Switzerland Travel Guide
Why Travel to Switzerland?
Travel to Switzerland evokes many images... flower-covered meadows, bell-ringing cows, chocolate, Heidi, and of course fairy-tale mountains! The beauty of it is, that Switzerland is all this and much, much more. There are many beautiful, intriguing places around the world, but very few are as scenic and awe-inspiring as Switzerland. It's one of those places that not only lives up to it's image, but exceeds it. The people are friendly and honest, travel is easy and reliable, the food is good, the history is rich, and many Switzerland travel destinations seem as if they're plucked from a dream. Switzerland is a paradise for hikers, train buffs and chocolate lovers, and is a stunning destination for travelers of all stripes.
I've lived and traveled in Switzerland since 1997, and this Switzerland travel guide is something that I've thought about writing for quite awhile. I haven't been everywhere in the country and it doesn't cover everything... and it's not meant to. This is an opinionated, personal guide to some of my favorite spots in Switzerland. A couple of my favorite cities are included, but I think Switzerland really shines in the mountains, and that's where you should spend most of your time. I've also included links to books, rail passes, stores and other travel resources that I'd recommend for a trip to Switzerland. When you search or purchase through many of the links in this guide, you'll be generating commissions for worldneighborhoodfund.org, a non-profit organization trying to help some of the world's poorest people, a dire need that is often seen on travels around the world. So please come through this page or worldneighborhoodfund.org for searches or shopping (even if you're not traveling to Switzerland) and know that you're giving back a little in the process!
If you're interested in an organized hiking tour or a custom self-guided tour of any type to Switzerland, see our Self-guided Tours page and check out www.alpinehikers.com, our hiking tour website, which can provide lots of ideas and affordable, personalized services. We also offer tour services to the Grand Canyon and Nepal.
You don't need to be a hiker or skier to travel to Switzerland and have an unforgettable vacation. The country is extremely accessible and beautiful, with fantastic sights everyone, and that is the central message of this travel guide...
About Switzerland - a Short History
Switzerland is a landlocked country, nestled in the middle of Europe between Germany, France, Italy and Austria. Easily overlooked on many people's travels to Europe, Switzerland is small, but home to a surprising wealth of tradition, history and variety. Switzerland's mountains and valleys (over 5000 by one count!) form a sort of cultural hub to western Europe, a place where German, French and Italian influences all come together. And somehow, they all get along!
Switzerland is home to 4 national languages - German, French, Italian, and Romansh - each residing in its own region. German is the largest of these groups, spoken in about 67% of the country, with French occupying about 24%, and Italian about 8%. Romansh is an ancient language with roots in the vernacular of Roman soldiers. The Romansh community is very small, with about 50,000 speakers concentrated in isolated pockets of the eastern part of Switzerland. English is spoken widely throughout the country, particularly in the German areas, and you shouldn't have any problem traveling around with English only.
The Confederation Helvetica (Switzerland) is now over 700 years old, dating back to 1291. Representatives from 3 cantons (or states) met on a meadow near Lucerne to pledge their independence and a mutual defense against the Habsburg empire. The Habsburgs sent huge, mounted armies to test the impudence of these simple mountain folk, and time and again the Swiss prevailed. Soon more cantons willingly joined, and the confederation grew. The association between the cantons was loose, but it held. Soon, Switzerland (taken from the name of one of the original cantons, Schwyz) became downright aggressive, and other cantons were conquered and added to the confederation. Their soldiers became famous for their fierceness and bravery, so famous, that the Pope insisted on, and to this day still has, a Swiss Guard. After defeats to France in the 1500’s, the Swiss started to retreat from their aggression, and turned more to internal matters.
The first stirrings of tourism began in the late 1700’s and 1800’s. Scientists traveled to Switzerland to study glaciers and botany. A few wealthy tourists traveled here and raved about the beauty of the dramatic landscape. The Alps, particularly Grindelwald and Chamonix, became an integral part of “The Grand Tour” of Europe. By the 1860’s, the Alps were attracting large numbers of young men, attempting first ascents of all the peaks. Many more people came to walk and admire them from a distance. "Killing Dragons" (listed in Travel tips) offers a lively account of many of these Swiss pioneers.
The first tourists to travel to Switzerland found no hotels and had to find places to stay among the locals, in a farmer’s spare room or with the local priest. As more and more travelers arrived, a few locals started adding extra rooms to their homes and opening small guesthouses. Zermatt’s first inn was opened in 1839 with 3 beds. The Hotel Faulhorn above Grindelwald was opened in 1830 - making it one of Switzerland’s very first mountain hotels. Many of these simple, historic mountain inns, like the Hotel Faulhorn, are still running today. Often set in remote, spectacular areas, they generally offer private bedrooms with a shared bathroom down the hall, friendly owners, and a hearty dose of traditional Swiss culture. I think everybody should try to spend at least one night in a mountain inn on their travels to Switzerland.
The people of the Switzerland have always been fiercely independent, and place great importance on responsibility and self-sufficiency. It was this toughness and self-sufficiency that enabled their ancestors to move into the mountains, to open up new grazing land and to eke out an existence under extremely difficult conditions. In centuries past, the mountains were not necessarily seen as beautiful vacation spots, but as fearsome obstacles to travel and agriculture. Winters were long and harsh, and in order to survive, the locals relied on a system of moving their animals to progressively higher meadows to graze in the summer - the word "alp" actually means summer pasture or meadow in German - while lower fields were cut and stored for winter hay.
This style of life continues today. These regions are more prosperous now, and travel is a major industry, but many people in the mountain communities continue to keep cows and sheep, driving them to the alps in summer (an event accompanied by a colorful procession of bell-ringing and flowers), and making cheese by hand to keep for the winter. In Switzerland, the price of milk and cheese is now subsidized by the government to help make sure these traditions don’t die out, and holding onto these subsidies - and their traditional way of life - is one of the reasons Switzerland has so far declined to join the European Community.