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BlogDestinationsYour ultimate Switzerland Travel Guide: what to see and do
Destinations

Your ultimate Switzerland Travel Guide: what to see and do

Aug 24, 2023 by The Go Ahead Tours Team

Filled with soaring mountain peaks, fairytale villages, historic castles, and sparkling sapphire lakes, our Switzerland tours spark both exploration and awe. Even better, the country’s compact size means that on tours like Switzerland by Train: Lucerne to Zurich you can experience many of the best things to do in Switzerland.

This includes taking a boat cruise on Lake Lucerne, strolling along the cobbled streets in Zurich’s Old Town, or dipping into cheesy fondue in the shadow of the Matterhorn. Best of all, we’ll do all the planning, so all you have to do is enjoy the sights, sounds, and delicious food. Our Switzerland Travel Guide is packed with useful information, so read on for our best tips for traveling to Switzerland.

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When to visit

Cities to visit

What to see

What to eat and drink

Fun things to do

Souvenirs to buy

What to pack

Currency: Swiss franc (CHF)

Language: Switzerland has four official languages: Swiss-German, French, Italian, and Romansch, an ancient language rooted in Latin.

UNESCO-listed sites: Switzerland is home to 13 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including the ancient vineyard terraces in the Lavaux, old city of Berne, Rhaetian Railway in the Albula/Bernina Landscapes, and the Abbey of St. Gall.

The best way to get around: Fast, reliable, clean, and efficient, the Swiss Travel System comprises trains, buses, and even boats, all with a single ticket. Some train routes, like the Glacier Express, provide such gorgeous views of the Alps that they’re among the best things to do in Switzerland.

Fun facts: Switzerland is home to 7,000 lakes and 48 mountains that are taller than 13,000 feet. Then there’s the nearly 15,000-foot-tall Matterhorn, which is one of the most iconic things to see in Switzerland. Though not perfectly symmetrical, the pyramid-shaped colossus is so distinctive that it inspired the shape of the Toblerone chocolate bar, and Walt Disney created a scale version at his Disneyland theme park. The Matterhorn is also naturally positioned so that each of its four faces aligns nearly perfectly with a cardinal point on the compass.

When to visit Switzerland

No matter the season, there’s always a remarkable variety of things to do in Switzerland.

Winter in Switzerland: Though skiers flock to the Swiss Alps each winter to schuss down slopes covered in perfect powder, there are plenty of other things to do in Switzerland during the winter, including ice skating, sledding, cross-country skiing, and indulging in fondue, raclette, hot Swiss chocolate, and other warming winter treats. Beginning in November, traditional Christmas markets set up their wares in town squares all over Switzerland. You can experience them on our Christmas Markets of Germany, Switzerland & Austria tour.

Spring in Switzerland: As the weather warms and the mountain snow begins to melt, Switzerland’s Alpine meadows come alive with riots of colorful wildflowers. It’s lilac season, too, and clouds of the tiny purple flowers scent the air with a beautiful fragrance. Spring is also a time for festivals in Switzerland, particularly Sechseläuten, in Zurich, which signals the end of winter.

Summer in Switzerland: Switzerland’s dreamy summer weather is perfect for outdoor pursuits such as strolling along the lakeshore in cities like Zurich and Lucerne, hiking mountain trails, boating on Lake Geneva, or enjoying a glass of wine at an outdoor cafe. When you join us on a tour of Switzerland, many of these activities are included in your itinerary.

Fall in Switzerland: Blazing foliage offers a stunning backdrop for mountain hikes in Switzerland—and end the day with fragrant mulled wine near a blazing fire. One of the most unique autumn activities in Switzerland is to watch shepherds lead their cows on their seasonal descent from their high-altitude summer feeding grounds to their winter homes in the villages below. If you love beer, consider booking our Oktoberfest: Germany, Switzerland & Austria tour for more than two weeks of beer-filled fun.

Enjoy any season in Switzerland

Cities to visit in Switzerland

Here’s another reason to visit Switzerland: The country’s four most crowd-pleasing cities, Zurich, Lucerne, Interlaken, and Zermatt, each have their own history and offer distinctive experiences you won’t find anywhere else.

