I am a travel addict. I love traveling and going to new places and I know I am not alone in this. So wayyy back at the end of 2016, my friend asked me if I wanted to jump on her trip to Switzerland that coming March/April 2017. Having had a rough year, I decided “Why not!” I wanted to travel out of the country, and, although Switzerland wasn’t the first country on my list, I knew it would be a country I’d fall in love with (and I wasn’t wrong!).
I am itching to go back. Switzerland is an outdoor lovers paradise and a city-dwellers home away from home. From chocolate to cheese, mountains to lakes, rolling hills and more, this country has it all (except an ocean!). There are hundreds of travel blogs out there providing their tips and suggestions. I thoroughly research all my destinations before I go because I don’t want to miss anything! I also hate being THAT tourist. However, even after all the travel blogs I read, there were still so many things I learned that I feel are important for the future Swiss tourist. I hope you find my post helpful and useful 🙂
THIS IS NOT A WHAT TO SEE AND DO POST!!! Check out Switzerland in Two Weeks (coming soon!) to see where I stayed, ate, and explored, as well as, a list of suggested adventures that I was unfortunately not able to experience, but highly recommend!
A Little Background on Switzerland
What comes to mind when you think of Switzerland? If you’re like everyone I asked, you probably said cheese and chocolate. Swiss cheese, Gruyere cheese, milk chocolate, swiss miss, etc., that’s all I really thought of too before I visited. Since it was a whole new country, I wanted to try to understand the culture more. I did some research and decided to purchase the book Swiss Watching: Inside the Land of Milk and Money written by Diccon Bewes. As an England transplant who moved to Switzerland, Diccon Bewes takes you through his navigation and learning of Swiss culture during his first year of residency. Written in a very light-hearted, even humorous manner, Diccon beautifully captures the quirky and endearing way of life in Switzerland and what makes them a proud and prosperous country. I wish I had finished it before starting my trip, rather than trying to read it during, but I learned so much and it actually helped us out! My two companions would ask questions concerning the Swiss culture and I loved piping in, “I know, I know! It’s because blah blah blah.” BUY THIS BOOK! You will not be disappointed.
Here is my short (probably slightly biased) explanation of Switzerland. Switzerland is nicknamed the “Landlocked Island,” due to the Alps and culture that make Swiss different from the rest of the world. Having evaded two World Wars (please do not bring it up as it is a sore spot in history that they are not proud of), dividing up into staunch Protestant and Catholic cantons, holding elections and polls where people have more power than the politicians, having towns covered in more graffiti than all of Europe yet pride themselves on cleanliness, and upholding 4 different languages (5 if you count their second language of English), Switzerland is truly unlike any other country in Europe.
The Swiss are proud people, but utmost of their money, trust, and punctuality. No job postings speak of the position’s salary and do not ask how much your neighbor makes. Swiss have money and they are proud of their distinguished banks, but it is looked down upon to discuss. The Swiss put a lot of trust in it’s people and allies. Another reason to avoid the talks about the past and whose money they held (possibly hold) in their banks as the Swiss are trustworthy people who believe the best of others. It’s a dark day when a train arrives well past it’s arrival time. Train pile ups make national news. No Swiss is ever late. No wonder they are the leaders in watch making!
Swiss army knives are a treasured gift given to young boys entering manhood. The Swiss do not export most of their cheese. Real swiss cheese only comes from the small towns of Appenzeller and Emmantel; all others, especially those sold commercially, are mock ups. Milk chocolate was invented in Vevey when the son-in-law of Callier decided to try using real milk obtained from his neighbor Nestle’s cows. Callier is one of the few commercial chocolates in Switzerland that still uses real milk to this day. Switzerland actually has really good wine, thanks to it’s Italian and French neighbors; but they rarely export any. Apples take over the country when in season. The cows are friendly and love to be pet.
The Swiss are friendly, but aren’t fond of small talk. There are 26 cantons that are similar to the United States state system. They practice direct democracy, where people can sign a petition and the issue will be voted upon the next ballot. If the measure wins the majority vote, the government of the canton makes it law. The Swiss run marathons uphill and they tan on the Alps.
While their bordering cities take on the culture of the closest country (Geneva-France, Lugano-Italy, Zurich-Germany), they still are able to form their own unique identity that is truly unlike anywhere else. The beauty, friendliness, trust, food, and so much more of Switzerland is unparalled and will win the hearts of all who visit.
