Sports and outdoor activities in Switzerland

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Hiking in Zermatt © Swiss Tourism

It’s no exaggeration to say that Switzerland

is heaven for outdoorsiness of all kinds, for all ages. Kids start skiing as toddlers, and it’s common to see Swiss grandparents hiking and cycling on Alpine trails. Many of the best outdoor experiences in Switzerland can be enjoyed by the whole family, and female travellers can enjoy excellent outdoor adventures created by and for women .

Walking in Switzerland

You don’t have to be a mountaineer to enjoy an active holiday in the Alps — Switzerland has some of Europe’s finest walking terrain, with enough variety to suit every taste.

In the northwest, the wooded Jura hills provide long views across the lowlands to Alpine giants. 

The Bernese Alps — which lie in the Bernese Oberland

, and also extend into the neighbouring cantons of Valais , Fribourg and Vaud — harbour a glacial heartland.  

In addition, they feature gentle valleys, pastoral ridges and charming hamlets with well-marked trails weaving. All of which means the region is ripe for enjoying outdoor activities in Switzerland.

When it comes to Switzerland outdoor activities, the Bernese Oberland is a paradise © Gaspar Janos/Shutterstock

Best places to stay in the Bernese Oberland

  • Best for foodies: Hotel Krone, Thun. Near the river on the Old Town square, this has two upmarket restaurants.
  • Best for sporty-types: Hotel Victoria, Meiringen. This smart three-star offers entry to Meiringen’s fitness centre.
  • Best for couples: Gstaad Palace Hotel. A hilltop beauty with giant bedrooms.

Browse more places to stay in the Bernese Oberland, and arm yourself with more info about accommodation in Switzerland

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On the south side of the Rhône valley the Pennine Alps are burdened with snow and glaciers, yet walkers’ paths lead along their moraines. 

In the mountains of Ticino, which are almost completely ice-free in summer, you’ll find trails galore linking lake-jewelled peaks. In tourist areas, walkers can use chairlifts, gondolas and cable cars to reach high trails. 

Best places to stay in Ticino

Explore more places to stay in the canton of Ticino. a region that's ideal for travellers wanting to sample some of the best eating and drinking in Switzerland

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Lugano — pretty as a picture, and home to excellent Switzerland outdoor activities © Shutterstock

Cycling and mountain biking in Switzerland

Cycling isn't the easiest way to explore the Alps, but the scenery more than compensates for the extra effort, making it one of the top Switzerland outdoor activities for fit nature-loving travellers.

It’s a very popular Swiss pursuit, with dedicated routes integrated into the Switzerland Mobility network, a scheme that unites routes for “non-motorized transport” – namely, walking, cycling, mountain-biking, skating and canoeing.

Mountain biking is also popular, and many Swiss resorts produce their own guides to local trails.

To transport a bike by train anywhere in Switzerland, buy a day-pass. You have to load and unload it yourself using the specially marked carriage. Check for full information, including trains on which bikes are prohibited.

Mountain excursions — the peak of Switzerland outdoor activities

Although it barely needs saying, the Swiss mountains are sensationally beautiful. Indeed, they’re one of the reasons you voted Switzerland one of the most beautiful countries in the world

Fortunately, thanks to a network of mountain railways and cable cars, peaks cross the country are easily accessible to non-mountaineers, which makes heading to the peaks one of the top outdoor activities in Switzerland.

What’s more, with the smoothness and efficiency of getting around Switzerland

on public transport, the journey is often as good as the destination. 

The magnificent Matterhorn hosts lots of Switzerland outdoor activities © Shutterstock

Rack and pinion railways

Taking a train is a splendid way to be wowed by stunning views, as revealed in our guide to the best scenic train rides in Europe

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Boarding a rack and pinion railway comes highly recommended. These are narrow gauge railways where a toothed “pinion” wheel beneath the train engages with the “teeth” of a third, central “rack” rail to haul the train up steep gradients.  

The Jungfraujoch is the flagship line of this sort, running up within the north face of the Eiger to the highest railway station in Europe — you won't want to miss taking a trip to the top of Europe.

Other scenic rail rides include boarding the Gornergrat Bahn Cogwheel Train from Zermatt

for a close-up view of the Matterhorn.

Best places to stay in Zermatt

  • Best for Alpine atmosphere: Kulmhotel Gornergrat. Atmospheric, and currently the highest hotel in the Alps.
  • Best for glamour: Grand Hotel Zermatterhof. One of the finest hotels in the country.
  • Best for cosy comfort: Hotel Allalin. Service is outstanding at this modern hotel with folksy décor.

Discover more places to stay in Zermatt.

Meanwhile, taking a trip on the line up to the Schynige Platte from Interlaken in the Jungfrau

region gives panoramic views over lakes, towns and mountains.

Ride a charlift to see Mount Rigi © Swiss Tourism

Two historic lines also run up to the top of Mount Rigi near Lucerne

. Alternatively, from Lucerne you can also take a trip on the Panorama Gondola up Mount Pilatus to ride the world's steepest cogwheel railway.

