As soon as I step off the train, Thun feels different than the two towns I’ve just visited. Everyone here is less harried—in fact, in super-punctual Switzerland, this place is infamous for being on “Thun time” (the unforgivable sin of running about 10 minutes late).
Thun, Switzerland’s Secret Town
As I walk out onto the cobblestoned streets, I can see why no one is in a rush here—Thun lures you in with its sights, and the next thing you know, you’re sitting at a riverside cafe sipping on the best espresso you’ve ever had, no longer concerned with being on time for whatever was next on your agenda.
It’s the ultimate Swiss summer day—the sun shines brightly without a cloud in sight, promising a hot afternoon. I eye the River Aare wistfully—the water is an unbelievable turquoise color that looks so inviting. Coming from Boston, home of the “dirty water” Charles River, the thought of swimming in a city river seems impossible. And yet, the next things I see are local kids gleefully jumping from bridges into the water and, even crazier—surfers. Thun is one of the rare places in the world where you can actually surf on a river, as a dam system creates a great (and consistent) wave to ride.
Surfing in Thun, Switzerland
The fact that all the surfers were wearing wetsuits on a hot August day should have been a warning to me. Turns out that the water gets its beautiful color because it comes from melted glaciers, and so I would later find out when I went for a dip that the water is quite “fresh” (a popular Swiss euphemism for shockingly cold). That said, once I gathered the courage to submerge myself in the icy water, it was less shocking and more refreshing after a few minutes. You can go for a swim pretty much anywhere that looks inviting to you, whether it’s in the river in the center of town or on the calmer (and more private) Lake Thun.
At times, Thun reminded me of Disney World without the crowds—and I mean that in a good way. It seemed like every time I turned a corner, another castle loomed on the skyline, making me feel like I’d stepped into the pages of a fairy tale.Thun is home to five fully preserved castles (Hunegg, Oberhofen, Schadau, Spiez, and Thun).
Castles in Thun, Switzerland
Thun is the perfect mix of old and new. I meandered down cobblestoned alleys, over historic covered bridges, only to have them end at a hip craft cocktail bar or haute clothing boutique.
Thun is also innovative. What do you do when all of those craft cocktails catch up to you and you face a problem that all travelers experience but rarely talk about—finding a good public bathroom? The city of Thun has come up with an ingenious solution that I would love to see implemented across the world. The government pays restaurants and bars across the city a small sum (around $1,000 a year) to allow anyone access to their restrooms—for free, and without being hassled to buy anything. You can pick up a map of these at the Thun tourism center (near the train station) or just keep an eye out for establishments displaying a small red smiley-face sticker that indicates participation in the program. You’ll never again have to try to surreptitiously sneak past a hostess or brave a dingy train station bathroom again.
When I came to Switzerland, I had four stereotypically Swiss things that I wanted to check off my list, and Thun had them all: lakes, mountains, a charming European town center, and, of course, CHEESE.
But Thun surprised me with hidden Swiss secrets that I wasn’t expecting—like wine. Thun is the kind of place where you go to lunch (at a historic castle built in 1200 that overlooks the banks of Lake Thun, no big deal) and ask the waitress for some local wine to drink with your meal … only to discover that the winemaker himself is sitting at the table behind you and is happy to offer up a bottle of his wares on the house, along with an eloquent toast.
The View from Schloss Oberhofen in Thun, Switzerland
As for those bucket-list Swiss items I was expecting? Thun delivered. This town will always have a special place in my heart as the spot where I was introduced to the Swiss specialty raclette, which is literally a plate full of melted cheese that’s eaten as an appetizer. One or two small gherkin pickles and a pearl onion or two dot the plate as well, but it’s honestly just a plate of melted cheese that you eat with a fork, and I can respect that. Switzerland throws away the premise that you need a delivery system (like a nacho chip) in order to devour gooey cheese goodness and just goes full steam ahead with it. Even better, raclette is a special kind of local cheese that’s designed for melting, and once you taste it, you’ll understand why you can just eat it straight up. Plus, you’ll be urged to pair your raclette only with wine or cider (never something as healthy as water), lest the cheese harden into a ball in your stomach.
And the mountains? Thun offers an easy way to sample the Swiss Alps, and you don’t even have to pack your hiking boots. (Unfortunately for that cheese ball in your stomach, you don’t need to do any walking to get amazing views.) Take a public bus to a funicular and cable car, and you can be whisked to the summit of the Niederhorn (with an elevation of over 6,300 feet) in less than half an hour. At the top, you’ll find amazing panoramas featuring the lakes of Thun and Brienz and the famous mountains Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau.
The Niederhorn in Thun, Switzerland
Despite all its charms, Thun isn’t overrun with tourists, and many of the vacationers here are actually Swiss, looking for a classic “Swiss” experience. (Other sections of Switzerland can feel Italian or German compared to Thun.) Now that I’ve let you in on the secret, you should definitely visit Thun—and while you’re there, have a plate of melted cheese for me.
More from SmarterTravel:
- Tipping in Switzerland: The Switzerland Tipping Guide
- Switzerland Travel Guide: What to Do in Switzerland
- 10 Ways to See Switzerland Like a Prince or a Pauper
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Caroline Morse was hosted by Switzerland Tourism on her visit to Thun. Follow her on Instagram @TravelWithCaroline to see photos from Thun and around Switzerland, if you need even more reasons to visit.