Hedged like a pristine park among European superpowers, Switzerland boasts picturesque scenery, polite and poised citizenry, remarkably clean streets, and a seamless blend of old and new. Home to some of the most legendary ski resorts in the world, this peaceful wonderland is a great winter travel destination.
Alp Regions – A Bovine Farewell to Summer
Furry, doe-eyed cows with clanking bells are part and parcel of the delightful summer landscape of the high Alp meadows. But when autumn calls, these gentle natives descend from their mountain idyll to winter stables in the valleys. The ancient rite of driving the cattle (and smaller livestock) from their alpine pastures goes by various names, including Alpabzug (Swiss-German), Almabzug (high German) and Almabtrieb (Bavaria/Austria). Adorned with elaborate floral headdresses and embroidered neckwear sprinkled with holy figures, ribbons and bells, the cows travel through local villages on the way to their winter homes. Villagers don traditional attire and prepare local delicacies for the occasion, as main streets come alive with market stalls, bratwurst, beer, dancing and folk bands. These all-day events occur in Swiss, Bavarian and Austrian Alp villages from September to early October.
Reliable, on time and efficient marks the impeccable Swiss pedigree—nowhere more apparent than in its legendary watchmakers. What Rolex is to opulence, Swatch to pop fashion and Longines to sports, Mondaine is to travelers. As the official Swiss Railway watchmakers, the company produces replicas of the unmistakable, streamlined, white-faced clocks with the characteristic red second hand seen in every bahnhof (rail station) in the country. Marking time for the flawlessly punctual Swiss trains, the patented 1940s clocks created by Hans Hilfiker are beacons of Swiss Rail, and icons of Swiss design and engineering. Mondaine adapted Hilfiker’s design to make wall, table and desk clocks, travel alarms and pocket watches. Adhering to a “just-in-time” principle, all Mondaine components are produced in a single day. The sleek state-of-the-art facility—designed as efficiently and beautifully as the rail clocks—features a dust-free “clean room” that perfectly regulates temperature and humidity for ideal watch-making conditions.
Panorama Express Travel
There’s no better place to travel by rail than Switzerland. Punctual, clean and superbly maintained, Swiss Rail links the entire country, traveling through some of the most stunning scenery on earth. Passing by traditional valley villages, over bridges, through tunnels, past glaciers and below fantastic Alp peaks, Swiss trains are a traveler’s delight. Swiss Rail’s specially designated Panorama routes showcase the country’s finest landscape and engineering feats with glass-roofed rail cars for maximum views and thrills.
The eight-hour Glacier Express, billed as the “slowest express train in the world,” travels from the Matterhorn in southern Switzerland through 91 tunnels and 291 bridges over the Oberalp Pass to trendy St. Moritz. The southeastern Bernina Express is no less magnificent, canvassing 55 tunnels, 196 bridges and the circular viaduct of Brusio while climbing gradients of up to 70% to the Bernina Pass in Italy. Duration ranges from two to four hours, depending on where you embark. Alternately, the Wilhelm Tell Express starts with a three-hour steamship cruise across glorious Lake Lucerne in central Switzerland. Next, a two-hour train ride takes passengers up to 3,642 feet and through the 9.3-mile Gotthard Tunnel that links Switzerland with Italy. For more information, visit: www.swisstravelsystem.com/en/home.html
The Christmas Markets – An Enchanted Swiss Tradition
Cozy wooden chalets in traditional Alp villages paint a vibrant picture of Switzerland’s winter wonderland. At Yuletide, the charm turns up another notch when festive traditional Christmas markets spring up on streets and squares in most every city and village. As scents of glühwein (mulled wine), flammkuchen (akin to a thin pizza), raclette (melted cheese with grilled potatoes), sausages and baked goods waft through the air, shoppers peruse handcrafted wares, craft workshops, cultural events and historic reenactments amidst colorful lights and merry sounds.
