In an exciting life change I packed up one suitcase and one backpack and relocated myself to Basel, Switzerland, a city I had never heard of before until I was offered a job there. I hope my experiences here can be helpful to other travelers. I am getting to know (and love) my new city very well and I travel to other places within Switzerland on the weekends and holidays to also gain some knowledge and experience of the entire country. The more I travel around, the more information I can offer you.
For a small country it has a large reputation. It is famous for many things, including: banks, Alps, chocolate, watches, cheese, and neutrality. But there is a lot more to Switzerland (though the chocolate alone makes it worth a visit) so read on and enjoy planning your trip to Switzerland!
Switzerland is a small landlocked country in central Europe, filled with lakes, mountains and cows. It shares its borders with Germany, France, Italy, Austria, and Liechtenstein which makes it a great stopover on many European trips.
The Swiss Confederation, better known as Switzerland, is 41,277 sq km with a population of 7,604,467. It is divided into 26 cantons and has four national languages: German, French, Italian, and Romansch. English is widely spoken, and it is rare that a Swiss only speaks one language. So try a few out if you have the opportunity (and the vocabulary).
Bern is the capital city and is bilingual with both French and German as official languages. The population can fluctuate dramatically throughout the day because many people work in Switzerland but live in a neighbouring country. This may explain why there are more mobile phones in use here than there are people.
The official currency here is the Swiss Franc (CHF). The Euro is widely accepted throughout the country and most ATMs will allow you the option of withdrawing Euros.
They say the Swiss invented tourism and it’s easy to believe with all the information made accessible by the tourismus offices throughout the country. The best country-wide site I have found is MySwitzerland.com, which I have referenced throughout this starter kit. Each region and most of the cities have their own tourist boards in addition, but the information is nicely consolidated on myswitzerland.com. You will see links to the external tourist information sites as you browse through myswitzerland.com.
When it comes to cuisine, the Swiss are well-known for their cheese and they love it just as much as the rest of the world. There chocolate is also hard to beat. If you are here outside of the summer months you should find it relatively easy to enjoy a wonderful cheese fondue, and hopefully even chocolate! Also, another meal I really enjoy is raclette. Not just a cheese, it is one of the few Swiss specialties. For those who don’t know about raclette, learn something here: Wikipedia: Raclette.
Another Swiss specialty is Rösti. This is a delicious potato dish that reminds me a bit of hash browns, but better. Often it is combined with cheese, though you can find a variety of Rösti dishes.
That’s really it for original cuisine that I have experienced. However, the resourceful Swiss have learned a lot from their neighbours! Excellent beers are readily available (if you are in Basel, try to local brews: Unser Bier and Ueli) and you will find great Italian, German and Austrian, and French dishes here, depending what areas you visit. Here in Basel there is a lot of opportunity to try the cuisine from nearby Alsace in France, which is delicious.
When to go
When to visit Switzerland depends entirely on what you want to experience when you are here. However, the climate is mild though it varies with altitude, so Switzerland is nice to visit year-round. You will find the ski hills and resorts very busy during the winter season, especially around holidays so plan ski trips ahead of time if you want to stay overnight on the mountain.
In the summer the country is still a gracious host, staying open when many neighbouring countries are shutting down restaurants and shops for vacation time. Some regions, like Ticino, are very popular in the summer months and you will have to book in advance if you want accommodation.
For outdoor activities (excluding winter activities), June to September offers the best weather and has the best availability. The winter sports season starts around mid-December and lasts as long as the snow does. Depending on where you are, that could be as late as April.
How to get here
There are three international airports: Zurich, Geneva, and Basel. Know that Switzerland is a very small country and for a Canadian like me everything is close! Basel is only 1 hour from Zurich and 3 from Geneva. From any one of these cities, the rest of the country is within a few hours’ reach. There are some parts that take time to get to because of the Alps cutting through your path, so if you are only visiting a particular region, check the train schedule to see which is the quickest airport as it might not be the one that is geographically the closest.
