Photo Courtesy of Julia Leijola
With its combination of cultures and local traditions – it shares borders with Germany, France, Italy, and Lichtenstein – Switzerland flourishes as a country of great intrigue and diversity. While urban pleasure-seekers succumb to the temptations of world-class cuisine and sophisticated living, othe…rs are beguiled by medieval towns and candlelit villages. Up in the Alps, glitzy ski resorts exhibit fur boots and Ferraris, but also family destinations where children master their first snowplow. For adrenaline junkies, the dramatic geography means off-piste skiing, ice climbing, and one of the most renowned ski tours on earth.
What to know before you go to Switzerland
Switzerland offers much to do year-round, though summer and winter are the most popular seasons to visit. Warm summer temperatures reliably lure locals out to bask on lakeshores, traipse through quaint villages, and saunter along meadows and mountain paths. The snow-free roads open up many climbing opportunities, and intrepid visitors from all over the world can be seen donning ice boots on mountain trams. Many towns play host to a plethora of summer festivals. Be warned, though—flash thunderstorms are not uncommon. Depending on snowfall, the ski season begins as early as November and goes through April, though the peak time is January to March. Swiss resorts are rated among the finest in Europe and attract visitors from around the world. Without a doubt, the ski facilities are the main draw in winter—though ice skating, ice climbing, and Christmas shopping are great side shows.
Due to its central location, Switzerland is easily accessible from just about anywhere in Europe. High-speed trains offer routes to and from surrounding countries, and an extensive road system allows cars and buses to enter. International airports exist in the cities of Zurich, Geneva, and Basel, all serviced by multiple airlines including SWISS. No visitor restrictions apply for stays of up to three months, after which a visa is required.
Thanks to a famously efficient public transportation system by which you can literally set your watch—coupled with well-maintained alpine mountain roads—travel through Switzerland is quite splendid. Outlying towns are accessible by train, bus, or boat, but due to the sparseness of some areas it’s advisable to check timetables beforehand. Cities and towns should be explored on foot or by bicycle—Zurich's bike-rental facilities are conveniently located throughout the city, including the train station—just show your passport, leave a deposit, and borrow a bike for free! In winter, many mountain passes are closed, so drivers should contact Automobile Club der Schweiz before making a journey. Drivers are also required to purchase a tax disc (vignette), costing 40 Swiss Francs ($45 US).
A combination of three vastly different food cultures has kept the Swiss at the forefront of celebrated gastronomy. German, French, and Italian influences infuse different regions, and within these, individual towns and villages have their own signature styles. While the mere mention of traditional fondue or chocolate-drenched merengue may send the saliva glands wild, parts of the country have incorporated cuisine from farther afield—such as Japan, China, and India. The cuisine in Switzerland is truly international. Swiss wine, though seldom exported, is excellent—and often affordable. Vineyards scatter the land in many regions, and particular reverence is shown to a fine pinot noir grape. Still, white wine—Chasselas is the most prominent—is widely consumed, and is seen as the perfect complement to a traditional fondue or raclette.
Nestled among the summer festivals is Swiss National Day on August 1, celebrating the date seven centuries ago when the regions of the area took an oath of allegiance. This foundation of modern-day Switzerland is celebrated vehemently every year, and each region marks the occasion in its own manner, usually with fireworks, bonfires, lavish parades, floats, and music. It is one time you might see the Swiss really letting loose.
Switzerland’s business ethic is offset every summer by a range of festivals. At the forefront is the Montreux Jazz Festival, which pulls in diverse artists from around the world. Set on the waterfront of Lake Geneva, this monthlong festival burgeons every year thanks to its delightful ambience, variety of music, and free entry to all but a few concerts. Lucerne’s Blue Balls Festival draws legends of rock and pop. And for one day, Zurich is transformed into a musical heaven during its famous annual street parade.
Switzerland's 26 regions, or cantons, each have their own customs, traditions, and—in many cases—languages. Do not be surprised to encounter ghostlike quiet on Sundays, as this is a day of rest taken very seriously. Meanwhile, in Alpine villages and towns, some shops close during lunch, and noise restrictions at night remain tight.
The currency is the Swiss Franc, though sometimes Euros are accepted. The country's three main languages are French, German, and Italian (a small minority also speaks Romansh). Most people of the younger generation speak English. Switzerland (and neighboring Lichtenstein) use a J plug; travelers from the U.S. and Canada will need either a SEV 1011 or Earplug converter, and an adapter for 240 V electricity.
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Simon is a travel writer and freelance journalist flirting with both South America and Europe. He has contributed to the Washington Post, Independent, Yorkshire Post, Colombia Reports and Argentina Independent, among other publications. Simon is a sports nut, and when he is not adventure-seeking he is following his beloved Barnsley Football Club.