Why Switzerland is Europe’s coolest country

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

The train cuts a swathe through the landscape, a slash of red against the brilliant white of snow. It is just as beautiful looking out through the panoramic windows of a carriage as it wends its way across the Swiss Alps, all sawtooth peaks and incandescent lakes.

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. Other premium panoramic trains to add to your list are the Glacier Express, which runs through the Alps from St. Moritz to Zermatt, the GoldenPass Panoramic that takes you from Interlaken to Montreux, the Gotthard Panorama Express from Ticino to Lucerne, and the Luzern–Interlaken Express.

Skiing in Grindelwald, Switzerland
Skiing in Grindelwald © Christof Sonderegger

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. Accessible on a single ticket – the Swiss Travel Pass – this trip takes you to places such as St. Moritz, Zermatt, Lake Lucerne, the wine terraces of the Lavaux and through UNESCO World Heritage sites. While the rich greens of summer present a beautiful palette, traversing the countryside in winter adds another spectacular element, as the sleek train slices through impossibly pretty scenery surrounded by soaring peaks.

Winter discoveries

Switzerland is well endowed with world-class ski resorts, with names like Zermatt and St. Moritz, Gstaad, Engelberg, Klosters and Wengen on snow-bunny bucket lists. However, there are many other activities to enjoy in winter, perhaps before or after your ski adventure. Trying a new activity enlivens the mind, is invigorating and may well introduce you to a new passion.

In the canton of Graubünden, for instance, there are 40 ski areas, plus you can go snow-shoeing, learn to Nordic (cross-country) ski in Davos, or sign up to follow the Smugglers’ routes, trails once used to sneak tobacco and coffee between Ischgl and Samnaun. For a bit of fun, download the mySamnaun app, stop at all the checkpoints and go in the draw to win prizes.

Hiking at Skateline Albula
Skating at Skatline Albula © Silvano Zeiter

In the Arosa Lenzerheide region, explore 225 kilometres of terrain and when not skiing or snowboarding, take a break at a rustic mountain hut. One of the recommended experiences here is to venture up to the Rothorngipfel restaurant for a wonderful three-course dinner accompanied by astonishing views over 1,001 peaks. Time your visit right and after your meal you can join a monthly gathering to ski back down to Lenzerheide on freshly groomed runs under the moonlight.

Fondue is on the menu at a mountain hut accessed via a snowshoe hike under the stars in Charmey, and separately in a cable car in Andermatt, with three courses complemented by panoramas over the Oberalp.

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 (although closed in the winter of 2020/21), takes skaters through pristine forest, with the night skate particularly beautiful.

For the avid mountaineer and adventure seeker, you can even 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.

Read: The best hiking trails in Switzerland

Wengen, Bergbahn
Wengen, Bergbahn © Rolf Wegmueller

Stay on snow

To really immerse yourself in the fairytale that is staying in the snow in Switzerland, look for a destination that is free of cars. Switzerland has the most car-free winter resorts in the world in the world, ensuring magical days spent roaming snowy countryside and villages.

Bettmeralp, in the Valais canton, is accessible only by cable car, and its proximity to the Aletsch Glacier – part of the first UNESCO World Heritage site of the Alps – as well as its excellent skiing, hiking and pure beauty, makes it a standout choice. Being able to ski right to your doorstep is another good reason to visit.

Other spectacular car-free villages include Saas-Fee, known as ‘the Pearl of the Alps’; Mürren, which is the highest year-round village in the Bern canton; Wengen; and, the best known of all the car-free villages, Zermatt.

Read: The best places to swim, dine and explore in Switzerland

Ski tour group at Pizzo Rotondo
Ski tour group at Pizzo Rotondo © Thomas Senf

Zermatt is the pin-up face of winter in Switzerland, with The Matterhorn a huge draw, whether you want to climb it, ski on it or simply marvel at its sheer majesty. Zermatt has a range of accommodation, from chalets to lodges to five-star hotels – you can even stay in an igloo should you wish to, at Zermatt’s Igloo Village.

Igloos are just one form of extraordinary accommodation in Switzerland, with Swiss Alpine Club (SAC) mountain huts another. There are 153 of these huts perched on mountaintops around the Alps, none more striking than the Cabane des Violettes in Crans-Montana. This stone cabin with its perky red-and-white shutters sits at 2,20 metres, with views extending from the Matterhorn to Mont Blanc. Stay here and first tracks on the ski slopes are virtually guaranteed, along with a cosy night’s sleep and typical mountain-dwellers food.

Local Michelin-starred chef, Franck Reynaud, from the Restaurant Gastronomique L’Ours and Les Bistro des Ours at the Relais & Châteaux Hostellerie du Pas de L’Ours, often finds his way to this hut after a few hours of ski touring in perfect terrain and recommends the rösti, cheese on toast or pasta, enjoyed with a glass of Valais wine, of course.

Read: The Grand Tour of Switzerland road trip

Crans-Montana, Cabane des Violettes
Cabane des Violettes © Silvano Zeiter

This article was produced with content supplied by Switzerland Tourism and is a Vacations & Travel digital exclusive. Be the first to see more exclusive online content by subscribing to the e-newsletter here.

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