With Italy to the south, France to the west, Germany to the north, and Austria to the east, Switzerland has managed to borrow the best from each of its neighbors while carving out an incredibly unique culture of its own. Full of legendary landscapes, cosmopolitan cities, and heart-racing alpine adventures, this notoriously neutral nation has much more to offer than watches, fondue, and private banks. For the real Swiss experience, you'll have to embark on an epic journey through its historic cities, quaint villages, and breathtaking scenery. And you'll quickly see why the Swiss are constantly ranked among the happiest people in the world. Before you plan your trip, check out our list of the best things to do in Switzerland.
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1. Test your tongue.
It may be small, but Switzerland packs a big cultural — and linguistic — punch. There are four official languages spoken in the country and 64 percent of the population uses more than one language at least once a week. Most of the country operates in Swiss German, but the west leans toward French and pockets of the south speak Italian. In the eastern region of Graubünden (also known as Grisons), some citizens still use the traditional Romansh dialect. While many Swiss citizens speak English as well, it’s respectful to brush up on the basics before your trip. Depending on the Swiss canton you’re in, you’ll want to practice a greeting of bonjour, buongiorno, grüezi, or allegra. The different languages also impact local culture and gastronomy. What’s great about Switzerland is you can have a flaky croissant in the Romandy, sample polenta in Ticino, and gorge on bratwursts in Deutschschweiz — all without crossing any borders. For a taste of that Swiss intersectionality, be sure to visit Basel near the French and German borders.
2. Connect to nature.
From the Alps to the Matterhorn to the Jura Mountains, it’s no secret that Switzerland is filled with incredible peaks. But it’s also filled with shining lakes, expansive valleys, and more than 72 wondrous waterfalls. Beyond the record-setting Rhine Falls at the German border, you’ll want to see the Staubbach Falls in Lauterbrunnen and the nearby Trümmelbach Falls. Giessbach Falls along Lake Brienz offer a stunning sight (or swim) as well. The Swiss landscape is like a playground and the wilderness begs to be explored. Luckily, there’s no shortage of hiking trails to enjoy it all. In fact, Switzerland is home to 40,000 miles of incredible trails. Whether you prefer suspension bridges, panoramic mountain views, lakeside villages, animal encounters, or culinary crusades, there’s a Swiss hike for you. The Eiger Trail, Five Lakes Walk in Zermatt, and Lavaux Vineyard Terraces Swiss Wine Route are all great for first-timers.
3. Indulge in the Swiss c's: chocolate and cheese.
The rumors are true: Switzerland is home to more than 700,000 cows. That means mouthwatering dairy delights. It’s where both milk chocolate and fondue were invented. The Swiss now eat more chocolate per person than any other nationality in the world, at 25 pounds of chocolate per person each year. Satisfy your sweet tooth with a tour of Nestle’s Maison Cailler factory in Broc, L’Espace Chocolat in Lausanne, Confiseur Läderach in Vevey, Chocolaterie Stettler in Geneva, and the Teuscher headquarters in Zurich. For something a little off-the-beaten-path, but just as delicious, make the time for Maison Truffe in Stäfa. Some spots, like Beschle Chocolatier Suisse in Basel, let you get in on the action with a chocolate making workshop. You can melt, mix, and eat your way through the country’s most popular export. Indulging is just another way to assimilate with the locals, after all.
While you’re at it, treat yourself to some Swiss cheese. There are more than 450 varieties and you’ll want to balance all that chocolate with something savory. Nutty Gruyère originated in the town of Gruyères and mild Emmental is named after the region it came from, but raclette has got to be the most Swiss of all. It’s typically shaved over bread with a hot knife so it gets melty. The Parmesan-like Sbrinz from central Switzerland, brined Appenzeller of the Alps, and pungent Tête de Moine from the Jura Mountains are also worth a try. To taste the national dish head to Fribourg, fondue’s heartland. Wash it all down with some Swiss wines. The best whites come from the shores of Lake Geneva. Plus, there’s great Merlot in Ticino and anything from the Valais is sure to impress.
