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Rick Steves Switzerland
By Rick Steves
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- Comprehensive coverage for spending a week or more exploring Switzerland
- Rick's strategic advice on how to get the most out of your time and money, with rankings of his must-see favorites
- Top sights and hidden gems, from bustling Zürich to the cozy small-town atmosphere of Appenzell
- How to connect with culture: Chat with friendly Swiss locals at a mountain retreat, swim in the alpine waters of the Aare River, and treat yourself to delicious cheese fondue
- Beat the crowds, skip the lines, and avoid tourist traps with Rick's candid, humorous insight
- The best places to eat, sleep, and relax over wine and Swiss chocolate
- Self-guided walking tours of lively neighborhoods and mountain towns
- Detailed maps for exploring on the go
- Scenic railroad journeys such as the Golden Pass, Gotthard Panorama Express, Bernina Express, Glacier Express, and Chur
- Useful resources including a packing list, German, French, and Italian phrase guides, a historical overview, and recommended reading, plus tips for visiting Switzerland in the winter
- Over 400 bible-thin pages include everything worth seeing without weighing you down
- Complete, up-to-date information on Zürich, Luzern, Central Switzerland, Bern, Murten, Avenches, Gimmelwald and the Berner Oberland, Zermatt and the Matterhorn, Appenzell, Lausanne, Château de Chillon, Montreux, Gruyères, Lugano, Pontresina, Samedan, St. Moritz, and more
Welcome to Rick Steves’ Europe
Travel is intensified living—maximum thrills per minute and one of the last great sources of legal adventure. Travel is freedom. It’s recess, and we need it.
I discovered a passion for European travel as a teen and have been sharing it ever since—through my bus tours, public television and radio shows, and travel guidebooks. Over the years, I’ve taught millions of travelers how to best enjoy Europe’s blockbuster sights—and experience “Back Door” discoveries that most tourists miss.
This book offers a balanced mix of Swiss cities and villages, mountaintop hikes and lake cruises, thought-provoking museums and sky-high gondola rides. It’s selective: Rather than listing dozens of mountain getaways, I recommend only the best ones. And it’s in-depth: My self-guided scenic rail tours and city/town walks give insight into Switzerland’s fascinating history and today’s living, breathing culture.
I advocate traveling simply and smartly. Take advantage of my money- and time-saving tips on sightseeing, transportation, and more. Try local, characteristic alternatives to expensive hotels and restaurants. In many ways, spending more money only builds a thicker wall between you and what you traveled so far to see.
We visit Switzerland to experience it—to become temporary locals. Thoughtful travel engages us with the world, as we learn to appreciate other cultures and new ways to measure quality of life.
Judging by the positive feedback I receive from readers, this book will help you enjoy a fun, affordable, and rewarding vacation—whether it’s your first trip or your tenth.
Gute Reise! Happy travels!
Switzerland’s Top Destinations
Planning Your Trip
DESIGNING AN ITINERARY
Map: Switzerland’s Best Two-Week Trip by Train
BEFORE YOU GO
Little, mountainous, efficient Switzerland is one of Europe’s most appealing—and most expensive—destinations. It’s an enjoyable mix of bucolic peace and daring adventure: Around every alpine turn, you feel you could get a glimpse of Heidi milking a cow or James Bond schussing past on skis.
Wedged neatly between Germany, Austria, France, and Italy, Switzerland melds the best of all those worlds—and adds a healthy dose of chocolate, cowbells, and cable cars.
While landlocked, Switzerland has more than its share of clear rivers and big, beautiful lakes with a striking mountain backdrop. Nearly half of Switzerland consists of uninhabitable rocks and rugged Alps, with its flat land (and many hills) cultivated into tidy farms.
Despite the country’s small size, its geography has historically kept people apart, helping regions maintain their distinct cultures and languages—German, French, Italian, and Romansh. Even with its substantial regional differences, though, the entire country is unmistakably Swiss, dedicated to order and organization. Like the Boy Scouts, the Swiss count cleanliness, neatness, punctuality, tolerance, independence, thrift, and hard work as virtues...and they love pocketknives. If you find the people to be a little buttoned-up, remember that the payoff is a beautiful country where the trains run on time, the streets are clean, and every flower petal seems perfectly in place.
