Get into Switzerland’s open air

written by Daniel Stables
updated 7/9/2021
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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. When and wherever you choose to visit in this remarkable country, don't miss Switzerland's must-see attractions.

Bernina Express in Switzerland © Peter Stein/Shutterstock

Become ‘Swisstainable’

A place of such plenty and natural beauty requires careful preservation, and the so-called ‘Swisstainable’ approach to travel means enjoying the country’s diverse palette of offerings in a way which can continue to be beneficial in the long term.

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”

Aerial view of Lucerne skyline and Lake Lucerne © Benny Marty/Shutterstock

Cyclists’ paradise

If your preferred mode of transport is on two wheels rather than two legs, you’re in luck here too: in addition to the country’s many hiking trails, there are some 12,000km of signposted cycle paths across Switzerland, and they take in some jaw-dropping natural scenery. Mountain bikers, too, will find plenty of places to hone their skills, including BikerBerg at Flumserberg in southern St. Gallen and the GurtenTrail, which descends through the woods and wildflowers of the countryside outside Bern.

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.

Mountain bike in the Roseg valley below the glaciers and summits of the Sella Group and Piz Roseg, Switzerland © Umomos/Shutterstock

Dive in

Switzerland’s natural beauty does not end on dry land, and you’ll find endless opportunities to literally immerse yourself in the environment thanks to the country’s myriad lakes, pools and rivers where you can go for a dip. The tumbling, moss-carpeted waterfalls of Twannbach Gorge make an unbeatably scenic spot for a picnic and a swim, while canoeing is a great way to get an up-close perspective on the River Aare, which winds handsomely through the bucolic countryside and historic towns of the Swiss Central Plateau.

Take The Grand Tour

The second pillar of Switzerland’s sustainable ethos is experiencing local culture in an authentic way. With its unique position at the crossroads of the French, German, Italian and Romansh speaking worlds, yet also shaped by its alpine isolation, Switzerland has a rich and distinctive culture all of its own, and its arts and folk traditions are kept alive with gusto across the country.

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”

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Discover Zürich

Begin in Zürich, Switzerland’s largest city, where some of the country’s finest art is exhibited at the impressive Kunsthaus. This is the heart of Zürich’s thriving arts scene – the new limestone-clad extension designed by the architect David Chipperfield is a must-see in its own right.

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.

Zurich Lake and the City © Alexandru Staiu/Shutterstock

Incredible Interlaken

From there, journey south to the mountain town of Interlaken, which sits prettily on a spit of land between the two lakes of Brienz and Thun. Here, the Ballenberg Open-Air Museum provides a series of evocative snapshots of traditional life in Switzerland in a collection of buildings which showcase the architecture and arts and crafts of the country’s various cantons.

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.

Marvellous Montreux

Boarding another train, continue south to Montreux, on the shores of Lake Geneva. Home to an impossibly photogenic waterfront, a world-famous jazz festival, and spectacular medieval buildings like the 13th-century Château de Chillon, Montreux has much to recommend it, and it’s no surprise that luminaries throughout history, from Lord Byron to Charlie Chaplin, have chosen it as a holiday destination and home.

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.

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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.

Chillon Castle, Geneva Lake, Switzerland © FenlioQ/Shutterstock

Great gastronomy

Indeed, the consumption of regional products is not only another cornerstone of Switzerland’s sustainability ethos, it’s one of the great delights of a visit to the country. Along with chocolate, cheese is a national icon, and there’s nothing more Swiss than feasting on raclette or fondue in a mountainside, log-cabin restaurant like Crap Naros at the upscale Guarda Val hotel in Lenzerheide.

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.

Swiss traditional cheese dish fondue © Shulevskyy Volodymyr/Shutterstock

Mountain fun

In between indulging in melted cheese and chocolate, don’t forget that Switzerland is a world-class sporting destination, whether your idea of a workout involves mountain biking and climbing in the summertime or snow-shoeing your way through the frosted mountain slopes of winter. Skiing is high on many people’s to-do lists on a Swiss winter break, and it’s easy to see why, with more than 200 ski regions, no end of inviting mountain chalets and some of the most glamorous après-ski in Europe.

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.

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

Travel advice for Switzerland

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written by Daniel Stables
updated 7/9/2021
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Daniel has authored, co-authored or contributed to more than 30 travel books for Rough Guides, Insight Guides, DK Eyewitness and Berlitz, on destinations as far afield as Indonesia, Nepal, Oman, Mexico, Tokyo, Thailand and Spain. He regularly writes articles for a variety of travel publications, online and in print, including BBC Travel, The Independent, Lonely Planet, and National Geographic Traveller. You can find Daniel on Twitter @DanStables, Instagram @DanStabs, and read more of his work at danielstables.co.uk.

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