Planning to visit Switzerland but not sure where to start? In this post, you’ll find my highly subjective takes on what to see and do in Switzerland.
Who am I?
Firstly, I am a clown and probably should not be trusted. But here are some facts about me: I have been living in Switzerland for 3.5 years and have visited 13 of the 26 cantons. I have traversed this country exclusively by train, bus and boat. I speak English and French, but not German (or Swiss-German) or Italian. I am Asian American and an experienced solo traveller.
Where to start
My first step when planning a trip is always to read the Wikivoyage entry about the destination. I’ve found Wikivoyage articles in general to be candid, comprehensive, and practical. So before you do anything else, go read the article about Switzerland.
Basic things to know about Switzerland
Here are some important things to know.
- The country is called Switzerland. Not “Swiss”, which I see a lot for some reason.
- Switzerland is not part of the European Union. However, it is a part of the Schengen Zone. If you are not European, that whole “90 days out of 180” thing applies here.
- Switzerland does not use the euro. Its currency is the Swiss franc, or CHF for short. It is worth slightly more than the US dollar and slightly less than the euro, as of this writing.
- There are four official languages. This does not mean everyone speaks four languages. Rather, it means the country is divided into linguistic zones. The western part is French-speaking. The southeastern part is Italian-speaking. The rest speaks Swiss-German. Romansh speakers are a tiny linguistic minority and mostly live in Canton Graubünden.
What is the best time of year to visit?
Don’t come between November to March. The weather is grey, gloomy and joyless from late autumn to early spring. It also rains often. The only exception is around Christmastime, when cities are decked out in beautiful lights and Christmas markets are in full swing.
Mid-April is when things improve dramatically. The trees and fields turn green again. The days are filled with sunshine. Summer in Switzerland (early May to late September) is beautiful, especially in the countryside, and along the lakes. July and August can be very hot and difficult for those who are not used to not having AC, so May, June and September are the best months to visit.
My top 6 suggestions for places to visit
It’s so hard to pick just six. But for a first-time visitor who wants to get the most out of a short trip, I’d suggest the following.
Zurich. This is the quintessential Swiss city. It has all the big banks and luxury stores and churches and chocolateries and other stereotypes that are associated with Switzerland. It’s a busy, lively, international city, with many English speakers.
Bern. Switzerland does not have an official capital, but Bern is the de facto one. Here you can see the Parliament Building, which is just steps from the train station and offers a sweeping view of the charming city and river from the balcony. Bern has the best, biggest, and most walkable Old Town out of any Swiss city.
Lugano. Located in Canton Ticino, not far from Italy, it’s the beating heart of Italian-speaking Switzerland. I cannot emphasize how absolutely stunning this place is. There is a huge, gorgeous lake, hugged by lush green mountains and quaint villages. There are tons of restaurants and shops and museums, but it doesn’t feel commercialized, just calm and peaceful.
Montreux. If there’s one place to see in French-speaking Switzerland, it’s Montreux, a village situated at the eastern end of Lake Geneva. There’s something truly unique about this place; it has a warm, colorful, tropical climate that doesn’t feel like Switzerland. It has lots of lovely restaurants and cafes, a long, leisurely walking path along the lake, and Chillon, the oldest castle in all of Switzerland.
Interlaken. Yes, it’s touristy, but that’s just because it’s so beautiful. “Interlaken” means between two lakes. Head here on a train if you want to get that classic, unforgettable view of green pastures and traditional Swiss houses and snowy mountain peaks for miles and miles.
Basel. The vast majority of the museums in Switzerland are located in Basel, so this is a must-visit for art and museum lovers. There is some really beautiful architecture inside the city, especially City Hall, and the street art in the Old Town is elegant and historic. It’s located on the border with both Germany and France, which is also convenient.
Why isn’t Geneva on this list?
I live in Geneva and I like it a lot. But I don’t recommend it for tourists. In my opinion, there’s just not that much to do and see here, if you’re looking for the most beautiful things Switzerland has to offer.
First, the city is kind of ugly. Sorry, but it’s true. There are a lot of Soviet-inspired apartment buildings, grey and concrete and inexplicably brutalist. There is a small, quaint Old Town, and a few nice public parks, but the scenery is very underwhelming compared to nearby villages like Montreux and Bourg-en-Lavaux.
