Switzerland, Part 1

We just got back a couple of weeks ago from a wonderful week in Switzerland. It was an absolutely beautiful trip! Because Switzerland is relatively small, we were lucky to experience many unique natural and cultural regions in the span of 7 days. We’ve split up our one-week itinerary into three parts for the blog. In this part, we’ll talk about our first four days in Switzerland, which were focused on some of the most famous mountains and lakes in the central and western parts of the country. In Part 2, we’ll talk about three days we spent in the eastern part of Switzerland including Ticino (Italian Switzerland), Appenzell, St. Gallen, and Zurich. In Part 3, we’ll talk about some of the lessons we learned about the logistical aspects of travelling in Switzerland, including how to get around, where to stay, and how to save money when you’re getting food or shopping for chocolate.

Itinerary – Part 1

  • Day 1 ­čî×: The Bernese Oberland and Jungfraujoch
  • Day 2: Lake Geneva and French Switzerland
  • Day 3 ­čî×: Zermatt and Bern
  • Day 4: Mount Pilatus and Lucerne

­čî×┬á– Reserve a sunny day for this part of your trip.

We’d recommend that you stay at one central home base, like Bern, for this leg of the trip. These four days are all interchangeable, so in case you only get a couple of sunny days, you can save them for the Bernese Oberland and Zermatt so that you can fully experience the views of the mountain peaks in these regions.

Day 1: The Bernese Oberland and Jungfraujoch

The Bernese Oberland is one of the most breathtaking parts of the Swiss Alps. With all the towns and mountain experiences to choose from, it seemed a bit overwhelming to plan our time in this region! After a lot of research, we managed to settle on a one-day itinerary that hits several of the area’s highlights: waterfalls, mountain panoramas, and fun in the snow on top of the mountains!

You’ll want it to be as sunny as possible for this part of your trip, so we’d recommend checking the local┬áweather and webcams before you head off to the area. Note that it doesn’t have to be completely clear to enjoy the area – some clouds actually add to the drama! However, if the area is totally foggy, you won’t be able to see the awesome panoramas here.

If all goes well on this day, you’ll be walking on both green hillsides and snow-capped mountains in the Alps, so be sure to pack good boots, layers of clothing, water, food, and sunglasses – it can be very bright up top! Note that there are also plenty of cafes and restaurants in every mountain town if you’d prefer to get your food on the go.

Cars aren’t permitted up the mountains, so if you’re driving, you’ll need to either leave your car in Lauterbrunnen or Grindelwald. We chose Lauterbrunnen, known as the gateway to the UNESCO-recognized “valley of the 72 waterfalls.” Even the views from the parking lot and the train station in Lauterbrunnen were incredible: a picturesque town set below the majestic Staubbach falls.

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A view of Lauterbrunnen from the train to Wengen

From Lauterbrunnen, we took the train up to Wengen (a 14 minute trip every half hour) and then transferred to the aerial cableway to get to Mannlichen (a 6 minute trip every 20 minutes). Mannlichen is a great starting point for many of the hikes in this region. We started with the “Royal Walk,” a quick and steep hike up to a nearby viewing platform with information about the peaks on signs along the way. The platform offers an awesome 360┬░ view of the region.

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The Eiger and other peaks visible from the panoramic platform of the Royal Walk.

After the Royal Walk, we retraced our steps and set out on the “Panorama Walk,” an easy trail that leads to the Kleine Scheidegg train station. Craggy green hills, lush valleys, and Switzerland’s big three (the Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau), are always in view along this hike. The path is about 5 km long and takes about 1.5 hours, including time to stop and take pictures. You’ll want to take lots!

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Kleine Scheidegg is the start of the Jungfraujoch railway, which in about 45 minutes takes you through the inside of the mountain up to the “Top of Europe,” an amazing winter wonderland at 3454m elevation. This experience was one of the highlights of our trip, and if the weather cooperates, we definitely think it is worth it.

At the Kleine Scheidegg station, we bought round trip tickets to Jungfraujoch. You are reserving a spot on a train at a specific time, but you can try to catch an earlier train by lining up in the “no reservations” area on the platform. There was almost no one waiting on a weekday afternoon, so we were able to take a train two hours before our scheduled reservation by lining up in the no reservations area.

