Switzerland is a land that does not disappoint. From the magnificence of the Matterhorn to the charm of an alpine cheesemaker, the country is as spectacular as the tourism brochures claim, as inspiring as postcards tease, as traditional and authentic as history lessons suggest.
We’ve rounded up 10 unique experiences to try in Switzerland, including visiting a chocolate factory, learning to play the alphorn and walking a St. Bernard. Start planning your getaway by clicking through our slideshow; then check out our guides to where to stay and getting around.
Learn to Play the Alphorn
If you’ve ever seen a Ricola commercial for throat lozenges, you know what an alphorn is — one of those 12-foot-long wooden horns that rest on the ground while a musician puckers up at the other end. Historically, these instruments were used as a communication tool between farmers and villagers in remote alpine regions.
Visitors to Switzerland today are often treated to impromptu performances in communities around the country. Free alphorn concerts are summer Saturday night occurrences in Gruyeres. If you want to toot your own alphorn, sign up for day- or weeklong classes at the Swiss Alphorn School in Schonried, near Gstaad.
Dip into Cheese Fondue
Small fromageries, or cheese shops, dot the landscape of rural Switzerland with the frequency of the grazing milk cows that contribute to the country’s reputation for rich and flavorful cheese. Most restaurants offer cheese fondue and a selection of locally made cheeses.
To watch cheese being made in an authentic and intimate location, travel to Chateau-d’Oex for lunch or dinner at La Chalet. This is an authentic chalet where cattle once slept under the family living quarters. The cheesemaking demonstrations include an open fire and copper pots that have been used for generations. Taste the whey as it’s being squished into rounds of cheese, and finish up with a tour of the cheese caves where local farmers store their products before going to market.
Here’s a tip: Order a hot tea or a cup of warm water to consume with your cheese fondue. If you drink a cold beverage, the hot cheese will cool too quickly in your stomach, creating a big lump of cheese and a bad case of indigestion.
Win Gold at the Olympic Museum
The International Olympic Committee and its headquarters have been located in Lausanne for nearly 100 years. A newly expanded museum and monument-adorned grounds pay tribute to the athletes and sports, and allow you an opportunity to get into the Games.
Exhibits include the first whistles used by Olympic referees, the evolution of the medal designs and uniforms worn by athletes over the years. Stand on your own Olympic podium, design a more aerodynamic swimsuit or step behind a microphone and attempt to broadcast some of the greatest moments in Olympic history.
Walk and Cuddle a St. Bernard
Surely no cuddlier image of Switzerland exists than that of the St. Bernard, a dog bred in Switzerland for its ability to rescue travelers from the cold and snow. It’s named for the difficult Saint Bernard Pass, once used by the Romans. The Barry Foundation in Martigny is devoted to maintaining the integrity of the breed and educating the public about these adorable animals. The foundation offers three opportunities to take dogs for a walk — or, more accurately, to let them take you for a walk. Walks range in length from 45 to 90 minutes, and reservations are recommended to guarantee the time and date you would like.
If you don’t care to hike with the dogs, visit the Saint Bernard Museum where you can cuddle with the gentle masters of the Alps.
Sip Rare Swiss Wines in Lavaux
Swiss wines are coveted by oenophiles around the world because of their distinct flavor, superb quality and rarity on the open market. Exported to just a handful of neighboring European countries, Swiss wines are typically made from the chasselas grape, which is original to the Lavaux region. Most vintners produce about 30,000 bottles a year; as they like to say, “We prefer to keep as much as we can to drink ourselves.”
Start your tour at the Lavaux Vinorama in Rivaz. Part museum, part tasting room, it tells the story of this region. Hike through the terraced vineyards from village to village on paths used by the winemakers, or take the Wine Train from Vevey to Chexbres, stopping at villages and tasting rooms along the way.
Get the Most Out of the Matterhorn
Switzerland’s most popular tourist attraction is the 14,692-foot face of the Matterhorn, best accessed from the village of Zermatt. Unfortunately, the weather that swirls around these massive alpine peaks doesn’t always afford visitors on a limited schedule the opportunity to wait for the sun to shine.
But don’t let clouds, rain or even snow and hail in the summer months impair your experience of this region. Take the Gornergrat cog railway to the summit anyway. Rainbows that appear over the glaciers and the rays of sunshine that illuminate other mountain peaks create remarkable images that can’t be found any other place on the planet.
Take time to visit the mountain climbers’ cemetery to appreciate the challenge of ascending the Matterhorn. And don’t miss the Matterhorn Museum, which delves into the glory days of mountain climbing in this region and the risks taken more than 100 years ago to master these peaks.
Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There
Zermatt, Switzerland: Heaven on Earth by europhile149
“When you reach the end of the main street, you catch your first glimpse of the majestic Matterhorn. I don’t care what picture you find on the Internet of the Matterhorn … trust me, no camera can do this stately, regal work of nature justice. It is definitely one of the natural wonders of the world.” Read more!
Place a Rose on Audrey Hepburn’s Grave
Audrey Hepburn, one of the most celebrated actresses of Hollywood’s golden era, lies at rest in the quiet community of Tolochenaz, not far from Lausanne in western Switzerland. Hepburn lived here for nearly 30 years, in love with the peace and quiet afforded her in this international community.