Second, there’s not much to do as a tourist. You can take a photo in front of the Jet d’Eau, which is a big water fountain in the lake. You can take a photo in front of the UN office. Maybe you can go to the Patek Philippe museum if you like watches. I don’t even know what else to recommend here.
Third, the food scene is not good. Restaurants are overpriced and mediocre. Most locals I know cook at home. You can certainly go for a fondue or have a nice coffee and pastry at an outdoor cafe, but you can do that anywhere in Switzerland.
Geneva is great; it just isn’t a leisure travel type of destination. It really caters towards business travellers and people who are in town to attend UN conferences. If travelling on your own dime, go somewhere else in Switzerland that has better scenery, or only come here on a day trip.
Lucerne is also not on this list. Visually, I find it a bit boring. The famous lion monument is much smaller than one would expect. Not a bad place to visit, but not a must-see.
What about less well-known places that are also worth a visit?
Switzerland is a relatively small country with a robust train network, so it is very easy to take day trips from its major cities.
If starting from Geneva or Montreux, be sure to check out the Lavaux vineyards, which are a beautiful UNESCO heritage site. Take the train and get off at either Cully or Epesses, and just walk among the vineyards, or do a wine and cheese tasting.
From Geneva, there’s also the option of taking a boat to Yvoire, which is in France but not far away. It has a charming little medieval old town and makes for a lovely day trip. Hikers will enjoy going to the Salève, which is very close to Geneva.
Sort of midway between Geneva and Basel is Neuchâtel, which is the hidden gem of French-speaking Switzerland. It’s a beautiful, peaceful village with a large castle that now serves as city hall, a gorgeous lake, and an abundance of street art. The vibe feels very “south of France”, even though it’s nowhere near the ocean.
From Lugano, there are many lovely Italian-speaking villages within easy reach. Bellinzona is the capital of the canton and has three ancient castles nestled among the mountains. Locarno is more touristy but has a fun and beachy atmosphere. Morcote is just across the lake from Italy, a small, calming village that feels hidden away from the rest of the world.
From Interlaken, take a boat cruise on Lake Brienz (you can travel for free in first class on your birthday), or go for a short train ride to nearby villages like Grindelwald, Lauterbrunnen and Brienz.
Also — if you’re in far eastern Switzerland, go ahead and jump on a bus to neighboring Liechtenstein. It’s a tiny and wonderful country that’s well worth a visit.
Can you get around Switzerland only speaking English?
For the most part, yes. English proficiency is pretty high in the hospitality industry, especially in the French and Swiss-German parts. The Italian-speaking part is a little more iffy; personally, I’ve encountered a lot of folks there, mostly older hotel owners, who don’t speak English. It helps to know some Italian to converse with them — and a lot of Italian speakers will also know French.
However, it is very important to at least know the basics. You should be able to say “hello”, “thank you”, “do you speak English?” and “goodbye” in French, (high) German, and Italian.
Politeness is greatly valued in Switzerland. Strangers use the formal form to address one another. Don’t talk to someone without saying the word “hello” first; it’s Basic Manners 101. In French, it’s bonjour. In Swiss-German, it’s grüezi. In both languages, “thank you” is merci.
What’s the deal with Swiss-German and German, and Swiss-French and French? How similar are they?
Swiss-German is essentially a language in itself, with its own vocabulary and regional dialects. The average person from Germany has a hard time understanding Swiss-German. Even many expats who have lived for years in German-speaking Switzerland don’t speak Swiss-German.
For tourists, there is no need to try to learn Swiss-German besides knowing the words grüezi and merci. You can get around just fine using high German; most Swiss people will understand it, even if some can’t speak it fluently. Official signage, newspapers and train announcements are usually in high German.
Swiss French is basically the same thing as France French. There are some small vocabulary differences, such as how to say numbers above seventy. The Canton of Vaud has a more distinct accent and unique slang words. Geneva mostly follows French conventions because it’s surrounded by France on three sides. In general, there is no communication barrier between Swiss French speakers and francophones from other countries.
