Switzerland Travel Guide

The first things you hear about Switzerland are usually the chocolate, watches and possibly… the cows! But there is so much more to the country than a few stereotypes. It is a slideshow of beautiful lakes and mountains, cosy nice towns and friendly people. This landlocked country has a long history of tourism, this is here, after all, that winter tourism was invented and where hikers and other holidaymakers were looking for fresh air and breathtaking sceneries in the 19th century.

Switzerland is about variety where you can mix city sightseeing with rides on little Alpine trains, hiking or skiing in winter. There is something for everyone and the transportation network will make it very easy for you to wander across lakes, countryside and mountains. Switzerland’s gastronomy is also very varied. While you shouldn’t miss the national dishes such as Fondue or raclette, each region has had different influences from their neighbours and you will enjoy various local delicacies.

It should also be said that Switzerland is among the most expensive countries. No worries, however, we will help you find the good deals and travel on a budget. It won’t be dirt cheap but the country is truly beautiful and you will not want to miss it in any case.

 

 

Top 5 Places to see in Switzerland

  1. Zurich – the biggest city of Switzerland is definitely cosmopolitan with many students and expats from accross the world. It has a lot of bars and restaurants, a good club scene and a few world famous museums. Do not miss the Kunsthaus and the National Museum. The old town and the lakefront are also beautiful. From there, do a day trip to Luzern.
  2. Berner Oberland – the Bern Highlands have among the most famous peaks in the Country such as the Jungfrau and the Eiger. Use Interlaken as your base to discover the Bern Alps by train and cable car. In summer, there are a number of nice hikes with view on the summits and lakes.
  3. Bern – while being a small city, Bern is the capital of Switzerland. It has a magnificant old town which is on the UNESCO heritage list. Also, do not miss the Bundeshaus (House of Parlament and Government) as well as the Bern Historical Musuem.
  4. Lake Geneva – rent a car and drive around the lake to discover beautiful sights such as Chillon Castle, the Lavaux region with its vineyard looking over the lake, Lausanne, Geneva with its musuems and water jet. If you go in August, you may want to stop in Montreux for its now world famous Jazz Festival
  5. Zermatt – The ski resort town is at about 1,600m high and is famous for its view on the Matterhorn. In winter, skiing is the obvious option. In summer, hiking offers a lot of possibilities. From the town, take either a train to the Gornergrat (3135m) or the cable car to the Klein Matterhorn (3883m).

 

Quick facts on Switzerland

Size – The Swiss confederation is home to about 8.4m inhabitants and is rather a small land with 41,285 m2 (about 8 times smaller than Germany).

Time – the time zone is Central European Time (CET), 6 hours ahead of New York. From October to March, the clock is moved forward by 1 hour (daylight saving time).

Language – There are 4 spoken languages in the country; French in the west, Italian in the southern Canton of Ticino, Romansh in Grisons and German which is the mother tongue of more than 60% of the population. Map of the languages of Switzerland
That being said, many Swiss are fluent in English or have at least a rudimentary level, good enough to help you find your way. There is hardly any problem in the tourism industry.

Climate & When to go – Switzerland’s climate is considered temperate and has 4 distinct seasons. In Zurich, the average temperature in July is 18.6°C and in January 0.3°C. Now, if you take a famous mountain town, Zermatt (altitude 1608m) has a mean of 12.5°C in July and minus 4.8°C in January!
Peak season is generally July, August as well as December to April (Ski season). Given the high level of prices, it is recommended to avoid these periods. Spring and autumn are actually lovely seasons to visit the country without freezing or suffering from the heat and the absence of air conditioning! Skiing can be a bit more complicated and is anyway an expensive sport there. Provided there is snow, early December is when you can expect cheaper hotel prices in ski resorts.

Visas & Customs – The Swiss Confederation is part of the Schengen area. Should you need a visa to enter, it will allow you to travel around 26 European countries! You can check on the website of the Swiss Representation in your respective country for details. For citizens of the European Union, Norway and Iceland, you will only need an ID card to enter (if you have one).
When arriving in Switzerland, you will have to clear customs. Be mindful that there are quantity restrictions on the import of various products; tobacco, alcohol, cars, meat, butter and oils. For example, you are allowed 250 cigarettes per person, duty-free.

