Northeast Switzerland – known as Ostschweiz – is one of the least celebrated areas of the country, often sidelined by tourists anxious to get to the Alpine regions further south. All of which means you can enjoy its mountains and lakes, medieval town centres and verdant countryside in relative peace. Plan your trip to northeast Switzerland and Liechtenstein with our guide to the northeast and Liechtenstein, based on The Rough Guide to Switzerland, your travel guide for Switzerland.
What to expect when travelling to the northeast and Liechtenstein — your northeast Switzerland and Liechtenstein travel guide
The region’s two appealing cities offer very different attractions. Just beyond Zürich, Winterthur is Switzerland’s sixth-largest city, but far too often overlooked, with a clutch of museums more famous cities would be proud of, and an easy-going vibe.
Sandwiched between the Bodensee (Lake Constance) and the Alpstein mountains, St Gallen centres on its magnificent Baroque cathedral and well-preserved medieval town centre.
From St Gallen, you can explore the hilly backcountry of Appenzell that shelters a close-knit community of farmers and craftspeople.
The Säntis peak tops 2500m — mediocre in Swiss terms, but still tall enough to enjoy plenty of snow, vistas stretching to the horizon, and quality hiking in the valleys beneath it. Further south, isolated Glarnerland is walled in by Alpine giants.
The River Rhine, which bulges out into the huge Bodensee in Switzerland’s northeast corner, throws a protective loop around this part of Switzerland, forming international frontiers with Germany to the north, and Austria and the tiny independent statelet of Liechtenstein to the east.
The beautiful river journey west from the Bodensee along the Rhine runs past Stein-am-Rhein, an almost perfectly preserved medieval village boasting spectacular sixteenth- and seventeenth-century frescoes.
It ends at the atmospheric medieval town of Schaffhausen, dubbed “Rheinfallstadt” for its proximity to the mighty Rhine falls, the largest waterfall in Europe.
25km northeast of Zürich, Winterthur lies slightly west of what's usually termed Ostschweiz. It's a youthful, unpolished city of around 100,000, set in rolling countryside on the River Töss.
The city’s main draw is its excellent museums, principally the art collection of Oskar Reinhart at the industrialist’s private home, and the fantastically hands-on Technorama science museum. For culture vultures, visiting Winterthur is likely to be a highlight of northeast Switzerland and Liechtenstein travel experiences.
Winterthur is also surprisingly green, and the combination of bicycles, green hills and fine museums can make for a pleasant few days.
- Best for couples: Sorell Hotel Krone. Located in a historic building in the Old Town, the staff here are welcoming and helpful. For luxury, ask for room 225.
- Best for budget travellers: Depot 195. Well located for the bars of Sulzerareal, this hostel in an old factory building reflects the area's industrial heritage in its simple, stylish decor.
- Best for classy convenience: Park Hotel. This elegantly decorated four-star business hotel is located in a light, park-side building.
- Best for good-value comfort: Plaza Hotel Winterthur. This small, central business hotel is decorated in a plush, contemporary style, and competitively priced for the quality.
Where to stay in Winterthur
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Schaffhausen and around
Capital of the northernmost Swiss canton of the same name, Schaffhausen boasts one of the most captivating medieval town centres in the whole of Switzerland as well as the mighty Rhine falls, and yet it remains uncelebrated, as if too far north to be of concern to most visitors.
Schaffhausen’s beautiful riverside Old Town is crammed full of well-preserved architecture, lending the cobbled streets considerable charm.
Walk north from Fronwagplatz and you’ll come to Zum Ochsen at Vorstadt 17, one of the most grandiose old houses in the city. The late Gothic facade of this former inn was remodelled in 1608 and decorated with striking Renaissance frescoes of classical heroes.
The busy main Vordergasse shopping street slopes downhill to the east from Fronwagplatz. On the corner of Münstergasse is Schaffhausen’s most celebrated house, Zum Ritter, its facade covered in an intricate design dating from 1570.
A short trip west from Schaffhausen, the Rhine falls, Europe’s largest waterfalls, are truly magnificent, not so much for their height (a mere 23m) as for their impressive breadth (150m) and the sheer drama of the place.
