Where to go in Switzerland on a short trip: Alps, lakes, and cities
Switzerland is an extremely popular country for those planning multi-stop tours around Europe, yet very few potential first-time visitors actually know specifically where they want to go. Everyone seems to know that it has the most beautiful views of the Alps and some very impressive cities, but there are actually many misconceptions among casual trip planners, so I'd like to clear most of that up below. The places to visit in Switzerland are not obvious until you've been there yourself or done many hours of research, so the list below should be a short cut.
I get hundreds if not thousands of itinerary questions for people who are considering a Eurail trip around Europe, and most people just include the word “Switzerland” among a list of cities like Paris, Rome, and Berlin that they want to visit. So where in Switzerland should you go if you can only make a few stops at most? I'll answer that question below.
Switzerland is about outdoor views rather than city visits
The first situation we usually run into is that people who want to visit “Switzerland” assume that the first and best (and sometimes only) stop should be its largest city, which is Zurich. Unfortunately, Zurich is the most expensive city in the world for travelers, and it's not really very interesting.
Geneva is a very famous city (though not for tourism reasons) on a lovely lake of the same name, but it's also notoriously dull and lacking distinction. Rick Steves puts it well by saying that “Geneva is pleasantly situated on a lake, like Buffalo or Cleveland.” The point is, you don't want to go to Geneva unless you've got something specific in mind that you want to see there.
Switzerland's cities in summary
Zurich – The largest city, very expensive, geared towards business travelers
Geneva – Second largest city, in the French part of the country, no major sights
Basel – Bordering France and Germany, no major sights
Lausanne – Near Geneva in the French part of the country, very hilly, and certainly more interesting than Geneva
Bern – The capital, compact, on a lovely river, some interesting sights and the best Swiss city to get a feel for the culture
How much time and which Swiss cities to visit?
If you have 4 or fewer days in Switzerland I wouldn't visit any of the cities listed above. If you have 5 or more days and especially if you want to include a proper city then I'd recommend 1 or 2 days in Bern. For a longer trip, and especially if you want to visit the French part of the country, then a day in Lausanne is worthwhile.
Many people (me included) don't feel as if they've scratched the surface of a new country if they haven't spent at least a day or two in the largest city. Zurich is certainly pleasant and a useful transit hub so spending one or two nights there wouldn't be a mistake. But Zurich isn't even close to being a city like Paris, Rome, Berlin, Amsterdam, or even Vienna. If you skip it in favor of spending more time in the outdoors, you won't be missing much.
The 2 Swiss places to focus on for short visits
Interlaken – If you want the best possible Alpine views and activities, head to the Interlaken area, which will be described in detail below.
Lucerne – The traditional Swiss tourist retreat, Lucerne is a small city with interesting culture and sights, that is gorgeously set on a lake with plenty of top activities surrounding it.
If you have 4 or 5 days and want to see the very best of Switzerland, then divide your days between those cities. They are less than 2 hours apart by direct train, so it's easy to visit both of them even if you only have 3 days. If you only have two days, I'd pick one or the other.
What about Zermatt for Alpine views?
Zermatt is a remote town in southern Switzerland that is famous for being the place to see the Matterhorn mountain. It's also a busy ski resort area, and aside from that, there isn't much to see or do here. It's on a private rail line, so it's more complicated and usually more expensive to reach than Interlaken.
In other words, unless you've irrationally placed “Seeing the Matterhorn in person” on your so-called bucket list, skip Zermatt and head to Interlaken on a shorter visit. You won't be sorry.
What about the Swiss Travel Pass?
Easily the most confusing travel or city pass out there, the Swiss Travel Pass seems expensive at first, but is actually a very good deal for many people wanting to take the scenic and panoramic trains. Read our full Swiss Travel Pass review for all the details and information on where to buy.
The bottom line is that if you are coming to Switzerland for at least 3 days and you want to take 2 or more of the amazing scenic rail journeys that the country is famous for, the travel pass is probably a good deal. It also provides 50% discounts on the Schilthorn cable car and 25% off the Jungfraujoch mountain railway. Both of those are quite expensive on their own, but extremely worthwhile, so the discount is helpful.
The Half Fare Card is probably a better deal for most people
The Swiss Travel Pass is a good deal for those who are going to be spending at least 2 or 3 days riding the rails and seeing Switzerland that way. But if you are mostly going to be focusing on Interlaken and Lucerne and the mountain sights, the Half Fare Card is the best option. For about US$120 you get the card that is good for 30 days and gives you a 50% discount on all trains, cable cars, mountain railways, and other sights and attractions. If you are doing either Schilthorn or Jungfraujoch, the Half Fare Card practically pays for itself with just one of those.
How and why visit the area around Interlaken
Even though I keep referring to the city of Interlaken in this article, it's really the villages just above Interlaken that you want to visit. Interlaken itself is a pleasant and scenic town that is dominated by tourism and feels more than a little out of date.
