Glaciers feed azure rivers and lakes while cattle graze on rolling green hills to the sounds of their tinkling bells. As if perfectly curated to win a daily cleanliness competition, each breath, village, city, waterway, and acre of countryside here feels as pure as the last. Switzerland and its people are well aware their country is postcard perfect, which is why protecting its land, lakes, mountains, and air is at the very top of their agenda.
For example, to protect priceless nature from further development and urban sprawl, the Swiss people voted on an act that promotes inward urban development as well as a “Swiss Soil Strategy,” which aims to have net zero soil loss by 2050. To safeguard water that is otherwise known as “Europe’s reservoir” and the headwaters of both the Rhine and Rhone Rivers, Switzerland is adding a treatment stage to every wastewater plant over the next 20 years to help protect against residues from medicine, cosmetics, and pesticides. And to protect the air everyone breathes, the Federation Council enacted a new climate change adaptation strategy in 2014 that includes levies on C02 from industry while working toward a common goal of keeping global temperatures below a 1.5ºC increase by 2050.
For the traveler, Swiss innovation, engineering, and communication have also made it one of the easiest countries to have a low-impact trip in. Here’s how to do it.
Green ways of getting around Switzerland
Traveling is always better when somebody else is doing the driving, and Switzerland is one destination where there’s no need to rent a car. There’s a good reason why Swiss people have the highest rail usage of any nation–with 3,241 miles of railway that covers some of the steepest and most scenic terrain of any other network in the world, the obvious choice for getting around Switzerland is by train.
Luckily, the Swiss have made it easy for you. The Swiss Travel Pass is available only to non-Swiss nationals for unlimited travel by train, bus, and boat (including the fully electric fast-charging boat MNE Ceresio on Lake Lugano), in addition to countless discounts, admission to 500+ museums, and more. While in Switzerland, download the transit app; it makes finding any mode of transportation easy, letting you plan which train to take from any airport or which PostBus to take after a hike.
Sustainability is nothing new to this nation—largely because it made financial and economical sense long before sustainability was a buzzword—it’s part of Swiss DNA. In 1898, the first electric cogwheel railway (a toothed track that allows trains to ascend and descend steep grades) was introduced from Zermatt to the Gornergrat: This is the famous trip to see the Matterhorn. It’s not only the electric motors that make this train unique; its pioneering technology feeds power back into the grid while trains travel downhill. For every three downhill train journeys, the “recuperation” technology powers two uphill trains. This regenerative power source, still used today, is replicated in cogwheel trains throughout the country.
The Swiss Federal Railway is the largest railway network and one you’ll likely rely on the most. Using energy harnessed from massive glaciers, the network was electrified in 1916 and is powered by 90 percent renewable energy through the use of hydroelectricity. That will be 100 percent by 2025. Many Swiss gondolas (like the new Eiger Express) are powered this way, and buses are hybrid-electric or fully electric. Climate-friendly travel in Switzerland is a scenic and easy way to enjoy the country’s vistas.
Low-impact experiences in Switzerland
Exploring Swiss villages and countryside on foot is almost guaranteed to be part of any active itinerary. With over 40,390 miles of hiking trails and 153 Swiss Alpine Club (SAC) huts to stay in, human-powered adventure is not only green but also gets you to the most magnificent views the Alps offer.
Consider starting a low-impact itinerary with a via ferrata, the ultimate human-powered way to ascend the most vertical mountainside trails, before staying in a SAC hut such as Blüemlisalp Hut. Nestled beside the Blüemlisalp glacier, this hut, like many, provides freshly cooked Swiss meals, drinks, and a warm bed. Hiking to and from mountaintop huts is the best way to appreciate the Swiss Alps. If your luggage is too heavy to carry up, fear not—the Swiss railway network has you covered again. Send luggage from certain stations to others and meet it upon arrival after overnighting at a hut. In the case of Blüemlisalp Hut, luggage can be sent from Kandersteg to, for example, Grindelwald, or vice versa.
Switzerland is home to the largest glacier in the Alps, the Aletsch Glacier. It holds over 11 billion tons of ice and spans 14 miles in length. While it’s impressive to see the Aletsch Glacier from the famous Jungfrau, consider experiencing it on your own feet through a glacier trekking tour. This experience supports both local guides and the community with an option to stay in the valley at the town of Fiesch or on the mountain at Fiescheralp. And while Switzerland has been a tourist favorite for over a century, there are still many lesser-known places to explore like these gems.
As with most glaciers around the world, the Aletsch Glacier has lost a lot of its volume due to climate change. The entire 32-square-mile glacier has been losing five feet in thickness each year for the past 10 years. This is why it’s important to offset carbon-intensive travel with science-based programs like carbon removal through Tomorrow’s Air—the world’s first collective of travelers who clean up carbon from the air. While traveling in Switzerland has a low carbon footprint, getting to Switzerland might not, so offsetting air travel is important.
Supporting community-based tourism
Travelers will predominantly hear German, Italian, or French, depending on which part of the country they’re in. This variety, combined with countless charismatically unique communities and villages, is why Switzerland is one of those places that feels much bigger than it actually is.
While traveling in Switzerland (or in any destination), support community-based tourism using these tips:
- Buy local wine, textiles, art, or other goods instead of trinkets that are made elsewhere.
- To reduce plastic waste, bring reusable water bottles—water filling stations supplying fresh mountain water are found around every corner in Switzerland.
- Carry a backpack or reusable bags for purchased goods while exploring a community, and buy those goods at locally run businesses or markets while avoiding large chains.
When choosing accommodations in Switzerland, stay at community-based hotels that benefit social and environmental sustainability. Responsible Hotels of Switzerland offers a selection of accommodations that support all elements of the community and environment.
Gerbi Hüüs is a historic hotel that was built in the 18th century but has been retrofitted to use renewable resources from the 21st century. For example, heat and hot water come from a heat exchanger and electricity comes from photovoltaic shingles on the roof and solar panels in the garden. In the mountain region of Zermatt, Cervo Mountain Resort not only produces its energy using 95 percent geothermal energy but also has gone the extra mile to ensure all aspects of the hotel are supplied responsibly while being grounded in an environmental awareness philosophy.
And for a truly authentic experience that doesn’t sacrifice comfort, experience a whey bath at a working Swiss farm. This immersive overnight trip gives visitors an experience that couples travel with agriculture at the most grassroots level.