About two weeks ago we took a trip to Switzerland– and I must say — it is rapidly joining the ranks of my all-time favorite countries! Considering everything Switzerland is famous for: fondue, chocolate, chalets, mountains, and cowbell — you really can’t go wrong. While we visited many of the below sights on our most recent trip this year, I visited Zermatt and Geneva last year, and Zurich a couple times in previous years. Anyhow, we had such a great time that we’re going to try to return as soon as possible!
Interlaken is an idyllic town situated between the Thunersee and Brinzersee lakes — both of which offer turquoise blue waters and fabulous mountain scenery. It also serves as a gateway to the Jungfrau region, which features many of Switzerland’s top attractions.
We got our bearings by taking a walk along the riverbanks, before venturing into the old city and exploring its Victorian-styled houses. We ate at Husi bierhaus, which offered some great pub food with a local twist. The Barrel Brew Cafe across the street also has good coffee and a lively atmosphere. The surrounding mountains offer great views of the city, and it’s possible to sign up for paragliding adventures, as well.
Brienz is nestled below the mountains at the far eastern end of the Brienzersee Lake. We stopped here for a day and enjoyed the quaint village atmosphere before taking the Brienzer Rothorn stream engine train 2,350 meters up the mountain overlooking the city. This ride was super expensive (over 100 USD per person for a round trip ticket) but it offers beautiful views over the city and of the surrounding area. There are spectacular hiking trails in the area and it’s possible to hike up / down the same route (but be prepared for a long hike!)
Back in the city, we lucked out as we were there on August 1 – Swiss National Day! We were treated to musical performances of the Alphorn (the long Swiss horns) and a short but spectacular fireworks display over the lake after sunset! We ate dinner at Restaurant Lowen, which has great food, live music, and plenty of lakefront seating, where we watched the sunset.
If there’s one place you should go in Switzerland, Kandersteg is probably it! The town is nestled in the mountains and is incredibly scenic. You can stay at one of several chalets or hotels, and use the town as a base camp to explore the surrounding mountains. Molkerei Hari sells several local produce, yogurt, and agricultural products including its own delicious blend of fondue cheese.
We ate at Restaurant & Hostel Rendez-vous, which had high-quality food (including a fondue using the above-mentioned cheese). It has outdoor seating at the base of the alps, offering an unmatched view!
The main thing to do from Kandersteg is visit Lake Oeschinesee — a stunning mountain lake with blue water, surrounded by pine trees and peaks. Take the cable car up to the top, and it’s an easy 15-minute walk (or take the e-shuttle) to the lake. There are several restaurants at the mouth of the lake, along with hiking trails around it, and row boats for rent.
At the cable car station, don’t forget to stop and enjoy the views over Kandersteg, and take a ride on the Rodelbahn — a high-speed toboggan run set to the backdrop of dramatic Swiss alps. It was so much fun I ended up doing it three times in a row!
Lauterbrunnen is another “must-see” part of Switzerland’s Jungfrau region — a town nestled in a gorgeous valley of mountains with a vibrant green blanket of trees and waterfalls galore on both sides.
There are plenty of great hiking trails in the area, and don’t miss the Staubbach Waterfall, a 974-foot fall, with a hiking path leading to a tunnel underneath. (Note– you’ll get a bit wet from the mist!)
Further down the valley is Trümmelbachfälle, a winding trail carved into a mountain alongside roaring glacial waterfalls. Not only is it very scenic, but it gives an up-close sense of how powerful waterfalls can be!
As an aside, I’ve heard great things about Grindelwald (further east) — and the mountain hike from “First“, accessible by cable car — but we weren’t able to get their on our last visit. I hope to return and report back soon!
Grindelwald is another idyllic town nestled in the mountains of the Jungfrau region — truly a postcard perfect spot that is great for hiking or just taking in the mountain air. I found it to be more touristy than Kandersteg, so I’m glad we opted to avoid the crowds downtown and stayed at Hotel Blümlisalp, just outside of town. The hotel offered free parking and a cozy restaurant. They also offer a card for free bus rides to/from the city center and a discount on the gondola up into the mountains. We ate dinner at the hotel, which offered phenomenal smoked salmon and local cheese from a neighboring farm — something not to be missed!
Pro Tip — get the room with a balcony / mountain view– it’s worth it! Our balcony had a spectacular mountain view balcony that wrapped around the room — it made for a truly magical sunset evening atmosphere.
From downtown, we took the cable car up to First station, which offers spectacular views of the surrounding mountains and has equally impressive scenic mountain hikes around the area. Upon reaching the top, the first thing you see / hear are cows grazing around with plenty of accompanying cowbell sounds. Every now and then a herd of mountain goats runs along the surrounding trails, as well.
We hiked to the Bachalpsee mountain lake, which was about an hour each way (at a leisurely pace, stopping to take photos every few seconds : ) I strongly recommend doing this hike. We went in the late afternoon when the crowds had disappeared and we had the lake to ourselves!
Before heading down, we walked along the First Cliffwalk by Tissot, which is a metal walkway (see-through bottom) suspended on the edge of a cliff. It offers gorgeous scenery and is a bit hair-raising when you look down from the cliff’s edge!
