With its snow-capped mountain peaks, crystalline Alpine lakes, well-preserved Medieval Old Towns, fairy-tale mountain villages, and high-class cities filled posh boutiques, there’s no shortage of ways to fall in love with Switzerland.
You can woosh down premier ski slopes, cruise in paddle steamers, soak in lavish spas, dip into pots of fondue, take in world-class art, and listen to renowned musicians. And, of course, there’s the chocolate. This petite country is big on things to do. To try and see everything would be daunting, but these are the 25 things you absolutely can’t miss.
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Ski in the Shadow of the Matterhorn
In Zermatt, you can swoosh down first-class slopes and wind past the country’s most recognizable peak, the snaggletooth-shaped Matterhorn. But you don’t have to don skis to see the iconic Alpine mountain; the awe-inspiring Matterhorn reigns over the entire car-free town.
Stroll Through Lucerne
In the geographic heart of the country, Lucerne offers a quintessential Swiss experience: Jaw-dropping mountains lead to a medieval town nestled along the edge of a sapphire-blue lake lined with waterfront promenades and crisscrossed by picture-perfect, wood-covered bridges.
Go to the Top of Europe
With an altitude of 11,333 feet, the Jungfraujoch is the most accessible high-altitude peak in Europe. A 30-minute train ride takes you to the Top of Europe restaurant, a glass-and-steel building with views of the Eiger. Go even higher with a high-speed elevator that takes you 364 feet up to the Sphinx Terrace and the vast Aletsch Glacier, the longest glacier in the Swiss Alps and a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Listen to Music
The Swiss hills are alive with the sound of roughly 300 music festivals. A few of the biggest include the Lucerne Festival, Paleo in Nyon and, of course, the world-famous Montreaux Jazz Festival. In July, the festival hosts jazz and pop fixtures like Stevie Wonder and Prince as well as up-and-coming artists. The waterfront setting includes several free shows and food and drink stalls.
More than 450 types of cheese are produced in Switzerland, but two cheesy dishes reign supreme: Fondue and raclette. Fondue, a country-wide staple, is a mix of hard cheese— typically Gruyere—and a dash of white wine, garlic, and brandy. Raclette is even simpler. Centuries ago, mountain herders would gather around a fire, place a wedge of raclette near the flame until it began to melt, and then scrape it over potatoes and cornichons. Today, the dish is made by placing the cheese on an electric melter that looks like a small grill.
In 1967, a retrospective of Marc Chagall’s work brought the Russian-born artist to Zurich. At 80 years old, he sat in the Fraumunster and agreed to take on the long-sought after project of creating five stained-glass windows for the famous church. Installed in 1970, the sapphire- and ruby-colored windows have drawn art lovers and tourists ever since.
Go for a Hike
Small, school-bus yellow signs dot nearly 40,000 miles of hiking trails throughout Switzerland, including the Swiss National Park, the Alps’ oldest national park and UNESCO biosphere reserve. Along nearly 50 miles of hiking trails, you’ll spot winding rivers, dense Alpine forest, and possibly ibexes, chamois, marmots, and golden eagles.
Celebrate the Cows
Cheese and chocolate are almost synonymous with Switzerland, which may explain the country’s regard for their cows. In June, farmers strap large, ceremonious bells around their cows’ necks and lead them up the mountains where they spend the summer. In the fall, the cows are decorated with crowns of flowers and their large bells and paraded down the mountain and through town for Des Alpes Festivals. After the parade there’s music (Alpine horn!), food, and drink.
Ride the Rails
Swiss trains run like clockwork and they’re an efficient, easy, and speedy way to get around. They also wind through such stunning scenery that the journey becomes the experience. The Glacier Express between Zermatt and St. Moritz and the Bernina Express between Chur and Tirano, Italy are two of the most scenic. The Glacier Express takes travelers over 291 bridges, past glaciated valleys, steep gorges, and ancient towns while the Bernina Express, the highest Alpine railway, crosses famous bridges and viaducts through Europe’s highest concentration of hilltop castles.
Paddle the Lakes
There are several thousand lakes in Switzerland, with one estimate putting the number at 7,000. Cruising along the crystalline water with the majestic Alps in the background is an idyllic experience. From Belle Époque paddle steamers to dinner cruises, there are an abundance of options. Favorites include those on Lucerne, Thun, Lugano, Geneva, and Zurich lakes.
Party Till the Wee Hours
At four in the morning on the Monday following Ash Wednesday all the lights in Basel are turned off and the city is lit by lanterns. The early-morning festivities continue with music, costumes, confetti, and four days of revelry for the country’s best-known festival, Fasnacht.
