Switzerland dials up the natural drama with landscapes and towns that seem to have slipped straight from the pages of a fairytale. Particularly pretty in winter – arguably the best time to visit Switzerland – they’re easily accessed by the country’s immense network of scenic trains, buses and ferries. Get set for a wild winter ride.
There’s a moment, as the winter sun peeks over the Alps, when it feels like I have Switzerland to myself. Gem-like glaciers glint from atop Europe’s loftiest mountains, unfolding in layers of snow. The sky morphs from a deep bruise to a soft blush. Grindelwald’s chocolate-box chalets are revealed, neatly lined up in the foothills and puffing smoke from early morning fires. Essential in this part of the world at this time of year, they’re also a treat to behold. It’s such a storybook setting that I half expect to see Heidi skipping up the street.
Such bedazzlement becomes a daily ritual in this place, where each landscape is more ravishing than the last. It’s little wonder, then, that so many consider winter the best time to visit Switzerland.
It’s the best time to visit for epic mountain experiences
It’s hard to beat sunrise in Grindelwald. This petite town is wedged between lush green fields dotted by wide-eyed cows and mountains that were made for postcards. The Alps ripple across 60 per cent of the country, but Jungfrau may well top them all. It rises above the town in the Bernese Oberland, grazing 4,000 metres alongside the Eiger and Mönch.
The ride to Europe’s highest train station (Jungfraujoch, 3,454 metres) begins in the new Eiger Express gondola. Revealing a different side to the region’s glacier-capped peaks, taking only 15 exhilarating minutes to reach the top. Even better if you reserve the VIP cabin that comes with a complimentary bottle of bubbles. It connects with the Jungfrau Railway, a zippy red carriage that climbs at a remarkable incline. Nothing quite prepares you for the vertiginous drama of this journey. The landscapes below unfolding in glacial valleys and end-of-the-Earth peaks.
Dizzying is the only way to describe the experience of stepping from the train carriage at Jungfraujoch. It’s not just the altitude that causes your head to spin – it’s the immense outlook. Nothing else matters when all around are mountains even loftier than the one you’re on.
When it warms, waterfalls tumble from limestone cliffs, misting the view of hikers tramping across fields so green you’d swear they were painted on. When the mercury drops, snow and ice create a winter wonderland replete with glacial caves.
Snow crunches beneath my feet, the icy air whips around me, and the aroma of hot chocolate finds me. A winter experience for all senses – the perfect time to visit Switzerland.
Winter activities and attractions
Less than 100 kilometres away, Engelberg was once the richest place in Europe. The tiny town still retains much of its history. In particular, the glorious Benedictine monastery has been operating for more than 900 years. But its true wealth today lies in mountaintop penthouses with views of Titlis.
This Swiss alpine region is like winter on steroids. Epic slopes scrape the sky at more than 2,000 metres. It also offers plentiful and powdery snow for a ridiculously long ski season, from October through May. Ski runs extend as far as you can see, in addition to snow-shoe and cross-country trails. Some even lead to a cheese factory at the base of the mountain.
You could easily spend a day just riding all the different types of scenic on-mountain transportation. These include chairlifts, gondolas and the world’s first revolving cable car among them. I use all three to reach the summit, home to an oh-so-cool glacial cave carved 20 metres below 5,000-year-old ice. On a clear day, you can see all the way to the Black Forest. There’s also a vertiginous suspension bridge, for those with a head for heights.
The pleasure of this mountain lies in its endless array of attractions, I decide. I contemplate this while sitting in the sun at restaurant Lago Torbido – glass of wine in one hand, pizza in the other. From here, there’s ziplining over the powdery fields, tobogganing and tubing, and electric snowmobiles to create fresh tracks while dwarfed by precipitous peaks.
Lazy lakeside living
The Swiss all but invented lake life and embracing the great outdoors is ingrained in their culture. For proof, look no further than the seasonal pomp on Lake Geneva or Lake Lugano. Or drop by Lake Constance or Zurich’s mirror-like water body, where you’ll be hard-pressed to find a day that doesn’t go by without a party. It’s a similar scene at Lake Lucerne, under the shadow of the majestic Rigi and Pilatus mountains.
