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Switzerland is a land of soaring mountain peaks, placid lakes, verdant green valleys, and unheralded but surprisingly good wine.
At one time it was imperative on your Grand Tour to take a scenic train ride into Switzerland to buy a handmade watch and gaze in amazement at the Matterhorn. If your wallet was full, you'd head to St. Moritz, or you could go skiing (or play snow golf) in Gstaad Saanenland.
Switzerland's scenery is more accessible than ever today. Postal buses get you to any tiny Swiss corner. Little red trains—the slowest "express" trains you'll ever ride—called Bernina and Glacier take you through scenic areas with panoramic open cars, gourmet restaurant cars, historic coaches, and feature spiraling open descents into valleys. Hiking trails are everywhere. Tourist boats ply the lakes big and small—you can even take one under Europe's largest waterfall, the Rhine Falls near the interesting town of Schaffhausen. Active travelers can ski, hike or climb in the Matterhorn's shadow in Zermatt.
Transportation in Switzerland
Switzerland is served by more than 13000 miles of train, bus and boat routes.
Swiss Regional Passes
Some regional passes are available at Swiss train stations. One of the most popular is the Bernese Oberland Regional Pass, allowing 7-15 days of travel on a variety of means, including rail, boat, bus, and cableway. The Bernese Oberland region is the mountainous region just south of Bern.
Swiss Scenic Trains
Just about any route through Switzerland is a scenic route, but many travelers believe the Glacier Express is the best. The Little Red Train is great if you're coming from Italy.
Rail Passes for Switzerland
Europe rail passes are good for the routes of the Swiss National Railroad, but may not be valid for the private railroad companies. Most Swiss rail passes do cover these private railroads.
Postal Buses in Switzerland
Trains really don't climb well. If you really want to get to the high, out of the way places in the Alps you may need a postal bus to take you there. Yeah, they don't just do mail anymore. See the options on the Swiss Post site. They run a lot of routes for tourists, but you'll have to reserve.
Destinations in Switzerland: Highlights of Select Cities
The capital of Switzerland, Bern, is a good place to start. Bern takes its name from the German word for bear. It's a pretty medieval city, founded in 1191, with many attractions, museums, and historic sites. Because of its impressive medieval architecture in Bern's old town, Bern has been made a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Lucerne lies on the shores of Lake Lucerne in Central Switzerland, surrounded by the Swiss Alps, notably Mount Pilatus and Rigi. Its small medieval center contains a wealth of museums. For a town of 60,000 people, there are lots of events to attend.
Basel is a border city in French-speaking Switzerland. It lies along the Rhine river in northern Switzerland, at the intersection of France, Germany, and Switzerland. Basel is famous for its ancient masked carnival, or Fasnacht, a three-day carnival festival starting on the Monday after Mardi Gras, and is host to the largest Christmas Market in Switzerland.
If you want to vacation in a charming spot on a lake surrounded by mountains, where relaxation is the key, Zug might be just the place; it's known for its sunsets. Its medieval center is compact and spills down to the lake; a perfect place to relax and enjoy life.
Swiss Christmas Markets
A tradition in Switzerland, Christmas markets are found in every major city and even on top of a mountain.
Accommodations in Switzerland
Accommodations in Switzerland tend to be expensive. There are usually fewer hotels located around train stations than in other countries.
Hotel rooms in Switzerland tend to be smaller than in other places, but there are usually more services available. Prices include service, taxes and sometimes breakfast (ask).
Most Swiss hotels are members of the Swiss Hotel Association, which rates them according to their facilities and not necessarily their charm.
The Swiss currency is the Swiss Franc, abbreviated to CHF. Swiss Franc banknotes are issued in the following denominations: 10, 20, 50, 100, 200, 500, and 1000 Francs. The Swiss Franc to US Dollar exchange rate is more or less one to one.
Language in Switzerland
Four primary languages are spoken in Switzerland. The Federal Constitution stipulates that German, French, and Italian are Switzerland's official languages, whereas Romansh is an official language for communicating with Romansh-speaking persons. English is increasingly taught at an early age, sometimes taking priority over a second national language.
Weather in Switzerland - When to Go
Due to the mountainous terrain in Switzerland, weather can vary greatly with altitude. Prediction of the weather can be tricky. For some historical climate information, including historic temperature and precipitation graphs that might help you plan your vacation in Switzerland, as well as current conditions, see Travel Weather Switzerland's website.
Eating in Swiss Restaurants
Although eating in a Swiss restaurant is generally more expensive than eating in a neighboring country, you can find interesting, inexpensive food in Switzerland. Lunches are often cheaper than the same meal at dinner. Look for the plate of the day.
General Eating Times: Lunch: 12-2 and Dinner 6-8 pm
As you might expect, Swiss cuisine is based around dairy products—cheese, milk, cream, butter and/or yogurt.
Beer is often cheaper and more readily available than soft drinks.
Meals include a service charge, but tipping is common. 5% of the total is the usual tip. According to locals in Zurich, it is customary, when paying with a credit card, to leave the tip in cash rather than adding it to the card total.
Public Holidays in Switzerland
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- New Years: January 1st and 2nd
- Good Friday
- Easter Monday
- Labor Day - May 1st
- Ascension Day
- Whit Monday
- National Day: August 1st
- Christmas Eve (afternoon only)
- Christmas: December 25 and 26th
- New Year's Eve (afternoon)
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Traffic Rules for Switzerland
Maximum Speed - Green signs indicating motorways (which require a vignette, see below) 120km/h, motor roads, 100km/h, country roads 50 km/h and generally 50km/h within town limits.
Vignette - Like neighboring Austria, Switzerland requires a vignette, a sticker you place on your windshield noting that you've paid a tax or yearly toll for riding on the high-speed motorways of Switzerland. You purchase a vignette at customs offices, post offices, gas stations, and in many stores near the Swiss Border. They are valid for a calendar year.
Blood Alcohol Limits - The legal blood alcohol limit in Switzerland is 50mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood (or 0.05%).
You must use your seat belts—front and rear.
Emergency Telephone Numbers - Road and traffic conditions can be accessed by dialing 163. If you need road assistance, you can dial 117, which is also the police emergency number. For an ambulance call 144 toll-free.
Travel Tips for Driving in Switzerland
Travelers coming or going to Italy will have two options for passing over the Alps: the Gotthard Pass (the high road), or the Gotthard tunnel. The tunnel is free and is usually the fastest way to go, but smelly and dark. The pass, when driven over in good weather, is actually a beautiful, scenic drive. Do it if you've got the time.
Watch out for radar speed traps. Snow chains must be carried everywhere in Switzerland during winter.