The ultimate Switzerland travel guide

Switzerland’s scenery is so magnificent that it sears into your soul, with its snow-clad peaks, gem-like glaciers and rolling green hills – the stuff of postcards. The country’s petite size means that it’s a breeze to travel around. Winter or summer, by road or by rail, in the mountains or valleys… Switzerland offers something for all seasons – and sensibilities.

Pinpoint your destination and adventure style, and get started. If you’re stuck with how to plan your trip, use The Grand Tour or it’s train equivalent for inspiration.

The best time to go to Switzerland

Switzerland is a year-round destination, and when you visit depends on your desires. For winter sports like skiing and snowboarding, the best months are from December to March. If you prefer to hike the glorious green meadows and alpine passes, spring and summer – April through to September – are ideal.

The best Switzerland cities to visit

Swiss cities are authentic, with heart, culture, history and nature’s best all wrapped up in one country. And being Switzerland, you can rest easy knowing that the air is clean, the water pure and the country safe. So safe, it’s one of the best destinations for solo female travel. Discover Switzerland’s main cities, from historical havens to urban retreats. They have lots of personality and plenty of activities on offer.

Zurich © Henrique Ferreira | Unsplash
Zurich © Henrique Ferreira | Unsplash

Bern

Switzerland’s capital is a blend of old and new with old town Bern – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – a must with its striking medieval architecture, narrow streets, sandstone facades, and many elegant fountains and historic towers. Bern is the gateway to the popular Swiss Alps, making it a great base for travellers. Compact and clean with covered outdoor arcades, traditional markets, and it flowing Aare river that winds through the city, Bern is a wonder to explore.

Vibe: Medieval, historic and charming

Getting there: Bern airport is 10 minutes from the city centre. From Zurich airport, take the train to Bern’s main station. The journey is approximately an hour and 15 minutes.

Best things to do: Jump and swim in the Aare River, a popular swimming spot in summer. Experience the onion market, The Zibelemärit, in November – where hundreds of stalls fill out the square near Parliament. Dating back to the fifteenth century, you’ll find everything from winter vegetables, jesters, satirical leaflets and confetti battles. Explore Einstein’s house, visit a number of the city’s exciting museums, stop and smell the roses in The Rose Garden and tour Bear Park. Get your sweet tooth fix with a trip to the chocolate emporium, Laderach.

Where to eat: Bern region is best known for making delicious Rösti, a panfried grated potato bake. Also try Treff Cafe for Asian fusion, or Luce for enticing Italian.

Where to stay: Hotel Schweizerhof Bern & Spa for a luxury stay or Alpenblick Bern for a cosy getaway. Find more of the best Bern accommodation here.

Zermatt

Lying at the foot of Matterhorn, a monster mountain legendary for its shape and size, Zermatt is one of the world’s most attractive ski villages. Offering access to the best terrain, many national ski teams train here in the summer. Year-round, this preserved village offers visitors a range of activities to enjoy. From skiing and paragliding in winter to cycling and high-Alphine tours in summer, Zermatt is best savoured by the active traveller.

Vibe: Activity heaven

Getting there: Zermatt is a car-free destination that can be reached by train, taxi or helicopter. The nearest airports to fly into are Zurich or Geneva. It’s three and a half hours from Zurich-Kloten and four from Geneva-Cointrin.

Best things to do: Ride the aerial cable car up to Europe’s highest mountain station, Matterhorn Glacier Paradise. Expert climbers can take on the Matterhorn. Ski, sledge, hike and snowboard until your heart’s content in this snow heaven haven in winter.

Where to stay: Experience an Igloo village at Iglu-Dorf, or for a luxury ski-cation, LaVue Luxury Living Zermatt and Riffelalp Resort offer first-class stays. You can find more of the best Zermatt accommodation options here.

Where to eat: Restaurant 1818 for modern South American cuisine prepared in a 300°C Josper charcoal oven. Bazaar by CERVO for chic interiors and vegetarian feasts. Discover more Zermatt dining options.

