18 October 2017 - Who hasn’t dreamt of waking up in a cozy wooden chalet in a beautiful alpine setting, with views over the meadows and snow-capped mountains? Switzerland will not fail to meet your expectations with its charming villages, idyllic towns and endless breathtaking vistas. Its beautiful alpine landscapes, crystal clear lakes and tidy cities have long been a magnet for tourists.
There is no best time to visit Switzerland. In winter you can ski down steep alpine slopes or climb their world-famous peaks. In summer you can hike, take part in cultural events or visit some of the 11 Swiss UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Switzerland is a mountainous, landlocked country with more than eight million people, almost a quarter of whom are foreign and 70% of whom live in the lowlands around Zurich, Geneva and Basel.
The country’s service sector is known for banking, insurance and tourism, much of it in the alpine regions. But it also has a solid industrial sector as the world’s leading exporter of high-end luxury watches and the home of major pharmaceutical companies.
Switzerland has also given the world the Red Cross, the Swiss army knife and Roger Federer, along with the second largest United Nations headquarters.
The main language in Switzerland is often a source of confusion for visitors: there are four different national languages – Swiss German (the most widely spoken), French, Italian and Romantsch, a mixture of classical Latin, Italian and German dialects.
That said, English is spoken in most Switzerland tourist spots and menus are often in English as well.
You might be surprised to hear women were only given the federal vote in 1971 and that women’s rights still have some way to go in Switzerland. The pay gap is still significant and discrimination in employment is all too common. So yes, there have been major advances – 22.8% of parliamentarians were women in 2015 – but there is still some way to go.
You may have heard that the Swiss pride themselves on being punctual. It is considered rude to be late and everything from the trains to the buses run like clockwork. Personally, I blame it on the watch industry!
Too often visitors skip right through to the main Switzerland attractions and avoid the cities. These may be a little less charming than the more popular sights, but if you have time, at least try to spend a day in Zurich or Geneva, Switzerland’s two main urban centers.
These are some of the best cities to visit in Switzerland.
As the largest Swiss city, Zurich is worth a visit.
I would recommend joining a free walking tour of Zurich that takes in all the main sites and a few less well-known ones.
Take some time to visit Grossmünster, literally “the big cathedral”, with its modern stain-glassed windows by Swiss artist Giacometti and climb the 187 steps to the top of Karlsturm where you will get sweeping views of the city.
Or step into the Fraumünster, famous for its stunning 30-foot-tall stained-glass windows by Chagall. Amble through the streets of Niederhof for fun shopping and restaurants. For modern art lovers, hop on a tram or bus, and visit the Kunsthaus, home to Switzerland’s top collection of modern art including works by Picasso and Monet.
One of the best ways to enjoy Zurich – and most of the other best cities in Switzerland – is to simply walk along the lake and take in the views.
Of course, I am going to tell you to visit Geneva: it’s my hometown! As Switzerland’s second largest city, Geneva has a completely different vibe from the rest of Switzerland. With 22 international organizations and countless non-governmental groups, it has a distinct international feel and is known as the “Humanitarian City”.
Start your visit with a walk through the Old Town and climb to the top of St Peter’s cathedral for the best views over the city. Loop through the Parc des Bastions below the old town to take in the imposing Reformation Wall and view the majestic figures of the reformation leaders.
As in Zurich, walk along the lake, past the flower clock and the Jardin Anglais and the famous water spout.
If you have time, take a one-hour guided visit of the United Nations palace, then cross the road and visit the International Red Cross Museum and its interactive exhibit. For insight into Switzerland’s watch-making history and see some truly exquisite timepieces, visit the beautiful Patek Philippe museum. Hope the tram into Carouge, Geneva's trendy little sister.
To pamper yourself spend half-a-day at the fabulous urban day spa, Bain Bleu Hammam and Spa, reserved for women on Tuesdays – 3000 square meters of Turkish-inspired luxury-inspired relaxation. Enjoy the Bains des Pâquis, the public swimming baths right on the lake. Have a massage or enjoy the hammam, also exclusively for women on Tuesdays.
When you’ve seen enough of the city, explore Lake Geneva.
Its shores are lined with castles, pretty towns and the terraced Lavaux vineyards, recently protected by UNESCO. Any visit to this area should include the imposing medieval Château de Chillon, walking along the beautiful promenade in Montreux and exploring the cobblestoned streets of Lausanne.
If you have time, further afield, is the storybook, picturesque town of Gruyères where you can learn all about cheese making and indulge in a traditional cheese fondue.
Situated on the edge of a lake with majestic alpine peaks in the distance, Lucerne was the European aristocracy’s holiday playground in the 19th century. With its picturesque wooden Chapel Bridge, its baroque Jesuit church and its pretty painted houses, it is still one of “the” amazing places in Switzerland.
Switzerland was founded high up in the meadows above Lake Lucerne in 1291; Lucerne itself is a perfect base for exploring the country’s heartland. Mountain lifts will carry you up to popular destinations like Mount Rigi and Mount Pilatus, and paddle-steamers will ferry you across Lake Lucerne.
Ever since the first ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865 and the opening of the Gornergrat cogwheel train in 1898, Zermatt has been one of the top destinations in the Swiss Alps.