While it’s one of Europe’s most progressive “big-government” countries—with high taxation, ample social services, and liberal drug policies—Switzerland also has a conservative streak. Traditional mindsets persist in the remote mountain hamlets—for example, women weren’t guaranteed the right to vote in federal elections until 1971 (and were still barred from local elections in one region until 1990).
Switzerland is one of Europe’s oldest democracies. Born when three states (cantons) united in 1291, over time the Swiss Confederation grew to the 26 cantons of today. With the exception of the Protestant Reformation and an almost bloodless civil war in 1847, Swiss history has been pretty quiet. The Swiss are happy watching from above the fray as the tides of history swirl around them.
Stubbornly independent, or maybe just smart, Switzerland stayed out of both world wars. But it’s far from lax when it comes to national defense: The Swiss are legendary for their military readiness, with a vast reserve army and a countryside embedded with hidden fortresses. Through the tumult of the 20th century, no foreign invaders dared to try cracking this alpine nut.
A winter’s supply of neatly stacked firewood; Lauterbrunnen Valley, at the base of sheer cliffs
Compact and charming Bern; mountain-encircled Lake Luzern; convivial and delicious cheese fondue; a parade of cows in Appenzell
Though not a European Union member—in part because its agricultural lobby doesn’t want competition from more efficiently produced EU products—Switzerland still conforms to EU standards to be able to conduct business easily. Major Swiss moneymakers include banking, insurance, watches, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, tourism, precision instruments, and chocolate (Nestlé is the biggest producer).
Switzerland’s cosmopolitan cities offer an enticing, I-could-live-here glimpse of the Swiss urban quality of life: efficient trams and buses gliding around town, manicured pedestrian zones teeming with locals enjoying their cities, scenic boats cruising crystal-clear rivers and lakes, eclectic restaurants offering a tasty range of both Swiss and international cuisine, and low-key but thoughtful museums telling compelling stories.
But let’s face it: Travelers don’t flock to Switzerland for its cities. Spend most of your time getting high in the Alps. You can climb onto a train in one of Switzerland’s most bustling stations and, within an hour or two, step off into an idyllic time-warp world where traditional culture still thrives. Alpine villages (such as Gimmelwald) and towns (such as Appenzell) give you a taste of rural Switzerland, and are the perfect base for pastoral countryside hikes or riding lifts to dramatic cut-glass alpine panoramas.
If you’re in the countryside on a Sunday, you’ll most likely enjoy traditional music, clothing, and culture. At the end of a day of hiking, you can retreat to a village enclave preserving a colorful, rustic, rural way of life. In spring and fall, you might be lucky enough to see a parade of cows on their way up to or back down from the high-mountain pastures.
Cows have also had a big impact on Swiss cuisine—especially cheese. Two of the most revered Swiss cheeses are the smooth Gruyère (from the town of Gruyères) and the stinky Appenzeller (from the region of Appenzell). Shops sell a fragrant festival of mold, perfect for picnicking or for making two famous Swiss culinary specialties: fondue (a pot of cheese melted into wine) or raclette (cheese melted over potatoes and other vegetables).
Switzerland’s best attraction might just be traveling through its flat-out spectacular scenery. The country is crisscrossed with fine autobahns and arguably Europe’s most efficient rail system. Buses fill in the gaps, while boats ply the many tranquil lakes. Try the variety of fun cogwheel trains, funiculars, and cable cars that deliver you—no matter the season—from sunny valleys up to dizzying heights and snowy vistas.
Gondolas in Mürren and Gimmelwald offer views along with transportation.
The Swiss railway system markets several scenic journeys, many with special panoramic trains designed to maximize views (for details, see the Scenic Rail Journeys chapter). But don’t let the tourist hype give you tunnel vision: A sunny day spent on a train just about anywhere in Switzerland can rank as a memorable trip-capper.
Enjoy Switzerland’s famous efficiency and unique mingling of the modern and the traditional. Join cheesemakers in a high valley, call the shepherds on an alphorn, and hike through some of the world’s most stunning mountain scenery. Just thinking about a Switzerland trip makes me want to yodel.
Switzerland’s Top Destinations
It’s a small country, but there’s a lot to see in Switzerland. This overview categorizes the country’s top destinations into must-see places (to help first-time travelers plan their trip) and worth-it places (for those with extra time or special interests). I’ve also suggested a minimum number of days to allow per destination.
