What’s so great about Switzerland? Hard to say, but their flag is a big plus.
My best friend’s eighth grader told me that joke when he heard I was going to Switzerland. (Very funny, Thomas.) But, like a lot of terrible jokes, it contains a kernel of wisdom: Switzerland is, indeed, a great place to travel. And not just for its flag.
I recently enjoyed a two-week guidebook-research trip across Switzerland — a week in the mountains (Berner Oberland, Pilatus, Rigi), and week in the cities (Bern, Luzern, Zürich). Switzerland was one of the first places I visited in Europe, and I used to go there frequently, but somehow I had not set foot on Swiss soil in a decade. I’m happy to report it’s better than ever. Switzerland is an utterly wonderful place to travel, and the Swiss are utterly wonderful people.
Here are my observations about Switzerland and its people — culled both from my recent trip, and from years of earlier travels. (Full disclosure: My parents lived in Switzerland before I was born, so I grew up thinking things like a cowbell by the fireplace, fondue at Christmas, and Bircher Muesli for breakfast were normal. Ergo, I’m predisposed to love the Swiss.) I’ve also mixed in some practical tips to smooth your next visit.
The Swiss own some of the most stunning mountain scenery anywhere.
This is an obvious one, but it bears repeating. As an Alps connoisseur, it’s easy for me to see the Swiss Alps as kind of a cliché. But it’s one of those clichés that more than lives up to the hype. On a beautiful day, Switzerland’s Alps are stunning and worth the high cost to summit. (Even on a cloudy day, they can be gorgeous — provided visibility is good.)
The Swiss never met a mountain they didn’t want to conquer with a cable car, a funicular, or a cogwheel train, and cap with a revolving restaurant. Here are a few tips for enjoying those Alps:
I love how the first channel on any Swiss hotel TV is live webcam footage showing area mountaintops. This helps you decide, at a glance, what to do today. Weather is hard to predict in the mountains, but it’s worth some effort. One day I was staying in Luzern and hoping to head up to Rigi. The Luzern forecast was miserable. But I carefully checked the webcams and weather report specifically for Rigi. Luzern was cloudy and had a high chance of rain; Rigi had neither. So I took a leap of faith…and had a glorious mountaintop adventure, above the clouds, while Luzern suffered in the drizzle.
A few days later, I had a similar experience: riding a cable car up from socked-in Wengen, until it finally punched through the cloud cover to reach sunny Männlichen. I hiked all day in the sun before descending by cogwheel train to still-foggy Wengen.
Once up top, keep an eye out for those handy yellow Swiss hiking signs, which mark various trails. While it’s always smart to get tips from locals, and bring at least a rudimentary map, Swiss trails are delightfully user-friendly…and incredibly rewarding.
If you’ll be in Switzerland at least a week, seriously consider investing in a Swiss Travel Pass. It’s not just for trains — it also covers lake boats and local public buses and trams, earns you significant discounts on many pricey lifts, and gets you free into most museums in the country. It’s the kind of up-front investment that frees you up to be spontaneous, taking advantage of everything it covers without worrying about the nickel-and-dime costs. Feel the financial pain once…then enjoy.
The Swiss are very proud of their fountains.
I spent time with local guides in Bern, Luzern, and Zürich. And in all three cities, as if fulfilling a blood oath to the Swiss Tourist Board, they repeatedly pointed out the perpetually flowing water fountains that gurgle throughout their cities — and bragged that the water was entirely potable. In fact, they carry around plastic cups to let their guests try it for themselves.
Americans are spoiled by having public water fountains everywhere. But, come to think of it, flowing drinkable water is quite rare in Europe. In most countries, all of the prettiest fountains have big Acqua Non Potable or Kein Trinkwasser signs, warning you that filling up your bottle can lead to an unpleasant memory. But in Switzerland, it’s all good.
Three other reasons why Switzerland’s many fine fountains are a big deal: First, drinks are very expensive here…and in pricey cities like Zürich, many restaurants even levy a surcharge for tap water. Filling up your bottle at a free fountain is a big money-saver. Second, the water quality is excellent — usually piped in from high-mountain springs or purified glacier melt. It tastes great and it’s very refreshing. And third, Switzerland’s fountains are a design feature, from classic stone pillars with ornate statues, to carved-log troughs high in the mountains, to recently installed fountains that double as modern sculptures. In Bern, the city’s most important landmark — collectively — are its 11 Renaissance fountains, each one topped by a colorful statue, and each one representing an important story from the annals of the city.
