snow-covered wooden ski chalets in Alpine village amid snowy mountain peaks

Your Trip to Switzerland: The Complete Guide

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If you've ever ogled over photos of Switzerland's Alpine peaks, rolling meadows, and pristine lakes, you'll be happy to know that it's even more beautiful in person. The central European country is small compared to its neighbors, but it packs a lot into its 16,000 square miles, including 13 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, more than 1,500 glaciers, and at least that many lakes.

All these geologic wonders add up to some of the more stunning scenery in the world. And that's enough to bring travelers—about 12 million of them per year—to Switzerland. When you factor in the countless opportunities for hiking, skiing, and boating; hearty Swiss food; modern, interesting cities; and what is probably Europe's best public transportation system, you're met with an accessible, exciting, and altogether satisfying vacation destination.

Planning Your Trip

  • Best Time to VisitThe best time to visit Switzerland depends on what you want to do while you're here. Ski slopes are open November through March (though there is year-round skiing in a few places), while hiking and swimming are glorious in the summer months. But to beat the crowds, consider a visit in spring or fall.
  • Language: Switzerland's cantons, or states, are mostly either French- or German-speaking. In the southern Ticino canton, Italian is the first language and in the Graubünden/Grisons canton, Romansh, a form of ancient Latin, is still spoken by about 60,000 people. The good news for travelers is that English is widely spoken, especially in hotels, restaurants, stores, and tourist attractions.
  • Currency: Despite being in the middle of western Europe, Switzerland is not part of the EU, though it participates in the European Common economic market. The official currency here is the Swiss franc (abbreviated CHF). That said, your euros will probably be accepted at most places, though they'll give you change in francs.
  • Getting AroundThe clean, convenient, and comprehensive Swiss Travel System is the pride of Switzerland, and rightly so. The system includes trains, buses, lake and river ferries, funiculars, cogwheel trains, ski lifts, and gondolas that permit access to virtually every corner of the country. Because the system is so complete, we recommend touring Switzerland by public transportation, instead of by rental car. From airports and larger train stations, taxis are always available for those who don't feel like schlepping their bags.
  • Travel Tip: If you plan to do a lot of travel within Switzerland, consider purchasing the Swiss Travel Pass, which grants the holder unlimited first- or second-class travel across the country's network of trains, buses, and boats, and most scenic railways. Plus, you'll get admission to more than 500 museums, as well as discounts on mountain excursions. However, if you just plan to visit a couple of places in the country, you can get by with individual train/transit tickets.
Zurich's Old Town, Switzerland

TripSavvy / Michela Sieman

Things to Do

While every traveler has their own reasons for visiting Switzerland, the big draws here can more or less be broken down into three categories: scenery, outdoor activities, and Swiss history and culture. Your trip will likely start or end in one of Switzerland's big cities, where that history and culture are on full display. Be sure to plan at least one (or several) excursions into the Swiss countryside, either on an easy or challenging hike, a boat ride across an iconic lake, or a cable car ride up to some of the highest peaks in Europe.

Here are some ideas for planning your Swiss itinerary:

  • Explore one of the country's culturally rich cities. If you're flying into Switzerland, you'll most likely arrive in Zürich or Geneva. Zürich, Switzerland's largest city, is a delightful place to spend a few days taking in art and history museums, dining in centuries-old restaurants, and strolling down the River Limmat. Geneva, in French-speaking Switzerland, is the diplomatic center of Europe, with plenty of history and classical appeal, and an idyllic setting on the shores of Lake Geneva.
  • Hike, bike, swim, or ski. No matter what time of year you visit, you'll find a huge range of outdoor activities in Switzerland—though admittedly, swimming is a bit brisk from October to June! There are biking and hiking routes for every level of fitness, extensive networks of ski "arenas" across the Alps and the Jura mountains, and rivers and lakes waiting for you to jump in for a swim or a paddle.
  • Choose a mountain excursion. In Switzerland, it doesn't matter if you're not a skier or hiker. You can answer the call of the mountains just the same, thanks to dozens of scenic mountain excursions that whisk you—by cogwheel rail, cable car, or ski gondola—for close-up looks at the Matterhorn, the Eiger, the Aletsch Glacier, and more. At most places, you can have lunch on the mountaintop while you enjoy the view. Don't leave Switzerland without partaking in at least one of these thrilling rides.

For more trip-planning ideas, check out our full-length articles on the top things to do in Switzerland, Switzerland's most scenic train rides, and Switzerland's top lakes.

