Switzerland’s Germanic region bordering Germany and Austria should scream authenticity. Instead, it moos. With almost more cows (and alphorns) than people, Zürich’s quiet neighbor offers landscapes and villages of an idyllic variety: its north is dominated by the rushing Rhine; the countryside is as lush with orchards as its towns are rich in history; and there is also a generous share of mountains (including Mt. Säntis, at roughly 8,200 feet) to climb. Take a swim in the Bodensee (Lake Constance), too, and you’ve got an itinerary for the real Switzerland.
Because the east draws fewer crowds, those who do venture here find a pleasant surprise: this is Switzerland sans kitsch, sans the hard sell, where the people live out a natural, graceful combination of past and present. And although it's a prosperous region, with its famous history of textile manufacturing and agriculture, its inns and restaurants cost noticeably less than those in adjoining areas. They can also lack the amenities found in more cosmopolitan parts of the country.
The cantons of Glarus, Schaffhausen, Thurgau, St. Gallen, and Appenzell harbor some of Switzerland's oldest traditions. In the northern part of the region are the old Rhine city of Schaffhausen, the dramatic Rheinfall, and the preserved medieval village of Stein-am-Rhein. The Bodensee occupies the northeastern corner of Switzerland, just below Germany. Farther south is the textile center of St. Gallen, where lace is created for high-profile designers like Karl Lagerfeld. A magnificent baroque cathedral lords over the valley. The hilly Appenzell region and the resort area of the Toggenburg Valley are lower-key destinations. The tiny principality of Liechtenstein lies just across the eastern border, within easy driving distance.
Although the cities have plenty of energy, the countryside in these parts has changed little over the years. In the plateau valley of Appenzell, women were prohibited from voting in cantonal elections until the federal court intervened on their behalf in 1991 (federal law had granted women the national vote in 1971). On the last Sunday in April in Appenzell, you still can witness the Landsgemeinde, an open-air election on cantonal issues counted by a show of hands.
Architecture along the Rhine resembles that of Old Germany and Austria, frequent features being half-timbers and rippling red-tile roofs. In cities like Schaffhausen, masterpieces of medieval frescoes decorate town houses, many of which have ornately carved bay windows called oriels. In the country, farmhouses are often covered with fine, feathery wooden shingles as narrow as Popsicle sticks, which weathering has turned to chinchilla gray. Appenzell has its own famous architecture: tidy, narrow boxes painted cream, with repeated rows of windows and matching wood panels. The very countryside itself—conical green hills, fruit trees, belled cows, neat yellow cottages—resembles the naive art it inspires.