If you are traveling by train to Switzerland, the major hub in Italy is Milan. From France you can get to Basel and Geneva by TGV from most of the big cities (Strasbourg, Lyon, Paris) in a reasonable amount of time. From Germany, both Munich and Frankfurt are two of the main hubs to Switzerland.
How to get around
This country has by far the best transportation system I have ever experienced. Not only does the network of trains, buses, trams, boats and cable cars take you to virtually every place you can think of, they get you there on schedule. They are so punctual that people on the platform get restless when the train is two minutes late. The connections are amazingly well planned the majority of the time and you rarely have to do any walking between train and bus. So don’t panic when your itinerary shows you only have 5 minutes between your arrival and your departure on a different platform, it is very possible to make these connections.
To plan any journey within Switzerland, just visit SBB. It is an excellent resource for planning routes and connections. They also have a wonderful section for daytrips and excursions that includes special offers on lots of great sights and attractions.
Switzerland has some excellent travel passes, some of which include local transportation (bus, tram, boat) on top of train journeys. The more popular mountain trains and cable cars are discounted with these passes, while the rest are included. These do not usually include ski lifts, but do include many of the boat trips available.
For more information on Swiss travel passes, check out this site: Swiss Travel System
If you want to rent a car in Switzerland, rent it in a neighbouring country! Rentals are expensive and so is parking, and the transportation system is so stress-free that I recommend you consider train travel instead. If you do go with a car you will be happy to know that the gas is cheaper here than in the neighbouring countries.
What to do
There are so many festivals, events, conferences, fairs, and activities available that I can really only scratch the surface. If there is something in particular you are looking for, please let me know and I will give you all the information I can find! But for starters…
The great outdoors
Switzerland is very much an outdoor enthusiast’s dream come to true. With these gorgeous mountains, lakes and valleys, the possibilities are endless. Bike trails are very well marked throughout the country and include color-coding and usually distances. Many bike paths are paved but mountain biking is also excellent here. An excellent resource for finding your perfect bike trip (be it a few hours or several days) is here: Veloland, or for mountain biking: Bikeland
It has an interactive route planner, tips on where to go, where to rent, and where to get service. Also, many of the SBB trains have a special compartment for travelers with bikes so you can get your bike from where you are to where you want to start without trouble.
Hiking trails are also marked similar to bike trails and are at least as numerous. If you checked out the website I recommended for biking, then this one will look awfully familiar: Wanderland. All the praise I gave the biking resource site I repeat for this one.
There are tons of lakes in Switzerland and they are usually large and beautiful. The most well-known are probably Lucerne, Constance, and Geneva, but there are many more beautiful lakes waiting for you to discover them. Windsurfing is very popular here as is canoeing. Pick a lake and dive in!
Skiing / winter sports
For a list of the best places to ski, broken down by category, check this out: Best Ski Runs.
There are far too many ski hills to mention, and they all seem to be loved by locals and visitors alike. But here are a few to get you started: Andermatt, Zermatt, St. Moritz (arguably at present the most likely place to spot the rich and famous at play on the slopes), Davos, and Grindelwald.
Something a little more extreme
Interlaken is probably the best known place for adventure sport enthusiasts. Here you can do just about anything, including rafting, canyoning, ski diving, hang gliding, rock and indoor climbing, bungee-jumping, zorbing, etc. Outside of Interlaken there are a lot of other options for these activities, but this is the most well-known region where all the adventure sports are brought together in one place.
All the beauty, none of the work
If you just want to sit back and enjoy the natural beauty surrounding you without exerting any effort, try any one of these suggestions:
There are several scenic and relaxing recommended train journeys in Switzerland.
Most of the big lakes offer boat cruises with meals, and you can even take journeys at certain points along the Rhine River. There are many more amazing boat experiences.
- Wilhelm Tell Express (Lucerne to Lugano)
For an excellent view, try one of these cable car / gondola / cogwheel train trips to the top of the Alps:
Thermal baths and day spas are a nice treat after a day of adventure from the lists above. Rheinfelden has a wonderful spa with a variety of thermal baths, saunas, and massage rooms at Sole Uno.