Confiserie Teuscher in Zurich, Switzerland

TripSavvy / Michela Sieman

What to Eat and Drink

Swiss cuisine is hearty, to say the least. Cheese, chocolate, potatoes, and meat feature heavily on Swiss menus everywhere, and risotto is popular in the cantons bordering Italy. Swiss wine, from vineyards mostly south of the Alps, is so popular among the Swiss that only 2 percent is exported!

Here are some of the foods and beverages you shouldn't miss in Switzerland:

  • Fondue. This classic dish of melted cheese, served with bread and vegetables for dipping, is as iconic as the Matterhorn. Fondue originated in French-speaking Switzerland, but it's pretty much ubiquitous across the country.
  • Raclette. Sort of a cousin of fondue, raclette is melted cheese served on a plate with bread, potatoes, and gherkins. Its roots are high in the Alps, where farmers would make meals from their abundant cheese reserves.
  • Rösti. Pancakes made of grated, fried potatoes, rösti may be served as a side dish or, when paired with eggs, meat, or cheese, as the main course.
  • Chocolate. Thanks to milk from grass-fed Alpine cows, plus a few "secret" recipes, Swiss milk chocolate is among the creamiest in the world. Brands to look for include Toberlone, Lindt, Sprüngli, and Läderach.
  • Swiss wine. Largely produced in the more temperant cantons south of the Alps, Swiss wine is equally celebrated in its red and white varieties. Chasselas and pinot noir are among the most common grapes, but across the country's wine-growing region, micro-vineyards specialize in small-batch wines. Be sure to sample the wine while you're here— Swiss wine is hard to find outside Switzerland.

Read more in our guides to the top foods to try in Switzerland and where to eat in Zürich.

Where to Stay

Switzerland's accommodation options range from rustic mountain bunkhouses for hikers to luxurious 5-star hotels with spas, Michelin-star dining, and every imaginable amenity. In between those extremes, there are concept hotels, ski-in/ski-out lodges, and a host of B&Bs, small inns, and vacation rentals.

If you're staying in a city, we usually recommend basing yourself in the historic center so that you're within walking distance of popular tourist attractions, restaurants, and bars. But cities like Zürich also have creative, modern districts outside of the center, which make for interesting bases as well. In an Alpine destination such as Zermatt, Saas-Fee, or Gstaad, we like cozy, traditional hotels that really impart a sense of place.

For a taste of what Zürich has to offer, check out our articles on Zürich's top neighborhoods and best hotels.

Getting to Switzerland

International flights to Switzerland, especially those originating outside of Europe, will likely arrive in Zürich or Geneva. Some intra-Europe flights might land at Basel's airport, which is actually located just over the French border.

You can reach Switzerland by train from the neighboring countries of Austria, Germany, France, and Italy. Note that if you're traveling to Switzerland from an adjacent country, your ticket will likely only cover you until your first stop in Switzerland; for example, if you're traveling from Milan, Italy, your ticket will take you as far as Lugano. After that, you'll need a travel pass or ticket from the Swiss Travel System if you want to change trains.

If you're driving to Switzerland, you need to purchase or make sure your car already has a motorway vignette—a sticker that permits access to Swiss highways.

Learn more by checking out our guides to Zürich airport, traveling to Switzerland from Italy, and Zürich's public transportation.

Culture and Customs

While there are no special "rules" for visiting Switzerland, travelers here might find the Swiss somewhat reserved, especially when compared to Mediterranean cultures to the south. Here are a few basic customs and courtesies to keep in mind:

  • Be on time. Trains aren't the only thing that runs on time in Switzerland. Plan to arrive on time, or even a few minutes early, for restaurant reservations or other reserved activities.
  • Don't be noisy. In restaurants, on public transportation, and especially in the evenings in residential areas, keep your voices at a conversational level.
  • Tip in moderation. While tipping waitstaff is appreciated in Switzerland, it's not expected. Tips for your hotel cleaning staff and bellhops are the norm, however.

Money Saving Tips

Here's something you should know about Switzerland before you start planning your trip: it's expensive. Hotels, dining, trains, and attractions are all costly compared to many other European countries, but there are a few ways you can save money:

  • Travel in the shoulder seasons. Visit Switzerland in the spring or fall to save money on airfare and hotels.
  • Drink tap water. Unless otherwise posted, tap water in Switzerland is clean and safe to drink. Bring a reusable water bottle and fill it up at any tap.
  • Pack a picnic. Before you head out for a day of adventures, stop at a grocery store and pick up bread, cheese, cold cuts, or whatever else you want for a picnic. Just don't forget to grab a chocolate bar for the road!
Article Sources
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  5. BBC. "Tracing fondue’s mysterious origins." February 12, 2013.