Switzerland Travel Guide

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Visiting Switzerland

931Home to some of the highest mountains, deepest lakes, and greenest pastures on the continent, Switzerland is one of the most picturesque destinations you will ever visit.

Situated in central Europe, landlocked Switzerland shares borders with Germany on the north, Italy in the south, Austria to the east and France to the west. Its capital is Bern, situated in the east of the country with a population of just under one hundred and fifty thousand. Its biggest city, however, is Zurich with almost three hundred and fifty thousand residents and the largest financial centre in the country. Other major cites are Geneva which is noted mainly for its watch-making and jewellery; Basel which is a commercial centre dealing mainly with textile manufacturing and Lausanne which is a major European railroad junction and a centre for the manufacture of iron goods.

Over seventy per cent of the country is covered by mountains, the Alps in the centre and south of the country and the Jura in the northwest. As a result Switzerland has become one of the top ski destinations worldwide attracting visitors in their millions every year. In fact both national and tourism plays a major role in the Swiss economy employing over ten per cent of the national population and contributing over twenty billion Swiss Francs to the country’s GDP on an annual basis.

As well as having two major mountain systems, Switzerland is also home to numerous lakes which are renowned the world over for their scenic beauty. The most important lakes in the country include Lake Geneva, Lake Constance, Lake Magiorre which are shared with its European neighbours and Lake Lucerne, Lake Neuchâtel, Lake Zurichsee, Lake Brienzersee and Lake Thunersee which are contained entirely within Switzerland. As well as being for practical navigation purposes, the lakes are completely taken over by cruise boats and steamers during the summer months and prove extremely popular among both the native Swiss and the hordes of visitors which arrive every during this period.

A combination of the three principal cultures in the country, Swiss cuisine draws heavily on influences from their French, Italian and German neighbours. In the French speaking part of Switzerland you will encounter dishes such as ‘assiette valiaisanne’, a combination of dried beef, gherkins, sausages, cheese, ham and bacona and certainly not one for the vegetarians among you. Other favourites is ‘papet vaudois’ which is smoked sausage served on a bed of leeks and potatoes and ‘fricassée de porc’, marinated pork served with gravy. And of course there are dishes like ‘fondue’ and ‘raclette’ which have made their way on to the menu in restaurants around the world.

Moving along to the German-speaking region, the food takes its influence from the climatic and geographic conditions of the area. Soups feature highly on their list of priorities with ‘basler mehlsuppe’ being one of the preferred specialities. The many lakes mean that fish is also popular and so too is game. The country’s national dish, ‘geschnetzeltes kalbfleish’, originated in this region too and consists of diced veal which is served in a cream sauce. Other dishes favoured by visitors and locals alike are ‘rosti’, fried potatoes served with onion, ‘spatzli’ which are a type of German noodle and ‘ratsherrentopf’ which is a meat and potato stew guaranteed to satisfy even the hungriest of you after a day on the slopes.

And the good news for the ‘sweet tooths’ among you is that the Swiss Germans have also a few pretty special deserts. Among those which come highly recommended are ‘kirschtorte’ which is a cake flavoured with cherry brandy, ‘rueblitorte’, quite possibly the best carrot cake you will ever taste, and ‘birnbrot’ which is a type of pear bread.

Finally, let’s have a look at what the Italian contingent have come up with in the kitchen. Well, as it happens they really haven’t varied too much from any authentic Italian restaurant. Pizza and pasta dishes still dominate every menu but you will come across a couple of new additions including ‘polenta grass’, a dish consisting of corn meal and cream and ‘fritto misto’, again not one for any non-meat lovers as this is a type of mixed grill consisting of at least three different types of meat.

Finally to wash it all down ensure that you sample some of the wonderful variety of Swiss wines which are available throughout the country. Or for those of you who fancy something a little stronger, check out some of the fruit spirits. Kirsch, Marc and Williams all come highly recommended as does the local beer.