Known for its fabulous mountain scenery, the pedestrian-only village is an outdoor paradise, with over 400 kilometers (250 mi) of marked trails for summer hiking and 360km of ski slopes in winter.
For a magical experience, ride the cogwheel train to Gornergrat and book a night at the 3100 Kulmhotel Gornergrat, the highest hotel in Europe – with the best views over the Matterhorn, at sunrise and at sunset (or stay at any of these excellent Zermatt hotels).
Interlaken is one of the top 10 places to visit in Switzerland, with mesmerizing views of the emerald lakes of Thun and Brienz and the majestic Jungfrau towering above. From paragliding to canyoning, this is the place for adventurous women. Use Interlaken as a base for day excursions to the Jungfraujoch and the Aletsch glacier, the pretty alpine village of Mürren and the Schilthorn above, and the waterfalls of Lauterbrunnen.
One of my favorite outings is to walk along the shores of Lake Brienz. Take the bus or boat to the picturesque village of Iseltwald and follow the lovely lakeside footpath through the woods, with amazing views on the turquoise waters of Lake Brienz all the way to Giessbach and its 400-meter high waterfall.
Ticino is the Italian-speaking corner of Switzerland and enjoys a Mediterranean microclimate – and all the charm of Italy with the benefits of Swiss efficiency and order.
From Ascona, Switzerland’s answer to Positano, to Lugano and its colourful piazzas, the Ticino is one of the best destinations in Switzerland, although not necessarily one of the most frequented.
If you pass it by you’ll miss the castles of Bellinzona, the beautiful Verzasca Valley with its famous stone bridge and ancient villages or boat trips on Lake Lugano.
Switzerland has an excellent public transport network and traveling around the country is super easy. Trains run like Swiss clocks: they are punctual and efficient.
Your best bet is to opt for a Swiss Travel Pass, an all-in-one travel pass that gives you unlimited access to the trains, buses and boats. It includes free travel on premium panorama trains (advance reservation required); free public transport in urban areas; 50% discount on mountain excursions; and free admission to 500 museums. Only non-Swiss residents are eligible for the pass. A 3-day pass costs Chf 216 and an 8-day pass Chf 376.
Switzerland is a wonderful country to see by car. Switzerland’s roads are very safe but you’ll need to cope with a range of environments, from three-lane highways to tiny mountain roads with a lot of hairpin bends.
The main international airports are in Zurich, Geneva and Basel. Bern, Lugano and Sion have small regional airports operating a limited number of flights.
Switzerland has an ‘integrated transport system’. In other words, things actually connect. You can fly into a main airport, connect with a train or bus downtown, take a regional train into the countryside, and connect with a postal bus.
Switzerland’s postal bus system is a great way to see the country if you have the time: pretty much every village in the country is served by one of the 2,200 buses on nearly 900 routes.
Travelling in Switzerland is expensive and hotel accommodation is pricey.
You can choose from the best hotels in Switzerland. Splash out in Geneva’s President Wilson hotel on the lake – for a mere $80,000, you can get a 12-room suite, the most expensive in the world.
Or you can sample the other end of the scale, with modern and well-equipped youth hostels or groups like AirBnB.
The Youth Hostel Association provides inexpensive accommodation in 52 locations with good, healthy food. I remember staying at the Zermatt Youth Hostel years ago and I was very pleasantly surprised. It is in a prime location and you can even see the Matterhorn from the hostel.
For the best prices, try booking directly with the hotel. Increasingly hotels are offering customers special deals to woo them away from hotel booking websites. Recently, I stayed at a five-star hotel that was offering breakfast and dinner to guests who booked directly.
BOX: Failing a discount, at least use HotelsCombined to compare prices.
With its good safety record and low crime rate, Switzerland is the perfect destination for the solo woman traveler. You really don’t need to take any precautions other than use your general common sense.
However, like everywhere sexual assaults do happen and sexual crimes are on the rise. I would recommend taking the usual precautions, especially in the bigger cities. I have known more than one woman who has had their drink spiked on a night out in Geneva.
Pickpocketing is common in cities, especially in crowded areas like markets and stations, so keep your cash and cards safe.
Switzerland is a hiker’s paradise. Throughout the country you’ll see small canary yellow arrows pointing you towards various hiking destinations and telling you how long it will take you to get there. Just follow them along and explore.
If you are planning to hike on your own, it is perfectly safe just follow all the usual guidelines: stick to marked trails, always inform someone of your chosen route and use proper equipment. The weather in the mountains can change very quickly so pack an extra layer, a water-resistant jacket and plenty of snacks and water.
And don’t forget to carry around an empty bottle. Everywhere you go, public fountains gush out crystal clear, cold, spring water that is perfectly safe to drink. Many of these fountains are quite beautiful, like in the city of Bern. So remember to always keep an empty bottle with you!
The following book suggestions will help put you in the mood for your Swiss trip:
If you're on Instagram, have a look at these creative female landscape photographers who focus on Switzerland:
This is a guest post by Catherine Mikton, a Swiss-American luxury travel blogger based near Geneva. Her blog, Swiss Bliss Travel, is a gateway for the discerning traveler and showcases the very best places to visit in Switzerland. Photos by Catherine Mikton.