There are many things to do in the Jungfraujoch complex, but we had the most fun walking outside in the snow! There is a snow fun park, a walking trail to the Monchjoch hut, the Sphinx panoramic viewing platform, and the snow platform, which gives a great view of the Aletsch Glacier. Cell signal is amazing up here, so we even video chatted with family from the highest train station in Europe!

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The Aletsch Glacier.
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Mountainside with the Mitteland in the distance.
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View of the research station from the snow park.

The ice sculptures and shops (including the Lindt experience) were a little underwhelming, so we’d say you can probably skip over these parts of the complex. After our visit, we hopped back on the train to Kleine Scheidegg, and then caught a train all the way back down to Lauterbrunnen via Wengen. Again, the views out the windows of the train are breathtaking.

When we got back to Lauterbrunnen, we wanted to check out more of the valley, so we drove to Stechelberg (about 15 minutes away). The scenic road runs parallel to the UNESCO waterfall walk, and there are a couple of places where we hopped out and wandered onto the trail for some amazing views.

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Homestead deep in the Lauterbrunnen valley.

We were too hungry to wait until getting back to Bern to eat dinner, so we stopped in Interlaken, which had plenty of great dining options. We found a nice Thai restaurant off the main drag, Penthai Haus, which has an unassuming interior but serves very good food in an outdoor seating area. Surrounded by hills and lakes, Interlaken was a nice place to enjoy the sunset before heading back to Bern.

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Sunset in Interlaken.

Day 2: French Switzerland and Lake Geneva

The French-speaking part of Switzerland is a hub for food and fun in the summer: you’ll find cheese and chocolate factory tours in Gruyeres, lush terraced vineyards in the Lavaux region, and lots of ways to enjoy the waters of Lake Geneva, including the world-famous Montreux Jazz Festival in July. We didn’t do any strenuous hiking here, so comfortable walking shoes were just fine.

We decided to work up an appetite before heading to the chocolate factory, so our first stop was Chateau de Chillon, on the eastern shores of Lake Geneva. There is plenty of roadside parking on highway 9 (Avenue de Chillon); just remember to use your blue parking disc. The castle has been occupied since the 12th century owing to its strategic placement near the lake and the mountains further south. As a result, is also has some particularly awesome views. If you are interested in a deep dive into the castle’s history, get an audio tour. If not, you can wander through the castle at your own pace. We most enjoyed the prison (which inspired a Lord Byron poem) and the castle keep (donjon). To get to the keep, you’ll have to climb many flights of narrow wooden stairs, but you’ll be treated to amazing views of the lake and of the castle itself from the top of the tower.

Our next stop was the Cailler Chocolate Factory in Broc, which is located in the Gruyeres region. This factory tour was one of the best ones we’ve ever taken; it was both informative and entertaining, with lots of free samples! When we arrived at the factory, we were assigned a slot on a timed tour (there are tours available in English, and we had to wait about 20 minutes for ours to start). The first part of the tour felt like a Disneyland experience, with an animatronic retelling of the history of chocolate. Next, we had a chance to feel, smell, touch, and taste the raw ingredients used in Cailler chocolate and learn more about the farmers that produce these ingredients.

After that, we got to see a scaled-down manufacturing line for one of the famous chocolate products at the factory (branches); it was amazing to watch how fast the robots could work! Finally, we got to sample about eight or so different chocolates produced at the factory (and no one seems to mind if you go back for seconds…). Cailler Chocolate is unique in that liquid milk is used in the manufacturing process as opposed to powdered milk, so all of the chocolates we tasted were very rich and creamy. It’ll be tempting to stock up in the gift shop here, but keep in mind that most of these same bars are available (possibly on sale) at local grocery stores in Switzerland like Coop.

After we had our fill of chocolate, we headed over to Lausanne to check out Olympic Park, part of the Olympic Museum complex. The park has a nice fountain and gardens with athletic sculptures and an eternal Olympic flame. It had wonderful public spaces and views of the Lake; if we had more time, or on a rainy day, we’d probably have checked out the inside of the museum, too!