Getting There
If Switzerland is your first European stop, it is useful to note that there are air connections between Switzerland and all the major world cities. Most international flights into Switzerland will arrive at Bern, Geneva or Zurich while flights from the continent also fly into Basel airport. The country’s national carrier Swissair offers services to all the major US cities as well as over one hundred worldwide destinations

If you are travelling around Europe on a Eurail or Interail pass, however, making your way to Switzerland by train is also extremely popular among backpackers. All the major cities have rail services to and from the bigger Swiss cities so whatever part of Europe you are in, it shouldn’t be too difficult to make your way to Switzerland. There principal connections between Paris and Geneva, Lausanne and Zurich and most are TGV which means you should make it to anywhere in Switzerland within five hours. This method of transport can prove very expensive but by travelling between the destinations on the Eurail or Interail network you can cut your costs considerably. Other continental connections are between England, Germany, Holland and Switzerland.

Several European cities also offer direct bus connections to the major Swiss cities and while the service is much slower and less comfortable, it usually works out somewhat cheaper. Busabout operates to Geneva, Interlaken, Lauterbrunnen and Lucerne and Eurolines operate services to Basel and Zurich.

Finally, if you have plenty of time and money to spare and want to go for something completely different you could always travel to Switzerland by lake steamer ferries from Germany or Italy or by boat along the Rhine from Amsterdam.

Getting Around
The Swiss public transport system incorporates trains, buses, boats and cable cars but the most popular of all forms of transport would have to be its impressive rail system. One of the best in the world, it is comfortable and reliable and you can use your Interail or Eurail pass. As well as these, however, the Swiss Federal Railway also offers a number of its own individual passes. The Swiss Pass allows unlimited travel on all forms of public transport and can be purchased for use over eight, fifteen or thirty days. All passes can also be purchased for either first or second class travel and the difference between the two is substantial. The Swiss Card is a pass which is valid for one month and entitles the holder to half fare trips on all forms of public transport. Finally, another option is the Swiss Regional Pass which divides the country into a number of districts and offers unlimited travel within the region. If you hold the aforementioned Swiss Pass or Swiss Card you are also entitled to a 20% discount of a regional pass.

Bus travel in Switzerland is mainly used to travel into the mountains or to connect from one rail station to another. As well as this all passes entitle you to discounts on both bus and rail so it is more common to avail of the discount on trains rather than buses. When it comes to travel in higher altitudes, however, the yellow postal buses offer an excellent way to see the country’s magnificent scenery.

Another popular form of public transport, particularly in summer, takes place on the country’s waterways and again, you Swiss Pass or Swiss Card is valid to unlimited travel on all lake steamers.

Château de Chillon, Montreux
Located on the edge of Lake Geneva, this excellently preserved thirteenth century castle is one of the most visited attractions in Switzerland. Used by the once famous Counts of Savoy as a watch out point over the road leading from Italy, the castle as it stands today allows you to walk through the dungeons, prison cells and the weapons room as well as its infamous torture chamber. You can also stroll through the inner courtyards, the huge storage rooms and the magnificent halls. And, as if the building itself wasn’t impressive enough, its location and the scenery which surrounds is even more so making it a thoroughly worthwhile trip if you are anywhere near it during your Swiss adventure.

St. Peter’s Church, Zurich
Dating from the early 13th century, St. Peters is Zurich’s oldest church. But it is the clock which wasn’t actually added to the building until 1534 that it has become such a popular attraction. This is the largest clock face measuring almost nine metres indiameter. The second hand alone, is almost four metres long. As well as the addition of the clock, however, the church was constantly being improved and the nave was completely rebuilt in the eighteenth century. As well as visiting this immense clock, however, keep your eyes peeled for advertisements for free classical music concerts which take place in St. Peters on a regular basis. The setting makes them really special and even those of you who don’t think you could sit through a recital run the risk of being very surprised.

The Glacier Garden (Gletschergarten), Lucerne
Offering a unique opportunity to see the deep glacier potholes which have revealed so much about the country’s twenty million year old history, the Glacier Garden is also home to the much loved ‘Mirror Maze’. The largest pothole is about thirty two-metres deep and twenty-seven metres wide and contains some really fascinating rock formations and the like. And, while it may not sound like the most exciting attraction in the world rest assured you won’t leave the gardens disappointed. Also located nearby is the well-known Lion Monument which was carved to commemorate the Swiss mercenaries died in the French Revolution.

