Despite the fact that no nation is perfect, Switzerland comes pretty darn close.
60% of the country is covered by the Alps, and the towns and landscapes resemble those of a particularly creative child’s imagination. We’re talking fairytale-style turreted castles, glacier-capped peaks, thundering waterfalls, and lakes the most bizarre hue of turquoise blue. Red railroads twist up to incredible heights. Meadows ringing with cowbells that you may skip down with joy.
Mountains are never more than a whisper away, and even the most culturally rich cities have stunning vineyards, lakes, or river settings. Switzerland is unparalleled in terms of its natural beauty.
But what makes Switzerland truly amazing is how beautifully accessible everything is, whether by train, bicycle, boat, vehicle, or foot. This tiny Alpine country condenses a vast array of adventures into a well-planned journey. The morning can be spent strolling around cutting-edge art galleries, while the afternoon can be spent pounding the slopes. Take a hike next to a glacier in Valais or relax on a Ticino piazza surrounded by palm trees.
Best for mountain highs
The picturesque Jungfrau Region is the cherry on top of the Alpine-themed Bernese Oberland of Switzerland. Everywhere you look, the soaring peaks, glaciers, and roaring cascades provoke gasps of awe. The legendary “big three” of Switzerland, the Eiger (Ogre), Mönch (Monk), and Jungfrau (Virgin), are nearing the 4000-meter threshold.
You won’t want to rush through this area. Allow a week or more to immerse yourself in the area, taking in the 3454m Jungfraujoch, Europe’s highest train station, a once-in-a-lifetime ride up to the everlasting snow, hiking, skiing, sledding, and zip-lining through mountains of legend in Grindelwald, waterfalls galore in Lauterbrunnen, and every type of extreme sport imaginable in Interlaken (skydiving, ice climbing, glacial bungee The outdoors are being shown on a grand scale here.
Best for medieval flair
Although Bern frequently appears in I-can’t-believe-it’s-the-capital trivia questions, Switzerland’s first city actually merits more praise. With its 6 km of covered arcades, subterranean stores, and pubs, as well as the eye-catching Zytglogge and whimsical folk figures atop 16th-century fountains, the cobbled, flag-draped, medieval Old Town is a Unesco World Heritage treasure. This red-roofed city, which is flanked by forested hills and divided in half by the turquoise Aare River, is attractive from almost every perspective. With its monster that eats children (the Kindlifresserbrunnen) and local bears, it’s also genuine children’s literature.
You’ll be lured to major sights like Renzo Piano’s wave-like Zentrum Paul Klee (Berlin’s equivalent of the Guggenheim), the Kunsthaus, with its great collection of fine arts, and the Einstein-Haus, where the genius formulated his Theory of Relativity. However, in the summer, the Aare River is where all the activity is, with swimming, tubing, rafting, and paddle boarding.
Best for romance, vines, and castles
With its mountain backdrop, heart-lifting views, vineyards, and shoreline necklaces with attractive villages and castle-topped towns, the crescent-shaped Lake Geneva (or Lac Léman to francophones) in Switzerland’s western bend is a delight to see.
Geneva encircles the southern bank of the lake, distinguished by its rainbow-hued Jet d’Eau fountain and Mont Blanc peeking up on the horizon. With major museums and galleries to take in, botanical gardens to stroll through, lidos to swim at, Old Town cafes to hang out in, and bright-yellow mouettes ferrying locals across the water, the worldly city makes a fantastic starting point for exploring. This is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful commutes in the entire world.
Don’t stop there though. With its new Plateforme 10 arts district, the lovely terraced vineyards of Lavaux (a Unesco World Heritage site), and flower-draped Montreux, host to one of the most renowned jazz festivals in the world, with the picture-perfect Château de Chillon right on its doorstep, Lausanne can compete with Geneva in terms of culture.
Best for outdoor action
The 4478-meter-high Matterhorn, a magnificent gnarled fang of rock that soars over the alluring, timber-chalet-filled Alpine town of Zermatt in Valais and nudges the Italian border, is the peak with the most allure.
This mountain represents Switzerland and is so adored by the people that it served as the inspiration for the pyramid-shaped Toblerone chocolate bar.
You’ll get infatuated with this mountain and reach for your camera at every possible opportunity, including at dusk and dawn, on hiking trails and in cable cars, in the light and the snow, and from every single frustrating angle.
Zermatt, however, is more than just a city of mountains. Since the middle of the 19th century, climbers have been ascending this rock, and it continues to be a draw for difficult summit ascents today (find yourself a guide at Zermatt). If not, visit Matterhorn Glacier Paradise to walk, ski, and take in the view of a sea of glaciers and 4000m peaks.
Swiss National Park
Best for nature lovers
There is only one national park in Switzerland. Yes, we realize it’s shocking, but we promise it’s a good stunner. The 172 sq km Swiss National Park in the Alps is in overdrive, a nature-gone-wild spectacle of high moors, forests, wildflower-flecked pastures, waterfalls, jewel-colored lakes, and mountains as high as the sky, where ibex, chamois, marmots, deer, and golden eagles roam and fly free. The park is tucked away in a remote area of the country’s southeast near the border with Italy. Here, wildlife is in charge and human involvement is kept to a minimum for the sake of conservation. Some have referred to it as “Canada in miniature”; while we can understand their argument, why would you want to picture yourself somewhere else?
