It's no secret that Switzerland has scenery in spades. The small European country is big on towering, snow-capped mountains, shimmering lakes, storybook villages, and vibrant cities. For active vacationers, Switzerland offers virtually every winter sport, including, of course, some of the world's best skiing, plus hiking, biking, climbing, hang-gliding, and other temptations for adrenaline junkies. There's also plenty to fill a more leisurely vacation, with hearty cuisine, including what some say is the world's finest chocolate, high-end shopping, first-rate museums, and, at every turn, another gobsmacking panorama.
Switzerland is a year-round destination, and it would take many, many trips to see all that it has to offer. But assuming you don't have a lifetime to explore the country, here's our list of the top 17 places to see in Switzerland.
Switzerland's largest city is a stunner—at once historic and modern, cosmopolitan and bohemian. Divided by the Limmat River and wrapping around Lake Zurich's shores, Zurich offers some of Switzerland's best museums, Swiss and international dining, and Bahnhofstrasse rightfully called the world's most expensive shopping street. Plan to spend much of your time in the Altstadt, or Old Town, and enjoy at least one traditional meal in a restaurant housed in a former medieval guildhall. Many a tour of Switzerland begins or ends here, as the city is seamlessly connected to the rest of the country and Europe, thanks to the ultra-efficient Swiss Rail System.
Switzerland's second-largest city, French-speaking Geneva sits at the southwestern end of Lake Geneva and has a long lakefront promenade on two shores offering views of the famous Jet d'Eau fountain. Geneva is one of Europe's most expensive cities in which to live; that prosperity is felt in its elegant streets and parks, high-end shopping avenues, and five-star hotels with luxury sedans parked out front. But the city is also rich in history, as the center of the Swiss Reformation and, today, the home of the International Red Cross and the United Nations.
The Swiss capital of Bern sits on a sharp bend in the River Aare in the western part of the country. Its Altstadt, or Old Town, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site thanks to so many well-preserved medieval buildings. But the undisputed star of the show is the Zytglogge, the fascinating astronomical clock that Einstein is said to have studied when developing his Theory of Relativity. Bern Minster has the tallest church spire in Switzerland and a stunning main portal. Those with more modern tastes can head to Zentrum Paul Klee, a museum dedicated to the country's most famous artist.
Like so many Swiss cities, pretty, walkable Lucerne occupies a magnificent setting—this time on Lake Lucerne with the Alps as a backdrop. The 14th-century wooden Chapel Bridge (Kapellbrücke) is one of the most photographed sights in Switzerland, and Lucern's medieval Altstadt (Old Town) looks much the same as it did hundreds of years ago. The innovative Swiss Museum of Transport is the most visited museum in Switzerland.
With one shore in Switzerland and one shore in France, Lake Geneva (Lac Léman) is a sparkling, half-moon shaped international playground. On the Swiss side, it offers the elegant city of Geneva; relaxed Montreux, famous for its jazz festival; and Lausanne, home of the International Olympic Committee. The terraced vineyards of the Lavaux wine region are a UNESCO World Heritage Site—some date back to the 11th-century. Last but definitely not least, 12th-century Chillon Castle is everything a castle should be—complete with a (partial) moat, dungeons, and a keep.
The smallest Swiss canton, Appenzell Innerrhoden is set in the rolling hills south of Lake Constance. This is storybook Switzerland, complete with villages of brightly painted houses, folk traditions, and residents in traditional costume. In the fall, the cows literally come home, as herdsmen bring their cattle—decked out in bells and flower garlands—down from the mountains for the winter. Appenzell's car-free village is a center for folk-art, traditional festivals, baked goods, and yes—yodeling.
St. Moritz & the Engadine
St. Moritz ranks as one of the world's top winter playgrounds for the jet set, and its palatial hotels, luxury shopping, and tony apres-ski scene are fun to dip into. Non-one-percenters might prefer some of the smaller, more down-to-earth towns and villages of the sunny Engadine Valley, known for its glaciers, snowy peaks, glacial lakes, forest, and folk culture. Listen closely, and you may hear Romansch being spoken—the ancient Latin-based language is still taught in the Engadine schools. The area is also a summer paradise for hikers, mountain bikers, and windsurfers.
