For those of you who may be unaware – I, your Travel Guru, went to school in Switzerland for two years. I lived in a village called Engelberg an hour outside of Lucerne and have so many wonderful memories of my time there. I know I say this a lot about destinations – but it truly is one of my most favorite places in the entire world. So much so that I have often said that when I die, I want half my ashes to be sprinkled there!
So, you can imagine how thrilled I was to connect with Mirko Capodanno – Manager, Western USA Switzerland Tourism Board on one of my Travel Tuesday segments not too long ago. Mirko – who’s birthplace was Switzerland but now reside in San Francisco – was also thrilled to take us on a virtual tour of this fabulous country!
Fasten those seatbelts because we are heading to Switzerland and we’ve got lots of mountains to traverse!
Getting There: There are over 130 weekly direct flights from North America to Switzerland, so lift is not a problem! And you have options on which airline you use – for instance – you can fly Swiss Air – the airline of Switzerland or Edelweiss and a few others. Once you arrive at the Zurich airport you don’t have to go far to catch a ride to your destination within the country – as the trains are onsite! Not only are they convenient but they also run frequently – every ten to fifteen minutes – and on time. To give you an idea of the proximity from the airport to some of the major cites – it is just ten minutes to Zurich, one hour to Lucerne, Basel and Bern, two and a half hours to Lugano and Lausanne and three hours to Geneva. They also offer an amazing luggage service which will transport your luggage right from the airport to the hotel so that you can take the train without the hassle of carting your luggage onto it.
Language and Currency: They speak four different language in Switzerland, and they are German, French, Italian and Romansh. Romansh is a minority language indigenous to Switzerland and only spoken by about ten thousand residents of the country. And yes – English is widely spoken so you don’t have to worry about translation issues. The currency used in Switzerland is the Swiss Franc – although they do accept Euros – but be forewarned – you will get your change back in the Swiss Francs.
Getting Around with Benefits: There are lot of different transportation options within in each city and each city has its own travel card – which includes transportation as well as a number of different activities which is a great way to keep your costs low and still have access to a lot of different experiences.
And – if you stay in a hotel in the cities of Basel, Bern, Geneva and Lucerne or within the entire state of Ticino – transportation within the city (or state in the case of Ticino) is free for all hotel guests. Zurich also has transportation available to guests at its hotels – but it does have a small charge.
One of the best and easiest ways to explore Switzerland is to travel by train. And to make it even easier there are actually two train pass options that you can add on to your package. The first is the Eurail Pass which would allow you unlimited travel in Switzerland while you are there. The other is the Swiss Travel Pass which I highly recommend for its great value. Not only is it unlimited travel by train, bus or boat – but it also some great extras – including several free mountain excursions that are included (and others up to 50% off) and 500 museums. And – children under age 16 are free! There are some other great experiences included as well – like the Cabrio Cable Car which is the first open-air rooftop gondola that takes you up to the Stanserhorn in the Lake Lucerne region. What an amazing ride this is – feeling the wind in your hair and listening to the sounds of cowbells below! Another inclusion is Rigi –also known as the Queen of the Mountains – a local mountain train excursion outside of the Lucerne. One of my favorite places to visit in the Lake Geneva area – Chillon Castle – also comes with the pass. This amazing castle is one you can truly get lost in as it seems to transport you back to the middle ages – back in time as though you are living it. (And after you explore the castle you can partake in a cruise on a pedal steamboat on the lake and enjoy a glass of local wine.) For all you soccer fans – the FIFA World Football Museum – an interactive museum – is also included with the pass as the head FIFA office is located in Zurich. And last but not least the amazing Abbey Library of St. Gallen is included as well. Here you can take in the spectacular flooring and ceiling – although you do have to wear special slippers so you don’t damage the cherry wood floor – and you can view manuscripts dating back to the year 300 after Christ that were drafted by the monks of the abbey – which happens to be a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.
How to Explore: Since everything is close in distance in Switzerland it makes it easy to create great itineraries that will hit a lot of different cultures thanks to the four languages – which in turn means four different cultures and gastronomies. Below are a few ways of getting the most out of your Switzerland Trip.
The Grand Train Tour of Switzerland: These unique tours highlight the panoramic trains of Switzerland. Now I personally have partaken in several of them and I definitely recommend them if you are doing a 10 to 14-day trip to Switzerland – so as to be able to experience each of them.
- Glacier Express: The Glacier Express runs from Zermatt where the famous Matterhorn is located – the most famous mountain peak in Switzerland – and probably in the world. Did you know the Matterhorn is skiable 365 days a year? It is! And this is also a car free town so you can only get there by train. From Zermatt the train runs across the mountains all the way up to St. Moritz. This journey is about eight hours and Mirko encourages you to book lunch on the train (which I can do for you) as it is very nice meal served to you at your seat on the train. While on the Glacier Express you will go over the over the Landwasser Viaduct – which is the UNESCO World Heritage Site part of the rail line. (Fun Fact: There are only three rail lines that are designated UNESCO World Heritage sites, and this is one of them!)