Currency & payment methods – Swiss Franc (CHF). The Euro is accepted in many shops especially in the touristic areas. Most businesses now also accept credit and debit cards. Should you need to change currencies, banks are the cheapest as other agents usually take a higher markup. Also in the country of banks, you will have no problem to find an ATM should you need one. Note that some machines such as ticket machines in train stations would ask for a PIN Code when paying by card. Do check with your bank beforehand if you don’t have one.

Electricity & Connectivity – the electricity current is 220V, 50Hz. Swiss sockets are three-holed, hexagonally shaped and incompatible with many plugs from abroad. They usually, however, take the standard European two-pronged plug.
The Internet is widely available in hotels but also in various supermarkets, department stores (Manor) as well as in some public spaces. Be mindful however that trains don’t have any wi-fi but most train stations have free access.

Budget

Hotels – expect to find 3-stars hotels in the CHF 100-150 range. In cities such as Zurich, the price may be higher during the week. Ski resorts would also be more expensive between late December and early April. 4 and 5-star hotels may have special offers but would generally be around CHF 350. In general, 3-stars are more than enough as hotel rooms are very clean and comfortable. An alternative is also to go for Airbnb especially in large cities like Basel or Zurich. For the budget conscious, dorm beds in hostels come at around CHF 40-50 per night.

Food – eating out in restaurants is probably one of the most expensive things you will do over there. Expect to be pay CHF 15-30 for lunch and about CHF 50 for dinner. A big mac menu costs CHF 11.70. From that perspective, it is often worth to self-cater for dinner. Renting a flat with a kitchen may save you quite a bit of money. For breakfast, you will find many cafes serving various pastries and coffee for a reasonable price.

Museums and sightseeing – museums are reasonably priced but generally have special offers such as a free entry on Wednesdays or half-price after 5 pm. Do check their respective website.

Budget tips – tipping is never expected. However, people generally round up taxi rides to the next Franc. The local sales tax is the VAT and equals to maximum 7.7%. It can be refunded to Foreign Nationals for purchases above CHF 300.

Health & Safety

Switzerland has an excellent health care system. Your hotel can usually recommend a local doctor or the closest hospital. As treatment is expensive, it is advised to take on travel health insurance. Check your coverage if you intend to ski as repatriation may not be covered. In case of emergency, you can call 112.

Smoking is not allowed in closed spaces open to the public and that includes restaurants, hotels, cinemas, etc. There are however some variations depending on the Canton. As a rule of thumb, going outside is the best bet.

The country is generally very safe and violent crime is rather uncommon. Pickpocketing may still happen in larger cities.

Getting in & around

Airports – The 3 main airports are Zurich, Basel and Geneva. Unless you intend to focus on one region, it may be worth comparing the airfares and see which airport is the cheapest. After all, Geneva is only 3 hours away from Zurich by train. Airports are generally well connected to the city by train or bus.

Train network – Switzerland has the densest network. It is absolutely not a problem to travel solely by train around the country. Most of the network belongs to state-owned SBB. Trains are in excellent condition and apart from a few mountain or regional trains, they are all air-conditioned. That being said, it can be expensive and may not be worth it should you travel with more than 1 person. In that case, renting a car may be a better deal. Various passes are available to foreigners and can be interesting if you intend to criss-cross the country. More info on http://www.swiss-pass.ch.

City networks – cities have all a network of buses or trams or a mix of both. Note that you usually receive a free city pass when you check in at hotels.

Driving – as mentioned above, it may be worth driving especially if there are 3 or more people on that trip. Roads are in excellent condition and there is a good expressway network. Should you drive from abroad, keep in mind that an expressway sticker must be bought at the price of CHF 40. It can be bought at post offices and gas stations.

Food

Swiss gastronomy is unexpectedly varied. Cities have many gastronomic restaurants with international influence from neighbouring countries. Restaurants also change their menu depending on the season. However, Switzerland is also about traditional meals such as cheese fondue, roestis or raclette. The various regions also pride themselves on local dishes and hearty recipes. Last but not least, chocolate should not be forgotten! Try pralines and the traditional milk chocolate. Good addresses are http://www.spruengli.ch and http://www.laederach.com. However, simply going to your local supermarket will already give you plenty of choice without the high price tag.

Should you want to self-cater, the supermarket sector is split between the 2 local companies; Coop and Migros. Their prices are similar and you will find everything from gourmet food to their home budget range. For even cheaper food, the German Lidl and Aldi are also available in larger cities. Note that all shops are closed on Sundays!