Switzerland has been the most challenging country for me to plan out so far. There are a lot of beautiful cities, the country is small so it’s pretty easy to get around, but it’s extremely expensive so going everywhere wasn’t really an option. Furthermore, traveling from city to city isn’t just “transportation”, there are panoramic routes which make certain trains really expensive, and given the main attraction is seeing the alps, I wanted to have the flexibility to stay or go should the weather dictate as such. Finally, while I did not buy the Eurail pass because being over 28 essentially kills all discounts, the Swiss rail pass was worth considering because not only does it give you access to all trains and local transport, it also provides discounted and sometimes free cable car/cog wheel/gondola rides up the mountains, which can be over $100 round trip for some peaks, and free ferry rides (every major city in Switzerland is on a lake).
So, after an exhausting amount of research and the help of some experienced Swiss travelers, I ended up with an 8 day Swiss rail pass with plans to visit Zurich, Lucerne, Montreux, and Zermatt. I planned to publish a post halfway through, but the combination of exhaustion and poor wifi throughout the Swiss hostel network prevented that, so, here are all four cities in one!
I only had one day in Zurich (it’s above average Swiss expensive and there aren’t any mountains to climb), but as it was my first Swiss experience I’ll make a few notes:
- In Zurich they speak Swiss-German. I’m told it’s as close to German as Portuguese is to Spanish. To me it sounded like a kind of German that rolls off the tongue (so not close to German at all really).
- I tried Raclette, a traditional Swiss dish. Melted raclette cheese over potatoes with a tiny pickle and pickled onions. I mean it was fine, it tasted how it looks, like melted cheese and potatoes. For CHF 15 (it’s essentially CHF 1 : USD 1) I wouldn’t buy it again.
- I learned why the Swiss Franc is abbreviated CHF and why all Swiss websites end in .ch. The official name of Switzerland is the Swiss Confederation derived from the Latin Confoederatio Helvetica = CH.
- Every car was a BMW, Mercedes, or Audi or something like this:
- I felt under-dressed (even more so than I always do 🙂 )
- Most windows have Swiss Army knives and watches:
The old town was really pretty and I enjoyed strolling around and window shopping (it was Sunday so everything was closed, not that I could afford to actually shop there).
On my way out of Zurich I had the pleasure of meeting a friend of a friend in Rapperswil, about a 2 hour ferry from Zurich. Marco showed me around the university and town and taught me some of the Rapperswil history (which was more informative than the walking tour guide in Zurich). The town is beautiful and I had a great time learning about some Swiss culture from a local. Thanks again Marco, and Derek for introducing us!
In the ~10 days leading up to Switzerland I was constantly checking the weather. All I wanted was one or two semi clear days to hike the alps. I had a major internal struggle because the entire week I spent in Munich it was 70s and sunny country-wide in Switzerland; I came pretty close to skipping Munich altogether to take advantage of the weather but I’m too into WWII history for that. So I took my chances.
My three days in Lucerne were absolutely gorgeous. My first day was forecast to be clearest so I wanted to get up a mountain first thing. Lucerne is surrounded by mountains, but there are really three prominent ones that are visited: Pilatus, Rigi, and Titlis.
Pilatus and Rigi were both free to access with my Swiss Pass, and Pilatus was higher so off I went. They have something called the “Golden Round Trip”. You take a bus from Lucerne to a town called Kriens, where you take a gondola to an aerial cableway called the “Dragon Ride” up to the top of Pilatus, then the steepest cogwheel railway in the world takes you back down to a town called Alpnachstad where you board a ferry back to Lucerne. Sounds pretty good, right? Oh, and between the gondola and the Dragon Ride there’s a toboggan ride…
At the top there are some small hikes you can to different viewpoints, including an hour round trip hike to a peak called Tomlishorn. The views were stunning, I really don’t know how else to describe it. It felt like you were walking on top of the world. I took 152 pictures that day, so here are just a few of my favorites. I’ve posted more to my photo gallery (sorry, I realize now this hasn’t been updated since Budapest!)