The Swiss are keenly aware of their environment.
During my visit, the historic old streets of Bern were torn up. It was a mess just trying to walk through the city center. My guide explained: “We had an unprecedented heat wave last summer…it was over 105 degrees! The rails for the tram actually began to warp. It became hazardous and there was a big worry about derailments. So they’re replacing several rail lines.”
There are few countries as tied to nature as the Swiss. And when their landscape struggles, they struggle too. The Swiss went out of their way to tell me that they’re feeling the effects of climate change, in the form of melting rail lines, shorter skiing seasons, and disappearing glaciers. (Seeing political posters for the upcoming elections, I asked if right-wing nativist parties were on the upswing here. I was told that, in contrast to much of Europe, their influence is waning, mainly because they are flat-footed when it comes to climate issues. My takeaway — admittedly an oversimplification — is that even Swiss racists are more motivated by climate change than by xenophobia.)
The other way increasing temperatures impact travelers: air-conditioning. Don’t count on it, and even when you have it, don’t expect it to be very strong. Some Swiss hoteliers are feeling the heat and installing A/C, but they are carefully regulated to cool things down just a bit, rather than turn each hotel room into a walk-in refrigerator. I was surprised to see many hotels with both air-conditioning and fans — used in tandem to take the edge off. So if you’re heading to Switzerland in warm weather, be prepared to sweat a bit with the Swiss. (And ask for a quiet room, high up and facing away from noisy streets, so you can keep your window open while you sleep.)
The Swiss have the prettiest money of anyone.
I mean, come on: It’s just gorgeous — each bill is a work of art. It’s the only currency I can think of that orients its bills vertically. And it’s entirely unafraid of bright colors and fanciful design. This may seem at odds with the rigid, stern image of Switzerland. Not to psychoanalyze too much, but I think it’s more nuanced than that: The Swiss live in a place of unspeakable beauty and unforgiving natural constraints. They’ve tamed their unruly land with the best train system in Europe, not to mention a galaxy of high-mountain cable cars, gondolas, and cogwheel trains, plus big, low-slung boats for plying alpine lakes. It’s the perfect preparation for being both right-brained and left-brained: aesthetics within boundaries.
The Swiss are fiercely loyal to their grocery store.
Anyone who’s traveled in Switzerland knows there are two dominant grocery-store chains: Coop and Migros. But until this visit, I was not aware that they are far from interchangeable.
“Either you’re a Coop family, or you’re a Migros family,” my local guide told me, matter-of-factly. Migros focuses on in-store brands. If you stop by Migros to stock up on chocolate, you’ll be buying Migros brand chocolate. The company also prides itself on having a conscience: They don’t sell alcohol or cigarettes, they were the first Swiss supermarket chain to stop giving out free plastic bags, and they donate one percent of its total annual sales to good causes. Meanwhile, Coop has a wider variety of brands and higher prices, and focuses more on organic and sustainable products; it’s considered a bit more posh.
The Swiss know how to deal with big crowds.
Like much of Europe, Switzerland has been struggling with huge crowds. But they’re handling the situation with characteristic grace and practicality. Lifts scheduled for twice hourly often go more frequently — more or less continuously — at busy times. And they’re adding new cable-car lines all the time to increase capacity. For example, the Berner Oberland’s Schilthornbahn — which connects the Lauterbrunnen Valley, Gimmelwald, Mürren, and the mountaintop Piz Gloria station — is adding parallel cable-car lines, effectively doubling capacity. Because they’re not sure exactly when this initiative will be complete, they’re calling it “Project 20XX.” (Gotta love that no-nonsense Swiss honesty.)
Even as they’re doing an excellent job managing crowds, things can get backed up. To minimize frustration, it’s wise to head up early. Be on the first or second lift of the day — which are often discounted and always uncrowded. If the weather’s perfect, it can also work well to go late in the day, but make sure you know what time the last return is. If you’re flexible, swing by the lift station the day before and ask what time they suggest going tomorrow. The lift operators know better than anyone what the day-to-day crowd patterns are, and have a knack for predicting the weather.
The Swiss love their cheese…but not necessarily the smell.
