Eating and drinking in Switzerland
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Absorbing influences from French, German and Italian food, Switzerland has a wide range of local cuisines. Beyond famous national staples like Swiss cheese, Swiss chocolate, and fondue, which attract international acclaim, you’ll find regional dishes cooked from local ingredients. Read on to discover the answers to all-important questions about food in Switzerland, from “what is Switzerland’s national dish?”, to “what is Switzerland’s most famous food?”.
When it comes to food in Switzerland, the Swiss take the joy of communal eating to heart. From lunchtime diners in Zürich’s financial district, to remote Alpine eateries, you’ll find rustic decor, hefty helpings of Swiss cowbell kitsch, and a hearty atmosphere.
The line between cafés and restaurants in Switzerland is blurred. While either can normally do you a full meal, these are generally only available at set times — mostly noon–2pm and 6–10pm — with snacks available in between.
Put simply, eating out in Switzerland is expensive. To avoid haemorrhaging cash, make lunch your main meal, and always plump for the “menu”, or dish of the day.
This comprises two or three courses of substantial, quality nosh, whether in a café or a proper restaurant. The same meal in the evening, or choosing à la carte anytime, can easily double the cost.
Budget travellers should also head for the often surprisingly good self-service restaurants in town-centre department stores nationwide.
Pricing generally goes by the size of the plate, and they offer a variety of generic dishes – soups, casseroles, pasta, with buffets of fresh salads and chicken-and-rice staples, plus fresh-squeezed juices and fruit smoothies.
Cheese fondue, arguably Switzerland’s national dish, can be found everywhere, but it’s really a speciality of French-speaking Switzerland.
The word “fondue” refers to the broad, shallow earthenware or cast-iron pot used to heat the cheese.
Myriad varieties are served nationwide. The classic style, found in the fondue heartland of Fribourg and the Vaud countryside, is a moitié-moitié (“half-and-half”), using either Gruyère and Vacherin Fribourgeois cheese, or Gruyère and Emmental.
Others may use several grades of Gruyère, or mix in some local Alpine cheese, Valaisian raclette cheese or Appenzeller.
Alongside standard fondue, you’ll also find fondue chinoise throughout Switzerland, which will have you dipping slivers of meat into spicy bouillon.
Also look out for fondue bourguignonne (dousing lumps of red meat in hot oil), fish fondues, Valaisian fondue Bacchus, which involves mulled wine, and novelty chocolate fondues.
There’s a ritual surrounding fondue consumption, which most Swiss take rather seriously.
First the cheeses are melted together behind the scenes, generally with a shot of some kind of alcohol cider in the orchard-rich east, Kirsch in the cherry-growing central regions, and white wine in Neuchâtel and Vaud.
Next, the aromatic pot is brought to your table and set over a small paraffin burner.
You use a special long fork to spear a small cube of bread from a separate dish. Some places also serve little chunks of boiled potato and/or vegetables.
Then you swoop the bread through the cheese, twirl off the trailing ends, and pop it in.
Brush up on more culture and etiquette in Switzerland.
Cheese has been an institution in Switzerland since the time of the Romans. Along with chocolate (more on that soon) and fondue, it’s Switzerland’s most famous food.
Some Swiss cheeses are still made the traditional way — by hand on summer mountain pastures, though these days a lot is made factory-style in dairies.
As pasteurization is frowned upon by Swiss cheesemakers, all Swiss cheese is made from raw milk, so not a good option if you're pregnant.
In terms of varieties, there are dozens, mostly named after their town or region of origin.
Distinctive cheese includes pungent Appenzeller, whose smelliest variety, Räss, gains its odour from a herb-and-brine marinade.
The holey mousetrap classic Emmentaler hails from the Emmental region near Bern. Strictly speaking, though, “Emmental” is the name given to any cheese in Switzerland with holes in it — the holes are formed by the CO₂ given off by bacteria during the final stages of production.
Then there’s smooth, rich, creamy Gruyère from the mountainous region north of Lake Geneva, while Raclette is a spicy, easily-meltable cheese produced throughout Switzerland for the popular Alpine winter dish. Food in Switzerland doesen't get more satisfying.
Chomping on locally-produced chocolate comes near the top of Switzerland food experiences. Indeed, more chocolate is sold in Switzerland per head of population than any other country.
However, chocolate isn’t actually a Swiss invention — its origins as a drink lie in Mexico, while the solid chocolate “bar” was developed by the Bristol-based confectioner Joseph Fry in 1847.
That said, many early pioneers of chocolate-making were Swiss, including François-Louis Cailler, who started production of what was then largely sold as a restorative tonic at Vevey in 1819. Cailler was soon followed by Philippe Suchard in Neuchâtel.
All chocolate was dark and bitter until 1875, when Vevey-based Daniel Peter, a candle-maker who married Cailler’s daughter, invented milk chocolate. This came courtesy of the condensed milk manufactured by his neighbour, Henri Nestlé.
In 1879 Rudolphe Lindt of Bern invented “conching”, a process which created the smooth, melting chocolate loved by millions today.