- Bernina Express: The Bernina Express picks up in St. Moritz and heads down to Tirano – which is in Italy. Here you will have lunch and then continue on to Lugano. This rail route will take you through the Bernina Pass – a high mountain pass in the Bernina Range of the Alps.
- Gotthard Panorama Express: This route is one of Mirko’s favorites as it combines two languages areas. You will first arrive in Ticino – in southern Switzerland – where Italian is spoken – and then you will continue over and down the Gotthard mountain where you will board a paddle steam boat for lunch and then on into German speaking Lucerne.
- Chocolate Train: Ahhh – the is one of my favorites! The Chocolate Train takes you from Montreux and then into Broc and ends in Gruyere – with chocolate and cheese along the way! Can’t go wrong with a train ride that results in chocolate and cheese! You will make a stop at the Maison Cailler which is the Swiss chocolate manufacturer and also at the Maison du Gruyere where the famous cheese is made.
The Grand Tour of Switzerland: You can also get around Switzerland by driving through it and they have designed the Grand Tour of Switzerland route to help you do just that! Switzerland is fun to drive especially over the mountain passes – maybe even on a motorbike!
The Grand Tour of Switzerland takes you over beautiful mountain passes, along rivers and lakes and past several UNESCO World Heritage Sites – among other sites. The route is about 1000 miles total, but most people don’t do entire route just parts of it that are of interest to them. One neat thing that you can do is pre-order picnic baskets – which I can do for you of course – and then stop along the way and pick them up. They will include foods made with ingredients from the area for – as I like to call it – a farm to car experience! Now, I recommend doing the Grand Tour in non-winter months – as some of the mountain passes are closed due to snow. However, if you do feel comfortable driving in snow you can always put your car on a train to get over those passes that are closed as an alternative.
E Grand Tour: There is also what is called the E Grand Tour and with over 300 charging stations it is one of only routes in the world accessible to electric cars – like Tesla’s for instance. This route takes you through boutique towns, through Bern – which is the capital of Switzerland and then more unique old towns – making for some great window shopping and exploring opportunities. Exploring the history of these towns is always fascinating – as each is a little different than the other and it is great to see these off the beaten path towns.
Some More Destinations: You may be thinking that I’ve already highlighted all of the “must see” destinations in this picturesque country – but here’s some more!
Lucerne: This fabulous city is located on beautiful Lake Lucerne and the Reuss River and sits amid the Swiss Alps. While here be sure to visit historic Old Town and the Chapel Bridge. And for an amazing view that you won’t find anywhere else take a Lake Lucerne dinner cruise on a 100-year-old paddle steamer and be awed by the mountains sparkling in the night thanks to their snowy caps.
Engelberg: This is the village I lived in while I studied in Switzerland and is just one hour from Lucerne. One fun thing to do is to take a local bus (seasonal) to the cable cars that are about ten minutes away. You can take the cable cars up to the top of Mount Titlis and experience four seasons in one day! And of course, you can ski or if you’re not a skier you can walk around and then head to the lodge to hang out and take in the amazing views.
Jungfrau Region: If you want to go to the “top of Europe” – this is it! Featured in the Lord of the Rings the valley is breathtaking and boasts over 70 waterfalls – pretty much everywhere you look to the left or the right. In addition to being an amazing ski destination in the winter there are also a ton of summer activities. As Mirko noted – you can literally do anything with an “ing” – hiking, ziplining – including family ziplining where you can all go together, parasailing – you name it. And if you are hiking, there are great little restaurants along the way that you can stop in and have a beer or bite to eat!
Morteratsch: Here you will find the Alpine Cheese Dairy where you can watch the cheesemakers at work as they make alpine cheese over a fire using ancient cheese-making traditions.
Lausanne: Situated on Lake Geneva – this city is home to International Olympic Headquarters. It also houses the five-star Beau-Rivage Palace that features an extraordinary ballroom. (Fun Fact: Phil Collins was married here.) And – bonus for you my fabulous clients – they are a part of the Travel Leaders Select Program which means that I can get you additional amenities and VIP services when you book with me – adding extra value to your trip.
Lugano Region: This is Mirko’s birthplace and is located on the southern tip of Switzerland on the Swiss Italian Lakes – and thus is the Italian speaking part of the country. A great aspect to this area is that it can be combined with an Italy trip as well. And Mirko did note that the climate is vastly different than what you would expect in Switzerland as here you will find palm trees thanks to the Mediterranean climate. And its gastronomy is also Mediterranean influenced including a lot of Italian inspired dishes such as polenta, risotto and pizza. But they do have many Swiss qualities – as Mirko quipped – like the punctuality of the Swiss trains!
Ticino: Now – Switzerland has wine – but as per Mirko they don’t export them much – they drink them! Here in Ticino you can find an incredibly unique wine – a white merlot – one of the few real ones produced in the world. It is made from merlot grapes – which are red – however – they take skin off the grapes and when fermented it turns out to be white – and boy is it delicious!