This is also where I began my Swiss tradition of eating salami sandwiches on top of mountains:
For those of you not on instagram, here is the story I put together for the day:
The second day I felt a bit guilty for the lack of actual hiking so I decided to hike Mt. Rigi from bottom to top. It’s peak is 1,798 m (5,899 ft) and it took me just under three hours. The mountains were a bit hazy that day but no less beautiful (however the old Swiss lady on the train going down told me the views were just terrible today…).
And of course, a salami sandwich at the top:
Finally the third day I spent in town. There is a wooden bridge (the longest wooden bridge in Europe, naturally) and a cool lion monument which is a memorial to the Swiss soldiers who were massacred in 1792 during the French Revolution.
But I think my favorite part was climbing the old watch towers and walking along the old city walls.
While the towns of Lucerne and Zurich are incredibly touristy, the trails are dominated by the locals. But “local” in Switzerland doesn’t mean they all speak one language. So something I found amusing here was everyone I came across on the trail said hello, but it sounded different every time (so I really only think it was hello). I was able to pick up the formal Swiss-German hello (grüezi, pronounced gruzzi) but it became a joke to me that every person I passed said something different.
Also, English doesn’t even seem to be a top 5 language here when it comes to sign posts in the touristy areas. Swiss-German, German, French, Italian, Chinese, then English.
Another thing I noticed was that there is a cross on top of every mountain peak. I learned from speaking to a few locals (when you hit the trails you end up in these 4 person gondola rides for up to 30 minutes with locals so I used them as tour guides) Switzerland is quite a conservative and religious country. A shocking fact is women were not given the right to vote nationally until 1971 (not until 1991 in one locality).
Entering Montreux after being in Zurich and Lucerne was kind of funny. It’s in the same country as these prior two cities, but suddenly you feel like you’re on a French beach town. This was the view from the front door of my hostel when I arrived:
My first day was to be the clearest, so, following my successful routine in Lucerne, I bought a salami sandwich and headed to the top of a mountain, this time Rochers de Naye. My Swiss pass only covered half the train up so I hopped out and climbed the rest.
One of the reasons I was drawn to Montreux was its proximity to a mountain town called Gruyères. You guessed it, gruyere cheese is named after this town, so naturally there is a gruyere cheese museum! When I first googled “day trip Montreux to Gruyères”, what pops up is something called the Chocolate Train. It’s a tour you join that takes you on the so-called “chocolate train” from Montreux to the Gruyere Cheese Factory, to the Gruyères town, to Broc Fabrique, the location of Cailler’s chocolate factory, and back. With my Swiss pass it cost CHF 69. But the trains/busses were already free, and the cheese and chocolate factory combined were only CHF 17, so I just used the Chocolate Train brochure to plan my own trip. What ended up happening was the Chcolate Train tour followed me everywhere.
The cheese museum is actually a working factory that can store up to 7,000 wheels of gruyere cheese at a time. It wasn’t my favorite activity, a somewhat annoying cow named Cherry guides you through the cheese making process, with some really cheesy jokes (see what I did there…) It was interesting to see the factory workers move the curd/milky liquid and form the wheels of cheese, and the medieval town of Gruyères is pretty cute, complete with castle, but what I really enjoyed was the Cailler chocolate factory in nearby Broc.
The chocolate museum felt like a Disneyland ride from the beginning. You are given a necklace audioguide and asked to wait for your number to flash before you approach the entrance. I found this odd as the place was nearly empty, but I sat and waited 10 minutes for my number to be called. Turns out they place you in a group based on common language as you arrive, that way you can enjoy the museum in your language. So when my number was called, me and two Korean guys formed the English group and entered a small square room with no visible exit, the worker said “have fun” and closed the door behind us. After the Koreans and I exchanged questioning looks the floor suddenly started to lower and a door was revealed leading us to the next room. And so it went for 6-7 rooms, we’d enter these immaculately decorated rooms with animation all choreographed to a loud speaker, taking us through the history of Cailler chocolate. Honestly, all the decorations in the rooms distracted me from what the guide was saying, but I picked up a few things:
- Cailler chocolate was founded by François-Louis Cailler in the early 1800s. But it was his grandson Daniel Peter who invented milk chocolate, which is really what made them famous.