Festivals and events
There are a huge number of festivals, fairs and exhibits throughout the country. The summer is jam-packed with events but they go on year round. This summer I felt like it was one long festival in Basel. Here I have listed a few of the highlights:
Fasnacht / Carnival
Fasnacht is the Swiss German version of Carnival and its celebration differs depending on which city you choose to celebrate in.
Basel (February 22 – 24, 2010)
This celebration starts at 4am on the Monday following Ash Wednesday and lasts for exactly three days, ending Thursday morning at 4am. The kickoff event is the Morgestraich includes all the cliques marching and playing their Gugge music. Throughout the festival there are concerts, floats, costumes, and lots of confetti. This differs from most Fasnacht celebrations in that the spectators are discouraged from being participants. Loud cheering and interrupting the cliques is considered very rude. There are lots of pre-carnival festivals in the surrounding towns leading up to the big event in Basel.
Lucerne (February 11 – 16, 2010)
This carnival celebration starts the Thursday before Ash Wednesday and ends the day before. Again, there is lots of singing, dancing, and Gugge music, and parades on Dirty Thursday and Fat Monday. The biggest parade is at the end on Fat Tuesday.
Solothurn (February 11 – 17, 2010)
Starting Maundy Thursday, the town of Solothurn is turned upside down and becomes Honolulu (since Hawaii is on the exact opposite side of the globe from them). The party ends on Ash Wednesday when a straw man is set on fire.
Zurich (February 19 – 21, 2010)
Geneva Winter Carnival (February 17 – 19, 2010)
Here there are three separate carnival celebrations all around Ash Wednesday.
Zurich, third Monday in April
This event welcomes spring by burning a giant snowman, Böögg, until he explodes. The faster he blows, the sooner spring will arrive. The festivities begin the day before when the children march through the streets in costumes with Böögg in tow.
Bachläger Alp, Grindelwald, beginning of July
You can’t get more Swiss than a yodeling festival! This is held outdoors on the first mountain and is postponed a week if there is too much rain.
Basel (July 17 – 24, 2010)
The second largest in the world after Edinburgh, this event takes place in mid-July and is a huge deal. Tickets sell out well in advance so plan ahead if you want to see it. The city celebrates not just at the Tattoo but with food stands and beer tents going up everywhere. The Pipefest takes place on the first day of the Tattoo and is basically a bunch of bagpipers running amuck throughout the city and serenading you with their pipes.
Swiss National Day
Throughout Switzerland, August 1
The celebrations for this national event differ regionally but usually involve fireworks and bonfires, and children with paper lanterns at night.
Basel has a huge celebration on July 31 and August 1. Both involve fireworks and on the 31st the city centre is shut down to traffic and turned into a street festival with food, music, and tons of people. The fireworks go off after dark on two barges on the Rhine.
The Rhine Falls in Schaffhausen (Europe’s largest waterfall) are illuminated for this special occasion only. There are also fireworks at night.
Fetes De Genève
This is a huge event in Geneva that draws over 2 million visitors. The party is around the lake with free outdoor concerts, carnival rides, delicious fair food, and of course parades. Every evening ends with a fireworks display. The festival ends with a Techno Parade, each float a dance party on wheels.
Basel (October 24 – November 1, 2009)
An outdoor market to sell and enjoy the fall harvest.
Zibelemärit (Onion Market)
Bern, fourth Monday in November
The large square in front of the Parliament buildings is transformed into a huge market. Over 100 tons of stringed onions are on sale, as well as many other vegetables and nuts. Confetti fights break out and jesters appear in restaurants add to the festive atmosphere.
Many of the cities and towns have special events and markets around Christmastime.
Where to visit
As you have probably now realized, Switzerland is a huge country packed into a small area. This starter kit is already massive and I haven’t even mentioned the cities yet! Here is just a small list to get you started.