Get the inside scoop on hiking paths and ranger-led guided treks at the visitor center in Zernez to get off to a good start.
Best for dolce vita
Bellinzona, the capital of Ticino, is an attractive city that offers a taste of the best Italian cuisine and culture in Switzerland, with its Alps and towering medieval castles in the background. In its old center, which is braided with flower-draped alleys, Renaissance churches, and cafe-rimmed piazzas that are alive with life, laughter, clinking drinks, and the out-of-tune toll of many campaniles, you’ll find a hefty splash of Italian flair.
Visiting castles is always at the top of everyone’s agenda; one such castle is the mountaintop Castelgrande, which can be made into a full-day excursion (bring water and comfortable shoes). Consider taking some time to experience the wonderful restaurants in Bellinzona, such as the seasonally focused, Michelin-starred Locanda Orico, located in a former palazzo.
Jura Mountains & Lac de Neuchâtel
Best for a remote road trip
If you’ve never thought about the nation’s remote northwest, maybe it’s time. The Jura Mountains are a natural wonder located in the deep forested hills along the French-Swiss border. This serene area is beautiful in its own right, with verdant meadows, old woods, rocky outcrops overlooking three lakes against an Alpine backdrop, and slow-moving towns and valleys that haven’t altered much in generations.
Where should I start? with a journey by car. Start your walks in the Jura Vaudois Nature Park for tastes of Gruyère cheese at quaint Alpine cottages and dress-circle views over Lake Geneva. Swing north from here to Lac de Joux, Le Sentier, a watchmaking community, and Vallorbe, home to Switzerland’s largest (and most stunning) limestone caverns. If you take a journey to Lac de Neuchâtel, you can take a dip in the warm waters of Yverdon-Les-Bains, sneak off the beaten path in the verdant Val-de-Travers (the absinthe’s birthplace), and explore the enormous crescent-shaped Creux du Van canyon. With its fantasy of a beautifully turreted château, cultured Neuchâtel is an appropriate finale.
Appenzell & the Northeast
Best for family adventures
Northeastern Switzerland may lack the overt drama of the higher Alps, but it nonetheless charms in its own quiet, thoroughly rural manner, with the dairy country opening out to the mountains and postcard-perfect half-timbered towns with brightly painted walls.
This small area, hidden in the nation’s little-visited northeast, is ideal for a family vacation with a taste of culture and mild adventure. You may start, for example, in St. Gallen with a tour of the Stiftsbibliothek (Abbey Library), a literary marvel and a feast of rococo art and architecture that is a World Heritage Site. From there, continue to the quaint, obscenely beautiful Appenzell, stopping by the Schaukäserei to try local cheeses.
To reach Werdenberg, a little speck of a medieval hamlet that is home to Switzerland’s oldest timber chalets, travel farther south into the Alps and climb to 2501m Säntis for vistas including six countries. The princely capital of Liechtenstein, Vaduz, lies nearby and is situated on the Rhine River banks.
Best for art
Poor ancient Basel barely gets a mention in terms of popularity. But that’s incorrect. This Rhine-bordering city has it all: world-class art in some of the nation’s top galleries, an exciting food scene, avant-garde structures including the work of Pritzker Prize-winning architects, and a vibrant cafe scene. This forward-thinking city on the border of three nations, which has flourished thanks to the biotech and pharmaceutical sectors, has a palpable dynamism.
Spend several days exploring the center, where must-sees include the Kunstmuseum and its collection of fine arts, the Fondation Beyeler created by Renzo Piano, and the Vitra Design Museum designed by Frank Gehry.
But Basel charms visitors the most who look past the prize attractions, with activities like sundown cocktails by the river or a wild swim in the Rhine, for example. Hire a Wickelfisch at the visitor center, take off your clothes, and follow the current as you float past the city’s sights.
Best for lakeside romance
Dear Lucerne! This walkable medieval dream city, lying on the shores of its namesake lake, exudes a magic that is difficult to describe. Perhaps it will catch your attention as you stroll along the promenade as the sun sets in a blaze of pinks and golds. Or when you sail over its waterways to mythical mountains like 1797-meter Rigi, with a light so exquisite Turner painted it in three different moods, and 2132-meter Mt. Pilatus, where Wagner gushed about the Alpine landscape and Queen Victoria galloped on horseback.
The tiny city packs a cultural punch much beyond its weight thanks to the Sammlung Rosengart, which houses a priceless private collection of Picasso’s, the KKL arts center constructed by Jean Nouvel, and the magnificent medieval bridge, Kapellbrücke, which spans the Reuss River.
The same sights that enthralled Goethe, Queen Victoria, and Wagner in the 19th century will hold you in their spell as you stroll past the belle époque hotels bordering its borders.
You can actually spend more time on the lake if you have more free time. Take a cruise over the fjord-like, mountain-rimmed Lake Uri to experience the geographical and spiritual center of Switzerland. The Oath of Eternal Allegiance was sworn at Rütli, the origin of the Swiss country, in 1291. From there, boats travel the clear turquoise waters to the Tellskapelle, a tiny chapel tucked away in the woods. According to legend, William Tell, the apple-shooting, rebellious folk hero, jumped from his captors’ boat to safety here more than 700 years ago.
Best for urban culture
In mid-August, Zürich throws one of Switzerland’s wildest parties: the techno-pumping Street Parade.