Photograph by Susan Seubert
Venture into literature’s most famous dungeon
Switzerland’s first tourism boom began with a poem. In the summer of 1816, Lord Byron spent a summer horsing around Switzerland with Percy Shelley and (the future) Mary Shelley. By July he had written The Prisoner of Chillon, a poem that glorified a real-life prisoner’s life at the Château de Chillon, a stunner of a dungeon on an off-shore rock at the east end of Lake Geneva.
Hordes of literary pilgrims followed, including Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Fyodor Dostoevsky, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Their mission was the same as it is for many today: to see the “seven pillars Gothic mould” Byron wrote about, where, “among the stones,” the prisoner Bonivar “stood a stone.” On one pillar is Byron’s name, supposedly carved by the author (though many believe it was added by a different hand soon after the poem’s fame grew).
Multilingual audio tours uncover the history of the site, whose origins go back to the 12th century. The pocket-size Chillon: A Literary Guide, available at the shop here, is a good starting point if you want to learn more about its impact on the literary world. And note that June 25, 2016, will be the 200th anniversary of Byron’s fabled visit.
Travel trip: From Montreux, get there by the Vevey, an old paddle steamer, or walk 45 minutes along the flower path that hugs the shoreline.
See the Matterhorn
“There are no world-famous Swiss monuments or buildings: no Taj Mahal or Eiffel Tower or Opera House.” But, Diccon Bewes goes on to claim in his book Swiss Watching, Switzerland has all it needs with the Matterhorn, a 14,691-foot peak on the Italian border that's like no other. To see it for the first time towering above the vehicle-free town of Zermatt—its angular, jagged peak rising high above its neighbors and poking skyward like a shark fin (or elf hat) piercing the clouds—is like a first look at the Great Wall or the Golden Gate Bridge.
And it dominates local life. Amade Perrig, a yodeler whose ancestors have been in Zermatt for centuries, had no answer when it came to highlighting other village attractions. “Well, I’ve never thought of that before," he said. "In summer we climb around the Matterhorn, or up it, and in winter we ski below it.”
It’s all about the Matterhorn here.
And your mission as a visitor to Zermatt should be seeing the Matterhorn (German for “meadow” and “peak”) as much as you can and from as many viewpoints as possible. Most inns in town have balconies under its moonlit gaze. By day, the best starting point is a ride up a series of cable cars toward “Glacier Paradise, Italy,” as the sign reads. Riding over the crevassed surface of glaciers, you see the face of the Matterhorn change from different angles (it’s less distinctive when viewed from Italy, just beyond).
A quarter of the way back down, from the Trockener Steg mountain station, detour for a two- to three-hour hike on the Matterhorn Glacier Walk, which arcs below its namesake, past pools and a jumble of gneiss and granite rocks.
Another good option is to ride the train up to Gornergrat—which hosts some Alpine festival events—for its front-and-center views of the Matterhorn.
Travel tip: Don’t mind the occasional fog. Some days you get a bonus thrill by climbing in a cable car until you find yourself above a dramatic nebelmeer (fog sea) that fills the Zermatt valley below.
See the world’s “most moving piece of stone”
Mark Twain, breaking from jests in 1880’s hilarious A Tramp Abroad, famously called Lucerne’s Lion Monument (Löwendenkmal) the world’s “most mournful and moving piece of stone.” Many write-ups of the monument include the quote, for reason. Up a few busy lanes from the lakeside, a leafy park sits before a towering, vine-coated sandstone bluff—once a quarry for building materials for the city. Cut out of the rock, the 33-foot-long noble lion is near death, a broken spear jutting out of its side, its paw still at work protecting a battered fleur-de-lis shield.
Seeing it, and you must, you may realize it actually is the world’s most mournful and moving piece of stone.
The work, designed by Bertel Thorvaldsen and created in 1820, remembers the 600-plus Swiss mercenaries, hired by Louis XVI, who perished during the French Revolution (many died by guillotine).