The roots of this tradition are found in northwest Switzerland, where Basel and its Old Town glimmer with a seasonal cheer that radiates through the longest illuminated Christmas Street in Europe. In a twinkling fairytale Christmas world flavored with delightful aromas, artisans in 140 stalls and wooden huts make and sell authentic Swiss crafts and ornaments of handblown glass, carved wood and hand-dipped beeswax. In Switzerland’s 800-year-old capital of Bern, 15th- to 17th-century houses surround the Christmas market on historic Waisenhausplatz, reflecting luminous grand character and romance. For medieval splendor, head to the 13th-century Chateau de Gruyères, just east of Lake Geneva in southwestern Switzerland. Celebrate Christmas among spectacular displays of local artistry, including handmade paper crèches from the Czech Republic. If none of the above falls on your Swiss itinerary, don’t despair. Father Noel visits even the smallest Swiss villages, each with their own markets and regional traditions.
Zurich – Swimming Candles & Singing Trees
As the country’s largest city and air hub, Zurich appears on most Swiss itineraries. Plan a stopover in late November and December when the city transforms with seasonal treats and Christmas markets. In the late afternoon, make your way to Zurich’s smallest market on Werdmühleplatz. Twinkling stars and lights hang from trees to create a magical mini town of craft and cheer. With hüppen (crispy wafer rolls) and glühwein (mulled wine) in hand, take in the unique musical tradition of The Singing Christmas Tree, made up of regional youth and children’s choirs. Then wander to the end of Bahnhofstrasse to Burkliplatz and try your hand at candle dipping, a custom in Zurich since 1969. If you’re in town the week before Christmas, you can watch the annual Lichterschwimmen (Swimming of the Lights), a tradition that sends 800 candles floating down the Limmat River. When outdoor chills become too much, head to the Zurich Christkindlimarkt (Christ-child Market) inside the grand hall of the main train station. Europe’s biggest indoor Christmas event boasts over 160 wooden chalets that house crafts, workshops and delicacies. Presiding over the festivities is the magnificent 50-foot Swarovski Christmas tree, adorned with 5,000 glistening crystal ornaments.
St. Moritz – Calling All Epicures
Anyone traveling to St. Moritz—the famous jet-setting enclave in southeast Switzerland—at the end of January will witness the 20th anniversary of the St. Moritz Gourmet Festival, a six-day gastronomic journey with European chef royalty. Hailed as the social event of the year, the event pairs Michelin-starred European master chefs with the local master chefs of St. Moritz’s leading hotels, including the Kempinski Grand Hotel des Bains (shown here). For an entire week, teams work to create sublime culinary artistry. In one event after another, 4,000 bon vivants are treated to signature dishes, the latest trends and new creations in kitchens, lounges and candlelit dining rooms. Kicking off with a cocktail party, the festival provides guests with lunches, tastings and dinners of gourmet fare with themes of chocolate, cheese, game, cantina and cucina. Populated by both young talent and seasoned veterans, the festival is capped with the Great Valser Gourmet Finale, filled with all the pomp of a grand European jet-set party.
Lucerne – Romance & Engineering by the Lake
Set on a vivid blue lake surrounded by a breathtaking ring of snow-dusted Alps, Lucerne defies the concept of a progressive city. Historic red-roofed houses adorned with frescoes line picturesque town squares, while medieval covered bridges with art panels depicting life in the Middle Ages span the Reuss River. Churches, spires, castles and Swiss peaks mark the skyline, while chic boutiques, hair salons and Swiss cafes line cobbled alleys romantically illuminated at night. The riveting Verkehrshaus (Swiss Museum of Transport) adds science and technology to the mix. Full-scale air, rail, ship, road, cable tram, machinery, tunnel and space exhibits display the Swiss verve for design and engineering. The most comprehensive traffic museum in Europe, it contains 200,000 square feet of highly ingenious and interactive displays. Sit at the controls of fighter-jet, Formula-1 and rescue-helicopter simulators; climb into rail cars, trucks, electro-mobiles and airplanes; test-drive a locomotive, enter a construction zone and experience a test crash; and view miniature gauge railways, research satellites and a warehouse stacked with vehicles of different eras. You can also catch a film in the IMAX theater or a show at the planetarium.
