66 Tips to Swiss Bliss

17 May

A summer rainbow arches above Lucerne, Switzerland (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

Switzerland is good for the soul, of this I am certain.

I left Switzerland feeling happily exhausted, my limbs sore from climbing, my tummy content and full, my face deeply tanned and my soul elevated. Something about all that clean air and clean water and rippled mountain landscapes. (Also, have I mentioned the food?)

I’ve always maintained that our bodies travel faster than our minds, and while I have translocated homeward, my mind is still swirling in Switzerland, up in the high mountain pastures with the clanging cow bells, the honey-fresh air and the drinkable alpine streams.

I think I’ll need a few more days before I actually accept that I am no longer in Switzerland. This is the definition of Swiss bliss and it is in fact, the state I am in.

I’m not sure how long it lasts, this euphoria that follows a month in Switzerland, so while it’s still fresh on my brain, I shall offer a few humble pointers to any and all who should ever want to follow in my footsteps.

  1. Go there.
  2. Bring sunblock! When the sun shines in the Alps, it gets very warm and you will end up either very tan or very red.
  3. Drink the water. Every village has at least one beautiful water fountain flowing with free and cold mountain spring water. There is no need to buy bottled water in Switzerland.
  4. Just like a video game, it’s no fun getting stuck in just one level of Switzerland. Explore all the levels: the valleys, the high pastures (1,500-2,000 m) and the rugged snow-topped peaks (>3,000 m). Each one is like a separate country. Explore every level.
  5. Tacking on Switzerland as a two-day detour to your European trip to France, Germany and Italy is a serious mistake. Rather, see “all” of Europe by visiting Switzerland’s four distinct corners. This country is a destination unto itself and deserves the time and attention.
  6. Try out Switzerland’s specialty trains-with-a-view, like the Glacier Express. Engineering geeks will LOVE the 360º turns on the Bernina Express and William Tell Express
  7. Alpine flowers. (By AE/NGT)

    Get a Swiss Pass. I traveled for an entire month with only a single ticket. It’s awesome and pays for itself quickly.

  8. Try an E-bike! You can actually bike across the whole of Switzerland, exchanging empty batteries for full.
  9. Bring quality hiking boots. Tennis shoes won’t work in the Alps. Bring the best pair of hiking boots you have. Good grip, strong ankle-support and waterproof!
  10. Visit ALL of Gruyères: the cheese factory AND the castle. Obviously cheese is the highlight, but the whole area is magical.
  11. Learn how and remember to say “Thank You Very Much” in all four official Swiss languages: Merci Vilmau (Swiss German), Merci Beaucoup (French), Grazie Mille (Italian), Gratscha Fitg (Romansch)
  12. Swim in a lake! Some of my favorite spots for a summer dip: Lake Geneva (Bains de Paquis) Engadin’s Lej da Staz, and Lido Locarno.
  13. When mountain biking down a steep a hill, use your back break to slow. Only pulse your front break. Otherwise you’ll do a forward flip into a pile of sharp rocks, which is bad for the skin.
  14. Eat gelato in Ascona. It’s the best in Switzerland, hands down.
  15.  Visit the Rosengart Museum in Lucerne. While the Picassos are impressive, it’s the rare Matisse, Modigliani, Miró and Chagall paintings that I loved most. My favorite? Chagall’s palatte.
  16. Learn How To Eat Chocolate and then be the discriminate connoisseur. Switzerland offers more opportunities to eat superior chocolate than anywhere else in the world. Some of my favorite local chocolate shops? Philippe Pascoët in Geneva and Max Chocolatier in Lucerne.
  17. Do a hut-to-hut hike in the mountains. The Swiss Alpine Club maintains dozens of comfortable, warm, dry huts for hikers. Eating, sleeping and drinking in a remote hut is a terrific way to experience Swiss culture and make new Swiss friends. Note that it’s advisable to book ahead in summer since certain routes are popular and beds fill up fast.
  18. Walk on a glacier, and if you can, hike the longest piece of ice in the Alps: the Aletsch Glacier. It’s simply unforgettable.
  19. Eat REAL fondue. For most Swiss, that means “Moitié-Moitié” (half-half) made with Gruyère and Vacherin Fribourgeois. Beware of tourist traps that serve fondue specials with “special blends” of four or more cheeses or funky ad-ins like mushrooms or herbs. That’s all very nice, but it’s not authentic. (Also, if there’s a life-size plastic cow in front of the restaurant, it usually means the kitchen is turning out several hundred pots of melted cheese a night.)
  20. Rent a bike and explore the itty-bitty villages and vineyards of Lavaux, on the north shore of Lake Geneva. This was definitely a highlight for me. Another tip? Taste the wine AFTER you’re done biking.
  21. Be like James Bond and bungy jump the Verzasca Dam.
  22. Go to the Lausanne Cathedral at night and wait for the nightwatchman to call out the hour from the tower.
  23. Go to Ticino and get lost in the steep and secluded valleys, especially the Valle Maggia.
  24. Make time for at least one spa visit. Swiss spas represent a centuries-old tradition and as a traveler you have so much choice, from super-posh spas like the Kronenhof, or low-cost public spas fed by natural springs like the Bellavita in Pontresina.
  25. Drink a Hugo: a great Swiss/Italian aperitif, like a mojito but with prosecco and elderflower syrup!
  26. Wash away all your sins by drinking the water at St. Moritz! (In 1519, Pope Leo X promised absolution for any travelers who go to the springs and drink the iron-rich bubbly).