- In the early 1900s Cailler came to an agreement to produce milk chocolate for Nestlé, and both companies benefited from Nestlé’s international sales network.
- Cailler was the first company to start using condensed milk rather than powdered milk, which they got from the Gruyères region.
- During the Great Depression, Cailler experienced severe financial trouble, and agreed to merge with the Nestlé Group in order to survive.
The end of the Disneyland-like tour lands you in a tasting room with no less than 10 different chocolate samples with the freedom to have as many as you’d like.
Montreux also has a beautiful walkway along Lake Geneva called Quai des Fleurs which is full of funny statues and perfectly manicured planter boxes:
That’s Freddie Mercury on the top left. He loved Montreux and recorded his last album “Made in Heaven” in their Montreux recording studio.
What initially brought my attention to Montreux was actually the Chillon Castle on the lake. It ended up being just a 20 minute walk from my hostel, and it was pretty, but I decided not to go inside.
When I was a kid I thought the Matterhorn was just a name that Walt Disney came up with for a ride when he designed Disneyland. As I got older and learned things like the Patagonia logo is actually the peaks in Patagonia, The North Face logo is the north-facing half dome in Yosemite, and Walt Disney named the weird snowy mountain roller coaster with terrifying polar bears after the Matterhorn, in Zermatt, Switzerland (and it’s the mountain on Toblerone chocolate). Anyone have any other mind blowing mountain logos to share?
Well, here is where my weather luck would finally end. The night before leaving Montreux for Zermatt the weather showed a big snowstorm for Sunday and Monday, the two days I had scheduled there. But, for about two hours, from 9:00-11:00 am on Sunday, it just showed partially sunny. So, I got up at 5:30 am, caught the train from Montreux to Visp, Visp to Zermatt, and straight to the Gornergrat train that leads you to a peak overlooking the Matterhorn.
For once I didn’t have to worry about which side of the train would be better…
It wasn’t perfect but I saw it! Unfortunately in my haste to get up here I didn’t have time to buy a salami sandwich…
Aside from it snowing the entire time I was there, Zermatt is a really cool town. It is very much a fancy ski resort, reminded me a lot of Tahoe, Vail, and Park City. But what makes it more special is that it’s a car free town, so the only vehicles are these tiny taxi busses. I forgot to take a picture so here’s one from google:
My hostel had a different set up from any I had seen before, and I’ve now stayed at 19 on this trip! Here is a photo of the bed situation:
Luckily no one checked in after this photo, and I had a pretty great view from my room (I’m pretty sure that’s the Matterhorn behind the clouds…):
I didn’t eat out much in Switzerland, a cheap entree was around CHF 25, but I took pictures of my food nonetheless:
But on my last night in Switzerland (in Zermatt) I decided to treat myself to some cheese fondue, a Swiss specialty. I researched restaurants to try to find a semi-reasonably priced one and found two options (I’ve learned it’s always a good idea to have a backup). I walked by the backup on the way to my first choice, and saw a sign showing it was closed until December 1st for the offseason…and my first choice was closed until November 2nd for the offseason! So, I found the only open restaurant I could, and luckily it had cheese fondue. I do have to admit ordering cheese fondue by myself was a little intimidating, it’s generally shared, and the family next to me eyed me with a mix of judgement and jealously, but I think I’m 90% past the point of caring. It was delicious and I think my stomach has finally recovered… two days later.
Well, I think those are all of my favorite Swiss moments. This country is really extraordinarily beautiful and I feel incredibly lucky to have had the weather that I did. I am now in Milan, my first time ever in Italy! So far I am planning Milan, Cinque Terre, Florence, Venice, and Trieste.
Oh, and I’m sure you were wondering if I added up what all of this would have cost without my Swiss travel pass…as I am still technically a CPA, I of course added it up. I spent CHF 376 on the travel pass and would have spent roughly CHF 450 without it – so success!