It’s no mystery why Switzerland is so beloved of outdoor enthusiasts and landscape artists everywhere. The power and beauty of the natural world is laid bare here, and immersion in the country’s flower-strewn alpine meadows, forested canyons and ice-encrusted mountain peaks promises to energise and inspire you.
This is a yearround destination, which according to the season shows visitors a different face, each as striking as the last. The icy veil of winter thaws to reveal the wildflowers of spring, the green meadows and mirror lakes invite you in during the warm summer, and the autumn sees the ripening trees gild the gorges and fill farmers’ baskets with a rich and bountiful harvest.
You might also want to discover the best places to stay in our guide to Switzerland accommodation.
The first tenet of this approach is all about immersing yourself in the natural world in an environmentally friendly way. Ramblers rejoice: Switzerland is a magnificent place to get your boots on and explore the countryside on foot, affording you front-row seats to some of the most spectacular natural landscapes in Europe.
Ibex stalk the forested walls of Creux du Van, a natural amphitheatre known for good reason as the Grand Canyon of Switzerland, while Lake Lucerne is a walker’s paradise, a sheet of turquoise tranquillity reflecting the green, white and grey of the surrounding hills.
To put your feet up in style after a day pounding Lucerne’s slopes in the mountain air, look no further than the Park Hotel Vitznau, a turreted beauty which has stood elegant guard over the shores of the lake for over a century.
“Switzerland is a magnificent place to get your boots on and explore the countryside on foot”
Follow a stretch of the Jura Route, which runs from Basel to the Ajoie region along the wooded banks of the serene La Lucelle river, stopping to admire the stalactite formations of the Vallorbe Caves.
There’s no better way to experience Switzerland’s awe-inspiring mountain passes than on your bike, and while it’s tough to choose a winner, the St. Gotthard Pass takes some beating. Running between Italian-speaking Airolo and German-speaking Uri, this epic road feels like a bridge between two worlds, taking in white-knuckle hairpin bends, serene mountain villages, and, uniquely for the Alps, cobblestones – which just adds to its time-out-of-mind atmosphere.
A grand train tour of Switzerland, stopping off at historic towns and cities to experience the local culture, is a fantastic and sustainable way to explore, and if you opt for the official Swiss Travel Pass, available at switzerlandtravelcentre.com, you’ll get unlimited travel on the country’s trains, as well as on boats, buses, and other forms of public transport.
“The grand train tour of Switzerland…is a fantastic and sustainable way to explore”
Next, experience the anarchic, surrealist spirit of the Dada art movement at the place where it was born, the Cabaret Voltaire nightclub. Zürich’s cultural offerings deserve an overnight stay, and there are some lovely hotels to choose from in the city such as the stately Baur au Lac, a grand dame which has been welcoming visitors through its doors since 1844.
In an atmospheric wooden house from the Lötschen Valley in 1568, an expert weaver uses an antique loom to create beautiful fabrics, with a tea towel, rug or scarf making the perfect souvenir. Traditional woodcarving is exhibited in the former workshop of two expert carvers from Brienz, the Stähli brothers, whose expertise is upheld today by modern craftspeople who make figures of wild animals and humans.
Rural cooking, too, is showcased at the Ballenberg, with a museum in a reconstructed farmhouse and herder’s hut cooking up hearty soups from the health-giving vegetables and grains which grow in the Swiss countryside.
While you’re in this part of the country, break up your journey with a stay in a fairytale Swiss castle in the form of Schloss Schadau, a Gothic Revival jewel overlooking the mountains and Lake Thun from its turreted rooftops.
For those interested in classic Swiss cultural traditions – or just delicious treats – this area has a particular pull as the home of Swiss chocolate. Vevey, a ten-minute train ride west of Montreux, is where milk chocolate was invented in 1875 by one Daniel Peter, building on the work of his neighbour, Henri Nestlé. The latter was the founder of Nestlé, which remains the world’s largest food company, and which has its headquarters in Vevey; tours are on offer to give you an insight into the chocolate making process, followed, naturally, by a hatful of chocolatey treats.
For an intimate look into modern chocolate making in Vevey, visit the Läderach Chocalaterie, a family business where chocolate making workshops and courses produce a cornucopia of cocoa-based delights which look (almost) too good to eat.
Discover more about this area in our guide to Lausanne.
Another fantastic place to sample Swiss cheese is – where else? – Gruyères. At La Maison du Gruyère, tours of a working cheese factory will give you an insight into how this product has been produced here since 1155, with multisensory exhibits that draw on the smell of hay pastures, the touch of cow-hide, and the sound of cowbells tinkling in a mountain meadow.
For a gastronomic Le Gruyère AOP extravanganza, be sure to visit Restaurant Le Chalet, where the eating of cheese has been elevated to an art form – alongside the fondue and raclette, don’t miss the cheese boards, macaroni cheese, and cheese on toast.
Top tip — be sure to say hello to your fellow hikers and ramblers as you explore Switzerland's awe-inspiring outdoors — being polite and greeting folk is a feature of Switzerland etiquette.
Verbier draws well-heeled snow sport enthusiasts to the Valais Alps in their droves, lured by the promise of world-beating backcountry skiing, but also by the lively food and drink scene; a fondue and a few rounds of schnapps at an après-ski institution like Le Rouge are a crucial part of the experience. After an exhilarating day on and off the slopes, no hotel captures the spirit of the place like the new W Verbier, which combines luxury, style and fun with a classic alpine design.
Switzerland’s sporting opportunities don’t end when the snow melts; in fact, they’re just beginning. Climbers can test their mettle on the rock faces of the country’s mountains, valleys and gorges. The Western Alps region around Interlaken, and the Jura Mountains between the Rhine and Rhone rivers, are both hotspots for rock climbing, while fans of bouldering – free climbing on small rocks – mustn’t miss the aptly named Magic Wood, near the village of Ausserferrera in the southeast.
This mountain forest contains ancient conifers bisected by a raging river, and remains beautifully cool even in the height of summer; its range of otherworldly rock formations offers something for novices and seasoned climbers alike. West of here, the southern province of Ticino promises yet more outdoor adventures, with rugged gorges and alpine forests waiting to be explored – yet, with its palm-shaded piazzas, balmy climate and fertile vineyards, this Italian-speaking canton is also where Switzerland meets the Mediterranean.
If its wild remoteness you're after, or swanky, world-class ski resorts, see what Graubünden has to offer. Central Switzerland also offers an exhilerating mix of mighty mountain action and lakeside luxury, as does Italiante Ticino.
Whenever you decide to visit Switzerland, you’ll find the country easy to reach, with a wide programme of Swiss International Air Lines flights and train services operating from Zürich, Basel and Geneva. For more information, visit MySwitzerland.com.
Top image: Bernina Express in Switzerland © Peter Stein/Shutterstock