Zytglogge, Bern
Located in the centre of the old part of the city, the Zytglogge has long being a symbol of the Swiss capital. A thirteenth century clock tower, a fire almost completely destroyed the structure in the fifteenth century. The tower was rebuilt but the clock broke shortly afterwards and remained broken for over one hundred years until one Caspar Brunner designed a new one. Today you can see this remarkable timepiece which has remained fully intact and in perfect working order since 1530. The main feature which attracts people, however, is the display of mechanical figures which appear four minutes before the hour but even more impressive is a tour inside the tower to see the inner workings of this remarkable clock.

Jungfraujoch Railway, Kleine Scheidegg to Jungfraujoch
While taking a train ride may not seem like the most appealing way to spend an afternoon, rest assured that you will not regret this trip. The Jungfraujoch Railway is Europe’s highest train system travelling through the Bernese Oberland and climbing to a destination over two miles above sea level. It is a true rollercoaster of journey where you climb and plunge enough times to make your head spin but totally worthwhile when you do feel brave enough to look out the window. Once you reach your destination you will find plenty to occupy your time there. There is an ice palace which is free with your train ticket, ski lessons, dogsled rides, an observation post and if your stomach is not churning too much, there is also a restaurant where you can sample local cuisine. One thing you should bear in mind is that it is an expensive excursion but you cannot really put a price on the once in a lifetime experience that this is.

Ski Centres, Throughout Switzerland
And finally, of course no reference to attractions in Switzerland is complete without mentioning some of the more popular ski centres around the country. Verbier is the top ski resort in the French speaking part of the country, the atmosphere in this place is what makes it so special. It’s laid back, fun and generally an excellent place to test your skills on the slopes. It also serves as a gateway to some smaller resorts including Beysonnaz and La Tzoumaz. Zermatt, located at the foot of the world famous Matterhorn is located in the south west of the country and is renowned for its parties which go on until the early hours. Arosa, in the east, is a relatively new resort and attracts a younger crowd, just what you need. Finally, St. Moritz is the glitzier of all the resorts but is still a really good location and well worth visiting if you are in the eastern region of the country.

Fêtes de Genève (Geneva Festival)
Geneva’s premier annual festival takes place in late July and early August and attracts thousands of spectators from all over the world. The highlight of the celebrations are the famous musical fireworks which can be heard throughout the city. But as well as these spectacular displays there’s a whole host of parades, live concerts, street entertainment and stalls selling gastronomic specialties from around the globe. The event centres around the waterfront region of the city and lovemobiles and floats take over the lake for the duration of the festival. Most of the entertainment is free, always good news for the budget conscious traveller, and the atmosphere is indescribable.

Street Parade, Zurich
Switzerland’s answer to Berlin’s Love Parade, the Zurich Street Parade takes place for one day only in early August. In existence for the past eight years, the parade is specifically aimed at House and Techno fans but generally people attend for the atmosphere rather than the music. Attracting over half a million people, this is a true testament to just how popular it is. A mere two thousand made it to the first festival so word has obviously spread. The theme of the parade is one based on all things good – love, peace, freedom – and it is an extremely well run and violence free event where young and old and locals and visitors party together throughout the day. And once the parade ends, you have your choice of at least forty different parties which go on into the night.

Onion Festival (Zibelemarit), Berne
If you’re looking for something a little different, then head to the Swiss capital for the fourth Monday in November where they celebrate – the onion. Strange, maybe, but this festival is one of the biggest in Switzerland. From hundreds of stalls selling plaited strings of onions and other wonderful onion creations to the general mayhem which takes over the city, it really is a good time to visit. With a history which dates back to the fifteenth century the festival traditionally began as a celebration to end the fourteen day autumn market but now it’s just an excuse to party until the early hours.

Jazz Festival, Montreux
In existence for thirty-five years, the Montreux Jazz Festival is one of Europe’s leading music festivals. With over fifty artists and musicians performing at ten different venues around the city, the festival attracts over a quarter of a million visitors from around the world during the two weeks in July while it takes place. And as well as jazz musicians, the sounds of various other types of music can also be heard emanating from every corner of the city. So, if jazz isn’t your thing, this still isn’t an excuse. If you do decide to check it out, however, you need to book both tickets and accommodation well in advance or you may find yourself sleeping on a Swiss park bench for a couple of nights.

