Appenzell in northeastern Switzerland is very popular with the tourists, and for good reason – in no other Swiss town is folklore so firmly entrenched. This picturesque village feels like a world removed. Its streets are narrow, and buildings are painted with all manner of colorful motifs, ranging from landscapes to flowers, to people and animals. Compared to other regions in Switzerland, very little industry settled in Appenzell due to the fact that it was connected to few railroads or major roadways, so the focus here is on local crafts. In particular, the the town is known for its cheeses and embroidery. Residents often say that Appenzell is where “life is still true.”
Located in the heart of the Bernese Mittelland on the Aare River in northern Switzerland, Bern is Switzerland's captial and home to some of the most impressive examples of medieval town architecture found anywhere in Europe. It was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1983 and is often referred to as the “City of Fountains" for the more than 100 fountains that grace its streets and squares. Eleven, dating back to the 16th century, are particularly impressive. They depict a range of historical figures and are routinely repainted to preserve their original appearance. Other landmarks include the city clock tower, whose whimsical figurines dance on the hour, and a bear park, which celebrates Bern's symbol, the bear.
Swiss Grand Canyon
Nearly 10,000 years ago in what is today southeastern Switzerland, the Rhine Glacier retreated, causing a landslide. Thousands of tons of rocks, boulders and mud crashed to the floor of Rhine Valley, damming the river. Over time, the water seeped through the dam, resulting in the Vorderrhein Gorge, or Swiss Grand Canyon. Now a heavily forested area, the landscape has parted to allow the Rhine to meander and wind its way through the valleys, making it a hiker's and rafter's paradise. Raft tours take place from May through October, with the help of professional guides. The rapids are mild and suitable for almost anyone.
Swiss National Park
The lower Engadine Valley is home Swiss National Park, a 67,000-acre wildlife sanctuary that epitomizes Alpine splendor. One-third of the park consists of Alpine forests, another third of Alpine meadows, and the rest mountains. Founded on Swiss Independence Day, August 1, 1914, the park was one of Europe’s first national parks and is the only national park in Switzerland. Here nature is left to its own with very little interference. Visitor impact is carefully monitored, and only one road, the Ofenpass, runs through the park. June and July are the best times to observe the Alpine flowers and birds, while September is the best month to see the ibex, chamois and deer. The visitor center and park headquarters are located near the village of Zernez, where the white houses of Engadina are visible. The walls of these houses are nearly three feet thick, in order to protect the inhabitants from the brutally cold winters (when temperatures get down to -20° F).
Brienz, on the shores of Lake Brienz to the east of Interlaken, is home to picturesque Giessbach Falls and famous for its woodcarving. In fact, most of the carved wood you'll find in Switzerland hails from this region. Brienz is often overlooked by tourists in favor of activities on Lake Thun, which lies to the west of Interlaken and is the larger of the two lakes, but is favored by vacationing Swiss. For a breathtaking view of the Bernese Alps and Lake Brienz, ride the Brienz Rothorn Bahn, an old steam locomotive. Its three-hour ascent peaks at the summit of Rothorn, which rises 7,700 feet.
St. Moritz, located in the Engadine Valley, has been the winter resort playground of the rich and famous since the 19th century. It first gained notoriety in 1864 when St. Moritz Hotel owner Johannes Badrutt told British tourists that, if they enjoyed their stay in his region, he'd cover their travel expenses, and they could stay as long as they liked – at his expense. Needless to say, word spready quickly. The sun shines more than 300 days per year in St. Moritz, known today for its snow sports, summer hiking and upper-crust shopping. One of St. Moritz's top attractions is the horse racing event "White Turf," which attracts equestrians throughout Europe and takes place in February over three consecutive afternoons. A highlight is the traditional Skikjöring race, in which entrants are pulled on skis behind a galloping horse.