Site of summer concerts, and many visitors, the park is often a busy place. Go early and give it time. Watch the crowds come and go, and you’ll find yourself alone with the lion.
Travel tip: Look close: The nook the monument sits in has a slight pig shape. That’s by design. Thorvaldsen made those changes when his promised fee couldn’t be paid in full.
Visit the country's most popular museum, Lucerne’s Verkehrshaus
Lucerne’s lakeside Verkehrshaus, aka the Swiss Museum of Transport, is a superfun modern complex that’s organized by mode of transport. There are old Swiss trains, suspended jets you can climb aboard, helicopter simulators, foot-pedal gondolas, and a kids-oriented pavilion where children can get hands-on experience using play construction materials at a simulated building site. And definitely not just for kids. As one 50-something visitor we overheard put it, “This is a-ma-zing!”
A highlight is the automobile building, the walls of which are covered in nearly 350 traffic signs. Inside you can take a ride in a crash-test vehicle to feel what a six-mile-per-hour collision feels like. Along one wall are rows of 35 historic vehicles. Pick one, and a golden-armed robot slides over to hoist up a car and deliver it to a small amphitheater for a short interactive lesson (in English too). For us, the choice was the 1954 Fiat Topolino, which was "the first micro-car to drive like a full one.”
Travel tip: You can walk to the center along the leafy lakeside promenade in about 20 minutes, or go by bus or lake ferry with your Swiss Rail Pass.
Unfold the secrets of the Swiss Army knife
True or false: Members of the Swiss Army carry one of those red Victorinox Swiss Army knives, “the smallest toolbox in the world,” while on duty?
Well, both. The soldiers do carry one, but the official Soldatenmesser model is a matte olive green, not red. For the rest of the Swiss? “We all carry one.”
At least that’s the word from a staffer at Victorinox’s engagingly hilarious Swiss Knife Valley Visitor Center in Brunnen, which doubles as a free museum. A seven-minute film tells the history of Victorinox from its beginnings in 1884 and shows how blades are cut like cookies from imported steel sheets. Another display offers a full-wall interactive time line with short videos on the history of the Victorinox knife (be sure to see how one stopped a bullet to save Richard Dean Anderson on the TV show MacGyver).
Don't miss the tiny, curtained “storytelling” nook to one side. You enter and sit in a chair that suddenly swivels around to face darkness. Above, a video clicks on and briefly relates a real-life tale on how a knife saved a person’s life. At a climatic moment, a light clicks on to reveal, in the darkness before you, a poised Victorinox knife ready to come to the rescue.
Travel tip: The shop is a good place to get various Victorinox gear (including a Soldatenmesser for 44 Swiss francs, or just under $50), but you can buy directly from the plant in nearby Schwyz, birthplace of Victorinox. (There are no tours.) A bus that stops across the road from the museum gets to Schwyz in ten minutes.
Learn some Romansh
Around St. Moritz
As languages go, Romansh—spoken at homes, shops, and schools in southeastern Switzerland—is a little complicated. It's linked to Roman times, is broken into five dialects (plus a sixth standard version), and is spoken by 60,000 people, less than one percent of the country. It finally joined German, French, and Italian as one of the four official Swiss languages in 1996.
All this makes it rewarding to learn a few phrases to use when traveling through the gorgeous villages of the Engadine Valley, saying allegra (“rejoice,” used as hello) to passing hikers in the Swiss National Park. A few to start with: grazcha fich (thank you very much), piglia pacific (take it easy), and eviva (cheers).
Chur, a major stop for the Glacier Express or Bernina Express train routes, is the place to begin broader studies. Il Palantin is a Romansh-language bookstore that’s been around for two decades. Lia Rumantscha runs one-week language courses in summer (schedules aren’t posted online; email or call for updates).
“Often it’s visitors who are more interested in it than our own people,” says Lia Rumantscha’s Daniel Telli, who grew up nearby. “But that awareness is an important way to preserve the language.”