- Best for city slickers: Vienna House zur Bleiche Schaffhausen City. This business hotel near the station is on-trend with its contemporary design. Larger suites have kitchenettes, and there’s a terrace restaurant.
- Best for couples: Park Villa, Schaffhausen. An atmospheric old mansion on the edge of the Old Town. The Louis XVI salon dining room and terrace garden are lovely places to linger.
- Best for Swiss style and cuisine: Garni Adler, Stein-am-Rhein. Directly on Rathausplatz, with a brilliantly decorated facade sheltering pine-decor rooms, this has a great traditional Swiss restaurant.
Where to stay in and around Schaffhausen
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St Gallen, the main urban centre of eastern Switzerland, is a relaxed provincial city set amid rolling countryside between the Appenzell hills and the Bodensee.
The centrepiece of its beautiful Old Town is an extraordinarily lavish Baroque abbey, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The cathedral is impressive enough, but the abbey library is celebrated as Switzerland’s finest secular Rococo interior.
In the streets encircling the Old Town, evidence of the city’s status as a once-booming centre of textile production is apparent wherever you look, from its eighteenth-century oriel windows, to the impressive Jugendstil architecture.
Big enough to bustle with life, but small enough to navigate on foot, St Gallen makes an appealing place to base yourself for a few days.
Travelling with kids? Explore St Gallen on a fun self-guided scavenger tour, or tour Maestrani’s Chocolarium.
- Best for city centre style: Einstein. The city’s top choice, a grand old hotel housed in a former textile factory, with generously appointed rooms, quality service and several classes of room.
- Best for the socially conscious: Hotel Dom. Pleasant hotel on an Old Town lane, with simple, stylish rooms. It’s part of an organization that trains and employs people with disabilities, and there’s also a restaurant.
- Best for budget travellers: Jugendherberge. A modern concrete block with dorms and family rooms, and decent communal rooms. There’s a nice garden and stupendous views over the city.
- Best for families: Vadian. This helpful two-star is located on a quiet street near the cathedral, with pleasant rooms, a few apartments, and good breakfast.
Where to stay in St Gallen
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While the residents of Appenzellerland are often regarded by cosmopolitan urbanites as country bumpkins, this rustic region is something of a sensuous delight. In fact, it boasts the kinds of scenery that led you to vote Switzerland one of the most beautiful countries in the world.
Encircled by rolling hills, Appenzell has been a land apart for centuries. Monks from St Gallen colonized the area in the tenth century, but the fiercely independent local peasantry threw off ecclesiastical control in a series of wars in the fourteenth century.
As you cross the verdant hills south from St Gallen, the smell of cows and cheese assault your nose. On a wander through the villages, wooden houses delight the eye. Meanwhile, local cooking, rich with butter and cream, has a delicious silkiness on the tongue.
Appenzell village is the main draw for its quaint, traditional air. There’s plenty of good hiking in the area, with routes crossing the slopes towards the rocky peaks of the Alpstein.
- Best for foodies: Hotel Appenzell. This gabled old building on the square boasts spacious rooms, and friendly service. It also has a confiserie and top restaurant.
- Best for warm-hearted welcomes: Gasthaus Hof. This friendly, old-fashioned hotel has rustic ambience aplenty, plus a cosy, traditional dining room.
- Best for luxury: Romantik Hotel Säntis. This big old building on the north side of the main square is a member of the prestigious Romantik group. It also has the swankiest dining in town.
Where to stay in Appenzell
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The Principality of Liechtenstein is the world’s sixth-smallest country — a chip of green squeezed between the Rhine and the Austrian Alps.
It’s a quiet, unassuming place, home to 35,000 Liechtensteiners who take an impressive 22 days’ public holiday a year, sing their own German words to the tune of God Save the Queen as the national anthem, and regard themselves as separate from the Swiss, with whom neighbourly relations only began in 1923.
Differences are subtle, but noticeable, and Liechtenstein has connections to both Switzerland and Austria – from where its royal family originates.
Though the main reason to visit is the novelty value, there are some rustic spots to enjoy outside the toy-town capital Vaduz, as well as mountain and family-friendly skiing in the craggy mountains.
- Best for families: Landhaus am Giessen. Just 10min walk from Städtle and the bus station, this comfortable family-run hotel has bright balconied rooms.