    How Now Brown Cow? (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

  27. Befriend the cows. Swiss cows are the gentlest animals in the world. Love them and they will pay you back in cheese and chocolate.
  28. Check out the BASE jumping scene in Lauterbrunnen. It’s the only place like it on earth.
  29. Ignore anyone who tells you that it’s not worth learning Schwyzerdütsch or that it’s just a “dialect”. It is, in fact, the most widely-spoken language in the country. Listen, ask, and learn. What words did I use most? Grüezi (hello) schoggi (chocolate) and En Guete (Bon Appetit)
  30. In Zürich, skip the fancy tourist restaurants and go local. Grab a seat at the Rheinfelder Bierhalle, kiss a pint of foamy brew and tackle their spectacular “Jumbo-Jumbo Cordon Bleu”, a buttery dish that pretty much defines Switzerland’s largest city.
  31. Check out any of Switzerland’s numerous World Heritage Sites. My favorites are probably Lavaux, Aletsch Glacier and the three castles of Bellinzona; someday I look forward to exploring the old city of Berne.
  32. Swiss cheese is Switzerland’s greatest treasure–enjoy it in-country. Once you’ve tried Switzerland’s big-name cheeses (Gruyère, Appenzeller, Emmentaler, Raclette), try some you’ve never heard of before. A few of my favorites: l’Etivaz, Sbrinz, Bündner Bergkäse, Tilsiter and Heutaler.
  33. Watch how cheese gets made the old-fashioned way and then have the mother-of-all cheese-laden Sunday brunches at Sennerei Pontresina.
  34. If you’re engaging in serious mountaineering (above 3,000 meters and/or steep, rocky, and icy), then hire a local guide to come along. They know this landscape better than you. Also, make sure you have the right equipment (crampons, ice axe, rope and harness). The Alps are seriously beautiful and inviting but not to be taken lightly. Many accidents are preventable.
  35. Watch and/or read Heidi (probably the biggest cliché about Switzerland) but then revel in how much of the book’s sense of place still rings true today.
  36. Swiss francs are colorful and each denomination shaped differently. Know who’s on your money! 10 francs — architect Le Corbusier, 20 francs — composer Arthur Honegger, 50 francs — artist Sophie Taeuber-Arp, 100 francs — sculptor Alberto Giacometti,  200 francs — writer Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz, and 1000 francs — Jacob Burckhardt.
  37. Visit the smallest village in Switzerland: Corippo, population 16 (in Ticino).
  38. Eat your way through Engadin. Must-tries? Tuorta da nusch at Laager Bakery, Pizokel  at Pitschna Scena and wild boar flammekueche at Chesa Rosatch.
  39. Go skiing in the summer.
  40. Besides hotels, guesthouses, auberges, mountain huts, and youth hostels, consider a farm stay. I don’t know a better way of embracing the Swiss summer than to experience the life of a mountain farmer. Also, it’s great for kids.
  41. Buy authentic souvenirs. Cuckoo clocks are Bavarian, not Swiss. However, Swiss Army knivesare Swiss. For more authentic Swiss Army issue surplus goods, check out village markets like the one in Interlaken where there is normally at least one dealer selling army-issue belts, boots, bags and clothes.
  42. Instead of focusing on Switzerland’s “famous” mountains (Jungfrau, Eiger, Matterhorn), visit some of the ones you’ve never heard of before. In Switzerland, every mountain has a story. I recommend: Bietschhorn and the Finsteraarhorn.
  43. If you’re heart is set on seeing the Matterhorn, plan at least three days in Zermatt. Cloud cover is completely unpredictable. Also, be sure to check out the Matterhorn Museum and the cemetery of perished climbers.
  44. If you’re brave enough, attempt my “Interlaken Seven” Adventure Sports Challenge or at least go paragliding.
  45. Learn your Swiss flowers–the colors, shapes and scents of alpine botany are all staggering and my one big regret is that I didn’t know more of the flowers before visiting.
  46. Gasosa Ticinese (AE/NGT)

