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The Essential Guide to Switzerland


Here’s everything you need to know about exploring the “Playground of Europe”—when to go, where to stay, what to do, and how to get around.

FAST FACTS

Capitals: No official capital exists, but Bern operates as the de facto. Lausanne serves as the country’s judicial center.
Time zone: Central European Time (GMT+1), Central European Summer Time (GMT+2 Daylight Savings)
Airports: Switzerland’s largest airport, Zurich Airport (ZRH), is serviced by major airlines. Geneva Airport (GVA), accessible from Switzerland and France, has flights to European destinations and some long-haul routes. EuroAirport Basel-Mulhouse-Freiburg (BSL) is a tri-national airport mainly served by flights to European destinations. Bern (BRN), St. Gallen-Altenrhein (ACH), Lugano (LUG), and Sion (SIR) Airports between them offer short-haul, seasonal, and charter flights.
Currency: Swiss Franc (CHF)
Fun fact: The average Swiss person consumes 26 pounds of chocolate per year.

Why you should visit Switzerland

Skiing in the Alps. Swimming in crystal clear lakes. Modern cities with medieval old towns. All that chocolate and cheese.

Best time to visit Switzerland

Spring: Hike along low-elevation trails through forests, past gorges, waterfalls, and lakes. Take the Glacier Express panoramic train across the Alps. Basel is a party city during its three-day carnival, Basler Fasnacht.

Summer: Most mountain areas are open from July. (Many resorts close between the skiing and summer seasons, usually April-June.) Europe’s largest jazz festival, Montreux Jazz Festival, takes place on the banks of Lake GenevaSwiss National Day (August 1) is celebrated nationwide with bonfires and fireworks. 

Autumn: Try regional Swiss cheeses at Lucerne’s Cheese Festival. Celebrate the start of the grape harvest in Neuchâtel at the lively Grape Harvest Festival (Fête des Vendanges). The Food Zurich festival features food tours, markets, and culinary events.

Winter: Switzerland’s mountain resorts are a magnet for winter sports enthusiasts. Watch international artists carving huge blocks of snow at the Grindelwald Snow Festival. Enjoy mulled wine and twinkling lights at Christmas markets.

Zoom in for more detail.

Warm light from a fire illuminates the area as a person watches.
On Swiss National Day, communities burn bonfires like this one seen on Stanserhorn mountain near Stans, Switzerland, on August 1, 2021.PHOTOGRAPH BY URS FLUEELER/KEYSTONE VIA AP

Lay of the land

Cities: Bern’s old town has nearly four miles of medieval shopping arcades. Stylish Zurich offers a flourishing food scene and vibrant nightlife. Cultural hotspot Basel is the gateway for Alpine skiing. Geneva is the cosmopolitan capital of high-end watchmaking. Head to Lugano for Mediterranean-style squares and sub-tropical gardens. Charming car-free Chur is Switzerland’s oldest city.

Central: Surrounded by mountains, lakeside Lucerne is famous for its 14th-century wooden bridge. Lake Zug is a picturesque spot for swimming and watersports in summer. Come winter, Engelberg-TITLIS ski resort offers some of the country’s best slopes—and the world’s first revolving cable car.

(Ice melt and a new cableway are reshaping the Eiger experience.)

Northeast: Head to family-friendly Thurgau to camp on the shores of Lake Constance and cycle or hike through its meadows, orchards, and forests. The magnificent Carolingian Abbey of St. Gall is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

East: Spot ibexes, marmots, and golden eagles in the Swiss National Park (Parc Naziunal Svizzer). Grisons’ Alpine resorts offer abundant snow-filled fun, from snowboarding to horse-drawn sleigh rides. The exclusive St. Moritz is renowned for its world-class pistes, luxury shopping, and high-end restaurants.

South: For Mediterranean-style architecture and delicious gelato, head to Italian-speaking Ascona on Lake Maggiore. Hike through Valais’ vineyards and learn about local wines at the Musée du Vin. Take the cable car to the Eggishorn viewpoint for magnificent views of the Great Aletsch Glacier. High-altitude Alpine resorts, including Zermatt and Verbier, offer guaranteed snow.

