the Matterhorn since 1865. And of the missing and dead, who could not be found or completely removed after their fall.
At the foot of the Matterhorn lies the village of Zermatt, an international resort with horse-drawn carriage rides, quaint chalets, and world-class restaurants and hotels. In order not to destroy the air quality and peaceful ambience, motorised vehicles are banned in the village.
In the winter, skiers can schuss down more than 300 kilometres of slopes. In the summer, swimming and tennis are popular pursuits, as well as hiking, biking, and climbing in the surrounding mountains. Summer glacier skiing is also available.
Nestled between Lake Thun to the west and Lake Brienz to the east, Interlaken is one of Switzerland’s most popular summer resorts. In the town centre is the Höhematte, 35 acres of open space with flower gardens, hotels, and cafés surrounding the Höheweg, the main boulevard through here. Towering above the town are the Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau peaks that can be reached via any of the more than 45 mountain railways, cable cars, chairlifts, and ski lifts.
Lake Lucerne shows a different side of Switzerland. It is car-free medieval old town, covered bridges, waterfront promenades, frescoed historic buildings, and sun-splashed plazas with bubbling fountains. Famous for its music concerts, renowned soloists, conductors, and orchestras attend the annual International Music Festival.
The Chapel Bridge was built in the 14th century. In a small park, lies the Lion Monument, a poignant sculpture of a dying lion, which pays tribute to the heroic death of Swiss Guards during the attack on the Tuileries in the French Revolution. History buffs will enjoy the Swiss Transport Museum with extensive exhibits on all forms of transport, including air and space travel, railroad locomotives, and a Planetarium.
Lake Geneva, Europe’s largest Alpine lake, straddles the Swiss/French border with several cities situated along its shores. The city of Geneva sits between snowcapped peaks at the point where the Rhône spills into Lake Geneva. The city is home to the European seat of the United Nations. and exudes a pleasing blend of French joie de vivre and Swiss structure. The Jet d’Eau, a fountain in Lake Geneva shooting water 150m into the air, is a famous landmark. Cultural attractions include the Opera House and the Grand Théâtre, which stages international acts. Also on the lake’s shores are the cities of Lausanne and Montreax.
Chateau de Chillon near Montreux has inspired artists and writers for centuries, including such luminaries as Lord Byron, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Victor Hugo. Once the stronghold of the Counts and Dukes of Savoy from the 12th century, the complex consists of about 25 buildings clustered around three courtyards. These include the Great Halls, Gothic underground rooms; the Chapel, adorned with 14th-century paintings; and the Camera Domini, a bedroom occupied by the Duke of Savoy decorated with medieval murals.
Chillon Castle is an island castle located on the eastern end of Lake Geneva, on the narrow shore between Montreux and Villeneuve, which gives access to the Alpine valley of the Rhône. Chillon is amongst the most visited medieval castles in Switzerland and Europe.
Mirror-like lakes, glaciers, jagged peaks, alpine forests, and a lot of sunshine make St. Moritz one of the world’s top mountain destinations and one that has hosted two winter Olympics.
Sitting in an alpine valley 1 800m above sea level, the town is divided into two parts: St. Moritz Dorf sits on a sunny terrace overlooking the Lake of St. Moritz. The other part of town, lakeside St. Moritz Bad on the valley floor, is a health resort. Not only is St. Moritz a haven for sport lovers,
it is a cultural crossroads with Romansch, German, Italian, French, and English are all spoken in the surrounding areas.
Although Bern is the Swiss capital, it is Zurich that springs to mind whenever Switzerland is mentioned. It is the country’s largest city, and the most popular starting point for travellers. The cobbled streets of the Old Town with its quaint shops, cafés, and galleries needs to be explored while the mile-long Bahnhofstrasse, one of Europe’s finest shopping areas, is full of designer stores selling fashion, watches, and jewellery.
More than 50 museums and 100 art galleries can be found with one of the best being the Kunsthaus Zürich, the museum of fine arts, with an impressive collection of art from the Middle Ages to the present day. The Rietberg Museum, focuses on non-European art with many works from China, India, and Africa. Close to Zürich’s main station, the Swiss National Museum, in a Gothic chateau, highlights Swiss cultural history.
