Riding on Switzerland’s efficient and comprehensive Swiss Rail system, you can’t help but marvel as one absurdly photogenic village after another whizzes by the window. Chalets with scalloped eves and painted shutters, half-timbered houses plastered in bright pastels, medieval-era mazes of cobblestone streets, and lively, café-strewn plazas bedecked with flower boxes —all these heritages and many more are perfectly preserved in this small country unmarred by the scars of war.
Here are four Swiss towns that stand out for their charm, history, and sheer breath-catching beauty.
Stein am Rhein
Walk through medieval splendor
A history of more than a thousand years comes to life in Stein am Rhein, today a quiet town on Switzerland’s northern border but once a wealthy trading hub and the seat of the powerful St. George Abbey. The riches accumulated by ambitious merchants and Benedictine monks created a place that dazzles with color and artistic detail. Here, the half-timbered houses popular throughout northern Switzerland are covered in jewel-toned frescoes that depict the rhythms of medieval village life in fascinating detail, from grape harvests to formal banquets. Take a seat at one of the cheerful cafés that surround the Rathausplatz, or main square, and you’ll feel like you’re dining in an open air museum. The metalwork in Stein am Rhein is equally captivating, with whimsical birds, dragons, griffons, and other mythical creatures adorning doorways, chimneys, and hanging signs.
More history is on offer in the Gothic 15th-century St. George Abbey itself and at Hohenklingen Castle, perched atop a mountain and housing a restaurant with views over the town. Cross the river from the old town and climb the hill to a small village church on the hill for the best view of the abbey and riverfront promenade.
Most visitors to Stein am Rhein make the mistake of treating it as a day excursion from Zurich, 35 miles away, often combined with a trip to Rheinfall, Europe’s largest waterfall. But doing this means missing out on the chance to see the frescoes’ brilliant colors glow in the late afternoon light and to stroll with residents along the riverfront promenade. Add an extra day and take the Untersee-Rhine river excursion in the direction of Konstanz, passing a string of 13th-century villages and stopping at the island of Reichenau on the German side of the lake, the entirety of which is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Where to stay: Hotel Garni Adler
Check out Hotel Garni Adler, which offers Old-World elegance just off the Rathausplatz in the heart of the medieval town.
Sleep on an Alpine plateau
Perched on the edge of a cliff overhanging the Lauterbrunnen Valley, Gimmelwald holds itself magically in the past like a Swiss Brigadoon. Part of this comes from the fact that Gimmelwald is entirely car-free. You can’t drive there because there is no road, distinct from many other car-free Swiss villages where you park at the edge of town. Here the only vehicles you’re likely to see are miniature hay trucks loaded so high it’s hard to fathom how the bales don’t cascade to the ground. Cable cars rise up from the valley floor—the only transport in or out of Gimmelwald—then continue up the mountain to the Schilthorn, one of the highest peaks in Europe at 9,744 feet. At its top, viewing platforms offer 360-degree views of the entire Jungfrau range, and the revolving Piz Gloria restaurant is one of the highest dining destinations in Europe.
What Gimmelwald lacks in size it makes up for in friendliness, with the residents who run the village’s handful of guesthouses, hostels, and pensions eager to pass the time of day. Visit the town’s website or use the QR code provided on local signage and take a guided walking tour of the village, listening to tales of the town’s colorful history, which dates back to the Middle Ages. And the cheese—you can’t miss the cheese, given that a rustic storehouse occupies pride of place in the center of the village, filled with slabs of the fresh summer season Bernese Alp cheese. A walking path connects Gimmelwald with the only slightly larger village of Murren above, providing multi-tiered views of the village and the Lauterbrunnen valley below as it switchbacks up the hillside. It’s also a chance to commune with the local belled cows.
Where to stay: Pension Gimmelwald
Spend a night or two at Pension Gimmelwald, a classic chalet-style mountain hotel with a sunny patio restaurant and biergarten.
Tour a lakeside castle
A visit to Spiez in the Bernese Oberland starts and ends with stately Spiez Castle, which rises above the town from a promontory jutting into Lake Thun. Beneath it, a promenade lines the quiet, horseshoe-shaped harbor with a protected swimming beach and restaurants serving traditional fare on terraces. Touring the castle quickly becomes an interactive experience, with exhibits including a costume room featuring garb fit for a Renaissance fair and a jousting setup that will teach anyone who mounts the practice steed that riding while holding an unbelievably heavy lance is harder than it looks.
Next to the castle, the spare Romanesque castle church remains much as it was a thousand years ago and features frescoes dating from the 13th century. The Museum of Local History and Viticulture just outside town demonstrates the history and traditional techniques of local winemaking in a barn and farmhouse. If possible, arrive or depart via the Lake Thun ferry, which connects Spiez with Thun at the west end of the lake and Interlaken at the east end. The train also stops at Spiez.
Where to stay: Hotel Eden Spiez
Hotel Eden Spiez, a circa-1903 lakeside resort with a waterfront restaurant.
Enjoy plazas, churches, and trains
The fountain-bedecked plazas, skyscraping church towers, and cobblestone streets of Chur’s Old Town attest to the 500-year-old town’s stature as the oldest in Switzerland as well as its later importance as a rail hub.
Among Chur’s remarkably well-preserved buildings, don’t miss the Episcopal St. Mary of the Assumption Church on the hill above town, and 15th-century St. Martin’s Church with its spare Gothic tower and pretty sheltered plaza. The church also houses stained windows by Augusto Giacometti, added in 1919, which feature the artist’s characteristic elongated forms and forbidding expressions to give an overall affect of gloom. Chur honors its history as a market town with plenty of regular events, including a Saturday farmers’ market with produce, cheeses, meats, and more from the surrounding Graubunden region, a monthly flea market, and a traditional Christmas market with colorful crafts.
Visitors also come to Chur to board the narrow-gauge Glacier Express, which has been making the epic journey across the Alps from Zermatt to St. Moritz since 1930. The trip’s profile was raised with the launch of a new Excellence Class that guarantees window seating in a luxe dining car with a seven-course meal served in stages throughout the ride.
Where to stay: Hotel Stern Chur
Hotel Stern Chur has welcomed weary travelers to its cheerful knotty pine dining room and fluffy feather beds for 300 years.