Nowhere is perfect, but, let’s face it, Switzerland gets pretty darned close.
The Alps ripple across 60% of the country, and the landscapes and towns look like they have been dreamed up by a particularly imaginative child. We’re talking glacier-capped peaks, crash-bang waterfalls, turreted castles of the fairy-tale kind and lakes in the most surreal shade of turquoise blue. Red trains curl up mountains to improbable heights, and clanging cowbells ring out across hilly meadows that you can skip down with Heidi-like glee.
Even the culture-filled cities have magnificent backdrops of vineyards, lakes or rivers, and the mountains are never more than a whisper away. As natural beauty goes, Switzerland is off the charts. It’s also a joy to travel around, whether by train, bus or on a scenic road trip. Here are the best places to visit in Switzerland that will make your trip one to remember.
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1. Jungfrau region
Best place to experience the mountains
The idyllic Jungfrau region is the icing on the Alpine cake of Switzerland’s Bernese Oberland. Sky-high peaks, glaciers and thundering falls elicit gasps of wonder wherever you go. Grazing the 4000m (13,123ft) mark are Switzerland’s “big three”: Eiger (Ogre), Mönch (Monk) and Jungfrau (Virgin), enshrined in mountaineering legend.
Take a once-in-a-lifetime ride up to the everlasting snow at Europe’s highest train station, 3454m (11,332ft) Jungfraujoch. Hike, ski, sled and zip-line among mountains of myth in Grindelwald, enjoy waterfalls galore in Lauterbrunnen and tackle every kind of extreme sport imaginable in Interlaken (skydiving, ice climbing, glacial bungee jumping – you name it). The Jungfrau region is the great outdoors on a blockbuster scale.
Planning Tip: Rush this region and you’ll regret it. Allow a week or more to dive in deep.
Bern and its historic Old Town are beautiful from all angles © BAHDANOVICH ALENA / Shutterstock
Best city for medieval flair
Bern often pops up in those I-can’t-believe-it’s-the-capital trivia questions, but frankly, Switzerland’s first city deserves more love. The cobbled, flag-bedecked medieval Old Town is a Unesco World Heritage treat, with 6km (3.7 miles) of covered arcades, cellar shops and bars, fantastical folk figures topping 16th-century fountains, and the eye-grabbing Zytglogge. Framed by wooded hills and split in two by the turquoise Aare River, this red-roofed city looks good from pretty much every angle. It’s pure storybook stuff for kids, too, with its giant who snacks on children (the Kindlifresserbrunnen) and resident bears.
Sight-wise, you’ll be drawn to big-hitters like the Einstein-Haus (where the genius developed his theory of relativity), the Kunsthaus (with its outstanding fine arts collection) and Renzo Piano’s wavy Zentrum Paul Klee (Bern’s answer to the Guggenheim). But in summer, the action’s on the water, with swimming, tubing, rafting and paddleboarding along the Aare River.
3. Lake Geneva
Best place for romance, vines and castles
In Switzerland’s western crook, crescent-shaped Lake Geneva (Lac Léman to Francophones) is a joy to behold, with its mountain backdrop, spirit-lifting views, vineyards and shoreline necklaced with handsome cities and castle-crowned towns.
Marked by its rainbow-kissed Jet d’Eau fountain and Mont Blanc peeping up on the horizon, Geneva wraps around the lake’s southern shore. The worldly city makes an excellent launchpad for exploring, with big-hitting museums and galleries to absorb, botanical gardens to stroll, lidos to swim at, Old Town cafes to hang out in and bright-yellow mouettes ferrying locals across the water – surely one of the world’s most scenic commutes.
Planning Tip: But don’t stop there. It’s a quick boat or train hop to Lausanne, which can culturally give Geneva a run for its money, especially with its Plateforme 10 arts district, the lovely terraced vineyards of Lavaux (a Unesco World Heritage site) and flower-draped Montreux, host to one of the world’s most famous jazz festivals, with the picture-perfect Château de Chillon right on its doorstep.
The Matterhorn is an icon of Switzerland © wilpunt / Getty Images
Best place for outdoor activities
No peak has more pulling power than the 4478m (14,692ft) Matterhorn, a terrific gnarled fang of rock that flings up above the seductive, timber chalet-filled Alpine resort of Zermatt. It’s Switzerland’s mountain icon, so beloved by the nation that it inspired the pyramid shape of Toblerone chocolate.
Zermatt is more than a one-mountain wonder. Climbers have been rocking up here since the mid-19th-century, and it’s still a magnet for challenging summit ascents today. Otherwise, come to hike, ski and gaze over a sea of glaciers and 4000m (13,123ft) peaks at Matterhorn Glacier Paradise.
5. Swiss National Park
Best place for nature lovers
Switzerland has just one national park? Yes, we know it’s a shocker, but trust us, it’s a good one. Snuggled away in a remote corner of the country’s southeast on the border with Italy, the 172-sq-km (66-sq-mile) Swiss National Park is the Alps in overdrive: a nature-gone-wild spectacle of high moors, forests, wildflower-freckled pastures, waterfalls, jewel-colored lakes and mountains as high as the sky, where ibex, chamois, marmots, deer and golden eagles roam and fly free.
Planning Tip: Start off on the right foot with the inside scoop on walking trails and ranger-led guided hikes at the visitor center in Zernez.