Jean Tobler, also of Bern, was another pioneer. Even today, every one of the seven billion triangles of Toblerone eaten annually are produced in Bern.
Switzerland also has a long tradition of confectioners creating hand-filled luxury chocolates for special occasions, including chocolate-covered chestnuts in autumn, and chocolate bears, which are a Bernese favourite.
Tour the esteemed Cailler chocolate factory in the village of Broc, near Gruyères.
Explore more places to stay in the region of La Gruyère.
In and around Bern, you’ll find Bernerteller or Bernerplatte. This hefty pile of cold and hot meats — including pork sausage, bacon, various hams, smoked pork, knuckles and beef tongue — is served with beans and Sauerkraut.
Browse more of the best places to stay in Bern.
Meringue was invented in (or near) Meiringen in the Bernese Oberland.
Given that the town is also blessed with lovely scenery, and opportunities to enjoy some of the best outdoor experiences in Switzerland, it’s well worth a visit.
For example, the Reichenbach falls, where Sherlock Holmes apparently met his end, reveal why you voted Switzerland one of the most beautiful countries in the world.
Discover more places to stay around Meiringen.
Zürich is famed for Züri Gschnetzlets, diced veal in a creamy mushroom sauce. To the west, St Gallen is known for its pale, milky veal sausages.
Book a food-themed sightseeing tour to indulge in Swiss cheese fondue and fine wine while seeing the city.
Explore more accommodation in Zürich.
Graubünden is best known for Bündnerfleisch — prime beef air-dried and served paper-thin as part of an aromatic plate of mixed meats known as a Bündnerteller.
It’s also a prime ingredient in Bündner Gerstensuppe — barley cream soup with vegetables.
You’ll also see lots of game on Graubünden’s autumn menus — a fine example of the heartiness of food in Switzerland.
Discover more places to stay in Arosa and Chur in the region of Graubünden.
While the prime speciality of French Switzerland is fondue, another cheesy dish, raclette, is known countrywide, but best savoured in the canton of Valais.
As for what this is (and involves), a large half-round of cheese is held in front of a fire. Then, as it melts, it’s scraped (raclé) onto a plate, and served with boiled potatoes, pearl onions and pickles.
Find your perfect place to stay in the canton of Valais.
Capital of the canton of Vaud, Lausanne’s lakeside resorts prepare fresh fish in a hundred different ways, most deliciously as truite meunière — fresh trout floured and sautéed in butter.
Another local speciality is the saucisson vaudois, or pork and beef Vaud sausage. Famed for its delicately smoked flavour, it's served boiled or steamed with a purée of potatoes and leeks.
Gourmands will want to go on a self-guided food tour of Lausanne.
Discover more of the best places to stay in Lausanne.
Ticino has its own cuisine, more akin to the flavours and methods of neighbouring Piedmont and Lombardy.
Polenta (cornmeal), risotto, leafy salads dressed lightly with olive oil, and fresh pastas and gnocchi with tomato or pesto sauces, are all staples.
The Ticinesi also love their sausages, especially rich luganega. Spicy mortadella is unlike the Italian version, and is either cooked or air-dried for eating raw.
Discover more of the best places to stay in Ticino.
Water is safe to drink everywhere, whether from taps or public street-fountains. These fountains, even though they (or the horse-trough beneath them) may look grimy, invariably flow with spring water purer than anything you can buy in bottles.
The only exceptions are fountains clearly marked “kein Trinkwasser”, “eau non potable” or “acqua non potabile”, with a pictogram of a crossed-out drinking glass.
Tea is invariably drunk without milk, and coffee has some local variations. In German-speaking areas Kaffee creme, coffee with sugar and cream, is popular, as is Milchkaffee, with fresh milk. A Kaffee fertig is coffee with Schnapps.
After work, bars and terraces fillwith people enjoying an apéro — derived from the French apéritif, and meaning a drink before dinner.
A cosy Bierstube or Stübli is the evening meeting place of choice in many parts of German-speaking Switzerland.
Beer (Bier, bière, birra) on draught (vom Fass, à la pression, alla pressione) comes as a flavourful lager-type brew, always served with a large head of foam.
Fancy something lighter? A panaché is a beer–lemonade shandy.
Switzerland’s most famous distilled spirit or liquor (Schnapps, eau de vie, aquavite) is Kirsch (cherry spirit) from Zug and around Lucerne, which also happens to be the perfect place to embrace slow travel.
Explore more of the best places to stay in Lucerne.
Wine is one of Switzerland’s best-kept secrets — quality is high, annual production tops 200 million bottles, yet only one percent of Swiss wine is exported.
Switzerland’s best-known wines come from the steeply terraced vineyards of the Valais. Meanwhile, Canton Vaud hosts the celebrated Côte and Lavaux vineyards above Lake Geneva.
Discover more great places to stay near Lake Geneva.
Hungry for more about Switzerland? The Rough Guide to Switzerland and our run-down of things not to miss in Switzerland will help you plan.
If you're not a fan of planning, you could book a hassle-free tailor-made trip to Switzerland, with customisable itineraries curated by local experts covering everything from unforgettable highlights of Switzerland, to touring the Grand Circle.
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