4. Go medieval.
Swiss cities like Zurich, Basel, and Geneva are contemporary culture powerhouses, but there are tons of quaint towns and villages oozing storybook charm. The walled town of Stein Am Rhein in the German-speaking canton of Schaffhausen is a perfect example. The pedestrian center is full of perfectly preserved medieval structures with beautifully painted facades, best seen from the hilltop Hohenklingen Castle. Leave some time for leisurely walks with your camera and relaxing afternoons in local coffee shops. Picturesque and car-free, Lucerne in central Switzerland is another top spot for tourists. It’s located along a sparkling emerald lake, surrounded by rolling hills, and filled with frescoed historic houses and lively squares. Highlights include the 14th-century Kapellbrücke (Chapel Bridge) and Musegg Wall, the Swiss Museum of Transport, and the Lion Monument which honors the Swiss Guards who fought in the French Revolution.
Another town full of medieval wonder: The Old City of Bern earned UNESCO status in 1983, thanks to its cobbled streets, Gothic shopping arcades, Zytglogge clock tower, and 16th-century fountains adorned with painted figures. This stunning city on the Aare River is the capital and federal center of Switzerland, but it offers tons of old-world allure. Last but not least, explore the medieval history waiting at the Chateau de Chillon in Montreux. The complex has 25 buildings, three courtyards, a chapel full of murals, and inviting views of Lake Geneva. Once the stronghold of the County of Savoy, it has inspired artists for centuries.
5. Push your limits.
New Zealand and South Africa have plenty of adrenaline-pumping adventures on offer, but Switzerland has burst onto the scene as an extreme sports capital. No matter what crazy idea you have in mind — skydiving, bungee jumping, paragliding, quad biking, canyoning, cliff jumping, or whitewater rafting — Interlaken has it all. The dramatic Alpine peaks surrounding the area make the activities even more special. If you plan your trip for the fall, prepare to be wowed by the vibrant foliage. And with more than 425 mountains taller than 9,800 feet, Switzerland also offers incredible skiing, snowboarding, and mountaineering. If you want to take it up a notch, try snowkiting, which is like a mixture of windsailing and snowboarding. More experienced winter sports enthusiasts can try heli-skiing or heli-boarding. It’s expensive, but you won’t have to wait in lift lines for fresh powder and open terrain.
6. Get on track.
You don’t need to climb to enjoy the vistas from Switzerland’s summits. And whether it’s a means to an end or part of the itinerary, train travel is the best way to get around. There are 46 different railway companies and more than 3,100 miles of track. Each one runs extremely punctually and efficiently, and tickets are easy to purchase. The Bernina Express across the canton of Graubünden, Golden Pass from Lucerne to Montreux, Chocolate Train between Montreux and Broc, and seven-hour Glacier Express from Zermatt to Davos or St. Moritz are fan favorites, but there are plenty of epic rides to choose from. The panoramic glass windows and slower travel speeds make it easy to soak in the sights. If you’re planning to take a few different rides, consider the Swiss Travel Pass, which includes rail, road, and waterway access.
For the ultimate ride, head to Jungfraujoch, also known as the Top of Europe. Located 11,000 feet above sea level, it’s the highest railway station on the continent. There’s an ice palace, snow fun park, and observation deck waiting at the top. And thanks to the altitude, you’re guaranteed to see snow no matter what time of year you go.
7. Learn all about the Olympics.
There are plenty of art museums and galleries in Switzerland (especially if you appreciate modern art), but you’ll want to put some time aside for the Musée Olympique in Lausanne. Although it doesn’t have any of Paul Klee’s Cubist paintings or Alberto Giacometti’s Surrealist sculptures, it does offer an interactive look at a long-standing global phenomenon. Located in the home of the founder of the modern-day Olympics and the International Olympic Committee, it delves into the history and spirit of the games. There are exhibits, documents, films, and memorabilia that date back to Greek antiquity. With more than 10,000 artifacts, the museum holds the largest collection of information related to the Olympic games, its organization, and the athletes. You can even take photos carrying the Olympic torch and try some Olympic sports yourself.
8. Take to the lakes.
Even though the country’s mountains hog the spotlight, the lakes are equally impressive. Boat tours are the best way to take advantage of these pristine bodies of water. From turquoise and emerald to icy-blue and royal, they come in every color. Some are surrounded by mountains, while others provide views of the plains. You can get awesome views of the nearby villages, vineyards, castles, glaciers, and wildlife from the deck of a boat. Several boat tour and ferry companies operate on Lake Geneva, Lake Lucerne, Lake Thun, Lake Brienz, and Lake Lugano. A cruise on the Rhine River is another good option. If you’re up for a swim, try Lake Zurich or Lake Neuchâtel. A Swiss Travel Pass will give you access to almost every boat. Reservations are not required, so you can embrace some spontaneity. Just leave plenty of time for hopping off when you see something enticing.
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