The Glacier Express
The Glacier Express is more of a must-do, rather than a must-see, although expect to see quite a lot on this 7-hour journey through some of the most treacherous and beautiful mountain passes Switzerland has to offer. The route, first opened in 1928, travels 170 miles from Zermatt to St. Moritz, crossing 291 bridges and moving through 91 tunnels. Highlights include the Oberalp Pass, when the train reaches the highest point in its journey, and the single-track, six-arched Landwasser Viaduct, which rises more than 200 feet above the Landwasser River. The iconic red trains are equipped with modern dining cars and large windows to view the spectacular scenery.
Located in the southern canton of Ticino, Lugano is a must-see for its heavy Italian influences. The streets of the Old Town are closed to cars, making this a great walking city. You can get around the town of Lugano and the surrounding region by foot or by bike, or ride one of the many steamers crisscrossing Lake Lugano. Palm trees are a common sight, and the so-called “Floral Route" is a popular one-day outing. Beginning with a ride on the Monte San Salvatore funicular, the route contines to the summit of San Salvatore, on to Ciona and Carona, whose churches feature stunning frescos and stucco work. From Carona, you can venture to the botanical gardens of San Grato, or the Baroque sanctuary of the Madonna d'Ongero, before heading to the ancient fishing town of Morcote where you can catch a bus or ship back to Lugano.
Zurich's traffic-free Bahnhoffstrasse is one of the finest shopping areas anywhere in Europe. During Christmastime, the streets are lined with tiny lights, while people window-shop to their hearts' delight. Vendors line the streets offering toasted almonds and hot cider, and the lure of fresh-baked goods and Christmas cookies is everywhere. In the summer, linden trees provide respite from the sun. The Bahnhoffstrasse runs from Central Station to Lake Zurich, and two historic streets, Renweg and Augustinergasse, connect it to Zurich's Old Town.
In Lucerne, visitors can stroll through the car-free Old Town, set against the backdrop of Mount Pilatus and Mount Rigi, then spend an afternoon sailing on one of the many ships that depart regularly from the Vierwaldstättersee dock. The Chapel Bridge, built in 1333, is a landmark of Lucerne’s Old Town and oldest roofed wooden bridge in Europe. Though a tragic fire destroyed most of it in 1993, it was painstakingly restored to resemble its original structure and contains a series of paintings on each section of its ceiling beams. To experience the best of Lucerne, take the Rigi-Kulm excursion – a five-hour journey that combines a cogwheel railway train ride, cable car and boat trip.
Engelberg in central Switzerland is a haven for sports enthusiasts. Meaning “Angel Mountain,” it is the main village in Canton Obwalden and lies at the foot of Mount Titlis. Originally a monastery village, it is now a world-class ski destination and home to numerous hotels and restaurants. From Engelberg, you can board a cable car to the middle station of Mount Titlis via Trübsee, then take a revolving cable car known as the Rotair to an area near the summit. The mountain station offers a below-ground glacier excursion, six-person scenic chair lift, snowtubing and connection to Europe's highest suspension bridge.
Rising more than 4,000 feet between Lakes Thun and Brienz, Harder Kulm offers a sensational bird's-eye view of the Jungfrau region and can be reached from Interlaken in only 10 minutes. Visit the Art Noveau-style restaurant at the summit or walk out onto Two Lakes Bridge for an on-top-of-this-world experience. A funicular leaves daily from near the Interlaken Ost station.
Mürren is a friendly and car-free holiday resort situated on a sun-drenched terrace atop the Lauterbrunnen valley. Easily reached from both Interlaken train stations by cogwheel train, it is the main stop on the way to the Schilthorn and Piz Gloria. In the summer months, it serves as one of the best bases for hiking excursions in Alps—among them the Eiger North Face trail—and doubles as a ski resort in the winter. While no marked roads run through Mürren, directional signs abound.
The Schilthorn, atop Piz Gloria, offers a stunning panoramic view of more than 200 mountain peaks, dominated by the Eiger, Mönch and the Jungfrau. You can either sit inside the world-famous revolving restaurant or stand outside on the observation deck, where portions of the James Bond film On Her Majesty's Secret Service were filmed. If you are an ice cream lover, be sure to order the “007" dessert –five scoops of various types of ice cream smothered with fresh fruits. To reach the Schilthorn, visitors must take a cable car (Switzerland's longest) from Mürren.