Mürren – Off-Piste Alp Village
Hanging under the peak of the Schilthorn (9744 ft.) in the Bernese Alps of central Switzerland, the tiny town of Mürren is as close to alpine heaven as it gets. The village of 400 boasts spectacular views of the Lauterbrunnen (meaning many fountains—as in waterfalls) Valley and offers top backcountry skiing. In a place reachable only by funicular or cable car, where motorized traffic is banned, life hums to the tune of cowbells amid 19th-century farmhouses. Before or after a day of skiing, walk to the traditional Stagerstübli for coffee, fondue, röschti (grated potatoes fried as a pancake) or schnitzel to eat like a local. If you don’t want to ski, you can take the longest cable car ride in the Alps up the Schilthorn to Piz Gloria, the world’s first revolving restaurant. Featured in the 1968 Bond movie On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Piz Gloria provides stellar views of the peaks known as the Swiss Trinity: Eiger (Ogre), Mönch (Monk) and Jungfrau (Virgin)—with coffee poured in 007 mugs. For further thrills, watch the Inferno Race that takes place in late January. Founded in 1928 by a group of untamed British skiers, the Inferno bills itself as the largest amateur ski race in the world. For better or worse, 1,800 participants charge down from the Kleines Schilthorn (Little Schilthorn) over 10 miles of varied terrain. A lively party atmosphere surrounds the wild off-piste (off-trail) event.
Wengen – Swiss Winter Playground
World Cup downhill skiing is the undisputed champion of European winter sporting events. One of only two Swiss stops on the annual FIS (International Ski Federation) World Cup circuit, Wengen hosts the 83rd running of the annual Lauberhorn Race in January 2013. Slalom and super slalom competitions occur during three days of festivities, with the sound of clanging cowbells accompanying the ever-popular downhill run. Since no road leads to this famous alpine town set at 4,265 ft., most travelers get there by rail from Lauterbrunnen. Situated in the ski center of Kleine Scheidegg-Mannlichen in the shadow of the mighty Jungfrau (vaunted peak of the Bernese Alps), Wengen is home to plenty of skiing, ice and curling rinks, tobogganing runs, cross-country terrain and 12.4 miles of winter walking trails. The town’s main street attracts shoppers and diners, while hotel saunas and solariums attend to tired après-ski muscles. Sculpture fans will enjoy the International Snow Festival in nearby Grindelwald that takes place in late January. What started as a Japanese installation of a giant Heidi made of snow has turned into a weeklong event of captivating figures and sculptures fashioned of ice and snow.
Zermatt – At the Foot of the Great Horn
Towering over the small alpine town of Zermatt on the Swiss-Italian border, the legendary Matterhorn stands far back in a valley that’s not visible from highways or major rail lines. The ban on gas-powered vehicles means Zermatt is only accessible by train, but it’s become very popular for its chic village and ski resort, with boutique hotels, shops, restaurants, cafes, pubs and nightclubs set in 15th-century buildings. Free electric buses provide passage to the slopes, where skiers can navigate over 200 miles of pistes (ski runs) during winter and 12.4 miles on the Zermatt Theodul Glacier in summer. The terrain is so immense, you can ski over to Italy and back to Switzerland. Non-skiers can enjoy alpine walking, spas, the Matterhorn Museum and wandering the village. In December, the town and its trees are illuminated with Christmas lights, while horse-drawn sleighs make tracks through the winter wonderland.
Einsiedeln – A Cultural Christmas Pilgrimage
South of Zurich, the medieval Benedictine monastery of Einsiedeln on the St. James Way, beckoning over 150,000 Catholic pilgrims annually. Containing a wooden Black Madonna, the Einsiedeln Abbey is home to the 80 monks who oversee the building. Pay a visit during advent season when the monastery stands cloaked in white, serving as background to the largest Christmas market in central Switzerland. The wares in the wooden market stalls reflect the spirit of the monastery, where agriculture and handicrafts play a key role in the Benedictine principles of work and prayer.
