It’s land-locked but filled with waterways. One can go from snowcapped mountains to Italianate towns lined with palm trees in a matter of hours. German, French, Italian and even Romansch are all national languages here…and the cultures from each make their marks.
This is Switzerland, one of the most developed countries in the world, with an astounding amount of diversity for its size. It is a nation of pristine beauty, efficiency, safety and cosmopolitan flair; yet it is also home to cities with medieval quarters and plenty of outdoor space to get lost in, from hiking trails to the towering Alps peaks.
Here are our top picks for the best places in Switzerland.
This is where most international travelers arrive, and is a destination in itself. Centuries-old buildings line the Limmat River, the city’s main artery, which is heavily traversed by water taxis and other boats. The Alps can be seen on the horizon and spectacular hiking is available just outside town on the Uetliberg mountain. The cultural scene here is vibrant, with more than 50 museums and 100 art galleries, along with high-end international shopping and a nightlife scene that seems to never stop.
Stroll through historic Old Town for a journey of discovery into Zurich’s storied past. Middle age architecture is seen in the churches, public squares and merchant guild houses such as the Zunfthaus zur Waag, open since around 1300.
For a more modern vibe, head to Zurich West. This former industrial area is now one of the trendiest spots in the country, with a continually emerging creative class that can be seen in the colorful murals and art installations that line the streets. Im Viadukt is the centerpiece, where old railway arches have been transformed into a site for about 50 vendors that include boutique shops, art galleries, vintage furniture stores and the city’s first permanent covered food market. This area is home to quirky entrepreneurial ventures such as trailer shops, food trucks and bars made out of shipping containers. Replenish at Frau Gerold’s Garden, an eclectic beer garden and restaurant that sprung up from the unused urban space.
Located at the base of the famous Matterhorn, Zermatt has the idyllic beauty found throughout Switzerland, but it’s also unique because it is a completely car-free town. Residents and visitors alike get around on foot or bicycle; electric buses and taxis are also available. This is the perfect base for a visit to the Alps, with outdoor recreation that includes skiing, mountain climbing, hiking and more.
Of course one must go up Matterhorn, the most photographed mountain the world. The Matterhorn Express, the highest altitude aerial cableway in Europe, runs from the center of Zermatt to the top of the forbidding peak, where there is a viewing platform and restaurant. But the most enchanting thing there is the fairy-tale ice palace that is hidden beneath. An elevator takes you down inside the glacier, where ice sculptures are lit with haunting colors, tunnels have been carved through of the frozen walls, and pathways allow visitors to take it all in. There’s even a small ice toboggan run that kids of all ages enjoy.
Zermatt can be reached by the Glacier Express, one of the most popular train journeys since its maiden voyage in 1930. It traverses 291 bridges and 91 tunnels along the UNESCO World Heritage Albula-Bernina Railway.
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This small town in the center of Switzerland has long been an important link to cities throughout the country, as far back as the 13th century when the first track across the Gotthard Pass was created. It’s a scenic village and was also an important harbor on Lake Lucerne. This is a postcard-perfect spot to catch a boat to Lucerne, part of the train-and-boat combination of the Wilhelm Tell Express, a journey that follows the route of the Swiss national hero. The train follows the first railroad tracks to be cut through the Alps to Flüelen, where you board the ferry into Lucerne. Don’t miss the historic Tellsplatte rocks, from which Wilhelm Tell leapt while making his escape as he was ferried across the lake.
Filled with canals, bridges and castles, this sophisticated city on Lake Lucerne ranks among the world’s prettiest. Dominating the center of Lucerne is Chapel Bridge, the oldest wooden bridge in Switzerland, dating to the 14th century. A stroll along this covered bridge reveals a surprise: it is lined with old paintings, some of which are quite famous. At the end of the bridge is Water Tower, which has served as a medieval dungeon, an archive, and a treasury vault.
For the most stunning views of the city and surrounding mountains and lakes, take a ride on the Stanserhorn-Bahn CabriO, the world’s first open-air, double-decker aerial tram. This engineering marvel attached the gondola cars at the sides, rather than the top, which allows passengers to ride on the open second level to take in the views with no glass or impediments. At the top, you find a revolving restaurant for spectacular 360-degree views, a scenic platform, and hiking trails.