From Lausanne, we took a lovely drive through the Lavaux Vineyards, a wine country that features beautiful terraces of vines above the blue waters of the lake. We mostly drove along Route de la Petite Corniche, a narrow road that meandered through many charming towns. There were even a few pull-outs that offered spectacular views. There are also walking trails here, as well as several vineyards you can visit.

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The terraced vineyards above Grandvaux.

We followed the road back to Highway 9 and then made our way to Montreux. We were very lucky to be in Switzerland during festival season, and we got to experience one of the big ones, the Montreux Jazz Festival. In addition to the big names on the headline stages, there is also a big celebration area in Parc de Vernex with food carts and free concerts. We found some street parking about 20 minutes by walk from the park, off of the Route du Chailly, but there was also a big parking lot with free shuttles to the park.

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People picnicking and watching a free concert at Parc Vernex.

The quai de Vernex just beside the park is a really nice stretch along the waterfront and would make for a pleasant walk even if the jazz festival isn’t on. Watching the sun lower over the water was the perfect way to end our evening before we headed back to our car.

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Willows, boats, and a balloon from the quai de Vernex.

Day 3: Zermatt and Bern

The Bernese Oberland was so incredible because of the wall of snow-capped peaks towering over lush green hills. The Matterhorn presented a very different but equally spectacular experience: a distinct peak in a more rugged, rocky part of the Alps. We heard from many people in Switzerland that there are some days that the Matterhorn is completely covered in clouds, so be sure to check the weather and webcams before you head down as it is a long trip to make if you can’t see the most famous peak in the region.

Hiking near Zermatt is awesome, so be sure to pack a good pair of boots as well as sunscreen and water for this trip. If you need extra snacks, there are grocery stores and cafes at almost all of the stations along the way.

To avoid a long day of driving, we took the train from our home base in Bern all the way to Zermatt, the famous resort town near the Matterhorn. It turns out, depending on where you’re staying, that a 1-day half-fare travelpass┬ámay be cheaper than a round-trip ticket. It also includes public transport within cities, not just the trains, so it’s also handy if you want to explore a city or two during your day. Just be sure if you do this that you validate the day pass at your first train station. Note that the pass doesn’t include most mountain excursions, so you’ll still need separate tickets for those. Check out this┬ádetailed map for more information.

From what we had read (and what we saw during our own visit), the clouds tend to gather over the mountains in the afternoon, so we decided to take one of the earliest trains possible from our home base in Bern. As a result, we were treated to a spectacular view of Old Bern and the river Aare as we were walking to the train station in the morning.

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Bern at sunrise from the north side of the Aare.

We changed trains once in Visp to a local service to Zermatt. Unlike Glacier Express trains (a famous panoramic route connecting St. Moritz to Zermatt), we didn’t need to reserve a seat to get to Zermatt this way. You’ll be treated to beautiful scenery no matter where you sit, but we’d suggest trying to sit on the left side of the train on the way to Visp to catch some amazing views of the Alps. You probably won’t see the Matterhorn from the train, so any seat on the local train is just fine.

From Zermatt, there are a few options to get up further in the mountains. We chose to take the funicular and aerial trams up to the Sunnega-Blauherd area. To get there, we walked toward the river from the main train station in Zermatt, crossed it, and then found the station for the Sunnega Express funicular. On your walk, watch out for the local taxis, which move quickly down the narrow streets! And don’t forget to turn around to check out your first views of the Matterhorn; we almost missed seeing it because we were so focused on getting to our destination!

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Our first view of the Matterhorn from the river in Zermatt.

We bought tickets all the way up to Rothorn (a panoramic viewpoint). We recommend going to Rothorn first because the view is best earlier in the day if it is clear. The route consists of a funicular to Sunnega, an aerial tram to Blauherd, and another aerial tram to Rothorn. All in all, it took us about 40 minutes to get up to the top. The panoramas of the rocky mountainsides surrounded by crevassed valleys, grey glaciers, and turquoise alpine lakes were just spectacular both from the trams and from Rothorn itself.

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View from the aerial tram to Blauherd.
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Panorama from the side platform at Rothorn.