Get a taste of the good life in Switzerland’s Bellinzona © Keitma / Shutterstock
Best place for la dolce vita
With medieval castles rising high and the Alps rearing beyond, good-looking Bellinzona is a taste of the best of Italy’s best food and culture in Switzerland. You’ll find a generous splash of Italian flair in its historic center, woven with flower-draped alleys, Renaissance churches and cafe-rimmed piazzas that brim with life, laughter, clinking glasses and the out-of-tune toll of countless campaniles.
Planning Tip: Top of any wish list is seeing the castles, among them hilltop Castelgrande, which can be drawn out into a full day’s activity (bring water and comfortable shoes).
7. Jura Mountains and Lac de Neuchâtel
Best place for a remote road trip
In the dark forested hills along the French-Swiss border, the Jura Mountains are a natural wonder. This peaceful region has a beauty all its own: meadows of green, ancient forests, rocky outcrops overlooking a trio of lakes against an Alpine backdrop and slow-paced villages and valleys little changed in centuries.
Begin with a road trip. Kick off at the Jura Vaudois Nature Park for hikes with dress-circle views of Lake Geneva and Gruyère cheese tastings at rustic Alpine huts. Swing north to Lac de Joux, the watchmaking village of Le Sentier, and Vallorbe, honeycombed with Switzerland’s biggest (and most impressive) limestone caves.
Tag on a trip to Lac de Neuchâtel and you can bathe in the thermal waters of Yverdon-les-Bains, tiptoe off the map in the lushly rolling Val-de-Travers (birthplace of absinthe) and the crescent-moon canyon of Creux du Van. Cultured Neuchâtel is a fitting climax, with its fantasy of a lavishly turreted château.
Roam far off the beaten track in northeastern Switzerland © Cavan Images / Getty Images
8. Appenzell and northeastern Switzerland
Best place for family adventures
Northeastern Switzerland might not have the in-your-face drama of higher realms of the Alps, but it nevertheless delights in its own serene, deeply rural way, with dairy country unraveling to meet the mountains and half-timbered, gaily muralled towns all fit for a postcard. This pocket-sized region is perfect for a family vacation with a hit of culture and gentle adventure.
Begin in St Gallen, with a spin round its World Heritage Stiftsbibliothek (Abbey Library), a literary marvel and a feast of rococo art and architecture. Move on to folksy, ridiculously pretty Appenzell, popping into the Schaukäserei to sample regional cheeses.
Muscling further south into the Alps, head on up to Säntis at 2501m (8205ft) for views embracing six countries and then go to Werdenberg, a tiny speck of a medieval hamlet, home to Switzerland’s oldest timber chalets.
Planning Tip: Close by is Vaduz, Liechtenstein’s princely, castle-topped capital on the banks of the Rhine.
9. Lake Lucerne
Best place for lakeside romance
Reclining on the shores of its glittering namesake lake, Lucerne is a walkable, medieval dream of a city that has a magic you can’t quite put your finger on. It will grab you when you are strolling along the promenade as the sun sets in a blaze of gold and pinks or as you cruise across its waters to mountains of myth: 2132m (6995ft) Mt Pilatus, where Wagner raved about the Alpine panorama and Queen Victoria trotted on horseback, and 1797m (5896ft) Rigi, with a light so sublime Turner painted it in three different moods.
The little city punches far above its weight culturally, with its iconic medieval Kapellbrücke bridge leaping across the Reuss River and the Jean Nouvel–designed KKL arts center and Sammlung Rosengart harboring a prized private collection of Picassos. Ambling past the belle époque hotels lining its shores, the same views that captivated Goethe, Queen Victoria and Wagner in the 19th century will hold you in their thrall.
Planning Tip: With more time on your hands, you can really get out on the lake. Cruise across fjord-like, mountain-rimmed Lake Uri for a taste of Switzerland’s geographical and spiritual heartland. Boats ply the glassy turquoise waters to Rütli, birthplace of the Swiss nation.
Basel is one of Switzerland’s most forward-thinking cities © Andrea Ambrosino / Getty Images
Best place for art lovers
Popularity wise, poor old Basel barely gets a look. But that’s a mistake. Straddling the Rhine, this city has everything going for it: world-class art in some of the country’s best galleries, a hot food scene, avant-garde buildings bearing the hallmark of Pritzker Prize–winning architects and an upbeat cafe culture.
Allow several days for a satisfying romp of the center, where must-sees include the Kunstmuseum and its fine arts collection, the Renzo Piano-designed Fondation Beyeler and the Frank Gehry-designed Vitra Design Museum.
Planning Tip: Basel endears itself most to those who look beyond the trophy sights, with sundown drinks by the river or a wild swim in the Rhine. Rent a Wickelfisch (a fish-shaped waterproof bag) at the tourist office, strip to your swimming suit and go with the flow, floating downstream past the city’s landmarks.
Best place for urban culture
Regularly landing at the top in quality-of-living surveys, urban dynamo Zürich never seems to miss a beat: from cool waterside bars on the banks of the Limmat River to its alley-woven Old Town, where the twin-spired Romanesque Grossmünster shines with Augusto Giacometti’s rainbow of stained glass. Le Corbusier’s boldly colored architectural creations and the edgily post-industrial Züri-West neighborhood notch Zürich’s culture cred up even further.
Planning Tip: In mid-August, Zürich throws one of Switzerland’s wildest parties: the techno-pumping Street Parade.