Four languages | Dozens of cheeses | Hundreds of mountains
All the quaint stereotypes are true – cheese, chocolate, clocks, obsessive punctuality – but there is much more to Switzerland than this. The major cities are cosmopolitan and vibrant, transport links are excellent, and the scenery takes your breath away. Switzerland is diverse and multilingual – almost everyone speaks some English along with at least one of the four official languages.
Zürich: Trendy bars, cutting-edge clubs and a beautiful medieval old town.
Lausanne: Lively and extremely hilly town in a beautiful setting on Lake Geneva.
Bernese Oberland: Legendary Alpine area offering classic Swiss scenery alongside famous destinations such as Lauterbrunnen and Staubbach Falls.
Geneva: Take in the cultural attractions of this most urbane of European cities – and then head down to the waterfront to recharge your batteries.
Bern: Switzerland’s capital city, with a medieval street plan that has survived unchanged for five centuries.
Lake Lucerne: The most dramatically sited of all Switzerland’s lakes, ringed by mist-wreathed cliffs.
Skiing, hiking and climbing: Jungfrau Region renders breathtaking scenery plus unlimited hiking and adventure sports. For skiers and snowboarders, the choice is overwhelming: Verbier and Zermatt are especially renowned for their challenging on- and off-piste skiing. Glaciers at Saas Fee and Zermatt allow summer skiing. At the Matterhorn, towering world-famous mountain peak, guaranteed skiing and snowboarding goes year-round.
Bikes (and trailers, e-bikes etc) can be rented from main stations, and in summer the largest cities also have free bike schemes (such as Zuri-rollt and Genève’roule). Ask at tourist offices or consult myswitzerland.com for routes and tips.
Montreux Jazz Festival: Stellar annual music event attracting world class jazz, blues, soul, dance, rock and world music performers.
The Swiss Heartland: The Mittelland – between Lake Geneva and Zürich, flanked by the Jura range to the north and the high Alps to the south – is a region of lakes, gentle hills and some higher peaks. There is a wealth of cultural and historical interest in the cities of Basel, Luzern and the federal capital, Bern. Wherever you are, the mountains are never more than a couple of hours away by train.
Lake Geneva: French-speaking Switzerland, or Suisse Romande, occupies the western third of the country, comprising the shores of Lake Geneva (Lac Léman) and the hills and lakes to the north. Geneva, at the southwestern tip of the lake, was once a haven for freethinkers from cross Europe; now it is a city of diplomats and big business, but you will see its more relaxed side by the lake on a warm day.
Halfway around the lake, Lausanne is full of young people; it is a cultured, energetic town acclaimed as the skateboarding capital of Europe. Further east is the stunning medieval Château de Chillon, which drew Byron and the Romantic poets.
Mont Blanc, Western Europe’s highest mountain (4807m), is visible from Geneva, while Lausanne has breathtaking views across the water to the French Alps. On a sunny day, the train ride around the beautiful northern shore is memorably scenic, but the excellent boat service brings home the full grandeur of the setting.
Ticino: Italian-speaking Ticino (Tessin in German and French) occupies the balmy, lake-laced southern foothills of the Alps. It is a little pocket of Italy in Switzerland and radically different in almost every way: culture, food, architecture, attitude and driving style owe more to Milan than Zürich, although Switzerland has controlled the area since the early 1500s.
The main attractions are the lakeside resorts of Locarno and Lugano, where mountain scenery meets subtropical flora. The best way to enjoy these chic towns is to join the locals promenading with ice creams.
Unless you approach from Italy, there is only one train line in – through the 15km Gotthard Tunnel. The climb to the tunnel is famous for its spiraling contortions: trains pass Wassen’s onion-domed church three times, first far above, then on a level, and finally far below.
Liechtenstein: Barely larger than Manhattan, Liechtenstein is the world’s sixth-smallest country. It’s an unassuming place squashed between Switzerland and Austria, ruled over by His Serene Highness Prince Hans Adam II, and has made a mint from nursing some Fr.90 billion in numbered bank accounts. The main reason to visit is the novelty value – you can see the whole country in an easy day-trip from Zürich, less than two hours away by train.