This is where I live and a place I absolutely love but I will try not to get carried away here. Basel is a small city of less than 300,000 people that spreads itself across the Rhine and nestles into the corner where Germany, France, and Switzerland meet. From the Münster in the Old Town you can get a nice view of the city and the river below. You can also go up to Bar Rouge at the top of the Messeturm (the highest building in Switzerland) to get a good view in the evening. Even the bathrooms let you enjoy the scene! There is good shopping throughout the city center, and a surprisingly excellent nightlife throughout the city. There are not really any dangerous areas but as a woman I prefer to avoid the train station in the wee hours at night, more because it is uncomfortably quiet than for any real safety concern.
There are almost 40 museums here and many of them are well-recognized and worth a visit, depending on your interests. There are also numerous events and festivals throughout the year that add to the atmosphere. There is also a good zoo and lots of great restaurants. The official language in this region is its own dialect of German, but High German, English, and French are frequently spoken too.
The capital of Switzerland is only 1 hour by train from Basel. It has a beautiful Old Town (a UNESCO heritage site) with a late-medieval cathedral, parliament buildings, fountains, and an interesting clock tower. It sits on the river Aare where you can take a dip in the summer. There are also bear pits and a fantastic Einstein museum.
In the region there are lots of ski hills and mountain trekking, biking, and cable cars.
Both a region and a city in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, Fribourg is very charming with lots to see and do. Besides the numerous old bridges, walls and buildings, the region also boasts a charming butterfly sanctuary (Papilorama: http://www.papiliorama.ch/). Also famous to the area is Gruyère, famous for its cheese. Personally I really enjoy visiting Gruyère. The cheese demonstration, cable car, castle, and H.R. Giger museum are all worth checking out and the town centre next to the castle is charming.
A very international city, Geneva is like nowhere else in Switzerland. While wandering the streets you will hear an incredible variety of languages and see incredible wealth. The city is really nice in the summer when the sun is sparking on the lake, the jet d’eau is squirting high above and the Old Town sits even higher, and you are sitting at an outdoor café looking over the lake. Here you can check out the UN, the Red Cross museum, take a lake cruise, wander the winding streets of old town, enjoy some wine in the nearby wine country, or explore the surrounding Lake Geneva area, full of its own charms, including its own wine train! Did I mention the wine?
An incredibly beautiful city, Lugano wraps itself around the edges of Lake Lugano in the Italian region of Ticino. The city is decorated with palm trees and flowers, everywhere from the parks to the lakeside promenade to the lively piazzas in the old town and city center. On either side of the city are high mountains, Monte Bre and San Salvatore. I would recommend San Salvatore to get a great view and lots of sun. Lugano also has great outdoor cafes and restaurants, an outdoor cinema, and Swiss Miniatur (http://www.swissminiatur.ch). I highly recommend a visit to Lugano and the entire Ticino region.
If you love castles you will love Bellinzona. It is also in Ticino and has tropical feeling with the lush mountains and exotic flora. There are three castles that make up a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the largest of the three, Castelgrande, is well worth a visit.
Also one of my favourite cities in Switzerland, Lucerne will take your breath away when you step out of the train station into the bright sunshine and see the pristine lake in front of you surrounded by palaces and churches, and further back the pale blue mountains with white peaks. Then you take a closer look and see the pretty pedestrian bridges spanning the river between baroque churches and charming sidewalk restaurants. Wander around the city and walk up to the city wall where you can see over the lake and get a better look at the city and mountains. Many of the train journeys (mountain and otherwise) I mentioned earlier start here, as do some good boat cruises.
Home to a beautiful baroque abbey (another UNESCO World Heritage Site) including an impressive medieval library. This city also has a charming old town next to the abbey so it is great for wandering and sightseeing.
Probably the best place in Switzerland for shopping (if you can afford it); there are also some great historic buildings like churches and palaces and of course another nice lake to enjoy. Said to have the highest quality of life in the world, it is a lively city with a great blend of new and old.
As I have hopefully demonstrated, there is a lot to see and do in Switzerland. It is a country for any kind of traveler; it offers natural beauty, adventure, relaxation, and fun. There are many medieval buildings, historic monuments, castles, cathedrals, lakes, and mountains and I can only give you a small taste of what you will experience on your journey here. I hope you find it every bit as enjoyable as I do.