What are the best train trips to take for sightseeing?
The Bernina Express is probably the most well-known, along with the Glacier Express. I’d say absolutely do it if you haven’t seen much of Switzerland before and are limited on time, as it’s a very nice ride. But if you have more time, regular train rides around Switzerland will work just as well.
The train ride between Lausanne and Montreux is my forever #1 in all of Switzerland. The train glides along the lake, with a stunning view of the vineyards and charming villages. It’s absolutely heavenly and you will be pinching yourself.
Anything in the vicinity of Interlaken will also yield stunning views. Lots of mountains, two huge, impossibly turquoise lakes, and traditional chalets.
It’s also worth going to the canton of Fribourg — you will see rolling hills and endless green pastures and cows along the way. Stop in Gruyères to explore the castle and try authentic Swiss cheeses.
Consider a sun-drenched trip from Switzerland to northern Italy: start in Bellinzona and head south to Lugano, then cross the border into Como. It will be views upon views upon views.
I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface here. Honestly, any time you’re on a train in rural Switzerland, especially during summer, you can expect magnificent scenery.
Tips for travelling Switzerland on a tight budget?
This is a really tough one. Switzerland is extremely expensive. Even a bed in a hostel can cost as much as a single hotel room in another European country. There aren’t really any “hacks” that can magically save you a lot of money while travelling.
That said, there are some things that can help a little.
To save money on dining, get food from supermarkets. They offer pre-made meals like salads, sandwiches and slices of pizza that will cost less than a meal at a restaurant. Many also have in-store bakeries with a large selection of croissants, pain au chocolat and other pastries. Coop in particular sells delicious rotisserie chicken, hot off the rack every day. Many larger Coops will also have an in-store, buffet-style restaurant that is cheaper than a regular restaurant. The cheapest supermarket chains are Lidl, Aldi, and Denner.
For train travel, buy tickets as early as possible. There is a fare class called “supersaver tickets” that is significantly discounted from the regular price. The catch is that you have to grab them early (at least a week in advance, usually), and you can’t return or exchange them. If also travelling to other countries in Europe, the Eurail pass might be an economical option as well.
Don’t stay in Geneva or Zurich. They are literally the most expensive cities in the world. Book hotels in smaller cities; public transit is generally very good in Switzerland and you won’t feel stranded without a car unless you’re in a farm in the middle of nowhere.
Also, if you stay in a hotel, part of the cost goes towards a city tax. That means the hotel will give you a free local public transit card to use during the course of your stay. I’m not sure if this applies everywhere, but I’ve seen it at least in Geneva, Basel and Lugano.
Lastly, the best things to do in Switzerland are free. I’m talking about walking around lakes, hiking in the mountains, and just being out in general, enjoying nature. Don’t take that for granted.
Where are the best places to ski?
I have absolutely no interest in skiing. This is all that I know:
Verbier is popular with tourists, especially Brits. It’s a really beautiful village in Canton Valais with a ton of traditional chalets. Again, very touristy.
If you have $$$, Klosters is supposed to be very nice. It’s where the British royal family skies.
Chamonix, in nearby France, is popular with people who live in western Switzerland.
And of course, there’s Zermatt, where the impressive Matterhorn is located.
Things that may surprise first-time visitors
Switzerland has a lot of rules and takes them quite seriously. For example, don’t make a lot of noise and host parties after 10pm on a week night. Don’t make a lot of noise on a Sunday. In some places, you can’t even go recycle things on a Sunday, because the noise of dropping glass bottles in the receptacle might disturb your neighbors. If you violate noise rules, don’t be surprised if people call the police on you.
Waste segregation is taken very seriously here. If staying in a short-term apartment rental, don’t put glass bottles, PET bottles, aluminum cans, and paper and cardboard inside the regular trash. The building should have dedicated waste containers in the basement, or there will be a recycling point within walking distance. Do not just leave a bag of garbage on the street or next to a trash can. The police will go through it and try to find your name and information to issue you a fine.
Bus tickets must be purchased before boarding the bus. You have to buy it from a ticket machine at the bus stop or using the SBB app. It’s not possible to buy tickets from the bus driver. Public transport operates on an honor system, but random checks are carried out all the time, and those caught without a ticket will be fined more than 100 francs.