To get to the highest point in Europe, you need to ride a series of trains and trams to the Jungfraujoch, which sits just 300 feet below the summit of the 13,638-foot Jungfrau. Trains leave once a day from Interlaken West, stopping at Interlaken East, Wilderswil, Lauterbrunnen, Wengen and the Kleine Scheidegg. The last part of the journey takes nearly an hour – at one point passing through a four-mile tunnel. There are six restaurants at Jungraujoch along with a terrace, Ice Palace, scientific research station and observation center known as The Sphinx. An elevator whisks you another 364 feet up to the observatory. Skiing lessons and dog sledding are offered in good weather, and on clear days you can see as far as Germany and France.
The auto-less Alpine village of Zermatt in the southern canton of Valais is home to some of the world's most spectacular mountains, including the world-famous Matterhorn. Rising like a shark tooth above surrounding peaks, the Matterhorn is the most photographed mountain in Switzerland. Ride the Gornergratbahn, Europe’s highest open-air cog railway for stunning views of the Matterhorn and surrounding glaciers. Atop Gornergrat, enjoy a meal or stay overnight at Europe’s highest-altitude hotel and visit its planeterium. A ride on the Klein Matterhorn, Europe’s highest-altitude cable car, up to the mountain station is another spectacular experience. Zermatt offers skiing year-round, and you an even ski to Italy for lunch if you bring your passport. The Matterhorn Trail is a favorite among hikers and part of a network of more than 300 miles of trails in and around the Zermatt area.
Sitting atop a terrace amidst 12 mountains in Canton Valais, Saas-Fee is closed to traffic. It is where the Swiss go when they want to hike or ski, hoping to avoid the crowds that flock to nearby resorts of Zermatt or Verbier. Unlike St. Moritz or Verbier, Saas-Fee falls asleep each night around 10 pm. It has the charm of an old-time resort with its wooden chalets, outdoor sun terraces, sidewalk cafés and restaurants, yet boasts modern attractions including the world’s highest revolving restaurant and its largest ice pavilion. Rightfully so, Saas-Fee is known as “the pearl of the Alps." In the summer, its hiking trails and foot paths are suitable for all levels of wanderers.
A picture-perfect castle dating back to the 13th century overlooks the medieval village of Gruyères just south of Bern and north of Lake Geneva. Gruyères is most famous for producing the cheese of its same name. La Maison de Gruyères is the local factory offering cheese, quiche and fondue for sale. It produces 48 wheels of cheese a day and can stock up to 7,000. If you visit Gruyères in the early summer, you'll be sure to catch the cow herders leading their droves of cattle to high Alpine pastures. The herders – known as armaillis – allow the cows to graze on the rich grasses found on the sunny mountain slopes until the fall months, when they make the annual pilgrimage back down to their winter quarters.
Chillon Castle is an ancient fortress on Lake Geneva at the foothills of the Valais Alps and one of the most impressive in Switzerland. Built by the Savoys in the 12th century, it consists of 25 buildings joined together by three courtyards, complete with dungeons and torture chambers. Chillon’s architecture and history have inspired such writers as Lord Byron, Victor Hugo and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The castle, open daily, can be reached by car or by a two-mile walking path from Montreux, known as the Chein Fleirui, or flower path.
Home to the Office of the United Nations and the International Red Cross headquarters, Geneva is often referred to as the City of Peace. Unmistakable landmarks incude the Jet d’eau, which pumps water 460 feet above Lake Geneva; the flower clock, a testament to Geneva’s watch-making legacy; and St. Peter’s Cathedral in the Old Town. Dating back to the 12th century, the cathedral dominates the cityscape, and visitors can climb to the top of the north tower for an exceptional view of the city and the Alps. Due to the city's location on the border of France, Geneva's culture is heavily influenced by its western neighbors, and its vineyard-rich countryside ranks among Switzerland’s most romantic scenery.