A map to her gravesite and other spots in the region she most enjoyed is available in the tourist office in Morges, where you can also see the Vespa scooter Hepburn rode with Gregory Peck in “Roman Holiday,” for which she won an Academy Award in 1954.
Before you take the bus to Tolochenaz, stop at a local florist to buy a pink rose — Hepburn’s favorite. The bus stop in Tolochenaz is called “Audrey Hepburn Stop.” Visit the church where her funeral was held, pass by the home and gardens that she once tended, and climb a small hill to her remote gravesite, surrounded by pink flowers left by adoring fans.
Sample Sumptuous Swiss Chocolate
A visit to Switzerland without a serious amount of time devoted to chocolate is nothing short of a sin. Swiss chocolate, traditionally, is a drier chocolate with less fat and more cacao.
Lindt, which just recently purchased U.S.-owned Russell Stover, is based in the West Zurich community of Kilchberg; Viator offers several tours that include a stop at its Chocolate Factory Outlet Shop. Nestle, which owns the Cailler label, has developed a wonderful visitor center and museum in Broc, in the Fribourg region, that tells the history of chocolate production in Switzerland while demonstrating chocolate production on a large scale. You can experiment on your own for a few minutes in the demonstration kitchen. This is a great activity for kids, who will love the chocolate- and cheese-themed playground adjacent to the kitchen.
Get an entirely different perspective on making chocolate with a visit to any of the hundreds of independent chocolatiers who bring an authentic passion to their craft. One of the most celebrated is Laderach, with headquarters in Bilten and shops throughout German-speaking Switzerland and neighboring Germany. Another fun choice in the Lucerne region is Max Chocolatier, where you can climb the shop stairs and watch the masters create those delicious treats.
Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There
Eating Chocolate in Switzerland by Meg King
“Finally the day came when I was leaving Switzerland. I stocked up on chocolate bars with great sadness, knowing my great candy adventure was coming to an end. I enjoyed all the iconic sights — the Matterhorn, chalets and beautiful cities. But the chocolate will be one of my best memories.” Read more!
Join the National Pastime
If you want to understand and experience Switzerland as a local, take a hike. The Swiss believe that hiking is one of the best activities to keep the mind, body and spirit in great condition, and it’s not unusual for young Swiss children to participate in daylong hikes that would send many Americans to their graves.
The country’s eight million residents regularly take advantage of more than 10,000 miles of hiking trails. The Berner-Oberland region is a great base for hikes that range from a few hours to a few days with varying degrees of difficulty. Alpine experts often point to the Mannlichen-Kleine Scheidegg trail in the Lauterbrunnen Valley as one that has spectacular views but isn’t so difficult that you can’t look up from your feet to enjoy your surroundings. A relatively fit individual can accomplish the 2.5-mile trail in less than two hours, with plenty of time for taking pictures.
If you want to push yourself, try the Gimmelwald-Tanzbodeli-Obersteinberg-Stechelberg trail. This is a daylong commitment on your part that will require you to bring plenty of water and snacks along the way. Get a good map as well. It’s just 11 miles, but it’s up and down and up again on a rocky trail. You won’t see many other people, but you may stumble upon goats or cows in the meadows and plenty of scenery that will make it worth the exertion.
Always remember to ask locals about trail conditions and weather along the trail. The Swiss Alpine Club is a good, unbiased resource for coordinating hikes that last from a few hours to a week or more.
Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There
Hiking in the Swiss Alps by lynncarol
“The Flower Trail certainly lived up to its name. With meadows of wildflowers set against a backdrop of snow-covered peaks, the trail personified the Alpine experience we were hoping to find. The one other person we encountered during our hike was a local woman, picking wild salad greens. She graciously took our photo and divulged that a few weeks earlier, there had been two feet of snow on the ground.” Read more!
Jam at the Montreux Jazz Festival
There’s always good music to be heard in the restaurants, lounges and clubs of Montreux on the banks of Lake Geneva, but the premium sounds happen each year in the first two weeks of July. For more than 40 years, Montreux has become synonymous with jazz as home to one of the world’s largest jazz festivals. Plenty of events are free, featuring up-and-coming artists. Plan ahead for a jazz boat cruise of Lake Geneva.
Freddie Mercury, lead vocalist and lyricist for Queen, was a frequent performer at the jazz festival and a longtime resident of the peaceful community. The sculpture in his honor is a year-round symbol of the musical influence of Montreux.
Best Time to Go to Switzerland
The Swiss climate is quite temperate, so extreme hot and cold temperatures are uncommon. During summer, high season for travel to Switzerland, expect lots of crowds along with beautiful weather and sunny skies — plus a rain shower now and then. Travelers seeking winter sports and snowy conditions should visit between November and March. Avoid traveling during the holidays if you want to dodge high prices and big crowds.
Switzerland on a Budget
Plane tickets to Switzerland are cheapest during winter, but the same isn’t necessarily true when it comes to accommodations. If you’re planning a ski trip, you can expect to pay top euro for most ski resort lodging during colder months. However, prices for hotels in non-ski destinations, especially smaller towns and places in the Swiss countryside, are generally less expensive during winter and shoulder season. Switzerland is not a member of the European Union, and the local currency is the Swiss franc — not the euro.
–written by Diana Lambdin Meyer