Swiss cantons: Explore different worlds in a week

written by Zara Sekhavati
updated 8/24/2021
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Switzerland has been waiting for you. The country is a charming blend of everything you would ever want from a holiday break. Great efficiency, genteel calm, pretty Alpine views, silky smooth snow, rewarding museums, incredible Gothic architecture and much more. Both its alluring outdoors and its compelling cities are all here to be enjoyed. A mix of these two elements are always at your fingertips in the fascinating world of the Swiss cantons – there are 26 incredible cantons to explore in the country. The beauty of the cantons is that you never have to choose between a city break or a stay savouring Mother Nature, they can be had together – it’s all available for you in one single trip. This makes Switzerland an ideal all-year-round holiday destination as you get the very best of everything here.

What is a Swiss canton?

Switzerland is split up into 26 Swiss Cantons in total, 20 of which are full cantons and six are half cantons. Previously each canton once had its own army and money, however that changed in 1848. This was when Switzerland emerged out of civil war and used a federal structure, which is still true of the country today. As a result, each of the cantons possesses its own constitution, laws and government. A half canton only gets one seat inside the Council of States, whereas a full canton gets two.

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

Which cantons should I visit when I travel to Switzerland?

Politics and history aside, travelling around these stunning selection of Swiss cantons couldn’t be easier. One day can see you slip through the snow on Mont Saève and the next you can be traversing major bridges in various cities. Enjoy the rush of refreshing mountain air and trundle over the cute cobbled streets of Lausanne while you look up to a fascinating skyline with majestic cathedrals in the vicinity.

With over 20 to choose from, where is best to start? Read our guide to our favourite seven cantons and really find what you are looking for. From the buzz of the world-famous Fasnacht carnival in Basel to the tranquil Lake Geneva, there is something for everyone here. If you’re looking for more information about all things Swiss, and to explore further afield in the country, read our top things to do in Switzerland guide.

Geneva skyline © Benny Marty/Shutterstock

1- Relish in the international mix of Geneva then enjoy plenty of outdoor activities

Geneva is one of the most interesting cities in Switzerland which can be found at the southern edge of Lac Léman. It has huge international scope being the home of the headquarters of the United Nations, but in reality Geneva is only the size of town. Its stunning soaring backdrops that hug the city make up for its smaller location. But a smaller spot may be just what you’re looking for anyway.

One day could see you learning about multinational diplomacy on a United Nations Tour, the next day you could discover Calvinist heritage in the Cathédrale St-Pierre. With so many engaging museums on offer, it can be hard to choose where to start. The moving Musée de la Croix-Rouge holds interactive displays on how the Red Cross has helped to resolve conflict around the world.

United Nations Building and the flags in Geneva © nexus7/Shutterstock

Little ones will adore the CERN, the world’s biggest science experience where budding physicists help to answer the big questions about the universe we’re living in. Geneva never has two days the same. With the great outdoors so close to it, you can be royally treated to both a busier city break itinerary, along with glorious Mother Nature experiences at the same time. One morning could see you cross the roughly 250 metre-long bridge, Pont du Mont-Blanc, whilst the same afternoon you could hike up the 1380 metre-high Mont Saève, the closest high mountain to Geneva.

Those looking to soar over the mountain can hop aboard a cable car that can transport you to the summit. If you are in Geneva during the winter season, you can also zip and slide down the skiing trails creating your own postcard picture behind you. For more information, the tourist office offers copies of Le Campagnon which features a free map of plenty of outdoor activities at your fingertips, such as farmers’ markets, walking and cycling routes and also campsites, if you wish to sleep in the great outdoors.

Geneva night view © Boxun Liu/Shutterstock

2 - Enjoy picturesque surroundings in Vaud, Lake Geneva Region

Now we move on to western Switzerland, where the beautiful canton of Vaud stands. The capital of this particular canton is Lausanne, which was voted the World’s Best Small City in 2020. Head into the town centre for the finest Gothic masterpiece in the whole of the country, Cathédrale Notre-Dame. Inside you will be treated to incredible interiors and your eye will soon follow and catch every little detail all the way to the top of the structure.