Matterhorn © Zermatt Nils Leonhardt | Unsplash, Zermatt © Morgan Thompson | Unsplash
Matterhorn © Zermatt Nils Leonhardt | Unsplash, Zermatt © Morgan Thompson | Unsplash

Basel

Basel is culture central, with 40 museums – the highest concentration in Switzerland – and also know for its urban art and famous fair, Art Basel. The city also has a charming old town with the river Rhine running through it which is a local spot to take a splash in summer.

Vibe: Artsy and culturally cool

Getting there: Whether by plane, train, river cruise or car, getting to Basel is easy. From Zurich airport, it’s approximately one hour by car. The train from the airport is approximately an hour and a half.

Best things to do: Visit one of the 40 museums in the city – naturally, give Switzerland’s first rope park with a continuous safety system a whirl, take a ride on a Rhine ferry, discover Basel on an e-bike, or unwind at Sole Uno wellness world – where saunas, pools and relaxation is aplenty. Take a hike up to the Belchenflue vantage point. The two to four-hour journey is suitable for all ages and able-bodied individuals.

Where to stay: Stay at one of Europe’s oldest hotels, Grand Hotel Les Trois Rois, or social hub Volkshaus Basel with its bar, brasserie and art collection. Explore more Basel accommodations.

Where to eat: Basel’s traditional dish is its Flour Soup, a beef broth with wine and onion. For a Michelin-star experience, dine at Cheval Blanc by Peter Knogl at the Grand Hotel Les Trois Rois. A farm-to-fork feast at rustic Schällenursli will entice those seeking an organic dining affair.

Grand Hotel Les Trois Rois, Rhine Deck © Grand Hotel Les Trois Rois
Grand Hotel Les Trois Rois, Rhine Deck © Grand Hotel Les Trois Rois

Lucerne

Holding onto history is the name of the game in this gorgeous Switzerland village. As the gateway to central Switzerland, the picturesque lakeside setting offers visitors access to the mountains, medieval architecture and historic buildings.

Vibe: Old-world charm

Getting there: Zurich is the best airport to fly into. Then, take a train to Lucerne – which will take less than an hour. Parts of the city are car-free.

Best things to do: Go for a dip in the historic Seebad baths on Lake Lucerne’s National Quay. These 19th-century baths offer spectacular views over the water to the Swiss Alps beyond. Swiss Museum of Transport is highly recommended, as is the Rosengart Collection, where original portraits by Pablo Picasso are included with 300 Classic Modernist and Impressionist works of art. The list of things to do in Lucerne is endless.

Where to stay: Mandarin Oriental Palace, Luzern, is a legendary hotel situated on the shores of Lake Lucerne. Hotel Villa Honegg in Ennetbuergen is set high above the lake with 23 elegant rooms and suites (the hotel can be booked for exclusive use for events or celebrations), an exquisite terrace restaurant, fireside lounge, a spa with indoor and outdoor pools, a cinema and jaw-dropping views. Or if sleeping in a Gondola on a mountaintop peaks your interest, this tiny house gondola is nearby in Brunni.

Where to eat: Lucerne has long earned its reputation for serving up some of the country’s traditional dishes including everyone’s favourite picks, raclette and cheese fondue. You must try the Chügelipastete – the Swiss meat pie – which dates back to the 18th century. It is a pie filled with ragout made with veal and sausage meatballs.

Brunni Tiny House Gondola by Little City
Brunni Tiny House Gondola by Little City

Zurich

A cosmopolitan city set in nature, Zurich is a bustling hub of events, museums, a vibrant nightlife and always plenty to do. Once you’ve exhausted the city’s list of activities, take to the Swiss mountains – you’ll be there in less than an hour.

Vibe: A buzzing boutique city

Getting there: Fly directly into Zurich Airport.

Best things to do: From Zurich, catch the train to Arth-Goldau, then a cog railway up to the Rigi Kulm for astonishing panoramas over 13 lakes and the majestic Alps. If time permits, you could even squeeze in a soak at the Mineral Baths & Spa Rigi-Kaltbad. Take a tour of Lindt Home of Chocolate and discover all of their sweet secrets. Step back in time with a wander through the Radiomuseum, with sets dating back to the 1920s. Get cheesy with a Swiss cheese masterclass with a qualified cheese sommelier, or see the city from an exclusive boat trip around Lake Zurich.