Best places to stay Lucerne

  • Best for nature-lovers: Seehotel Kastanienbaum. In a village outside the city, this has a lovely lakeside terrace.
  • Best for romantics: Wilden Mann. Dating back to 1517, this is set in atmospheric Old Town lanes.
  • Best for chilling out: Backpackers. A laidback hostel on the lakeshore with pleasant dorms and doubles. 

Explore more places to stay in Lucerne.

Cable cars

Suspended by cables above often impossibly dramatic terrain, cable cars venture where no road or railway could ever be built. 

Famous ones include the ascents to the Schilthorn above Interlaken and the cabin to Robiei, which runs up from the head of the Valle Maggia to a summit station on a crag overlooking the beautiful Basodino glacier. 

Perhaps the best in Switzerland, though, is the Klein Matterhorn, which offers a heart-stopping ride in several stages from Zermatt, ending at a fairy-tale razor-edge peak opposite the mesmeric Matterhorn. 

Magnificent Matterhorn © Shutterstock

Chairlifts

These are mainly found in ski resorts and consist of open chairs suspended by a cable that carry three people at one time to high slopes.  

Some also work throughout the summer, transporting walkers up to or down from high-altitude walking areas, such as the one at Champex in the Valais

Best places to stay in Valais

Browse more places to stay in the canton of Valais.

In-line skating

The Switzerland Mobility network also include full details of in-line skating — essentially roller skating on skates with a single set of wheels.

There are three national routes cross the country, supplemented by lots of shorter local and regional trails. The most popular is the Rhein Skate route between Landquart and Kreuzlingen.

Windsurfing and canoeing

Boats and equipment for windsurfing are available for rent on almost all lakes, where canoeing is also popular.

If you’re seeking a gentler form of outdoor activities in Switzerland, pedalos can usually be rented at lakeside resorts such as Lugano or Lausanne

Best places to stay in Lausanne

  • Best for couples: Angleterre & Residence. A classy waterfront hotel.
  • Best for luxury-lovers: Beau-Rivage Palace. One of Switzerland’s finest, set in ten-acre waterside gardens.
  • Best for families: Elite. Extremely pleasant, well-run, and situated on a quiet street.

.Discover more of the best places to stay in Lausanne.

Kayaking on Lake Locarno © NDStock/Shutterstock

Winter sports in Switzerland 

It goes without saying that Switzerland is one of the best winter sports destinations in the world, with generally small-scale resorts making a virtue of their village atmosphere and character. 

Expect peaceful, mostly entirely natural Alpine runs, many starting well above the tree line and set against spectacular mountain vistas. 

In addition, Swiss resorts are higher than most, and thus have guaranteed snow cover. In contrast, lower resorts are beginning to feel the pinch from global warming. 

The winter season runs from mid-December to mid-April, though at altitudes above about 3000m the season extends from November to May. 

Skiing, snowboarding and beyond

Skiing is split into two varieties. Alpine or downhill skiing is the more popular, and involves swooshing down the mountain on blue (easy), red (intermediate) or black (difficult) runs, according to your ability.

Nordic or cross-country skiing is seen as much harder work for much less thrill. That said, it benefits from no lift queues and allows you to get way out into the countryside. For more experienced outdoor adventurers, this might be the pinnacle of Switzerland outdoor activities. 

Snowboarding is massively popular, with resorts hosting half-pipes, lessons for all abilities, and boarding tournaments all winter long. 

Mono-skiing, like head-on snowboarding, uses a single extra-wide ski into which both feet are strapped side by side. 

Ski-joring involves being pulled along by galloping horses, while snow-biking or snow-bobbing are essentially cycling on snow. 

Many resorts have great facilities for tobogganing or sledding.

St Moritz is a swish hotspot for Switzerland outdoor activities © Shutterstock

Ski destinations

The classic destinations include Saas-Fee, Zermatt, Verbier, Crans-Montana, Wengen, Mürren, Grindelwald, Gstaad, Engelberg, Laax, and Davos, Klosters and St Moritz in Graubünden

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Best places to stay in Graubünden

Browse more of the best places to stay in Graubünden.

Meanwhile, novices and first-timers might find slightly less famous resorts more rewarding — they’re cheaper, less crowded, and lack that daunting competitive edge.

A sample of these might include Arosa, Kandersteg, Andermatt, Braunwald, Villars-Gryon-Les Diablerets, Leysin, Lenzerheide, Savognin, Adelboden-Lenk, the Aletsch region, or Airolo. 

Year-round summer skiing is possible in a few resorts with access to glacier pistes above 3000m, including Verbier, Zermatt, Les Diablerets, Engelberg, Crans-Montana and Saas-Fee.

Crans Montana offers year-round opportunties to enjoy outdoor activities in Switzerland © Alec Issigonis/Shutterstock

Adventurers and lovers of the great outdoors ready to book a trip to Switzerland will find more information and inspiration in The Rough Guide to Switzerland

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Our run-down of things not to miss in Switzerland

will also spark ideas and help you plan. 

Not a fan of planning? Book a hassle-free tailor-made trip to Switzerland, with itineraries curated by local experts covering everything from unforgettable highlights of Switzerland

, to touring the Grand Circle . These can be fully customised to satisfy your every hankering for heady adventure.

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