West: Lausanne’s Olympic Museum houses the world’s largest archive of modern Olympic artifacts. The Vaud wine region is known for its diverse range of wines. Visit the peaceful town of Gruyères for its medieval hilltop castle—and its Gruyère cheese. The subalpine Jura Mountains straddle the Swiss-French border.

North: Use Zurich or Winterthur as a base to visit Europe’s largest waterfall. Art Basel, the prestigious contemporary art fair, features artists from five continents. The idyllic Aargau-Solothurn region is off the radar for international tourists: indulge in some me time at one of its numerous thermal baths.

Getting around

By train: Switzerland’s train network is as safe, clean, and efficient as you’d imagine. Mainline trains are primarily run by Swiss Federal Railways (SBB in German, CFF in French, and FFS in Italian), with local and regional routes covered by private operators. Tickets can be bought at bahn.com, but domestic journeys don’t need to be booked ahead, and most trains don’t require a reservation. Good-value rail passes can be purchased from the Switzerland Travel Centre.

By car: Switzerland’s motorway network includes the A1, which runs east-west from St. Margrethen to Geneva, and the north-south A2, which connects Basel with Chiasso. A vignette (road tax) is required to drive on the motorway. Winter tires are advisable during winter; snow chains may be necessary in Alpine regions. Driving in Switzerland is on the right.

By plane: Domestic flights are quick but expensive. Switzerland’s so small there’s no need to fly. 

By bus: Low-cost Flixbus offers several domestic routes.

Wide view of train station.
Basel SBB station is Europe’s largest border station, featuring nine platforms with 23 tracks.PHOTOGRAPH BY MINORU KURIYAMA / ALAMY

Know before you go

Hours: Except at airports and train and gas stations, most stores are closed on Sundays. Some stores, restaurants, and attractions also close on public holidays, but unlike other parts of Europe, Switzerland doesn’t shut down in August.

Languages: Switzerland has four national languages: German is the most widely spoken, followed by French, which is spoken in the west of the country. Italian is predominantly spoken in the southeast. Rumantsch is a Gallo-Romance language indigenous to Grisons in Switzerland’s east. 

LGBTQ+: Same-sex marriage is legal in Switzerland. As of 2020, transgender and intersex Swiss citizens over 16 can adjust their legal name and gender marker by self-declaration at the civil registry office. Zurich, Geneva, Basel, Bern, and Lausanne are known for their LGBTQ+ scenes. Pride (known as Christopher Street Day, or CSD) events are held in major cities and some smaller towns. Popular queer-friendly ski destinations include Zermatt, Lenzerheide, and Arosa.

Tipping: It is customary—though not obligatory—to round the bill up or tip approximately 10 percent.

How to visit sustainably 

Outdoors: Explore natural landscapes outside peak season and enjoy spring flowers or colorful fall foliage. Stick to hiking and cycling trails, keep noise to a minimum, and take your trash with you. Use designated campsites or check with local authorities before wild camping. Use SwitzerlandMobilityto select hiking trails coordinated with public transport.

Shopping: Browse flea markets in Zurich, Basel, and Geneva for vintage clothing and jewelry, books, and antiques. Stores such as the Schweizer Heimatwerk in Bern and Kolorit in St. Gallen sell Swiss-made souvenirs. Visit small-scale cheese dairies and wineries, and purchase chocolate from independent makers such as Garçoa and Taucherli, who produce fully traceable, organic, fair-trade bars.

Dining: There are vegetarian and vegan restaurants aplenty—supposedly the world’s oldest vegetarian restaurant is in Zurich—and the Swisstainable logo highlights restaurants committed to sustainable practices. Regional, seasonal produce is standard. Switzerland’s drinking water is very safe and clean—bring a reusable bottle and refill it at any tap.

(Here’s how to spend a meat-free culinary weekend in Zurich.)

What to read 

Swiss History in a Nutshell, by Grégoire Nappey. A concise summary of the most important historical events in Swiss history.

Heidi, by Johanna Spyri. This story of an orphan sent to live with her grandfather in the Alps is responsible for the romantic image of Switzerland held around the world today.

Swiss Watching: Inside the Land of Milk and Honey, by Diccon Bewes. This exploration of Switzerland goes beyond its stereotypes to prove there’s far more to the country than banking, skiing, chocolate, and cheese.

Source: National Geographic

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