It’s the grand slam of road trips. Hit a dozen world heritage sites as you traverse across the diverse natural and cultural wonders of the land of wine and watches on the Grand Tour of Switzerland. If this were a numbers game, you’d come out a winner: The 1,000-mile (1,643-kilometer) route takes you to 45 top attractions, 22 lakes, and five Alpine passes, where you’ll hear four different languages as you reach almost every corner of the country.
Whether traveling by car, motorbike, bus, or electric vehicle (numerous charging stations make it the world’s first road trip for electric vehicles) simply follow the official Grand Tour road signs along the route, which will take you past palm-lined lakeshores, sparkling glaciers, medieval villages, and bustling cities for an unrivaled concentration of attractions. Note that the optimal time to embark on this journey is in the warmer summer months, from April to October, and it is easily customizable for anywhere from four to 30 days. Here, we present some of the marvelous highlights along the way.
Take a Trip Back Through Time
Begin at Lake Neuchâtel, where the Laténium archaeological museum and park, Switzerland’s largest archaeological museum, which serves as a research center for the 56 Prehistoric Pile Dwellings in the Alps, a designated world-heritage site. Standing on the spot where the remains of three prehistoric sites were discovered, it contains some 3,000 finds that illustrate Swiss ancestors’ everyday lives, spanning from the Paleolithic Era to Renaissance times. The archaeological park tells the story of the shores of Lake Neuchâtel and its people from the end of the Ice Age until today, with full-size reconstructions of Bronze Age pile dwellings, and an excavated block containing a 15,000-year-old hunter-gatherer camp.
On your way to the capital city of Bern, you’ll pass by five blue water lakes and several rushing rivers on this leg of the journey, with a wide sweep through the Bernese Oberland, where you can bask in the crystal waters surrounded by jaw-dropping mountains like Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau. Take time to explore the impeccably preserved medieval townscape of the old city of Bern, a world heritage site founded in 1191 that’s framed by the glacier-fed Aare River and picturesque views of the Alps. Stroll along nearly four miles of limestone buildings and medieval arcades, taking in Renaissance fountains with colorful figures and the beautiful Bern Cathedral, the most impressive late-Gothic building in all of Switzerland.
Revel in Nature and History
Heading onward, you’ll come to one of two Swiss UNESCO Biosphere Reserves, the Biosphere Reserve Entlebuch, also known as the “Wild West” of Lucerne. Gasp at the natural beauty of endless meadows, craggy limestone formations, wild mountain streams, idyllic Alpine pastures, and towering Schrattenfluh across some 150 square miles. You’ll find walking trails, Kneipp facilities for hydrotherapy (based on naturopathic forefather Sebastian Kneipp’s 19th-century approach), mud baths, and satellite-guided hiking.
Next, you’ll find historical treasures as you head from Appenzell to the celebrity favorite resort town of St. Moritz. Start with the Museum of Appenzell Culture, housed in a building that’s more than 400 years old. At a stop in Werdenberg, you’ll delight in viewing a group of old, well-preserved wooden houses, and on to Chur, the oldest city in Switzerland. Natural highlights along the way include Säntis, the highest mountain in Alpstein massif, and the culminating point of the whole Appenzell Alps.
There are several world heritage sites to marvel at along this stretch of the route, including the historic Abbey of St Gallen with its world-famous Abbey Library, the Seelenapotheke (or “healing place of the soul”), the country’s most beautiful non-ecclesiastical Baroque hall, housing 170,000 books and 2,100 manuscripts. For something more ancient, the Swiss Tectonic Arena Sardona’s unique rock formations bear witness to the awesome power of nature when the continents of Africa and Europe collided. And history buffs will appreciate the Benedictine convent of St. John, Müstair, founded by King Charlemagne in the 8th century. Or the Albula/Bernina railway line, a feat of engineering, winds its way through the Graubünden mountains thanks to man-made structures, viaducts, and helical tunnels—one of the world’s most spectacular routes, it passes 196 bridges, 55 tunnels, and 20 towns.
As you continue south on the route, you’ll come closer to the Italian border and enter the Italian-speaking Swiss region of Ticino. There, two more world-heritage sites await. One of the main attractions of the area, the medieval castles of Bellinzona are unique to the Alps and offer a window into the past. Monte San Giorgio lies further south, attracting paleontologists for the wealth of fossils left by a 300-foot-deep ocean basin that submerged it some 245 million years ago.
Prepare for a dramatic increase in altitude as you course through winding roads from Lugano to Zermatt in the Valais Mountains. The road snakes in hairpin curves over the St. Gotthard and Furka passes, as you ride past the longest glacier in the Alps, the 14-mile Aletsch glacier. Journey through a stunning world of ice, rocks, Alpine flowers and forests as you explore the Swiss Alps Jungfrau-Aletsch, the first alpine world heritage site in the country. Admire the glacier from breathtaking viewpoints like Moosfluh, Bettmerhorn, Eggishorn, and Jungfraujoch; all are easily reached by mountain rail or cableways. If you’re traveling by car, park it in Täsch before taking the train to car-free Zermatt.
Experience Architecture, Wine, and Watchmaking
A stop in the lakeside town of Corseaux is an opportunity to see one of 17 world-heritage-designated buildings by modern architect Le Corbusier. Named Villa Le Lac, the residence was built for his parents in 1923 and embodies the designer’s concept of a “machine for living.” (Architecture fans will want to continue on to Geneva for another UNESCO Corbusier structure, La Clarté, also known as the “House of Glass,” a 1931 apartment building that was one of his early projects.)
Moving on, just before Lausanne you’ll visit Lavaux’s steep terraced vineyards, another must-see world heritage site on the route. One of five Vaudois wine regions, and the source of Switzerland’s Grand Cru, Lavaux benefits from “three suns,” the heat of direct sunlight, heat radiated by the stone walls, and reflections off Lake Geneva. Bike, walk or take a train through nearly 2,000 acres of vineyards. A 20-mile footpath leads from Lausanne-Ouchy to Chillon Castle, with seven circuits along the way with informative facts about local viticulture. Swirl and swish delicious, locally produced wines in an authentic wine cellar as you deepen your knowledge about the local culture and grape varieties. Cheers, or as the locals toast, “Santé!”
What trip to Switzerland would be complete without immersing in the world-renowned fine art of Swiss watchmaking? En route toward the end of the Grand Tour in Basel, you’ll stop at the world heritage site of La Chaux-de-Fonds and Le Locle to learn about Swiss precision time pieces, and how the watch industry shaped these mountain villages into world-class centers of horology. It’s a perfect way to wrap up an unforgettable journey you’ll treasure forever as the time of your life.