Known worldwide as the playground of the rich and famous, St. Moritz is still as posh as ever. Its reputation began in the 1880s when British royalty began flocking to its beautiful lake and mountainside setting. It is home to five 5-star and eight 4-star hotels, including Badrutt’s Palace, one of Europe’s most expensive, with several suites that don’t even quote prices. This elite destination is full of high-priced boutiques and restaurants — Rolls Royces and Bentleys line the streets and a hamburger at the “fast food” restaurant Secondo’s costs $36.
However, you don’t have to be wealthy to enjoy St. Moritz. There are still plenty of more on-budget places to stay and dine, and the natural beauty is available to all. One unique way to see this is at the Romantik Hotel, located at the top of Muottas Muragl mountain. Long a source of inspiration for poets, writers, and artists, the only way to reach the top (and the hotel) is by funicular railway — unless you’re up for a very hearty hike. The Romantik is the first hotel in the Alps to be completely self-sufficient in energy power. Rooms are very reasonable, starting at around $130. You can also go up to have drinks or dine at the exquisite Panorama restaurant, or just enjoy the majestic views of the Engadin valley below from the decks.
St. Moritz lies at the other end of the Glacier Express from Zermatt, and there are also two airports; Engadin and Samedan, for private planes.
In the southern part of the country, the inviting village of Lugano offers an entirely different Swiss experience — one with an Italian influence. With its Mediterranean flair, Lugano is the largest town in Ticino and a town of parks and flowers. The city is open and welcoming, an international melting pot of European culture. It’s also a banking and business center, being Switzerland’s third most important financial city. Stroll along the palm-tree-lined lake and dine at charming cafés set along the cobblestoned squares of town.
The Palm Express takes you there, in fact passing through Italy for several hours on the way from St. Moritz, offering plenty of beautiful Italian scenery out the window and even a brief stop in a village in Italy. The ride travels over the Maloja Pass and its series of hair-raising switchbacks to navigate the steep mountainside. Crossing into Italy, the bus drives alongside Mezzola and Como lakes before crossing back into Switzerland and Lugano.
Geneva is as cosmopolitan as a city gets, known worldwide as the European seat of the United Nations and the headquarters of the Red Cross. In fact, Geneva is known as the “capital of peace.” The city’s symbol is the Jet d’Eau, a fountain that jets 140 meters into the air at the edge of the lake. Geneva is separated, much like Zurich, into the Old Town (located on the left shore of the lake) and the newer section with most of the large hotels and top restaurants (on the right lake shore). There is a large international art scene here, and it’s the capital of Switzerland’s renowned watch industry — there’s even a museum dedicated to it, the Musée International de l’Horlogerie.
The region that encompasses the city offers enchantingly Swiss panoramas of peaceful blue lakes backdropped by forested hills and snow-capped mountains. Farms and vineyards slope down the hillsides around the lake, along with grand, imposing castles. Chalet villages and the quiet Vallé de Joux offer places where nature remains unspoiled. In the wintertime skiing, snowshoeing and other winter activities (you can even have an igloo adventure!) beckon.
One of the top Swiss tourist destinations, Interlaken lies between Lake Thun and Lake Brienz, and is presided over by three mighty mountains: Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau. More than 45 mountain railways, cable cars, chair lifts and ski lifts lead to 200 kilometers of ski runs and a large network of hiking trails; while historic paddle steamers and other tour boats operate on the waters of the two lakes below. It’s easy to see the appeal of Interlaken to the famous who spent time here, including Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Felix Mendelssohn.
Of course, no listing of gorgeous places in Switzerland would be complete without the capital city, Bern. This old-world jewel — a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage city — boasts six kilometers of merchant arcades lining the historic streets inside the medieval fortress walls, open squares filled with busy market stalls, and plenty of pubs located in ancient, storied venues. Window boxes filled with vibrant-colored flowers, statues, and splashing fountains complete the charming scene in Bern. TGV, ICE and Pendolino high-speed trains run to Bern, and it’s a base for the surrounding winter sports areas of Gstaad, Jungfrau and the Bernese Overland.