Once we were done admiring the panorama at Rothorn, we returned to Blauherd┬áby aerial tram to start the 5-Seenweg (5-lake walk), a 7.6 km hike – mostly downhill – back to Sunnega. It took us about 3 hours to do the hike, including lots of stops for photos. Some of the lakes on this hike are man-made or man-assisted to help with hydroelectric and snow-making activity in the area, but the path between them nonetheless provided wonderful vantage points for the peaks and waterfalls in the area. The trail is reasonably well marked by signs, and Google maps does have listings for all the lakes in case you lose your way.

The first lake, Stellisee, was definitely our favorite. The wind is usually too strong by midday for the lake to offer a clear reflection of the Matterhorn, but the view here is still postcard-worthy.

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The Matterhorn in clear view from Stellisee.

As expected, clouds started to gather in the afternoon, but this gave the Matterhorn more of a dark, ominous character synonymous with its name.

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Clouds gather over the Matterhorn in the afternoon.

The last lake, Leisee, is family destination right below the Sunnega station, and you can definitely take a dip if you feel so inclined!

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Leisee, a family lake that’s open to swimming

After our hike, we said goodbye to the Matterhorn; we took the funicular back from Sunnega to Zermatt, and then went back to the train station to catch a train back to Bern, where we were staying.

Because we started our day so early, we had plenty of time to walk around Bern in the evening.  Starting at the Zytglogge, a clock tower that was built in the 13th century, we made our way down the Kramgasse, an old street adorned with flags and flanked with shops both above and below ground. This is also the street where Albert Einstein lived during the time that he was developing his theory of relativity.

We also had a look at the intricate stone carvings on the facade of the Munster, Bern’s┬álarge Gothic cathedral.

Before leaving downtown, we had an amazing dinner at Namaste India; we visited a couple of times during our trip, and the restaurant was never busy. They had a nice area for outdoor seating and one of the best creamy vegetable kormas we’ve ever had!

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Vegetable korma at Namaste India: so good we started eating it before taking the picture!

After dinner, we made a quick stop at the Bundesplatz to check out the Swiss Parliament buildings; it was really fun to watch the families playing in the fountains there!

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If you have some more time in Bern on another day, a morning jog around town is very pleasant. Our favorite part of the jogging route suggested by our hotel was running past the bear park in the eastern part of town (look down to see the bears!) and then crossing over the river Aare there to catch a glimpse of the wonderful skyline and the river together.

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Brown bear, symbol of Bern, in the Barengraben nature preserve
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Untertorbrucke, a 500-year old bridge over the river Aare, seen from Nydeggbrucke.

Bern is possibly the nicest city to visit in Switzerland; with architecture and history that rival any of the old towns, a picture-perfect skyline framed by the turquoise waters of the Aare, and a mix of locals and tourists, it made for a very exciting city that felt like “home.”

Day 4: Mount Pilatus and Lucerne (Luzern)

Although it’s closer to Zurich and the eastern side of the country, Lucerne is still very accessible from Bern, and it’s a great option either as a segue between your visits to the central and eastern parts of the country, or as a day to swap around in case the weather isn’t suitable for one of the mountain excursions. Again, you’ll only need a pair of comfortable walking shoes for this outing.

Many people call Lucerne one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. Though it certainly had the architecture to rival the other cities we saw, Lucerne felt a little overcrowded to us. We are very glad we came to the area, especially to see Mount Pilatus, but we definitely think that half a day was plenty to enjoy this part of the country.

Our first stop on this day was Mount Pilatus, a massif on the western side of Lake Lucerne. Be sure to check the weather and webcams before you go: the view from the top is spectacular in either sunny or cloudy weather as long as it’s not totally fogged in. ┬áThere are two ways to get up to the top of Pilatus: a cogwheel railway from Alpnachstad (the world’s steepest), or an aerial tram from Kriens. We decided to take the aerial tram because we heard that most tour groups and buses take the cogwheel railway up, so sometimes it can have a bit of a longer wait. We parked at the parking lot for the tram in Kriens (note that the parking machine here only accepts cash) and then headed up to Pilatus Kulm. The vistas from the tram itself were pretty amazing.

