If you are planning a trip abroad to Switzerland, or any other country, it certainly pays to be prepared ahead of time.
It's always great to know the basics such as:
- When is the best time to go
- What are the best places to visit
- How can you get around easily
- What are the best foods to try
- What languages are spoken (and do they speak English)
In this handy guide, I will help you with all the basics, as well as some insider tips to Switzerland (because I live here) that you might not find anywhere else.
Below is a menu / table of contents you can use if you want to jump to a specific section, or you can just read the whole thing. There is lots of information here, so remember to take notes :>
Switzerland - The Basics
Switzerland is right in the heart of Europe and as such, is influenced by all kinds of food, languages, architecture and people.
If you head to a place like Zurich, the biggest city in Switzerland, you will see the diversity on the streets! Count how many different languages you hear.
To get you started with understanding Switzerland, I have listed below all the basics.
Switzerland is right in the center of Germany, France and Italy, so it is not surprising the people here speak so many languages. There are four official languages:
- Reto-Romansch (only spoken in the Canton of Graubunden)
- English is spoken in all tourist areas, major cities and shops/hotels etc.
Switzerland is in Europe, but not officially part of the European Union. They do have a strong agreement with Europe, on almost all fronts, but do not use the Euro.
So, if you are traveling around Europe, you will need to change currencies here and use the local - Swiss Franc (symbol: CHF)
If you are wondering about how to pay and tip for things in Switzerland, I have a separate page with a lot more details.
At the time of writing the Swiss Franc is about 10% less than the Euro, however things are generally a lot more expensive.
As you might have heard, Switzerland is very organised and that includes an extremely efficient public transport system. So, if you don't feel like driving while you are here, the trains are an awesome way to get around. Easy, punctual, reliable, but not so cheap. Have think about getting some form of Swiss Travel Pass or the local "half tax" which gives you 50% off (but it costs you over 100). Check out more information here.
The highway (or Autobahn) system in Switzerland is very good, but like all places in the world these days - is prone to traffic jams at peak time (early morning, late afternoon, Sundays). So, although driving is relatively easy, it might not be the best option for a relaxing holiday! Also keep in mind that major North/South routes are extremely busy (like the Gotthard Tunnel) at most times of the year - because the whole of northern Europe is heading to Italy!
The main airports are Zurich, Geneva and Basel. With Basel being cheaper than Zurich (that is where airlines like Easy Jet fly from). Again, flying to Switzerland is super easy and efficient, but not always as cheap as say landing in Milan or Frankfurt and taking the train. So check out your options when traveling around Europe - you might save a lot (but of course you lose time!).
Depending on which region of Switzerland you are in, the food can vary alot. Remember, the borders are Germany, Italy and France. And the food often reflects that.
However, Switzerland also has a lot of it's own creations you have to try while you are here, such as:
- Fondue - Melted cheese in a big heated pot, eaten by dipping bread pieces into it
- Raclette - Melted cheese slices eaten with potatoes and other condiments
- Swiss cheese in general are worth digging into (supermarkets are a great places to get a variety)
- Swiss Chocolate of course (Lindt, Frey, Callier - all at the supermarket, and specialty stores like - Läderach, Sprüngli in Zurich, and these in Geneva)
- Rösti - like hashbrown/potatoes
- Zürcher Geschnetzeltes - Zurich's famous dish, which is a ragout of veal and mushroom
- Birchermüesli - health nuts around the world love this stuff, but did you know it was invented in Switzerland in 1900!
I could go on forever with food, and of course there are so many regional specialities. Check out this page from the My Switzerland team who do a great job of listing even more food ideas!
Electricity & Adapters
In all likelyhood you will need a specific swiss adapter or a multi-adapter for worldwide use (the ones with all the plugs in it). However, to be sure, check out this detailed page on Swiss electrical outlets.
Switzerland is part of the Shengen agreement which means in general that if you have the right to travel in the EU, you can travel in Switzerland. However, with visas you can never be too sure, so check out this website on the Swiss Shengen Visa system and application.
Best Time To Travel To Switzerland
The answer to this question really depends on what you want to experience when you arrive.
Switzerland is at it's best in the European summer (June - September
But, if you are coming to experience the ski resorts or just the snow and coziness of a swiss chalet in winter, then obviously the winter months are better (December - March).
The in between months can also be amazing, especially the autumn/fall
Below I have summed it all up so you can see what is best for you and your vacation.
Summer In Switzerland
Best Months: June - September
Average Temperatures: 18 to 28 °C (65° - 82° F)
Best Activities: Water Sports - Sailing, Rafting, Stand Up Paddling, Canoe, Kayaking, Mountain Sports - Hiking, Climbing, Mountaineering
Winter In Switzerland
Best Months: December - March
Average Temperatures: -2 to 7 °C (28° - 45° F) - COLDER in the mountains
Best Activities: Skiing, Snowshoeing, Cross-country Skiing, Ice Skating
Best Places To Visit Switzerland
Switzerland is a wonderland of mountains, lakes, history and outdoor activities.
It is impossible to see it all and to experience it all in even a month.
So, with that in mind, I have listed the best places to visit in terms of location type (city, mountain village, mountain attraction) so that you can choose what suits your needs and desires!
I have also made some suggestions on the best places to visit on a tour, if you have say a week or more. Places you can combine into a round trip and see some of the best Switzerland has to offer.