Switzerland’s capital Bern is its most charming and fun city, with one of Europe’s finest surviving, fun-to-stroll medieval cores. Bern makes a convenient stop on the way to or from the stunningly scenic Berner Oberland and to other parts of the country. On a short trip, I’d prioritize these two areas.
▲▲▲Bern (allow 1 day)
The cozy capital, tucked in a sharp river bend, is my favorite Swiss city. It’s urban but easygoing, with arcaded shopping promenades, medieval clock towers, colorful statue-topped fountains, and museums devoted to Albert Einstein and artist Paul Klee. In summer, join the locals at the Marzilibad (an outdoor bathing complex) and see a carefree side to the serious Swiss.
▲▲▲Berner Oberland (3 days)
This mountainous region, highlighted by the Jungfrau and Schilthorn peaks, is worth taking time to savor. It’s popular for its traditional alpine villages (such as rustic Gimmelwald and the resort town of Mürren, both on the Schilthorn cable-car line). Scenic hikes, lifts, and train rides ring the valley hub of Lauterbrunnen. Easy trails and pleasant walks on the valley floor, plus the nearby Trümmelbach Falls, are ideal for a cloudy day, as is the nearby Swiss Open-Air Museum at Ballenberg. Touristy Interlaken is the gateway to this area.
Medieval mechanics in Bern’s clock tower (opposite); Bern’s Aare River; rustic Gimmelwald; hiking in the Berner Oberland; exploring Trümmelbach Falls
Urban-but-quaint Zürich; wooden bridge in Luzern; Luzern’s Swiss Transport Museum; Zermatt and its Matterhorn view
You can weave any of these destinations—rated ▲ or ▲▲— into your itinerary. It’s easy to add some destinations based on proximity (if you’re going to Bern, Murten is next door), but other out-of-the-way places can merit the journey, depending on your time and interests. I’ve included scenic rail trips on this list: In this land of dramatic mountains and picture-perfect farms, the journey is the destination.
▲▲Zürich (1 day)
Bustling cosmopolitan Zürich is a transportation center and Switzerland’s largest city by far. Along with upscale shops and a charming riverside old-town quarter full of pointy church spires and pealing bells, it’s home to the insightful National Museum Zürich, art-packed churches, and the country’s top fine-art collection at Kunsthaus Zürich.
▲▲Luzern and Central Switzerland (1-2 days)
Touristy yet lovely Luzern is famous for its historic wooden bridges, picturesque streets, and vintage steamships that ply Lake Luzern. Ringed by mountains with stunning vistas accessible by high-altitude lifts, Luzern’s sights include the Swiss Transport Museum, an impressive Picasso exhibit at the Rosengart Collection, and the underground bunker at nearby Fortress Fürigen. And it’s a handy hub for easy excursions to nearby Mount Pilatus and Mount Rigi.
▲▲Murten and Avenches (1/2 day)
Quaint, small, walled Murten—an easy half-hour trip from Bern—sits next to the German/French linguistic fault line, with nearby Roman ruins and museum in Avenches.
▲▲Zermatt and the Matterhorn (2 days)
Zermatt, a glitzy ski resort with old-fashioned touches surrounded by an array of mountain lifts, is a gateway to fine hikes and views—which get even better when that iconic pointy peak of the Matterhorn emerges from the clouds.
▲▲Appenzell (1 day)
The very traditional Swiss region around Appenzell is known for pastoral green hills and carved chalets, cozy small towns (including Appenzell town), cows, folk museums, and, just a cable-car ride away, a rustic cliffside retreat at Ebenalp.
▲▲Lake Geneva and French Switzerland (1 day)
Elegant Lake Geneva is lined with vineyards and resort towns. The region boasts Switzerland’s best castle experience at Château de Chillon; the sophisticated, multilevel city of Lausanne, with its engaging Olympic and Art Brut museums; the cute and cheesy medieval town of Gruyères; and a pleasantly scenic countryside.
▲▲Scenic Rail Journeys
Enjoy panoramic views while crisscrossing the country on one of four famous train rides. The Golden Pass route connects Luzern with Lake Geneva; the Gotthard Panorama Express runs from Luzern to Lugano (half by boat and half by train); the Bernina Express connects Lugano with eastern Switzerland (by bus via Italy’s Lake Como, plus a train through the mountains); and the Glacier Express travels between Zermatt and eastern Switzerland’s resort towns (St. Moritz/Davos).