Look out for the south wall of the nave for the glorious Painted Portal which dates back to 1215–30. There are plenty more artistic rewards here with PLATEFORME 10, one of the most original art museums in the country. After getting your fill of museums and culture, make the most of the fact that Lausanne is full of outdoor splendour for you to soak up.

Lausanne scenic cityscape with Bessieres bridge and old town panorama © Keitma/Shutterstock

There is plenty at your fingertips if you are keen walker, or simply just like to people-watch with magnificent surroundings as your backdrop. Trundle down the Ouchy waterfront which acts as a lakeside catwalk for the locals. Spy zipping rollerbladers and passersby sauntering through the trails while breathing in the fresh waterside air. Perch down yourself and trace your eyes over the towering mountain views right in front of you.

Lausanne may just be the most relaxing of all the cantons in Switzerland. And who could forget the glorious Lake Geneva which is nearby? Shaped like a croissant, this lake is the bluest of all the Swiss lakes. Here you can find plenty of villages, castles and picture-perfect walks all around. And don’t forget that this area is wine country, too, with vineyards coating the lakeshore and sloping hills which tower behind it.

Ouchy Waterfront in Lausanne © shyshak roman/Shutterstock

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3 - Choose from pumping festivals to closeby spa towns in Basel

The capital of the Basel-Stadt canton is Basel in northwest Switzerland. The city is home to some alluring cultural traditions and celebrations. The best of the bunch is Fasnacht. Starting on the Monday after Ash Wednesday, this three-day spectacle is the biggest carnival in Switzerland. The earliest documented record of Fasnacht is 1376, although it may have been celebrated before then.

In the fourteenth century, the carnival featured knightly tournaments on Münsterplatz. Nowadays, there are parades centred on huge mobile bonfires with flames soaring high into the sky, some as high as houses, parades of giant illuminated lanterns, endless costumed participants and music into the night. The city is transformed into one huge street party. If you are looking for a quieter time in the city of Basel, the Münster cathedral is a must-see.

Fasnacht Carnival of Basel © Schweiz Tourismus/Christof Sonderegger

The impressive sight was constructed in the thirteenth century with red sandstone. It features a patterned roof and was rebuilt after an earthquake struck the area in 1356. Take a mindful walk through the cloisters before you make your way to the panoramic viewing platform. Closeby to the city, at less than an hour away, is Baden. This is the place to really get away from it all.

A calm, relaxing spa town found on the River Limmat, Baden is the perfect pitstop for a journey across to the north of the country, too. The main highlight of this town is to simply flâner. Simply enjoy people watching and see what takes you where. And that really is the beauty of this place. You may opt to dip your toes in the soothing warm spring waters, or you might choose to soak up a rewarding collection of Impressionist art. The point here is to switch off and to see what happens in the moment. There’s rarely a town which follows the same example in the country.

View of Baden, a town in Aargau, Switzerland © Leonid Andronov/Shutterstock

4 - Head out to the countryside in Canton Bern

Bern is one of the most diverse areas in Switzerland in terms of countryside. Here you can find snowy Alpine peaks and sprawling farmland. So if it is wintery pastures or green lush land, you will be treated to some outdoor splendor for sure. Bern is home to a magical old town with alluring cobbled streets and you can wander in and out of arcades on a street plan which has remained unchanged since medieval times.

A visit to the Münster in Bern is a must. Head to the tower of this stunning Gothic cathedral, the tallest one in the country, which offers travellers the opportunity to enjoy incredible Alpine vistas. Close to Canton Bern is a little village called Kemmeriboden. Found at an altitude of 976m, a tumbling mountain torrent runs through it – Emme. Anyone with a sweet tooth will be more than happy here. This is the place to find the single most superb-tasting meringue in the whole country. Bon appetit indeed!

Streets with shopping area and Zytglogge astronomical clock tower in the historic old medieval city centre of Bern © MrinaD_37/Shutterstock

5 - Head to the canton of Fribourg for more outdoors goodness – and some of the finest cheese in the country

Around 34km southwest of Bern is Fribourg. This is one of Switzerland’s best hidden secrets. It is one of the best Swiss cantons where you can avoid the crowds and other tourists. Here you will find a fine medieval town which is laid out on a forested peninsula in a meander of the River Sarine. There are even more cobbled streets to pace over with pretty inn signs dotted all around which creates a welcoming feel to the area.