Zurich

Stately and historic. Modern and efficient. Zurich is like two cities in one. Cafes, historic churches, boutiques, and bakeries line the twisty, cobbled streets of Old Town—climb to the top of Lindenhof, a former Roman castle, and you’ll be treated to a sweeping view of the whole scene.

Along Bahnhofstrasse, the city’s fabled shopping street, sleek department stores and designer shops share space with imposing Swiss banks. There are museums galore, too, including the Swiss National Museum, which is home to nearly a million pieces of history, and the Kunsthaus, Zurich’s renowned art museum. No matter where you go, the city’s medieval churches are easy to spot. There’s the massive clock face of St. Peter’s, the twin spires of Grossmünster, and Fraumünster, which is known for its stained-glass windows created by Augusto Giacometti and Marc Chagall.

Visit Zurich

Lucerne

It’s said that Lucerne’s medieval architecture has such fairytale appeal that Walt Disney used its 14th-century water tower as a model for the tower where Sleeping Beauty fell into her slumber. While the story may or not be true, the city’s visual appeal is genuine: Against a scenic background of snowy mountains and misty spruce forests, Lucerne’s atmospheric wooden bridges, tall spires, splashing fountains, and brightly shuttered windows set a perfect Alpine village tableau. Take time to visit the Lion of Lucerne, a rock relief that honors Swiss guards killed at Tuileries Palace in Paris during the French Revolution.

Lucerne isn’t stuck in the past though. French architect Jean Nouvel designed the contemporary Culture and Convention Center, which houses a state-of-the-art concert hall, the Lucerne Museum of Art, and four restaurants and bars. Nearby, the Rosengart Collection celebrates the work of Paul Klee, Picasso, and other modernists in a restored Neoclassical-style bank building. The Swiss Museum of Transport, an extravaganza of movement from place to place, is also located in Lucerne.

Experience Lucerne

Zermatt

Zermatt, gateway to the Matterhorn, was first settled in the 13th century and founded as a city in 1791. Though ski runs and hiking trails beckon, take time to explore the car-free village, which is filled with historic sites—the cemetery for climbers is particularly moving—shops and cafes. Plus, each summer day at 9am and 5pm, a parade of goats makes their way to or from the mountain.

Don’t miss the Matterhorn Museum, where you can watch a movie detailing the catastrophic first ascent of the mountain and see the broken rope that led to the tragedy. On our Switzerland by Train, Lucerne to Zurich tour, you’ll have the option to take the 37-minute train ride from Zermatt to the rocky Gornergrat, which sits at about 10,272 feet and overlooks 29 of Switzerland’s tallest peaks.

Discover Zermatt

Interlaken

Perched on a narrow stretch of land between Lake Thun and Lake Brienz, Interlaken’s mountain vistas come with an almost unfairly adorable lakefront village. Take it in during a boat tour of one of the lakes, or hop on a funicular to Harder Kulm, which overlooks the mountain-rimmed valley. Waterfalls abound in this region and one of the most remarkable things to do in Switzerland is to walk through the underground tunnels and pathways to the viewing point for Trummelbach Falls. This series of 10 glacial waterfalls dramatically drain 5,000 gallons of icy water from the mountains each second.

Sporty types will want to take on high-adrenaline adventures like hang-gliding, skydiving, and walking across Sigriswil’s swaying suspension bridge, which sits nearly 600 feet above the valley floor. Interlaken is also the jumping off point for a trip to Jungfrau, which, at more than 11,000 feet, is considered the highest accessible point in Europe.

Travel to Interlaken

Places in Switzerland we recommend visiting

If you’re looking for that once-in-a-lifetime moment, here are a few spots that will help you plan a trip full of history, culture, glorious landscapes, opportunities for adventure, and the best chocolate you can imagine.

Mt. Pilatus

Towering 7,000 feet above Lucerne, Mt. Pilatus offers remarkable views of the lake as it dips in and out of the mountains, forest, and city of Lucerne. Our optional excursion to Mt. Pilatus makes it easy to reach the summit, where you can hike, enjoy a snack on the sunny restaurant terrace, or just enjoy the scene. On weekends, traditionally dressed alpenhorn players set a festive atmosphere.

Mt. Rigi

If you find yourself with a free afternoon, take a boat from Lucerne to the nearby town of Weggis, which is an easy access point for the aerial tram to Mount Rigi, Switzerland’s trail-filled “Queen of Mountains” and home to some of the best activities in Switzerland. Stop for a soak in the mineral baths at Spa Rigi Kaltbad, or continue to the top of the mountain, where walking paths lead to spellbinding views.