There is an intermediate stop that you can visit on the way up or down, Frakmuntegg, that features a high ropes course and a mountain roller coaster, if these are activities that interest you. Once at the top, there are plenty of destinations to visit (many of which involve quite a few stairs!). We watched a group play Alpenhorn near the station and then made our way up to one of the summits for an absolutely breathtaking panorama of Lake Lucerne.

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Panorama of the Lake Lucerne area from Pilatus.

The view on the cable car back down was also one of the best we saw at Pilatus, highlighting both the lake country and the rocky features of the massif itself.

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View from the cable car coming down from Pilatus.

Once we got back down to Kriens, we drove to Lucerne, first stopping at the Museggmauer at the north end of the city. This is the city’s ancient fortification, and includes several towers and wall sections that are open to the public and offer sweeping views of the city. We’d recommend finding blue-disc street parking close to the fortifications; we learned the hard way that otherwise, it can be quite a steep walk to get up to them! We visited the old clock tower; though the view wasn’t quite as wide from this location, the tower featured a working clock as well as several other clock mechanisms on display. The pendulum itself is impressive; it’s so large that it swings in a 3-second arc!

After visiting the fortifications, we headed down to the Lucerne waterfront to take a walk across the city’s historic covered bridges. We made a nice loop starting in the old town at the┬áSpreuerbrucke, which features paintings overhead illustrating a Danse Macabre. We then followed the southern shore of the Reuss to the train station and the interesting architecture of the KKL arts centre, and then crossed back across the river at the iconic Kappelbrucke, a bridge featuring a tower and potted flowers along its length. The views of the city from the southern shore were particularly beautiful, and there is great gelato to be had along the way :).

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Lucerne from the southern shore of the Reuss
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The Kapellbrucke bridge adorned with flowers

That concludes the log of the first part of our trip! We hope that you got some helpful tips and advice from our experiences. If you have your own tips, suggestions, or questions, feel free to share them in the comments section Check out Part 2 of our trip, where we’ll describe our visits to Ticino, Appenzell, and Zurich.

5 thoughts on “Switzerland, Part 1

  1. O waowwww what a beauty trip. I am also gonna cover first part of your trip soon.
    I need your asistance. Can you please tell me exact amount of your spendings part by part on day 1 including going up to luterbrunen and then to jangfraou and back- and your stay at bern. So i can well calculate my budget. Moreover if i have two to three nights, and i want to cover your part 1 ( interlaken to jangfraou) is it enough? Im coming in nov

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  2. Great questions, Ghayur! I’m sure you’re going to have an amazing time. Keep in mind that if you are coming in November, some of the areas we have talked about will be covered in snow, and the aerial trams may not be operating the same way. Pack good cold weather gear, and you should be able to do some short winter hikes around Kleine Scheidegg in the Bernese Oberland and around Sunnega in the Zermatt area. I think you could also consider checking out other mountain panoramas, for example the Piz Gloria near Murren in the BO and the Gornergrat railway in the Zermatt area. Some areas will also be offering more extensive winter sports, if that is of interest. ­čÖé

    In terms of budget, it cost us each about $120 USD to buy a half fare card, and it cost $300 USD to rent an automatic car for the week. On day one, we drove to Lauterbrunnen and spent about $15 USD to park there for the day, and then about $110 USD for each of us to do all of the mountain excursions (including up to Jungfraujoch). Note you will pay less because the aerial trams may be closed. In the French part of Switzerland on day two, it was about $12 USD each for the chateau and another $12 USD each for the chocolate factory. Almost everything else had no charge, except for some parking fees here and there. The trip to Zermatt cost us each $80 USD (for the half-fare day pass), and then $30 USD for the mountain excursions (again, you’ll pay less if the aerial trams are closed). In Bern, you may want to do more museums, so add in those expenses, but most of our expenses were just parking and/or local transit. In Lucerne, we paid ~$40 USD each to go up to Pilatus plus the parking fees in the area. Our hotel cost about $250 a night including taxes, but that varies a lot by season. You can add about $50 USD per day per person to spend on food and beverage, but you could easily blow through that unless you do some of your food shopping at grocery stores.

    In terms of time, this is a 4-day, 5-night outing, i.e. we did not count travel days to get in and out of Switzerland. If you only have three nights, perhaps consider eliminating one of the regions from the itinerary.

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