- Best for scenic style: Hotel Gasthof Löwen. Liechtenstein’s oldest hotel, in business since 1380, boasts distinguished interiors and period furniture. Some rooms have views of the castle and the mountains.
- Best for all-out luxury: Park Hotel Sonnenhof. Probably the finest hotel in the country — a small, romantic Relais & Châteaux property set in its own grounds on the edge of Vaduz.
- Best for budget travellers: Jugendherberge. This good hostel 2km north of Vaduz is near the neighbouring town of Schaan, just a short walk from the Mühleholz bus stop.
Where to stay in Vaduz, Liechtenstein
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Top attractions around northeast Switzerland and Liechtenstein
Impressionist art, cutting-edge photography or hands-on science experiments? Winterthur’s museums make this underrated city a must. In town, the Kunst Museum Winterthur/Reinhart am Stadtgarten concentrates on German, Swiss and Austrian artists from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries.
For something entirely different, the Technorama science museum literally shines — it's clad in a high-tech shimmering facade that ripples like the surface of a pond in the sunlight. Inside, three floors of hands-on experiments demonstrate scientific phenomena.
Beyond the musuems, taking a self-guided scavenger tour is fun, family-friendly way to see Winterhur's highlights.
This beautiful market town is crammed with superb medieval architecture, especially the riverside Old Town.
Central Fronwagplatz, the town’s marketplace during the Middle Ages, centres on two medieval fountains. Dominating the long square is the Fronwagturm, once the home of the market’s massive scales. The fine clock and astronomical device on the top date from 1564.
If you're travelling with kids in this area, head to Smilestones Miniature World, Switzerland's largest miniature world.
The Wagnerian spectacle of Europe’s largest waterfall are a must-visit. Alongside their mighty breadth, this place oozes drama, with the spray rising in a cloud of rainbows above forested banks. The turreted Schloss Laufen castle, located on a cliff directly above the falls to the south, completes the spectacle.
To get to the heart of the action, book a boat tour to the falls' viewing rock — sure to be a highlight of your northeast Switzerland and Liechtenstein vacation.
Positioned on the Rhine 20km east of Schaffhausen, little Stein-am-Rhein is an almost perfectly-preserved medieval village, famed for the intricacy of the sixteenth-century frescoes which adorn houses in the village.
Beyond the show-stopping painted buildings, there are picturesque lanes to explore, crammed with wonky half-timbered buildings, and a few interesting museums.
Abbey library, St Gallen
St Gallen's abbey library is one of the oldest libraries in Europe, and famous both for its superb Baroque interior and for its huge collection of rare medieval books and manuscripts.
If you're into art and culture, explore St. Gallen with a local guide to discover the city's most impressive buildings and their history on a private architecture tour.
This deeply traditional, rustic village makes an appealing base for exploring the craggy Alpstein range.
The main street is car-free Hauptgasse, running from a bridge over the River Sitter. All through the village, you can admire the intricately painted old wooden houses, with their rows of small, closely packed windows.
This remote car-free mountain hideaway village makes a wonderful weekend getaway for families. There are few quieter, more refreshing places to rest up, take in the Alpine views and get out into nature.
At the top station, you’ll see map-boards of the village and its surrounds. There are lifts to higher slopes as well as a host of walks around Braunwald’s plateau — in winter it’s popular for skiing and snowboarding.
This spectacular pass road, one of the country’s most scenic drives – which you can travel by public bus. The road is mostly very narrow – just about two car-widths between the cliff and the ravine.
After some steep climbing out of Linthal, you emerge into the lovely, high, enclosed valley of Urnerboden, dotted with a few farms and dozens of wandering cows. Faced by a sheer cliff at the head of the valley, the road somehow twists its way up and around to the pass itself.
Great day tours and excursions in northeast Swizterland and Liechtenstein
The three lakes, St Gallen
On a hot summer day there’s no competition for the loveliest spot in St Gallen — Drei Weihern. This row of three small lakes nestles just beneath a ridge high above town.
Shaded by trees, with rustic bathhouses dating from 1900 perched on the water’s edge, it’s a beautiful spot for a swim. It’s also worth coming up here just for the views over the city from the ridge.