Travel tip: Hear a preview of Romansh with our video here.
Tip your deerstalker to Sherlock
Did you know Sherlock Holmes—the first one, not the one of the movies or BBC series—died in Switzerland?
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the London detective series, grew tired of his claim to fame and had the sleuth take a tumble off the Reichenbach Falls. (Doyle eventually resurrected Holmes, but that’s another story.)
Now reached by an open-window cog railway, the dramatic falls feature a frightful chasm crossed by a bridge, where you can stand above gullies of carved-out rock as water angrily bends by before tumbling out of sight.
In town, the fun Sherlock Holmes Museum is built in the basement of the terra-cotta roofed English Church. It’s a step into Victorian London. Made to look like Holmes’s apartment, it’s complete with the detective's distinctive Inverness cape draped over a chair and items mentioned in Doyle’s stories. An audio tour cheekily tells Holmes’s tale, finishing with the matter-of-fact dictum that Sherlock was “a man who never lived but today is more real than many who did.”
Travel tip: Read the story of Sherlock Holmes’s first demise in Doyle’s “The Final Problem” from 1891.
Relive the Olympics
The Olympic Games travel the world, but they live in Lausanne, picked purposely as a neutral location during an uncertain 20th century. And anyone who’s ever fallen for young stars going for gold will treasure a visit to the International Olympic Committee’s brilliant lakeside Olympic Museum, which reopened in 2013 with much panache after a $60 million makeover.
A visit to the modern, three-story museum begins, like a film, with a chronological replay of Olympic history (including those fun four-horse chariots that paid tribute to Zeus 2,800 years ago). It particularly gets going after the modern birth of the games in 1896. The torch exhibit lays out the beacons of each Olympiad in order, and a walk past them shows how much the style has changed over the years (we’re still not convinced, alas, by Vancouver’s elongated, fanglike torch).
At another stop, stools sit before screens where you can revisit games of your choice for context of the times and highlights. You'll see the various boycotts, aboriginal athlete Cathy Freeman getting gold for Australia, how London employed a make-do attitude to assemble an Olympiad after World War II, and the tragic events in Munich leading to the deaths of 11 Israeli athletes in 1972. (Scenes from the notorious conflict between U.S. figure skaters Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan in Lillehammer, Norway, are mercifully absent.)
Travel tip: The gift shop, with posters and T-shirts and bags sporting styles of the games, is also a real hoot, particularly the wonderfully dizzying geometric look and feel from the 1968 Mexico City games.
Feel the spray of the Jet d’Eau
Geneva’s greatest icon is an engineering solution to a hydroelectric problem that turned into an attraction by accident—and makes it look like the lakeside city has sprung a leak.
Most of the day, every day, Lake Geneva’s Jet d’Eau sprays water 400 or more feet skyward from just off the Left Bank’s shoreline. It began in 1886 to relieve pressure from a hydroelectric power plant, but interest surged, so it was moved outdoors in 1891.
A close-up look from under the jet’s ample mist is a must for understanding local life. It’s best to go just before dusk, when passersby walk out, seemingly into the harbor, via a four-foot-wide stone walkway that passes moored sailboats and swans looking for discarded croissants. Beyond the jet, the walkway bends toward a central point in the harbor, where you can take in a golden sunset over the city skyline, backed by French mountains on the horizon.
Travel tip: On shore, a schedule marks when the jet is turned off. It’s worth waiting for the great plugging—when the spray lightens in girth, fades as it falls, and practically dissipates before the last drop hits the lake. And the night sounds of the city swell in its absence.
Walk Geneva’s “Greenwich Village”
Home to the Red Cross and the big bang, Geneva has more of an edgy fray in its bonnet than outsiders might realize at first glance—particularly in Carouge, the old Sardinian quarter that's reached by a 15-minute trolley ride (line 12) over the Arve River from the center. Some liken its bohemian vibe and local artisan scene to New York's Greenwich Village.