The monastery also houses a 10th-century library with priceless manuscripts and a magnificent abbey lit by a chandelier bequeathed by Napoleon III. You’ll also find a riding school and a breeding farm on the premises. The Einsiedler horses, Europe’s oldest existing studs, have been bred in the monastery’s baroque stables since the 11th century when early monks—former knights and noblemen—brought their steeds with them. For the perfect holiday outing, take a horse-and-carriage ride through the village toward the Christmas market. After perusing the stands leading up to the monastery, climb the steps for the daily tour and afternoon vespers. Then, descend back to the market for glowing evening cheer and a taste of the heavenly opfelchuechli (deep-fried apple slices drenched in vanilla sauce and cinnamon).
The Goms – Cross-Country through Traditional Swiss Villages
A dozen picturesque alpine villages make up the sunny highland Goms region at the upper end of the Rhone River Valley. Beloved for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and winter hiking, this region in southern Switzerland’s Valais canton (province) is crisscrossed with 62 miles of trails that connect the traditional villages. Cultural gems hewn of wood and stone, they include steepled baroque churches, vintage barns and sun-blackened wooden houses. In this peaceful region, restaurants and inns live by the hospitality standards set by legendary Swiss hotelier Cesar Ritz (of Ritz Carlton fame), who was born in the Goms’ hamlet of Niederwald.
Stay at a small pension or alpine hotel in any one of the delightful villages on the ski trail that connects Oberwald (Upper Woods) and Niederwald (Lower Woods)—Münster lies in the center. Then ski as far as you like through the other villages before hopping a train back to your starting point. The red Furka-Oberalp mountain train (part of the Matterhorn Gotthard Railway) stops at nearly all the villages. Plenty of cross-country ski schools await novices. Nearby downhill skiing, sledding and the Aletsch Glacier offer even more options. For lodging options, visit:
Quatre Vallées – Extreme, Apres-Ski & Full-Moon Endeavors
The southwest Swiss resort of Verbier in the Quatre Vallées (Four Valleys) ski area is favored by world-class athletes for its wealth of backcountry skiing and challenging slopes, not to mention paragliding, hang gliding, heli-skiing and luging. In March 2013, the Xtreme Freeride World Tour rolls into town, showcasing radical snowboarders and skiers launching down the 1640-ft. rock face of the 10,571-ft. Mt. Bec des Rosses, affectionately called “Bec.”
Verbier is legendary for its après-ski activities. Over 60 restaurants and nightclubs provide plenty of action, with all manner of hotels, chalets and apartments available for lodging. When the moon is full, head to the nearby town and slopes of Nendaz. The lift station opens at 7 p.m. on full-moon nights to transport you to the mountaintop restaurant. Book ahead to take part in the monthly event that starts with pre-dinner drinks and culminates in a pasta party. Once satiated, skiers head down the piste (ski run) by light of the moon or headlamp—non-skiers can descend via the lift. The warm and lively atmosphere of musicians, flaming lamps and vin chaud (mulled wine) make an enjoyable evening with lovely moonlight views.
Broc – The Land of Milk & Chocolate
In Switzerland, every food market has a grand array of fantastic chocolate. As 18th-century pioneers in chocolate making, the Swiss garnered acclaim with such names as Lindt, Frey and Toblerone. Since 1819, the Swiss firm Cailler has also been devoted to the art. After combining forces with the inventor of milk chocolate, Cailler developed a new process in 1911 using liquid cow’s milk (rather than powdered) from the Gruyères dairy region, famous for its fondue cheese. The resulting smooth and melting milk taste transcended chocolate to new heights. Merged with Nestle in 1929, Cailler became a chocolate powerhouse. Visit the Caillers-Nestlé Atelier du Chocolat in Broc, northeast of Lake Geneva, by taking the Chocolate Train. The vintage restored 1915 Pullman car travels from Montreux to Broc with a stop at the chocolate factory. If you’re a true aficionado, book ahead with Cailler and choose from a range of weekly courses in the art of chocolate. Create and assemble chocolates and truffles enriched with the bitter or sweet flavors of your choice. Combine the course with a visit to the nearby medieval town of Gruyères and its 13th-century castle to get a bit more culture.
