Switzerland: A Guide to Combining Cows and Cities

Switzerland — By on August 8, 2011 at 6:00 am

By Isabel B
Special to The Lost Girls

One Country, 26 Cantons, and Four Different Languages

Switzerland may be small, but it is certainly not lacking in diversity. Landlocked in the Alps of central Europe, the country is notorious for its political neutrality and high standard of living. A federal republic with 26 cantons, Switzerland essentially has three regions: German, French, and Italian—in addition to the Romansh-speaking valleys of the canton Graubünden. Within a few hours, you can travel from the German Schweiz to the French Suisse to the Italian Svizzera while crossing the Romansh Svizra. Though most of the Swiss speak English, why not use your trip to brush up on your language skills?

Idyllic Natural Landscapes   

The typical postcard of Switzerland will show a couple of cows grazing on evergreen fields, a snow-capped mountain range towering in the background. And while not every Swiss is a farmer nor keeps sheep in his backyard, most of the inhabitants still retain a close connection to their surrounding natural landscape. As a result, the environment is well kept and endangered species, such as the Edelweiss flower, are protected.

With its privileged location in the Alps, Switzerland is ideal for nature-loving and active travelers. Whether skiing in the winter or trekking in the summer, the mountains are worth a visit year-round. You can choose from 73 Viertausender—meaning peaks above 4000m—as well as 1,161 Dreitausender and 2,132 Zweitausender—peaks above 3000m and 2000m, respectively. Love snow? Check out a sweet hostel in Interlaken for one of the most popular skiing and snowboarding areas.

If you prefer to stay at water level, there are plenty of lakes to choose from. From the Vierwaldstättersee in the German region to the glacial lake of Lugano on the border to Italy, the Swiss waters shimmer in emerald green to navy blue. Especially in the summer, swimming and other water sports are popular.

Urban Utopias

In Switzerland, you can easily combine a stay in nature with a city escapade. Here are a few of the highlights to get you started:

*      Lucerne All right, I admit it; I’m a bit biased because I was born in Lucerne. But I can assure you that it is well worth a visit—after all, Tripadvisor voted it fifth most popular tourism destination in the world in 2010. Take a stroll along the cobblestone streets and cross the Kapellbrücke, a wooden chapel bridge and the city’s emblem. It dates back to the 14th century, and was re-built only recently after burning down in 1993. From here, you can look out onto the Vierwaldstättersee and the Swiss Alps, including Mt. Pilatus and the Rigi.

*      Zurich Zurich is the country’s financial and cultural center. Along with Berne and Geneva, Zurich ranked in the top 10 cities of the world in the Mercer Quality of Living survey in 2009. Clean and efficient, it boasts a wide variety of attractions, including the Kunsthaus museum and the Fraumünster church, famous for its Chagall windows.

*      Berne The capital of Switzerland and a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1983, Berne is famous for its medieval architecture. You can visit Albert Einstein’s home on Kramgasse, or choose from one of the many museums, ranging from contemporary art in the Kunsthalle, natural history in the Naturhistorisches Museum or topographical maps in the Schweizerisches Alpines Museum. 

*      Basel Basel is another city rich in culture. In addition to the museums and galleries open year-round, the city attracts art collectors each year with its contemporary art fair, ArtBasel. Always held during the summer, ArtBasel is an opportunity to combine culture with leisure. After a day at the fair, you can sit on the boardwalk and watch the Rhein river rush past. Stay until August 1, the Swiss National Day, when this boardwalk turns into a spectacle including fireworks.

*      Lugano Especially during the summers, tourists flock to Lugano for its lake. From the azure, sparkling water, you can look up at the towering mountain ranges. In theory, you could even swim right over to Italy, although it might be a bit far. Take a boat or drive, and you’ll get there in time for some delicious Italian pizza.  

*      Geneva Home to the United Nations and countless other global organizations, Geneva is a haven for those interested in international relations. You can tour the UN’s Palais des Nations or the International Red Cross Museum, and relax at Lake Geneva afterwards.

Swiss Gastronomy 101

As an international destination, Switzerland nowadays has multicultural dining options. The best option, however, is still to go with the local goodies. I recently wrote about the Top 10 Swiss Foods for GoMad Nomad.

You could start your day with a Birchermüsli, a Swiss cereal with dried fruits, nuts, and fresh yogurt. For lunch, you can try the Zürcher Geschnetzeltes, which combines veal with a creamy sauce. Vegetarians might opt for Älplermagronen, the Swiss version of mac ’n’ cheese. Both of these are also typical treats for dinner, in addition to Rösti, which are grated and fried potatoes, frequently served with a fried egg or two.

If you get hungry in between, try a Silserli, meaning freshly baked bread made of pretzel dough. Last but not least, Switzerland is famous for its chocolate, so make sure to try that, too. Sprüngli and Lindt are particularly high quality.

Staying Safe

Generally speaking, Switzerland is a very safe country. However, keeping an eye on your belongings in public is always recommended, especially at train stations and other touristy places.

Also, hiking and other athletic adventures are best undertaken in groups. You can usually find fellow trekkers or skiers at a hostel, or book with a recognized tour operator. Compared to Patagonia, tourism is certainly more widespread in Switzerland, and paths are almost always indicated. However, especially if you are new to the area, it is always better to err on the safe side.

Transcending Tourism

Don’t leave Switzerland without spending a day in nature. But better yet, prolong your stay by going to work on a farm. You can either contact a farmer directly before or upon your arrival, or go through an organization such as WWOOF. Usually, you will work in exchange for accommodation and food. This might not allow you to save money, but trust me, a freshly laid egg tastes nothing like the ones you find in the supermarket. Whether you’re a city gal or grew up milking cows, working at a Swiss farm is sure to enrich your experience.

Last but not least, Switzerland is also an ideal place to study abroad. With its three linguistic and cultural regions, the country will allow you to perfect your German, French, or Italian. In fact, if you want to learn Romansh as well, just head to Graubünden. There are plenty of study abroad programs to choose from. You are welcome to read about my own experiences on my Rhode Island School of Design Travel Blog and my columns for Transitions Abroad.

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Photo credits: Davichi, http://www.flickr.com/photos/26887863@N00/342964781/; chelsea girl, http://www.flickr.com/photos/41894156240@N01/233568308/; belpo, http://www.flickr.com/photos/74167788@N00/2682357408/Fr Antuneshttp://www.flickr.com/photos/franciscoantunes/1206188151/in/photostream/

    1 Comment

  • Hunter says:

    Switzerland was my favorite country when I was a kid and longed to visit it when I grow up. Now, it is still a dream but I’m really hoping I could set foot!