Chillon Castle

Standing guard over Lake Geneva near Lausanne, Chillon Castle was built in the 12th century and comprises 100 buildings. In the cellar, where Lord Byron’s famous poem The Prisoner of Chillon was set, you can still see the metal rings used to attach prisoners’ chains to the walls.

Check out these Switzerland tours

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What to eat and drink in Switzerland

Since Switzerland shares a border—and language—with France, Italy, and Germany, you’ll discover a wide variety of flavors and foodways in this small country. Plus, our Swiss Travel Guide wouldn’t be complete without food-related travel tips for Switzerland.

Cheese

No doubt you’ve heard of Swiss cheese, but did you know that Switzerland actually produces more than 700 varieties of cheese? Swiss cheese is categorized as extra-hard cheese, hard cheese, semi-hard cheese, soft cheese, cream cheese, and cheese made specifically for melting. Since Swiss cheeses are regionally produced, you’ll be able to taste a new and different cheese wherever you visit.

Fondue and raclette

Warm and comforting, fondue and raclette are particularly fun to share. Made from Swiss cheese, garlic, white wine, corn starch, and a dash of lemon juice, fondue is served in a communal pot. Eaters use long forks to dip bread, boiled potatoes, blanched veggies, and even apple slices into the molten mixture. Raclette is both a specific cheese and a method for serving it. The large chunk of cheese is placed near the fire or under a special heater, and as it melts, it’s scraped onto a plate loaded with potatoes, onions, pickles, and seasonal ingredients, like ham or spring asparagus.

Wine

Wine has been produced in Switzerland’s Lavaux region, near Lausanne, since ancient Roman times. Today, grapes are cultivated for wine in every canton in Switzerland. Though more than 250 varietals are produced, Pinot Noir and Chasselas, which produces a light-bodied, mineral white wine, are the most widely grown grapes in Switzerland. Give them a try during the Lavaux wine tasting excursion available on our Switzerland by Train: Lucerne to Zurich tour.

Chocolate

Though the Swiss didn’t invent chocolate—credit there goes to ancient Mesoamericans—they surely perfected it, creating methods and machinery that transformed cocoa and sugar into the sweet, creamy treat we love today. About 200,000 tons of chocolate are produced in Switzerland each year. It’s so good that the average Swiss citizen consumes a whopping 22 pounds of the indulgent confection each year.

Rösti

This crunchy, golden-brown potato pancake is served all over Switzerland as a main dish or an accompaniment. It’s particularly good with Zürcher Geschnetzeltes, the creamy veal stew that’s a specialty in Zurich.

Birchermuesli

Although it’s become a breakfast staple in the United States and other parts of the world, muesli was actually created at the beginning of the 20th century by a Swiss nutritionist named Maximilian Bircher-Benner. The cold, oat-based porridge was developed as part of a raw food diet and originally served to sanatorium patients as an easily digestible evening meal. Instead of yogurt, the original recipe combined oat flakes with a mixture of fresh milk and sweetened condensed milk.

Indulge in Swiss delicacies

Fun things to do in Switzerland

Our tours of Switzerland are packed with interesting activities, like historical walking tours, scenic drives and train rides, as well as wine tastings. Curious about what to do in Switzerland during your free time? These Swiss travel tips will get you off to a great start.

Go for a hike

Among the best things to do in Switzerland is to hop on the walking trails and hiking paths that loop through cities, parks, and mountains. In Zurich, the paved promenade along Lake Zurich is shaded by linden trees and offers lovely views of the Alps. Near Lucerne, Mount Rigi’s easy trails can be accessed via a tramway that gets you to the top of the mountain without breaking a sweat. Just a few minutes from St. Moritz, Pontresina’s just-over-three-mile-long Morteratsch Glacier Trail is studded with informational placards.

Hop aboard a funicular, cable car, or aerial tramway

Getting up and down mountains is a way of life in Switzerland, but you don’t have to walk. Incline trains, cable cars, and tramways are readily available to do all the work—and offer wondrous scenery along the way. In Lugano, it’s a 10-minute funicular ride to the top of Mont Bre, which looks out over Lake Lugano, mountains, and alpine villages. From Zermatt, a series of cable cars will take you to Matterhorn Glacier Paradise, where you’ll have uninterrupted 360-degree views of the Alps. Switzerland’s first funicular went into operation in 1877 and connects hilltop Lausanne with its lakeshore neighbor, Ouchy.

