Photograph by Scott Markewitz, Corbis
Alpine skiing wasn’t invented in Switzerland, but it may as well have been. The first ski tour, first ski lesson, first ski-package tours, first ski championships—all occurred on Switzerland’s snow-packed peaks of over 13,000 feet and higher. And in Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Cross-Country Snow,” a couple of Americans take a wine break on their last day of skiing in the Alps. One says, “There’s nothing really can touch skiing, is there?” The other later adds, “I wish we were Swiss.”
This is a ski country. You’ll find people toting skis and snowboards nationwide. There’s a special magic in Graubünden in the southeast, home of après-ski buzz on and off the slopes around St. Moritz. Southeast of Lake Geneva, the ritzy, French-speaking Verbier is home to some of the more daring off-piste routes. Better for intermediates is Zermatt, where you can ski 150 miles of slopes below the Matterhorn and down into Italy.
It’s less busy in the Bernese Oberland, where you can ski along the Aletsch Glacier. Dreamy Mürren is a low-key, car-free village of small chalets that must be reached by cable car. From there, you can ride up to the Piz Gloria restaurant atop the 9,744-foot Schilthorn—featured in the James Bond novel On Her Majesty’s Secret Service—and ski down.
Be sure to break for some wine.
Travel tip: High up in the peaks, summer skiing is popular too. A favorite spot for this is the Matterhorn in Zermatt.
eBike from village to village
Some people worry that taking an eBike up a mountain is “cheating,” that letting an electric motor add bonus pep and giving your sore calves a break feels “ridiculous.” You shouldn’t. Switzerland has always been happy to make inaccessible locations a breeze to reach (as with those cog railways that have topped mountains for over a century). And eBikes have claimed local hearts too. Literally hundreds of bike shops rent them.
Of the country’s nearly 2,800 miles of mountain bike paths, the most popular for eBikes is the Heart Route, a part of which climbs up from Lake Geneva, runs through the Lavaux vineyards, and finishes in Romont, a five-hour ride one-way. Swiss Trails offers luggage services if you’d like to continue a ride into the cheesemaking region around Gruyères.
Travel tip: An easier ride, mostly level, goes lake to lake from St. Moritz to Sils-Maria, reaching the Nietzsche House in about an hour.
Take a walk on Switzerland's wild side
Swiss National Park
No place in Switzerland is more rugged, more wild, more natural than its only national park, appropriately called the Swiss National Park. Founded in 1914, it’s one of the few landscapes lacking those gravity-defying vertical farms climbing up the sides of steep mountains. Filling 107 square miles in the Engadine Valley outside St. Moritz, the park’s stretch of lush mountains, pastures, and waterfalls is a hiker’s dream.
The excellent national park’s center is in Zernez, an easy five-minute walk from the train station and a logical starting point for its museum, which has advice on planning hikes. (During our visit, a gray-haired woman ranger with a nose ring shrugged off one of the shorter hikes, calling it “OK, not very remarkable,” and steered us to a quite remarkable three-hour loop, reached by hourly postal buses.)
Trails feature many signs posted in five languages, including English. They include details on flora (blooms peak in June and July) and fauna (red deer go through rutting season in late September). You’re likely to have a lot of space to yourself. Only 150,000 visitors—mostly Swiss hikers—make it annually, a trickle compared to some Swiss attractions.
Travel tip: It’s worth learning a few words of Romansh before you go, as passersby on trails are likely to offer you an allegra (“rejoice,” a way of saying hello) in this pocket of Switzerland.
Play in the snow in summer
Winter sports in Switzerland are world class—and they last all year. Zermatt’s Matterhorn Glacier Paradise is a great way to get sliding across snow in summer. Up three cable cars from the villa-filled village of Zermatt, Glacier Paradise is a peak-top complex with an observatory, a “glacier palace” ice-sculpture exhibit, and a host of winter activities, including 13 miles of ski runs.
It’s not only skiing. From Glacier Paradise’s restaurant window, you can watch tubers zip down a hard, snow-packed path—sometimes flipping over for an unexpected ride sans tube.