Walking in the pretty countryside around Appenzell can be rewarding, with most hiking trails crammed around the narrow valleys sandwiched between the great rock walls of the Alpstein range.
The small village of Wasserauen is the base station for a cable car running up to Ebenalp. From here, there are numerous trails.
Appenzell’s most famous peak is the Säntis (2502m), well below the proportions of the Alps but nonetheless the highest point for many kilometres around.
Trains run from Appenzell to the small town of Urnäsch, departure point for hourly buses which follow a winding road up to Schwägalp, from where a cable car rises to the Säntis summit.
Glarnerland is Switzerland’s least-known and hardest-to-reach region, centred on Canton Glarus, a tract of mountain territory featuring just a handful of widely spaced settlements and very low key tourism.
Its isolation is its main attraction — this is a place to turn your back on the crowds and head for the wilderness. The slender, cliff-girt Walensee is pretty much bypassed by both the N3 autobahn and Zürich–Chur trains. Ziegelbrücke, at the lake’s western tip, marks the start of routes squeezing southwards.
From Vaduz, up to Triesenberg above town, a back-country road climbs through a tunnel beneath an Alpine ridge to Steg and on to Malbun.
This quiet hamlet at 1600m is Liechtenstein’s only ski resort, with half-a-dozen little lifts and a handful of runs. In summer, the area has a wealth of high-country hikes.
Sports and activities in northeast Switzerland and Liechtenstein
Wild waterpsorts on the Rhine Falls
Boats depart from jetties on both banks, and the most thrilling trip is from Schlössli Wörth, the dock on the north bank, to the tall craggy rock right in the centre of the falls, where you can disembark and climb up 91 steep steps to stand directly above the spray.
Cycling the Bodensee
With its wide, flat shoreline, the Bodensee is popular with cyclists. The Bodensee-Radweg is a 270km cycle path that circumnavigates it – free of cars and clearly signposted, and for most of the route following the shoreline.
The largest stretch is in Germany, and around a quarter in Swiss territory, including a 28km stretch from Kreuzlingen to Stein-am-Rhein, and a further 19km extension to Schaffhausen. Conventionally, people cycle clockwise.
Boating the Bodensee
Book a water bike tour to discover the beauty of Bodensee from a new perspective while pedaling your way around. Once you're done on the water, take a city tour of Constance to absorb its Old town charm while soaking up history.
Hiking around Ebenalp
Take a cable car from the small village of Wasserauen to reach Ebenalp and access several trails, including a one-hour circular walk that takes you to one of the most enchanting and spectacular sights in the region.
The tiny mountain chalet restaurant Äscher is embedded right into a sheer cliff. The walk here takes you through the sizeable Wildkirchli karst caves, along narrow walkways, past a small chapel and cave church before reaching the inn, its terrace perilously jutting out over the cliff.
From here, a challenging onward route involves hiking down the steep path to beautiful Seealpsee (1141m).
Into high-octane adventures? Read up on the best outdoor experiences in Switzerland. Intrepid female travellers might also want to explore exhilarating women-only outdoor activities in Switzerland — all created by and for women.
How to get around northeast Switzerland and Liechtenstein
The region is well served by trains and buses, with additional options avaiable in certain areas, towns and cities.
Several passes cover transport, and provide discounts to attractions across all three countries round the lake.
Best is the Bodensee Card Plus, available from tourist offices. This covers passenger boat services and admission to over 160 attractions, including the Säntis cable car.
Another option is a Bodensee Ticket, a cross-border regional transport ticket, which covers trains and buses, and the Friedrichshafen–Romanshorn and Konstanz–Meersburg ferries.
If you stay in the Appenzell region for three nights or more, you receive, free of charge from your hotel, the Appenzeller Ferienkarte or Appenzell Holiday Card.
This covers transport on local buses and trains (including to and from St Gallen), as well as cable cars, admission to all museums and galleries, a Monday beer-tasting at the brewery, and numerous other benefits.
Liechtenstein’s buses link with Sargans and Buchs in Switzerland. They drop off at “Vaduz-Post”, on the main traffic road, Äulestrasse. From here there are buses to all domestic destinations. Though it’s apparent you’ve left Switzerland, the service is reasonable.
Or, 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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