Interlaken & Jungfrau
Set between lakes Thun and Brienz, the pleasant town of Interlaken is the most convenient base for exploring the towering peaks of the Bernese Oberland—the region of glaciers, craggy mountains, and pristine lakes that offer postcard views at every turn. From Interlaken, a system of trains, cable cars, and cogwheel rails connect to the region's major ski areas and the Jungfraujoch, the highest railway station in Europe. For more than a century, it’s been the highest railway station in Europe. There, a high altitude playground awaits, with observatory platforms offering multi-peak views, the Eispalast (Ice Palace) walk inside a glacier, plus restaurants, and, of course, more skiing.
Lugano and Ticino
You'd be excused for thinking you've crossed over into Italy once you reach Ticino, the region wedged between the Alps and the Italian border. There's a distinctly Mediterranean vibe here, and Italian, not Swiss, is the first language. Lakes Lugano and Maggiore shares shores with Italy and offers a summertime playground for hiking, sailing, and swimming, with a touch of la dolce vita thrown in. Lugano's lakefront city is the bustling regional hub, but climb—or take a cable car—up any mountain to discover sleepy, rustic villages, clean air, and traditional country inns and restaurants.
Something looms large over the car-free, stylish-yet-traditional mountain town of Zermatt—the Matterhorn. Europe's most famous mountain peak draws hordes of visitors to this otherwise sleepy town in the valley for skiing, ice-climbing, and arduous summer hikes and mountain biking. There's plenty of passive sightseeing to do here as well, and the views never disappoint. A mountaineering museum, traditional restaurants, luxe spas, and cozy—if not cheap—hotels can keep you pleasantly occupied here for a few days.
Near Lake Constance and the border with Liechtenstein, historic St. Gallen has a car-free center, a UNESCO-listed abbey and cathedral, and a textile-making tradition more than a thousand years old. The Rococo-style abbey library, stocked with 170,000 priceless volumes and documents, is a must-see here. There's a full cultural program in this important university town, as well as easy access to biking, hiking, boat rides on Lake Constance, and jaunts into Germany, Liechtenstein, and Austria.
Pass the cheese, please. Though there's more to this charming medieval town than its namesake cheese, it would be a shame to leave Gruyères without sampling traditional raclette or fondue and visiting the Maison du Gruyère, where they make—you guessed it. In-between bites of cheese, visit the imposing 13th-century Gruyères Castle and take in the pastoral countryside. Oh, and did we mention there's a chocolate factory here, too?
Great St. Bernard Pass
Connecting Italy to Switzerland, the Great St. Bernard Pass has been a strategic gateway for the continent—long before the Romans first laid claim to it. The St. Bernard Hospice is still here, as are the iconic St. Bernard dogs—though they perform fewer mountain rescues than they once did. You can drive over the scenic pass or spend the day crossing it on foot, stopping at cozy village inns for hearty sustenance along the way.
It's all about the journey rather than the destination when you climb aboard one of the Rhaetian Railway trains, the network of scenic Alpine train rides that includes the Glacier Express and the Bernina Express. Panoramic train cars allow for sweeping views of passing glaciers, glacial lakes, mountain passes, and dense forests. The astonishing engineering feats of these high-altitude train tracks are reason enough to make the trip on at least one leg.
If you're visiting the Jungfrau, be sure to stop and see where all that spring snowmelt goes. Trümmelbach Falls are a series of falls that crash through a scenic gorge, carrying waters of the Jungfrau as they roar through underground caverns and pools. A series of elevators, bridges, and pathways puts visitors right in the spray of the mighty falls, which are closed in the wintertime.
Palm and lemon trees give Locarno a nearly tropical feel. Switzerland's warmest city sits on Lake Maggiore and is the relaxed alternative to busy Lugano. Wandering the narrow streets of the town, strolling along the lake, and having a coffee or aperitivo on Piazza Grande—these are the simple pleasures of Locarno. A hike or funicular ride up to the Madonna del Sasso pilgrimage church rewards with breathtaking views of the lake, the town, and the surrounding mountains. From there, explore the villages and streams and waterfalls of the surrounding Valle Verzasca.
Literary Lausanne has inspired writers and artists through the ages, no doubt inspired by Lake Geneva's views, the city's pedestrian-only medieval center, and, perhaps, its mighty Gothic cathedral. Divided between upper and lower towns connected by a subway, Lausanne the smallest city in Europe with a metro system. It's the International Olympic Committee's home and a sporty vibe pervades—as evidenced by all the bikers, walkers, swimmers, and sailors.