Travel tip: If you’re skiing, rent your equipment first from Zermatt village, and take it up via the three cable cars. A two-day lift ticket is about 125 Swiss francs, or $135, about 20 francs cheaper than in winter.
Walk a St. Bernard
“You can learn a lot from St. Bernards. People? They’re more difficult.”
That’s the word from Jennifer, a keeper of St. Bernards at the Fondation Barry/Musée et Chiens du Saint-Bernard, home to a fun museum, a few dozen dogs, and some of the most precious merch you can imagine.
The legend of these fluffy dogs of the Swiss Alps stems from a local hero, Barry the St. Bernard, a rescue dog that wandered these hills until his death in 1814. For three centuries, a monastery in the 8,100-foot Great St. Bernard Pass used the dogs to rescue people from snowdrifts. (The museum’s film shows one stranded hiker who was saved by Barry and given big gulps of wine for restoration. So, no, contrary to at least one cartoon, St. Bernards do not carry martinis in a barrel around their neck.)
Visitors can browse the museums on the outskirts of Martigny, walk dogs on a forest walk in summer, or, the best yet, take 90-minute walks with St. Bernards in their namesake pass.
Travel trip: Hikes with the dogs are scheduled for 10 a.m. or 2 p.m. in July and August. Reserve by calling 41 27-722-65-42 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Soak up waterfalls
When the summer sun hits snowy peaks, waterfalls are sure to appear. And the king of the Swiss cascades is Lauterbrunnen, a Bernese Oberland village of 2,500 that's literally under the spray of one of the world’s tallest free-falling waterfalls. Framed by towering cliffsides below towering peaks, the valley of 72 waterfalls inspired a youthful JRR Tolkien to imagine the landscape of his fictional Middle Earth.
Tolkien wasn't the only one to write about the area. Goethe did too. His favorite waterfall was the free-falling Staubbach Falls, the subject of his poem “Song of the Spirits Over the Waters,” in which he likens the water to the “soul of man” that “spreadeth gently over the smooth rock … toward the abyss.” You can walk behind its cascade, which tumbles almost a thousand feet off rock walls that seem to disappear behind the free fall, but be prepared to be doused.
Hiking trails crisscross the valley. You can take postal buses to reach various trails, including to the pool below Talbach Falls, or take a walk seemingly into the mountains to reach Trümmelbach Falls, a series of torrents fed by 20,000 liters of glacial water per second rushing through chutes that corkscrew through an Alpine mountain’s innards. Wow.
Travel tip: Local guides offer tours of many less visited waterfalls.
Take a wine walk in Lavaux
It’s easy to understand why the more than 260 red and white wines grown on Lavaux’s terrace vineyards on the northeastern shore of Lake Geneva aren’t household names around the world: Few get out of Switzerland. So if you want to try them—and you do—you have to come.
The best way to see Lavaux (a Unesco World Heritage site since 2007) is on foot. The 21-mile Grand Traversée de Lavaux connects timeless villages and caveaux des vignerons (wine cellars) on its shore-clinging way from Lausanne to the iconic Chateau de Chillon in Montreux. It’s wonderful. You can burn off the buzz walking amid rolling fields of vine while gazing over the calm lake waters to the mountains of France.
Wine in the region dates back a thousand years. The secret to the taste here, it’s said, is the “three suns” the area gets (referring to the passing sun overheard, the lake’s reflection, and the heat held in by the 250 miles of ancient stone walls framing the vineyards). You can learn more about Lavaux’s wines, past and present, at the excellent Vinorama museum in the village of Rivaz.
Travel tip: With a rail pass handy, there are scores of ways to break up the 21-mile walk. One way is to walk three hours from St. Saphorin to medieval Pully. Or take the “wine train” from Vevey, Charlie Chaplin’s adopted hometown, uphill to Chexbres, then walk back via the vines.
Walk a glacier
Here’s a secret about Switzerland’s most famous glacier. Most people see the 14-mile Aletsch from Jungfrau, which is reached via a thriller of a train ride through a 4.4-mile tunnel from Interlaken. It’s gorgeous and worthy. But the best close-up access is actually from the glacier’s south side, reached via rail stops or highways along the parallel Rhône Valley.