In one little area of Zürich, I checked out three different traditional Swiss restaurants…all entirely for tourists. The main draw are the melted cheese dishes: fondue and raclette. But all that melted cheese can be very fragrant. Swiss people don’t go out for raclette and fondue — they make it at home. And they actively avoid ye olde traditional melted cheese restaurants because it makes their clothes stink like a festering foot for a couple of days. So if you’re determined to eat cheese at a Swiss restaurant — and you should — accept the fact that you’ll be doing it among fellow tourists. (And go before laundry day.)
The Swiss live in an expensive country…but you get what you pay for.
Switzerland is expensive. Very expensive. A cup of coffee or a Coke costs $5; a basic budget lunch at a take-out stand can be close to $20; and a hotel room costing less than $200 is bare-bones-basic, with threadbare carpet, thin walls, and antique plumbing. It’s very easy to blow through a lot of money here.
And yet…somehow, it’s worth it. People are polite, competent, and efficient. Things work the way they’re supposed to. On my way out of Switzerland, I arrived at the airport — and checked in, and got through security — long before I expected to. (In Italy, just getting a cab can be a high adventure.) That $20 lunch? It’s delicious — satisfying and filling. That $100 mountain lift? It buys you a glorious day of spectacular alpine views and eye-popping hikes you’ll remember the rest of your life. (And the $5 coffee? Well, let’s just say the third wave hasn’t quite hit Swiss coffee houses. But at least it’s caffeinated.)
Honestly, “money-saving tips” for Switzerland only go so far. You can stay in youth hostels or Airbnbs, do the math to see if a Swiss Travel Pass can save you money, picnic frequently, enjoy nice restaurants at lunch (when many offer $20-25 lunch specials, as opposed to the $30-40 dinner entrees), take advantage of the many affordable and healthy cafeterias (Migros, Coop, and Manora), and skip drinks at restaurants. But in a land where even tap water is often charged for, the best advice may be to simply accept that it’s a big investment. Don’t cheap out on Switzerland. It’s worth the expense.
The Swiss do have a sense of humor…albeit a very specific one.
Walking through the streets of Bern, my local guide pointed to a big, shiny, 5-franc coin on the cobbles. “Watch this,” she said. A few seconds later, an unsuspecting tourist wandered by, saw the coin, bent over to pick it up…and got spritzed by water squirted from the eaves overhead. My guide relished every moment. “It’s a modern art sculpture, called ‘Roofspit.’ It squirts water at that coin every 15 seconds or so. You have no idea how many people I’ve seen get wet!” She practically giggled an evil giggle.
Later, just a few hundred yards down the main drag, my guide called my attention to a little three-part channel, exposing the stream that runs through the middle of Bern. “Look carefully! Do you notice anything?” Scrutinizing the three channels, I didn’t see a thing. Finally, I noticed that the middle channel was running uphill — in the opposite direction of the channels before and after it. Her eyes danced with enjoyment. “There’s a pump built in underground that pushes the water backwards!” Only in Switzerland would someone conceive a complex (and, presumably, expensive) system to very subtly reverse the direction of a five-foot stretch of gutter… just to, y’know, mess with people.
Never let it be said the Swiss don’t know funny.
Swiss neutrality is no joke — and neither is military preparedness.
Walking along a one-lane road at the base of a vertical cliff, along the shoreline of Lake Luzern, I came upon a ramshackle shed huddled up against the rock. Stepping through its rickety door, I found myself at the entrance to a 650-foot-long, heavily fortified tunnel, leading to machine guns, huge artillery cannons, and barracks where a hundred armed-to-the-teeth Swiss soldiers could hole up indefinitely, protecting one of several dozen mountain passes that are all just as fortified.
The “Swiss Army” ain’t just a gimmick for selling knives. And Fortress Fürigen — an easy side-trip outside of Luzern — is just one of nine different fortresses in this one tiny part of Switzerland, guarding the approach from Lake Luzern and the Central Plateau.
During World War II, surrounded by the Nazis and Mussolini’s Italy, Switzerland had to figure out a way to retain their independence. They embraced the symbol of a hedgehog — cute and cuddly, but capable of hunkering down and exposing its spines when threatened.
The government came up with a bold plan: In case of invasion, Switzerland would contract like that hedgehog. The country’s leaders and military would pull back into the mountainous interior, essentially abandoning the cities of Zürich, Bern, Basel, and Luzern in the flat area facing Hitler’s Germany. The passes into and out of this rugged mountain fortress — called the Swiss National Redoubt — would be heavily guarded.