Where to stay: Want to sleep under the stars at a five-star luxury hotel? Widder Hotel has an incredible rooftop bubble with superb views over the Old City, Lake Zurich, and the Alps. If an opulent escape is on the cards, these other luxury Zurich hotels will do the trick. You can also search for more of the best Zurich accommodation here.

Where to eat: In Zurich, try Geschnetzeltes, a veal ragout in white wine and cream that is one of the classic dishes of this region. La Rôtisserie, with its 17 Gault Millau points and one Michelin star offers a refined dining experience. For a traditional Swiss menu, feast at Restaurant eCHo at Zurich Marriott Hotel where they have a dining room nestled in a cable car.

Zurich
Zurich

Geneva

Lakeside promenades, parks aplenty, lively side streets, old town charm and elegant shops, Switzerland’s most international city offers a diverse range of attractions for visitors to dive into. Nestled on the southern tip of expansive Lake Geneva with views of Mont Blanc, its home to Europe’s United Nations and the Red Cross.

Vibe: Lakeside livin’ la Vida Loca

Getting there: Fly into Geneva airport then take a bus, shuttle, train or taxi to the city. The airport train to the city centre takes only six minutes.

Best things to do: Experience a sauna on the beach at Maladaire – ideal in the cooler seasons. Or discover how a fine Swiss watch is made in a watch-making course. Unwind at Bains de Cressy, a wellness hub offering spa treatments, seaweed baths, Reiki, sauna and jacuzzi sessions. For breathtaking views of Geneva, ride the cable car from Le Pas de l’Echelle (Veyrier) to Mont Salève. There’s also a range of hiking trails at the top so lace up if you want more sights. Take to the countryside on two wheels and tour of the Lavaux vineyards, set high above Lake Geneva.

Where to stay: For a traditional luxe stay, the Hôtel Beau-Rivage fits like a glove. Four Seasons Hotel Des Bergues is lakeside luxury living, while Mandarin Oriental Geneva blends accents of art decor with state-of-the-art technology and offers stunning views of the Rhône and Old Town. An urban retreat, Ultima Grand Villa Geneva is on the shore of Lake Geneva, a central location for travellers. Discover more of the best places to stay in Geneva.

Where to eat: A true Geneva institution, the Brasserie de l’Hôtel de Ville combines history with delicious traditional dishes. You are likely to see local politicians, actors and celebrities tucking into a cheese fondue or lake perch fillets. A designer cocktail is on the menu in the cosy bar of the grand Hôtel Metropole, located by the lake. Another must-try is a homemade pastry at Café du Remor. If seeking western fare, Chez Philippe is a New York bistro-style restaurant in the heart of Geneva. Order a hamburger and a glass of wine, and make sure you sample ‘Denise’s sauce’, named after the chef’s mother.

Keep reading: Six unique Switzerland bubble hotels and tiny homes

Geneva © Mandarin Oriental
Geneva © Mandarin Oriental

Fast facts about Switzerland

German is by far the most widely spoken language in Switzerland with 19 of the country’s 26 cantons predominantly (Swiss) German-speaking. French is spoken in Geneva, Jura, Neuchâtel and Vaud cantons in the western part of the country. Three cantons – Bern, Fribourg and Valais – speak both French and German. Italian is spoken in Ticino and in four southern valleys of Graubünden canton, with Romansh/Rumantsch also spoken here.

Switzerland is also big on sustainability, striving to leave as little of a footprint as possible. Discover 10 ways to enjoy a sustainable holiday in Switzerland for your next trip.

Things to do in Switzerland in winter

The winter months in Switzerland might be best known for skiing, but plenty of other cool adventures await across the Swiss Alps.

The Jungfrau Ski Region is a snow lover’s delight, with several amazing places to ride and slide, such as Lauterbrunnen-Wengen, Grindelwald-First, Mürren-Schilthorn or Meiringen-Hasliberg. There are over 265 kilometres to explore, ranging from gentle slopes to steep pistes. You will need at least a week to see it all. Then there are all the other things to do and see. The Jungfraujoch is known as the Top of Europe and is an absolute highlight. Located in the Jungfrau-Aletsch-Bietschhorn UNESCO World Heritage Site, there are a number of things to see while you are there. Visit the Ice Palace, The Sphinx and go for a walk on the glacier.

