Photograph by Susan Seubert
Sip wine on a vineyard-to-vineyard walk
The four-mile walk between the villages of Salgesch and Sierre in the Rhône Valley in south-central Switzerland feels like a bridge between different countries. That’s because these vineyard-coated rolling hills mark a boundary between distinct regions: Swiss German and Swiss French. It’s a lovely walk for much of the year but comes alive on the second Saturday of September, during the Marche des Cépages.
“I love Switzerland,” one first-timer from Bern put it at the event in 2014. “But I’ve never seen anything this fun here before.”
If you like wine, the Marche des Cépages is definitely fun. Dozens of local wineries set out tasting stations, and visitors walk between the towns with prepaid tickets—and drink themselves to the point of pure silly.
Everywhere you look, there are people, mostly young, drinking wine, speaking German or French, eating raclette from a few dozen tasting stations, or pouring wine into the empty glasses of strangers, some propped up in the shade between plots of vines.
Travel tip: The event costs 25 Swiss francs (about $27) for a glass and five vouchers. Most walk from Sierre to Salgesch, though you can walk the reverse route as well.
Go modern on classical music
Lucerne’s not just home to an all-timer of a lake rimmed with Alpine peaks, but it also boasts one of the most cutting-edge playgrounds for classical music. Running since 1938, the monthlong Lucerne Festival is staged lakeside at the modern KKL (or Culture and Congress Center) from mid-August to mid-September. It’s a classical music icon, playing around with the philharmonic the way Paul Klee did with a paintbrush.
In 2015, for example, American composer-in-residence Tod Machover will be turning Lucerne-inspired “sounds,” sourced from locals, into a symphony performed by the festival’s academy of 130 students. Doing so with young musicians is essential, Dominik Deuber, the academy’s managing director, claims. “Young musicians are more open-minded and more happy to work on new sounds, new techniques, than many veteran musicians.”
Travel tip: Check the website for shows. Be prepared with rather formal attire, or take in the more casual, 40-minute “starters,” free previews of performances with a discussion from composers and conductors.
Rally for men in burlap shorts
A huge summer sport in Switzerland is wrestling, called schwingen, in which wrestlers wear breeches similar to canvas shorts over their pants as grips for opponents.
“It’s our baseball,” explains Amade Perrig, a Zermatt yodeler who wrestled as a kid. “Wrestling is our traditional pastime.”
Schwingen’s been big for at least 800 years. In summer, you can find the sumo-esque matches taking place at almost any Alpine event, mostly in German-speaking Switzerland. Seats usually mean a grassy patch on a hillside.
Most sizeable towns have schwingen clubs you can ask about. Or you can join beer chuggers in bars who watch the regular TV broadcasts of two men (or, increasingly, women) squaring off in a 36-foot circle of sawdust.
Travel tip: The website of Eidgenössischer Schwingerverband, the official federation of Swiss wrestling, keeps listings of events, including Brünig’s Brünigschwinget and Rigi’s Alpine Festival (outside Lucerne).
Dress up for Carnival
Basel or Lucerne
Think the Caribbean or the Big Easy are the only places that have fun during Carnival? A surprise to many, Switzerland is also big on the winter event, known here as Fasnacht. It’s “the one time the Swiss really let their hair down,” according to Diccon Bewes, author of Swiss Watching. Or at least put their masks on.
The 72-hour event is celebrated across the country (Bern wakes its hibernating bear for its costumed parade, while Solothurn renames itself Honolulu), but the biggest destinations for the occasion are Basel and Lucerne.
A tradition since the 14th century, Basel’s Fasnacht is the country’s biggest, with flamboyant Carnival floats on the Rhône and parades of drummers and piccolo players. It begins at 4 a.m. the Monday after Ash Wednesday.
Its friendly rival is Lucerne, which holds a five-day version ending on Fat Tuesday, meaning it’s possible to take in both events.
“Yeah, Basel’s is good,” one Lucerne local put it. “But ours is more like New Orleans. More outlandish.”
That refers to the gruesome, troll-like masks that are commonly worn. They're judged by the so-called Maskenliebhaber-Gesellschaft (MLG), an organization that dates to 1819. Be sure to see Lucerne’s Fritschi Fountain, lined with colorful masks, on Kapellplatz. The fountain celebrates a mythical local figure who gave wine to the poor during Fasnacht in the 15th century.
Travel tip: Take the train. Parking is very tough during such events.
Ski a mass cross-country marathon
The largest ski race in the world isn’t about Alpine skiing or snowboarding, but about cross-country. Here among the 125 miles of cross-country ski tracks in the Engadine Valley (including nearly 12 miles of night trails), 12,000 or more skiers set off on the Engadin Skimarathon near St. Moritz.
The annual event, which has taken place on the second Sunday of March since 1969, runs through the Maloja Pass to the village of S-chanf and is “unlike any other race I’ve done,” says American ski racer Eric Packer.
The sight of thousands skiing is something. Many photographs of the event do get circulated worldwide (usually aerial shots of teams of cross-country skiers crossing frozen lakes or navigating winding forest paths or the narrow lanes of quaint villages, all under the gaze of snow-packed Alpine peaks). But it’s better in person.
One notable person who tried it a couple of years ago was the Duchess of Cambridge’s younger sister, Pippa Middleton. After she made her cross-country debut here, she gloated, “I’m not tired at all.”
Travel tip: Novices can consider the newly introduced half-marathon or stay around after the event to ski minus the crowds.
Rock in Montreux
One of the world’s most iconic music festivals, the Montreux Jazz Festival, began in 1967 true to its name, attracting the likes of Miles Davis, Count Basie, and Nina Simone. Quincy Jones even called it the “Rolls-Royce of jazz festivals,” but it’s become more the Rolls-Royce of all music. Within a few years rock and roll and R & B seeped in, eventually attracting the likes of Bob Dylan, Prince, and Radiohead.
Actually rock and rollers, like artists and writers before them, have long considered Montreux a second home. In 1971 Deep Purple were here recording when a fire erupted during a Frank Zappa show at the Montreux Casino—and “Smoke on the Water” was born (apparently, as the song tells it, “some stupid with a flare gun” was to blame).
Travel tip: The band Queen set up home here too, evident in the surprisingly engaging Queen Studio Experience in the (rebuilt) Montreux Casino and the Freddie Mercury statue facing the waterfront in the center of town.
Celebrate Swiss National Day
August 1, the Swiss National Day, has been an official public holiday for only the past couple of decades, but its traditions run deeper. Every year the country lets go to celebrate its unique self: a nation of four languages—and more cultures—that shares a forbidding Alpine landscape under the neutral flap of a red, square-shaped flag with a white cross. Throughout the country, you’ll see outdoor events, schwingen wrestling, höhenfeur (bonfires) flaming on the crests of hills, and fireworks popping over most town centers (some displays happen on July 31).
And then there’s the food. Eggs and donuts are done up like Swiss flags on August 1, but you must begin the day with an augustweggli, a crusty, sweet crumpet baked with a Swiss cross on top and usually garnished with a mini-flag. A tradition since 1959, many natives add a dose of local honey to add more sweetness.
Best is finding a local brunch. Many farmers hold National Day brunches, all-you-can-eat feasts of local meats, cheeses, and breads that are served on communal tables under the sun.
Travel tip: To find brunch, check this website's list for options nationwide (though not in English).