The Rhine Falls
Spanning 150m wide the Rhine Falls (Rheinfall) at Schaffhausen are the largest falls in Central Europe. The best time to visit is during June and July when the mountain snow melts, and the falls swell in volume to spill over a 23m high ledge of Jurassic limestone.
The average water flow in the summer is more than double that of winter with the highest flow ever measured being 1 250 cubic metres per second in 1965; and the lowest, 95 cubic metres per second in 1921. The falls cannot be climbed by fish, except by eels that are able to worm their way up over the rocks.
Founded in 1914, Swiss National Park in the Engadine Valley is the oldest reserve in the Alps. The park is situated right on the border with Italy and covers more than 170 square kilometres of flower-dotted hollows, fast-flowing rivers, and limestone crags. The scenery is dramatic in winter, when the forested mountains are covered in a blanket of snow.
Nature-lovers can explore the region on the large network of trails, but visitors may not venture of these paths as this is forbidden in an effort to preserve the natural ecosystems. More than 5 000 species of wildlife can be found in the park, including marmot, red deer, chamois, ibex, fox, and more than 100 species of birds.
The Bernina Railway line
One of the very few railway lines in the world designated as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage listing, the Albula/Bernina line on the Rheatian Railways offers a ride that extends throughout the Albula and Bernina landscapes, covering 122 kilometres and winding through almost 200 bridges, the Graubünden mountains, and a number of tunnels and viaducts along the way.
The route overlook’s unspoiled mountain landscapes, including the Piz Bernina, the highest mountain in the Eastern Alps at just over 4 000 metres. The train operates all year long.
Right on the shore of Lake Thun and surrounded by a 2.5-hectare park, this 13th-century castle is one of the most breathtaking in Switzerland. Because Oberhofen Castle changed hands many times through the centuries, with each new owner adding rooms to it, the result is a mix of many styles: Bernese Baroque-style buildings, Romantic style facades, and Prussian-inspired exotic new areas – including a library and a smoking room.
The castle also houses a living museum showcasing the times and lives of feudal societies that occupied the castle home from the 16th to the 19th centuries.
The Ruinaulta (also known as the “Swiss Grand Canyon”) is a deep gorge surrounded by expansive meadows and forested cliffs. Located in Eastern Switzerland, it was created over 10 000 years ago–when the Ice Age Rhine Glacier retreated, leading to a chain of events that resulted in a massive rockslide in the Rhine Valley. As the Rhine river seeped through the rock walls, the gorge was filled with water.
Today, the Swiss Grand Canyon is not only one of the most beautiful areas in Switzerland, but also an extremely popular destination for hikers, bird-watchers, and nature lovers. It’s possible to raft the rapids here between May and October, or rent a canoe or kayak for an easier route with stunning views of the steep cliffs all around.
Most visitors will have little to no knowledge of this small medieval town, but the hard yellow cheese is certainly well known. Gruyères cheese made the name famous and today it is one of the town’s main attractions. Visitors can tour a cheese factory, sample the local specialities, and wave to the cows that call the surrounding green hills home. Don’t like cheese? The Maison Cailler Chocolate Factory also operates in town.
Gruyères is tiny – it covers an area of just 28.4 square kilometres and is home to around 2 000 permanent residents – but it makes up for it with many attractions including the 13th-century Castle of Gruyères and its two small arts and regional museums, as well as Saint-Germain Castle, which was bought by Swiss surrealist painter and sculptor H. R. Giger, and now houses a museum dedicated to his work. The Tibet Museum, housed in an old church in town, is also worth a visit.
Switzerland is conveniently located in the centre of Europe, making the country’s airports popular launching points for travel within the continent. If direct flights are not available it may be better to fly into Paris or Milan or destinations further afield and then fly to any of the major Swiss airports.
There’s an International airport at Zurich, Basel, and Geneva plus airports in Bern and Lugano. The airports are efficient and well-run.
As usual in these days of Covid, it is wise to check for any restrictions before booking a flight. Many countries now request proof of vaccination so do check the requirements in this regard.