▲Lugano (1 day)
A hub for two scenic train rides, Lugano is the leading city of Italian-speaking Switzerland, with a tidy urban core, scenic boat trips on its lake, relaxing strolls, and mountain lifts to lakeside peaks.
▲Upper Engadine (1-2 days)
This Romansh-speaking mountain resort region nestles in Switzerland’s southeast, with high-altitude viewpoints, tempting hikes, and a rugged landscape. It’s anchored by three towns: likeable Pontresina, sleepy Samedan, and swanky St. Moritz. The region makes an easy stopover for travelers on the Bernina Express or Glacier Express scenic train rides.
Planning Your Trip
To plan your trip, you’ll need to design your itinerary—choosing where and when to go, how you’ll travel, and how many days to spend at each destination. For my best general advice on sightseeing, accommodations, restaurants, and more, see the Practicalities chapter.
DESIGNING AN ITINERARY
As you read this book and learn your options...
Choose your top destinations.
My recommended itinerary (see the sidebar on here) gives you an idea of how much you can reasonably see in two weeks, but you can adapt it to fit your own interests and time frame.
Decide when to go.
The summer “tourist season” runs roughly from May through September, though in mountainous areas, it doesn’t start until sometime in June.
High summer (July-Aug) has its advantages: the best weather, snow-free alpine trails, very long days (light until after 21:00), and the busiest schedule of tourist fun. But prices and crowds are at their peak.
June and especially September are, for many visitors, the “sweet spot”: less crowded but (if you’re fortunate) still decent weather. If you’re coming to hike, fall is better than spring (when higher trails can still be snow-covered, and some lifts may not yet be running).
In late May and early October, travelers enjoy even fewer crowds, mild but riskier weather, and the ability to grab a room almost whenever and wherever they like. In fact, small mountain towns may feel downright deserted.
During the Zwischenzeit (“between time”—that is, between summer and ski seasons, roughly April, early May, late Oct, and Nov), Swiss cities are pleasantly uncrowded, but mountain resort towns such as Zermatt and Mürren are completely dead (most hotels and restaurants are closed, and the weather is iffy).
During ski season (Dec-March), mountain resorts are crowded and expensive, while cities are quieter (some accommodations and sights are either closed or run on a limited schedule). The weather can be cold and dreary, and nighttime will draw the shades on your sightseeing before dinner.
No matter when you go, pack warm clothing for the Alps—the weather can change suddenly. For weather specifics, see the climate chart in the appendix.
Connect the dots.
Link your destinations into a logical route. Determine which cities you’ll fly into and out of. Begin your search for transatlantic flights at Kayak.com.
Decide if you’ll travel by public transportation, car, or a combination. Switzerland’s public transportation system is tops, whether you want to go across the country or straight up into the mountains, and its breathtakingly scenic rail journeys are an experience in themselves. PostBuses (operated by the post office) pick you up in the rare cases where trains let you down. You can even go through the mountains, thanks to long tunnels (but you’ll miss the views). A car can be helpful for exploring the French Swiss countryside and the Appenzell area.
Cliffside dining at Ebenalp (opposite); Château de Chillon on Lake Geneva; strolling along Lake Lugano
To determine approximate travel times between destinations, study the driving map in the Practicalities chapter or check Google Maps; visit Rail.ch for train schedules. Compare the cost of any long train ride in Europe with a budget flight; check Skyscanner.com for intra-European flights.
Write out a day-by-day itinerary.
Figure out how many destinations you can comfortably fit in your time frame. Don’t overdo it—few travelers wish they’d hurried more. Allow enough days per stop (see estimates in “Switzerland’s Top Destinations,” earlier). Minimize one-night stands. It can be worth taking a late-afternoon train ride or drive to settle into a town for two consecutive nights—and gain a full uninterrupted day for sightseeing. Include sufficient time for transportation; many Swiss cities are just a quick hop apart, but reaching the high-mountain areas can take longer.
Staying in a home base (like Gimmelwald in the Berner Oberland) and making day trips can be more time-efficient than changing locations and hotels. Connect destinations, such as Bern and the Lake Geneva area, with a scenic rail trip, even if it adds an hour or two of transit time: In Switzerland, the views along the journey are a highlight.
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- On Sale
- May 2, 2023
- Page Count
- 520 pages
- Rick Steves