Discover the Origins of the Universe
The home to the world’s largest, most powerful particle accelerator resides underneath the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) on the outskirts of Geneva. The machine, which uses magnets to smash together particles moving at almost the speed of light, allowed scientists to identify the Higgs boson in 2012. Better known as the “God particle,” the Higgs boson helps explain why much of the universe’s mass exists. Reserve early: The two-hour guided tour fills up quickly.
Surrounded by several famous peaks, Grindelwald is best known as the “Eiger village.” The town faces the north face of the peak that is sometimes called “death wall” by mountain climbers. It is a charming Alpine village and an excellent base for skiing, hiking, and other mountain adventures.
Ride the World’s Steepest Cogwheel Railway
Mount Pilatus looms over Lucerne and reaching the top involves a ride on the world’s steepest cog railway. A ten-minute walk from the summit station takes you to the central peak of Esel and an observation platform with magnificent views of Lucerne, the lake, and surrounding Alps.
Visit Switzerland’s Oldest Town
Located in the canton of Graubunden, known as the home of the legendary Heidi, is Switzerland’s oldest town: Chur. The more than 5,000 year old town is picturesque, with narrow streets and cobblestone alleys lined with shops and cafes.
Visit the Olympic Museum
On a gentle slope above Lake Geneva sits the Olympic Museum, a modern-day-shrine to the competitors, creators, and engineers behind the games. Through signs in both English and French, along with audio, video, and interactive technology, the museum traces Olympic history thematically, looking at its creation, design, architecture, technology, and, of course, the athletes.
Eat Like James Bond
Not far from Interlaken, the Schilthorn mountain rises up more than 9,700 feet. At its peak, accessed by a four-stage cable car ride, sits the revolving Piz Gloria restaurant, famous as the set of the 1969 James Bond movie On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
Take to the Waters
For centuries, the Swiss have been soaking in thermal waters and the natural springs that bubble up from the mountainous terrain. Many spas offer a series of pools, fountains, whirlpools, saunas, and steam rooms and guests are encouraged to progress through a succession of hot-and-cold treatments. Steaming and soaking are so popular that even small hotels typically have spas, though it may be as simple as a sauna.
Switzerland is littered with castles, but the most famous is Chateau de Chillon in Montreux. The 12th-century, well-preserved medieval castle perches on a rock island on Lake Geneva (Lac Leman) and has inspired writers like Lord Byron and Jean-Jacques Rosseau.
Hike Past Waterfalls
The Lauterbrunnen Valley is often touted as one of the most beautiful places in Switzerland, with more than 70 waterfalls that plummet from cliffs and cascade over mountain edges.
It’s hard to resist chocolate in Switzerland, so just give in. In the quiet town of Broc, Maison Cailler offers a 90-minute tour with chocolate tasting. In Lucerne, the Chocolate Tour takes small groups on a 90-minute bus through the city and surrounding area for a background on the town and Swiss chocolate that ends with tastings from Confiserie Bachman, a famous bakery with a wall of chocolates.
Float Down the Aare River
The Aaare River winds through Bern, the country’s charming capital city. In the summer, thousands jump into the water and drift down to one of the handy red exit bars you can grab onto as you float by. A favorite local option is to leave your clothes at the Marzili outdoor pool, walk upstream beside the river, jump in and float back.
Cheer for Weird Sports
Skiing, hiking, tennis. These are all sports the Swiss are well-known for, but they also cheer for some more unique athletic exploits. Schwingen is Swiss style wrestling in sawdust for the grand-prize of a two-year-old bull. Steinstossen involves hurling heavy rocks as far as possible. And hornhussen, which looks like a cross between golf and baseball, involves whacking a puck with a long, flexible stick. Whoever catches the most pucks wins.
One of the least touristed regions of Switzerland, the car-free heart of Appenzell village features brightly-colored and intricately decorated chalets. The town and region are known for upholding long-held Swiss customs like yodeling, fine embroidery, traditional baked goods like pear bread, and cheese making. A cable-car ride and short hike from Wasserauen will take you to Aescher, a restaurant built right into the mountain that’s become an Instagram-favorite.
Raft Through the Swiss Grand Canyon
Almost 10,000 years ago, the Rhine Glacier retreated, caused a landslide, and created the Vorderrhein Gorge, sometimes referred to as the Swiss Grand Canyon. The stretch of the river that runs through the gorge offers successive white water rapids and raft tours are popular from May through October.