Switzerland If You Like

"Peak" Experiences

"Mountains are the beginning and end of all scenery," the great 19th-century writer John Ruskin once observed. And if mountains have a "home," it is truly Switzerland—a summit of summits. View collectors flock to that big schlock candy mountain, the Matterhorn. Adventurers are seduced by the "sheer" excitement of the Jungfrau. "Social climbers" head to the chic villages of Wengen and Mürren, which seem to levitate at either end of the Lauterbrunnen Valley, and daredevils worship at the foot of the Eiger's notorious north face. No matter where you head, you'll find that hillside footpaths can be almost as crowded as supermarket checkout lines (remember: the higher the trail, the less "conversation"—you need to concentrate!). Here are some places that will leave you with that top-of-the-world feeling.

Matterhorn, Valais. From the summit station of Gornergrat, this jagged mountain steals the thunder from all surrounding peaks.

Jungfraujoch, the Berner Oberland. From the top of the 11,333-foot-high Jungfraujoch, the Aletsch Glacier looks like a vast sea of ice.

Neuhausen am Rheinfall, Eastern Switzerland. With its mists, roaring water, jutting rocks, and bushy crags, the Rheinfall, from the Neuhausen side, appears truly Wagnerian.

Lauterbrunnen Valley, the Berner Oberland. Looking more like a painting than real life, the jaw-dropping vista of this valley is spectacularly threaded by 72 waterfalls that plummet from sky-high cliffs.

Christmas Markets

Nothing evokes Switzerland in winter like a Weinachtsmarkt or marché de Noël. These seasonal markets are held from the end of November to Christmas Eve, or even longer in some areas. You’ll typically find stands brimming with handmade Swiss goods, including leather items, silver jewelry, and wooden toys. Alongside these treasures are imported market wares like South American sweaters, Indian fabrics, and soaps from Provence. With festive live music and plenty of drinking and dining options, you’ll have your choice of savory local cheeses and dried meat specialties, all washed down with a hot Glühwein (mulled wine).

Montreux. At the largest market in Switzerland, more than 150 illuminated chalets line the lakeside promenade and main street. This is one of the best places to find handcrafted jewelry from local artists that won’t break the bank. Got little ones in tow? Take the winding train up to nearby Rochers-de Naye to see Chez Santa Claus, or to the authentic Christmas village in Caux for breathtaking views over Lac Léman.

Basel. Two distinct markets circle Basel’s Barfüsserplatz and Münsterplatz, next to the landmark cathedral. In the city’s Old Town, you’ll bask in the glow of twinkling lights while browsing through traditional handicrafts. Don't forget to sample the famous Basler Läckerli spiced cookies, the perfect accompaniment to a hot cider with schnapps or rum-infused Punsch.

Bern. Set among historic 15th-century buildings on Münsterplatz, Bern’s Christmas market is one of the loveliest in Switzerland. A magical mix of roasted chestnuts, smoky incense, cinnamon, and pine wafts freely here. Shop for arts and crafts in the main square, and then head just down the road to Waisenhausplatz for more traditional wares.

Zürich. The best Christmas market in Zürich is held in the train station. This market charms with its handmade wooden toys and vast selection of cheeses and dried meats. Stands are centered on a stunning showpiece: a 40-foot Christmas tree laden with Swarovski crystals.

Traveling Through Time

Wander the slopes of Klewenalp above the Vierwaldstättersee on a still spring day, gaze across the placid waters beneath, and it is easy to identify Switzerland as a land of peace. Continue on a mile or so and you are reminded that for much of its time, Switzerland has been nothing of the kind. Here is the Rütli, the meadow where legend avers that the men of the three forest cantons, Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden, met in 1291 to plot the overthrow of their Habsburg landlords (thereby creating the world's first democracy). But move beyond this spot—hallowed by Wilhelm Tell—and you'll find Switzerland is practically crawling with history from border to border.

Old Town, Basel. When the sound of fife-and-drum music drifts from the upstairs windows of guild houses in Basel's Old Town, you'll think the Middle Ages have dawned again.

Tellfreilichtspiele, Interlaken, Berner Oberland. For a festive evening, rent a lap blanket and settle in to watch a grand retelling of the life of Wilhelm Tell, performed under the stars.

Monument de la Réformation, Geneva. The complex history of the Protestant Reformation as it unfolded across Europe is boldly rendered in granite.

Stiftsbibliothek and Kathedrale, St. Gallen. For rococo splendor and opulence, nothing beats this complex of Abbey Library and Cathedral, adorned with spectacular excesses of 18th-century wedding-cake trim.

The Most Beautiful Villages

Whatever town or valley you pick, you'll be pulled into discussions about what the top place in Switzerland is. The whole of Switzerland is undeniably beautiful. But there are certain places where the needle would fly right off the scale if they were rated on a beauty-measuring gauge. With scores of half-timber houses and chapels, these storybook places have a sense of tranquility not even tour buses can ruin.

Guarda, Graubünden. This federally protected hamlet in the Lower Engadine is full of architectural photo ops, with cobblestone streets and flower boxes filled with red geraniums.

Stein-am-Rhein, Eastern Switzerland. A nearly perfectly preserved medieval village, Stein is replete with shingled, half-timber town houses boasting ornate oriels and flamboyant frescoes.

Gandria, Ticino. Clinging vertiginously to a hillside, its flower-filled balconies overlooking Lake Lugano, the tiny town of Gandria retains the ambience of an ancient fishing village.

Mürren, Berner Oberland. Closer to the sky than the earth, this jewel presides over the majestic Lauterbrunnen Valley and offers a so-close-you-can-touch-it vista of the Eiger.

Gruyères, Fribourg. Right out of a fairy tale, this village is crowned with one of the most picture-perfect castles in Switzerland.

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