It’s certainly a great area for a half day’s mosey. On side streets lined with shuttered 18th-century townhouses, you’ll find glassblowers, salons de thê, handmade soap stands, local writers’ works displayed in bookshop windows, chocolatiers in colorful outfits—and at least one chain-smoking clockmaker.
Jean Kazes, a Bulgarian émigré, has been making clocks for over four decades at his tiny glass-front shop here. His clocks are fine works with fully exposed mechanisms. “I thought it was a pity to hide [the mechanisms],” Kazes says, cigarette smoke rising into his nostrils. “The inner parts of a clock are so beautiful.” Clocks start at 8,000 Swiss francs, or nearly $9,000, but it doesn’t hurt to look.
Travel tip: Try to go on Saturday to see the farmers market (also held on Wednesdays) and take one of the neighborhood’s visites guidée, or walking tours, scheduled June to October.
Do the Dada
As World War I erupted across Europe, a group of émigré artists—inspired by cubism—gave a radical antiwar response with chaotic, irrational, often funny anarchist art called Dada. Hugo Ball, the German who coined the term in a 1916 manifesto, said Dada was “just a word, and the word a movement.”
Dada isn’t dead. Lady Gaga credits her ever changing looks to it. And you can experience it in its birthplace: Zurich’s Cabaret Voltaire.
After incarnations as a bingo parlor and squatters’ home for artists and punks, the cabaret has been reopened as a Dada pilgrimage site for over a decade. You can go for light snacks, buy a T-shirt, or see various events, including the “Big Thinkers” lecture series, featuring philosophers who “could be the next Nietzsche,” as the cabaret’s projects planner Jeff Wolf puts it.
“Dada’s original aim was to provoke, to do some strange stuff,” says Wolf. “It must have been something. People would throw chairs on stage.”
No chairs are tossed nowadays, but there are plenty of events. Marilyn Manson once showed his artwork here. Every February 5, Dada’s birthday, is a big occasion. And in 2016, Dada’s centennial, the Cabaret Voltaire will host some events of the Manifesta Biennial of Contemporary Art.
Travel tip: Zurich’s Kunsthaus has a section devoted to Dada, and the Hotel Limmatblick offers Dada-themed accommodations.
See the Big Bang
The big bang isn’t just a theory—it’s an attraction. And its home is Geneva’s CERN, or the European Organization for Nuclear Research.
Founded in 1954 (so Europe could rejoin the physics race after most leading scientists emigrated to the U.S. during World War II) and having 21 member countries, CERN is primarily a scientific institute for particle research physics. It’s home to various creations, including the world’s biggest machine, the 17-mile-circumference Large Hadron Collider, which studies the aftermath of the big bang (look for parts of it on South Park and a Megadeth album cover). And, oh, the World Wide Web was created here in 1989. (The first ever website is still updated from CERN.)
Two-hour tours in English (for ages 13 and up) run Monday to Saturday. The tours cross briefly into France, so bring your passport.
Travel trip: As an alternative to the full tour, there are a couple of exhibits you can see at all times. One is the "Microcosm" (under renovation until summer 2015), where you can learn how CERN accelerators simulate the big bang.
See works by Paul Klee, Switzerland’s most famous artist
A trio of ribbed “waves” of steel, rising and falling like knee-breaking ski moguls, mark one of the most arresting of museums in a nation known for them. (Switzerland has the world’s highest museum-to-people ratio.)
Built in 2005, Bern’s Zentrum Paul Klee, set along a courtyard a hundred yards from the abstract modern artist’s resting place, is a tribute to the country’s favorite artist. Born here in 1879 to a German father, Klee spent much of his art career in Germany or finding inspiration in North Africa, but he returned to Switzerland for good after the rise of Nazi power in the 1930s.
The museum covers all periods of his career: colorful cubist oils and surreal inked lithographs contemplating death, along with Klee’s first love—music. His first steps into the art world were with the violin.
