Insider’s Guide to Switzerland

Estimated reading time 7 min

If you don’t fall in love with Switzerland the instant you arrive, you are not human. Sparkling turquoise lakes, snow-crowned peaks, medieval villages, and some of the world’s best chocolate—this Alpine mecca has it all. Mountaineering began the tourism rush in the early 1800s, and Switzerland now holds a firm place in the pantheon of stunning destinations. Use this Insider’s Guide to Switzerland to help plan your unforgettable journey.

Insider Guide to Switzerland

The Basics

Located in Western-Central Europe, Switzerland borders Austria and Liechtenstein to the east, France to the west, Germany to the north, and Italy to the south. The mountainous, landlocked country comprises three geographical regions: the Alps, the Jura Mountains, and the Swiss Plateau. It encompasses a total land area of 15,940 square miles—nearly the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined.

Weather & What to Wear

The climate in Switzerland is generally temperate, but it varies widely by elevation and exact location. Mountain peaks often experience glacial conditions, while some southern valleys sprout palm trees. Summers are generally warm and humid (between 65° and 82°F), and winters are chilly (between 28° and 45°F).

The Alps cause unpredictable weather patterns each year, so it’s wise to pack layers. The valleys can be balmy in the summer, while mountainous regions are cold year-round. Pack lightweight jackets and comfortable hiking shoes. In the winter, pack warm coats, hats, and gloves.

Language

Though it’s a relatively small country, Switzerland boasts four official languages. Just over 63% of the population speaks German. In the north, twenty-three percent speaks French, and 8% speaks Italian in the south. In parts of southeastern Graubunden you can hear Romansh, a Romance language spoken by ethnic Romansh people.

Most Swiss people are, at the very least, bilingual. In some instances, French-speakers would rather converse with German-speakers in English, so it’s not difficult to find English-speakers in the country. There is even talk of English being an unofficial fifth language. Still, it is wise to take a phrase book on your trip or to download a translation app to your smartphone.

Money & Tipping

The official currency in Switzerland is the Swiss franc (CHF). Some places do accept the euro, but the exchange rate is generally poor. To exchange currency, research your bank’s international partnerships and use a corresponding ATM. Most establishments in Switzerland do accept credit and debit cards.

Tipping is not common in Switzerland, and bills generally include service charges. Swiss workers receive comparatively high wages, so most do not expect large tips. At hotels, it’s customary to tip bellmen one franc for each bag handled, and tip housekeeping the same for each day of your stay. At restaurants, leave a couple francs for exceptional service. Taxi drivers do not expect a tip, but you can round up the final fare for a great trip.

Culture

Swiss people are immensely proud of their individuality and neutrality. Promoters of world peace, the Swiss take their global stance seriously. The Alps have also played a significant role in shaping the country’s culture. Mountainous regions all have a notable mountaineering and skiing culture. Folk traditions, such as yodeling and the alphorn, also remain important to Switzerland’s national identity.

The Swiss are widely known for their work ethic. Punctuality is extremely important. In social settings, firm handshakes and eye contact are appropriate upon greeting. Attire is generally conservative and neat. Privacy is also of the utmost importance, so give others generous space and don’t ask overly personal questions.

Food

Fondue in Switzerland - Insider Guide to Switzerland

Swiss cuisine has been largely influenced by the cuisines of its neighbors, and it varies by region. As the country is agriculturally rich, dishes tend to showcase fresh, local ingredients like potatoes and cheese. Fondue and raclette are two of Switzerland’s most notable dishes, as is rosti—a potato dish. Wine is produced all over the country and is often enjoyed with famed Swiss chocolate.

The traditional Swiss meal structure consists of breakfast (zmorge), a morning snack (znuni), lunch (zmittag), an afternoon snack (zvieri), and dinner (znacht). Breakfast may consist of rolls, cereal, eggs, and coffee or tea. The morning snack is often bread, fruit, and coffee. Lunch is a hot meal and is all about rest and relaxation to gear up for the rest of the day. The afternoon snack may consist of a small sandwich or fruit, and dinner is often cold foods and a hot drink. Of course, like most countries, the Swiss meal structure has become very international.

Safety

The threat of violent crimes against tourists in Switzerland is relatively low. However, non-violent crimes, such as pick-pocketing and other thefts, do occur. As with all traveling, be aware of your surroundings and pay especially close attention to your belongings in train stations and on trains. Thieves often work in pairs to create distractions, so be vigilant of anything out of the ordinary.

Regions

Interlaken - Insider Guide to SwitzerlandBernese Oberland

One of the most beautiful Swiss regions, the Bernese Oberland includes the cities of Interlaken, Grindelwald, and Gstaad. Interlaken acts as a great base to explore this picturesque area, while Grindelwald appeals to hikers and mountaineers. Situated at the base of the imposing Eiger, Grindelwald boasts postcard-worthy mountain chalets and a quintessential Swiss village. For further exploration, trains and cable cars transport visitors directly into the world-famous mountains.

Lake Lucerne - Insider Guide to SwitzerlandCentral Switzerland

Lake Lucerne is the focal point of Central Switzerland for good reason. The lake is absolutely breathtaking, and the city of Lucerne is the ideal place to marvel at the scenery. For spectacular views of the Alps and lake, take a ride on the Pilatus cogwheel train or Titlus revolving cable car. Of course, a trip to Lucerne wouldn’t be complete without a walk across the Chapel Bridge, or Kapellbrucke—the oldest covered wooden bridge in Europe.

Matterhorn - Insider Guide to SwitzerlandValais

The Valais is home to the famed Matterhorn and other impressive peaks. To best explore this mountainous region, take a day trip on the Glacier Express—an alpine train covering 300 kilometers of incredible vistas from Zermatt to St. Moritz. The eight-hour journey crosses over 290 bridges and passes through 91 tunnels.

Fluela Pass in SwitzerlandGraubunden

Graubunden is an alpine region bordering Austria, Italy, and Liechtenstein. This beautiful area is comprised of small villages and pristine nature. It is incredibly popular with hikers and other mountaineers. For adventure tourists, try paragliding in Davos.

Bern - Insider Guide to SwitzerlandBern

The capital city of Switzerland, Bern and the surrounding area are located on the comparatively flat Swiss Plateau. Take a walking tour of the historic Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, or explore the Bern Clock Tower (Zytglogge).

Zurich - Insider Guide to SwitzerlandZurich

Also situated on the Swiss Plateau, the Zurich region consists of the namesake city, the surrounding area, and Lake Zurich. Visit the Old Town, and shop along the Bahnofstrasse—one of the most renowned shopping streets in Europe. If you’d rather take in the city by water, try a day cruise on scenic Lake Zurich.

Lake Geneva - Insider Guide to SwitzerlandSouthwest Switzerland

Famous Lake Geneva is located in this picturesque region of Switzerland. The lake is surrounded by the city of Geneva, beautiful towns, and alpine vineyards. Make time to explore Switzerland’s largest lake by boat, and wander the streets of the medieval town of Gruyeres. In Geneva, visit the Jet d’Eau. This fountain is one of the city’s most prized landmarks.

Basel - Insider Guide to SwitzerlandNorthwest Switzerland

This region is an important entry point to the country and includes the city of Basel. While the region doesn’t contain the Alps, the Jura Mountains are not located too far away. Basel is worth exploring and offers plenty of history, culture, and museums.

Ready to visit Switzerland? Start planning your vacation today.

Learn more about sublime Switzerland with these blog posts:

20 Photos to Inspire Your to Visit Switzerland
Food & Drink Guide to Switzerland

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