Get out on the water

Whether you choose to get wet or not, there are plenty of ways to enjoy Switzerland’s lakes. This includes paddle boats and swimming beaches in Zurich, ferries and tour boats on just about every lake, and sailing on Lake St. Moritz. In Basel, change into your bathing suit, fold your clothing into a waterproof “wickelfisch,” and join the locals to float down the Rhine. Exit points along the way have changing areas.

Get active in Switzerland

Souvenirs to buy in Switzerland

Whether you’re looking for stylish clothing in Zurich, cow-related mementos in the Alps, or books about Heidi in the Engadine, shopping is arguably one of the best things to do in Switzerland. Most goods are subject to a Value Added Tax, or VAT, which is included in the final price. One of the least-known Swiss travel tips is that you can often get a refund on a percentage of the tax… or not pay it at all.

To claim your discount, you’ll need to spend at least 300 CHF in one place and fill out the proper paperwork (you’ll need your passport.). When you arrive at the airport, look for the VAT refund desk. You’ll need to have your purchases, and the receipts, with you. To avoid VAT altogether, either shop at a tax-free shop, or have your goods shipped home.

Wine

Don’t be surprised if you’ve never tasted Swiss wine. The Swiss keep most of it to themselves, exporting just 1% of what they produce. It’s easy to see why: Swiss wine tends to be light, but with enough body and acidity to cut through typically rich Swiss food.

Cheese

Though lots of Swiss cheeses are available throughout the world, not all make it out of Switzerland, particularly handcrafted AOP (appellation d'origine protégée) cheeses from small villages such as Gruyere, Vacherin Mont-d’Or, and Tête de Moine. It’s easy to bring cheese home—either ask the cheesemonger to vacuum seal it, or bring your own leak-proof plastic container. Either way, be sure to pack your cheese in your checked luggage.

Kitchen tools

From a special cheese slicer called a girolle and sticks that make rolling out cookie dough a breeze to pretty ceramic fondue pots and utilitarian presses for the squiggly dumplings called spaetzle, Swiss kitchens have a tool for everything.

Cow bells

To many Swiss, the music of the mountains is soft clanking of the brass bells that Swiss cows wear around their necks during the summer. The bells are available in a variety of sizes and are often attached to decorative hangers.

See Switzerland on tour

What to pack for a trip to Switzerland

Since seasonal weather in Switzerland varies tremendously, base your packing around the time of year you’ll be traveling on our Switzerland tours.

Outdoor gear

The Swiss don’t let cold or wet weather deter them from their favorite activities, and neither should you! Besides bringing a seasonably appropriate coat, don’t forget a hooded raincoat, rain pants, and shoes that will keep your feet warm and dry. If you’ll be hiking, be sure to pack hiking shoes or boots, non-cotton socks, a hat, and some kind of lightweight backpack. Since summer evenings can be cool, a lightweight jacket or sweater is a necessity.

Comfortable shoes

Whether you’re walking along cobbled streets, through train stations, or in airports, comfortable shoes will keep you going and let you focus on the sites and not your feet.

Skin protectants

High altitude can mean sunburn and windburn. Protect your skin with sunscreen, moisturizer, and lip balm made with SPF.

Foldable shopping bag

A lightweight shopping bag in your purse or backpack will give you a place to carry purchases from farmer’s markets and grocery stores, which often charge for bags.

Coin purse

Instead of paper currency, Switzerland uses coins for 1 CHF, 2 CHF, and 5 CHF denominations. Keep them corralled in a small pouch.

Electricity adapter

Not only do Swiss outlets run on different voltages than the U.S., but the plug type is different as well. Be sure to pack a type C plug adapter in your bag so you can charge all your devices while on your Switzerland tour.

Ready to put your new Switzerland expertise to use? Check out our tours of Switzerland.


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About the author | The Go Ahead Tours Team
We’re a team of passionate travel experts, dedicated to helping people explore the world. From inspiring stories to tips for an amazing trip, the topics we cover are all about getting you out there and making discoveries.

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