Best Cities To Visit In Switzerland
Lucerne is a favorite of all visitors to Switzerland and even amongst the Swiss themselves.
Nestled amongst some amazing mountains and siting on the shores of the famous Lake Lucerne (the Vierwalstattersee in German) how can you not love this city.
It also has a beautiful river running right through it's center with the historic and fully restored - Kapellebrucke.
Lucerne is also only an hour's train ride from Zurich and right on the way to alps (interlaken, bernese oberland), so most people stop here way
And it has an amazing historic center, is close to both Rigi and Pilatus mountains in case you feel like taking in a panoramic view as well.
Lucerne looking down the river at the Kapellebrucke and Pilatus mountain in the background.
Bern city overview - looking at the Aare river and the old town.
Bern (The Capital of Switzerland)
Bern, founded in 1191, is perhaps not on every tourists list, but has some worthwhile sites to visit. It is in fact a UNESCO World Heritage site, which itself makes it worth a visit. But, if in doubt, just look at the picture opposite and you will see how stunning it is.
The old town sits between the curves of the Aare river (which the daring can swim in, with the locals, in summer). The streets are filled with fun local shops (medieval arcades) to visit, many of them in basements that you have to enter from steps at the front (kind of like a storm cellar).
There are lots of other great places to visit such as Einstein house (yes, Switzerland is where lived, worked and studied), the Rose Garden (where that picture is probably taken from) and the quite unique and newly renovated Bear Park - with live bears outside in the middle of the city!
You probably know Zurich as the place where spies stash all their cash or meet bankers and exchange Swiss bank account numbers. But Zurich actually has a lot to offer the visitor not after a new bank account.
Zurich also has some cool sights to see including:
- Grossmünster - The famous church with the two towers, you can see in the picture opposite. You can climb to the top and get a great view.
- Uetliberg - Zurich's home mountain and a great place to get away from the city or just take in an amazing view of Zurich, the lake and see the mountains in the distance.
- If shopping is your thing, then Zurich has all the top brands right on the main street (Bahnhofstrasse, leading right from the train station).
- Check out the old town on both sides of the Limmat river.
In fact, there is so much to do and see in Zurich, I recommend you check out the cool website from the city itself for far more information!
Zurich - Looking along the Limmat River right in the center of town
Other Cities Worth Seeing In Switzerland
I am a little biased with the above cities, but there are many more worth a visit if you are in the area:
- St Gallen
Best Mountain Resorts In Switzerland
As you may have seen on TV, Switzerland is full of mountains, and apart from the flatter northern areas, you will actually find it hard to avoid them (count how many tunnels you go through in your car or on a train! it is nuts).
So, I can only recommend you check out some of the more amazing mountain towns and resorts in Switzerland while you are here. No trip to Switzerland is really complete without it. Even if it is just for a day or two!
Grindelwald (Bernese Oberland)
If you are stuck for time and only hanging around the north of Switzerland (Zurich, Bern, Luzern etc) then Grindelwald is a great option to get to know the Swiss alps.
A lot of people will tell you to head to Interlaken, which is the gateway to this area, but Grindelwald is right in the heart of the alps and the views from your balcony will probably blow your mind (just look at that picture!).
There is so much to do in Grindelwald, that you probably won't have time to do it all. Here is a quick list of things I recommend you check out:
- Jungfraujoch - Take the train to the "top of Europe" and see the stunning views, including Europe's longest glacier (Aletsch). An absolute must on a good weather day!
- If you have more time, or don't want to spend all your money on the Jungfraujoch (it's expensive) you can just head up Eiger Trail for a hike or take the gondola up to Kleine Scheidegg and enjoy the view
- Head up to the ski resort of First and go for a short (or long) hike. Within 30mins you can get that view you see in the picture on the right. I took that in the summer of 2016. They also have a cool new Zipline for the adventurous, and a cliff-face walkway with amazing views!
- There is also a cool walk in a gorge not far from town or you can head to Lauterbrunnen (by train or car) and check out the Trummelbach falls blasting through the rocks (or catch one of the nutters base jumping from the cliffs)
View over Zermatt at night - image courtesy of MySwitzerland.com
Up there with Zermatt on the "must see" list of Swiss mountain towns is Zermatt. Home of the famous Matterhorn mountain and just a stunning village nestled amongst some of the biggest mountains in the country.
Not everyone will have the time to get down to Zermatt, but with the new NEAT tunnel you can now get here from Zurich in under 4 hours. So, even if it is just a wish, it is possible!
Zermatt is a hikers paradise, but even if you don't really want to break into a sweat you can take any one of the gondolas or mountain trains (like the Gornergrat) up high and just enjoy a short walk and the amazing views!
It is an all year round ski resort too with a few glaciers that allow you go at least ski on one run or two!
And if you are on the Glacier Express, one of Switzerland (and the world) must see train journeys, you will either start or end in Zermatt anyway!
Switzerland is an amazing place to visit almost any time of year. From hiking, mountain biking, train tours and swimming, summer is one of the best seasons. However, don't forget the coziness of a warm fireplace in winter, a big pot of fondue and a chance to learn skiing, ice skating or just sled at a speed not responsible for a 40 year old!
The cities have a lot to offer, but don't forget to get off the beaten path and explore the alps, the villages, the local culture and food. There is so much to see and do here, I never get bored!