Zermatt is another gem of Switzerland — a car-free (and carefree) alpine mountain town that sits at the base of the famous Matterhorn mountain. I went skiing here in January 2019 and had a blast! As an intermediate skier, I was a bit apprehensive about trying the slopes as I’d heard they’re mostly advanced– but there was a great range of blue and red runs (beginner and intermediate) that stretched on forever, set to gorgeous scenery. There are plenty of rental shops in town to get ski gear– and lift tickets are available for purchase online or in person at the base of the gondola station.
To get here, you have to take the train from a nearby city, as the road only goes as far as Tasch. To get up into the mountains from Zermatt (for skiing, hiking, or just to admire the mountains), take the Gornegrat Railway— which rises over 10,000 feet through dramatic mountain scenery– to the Observatory / hotel.
I stayed at the Hotel Welschen, which was a great mid-range option– with clean and modern (yet cozy / chalet-style) rooms, great food, a train-station pick-up, and Matterhorn views from the dining room / patio. A group of friends rented a large chalet via AirBnb on the other side of town (which was also very nice) so that’s a good option if you’re going with a large group. I ate at the Swiss Chalet and Grizzly’s and thoroughly enjoyed both — in terms of food and atmosphere. In general, it’s a good idea to make reservations for restaurants in town (especially on weekends) because they can get crowded!
When not skiing, I enjoyed exploring downtown Zermatt including the St. Mauritius church, the cafes, and the patio cafe at the Grand Hotel — which serves amazing mulled wine in the wintertime in a posh setting!
Further east is the Gelmerbahn, a seasonal cable railway train that goes straight up the side of a mountain! It is considered the steepest railway in Europe and offers spectacular views over the opposite mountains. When you reach the top, there are hiking trails that go around the Gelmersee Lake and an old hydroelectric dam. The scenery from the top is truly outstanding, so it’s worth budgeting some time to hike around and enjoy the area.
Note– there aren’t any shops or restaurants at the top — only bathrooms at the hydroelectric plant — so its best to pack your own food.
Aletsch Arena – Glacier
We drove to Aletsch Glacier (the largest in the Alps) from Grindelwald, passing spectacular scenery at the Grimselpass along the way. At the base of the glacier are three car-free towns: Fiescheralp, Bettmeralp, and Riederalp. Each town is connected to the main road below via cable car, with long-term parking lots.
We stayed in Fiescheralp, which is the smallest and quietest of the towns, at the Hotel Jungfrau, which had nice rooms and a fantastic restaurant. It takes about 1.5 – 2 hours to hike between the towns (at a leisurely pace) and the scenery is beautiful. (Note– check the weather and bring rain gear, as we got caught in a sudden rain storm that blew in unexpectedly over the mountains!)
From Riederalp, we took a gondola up to the Moosfluh viewpoint, which has very dramatic glacier views, a restaurant, and some hiking trails.
From Fiescheralp, we took another cable car to the top of Eggishorn Mountain, which offers awesome views of the glacier and adjacent mountains. There are also well-marked hiking paths in all directions.
Note– consult the gondola schedule carefully if you intend to take it back down. We thought it was running later into the evening in the summertime, so we went for a hike and returned to the abandoned gondola station at 5:30 p.m. to discover that we missed the last ride down the mountain by a few minutes! As a result, we had a very scenic– and unexpected– climb down the mountain!
Geneva is a major international hub and host to several international organizations and nongovernmental organizations. There are UN offices at the Palais des Nations, as well as several other organizations present, such as Doctors Without Borders and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which has a museum showcasing its work around the world.
As the city is situated on a lake, there are several parks and waterfront walkways from which one can relax and admire the surrounding area, as well as the city’s great water fountain. The outdoor baths / saunas are popular year-round, and it’s not uncommon to see someone swimming in Lake Geneva even during the winter months!
The Place du Bourg-de-Four is at the heart of the Old City and offers plenty of restaurants with open-air terraces and patios, as well as high-end shopping options.
Note— upon arrival at the Geneva Airport, as you exit the luggage claim area, keep eye out for the machine giving free public transport tickets to the city center. It will save you some money!
Lucerne is another gem of Switzerland — located in the northern-central part of the country, straddling Lake Lucerne. It has a medieval feeling, with plenty of churches (such as the Jesuit Church on the waterfront), clock towers, and ramparts. Paddle boats are available for rent at the city center, and there are great restaurants / cafes throughout the downtown area. To satiate our pastry craving, we went to Bachmann, which has plenty of high-quality sweets and gelato — perfect for a hot day!
The Chapel Bridge is a wooden, covered bridge that dates back to the 1300s and has historic scenes painted throughout its interior. Further up the Reuss river (heading away from the mouth of the lake) is the Spreuer Bridge— another scenic covered pedestrian bridge– dating from the 1500s.
Zurich is (yet) another picturesque city that rests on a beautiful lake with hiking trails, great food, and a pleasant old city. It’s known for being the banking and financial hub of Switzerland but it still retains a relaxed atmosphere. Most of my best memories involved strolling in the Botanical Gardens, the Platzpitz Park, or the Zurichhorn park, which stretches along the lakefront. In the Old City, the Niederdorf and Rauthaus are landmarks indicative of Zurich. While in town, don’t miss Zurich Geschnetzeltes, a local dish that is basically a veal, mushroom, and cream stew.