    Drink a gasosa in Ticino, locally-brewed soda that comes in mandarin, lemon and raspberry. Delizioso.

  47. Check out Zürich’s many fashion designers and their boutique shops in town. Some of my favorites? Atame, Marc Stone,  and Stefan Steiner.
  48. Visit CERN and tell them they really need to build a monument commemorating the invention of the World Wide Web.
  49. Swiss villages are home to some delightful street markets, so buy some of your meals on the street. Some of my favorites? Carouge and the Laret market in Pontresina.
  50. Rent a paddle boat in Lausanne and fanciful waterfront of Ouchy.
  51. The Swiss drink most of their wine, exporting little. Take advantage of being in Switzerland by sampling their fruit of the vine. Top picks? Domaine des Molards chasselas and Louis Bovard Sauvignon.
  52. The tourist thing that everybody does and costs a lot but is still very worth doing? The Jungfraujoch train that goes through the Eiger and climbs up to the saddle of the Jungfrau. Pack a coat for the journey, even if it’s August, and while everyone else is sitting on the train during the five minute break at the stops, get off the train! When else will you have the chance to look out from the face of the Eiger?
  53. Ride the top deck of The Cabrio, the two-story cable car that just opened up near Lucerne, which takes riders up to the top of Stanserhorn.
  54. If you like luxury, save up to splurge on at least one night in one fancy hotel–Switzerland does luxury well.  Some of my favorite star-studded properties are: Château d’Ouchy in Lausanne, the Kempinski in Geneva, the Kronenhof in Pontresina, the Art Deco Hotel Montana in Lucerne, the Kulm in St. Moritz, and the Widder in Zürich.
  55. This way or that way. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

    Get Swiss about the art of Wanderen — hiking anywhere and everywhere. Switzerland may look small on a map, but when you set off  on foot, it suddenly becomes a vast wilderness with infinite paths. Greet fellow hikers with a cheerful “Hoi!” and once again, pay homage to the cows.

  56. In summertime, don’t miss the Geissenkehr in Zermatt—every morning and evening the town’s goatherds lead the long-horned blackneck “glacier goats” through the Bahnhofstrasse (see video below).
  57. Save your bread scraps from dinner to feed the multitude of swans in Zürich and Lucerne.
  58. Read and know the true story of William Tell, remembered as the liberator of Switzerland. The legend says much about what sets the Swiss apart from the rest of Europe.
  59. Admire the highly-organized stacks of firewood. In some areas, farmers dry the wood for up to three years before burning it for fuel in wintertime.
  60. Don’t be afraid to taste the game. Wild boar, venison sausage, and chamois are all local delicacies and many Swiss are passionate hunters. If you’re vegetarian, don’t be afraid to taste the mushrooms, another Swiss delicacy.
  61. Be festive. Check out some of Switzerland’s obscure (but fun) festivals: Castagnatas (chestnut festival) in Ascona, the Yodeling Festival, the Trucker & Country Festival in Interlaken , and the sheep market in Riffenmatt.
  62. Don’t plan too much of your trip. Switzerland favors independent travelers and besides, the transportation network lets you go anywhere, anytime.
  63. There’s more to Geneva than just watches and banks. Sink your teeth into this one-of-a-kind Swiss metropolis.
  64. For a different kind of day trip, ride the “Chocolate Train” that takes you through the region where Swiss chocolate was born. Visit the Cailler chocolate factory and taste plenty of chocolate along the way.
  65. Travel by boat. Switzerland is a land of lakes, and ferries and vintage passenger ships carry travelers from one coast to another.
  66. Listen to the sounds of Switzerland:

66 Tips to Swiss Bliss

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