You can see everything discussed below by actually staying in a hotel in Interlaken, but it's not the Alpine experience that you get if you stay in one of the small villages above. You can reach those villages in 20 to 40 minutes from the Interlaken Ost (East) train station, and it's much easier than it sounds.
The 3 best places to stay to visit the Swiss Alps
Lauterbrunnen – A private train line runs from Interlaken Ost station to the end of its line in Lauterbrunnen. There's a lovely waterfall here and great hiking trails, but you should probably only stay here if you can't get to one of the villages mentioned just below.
Gimmelwald – THIS is where you want to stay if you can manage it. This tiny village has one of the most stunning natural mountain settings you'll ever see, and it feels like a time capsule that is twice as wonderful as you thought possible. If you've ever seen Rick Steves discussing Alpine villages, this is the one he always refers to, and his readers are some of the only guests.
Mürren – Just one stop above Gimmelwald by cable car, Mürren has a nearly identical mountain setting, but it also has about 20 times more hotels and tourist shops than Gimmelwald. Many people will feel more comfortable here with more choices and a bit of possible nightlife, but Gimmelwald is still the perfect choice for most nature lovers on short visits to the Alps.
The unforgettable things to see here (if the weather is decent)
Schilthorn observation deck and restaurant
The cable cars (mountain lifts that carry up to 80 people at a time) from Lauterbrunnen to Gimmelwald and from Gimmelwald up to Mürren are short and fairly cheap, but if you keep going up two more segments to the top, you reach the Schilthorn observation deck. It's expensive (around US$100 round-trip from Lauterbrunnen to Schilthorn) but if the weather is clear this is very worthwhile and will be your single best memory of Switzerland.
There is a rotating restaurant (with prices similar to normal Swiss restaurants) and a bizarre and anachronistic James Bond attraction based on it being a key location in the 1969 movie On Her Majesty's Secret Service. The Bond thing is included with the lift, and it's worth a look.
But the main thing you come here for is the 360-degree view from one of the highest peaks in Europe. Again, the weather here is key, but fortunately all the locals track the visibility on a minute-by-minute basis. If it's clear up top while you are in the area, it would be a terrible shame to skip it based on the high price. But even if it's cloudy up top, there are still plenty of wonderful things to see and do in the villages below.
Jungfraujoch observation area
This is famously the highest railway line and station in Europe, and it's another privately-run line that is priced as a tourist attraction rather than as transportation. The train leaves from Lauterbrunnen and takes about two chilly hours to get up to the top, including a change of trains halfway up in Kleine Sheidegg.
The views from the top are similar to the views from Schilthorn, from the other side of the Lauterbrunnen Valley. Once on top you can have lunch, hike, or even go sledding. It's also quite expensive at nearly US$200 round-trip unless you have a Swiss Pass or a Eurail Pass for discounts, and it takes most of your day, but you'll never forget the views from the top.
Getting from Interlaken to Gimmelwald and Mürren
Getting up to these villages sounds complicated and time consuming, but it's actually fast and easy once you get there. This little guide should help.
Arrive in Interlaken
Interlaken has two main train stations, one in the west (closer to Bern) and one in the east (closer to Lucerne). If you are staying in Interlaken itself then most hotels are closer to the Interlaken West station, but if you are going up the mountain you'll want to get off at the Interlaken Ost (East) station. All trains stop at both stations, and if you are staying at a local hotel then you get a card that allows free trips between the two.
Once you arrive at the Interlaken Ost train station, head for the ticket windows in the office and buy a ticket to your final destination (Lauterbrunnen, Gimmelwald, or Mürren). Eurail passes are good for 25% discounts on the rest of the trip, but not for the whole thing.
From Interlaken Ost to Lauterbrunnen
The private train leaves Interlaken Ost every 30 minutes and arrives in Lauterbrunnen 20 minutes later. If you are staying in Lauterbrunnen then you are probably walking distance from your hotel when you reach the station.
From Lauterbrunnen to Gimmelwald
If you are going to Gimmelwald then your combined train ticket will include the price of a shuttle bus that is waiting for each train as it arrives. Show your ticket to the driver and enjoy views of the waterfall as you pass it. A few minutes later you'll arrive at the base of the mountain at the cable car station.
Again, the ticket you bought in Interlaken covers the whole thing, so just show your ticket at the cable car entrance and walk on in. A few minutes later the cable car will begin its fast ascent, and 5 minutes later the car lets everyone off at the base of the village of Gimmelwald. From here you are within a few minutes walk of literally the entire village and all of its hotels. The famous Mountain Hostel is directly up the path in front of you so it's hard to miss.
From Gimmelwald to Mürren
If you are staying in Mürren then you hop out of the cable car in Gimmelwald and then walk directly into the cable car across the platform, which is about to leave for Mürren. Once the door closes, you'll be in Mürren in about 5 minutes. There is also another private rail line that goes to Mürren, but it's slower and less scenic than the cable cars.
