Switzerland, Part 2

This is part of a 3-part post about our one week trip to Switzerland. In Part 1, we talked about the Bernese Oberland, Jungfraujoch, Lake Geneva, Zermatt, Bern, and Lake Lucerne. In this part, we’ll talk about three days we spent in the eastern part of Switzerland including Bellinzona, Locarno, Ascona, Appenzell, St. Gallen, and Zurich. In Part 3, we’ll talk about some of the lessons we learned about the logistical aspects of traveling 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 2

  • Day 5: Ticino (Bellinzona, Locarno, and Ascona)
  • Day 6: Appenzell and St. Gallen
  • Day 7: Zurich

We’d recommend that you stay at one central home base, like Zurich, for this leg of the trip. Although all of these locations are nice anytime (we had a mix of sun, clouds, and rain on all three days), visiting Bellinzona on Saturday is great because you can check out the expansive farmer’s market there, and the trail will be less slick and a little warmer if you visit Appenzell on a sunny day.

Day 5: Ticino (Italian Switzerland)

Ticino, the Italian part of Switzerland, has a lot going for it, boasting beautiful lakeside cities, stunning medieval castles, and more sunshine hours than any other part of the country. We learned the hard way that it is much easier to take the train down to Ticino than to drive… Traffic through the Gotthard Tunnel can add anywhere between 45 minutes to 1 hour to your journey! There are regular trains from Zurich (where we were staying), and there is also a very picturesque train route that just opened from Luzern if you are traveling from that that area. When you arrive in Ticino, you can purchase a local transit pass that allows unlimited travel within and in between cities in the region by train and bus for one rate. We didn’t do any hiking but did put down a lot of steps, so comfortable shoes are in order. We were caught off guard by the rain – thunderstorms aren’t uncommon because of the hot, humid weather – so it’s a good idea to check the forecast before you head out.

We started our day in Bellinzona, the region’s capital. If you can make it down on a Saturday, there is an extensive farmer’s market that runs until 1PM. The market has fresh produce and amazing prepared food, including breads and cheeses (and samosas!). The market also has handmade soaps, textiles, and other items that would make lovely gifts. Many vendors take credit cards, but it’s a good idea to carry cash for those that don’t.

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Some highlights from the market in Bellinzona.

Walking through the market is also a great way to see the old part of town, including the Collegiata church, a baroque building constructed in the 16th century.

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Halo over the Collegiata in the central part of Bellinzona.

We bought some buttery pastries, fresh figs, cheese, and bread and made our way up to Castelgrande, one of the three UNESCO-recognized castles in the region, for a picnic lunch under a shady tree on the castle grounds. Some of the structures here date from the 13th century! On the way up, we got a vista of all three castles from the main entrance.

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Three UNESCO-recognized castles nestled in the green hills around Bellinzona.

Castelgrande has exhibits in its towers, but we just walked the grounds and the stunning crenelated walls.

After lunch, we hopped back on the train and headed over to Locarno, a resort town on the shores of Lake Maggiore. The town was pretty crowded and abuzz with activity: it has a festival in the summer, complete with fireworks, as well as a film festival where the main plaza turns into a giant outdoor movie theater (the projector was being installed when we visited, and it’s enormous!).

 

A quiet escape from the heart of town is the Madonna del Sasso sanctuary. You can reach the sanctuary by funicular (cash only, and half-fare cards are not accepted), or you can walk to it along a lovely inclined cobblestone path flanked by a forested area and beautiful hydrangea blooms.

 

 

 

The sanctuary itself is a beautiful yellow building with the perfect backdrop of the blue lake and surrounding mountains.

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View of the sanctuary from the platform of the funicular.

This is still a working religious institution, complete with an abbey and a working chapel (there was a service taking place when we were there).

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Entrance to the chapel, where services are still held.