While in the area, you should add these towns to your hit list: Grindelwald, Wengen Swiss Alpine Village and Mürren-Schilthorn.

Grindelwald

Grindelwald is an achingly beautiful mountain village at the base of the north face of Eiger Mountain. Here, you can ride the incredible tri-cable Eiger Express Gondola to the Eiger Glacier. Then, switch to the cogwheel railway that has been carrying passengers up through the Eiger itself to the highest train station in Europe for over a century. The slopes of Grindelwald provide superb skiing and have English-speaking ski instructors available for group or private lessons.

Wengen Swiss Alpine Village

Wengen sits at the foot of the Jungfrau mountain. It is like something out of a Swiss fairytale, with traditional chalets sitting pretty on the sun-drenched terrace. Its tranquil vibe and snowy setting will be far, far removed from the normal treadmill of life back at home. The nearby Männlichen and Kleine Scheidegg mountains are great for family-friendly skiing.

Mürren-Schilthorn

Mürren village sits at the base of the Schilthorn peak, which has some Hollywood history. You’ll find the spectacular Piz Gloria revolving restaurant perched on top of the Schilthorn, with wraparound views of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau. As well as an array of peaks in the Bernese and Valais Alps and the blue waters of Lake Thun. Piz Gloria featured in the James Bond movie On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. There is a Bond World 007 exhibit on-site, and you can order a martini à la James Bond: shaken, not stirred. To add a bit more Bond to your Swiss experience, try the Bob Run, a toboggan run that runs from Allmendhubelbahn down to Mürren – but perhaps not after a martini!

Mürren-Schilthorn © Leila Azevedo | Unsplash
Mürren-Schilthorn © Leila Azevedo | Unsplash

Skate, curl, climb

Ice skating on the frozen Lake Schwarzsee in Fribourg is definitely a bucket-list experience, as is trying your hand at curling. Perhaps the ultimate ice-skating adventure is the three-kilometre-long Skateline ice skating trail in Surava, lovingly created and maintained by local volunteers. The trail, open between mid-December and March, takes skaters through pristine forest, with the night skate particularly beautiful.

For the avid mountaineer, you can sign up for the multi-day North to South climb with guides leading you from Andermatt to Locarno over the Alps. A more peaceful winter option is to take a canoe tour on Lake Uri in Lucerne, with its mirror reflections and tranquillity sure to please.

Keep reading: Switzerland’s best winter experiences

Things to do in Switzerland in the summer

Summer in Switzerland is an underrated experience. From deep blue mountain lakes for leisurely swims to rough mountain peaks begging to be scaled, it’s a plethora of outdoor activities. It’s the playground for the adventurous and outdoorsy. The country has more than 12,000 kilometres of signposted cycling paths to take on two wheels. With e-bike tours, regional and national routes to explore. For wine lovers, pedal through vineyards before treating yourself to a glass of crisp Swiss wine. Or, delay your trip slightly and travel to Switzerland in autumn – arguably one of the best times to visit. It’s also a good time to chase some Switzerland waterfalls.

Hiking in Switzerland

Hikers tackling the legendary Via Alpina, a long-distance trail through eight countries including Switzerland, are spoiled for choice. The Swiss section runs from Vaduz to Montreux, traversing 14 alpine passes and through six cantons across the northern Alps. The trail is broken into 20 stages; if you do just one, Stage 12 is a great option beginning in Lauterbrunnen.

The Alpine Passes Trail runs between Chur and Lake Geneva taking you through some of the most spectacular passes in the Graubünden and Valais Alps, while the Jura Crest Trail is for the less adventurous hiker. This trail is the oldest long-distance route in the country, running from Zurich to Geneva via the Jura Mountains.

Long distance hiking not for you?

Switzerland has 65,000 kilometres of marked trails on offer, so you are spoiled for choice. In fact, trekking is such a part of Swiss life that the maintenance of hiking trails is part of the constitution.