Good Food – A Swiss Alpine Tradition
In the Swiss Alps, delicious cuisine is never far away. In winter, skiers, snowshoers and winter walkers enjoy dining at fabulous perches on interconnected trails and ski runs. For non-skiers, cable cars and trams travel the slopes over outstanding Alp scenery and often include stops at restaurants along the way. With Swiss culinary offerings that defy the altitudes, huts and lodges high in the Alps make stellar spots for lunch and dinner. Fish, cured meats, raclette (melted cheese with grilled potatoes), fondue, schnitzel, risotto, polenta, and European wines and beer make these alpine outposts a far cry from roughing it.
Basel – Couturier of the Christmas Tree
Tucked into the northwest three-country corner of France, Germany and Switzerland, the historic city of Basel has the highest density of museums in the country and plenty to see. In December, the city transforms into a delightful wonderland, as streets and store windows are outfitted with glittering Christmas lights and décor. Basel’s most renowned display master is undoubtedly Johann Wanner, the Swiss Santa of decoration. Starting in the 1960s with an antique shop that carried an assortment of traditional Christmas decorations, he later went on to create them himself. With the philosophy of dressing trees instead of women, Wanner became the haute-couture ornament designer and tree dresser in demand by the jet-set, with orders coming from both the Queen of England and the White House. Fortunately, access to his glimmering artistry is provided at the Johann Wanner Christmas House, located in Basel’s lovely Old Town. Packed with dazzling treasures, it’s a must-visit for Christmas shopping, souvenirs and pure seasonal delight.
Travel Tips: Switzerland
Switzerland awaits your arrival with fantastic alpine scenery, superb gastronomy, modern museums and plenty of delightful winter traditions. We’ve prepared a list of handy tips with Swiss savoir-faire so you don’t miss a beat when visiting this stunning country.
Swiss Rail Passes
Non-Swiss travelers can take advantage of special rail passes for Swiss Rail’s vast network of trains:
- Swiss Pass: Allows unlimited travel for consecutive days by train, bus and boat on the Swiss Travel System network, plus free entry to 450 museums; 50% discounts apply on most gondolas, funiculars and mountain railways.
- Swiss Flexipass: Same as Swiss Pass, but available for less days or nonconsecutive days; 50% discounts on days in between.
- Swiss Card: Round-trip travel from any Swiss airport or border station; 50% discount on tickets within the country; valid for one month.
- Swiss Transfer Ticket: Simple round trip from the airport to your destination at less cost than a point-to-point ticket.
- Half-Fare Card: 1 month of half-price travel on nearly all Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) trains, postal buses, public transport, lake vessels and mountain railways.
Local Trains & Day Passes
Most Swiss trains don’t require reservations. It’s easy to buy point-to-point tickets at all rail stations. Day passes that allow unrestricted travel with the Half-Fare Card (see Swiss Rail Passes, above) are available at larger stations. Day passes and single tickets for local trains are self-control, meaning passengers must date stamp them before boarding. Look for machines in the railway ticket office or on platforms.
To cover the cost of maintaining the pristine Swiss autobahns, all motorists must buy an annual vignette (permit) and affix it to their car’s windshield—even if they only use the car for an hour and are only passing through the country. Vignettes are available at border crossings, service stations, post offices, car rental agencies and Swiss Touring Club offices for 40 Swiss francs ($42 U.S.). Cash fines are steep if you’re caught without a vignette or if the sticker is improperly affixed.
If you’re driving, keep in mind that gas stations in Switzerland don’t always accept credit cards and they charge by the liter (1 gallon = 3.79 liters). Be prepared with Swiss francs of varying denominations or enough gas to get you to the next station that accepts credit cards. Stations aren’t always open 24 hours, and certain pumps and cash machines require a minimum payment of 10 or 20 Swiss francs ($10.50-$21 U.S.), regardless of how much petrol you need.
Swiss parking regulations are strict and classified by colored zones in large cities. Fines are forwarded to your home, payable in Swiss francs. Free or discounted park-and-ride lots on the outskirts of big cities are connected by tram or rail, and may be the best option if you have a rental car.