After our visit here, we made our way to Ascona, a cute, colorful lakeside community. We’d recommend taking the bus: the town appears to be right next door to Locarno on the map, but at the time we were there, the ferry was not running and the walking path between the cities is through a pretty industrial area. The Seven restaurant group (which holds a couple of Michelin stars) owns a good fraction of the gastronomic waterfront area, with restaurants featuring Italian fine dining, Asian cuisine, and a number of other offerings. We had an absolutely amazing gelato from Easy, their more casual Italian option: the ice cream was rich, creamy, and full of flavor.

 

 

We very full after this dessert, so we decided to have some down time before having dinner and eat back in Locarno rather than eating in Ascona. We were delighted to find a great pizzeria (Pizzeria Primavera) off the main drag in an older neighborhood near another abbey. The community felt very laid back and tight knit here, a world away from the touristy part of town. And the pizza was super delicious and affordable ($13 for a medium-size Neapolitan-style margherita)!

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All in all, we had a very full day in Ticino, and we had very full stomachs! From Locarno, we headed back to Zurich (transferring trains in Bellinzona), which took about two and a half hours.

Day 6: Appenzell and St. Gallen

If you want to get a feel for what was waiting from the von Trapp family when they finished their trek through the Alps in the Sound of Music, you should visit the eastern part of Switzerland, which borders Austria and Lichtenstein. This area is well-visited by locals but a bit off the beaten path for international tourists, so there are some wonderful, authentic experiences to be had here. We weren’t lucky enough to get sunshine on this day, but our hike was still very enjoyable under grey skies. The hikes in Appenzell can be very steep and the mountain lakes can be extremely tempting, so pack some good boots, swim trunks, and a towel. If you don’t feel like packing a full set of swim trunks, Uniqlo Airism underwear will do just fine: it’s small, light, quick drying, and relatively inexpensive!

We started our day by driving through some gorgeous, green farm country to Wasserauen in the Ebenalp area. This part of Switzerland is well known for the Ascher cliffside guesthouse and restaurant (accessible by a very steep hike or an areal tram), but also has another breathtaking destination: the community of Seealpsee. We parked at one of the large free lots in front of the Hotel Alpenrose in Wasserauen (this is a good landmark to use for Google Maps navigation) and walked to the end of the road, which is the start of the path to Seealpsee. Though the path is mostly paved, it has a very steep grade, and we found it a bit slick since it had rained recently. On the way up, we were treated to a nearly constant orchestra of cowbells, a lovely green canyon, and interesting rock formations. Once the path leveled off, we got our first view of Seealpsee, a pristine mountain lake.

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The gorgeous Seealpsee.

Watch your step in summer: little frogs will be darting across the walking path by the dozen!

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Can you see the little frog on the trail.

On the far side of the lake, there is a building marked Kaserei, and you can’t get any more farm-to-table than this cheese shop. The shop is actually more or less a fridge in a family’s house. Our “server” was part of a local farming family: he has been coming to these mountains every weekend since he was young, offering cheeses made from the milk produced by the local cows. We tried an amazing, strong, creamy cheese, one of the best Swiss cheeses we had ever had.

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Amazing cheese shop on the far side of the lake.

Before retracing our steps back down to the parking lot, one of us (guess who) took a brief swim in the crystal clear waters of the lake. Cool, but not freezing cold, it was a very refreshing way to wash off the sweat from the steep hike up.

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The clear waters of the lake are so inviting!

Once we were back at the car, we drove to St. Gallen. St. Gallen is most famous for its abbey, founded on a site where an Irish monk made a hermitage. We walked through three different parts of the abbey. The chapel, our first stop, had an intricate and colorful roof, lovely stained glass windows, and a beautiful dark wood interior.

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Tiled roof of the chapel.

The  cathedral features an entirely different baroque style, with elaborately painted domed ceilings, white walls, and gold adornments. The section of the church in front of the pews was enormous, almost rivaling the seating area itself, and was full of spectacular statues and art.