Travel tip: Look on the Zentrum Paul Klee website for events, including classical music concerts hosted by the museum.
Slow down for Thun
Before you rush to Interlaken to see the Bernese Alps, stop in Thun, a historic town with a fairy-tale feel, fewer visitors, and a bigger glimpse up to a trio of peaks (Jungfrau, Mönch, and Eiger).
Just 20 miles from Bern, Thun’s highlight, reached via winding streets lined with 500-year-old townhouses, is the Schloss Thun, a 12th-century castle with a museum accounting for 4,000 years of local history and boasting stunning views from its turreted ramparts.
Following a visit to the castle, take in the emerald flow of the Aare River, lined with restaurants. These waters inspired 19th-century English poet (and sometime rugby player) Matthew Arnold to wax poetic about missed chances in his poem "A Dream," with the “river of Life” sending him past the waving arms of a maiden or three. “Was it a dream?” he asks of the vision amid “the eternal wall of snow.”
Find “the best Swiss village”
Close your eyes and think “Swiss village,” and you’ll see that quintessential storybook village with the tidy stack of logs in the green grass outside a chalet with flower-box windows. And the gardener taking in the echo of cowbells bouncing off snow-capped Alpine peaks, a hint of spray from a nearby waterfall, your shoes clicking as you walk down the middle of a quiet cobblestone road.
Where is the best Swiss village? Right. Think we could tell you?
Everyone has an idea. And the secret to a great Swiss experience is treating a trip as a quest for your own candidate.
Some say it’s Gruyères, northeast of Lake Geneva, home to chocolate and cheese, which makes it pretty special. High up, Gimmelwald is a tiny village reached by cable car or by mountain paths with dramatic drop-offs to the valleys of the Bernese Oberland below.
Some visitors can’t help but be swayed by the story of Heidi (Switzerland’s most enduring novel, written in 1880 by Johanna Spyri). You can visit its setting at Maienfeld, near a touristy nearby village now called Heididorf, and take the Heidi Path, a 60- to 90-minute walking tour featuring illustrated signs.
A lesser visited candidate is timeless Guarda (Romansh for “look”), which sits on the crest of a towering hill in a tight valley of the Engadine in southeastern Switzerland. Visitors, most of whom are Swiss, gaze at the cobbled streets, wood-carving workshops, and sgraffito artwork on homes with the awestruck look of kids on Christmas morning.
Travel trip: In Guarda, look for (an English) copy of A Bell for Ursli, a sweet children's book about kids collecting cowbells (a tradition staged every March 1). One of many valley hikes here recreates the story’s itinerary.
Peek into the original Middle Earth
Lauterbrunnen & Jenins
As the setting for Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of JRR Tolkien's fantasy epics, New Zealand may hold claim to the modern vision of Middle Earth—but the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings series based places like the Elven city of Rivendell on Switzerland. Lauterbrunnen’s so-called valley of 72 waterfalls, with its steep cliffs topped with dense forests and wildflowers, was, Tolkien said, “the Silvertine of my dreams.”
“Switzerland is fundamental [to] The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings,” says Bernd Greisinger, who has created the world’s biggest Tolkien-inspired museum in Jenins, near the Liechtenstein border. “Without Tolkien’s travels here in 1911, he wouldn’t have been able to create Rivendell, the Misty Mountains, Moria, the River Anduin.”
The Greisinger Museum, opened in 2013, is a 36,000-square-foot “Hobbit hole” that took five years to build and features 3,500 books and 600 original, Hobbit-inspired artworks. Each of its 11 rooms, three of which are perfectly refashioned like a Baggins’ home, evokes a different setting from Middle Earth. In Moria, for example, you meet with a gigantic cave troll, “bigatures” (not miniatures) made by the museum.
Travel tip: Guided tours of the museum are offered in approximately two- or three-hour blocks. Call ahead to ensure a time.