Recommended hotel and hostel in Gimmelwald
I get asked all the time about where to stay in Gimmelwald, so here it is:
Hotel: Esther's Guesthouse
When you step off the cable car in Gimmelwald, look a little bit to the right and you'll see a path going slightly uphill. Even if you go in the wrong direction, you'll hit a dead end in 15 seconds, so it's impossible to miss the road. The first thing you'll see on your right is Esther's Guesthouse, which is also arguably the best hotel in lovely Gimmelwald.
It's run by Esther, as you might guess, and she is very friendly speaking excellent English. Each room is different and the place feels like a mountain cabin, because it is. She offers an excellent buffet breakfast in the morning, which you have to order the night before. It's not cheap, but it's worth it because it's hearty and there are no other good options nearby.
Book as early as possible because this place is often the first place to sell out in Gimmelwald.
Hostel: Mountain Hostel Gimmelwald
If you've ever wondered which hostel has the best view in the world, Mountain Hostel Gimmelwald would be at least in the Top 5, if not #1. Follow the path to Esther's Guesthouse (above) and walk a few steps past it, and then look to the left for the short path down to Mountain Hostel. They offer fine dorm beds that are the cheapest accommodation in the village, and it's quite a fun place in general.
You won't believe the views from this place, which are the same as from Esther's except a bit lower and more unobstructed. This place also has a busy bar and restaurant that is basically the only “nightlife” in Gimmelwald. Many hikers get to bed early in this own, but if you want to have a couple drinks and order a pizza or some local options, this is the place to go.
Again, book early because this place is always sold out.
Lucerne and what to do there
Luzern, as it's spelled locally, is the other traditional holiday destination in Switzerland. Unlike Interlaken, Lucerne actually qualifies as a small city rather than a small resort town, so it's a very nice contrast and very worthwhile.
The area around Lucerne is surrounded by small mountains, but it's not in the Alps and it doesn't have the sort of amazing views you get in Interlaken. The main attraction here is Lake Lucerne and the various small towns on its shores. There are excellent hikes that are mostly not too challenging, and some wonderful views from nearby peaks.
However, unlike Interlaken, the town of Lucerne itself is a great attraction and worth at least a day of exploration. This has always been a rich area so you can expect to find all of the high-end shops and boutiques along the small streets just north of the lake, but there are also many traditional shops and things to see that will appeal to anyone.
Recommended hotel in Lucerne
>>>Hotel Des Alpes (3 stars with an amazing location and view)
Hotels in Lucerne are not cheap, but you'll probably spend only one or two nights there, so it's worth paying a bit more for one of the hotels overlooking the prettiest part of the lake and the famous Chapel Bridge itself. The 45-room Hotel Des Alpes has rooms right on the water, in the heart of everything, and it's a short walk from the train station and cruise dock as well. This place gets excellent reviews and is worth paying a bit more for unforgettable views from your bed.
If this place is booked, which is often the case, then book a hotel as close to it as you can find or afford. The whole historic part of town surrounding it is lovely, with restaurants, bars, and high-end shops. There are also a couple of nearby supermarkets where you can buy inexpensive alcohol and picnic supplies to keep other costs down.
Spend a day in Lucerne itself
The covered wooden bridge (Chapel Bridge) that is the signature sight of Lucerne looks just as lovely when you are near it or walking across it, but there are several other historic wooden bridges just a bit upstream as well. On the north bank of where the lake becomes a river, you'll find a string of restaurants and bars that each have excellent views. Food and drinks all over Switzerland are expensive by most standards, and fortunately the prices of the waterfront restaurants are within the normal range even though they could charge more.
Most of the interesting part of Lucerne is in the area behind those restaurants, and it's certainly worth doing a self-guided walking tour if not a guided one. Heading farther east you'll come to another older part of town where the famous lion statue is located. You can't visit Lucerne without having a look at the lion, and fortunately it's easy and quick to reach (and it's free).
Take a lake cruise of some kind
The main lake-cruise boats leave from just in front of the train station, and at the very least it's worth doing the simple round-trip of about one hour where you don't even leave the boat. If you have most of a full day you have up to 35 different options of stops to disembark and walk around before catching another boat back to Lucerne.
Especially in nice weather, even the short lake tour is lovely, and if you have more time you can jump off at Vitznau and do the scenic hike up Mount Rigi. There are also small lakeside villages that are ideal for a stroll and lunch stop. Long story short, there are dozens of interesting sightseeing options that are available using part of the boat tour, and the views all around are wonderful.
Visit Mount Pilatus
The tallest mountain around Lucerne is just behind the city, and it's also extremely popular for hiking, although you don't actually have to walk up or down if you don't want to. You can take the steepest cogwheel train in the world up to near the summit, and there is also a gondola and cable car going to the same place.
You can take the cogwheel train up and have a more or less flat hike around the summit area, and then take the gondola and cable car back down again. You can do them in the other order, and the cost is the same either way. At around US$65, this is not a cheap hike, but like most everything in Switzerland, the quality is high so it doesn't feel like a rip-off.