Snowcapped alps, trim old towns, lakes and punctual trains are what you might expect in Switzerland. But delve beneath the impeccable surface of this manicured country and you’ll find it’s far quirkier and more surprising than you might imagine.
Beyond picturesque old towns and pretty lakeshore promenades, not everything is polite and proper about Swiss cities. Explore alternative districts and you’ll be delighted by their vibrancy, creativity and edgy appeal.
A good place to start is Zurich West, a former industrial district on the ‘wrong’ side of the tracks whose factories have been transformed into hip hotels, restaurants and stores. Shopping tip? Look out for Swiss brands such as Erfolg (knitwear and shirts), Einzigart (homeware) and Freitag (bags).
Basel is home to the highest concentration of museums in Switzerland
No expense is spared at Hotel d’Angleterre where rooms have antique furnishings, fine art and marble bathrooms
Carouge district in Geneva
Room with a view
Less than three miles north of Carouge, on the edge of Lake Geneva, you’ll find Hotel d’Angleterre. The hotel was built in 1872 and overlooks the Jet d’Eau fountain, one of the city’s most famous landmarks. Guest experiences include a trip to the charming medieval village of Gruyères in a Bentley Arnage; a three-hour fishing tour with a local fisherman on Lake Geneva where your catch is then cooked in the hotel restaurant, and the chance to become a watchmaker for a day and create your own unique timepiece.
No trip to Switzerland would be complete without sharing a Gruyère cheese fondue
La Ferme de l’Hospital is located in a historic building that was once the Geneva Hospital
Food for thought
Switzerland is famous for chocolate, and you haven’t lived until you’ve enjoyed fondue in a cozy icicle-draped chalet, as snow falls over a darkened silhouette of Alps. Besides the world-famous Gruyère cheese, try nutty Vacherin, Tête de Moine and Sbrinz, perhaps Europe’s oldest cheese. Beyond these satisfying stereotypes, be sure to also explore Switzerland’s diverse regional cuisine from the Zurich style veal, Saucisson (pork sausage), and cream sauces of German-speaking cantons to the Filet de Perche (freshwater fish) of the French-speaking west.
Switzerland has more top-rated restaurants per capita than any other country. This year has seen a further 16 restaurants added to the Michelin-starred ranks. Take your taste buds on a journey with chic Japanese cuisine at The Chedi in ski resort Andermatt, or vegetarian at Neue Taverne in Zurich. A little further afield, on the edge of Lake Geneva (technically in France) is the Michelin-starred restaurant, La Ferme de l’Hospital, in Bossey. The 17th-century farmhouse has been re-imagined by chef Jean Jacques Noguier to serve innovative cuisine featuring seasonal flavors and local wines, all with flawless service.
The Bernina Express connects Switzerland and Italy via the highest mountain railway in the Alps
Ticket to ride
Certain Swiss train rides are deservedly famous for their extraordinary scenery and spectacular engineering, such as the Bernina Express, Glacier Express, or rack railways up the Jungfrau Joch or Mount Rigi.
But even your everyday train ride provides spectacular scenery. Try the route from Geneva to Montreux which rolls through the terraced vineyards of the UNESCO region of Lavaux, glides through multiple charming villages and provides breathtaking views of Lake Geneva. The Voralpen Express takes you from St Gallen to Lucerne with views of the 13th-century castle Schloss Rapperswil and lush pastures as you speed southwest into the heart of Switzerland towards an ever-unfolding series of jagged Alpine peaks. For a lovely trip through the countryside, trundle along the Emmenthal Valley between Lucerne and Bern, where cow-chewed meadows are covered in wildflowers, and farmhouses decked in geraniums.
Trundle along the Emmenthal Valley… where cow-chewed meadows are covered in wildflowers, and farmhouses decked in geraniums.
Hike above Lake Geneva and this is your reward
Walk this way
Walking and Switzerland go together like cuckoos and clocks, and at every turn helpful yellow walking signs point the way in renowned hiking destinations such as Grindelwald, Rigi or Zermatt. But they point to paths less traveled too, even in the Alps, such as the Oeschinensee Panorama Hike from Kandersteg, or Marmot Trail at Mt Titlis. Don’t let the Alps completely distract you from discovering glorious countryside elsewhere. Creux de Van near Neuchâtel is an incredible horseshoe of cliffs with views across farmland and forest to the distant Bernese Alps. The Doubs Valley treats you to a gentle Jura Mountains river and enchanting forest.
Oeschinensee Lake is one of the most picturesque in the world and it’s not hard to see why
Get a bit of height above Lake Geneva and almost any walk between villages is magnificent. In just 1.5 miles between Begnins and Luins you can enjoy vineyards, chestnut forest, mountain-viewing meadows and a thirteenth-century church. Just you, the locals, and those helpful yellow signposts.
The 13th-century Gruyères Castle on the threshold of Fribourg’s Alpine foothills is just metres from the H.R. Geiger Museum
Switzerland has impressive art museums, an Olympics Museum and a world-class Swiss Museum of Transport. But it also has excellent small, unique museums easily overlooked by unwitting visitors.
In Geneva, Musée Ariana houses one of Europe’s best glass and porcelain collections in a lovely nineteenth-century villa, while Bauer Collection displays glorious art objects from China and Japan, including ceramics, jade and ivory figurines. Basel has brilliant art museums but, for something different, Museum Tinguely is devoted to the outsized, quirky mechanized creations of Switzerland’s leading twentieth-century sculptor.
Have a taste for oddity? H.R. Geiger Museum in Gruyères is devoted to the creator of the monsters in the Alien movies. Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne has brilliant, haunting works by self-taught ‘outsider’ artists, and Estavayer-le-Lac has stuffed frogs arranged in whimsical nineteenth-century scenes sure to enchant the kids. Who knew the Swiss could be so eccentric?