Lavaux: Located in the Lake Geneva Region this stunning countryside is a true mind, body, spirit destination and a great place to recharge your batteries. Lavaux is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site in terms of wine with over 500 years of wine making history and is a great place to stroll through – or bike – tasting wines and learning how they make them along the way.
Accommodations: First of all, the best thing you can do as far as accommodations is to stay in one place – since the distances between the cities, villages and towns are relatively short. This way you have just one home base to explore from – so you don’t have to keep packing and unpacking. And of course – I can help you determine what and where that home base will be. There are generally just three categories of hotels in Switzerland as explained below.
Typical Swiss Hotels: These properties combine regional architecture with a genuine Swiss atmosphere and are as diverse as Switzerland itself, are family owned and have been there for generations.
Wellness Hotels: Whether a sensuous spa, mystic bathing temple or medicinal herb garden Switzerland’s spa and vitality hotels offer a bit of heaven on earth. One highly recommended? The magnificent Bürgenstock Resort overlooking Lake Lucerne – that houses an incredible infinity pool overlooking the lake. And this resort is great for social distancing as it tucked away and is only accessible via a private catamaran from Lucerne then a five-minute train ride to the property. (Fun Facts: Audrey Hepburn got married in Bürgenstock and my parent spent their 25th anniversary at this very resort!)
Swiss Family Hotels: From campsites to youth hostels to five-star hotels – all of these options are geared exclusively towards family travel.
Destination Weddings: Switzerland is a great place to get married thanks to all the beautiful scenery, breathtaking landscapes and different backdrops. From mountains to lakes, in the city or in the countryside, on a glacier or on a paddle steamer – the sky’s the limit and the photo shoots are guaranteed to be stunning! And I am so happy to say they are also LBGTQ friendly!
Another great reason to wed in Switzerland? It’s centrally located in Europe so its easily accessible for international guests and it’s well connected to other countries via train. And I can even set up itineraries for your guests so while they are there for wedding, they can also take in any sites they want to see –and I can make them unique so that everyone doesn’t have to do the same thing.
Mirko’s Favorite Things to Do: During Mirko’s presentation he let us in on the things he loves to do in his home country and made a list of those that you must do while there! Thank you Mirko!
- Stay in the mountain hotels: These are the best properties first – for the sights when you open your curtains in the mornings and second – for the sounds – cow bells! – my favorite!
- Have a fondue or raclette: Or both – and I can let you know where to find the best!
- Happy hour in Ticino: Partake either on the lake in Lugano or Lago Maggiore in Ascona and soak in southern flavor on the Swiss Italian lakes.
- Enjoy the nightlife in Zurich: Zurich is the best place for nightlife! And it’s also a great opportunity to take a dip in Lake Zurich which is actually quite warm. (Mirko relayed the water was 70 degrees in September when he was there!)
- Watch making classes in Geneva: Bonus – they will service them and warranty them for you.
- Visit a market in Basel (and have a drink at Les Trois Rois): Basel has great outdoor markets offering fruits and vegetables and even antiques. Some are permanent and some are only there once or twice a week. They also have great Christmas markets during the holiday season.
- E-bike tour along Route 99: If you like being outdoors – but don’t want to go nuts with physical activity – this is a great option for you! The route goes east to west, from Lake Geneva to Lake Constance. You certainly don’t have to do it all but since they are e-bikes you can easily do 30 to 40 miles per day and still have plenty of energy left over in the evening!
Pre and Post Cruise Stays: Basel is a great place to do a river cruise and I can add on a pre or post stay for you to experience more of Switzerland. You can start by exploring Basel – visiting local farmers markets and strolling through Old Town. You take a train into Zurich or head to Bern – the capital of Switzerland and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. From there you could continue to Gstadd and take the Golden Pass Panoramic Train to Geneva then and fly out of there. Or you could head to Lucerne and get on the Gotthard Panoramic Express Train/Boat down to Lugano where you can enjoy the Swiss Italian flavor of Switzerland and maybe fly out of Milan which is just one hour from Lugano. Lots of possibilities here – these are just a few of the many options!
Updated COVID-19 Information:
- All travelers must check the exact and current travel conditions and entry requirements on Travel-Check (FOPH)
- All travelers must present the entry form “SwissPLF”
- Vaccinated / Recovered: Must show negative test result (PCR not older than 72 hours / rapid antigen test not older than 24 hours.)
- Unvaccinated / Not Recovered: Must show negative test result (PCR not older than 72 hours / rapid antigen test not older than 24 hours) and take a test on the 4th to 7th day after entry (PCR not older than 72 hours / rapid antigen test not older than 24 hours)
For the CDC’s most up to date information on COVID-19 click here. And for the most up to date entry requirements click here.
Whew! That was a lot of area we covered in a short time but what a great highlight reel of this exciting country. And remember – I always have a local contact in any destination I curate a trip for you in and Mirko is mine in Switzerland. He and his team can help me customize and vet anything I haven’t personally seen!
For more details on things to see and do in Switzerland, where to stay, it’s price points and more – contact your Travel Guru! Oh, and if you need a payment plan to fund your travel adventure – we got those too!