The glacier, a Unesco World Heritage site, is made up of 27 billion tons of ice and looks like a winding, icy highway curving past mountains, pines, and waterfalls. And it’s even more fun to walk alongside it on what's about a four-hour hike. From Betten, take the cable car to Bettmeralp, where a hike that dips down to the glacier’s edge passes wildflower meadows, ponds, and Gletscherstube, an out-there mountain hut offering meals. From Fiescheralp, you can ride cable cars back down into the Rhône to the train station at Fiesch.
Travel Trip: A historic place to stay near the glacier is the Villa Cassel (where Winston Churchill once stayed, and complained about cowbells). It’s also home to a conservation center, which offers guided tours onto the glacier's crevassed surface.
Walk peak to peak on a glass-bottom bridge
Swaying over towering chasms nationwide, suspension bridges have long been the payoff of a number of hikes. But in October 2014 the canton of Vaud, north of Geneva, outdid them all with the Peak Walk, a glass-bottom bridge between two Alpine peaks. As one early report promised: “It’s not for the faint of heart.”
It’s worth a walk over a 6,500-foot drop between the Glacier 3000 and Scex Rouge peaks for looks into the Bernese Oberland and the Matterhorn beyond. Access is free for visitors of Glacier 3000 (home to various activities, including skiing and hiking trails).
If that gets you going, there are many others. In 2012, Mount Titlis added the world’s highest suspension bridge to its Titlis Cliff Walk.
Then there’s the cable-car ride up from Meiringen, an easy day trip from Interlaken and Lucerne, to reach the Trift Bridge, a 557-foot walkway made from three wood planks unnervingly sided by steel cables. It's a 3.6-mile round-trip walk across the bridge, which is rewarded with arresting views above the Trift Glacier and huge, windswept vistas over mountains and emerald lakes.
Travel tip: Find more suspension bridges here.
Upping the ante in Interlaken
Interlaken is Switzerland’s, if not Europe’s, adventure capital. The question here goes beyond whether you want to hike or take a cable car to the Bernese Alps. Canyoning, bungee jumping, white-water rafting, heli-skiing, paragliding, and skydiving are all options here.
It’s the rivers that help carve out the iconic Alpine scenery, and the nearby Lütschine is a white-water rafter's dream, with plenty of options for beginners too. Many come to canyon, which will have you scrambling, jumping, and rappelling down waterfall chutes of rock. It looks nuts, but local tour operators make it easy for first timers to try their hands too.
From December to May, you can arrange heli-ski days out in pure powder from Lauterbrunnen, south of Interlaken. Scenic Air offers day trips from 300 Swiss francs (around $324).
The ultimate adventure is a full skydiving course, which takes about a week and includes eight jumps.
Walk among cows
If you leave Switzerland without at least hearing the echo of out-of-sight cowbells bouncing off Alpine walls in a lush green meadow, well, you’ve not really been here. Cows are everywhere: There are about a hundred cattle per square mile. And whatever Swiss road or trail you’re taking, cows (literally) have the right-of-way.
Yes, Swiss cows are adored.
“Cows are actually more clever than horses,” says Heinz Morgenegg of the Bolderhof Farm in the Rhine lowlands of northeastern Switzerland. “They don’t just run away. They think first.” He should know, because his farm allows visitors the chance to take gentle, slow rides on cows. That’s right: cow trail rides.
If that’s too much cow for your comfort, nearly any hike will likely pass the munching fellows. As one Gstaad local put it, “Cows definitely outnumber people around here.”
Perhaps the most meaningful spot is Rütli Meadows on Lake Lucerne, where the Swiss Confederation was born (and which is now home to a handful of cows).
Farming, by the way, is a highly noble profession here, and not one that's easy to get into. “It is more difficult to become a farmer than to become president of the Confederation,” writes John McPhee in his insightful book La Place de la Concorde Suisse. That’s because of the expense, and scarcity, of land. That said, two-thirds of domestic diets are locally sourced, quite an achievement for a mountainous country half the size of Indiana.
Travel tip: Hike. If you take much of a walk, you will meet Swiss cows.