One Week in Switzerland: The Ultimate Itinerary

Chillon Scenery
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Switzerland is a small country compared to many of its European neighbors, but you'll still need more than a week to take it all in. If a week is all you've got, this itinerary will give you a taste of the best the country has to offer, taking you from cities to mountains and medieval towns to sparkling lakes. You'll use the cities of Zurich, Lucerne, Bern, and Geneva for exploring Swiss history and culture, taking in the stunning scenery, and sampling Swiss cuisine. Your time will be split between both French and German-speaking Switzerland, so you'll also get a feel for how these two cultures blend and co-exist.

Skip the rental car for this itinerary, which we've specifically designed to be done via public transportation. Armed with a Swiss Travel Pass, you'll have nearly unlimited use of Switzerland's excellent network of trains, buses, and ferries. Some mountain cable cars, ski gondolas, and cog railways are also included with the pass, making car-free sightseeing in Switzerland a breeze.

01 of 07

Day 1: Zurich

Aerial view of Grossmunster cathedral in Zurich, Switzerland
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Hopefully, you caught some shut-eye on your flight to Zurich, so you can enjoy a full day exploring Switzerland's largest city. Zurich offers an engaging mix of history and innovation, and at turns the young and old sides of Switzerland. From the airport, take the train to Zurich's main station, where you can walk, tram, or cab to your central hotel—we recommend you make you choose a base in or close to the Altstadt, or Old Town, and figure on getting around the city on foot or via trams. In the Altstadt, don't miss the mighty Grossmunster cathedral, and take time to wander the main drag, the Neiderdorf, and the mostly pedestrian streets that fan off from it.

Cross the Limmat River, pausing to take in city views and the sight of swans, swimmers (depending on the time of year), and tour boats along this pretty waterway. Stroll the Bahnhofstrasse—reportedly Europe's most expensive shopping street—even if it's just for window-shopping, and duck into Zurich's other grand cathedral, the Fraumunster. In the afternoon, head down to the Limmatquai for a boat tour of Lake Zurich, or hit one of the city's top museums.

That evening, plan on dinner at the cavernous Zeughauskeller, famous for its meter-long sausages and setting in a 15th-century arsenal.

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02 of 07

Day 2: Day Trip to St. Gallen and Appenzell

Half-timber houses in St. Gallen, Switzerland
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This morning, hop on a train headed east for the hour-long ride to St. Gallen—trains depart about every 20 minutes from Zurich Main Station. Once there, spend some time exploring the Abbey of St Gall, a complex that dates back centuries and which has also been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can easily spend a few hours wandering the sites of the abbey, which include a library that contains more than 150,000 books, including priceless early medieval illuminated manuscripts, and the Baroque abbey cathedral.

In St. Gallen town, wander among the half-timber houses of the pedestrian-only Old Town, and take in the Textilmuseum, with its displays of historic clothing and machinery.

If you're up for a longer day, jump down to the town of Appenzell after lunch—just a 30-minute ride from St. Gallen—for a glimpse at the Appenzell canton, Switzerland's richest in terms of folk traditions. Spend a couple of hours in this charming town, then transfer back to St. Gallen and on to Zurich for the night.

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03 of 07

Day 3: Lucerne

Chapel Bridge in Lucerne, Switzerland

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Today you'll switch gears and locations, from busy Zurich to more sedate Lucerne, your base for the next two nights. The largest city on Lake Lucerne is worthy of a visit on its own, and is also a stepping-off point for exploring the surrounding Alps and lake region. Lucerne town has a pretty center filled with half-timber houses and cozy inns and eateries—Wirsthaus Taube is a great choice for rosti, one of the must-try foods of Switzerland. The historical museum has living history presentations that will interest kids and adults, and a short bus ride away, the Swiss Transport Museum is easily one of the top museums in the country. Lucerne's most famous landmark, the 14th-century Chapel Bridge, is a must-see.

Once you've explored Lucerne in the morning, make an afternoon excursion to Mount Pilatus, an all-season playground more than 2,000 meters above sea level. From Kriens, a short bus ride from Lucerne, take the Panorama Gondola on a breathtaking 30-minute ride to the top of Pilatus, where you'll find hiking, an adventure park, restaurants, and soaring views.

