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. This “Part 1” post will include my stops in Zurich and Lucerne, while “Part 2” will cover Montreux and Zermatt.
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:
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).
As much as I wanted to stay in Lucerne forever, the show must go on. Up next, Montreux and Zermatt!