- Blue Zones: 1 hour of permit-free parking during the day. Requires a parking disc time device (parkscheibe) on the dashboard at all times. Car rental agencies provide these devices with their cars; you can also get complimentary parking discs from tourist offices, TCS motoring club offices, gas stations, police stations and banks. Day permits (tageskarten or tagesbewilligung) for Blue Zones are available at police stations in Zurich for 15 Swiss francs ($16 U.S.) per day.
- White Zones: Unlimited permit-free parking.
- Red Zones: Up to 15 hours with a red parking disc. Available at the same places you find Blue Zone devices (see above).
Cross-Country Ski Tickets
In Switzerland, most cross-country trail skiing is subject to a fee. If you plan to cross-country between villages in the Goms Valley area, you’ll need to buy a ticket. Ski patrols do check, and skiers caught without one will be fined. But at less than 10 Swiss francs per day (approx. $10.60 U.S.), trail tickets are a bargain. You can buy them at certain area hotels or the small huts found on the side of the skiing trails.
Three Languages & English
Residents of the three regions of Switzerland each speak a different language. In the west (Geneva, Lausanne, Sion), it’s French. In the southeast (Lugano), it’s Italian. The majority of people—who make up central and eastern Switzerland (Bern, Basel, Zurich)—speak Swiss-German, which is pronounced differently than standard German. Many Swiss speak excellent English, especially in larger cities and tourist areas, but don’t expect it—citizens of smaller towns often stick to their own language. Always have a few phrases ready for greetings, gratitude and necessities (directions to gas stations and restrooms).
Banks & Francs
Switzerland is not a member of the European Union and still uses Swiss francs. Although euros are accepted more widely in Geneva, don’t bank on it elsewhere. Hotels, restaurants, supermarkets, tourist locales, rail and gas stations may accept euros, but you’ll usually get Swiss francs as change. Many establishments take credit cards, but since Switzerland is more cash-oriented than other countries, it’s a good idea to have Swiss francs on hand. Get them at any Swiss ATM or bank, or visit the currency exchange in most Swiss airports and rail stations.
Saving – It’s a Cultural Habit
The Swiss are known for saving—and not just money. Hallway lights in traditional chalets, smaller hotels, B&Bs and rentals are often automatic, meaning you may think there’s a blackout when there isn’t. Push the switch when entering a hallway to turn on the lights and they’ll turn off automatically after a few minutes. Some lights are motion-sensitive. At tunnels, stoplights and rail crossings, or while waiting in traffic or lines, the Swiss also turn off car headlights and engines.
The Swiss Way
Orderly, precise, conscientious and conservative all describe the Swiss. As courteous and law-abiding people, they expect the same of others. Give up seats for the elderly and don’t put your feet on train seats without taking off your shoes—a conductor may give you a slap on the foot. In general, mind your manners, keep things tidy and try to maintain a low-key profile.
Fiercely protective of workers and their free time, the Swiss continue to vote for restrictions on retail hours. Regulations vary by canton (province), but in general:
- Stores are closed on Sunday.
- Retail and grocery stores close between 6:30 and 7 p.m. on weekdays, and between 4 and 6 p.m. on Saturdays; service shops may be closed midday for lunch breaks.
- One night per week (usually Thursdays), shops stay open until 9 p.m.
- In downtown Zurich and Basel and at regional shopping centers, stores stay open until 8 or 9 p.m. on weekdays.
- Bakeries, newsstands, florists, gas stations, rail stations, airports and tourist areas are granted exemptions to stay open longer.
- Many pharmacies are closed on Tuesdays.
Travelers with impaired mobility will find it easy to get around Switzerland. Trains and buses as well as many cable cars, funiculars and boats are wheelchair-accessible. The Swiss Rail network offers the SBB Call Center Handicap for passenger assistance and help choosing suitable trains. Special badges for the disabled are available for cars. Mobility International Switzerland provides a database of wheelchair-accessible restaurants, short-term accommodations and tourist attractions, as well as accessibility information and traveler reports.