In addition, Fribourg is a university town and so it attracts the crowds with its lively, cosmopolitan atmosphere. Almost everyone here is bilingual, too, so expect to hear many languages spoken. The River Sarine cuts through the town and so provides a tranquil spot to enjoy a walk or enjoy a picnic. And don’t forget the cheese. Fondue is a local speciality here.

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Swiss traditional cheese dish fondue © Schweiz Tourismus/Tom Swalens

6 - Soak up plenty of history in Zurich and then head to Lake Zurich to chill out after

Zurich, found in northern Switzerland, is the country’s biggest city. Sparkling clean, efficient, and vibrant, it is an appealing city for a holiday break for sure. Zurich is home to some fantastic museums, so history buffs will most certainly be delighted here. There is plenty of art to see at the world-class gallery, Kunsthaus. An extension by David Chipperfield is currently taking place here. It is due to be opened in autumn 2021.

There is a continuous flow of temporary exhibitions here, but the art begins even before you set foot through the door. There are sculptures by Moore and Maillol which are found throughout the grounds. It is the wide and diverse collection of works by Alberto Giacometti that attracts the crowds, though. Alternatively, head to the Swiss National Museum to enjoy excellent displays on Swiss history and culture. All of this can be found in an outstanding mock-Gothic castle.

Zurich Lake and the City © Alexandru Staiu/Shutterstock

And, of course, no trip to the city of Zurich is complete without a visit to the legendary Grossmünster, “Great Minster”. This is the spot where Huldrych Zwingli, a contemporary of Luther’s, preached the Reformation. The building takes over the skyline of the city with its stand-out towers.

After making the most of the city, head on a relaxing day-trip out to Lake Zurich. You can find the twinkling strip of water between the ridges of the Uetilberg to the west and the Pfannenstiel. The best way to travel here is to hop aboard a ZSG ferry. You can stop at all the lakeside towns in the area in the summer months, which makes for splendid viewing. Spot the pretty S-Bahn train which runs the length of both of the shores.

A ferry crossing Lake Zurich © Switzerland Tourism

7 - Make the most of Lucerne’s city centre and the stunning surrounding lakes

Lucerne boasts a bright and alluring city centre. Here you can find medieval covered bridges, endless cobbled squares peppered with painted facades and it provides a wonderful area to saunter around. The well-loved Sammlung Rosengart (Rosengart Collection) is also in town. Built up over four decades, here you find a collection of over two hundred key twentieth-century works.

There are plenty of Picasso pieces to peruse too and it is home to one of the broadest collections of Paul Klee’s work. The biggest highlight of this area may very well be its lakes which are close by. Lake Lucerne, Vierwaldstättersee in German which means ‘Lake of the Four Forest Cantons’, is the geographical hub of Switzerland. It is here that you will arguably find the most dramatic and visually appealing body of water in the country. Spy thickly wooded slopes rising through the air, bays and peninsulas boasting ever-changing views and gentle waves as the water trickles to and fro.

Need to know box:

The best way to travel sustainably in Switzerland is to use its extensive public transport system. Hydroelectric rail travel is the heart of sustainable mobility in the country. You can glide over lakes with solar-powered boats or soar over mountains on a cable car.

In partnership with the climate protected organisation, ‘myclimate’, Swiss International Air Lines (SWISS) customers can offset their CO₂ emissions by donating to climate protection projects and choose alternative fuels which are kinder to the environment. SWISS offers frequent and direct flights from London and other major cities in the UK and Ireland to Zurich and Geneva. In addition, Zurich, Basel and Geneva are well connected by train from London. We recommend using the Swiss Travel Pass to get around the country.

The Swiss Travel Centre can help to book you very own bespoke experience, too. For hotels and accommodation options, Switzerland has plenty on offer to suit every type of traveller. Think wellness and spa hotels in Bern and deluxe accommodation in Basel. You can discover more on MySwitzerland.com.

Famous wooden bridge and tower on Reuss river in Lucerne © Schweiz Tourismus

This article was written in partnership with www.MySwitzerland.com.

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written by Zara Sekhavati
updated 8/24/2021
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