Most stores are closed after 7pm and on Sunday. This is why supermarkets are often the most crowded on Saturdays; people are rushing to stock up on groceries before Sunday. If in a pinch, most train stations have a small grocery store that is open seven days a week. Small, local, bodega-type shops (called tabacs in French) also tend to have more flexible hours.
Finally, rapid fire Q&A
Can you drink the tap water in Switzerland: Yes.
What are the best “Swiss” dishes to try? Fondue, naturally. Raclette. Swiss macaroni is quite weird, as it comes with apple sauce, but I suppose worth a try. People here love sausages. Rösti is a very popular fried potato dish. Muesli is also Swiss.
What about wine? Swiss wine is not really exported outside the country, which is a shame. Try the chasselas, a white wine grown from the grapes alongside Lake Geneva. It’s bubbly and reminiscent of champagne. I don’t know much else about wine.
And cheese? The village of Gruyères and the Canton of Appenzell are best known for their cheeses.
Is Switzerland vegetarian-friendly? As a whole the cuisine is quite meat-heavy, but in major cities especially, vegetarians will be able to find lots of options. May be a little tougher for vegans, but doable.
Is Switzerland safe for women? Yep.
How are POC travellers treated in Switzerland? It’s hard to generalize. If you have a passport from the US/UK/Canada etc and have money to spend, you’ll be treated better. But that’s the sad reality in most places around the world. Swiss people are usually quite polite on the outside; if someone doesn’t like you or doesn’t want to deal with you, it’s going to be more passive-aggressive rather than outright confrontational. If you’re in a restaurant, for example, and notice that the server is ignoring you and has a stink face, take it as a cue to leave and take your business and money elsewhere.
As an Asian American, I’ve had very few negative experiences in Switzerland; almost no one has been outwardly rude to me. My Black friends and colleagues tend to report similar experiences.
Is it true that gun ownership is very high in Switzerland? Yes. Military service is mandatory for Swiss men. You’ll sometimes see people on a break from training, shopping at the supermarket with a large rifle strapped to their back. After completing military service, they keep the guns that they are issued. But note that they are not given any bullets. They just have the empty guns themselves for safekeeping in case there is a war and everyone has to be drafted quickly. This is why there are so many guns but no mass shootings.
Can I get around with just a credit card? In general, yes. Some small mom-and-pop shops are cash only. And it’s good to have cash for small purchases, such as buying a cup of coffee at a cafe.
Do I have to tip at restaurants? No. The minimum wage in Geneva, as an example, is equivalent to USD 25. It’s not uncommon to leave 1 or 2 francs at a cafe, or to leave change in the tip jar. You can also tip a few francs at a restaurant if the service was above and beyond.
What else should I know about dining out? If you go to a casual outdoor cafe and see an open table, just grab it. Don’t wait to be seated. Someone will come take your order eventually. Service in Switzerland is intentionally slow. Don’t fret if it takes a long time to get your food or coffee. Don’t expect the server to come ask if you’re ready for the check; they don’t want to rush you. If you need to ask for the check, flag them down yourself.
If going to a nice restaurant, typically reservations are needed. Reservations are for the whole night; even if someone else’s reservation doesn’t start until 8pm, you can’t have their table if you show up at 6pm. However, asking nicely will go a long way, and often there can be some flexibility on the part of the restaurant to accommodate you.
What should I wear? One of the things that surprised me about Switzerland was that people are actually very underdressed. (With the exception of people who have fancy banking jobs in the central business district.) In the wintertime, everyone is wearing a frumpy black or dark blue puffer coat and a beanie. There are very few fashionistas turning heads on the streets.
At my workplace, which is supposed to be quite highbrow, half of the people are running around in fleece pullovers and sneakers. It’s not common to see people in flip-flops, but otherwise, lots of young people wear sweatpants or joggers out and about, and there are enough people who wear leggings as pants that it’s not considered weird (but it is considered tacky).
Lastly, check out my recommendations for favorite hotels, restaurants and other shops in Switzerland and other European countries.
I hope this is helpful. Feel free to comment or send me an email via the Contact form if you have additional questions.