Escalade, Geneva
Celebrating the city’s victory over the renowned Duke of Savoy, this is a festival laden with pomp and ceremony. Taking place on the weekend of, or closest to, December eleventh, the entire city gets involved in the festivities which involve dressing up in period costumes, tours of all the historic buildings in the city, feasting on traditional food and much more. The whole even culminates with a three-hour parade through the town with fire torches. It is absolutely spectacular and will show you the city in a whole new light – literally. As well as this, many buildings which usually remain closed, including the Town Hall, are open to the public during the celebrations. And, while it may not sound like the most exciting festival ever, it is one laden with customs and tradition and is an excellent time to visit Geneva.

Currency
The currency used in Switzerland is the Swiss Franc (SFr) and one is divided into 100 centimes (known as Rappen in German speaking Switzerland). Bills come in denominations 10, 20, 50, 100, 500 and 10000SFr and coins are divided into 5, 10, 20 and 50 centimes and 1, 2 and 5SFr.

Language
The three principal languages spoken in Switzerland are German in the centre and east of the country, French in the west and Italian in the south. But if you don’t speak any of the above don’t worry, English is the most widely spoken second language in all regions.

Time Zone
Switzerland is one hour ahead of GMT and six ahead of EST. Summer time adds an hour at the end of March.

Opening Hours
Shops are usually open between 8.00am and 12.15pm and again from 1.30pm until 6.30pm from Monday to Friday and from 1.30pm until 4.00pm on Saturday. In larger towns and cities, however, most shops do not observe a lunch hour and are also open all day Saturday. Office hours are from 8.00am until 12.00pm and 2.00pm until 6.00pm from Monday to Friday and banks are usually open between 8.30am and 4.30pm from Monday to Friday.

Electricity
Swiss electricity is currently 220 volts.

Tax
The good news for all you budget travellers is that there is no VAT in Switzerland which makes a pleasant change from most other European countries.

Visa Requirements
For US, Canadian, EU, New Zealand, South African or Australian nationals, all that is required for a holiday in Switzerland for under 90 days is a current passport. For stays longer than three months and for residents of all other countries, you are advised to contact the Swiss consulate in your area. If you are hoping to work in the country you should also contact the Swiss embassy in your home country before travelling.

Tourist Office
You will find a tourist office in almost every town in Switzerland. Easily recognised by the blue ‘i’ which hangs outside, they usually have at least one English speaking attendant but in more remote areas where this may not be the case, you will usually find multilingual brochures to help you out.

Currency Exchange
While banks are generally the most reliable place to exchange foreign cash and travellers’ cheques, there can also be changed at any of the main train stations or post offices where the exchange rate is usually almost the same as in any of the banks. ATMs can also be used to obtain foreign currency.

All major credit cards are also widely accepted and if you have the PIN you can use these to receive cash in compatible bank machines. The same applies to bankcards which are members of any of the international banking networks or Eurocard.

Telephones
The country code for Switzerland is 41 so if you are calling from abroad you need to dial 00, followed by 41, the local area code and the local number. The same instructions apply when you are making an international call from within the country. You should also note that you need to omit the 0 from the local code where applicable.

Public phone booths are widespread, particularly in the main towns and cities. They accept 10c, 20c, 50c, Sfr1 and Sfr5 coins but the minimum amount for a call is Sfr0.60. Many public phones now also use telephone cards which you can purchase at any railway station, post office and most newsagents. International calls can be made from most public telephones by either dialing 00 followed by the relevant country code or calling the international operator on 114. If a public phone can’t be used to make an international call make your way to the nearest post office where they should be able to help you out.

Tipping
Because the service charge is included in the prices of most the principal services; hotels, restaurants and taxis, tipping is entirely at your discretion. If the service you receive is particularly good, however, you can leave a small additional amount. Where a service charge is not included a tip of between 10 and 15% is sufficient.

Public Holidays
It is worth noting what the public holidays are before you travel to a country as the majority of businesses, banks and shops usually shut for the day. In Switzerland they take place on January 1st and 2nd, Good Friday, Easter Monday, May 1st and 24th, first Monday in June, August 1st and December 25th and 26th. It is a good idea to check the particular area too as certain towns and cities also shut down during special events.

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