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04 of 07

Day 4: Boat Ride to Rigi or Rutli

Alpenhorn players at Rutli Meadow, Switzerland

Spend at least part of the day on the waters of Lake Lucerne, with a scenic boat ride around one of Switzerland's most beautiful lakes. Your Swiss Travel Pass grants you hop-on/hop-off access to the boats of the Lake Lucerne Navigation System, which ply the lake year-round.

Head to Vitznau, where you might be tempted to spend the night at the 5-star, lakefront Park Hotel Vitznau—or at least consider a scenic lakeside lunch there. From Vitznau, climb aboard the historic cogwheel train to Rigi Kulm at the top of Mt. Rigi, and take an easy hike back down, at least part of the way—there are places to eat at several of the railway stops.

For a big dose of Swiss history, take the boat from Lucerne to the Rütli Meadow, the birthplace of the Swiss Confederation in 1291. The journey here is more than half the fun—the boat ride is more than two hours, and traverses nearly the full length of Lake Lucerne.

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05 of 07

Day 5: Bern

The river running through Bern

TripSavvy / Christopher Larson

Take a morning train from Lucerne to the Swiss capital of Bern, about a 60-90 minute ride. From Bern's main station, you're about a 10-minute walk from the Alstadt, or Old Town, which dates back to the 12th century and is another of Switzerland's UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Bern is built into a sharp bend in the Aare River, which historically made it easier to defend and, aesthetically, placed it in a beautiful setting. Make sure you visit the Zytglogge historical clock just before the top of the hour, so you won't miss the rooster crowing and the complicated display of dozens of mechanical moving figures.

Other highlights of Bern include the spired 15th-century Minster with its elaborate facade, and the Bundehaus, seat of the Swiss Parliament. Science and history fans will enjoy a visit to the Einstein House, where the physicist lived for two years, and art lovers should head to the Zentrum Paul Klee, the museum and cultural center dedicated to the 20th century abstract artist.

If you visit Bern in the summer, be sure to take a swim in the Aare River—it's a favorite warm-weather pastime of locals. During the holiday season, Bern is home to several lively Christmas markets.

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06 of 07

Day 6: Day Trip to Interlaken and the Jungfraujoch

Jungfrau Railway

TripSavvy / Lauren Breedlove

Bern is less than an hour away by train from Interlaken, which bills itself as Switzerland's "adventure capital"—and that's saying a lot in a country rich with opportunities for active travel. Set between lakes Thun and Brienz, Interlaken is the perfect base for exploring a number of surrounding glaciers and mountain peaks, most notably the Jungfraujoch.

Via train, cable car, and cogwheel rail, make the journey to the "Top of Europe"—the 3,454-meter Jungfraujoch station at the end of the line. Here, besides journeying to the highest train station in Europe, you'll be treated to views of the Aletsch Glacier—Europe's longest at 22 kilometers, as well as the Eiger, Mönch, and the Jungfrau peaks. There's snow year-round at the top (so dress appropriately!), as well as a snow park, an ice cave, observatories, and bars and restaurants. Swiss Pass holders get a discount on train tickets to the Jungfraujoch.

If you decide to stay in Interlaken, you can still soar high above the city and its lakes, thanks to several paragliding outfitters—you see tandem riders in the skies from dawn to dusk. Skywings and Twin Paragliding are both recommended operators. If paragliding sounds a little too spine-tingling, try a scenic boat ride on Lake Thun or Lake Brienz, which is included with the Swiss Travel Pass. Or simply enjoy the historic Old Town and abundant shopping and dining in Interlaken before hopping the train back to Bern.

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07 of 07

Day 7: Geneva

The Jet in front of the Geneva skyline

TripSavvy / Angelina Pilarinos

This morning, take an early train from Bern to Geneva and get there in less than two hours. Your trip will wind down in the largest city in French-speaking Switzerland and the diplomatic center of Europe, home to the European headquarters of the United Nations and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent. Both offer tours and museums, as does CERN—the European Organization for Nuclear Research that's home to the Large Hadron Collider. We suggest picking one of these sites to visit, and then spending the rest of your day enjoying Geneva's scenic lakefront, and its ancient Old Town. At St. Pierre Cathedral and the Museum of the Reformation, you can learn about Geneva's role in the rise of Protestantism.

On your last evening in Switzerland, if you haven't had any yet—and even if you have— top off your vacation with a dinner of traditional cheese fondue. Cafe du Soliel has been serving it for 400 years, along with cured meats and regional desserts, including delicate meringues. The next day, head back to your point of origin, and say your farewells to a perfect week in one of Europe's most beautiful destinations.