With the Cold War and threat of nuclear attack, Switzerland doubled down on these plans. And today, every bridge and tunnel in the country is rigged with explosives, innocent mountain slopes conceal missile silos, military service is compulsory, and every Swiss household has a loaded gun. It’s a system they call “armed neutrality” — never used offensively, but defensively ready to unleash hell.
Swiss neutrality has been criticized. It also means not taking sides — or playing both sides — even in times of moral absolutes. In World War II, Swiss banks willingly held vast amounts of wealth that the Nazis stole from murdered Jews. This debate is dealt with openly and constructively in Swiss society, confronting the populace with unpleasant realities and tough choices. But ultimately, the Swiss have made their decision. And, if you were a tiny country encircled by the great European powers of Germany, Austria, France, and Italy…perhaps you’d make the same one.
The Swiss love a soft drink that tastes like vitamins.
Of the many fine flavors that remind me of Switzerland — stinky cheese and creamy chocolate top the list — there’s one thing that I need to have before I really know I’m in Switzerland: Rivella, the soft drink made with milk serum. It looks like Coke but tastes like chewable vitamins. I am an aficionado of weird local soft drinks, from Scotland’s Irn-Bru to Slovenia’s Cockta. But Rivella may be my favorite. It’s an acquired taste, perhaps, but worth trying.
Swiss cities are great, too.
Naturally, when people think “Switzerland,” they think alpine majesty. But Swiss cities are pretty great, too. They’re beautifully situated, well-organized, easy to get around, spick-and-span tidy, and packed with great museums and pleasant squares (and fountains…mustn’t forget the fountains). In fact, considering how popular the Alps are, Switzerland’s cities may be some of the most underappreciated destinations in Europe. Consider weaving some urban Switzerland into your itinerary — or, given how small and well-connected this country is, escape to the cities on rainy, socked-in days. (From Interlaken, it’s less than an hour to Bern.) Here’s a rundown:
Zürich, by far the biggest Swiss city, flanks a pretty river on the edge of a big lake. Known for its banking industry, it’s thought of by the Swiss as being hardworking, bustling, and a bit snobby. (They call it zu reich …”too rich”.) Everything moves fast here; people are impatient…but that’s because they’ve got places to go. Banks aside, Zürich also has a surprisingly large and fun-to-explore cobbled old town (called the Niederdorf) and one of the country’s top museums: the Landesmuseum, with a gorgeously presented, thought-provoking exhibit on Swiss history…just a few steps from the main train station (ideal for a sightseeing layover).
Bern, the pint-sized seat of government, is laced with big, elegant arcades and colorful fountains, and its towering Münster (main church) rockets up from the promontory on which it sits. Among Swiss, Bern is known as the city of bureaucrats and students…things are relaxed and mellow. While its sightseeing is unspectacular, Bern’s cityscape — historic yet highly livable — makes it hard to leave.
Luzern, with an even more spectacular lakeside setting than Zürich’s, is the touristic darling. It faces the many-fingered Vierwaldstättersee (a.k.a. Lake Luzern), which stretches deep into soaring cut-glass mountain panoramas. (Lake cruises are hard to resist here.) Of the Swiss cities, it’s on the smaller side and by far the most “discovered” — huge crowds of travelers from around the world jam onto its beautiful, landmark wooden bridges, using the city as a springboard for easy mountain excursions. You could spend a week in Luzern and visit a different mountaintop every day.
And there’s more. Lausanne — steep, vertical, and facing Lake Geneva — comes with French chic and a big cathedral, and it’s the Olympic capital, to boot (with a state-of-the-art Olympics Museum). Lugano — in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino — feels like a bridge between Switzerland and the chaotic country to the south; like Luzern and Lausanne, it’s perched on the edge of a lake facing towering mountains. And Basel — at the vertex of Switzerland, France, and Germany — has a lively market square, a colorful town hall, and the Rhine running through its middle.
That’s just a dozen of the many reasons why Switzerland is one of Europe’s most satisfying destinations. What are your favorite things about the Swiss?
I was in Switzerland updating our Rick Steves Switzerland guidebook. (The newly updated edition is out in May 2020.) While there, I crossed paths with several of our Best of Switzerland tours — and everyone was having a blast.
Want to read more about Switzerland? On this same trip, I went for a glorious high-mountain Swiss hike above the village of Gimmelwald. Years ago, I spent a memorable Christmas in the Swiss Alps. And I chose Bern as one of my European Discoveries for 2020.