This city has impressive grace. Its cobalt lake is ringed by mountains of myth and streets leading to a well-preserved medieval Altstadt (Old Town). There are covered bridges, sunny plazas, candy-coloured houses and waterfront promenades. Not to mention fresh water fountains, more than 200 in fact, quenching the thirst of locals wherever they wander; all you need is a bottle.
It’s easy to linger, but ferries also zip about on the water, transporting me to the wooden carriages of the 1888 funicular. From here, I ascend 500 metres in scenic drama to the grand and glamorous clifftop Bürgenstock resort. It would be a thrill to arrive at any time but on a winter’s day at dusk, it’s utterly enthralling. Another reminder as to why the best time to visit Switzerland is in the winter months.
Hotels on top: Switzerland’s best winter accommodation
As the funicular slowly climbs, mist swirls and the snow-laden fir trees become ever denser. At the top, the vintage-poster-lined station opens directly onto the road along which the four hotels of the resort are set. First, the glass-and-steel Bürgenstock, partially cantilevered over the edge. Next up is the old-world Palace, followed by the cosy 12-room Taverne 1879. Finally – the largest of them all – the 160-room, state-of-the-art Waldhotel Health & Medical Excellence medi-spa.
Staying at any of them gets you access to the knockout Alpine Spa, with floor-to-ceiling windows emphasising its mountain-eyrie magnificence. Whereas most spas look inwards, this spa is all about looking out and appreciating the incredible setting. There are also cosy spots where rustic armchairs encircle log fires. But the architecture constantly allows you to draw in those spirit-lifting views.
You might be sweating in a sauna or steam room or stretched out by the indoor lake-water pool. Or perhaps swimming in one of the best outdoor infinity pools in the Alps, following a hot-stone massage or facial. No matter how you choose to relax, the magic of Switzerland’s landscapes is ever-present here.
Make your own movie star moments in Pontresina
Good looks are essential when you arrive in Pontresina. Adjacent to the glam town of St Moritz, Liam Hemsworth just happens to be holidaying here when I arrive. It’s part of the much larger Engadin region, with four main peaks and 350 kilometres of piste. Not to mention some 200 kilometres of cross-country ski trails and 150 kilometres of winter hiking trails.
Like many Swiss resorts, you can toboggan and snowshoe. You can also jump in the back of a horse-drawn carriage and ride into the Val Roseg valley with views of the gem-like Roseg glacier. Which I do.
The quiet is all-consuming. The only sound is the occasional thump of snow falling from pine and larch branches. And the rush of air from our steeds’ nostrils. The horses prance through the powder while we cosily recline, wrapped in woollen blankets. A winter fairytale come true. Could there be a better time to visit Switzerland?
Outdoor adventures aside, the other reason to come here is for the glam Grand Hotel Kronenhof. Gaze at its horseshoe-shaped façade and you’ll find yourself transported to the set of Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Powdered perfection where winter lasts all year long
Postcard-perfect Zermatt sits at the foot of the Matterhorn, that 4,478-metre pyramid peak immortalised on the packaging of Toblerone chocolate bars. On my first night, 20 metres of powder blankets the town. I spot the fanatics clambering for their ski gear as soon as the lifts open the following morning. Truth be told, there’s no rush. This happens to be the only place in Switzerland that gets 365 days of snow. It’s the highest altitude and largest winter resort in the Alps, with 360 kilometres of trails catering to all levels.
I pull on boots and wander through powder that marks my knees. It’s tempting to fall back and let the drift consume. But the mountain restaurant of Findlerhof is in my sight, along with wine (essential) and creamy prawn curried soup (addictive). It’s like a salve for the winter soul.
At a breathtaking 3,883 metres, Matterhorn also has a Glacier Palace, replete with ice sculptures of huskies and crystals. I take the cable car and then cogwheel railway to get here. The view from the top reveals Italian, French and Swiss alpine giants – 29 peaks higher than 4,000 metres.
The only thing more inspiring is my planned dinner venue. Fondue, anyone?
This article was created in partnership with Switzerland Tourism.
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