From Rotenboden in Zermatt, experience the four-hour hike to the Monte Rosa Hut available for overnight stays. From Interlaken, head for Grindelwald First, where many hiking trails start, including the pretty-as-a-picture walk to Lake Bachalp. Grindelwald First has jaw-dropping views to the Eiger and has adrenaline rides such as the 800-metre-long First Flyer zipline, and the spectacular First Cliff Walk by Tissot lookout.

Also, from Interlaken, as well as from Thun, take the trip up to Niesen. Situated between the Simmen and Kander valleys, Niesen gives astounding panoramas over Spiez Bay and over the Bernese Alps, from Thun and Brienz Lakes toward the Jura. Niesen is also home to the world’s longest staircase. Are your legs up to tackling 11,674 steps? If not, take the funicular.

Keep reading: Five of the best hiking spots to add to your bucket list

Grindelwald Bachalpsee © Switzerland Tourism
Grindelwald Bachalpsee © Switzerland Tourism

Train journeys through Switzerland

From Lauterbrunnen or Grindelwald, venture to Kleine Scheidegg to catch the century-old cog railway up to the Jungfraujoch. No hiking is required as you head north through the Eiger to this mountain saddle, where you can see the Aletsch glacier and a wonderful world of ice and snow. At the end of the track, step onto an aerial cableway from the UNESCO Biosphere Entlebuch up to the 2,350-metre Rothorn. Stay for lunch at one of the summit’s restaurants, or linger overnight at the Mountain Lodge Rothorn Kulm.

Onboard the Bernina Express

The Bernina Express is just one of several premium panoramic train journeys in Switzerland, running from Chur to Tirano across countryside that will leave you breathless. It passes through 55 tunnels and over 196 bridges, including the dramatic Landwasser Viaduct on the Rhaetian Railway. There are many highlights along the way, including the Montebello curve, with its view of the Bernina massif, plus seeing the Morteratsch glacier alongside astonishing alpine lakes, beautiful valleys and charming villages.

More premium panoramic train trips

Add to your list the Glacier Express, which runs through the Alps from St. Moritz to Zermatt, the GoldenPass Panoramic which takes you from Interlaken to Montreux, the Gotthard Panorama Express from Ticino to Lucerne, and the Luzern-Interlaken Express.

The Grand Train Tour

While the individual panoramic journeys are spectacular, you can combine them on the granddaddy of all rail trips: the Grand Train Tour of Switzerland. This 1,280-kilometre adventure takes in the best of the best, with passengers able to hop on and off wherever they please along the eight sections of the route. There is a new Winter Magic Tour on the Grand Train Tour of Switzerland with frozen lakes, fluffy powder snow and majestic glaciers to see out the train window. This tour handpicks the best skiing in Switzerland.

Accessible on a single ticket – the Swiss Travel Pass – this trip takes you to St. Moritz, Zermatt, Lake Lucerne, the wine terraces of the Lavaux and through UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Switzerland travel facts

Passport and visa requirements
Major airport
  • Zurich Airport and Geneva Airport
Getting around
  • The train is the best form of travel in Switzerland. However, there are many options available including flights, buses, cars, taxis, boats and e-bikes.
Currency
  • Swiss Francs, also known as CHF
  • Major credit and debit cards are accepted in Switzerland. This includes Visa, Mastercard, Maestro and Cirrus. However, American Express cards are not as widely accepted.
  • Best practice is to always carry a small amount of cash on you just in case you enter a shop or restaurant that doesn’t accept your cards.
Tipping
  • No tipping is required. But if you want to make someone’s day who’s provided good service, rounding up to the nearest franc or round figure is welcome.
What to wear
  • Known to be conservative and casual, the best advice for dressing in Switzerland is for the elements. Be sure to pack warm clothes and layers for the cooler seasons, raincoats and umbrellas for the springtime and sun-smart clothing for summer.
ATM
  • ATMs and banks are relatively easy to find across Switzerland, however, some areas won’t have them. Do your research and be prepared before travelling.
Electricity
  • Switzerland uses Type J (3-pin) and type C (2-pin) plugs.
Staying connected
  • There is public WiFi available in more than 1,700 hotspots across Switzerland. Fees apply.
  • Or, speak to your provider. They may have international plans that will work for you.

Switzerland Map

Tags: ,