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Baroque interior of the cathedral.

Finally, the most impressive part of the abbey is the library, the Stiftsbibliothek. Housing books since the early 600s, it is one of the most important repositories of western written documents in the world. During repeated invasions, the abbots and librarians hid their enormous collection of manuscripts and printed books, as well as other interesting antiquities. As a result, the collection is immaculately preserved. Some of the books and other artifacts on display here are absolutely beautiful, and the history of the abbey is also a mirror of major events in the catholic church, in Switzerland, and across all of Europe. Because of its historic significance, photos are not permitted inside the library, and you even need to wear what look like giant bedtime slippers over your shoes to avoid damaging the floors.  There is only one place where you can take a picture, a “selfie spot” inside the main entrance.

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Selfie spot at the St. Gallen library.

The library, decorated in the Rococo style, usually has a rotating set of books on display on the main floor curated around a theme, as well as the “lapidarium” containing a collection of artwork, pottery, and architecture from older incarnations of the abbey. Note that the lapidarium is not as well curated, and although there were quite a few English signs throughout the library, not all of the information was available in English. The library is also the only part of the abbey complex that requires a fee.

Because we visited the area on a Sunday, not much is open besides tourist attractions and the shops inside of train station. So, after we were all done at the abbey, we drove back to Zurich and had a quiet night in eating leftovers and packing up before our last day in Switzerland.

Day 8: Zurich

Zurich is, of course a large, bustling metropolis. We didn’t have time to delve deeply into its museums, arts and culture scene, and nightlife, though we’ve heard it has a lot to offer in this regard. We mainly spent our last day in Switzerland walking around the sights on both sides of the Limmat River. We bought a day pass from the local tram station (discounted with the half-fare card), which covered the multiple trips we made between our hotel in Zurich West and the city center, about 20 minutes away.

In the morning we walked down the Bahnhofstrasse. Starting at the train station, this street is the “Champs-Élysées” of Zurich, featuring many fancy and specialty stores. We loved browsing the interesting items in the fancy food halls of Globus and Jelmoli, the two main upscale department stores in Zurich, and we found the best souvenirs, including a huge assortment of chocolate and trinkets, at the City Coop on this street.

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Fancy food hall in Globus, a major department store on the Bahnhofstrasse.

In the afternoon, we took the Polybahn funicular (included in daily transit passes) up to Polyterrasse at ETH Zurich, which has a lovely panorama over the city.

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Panorama of Zurich from the Polyterrasse at ETH.

David, a friend who is currently studying in Zurich, met us at ETH and walked us through a couple of buildings, including the main hall of the University of Zurich, an amazing study area lined with replicas of statues discovered by Zurich archaeologists.

We also walked by the building where Einstein first held a professorship. From here, we walked back down the hill to the Centrale area and then through the Niederdorf, the old part of Zurich. From the south bank of the Limmat, we could see several of the city’s famous churches across the river. There were the double-spires of the Grossmunster, the Fraumunster, a unique church built around a female abbot whose stained glass windows were designed by Chagall, and St. Peter’s, which boasts the largest clock face of any church in Europe. It was quite fun to listen to the church bells all chime in unison at the top of the hour.

For dinner, we were super excited to try the Haus Hiltl, one of the longest continually operating vegetarian restaurants, at least in the Western world. They have an extensive buffet of Indian, Asian, and Italian dishes, fresh salads, and tons of desserts! You can start by ordering by weight, and if you hit 57 CHF worth of food, you can get upgraded to the “all you can eat” option. The food here was very rich and flavorful, so we only wound up spending about 35 CHF each.

This grand meal was also the ultimate finale to our unforgettable trip; after dinner, we headed back to the hotel, finished packing, and we flew out from Zurich airport the next morning!

This concludes the log of the last 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 below! In Part 3, we’ll delve even deeper into some of the logistics for planning a trip to Switzerland, including some advice on how to save money on your travels.

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