Tips and Tricks
- Purchase plane tickets 3-4 months out and compare prices to larger airports within 2 hours from your home base. We found driving to Los Angeles from San Diego and paying $10/day to store our car at a Hilton to be cheaper than flying directly out of San Diego ($500+ cheaper!). We purchased tickets in late December for flights in late March and the price was $550 roundtrip!
- (My suggestion) Purchase flights through Swiss Airlines, if you can! They’re highly rated, provide free entertainment, feed you literally every couple hours, and had the cheapest DIRECT flights. Believe me, sitting for 11 hours sucked, but we admitted it was better to get it over with.
- The best times to visit are March through May and September through November. Switzerland gets very busy in the summer months (like most European countries) and very, very cold in the winter months. By March, many attractions and roads that are closed for winter start to open and in September the summer crowds are back in school and the weather is still wonderful.
- Plan ahead. Not all sites are open year around AND there are many towns in Switzerland that are car-free! If you travel during the winter, many roads and attractions are closed and won’t open again until late March/early April. On the flipside, going in late fall, things may be closing. As for travel, there are car-free villages, such as Zermatt (Matterhorn) and you must plan ahead if you want to visit these villages. Areas of Switzerland are accessed by car, bus, train, boat, gondola, funicular, and good ‘ol fashioned physical exertion. Don’t just make a list of things to do, know when they are open, how much they cost, and how to get there.
- Utilize AirBNB, but also stay in hostels. If you have more than 2 people, AirBNB is a great option. The cost is cheaper and you have a little more comfort staying in your own room or the entire house. Although I was hesitant, staying in a private room became beneficial for gathering tips about the area and the hosts were very friendly. We stayed in only one hostel, which was when we stayed in the mountain village of Lauterbrunnen. As many travelers always say, the hostel system in Europe is phenomenal and ours was clean, tidy, and we never felt threatened being three girls. We stayed in one hotel in Lucerne for two nights as my friend’s birthday was over the trip and she wanted to treat herself a couple nights. The free breakfast was gourmet, but honestly for the cost, you are better off doing AirBNB.
- Walk the cities, but stay and spend more time in the mountains. Switzerland is an outdoor lovers paradise. While the cities are spectacular, you really only need a half-day to get a good overview of them. Honestly, I found the true feeling of Swiss culture up in the Alps because that is where they are truly Swiss. Lounging on snow-covered slopes, eating in warm chateaus, talking to the cows, hiking up mountainsides as daily exercise (the Swiss are crazy exercisers!), and apples everywhere.
- Plan how you’re getting around before you go. Weigh your options between a rental car, a Swiss Rail Pass, or paying full fare on whatever form of transportation you choose. Like most of the world, it costs money to ride a bus or train or boat. Switzerland with it’s abundance of travel options is no different, but it is a very expensive country. Local bus fare was around $5, but to ride a gondola to the top of a mountain was around $50. The Swiss Travel Pass offers reduced costs on transportation, but you must order it ahead of time with your travel dates. We didn’t take the rails, so I am not aware of those costs, but I hear that is the preferred mode of transportation for budget travelers. Switzerland has an amazing rail system, so it is a very good option.
- Rent a car if you have 3 or more people only. There are various levels of the Swiss Rail Pass. After doing the math, we determined that a rail pass would be around $500/person/length of stay, whereas we could rent a car and split it for less than $200/person (this was based on our 2 week long trip).
- Get the the Swiss Rail Pass for these reasons: (in my opinion)
- It is just you or one other person (compare pricing)
- You’ll be in Switzerland a maximum of 8 days (the 15 day option gets pretty pricey)
- You wish to travel every part of Switzerland and spend more time away from the cities (i.e. you know you’ll be taking more rails, cable cars, and buses to access areas); the pass gets you free local trams and buses and reduced costs on mountain rails and cable cars.
- You want to visit lots of museums (free admission for over 500 museums!)
- Get a travel credit card, BUT only a Visa/Mastercard. Being able to use a credit card is a huge convenience, but foreign transaction fees are no laughing matter when you’re already purchasing items from the most expensive country in the world. Switzerland DOES NOT take most types of credit cards. They ONLY take Visa or Mastercard and this is very important to research. I read many stories of people using various travel rewards cards that were declined in Switzerland. They also do not have the chip readers as of 2017 like we have in the US. My choice: Bank of America’s Travel Rewards card. No annual fee (rare for a card with zero foreign transaction fees), higher points credit on purchases made on travel, hotels, and restaurants, and points can be redeemed for credit towards purchases made for travel (i.e. I can use my points to pay off some travel expenses on the card and bring my bill down). They also have an offer for 20,000 points if you spend $1000 in the first 90 days.
On the Way/While There
- Drink LOTS of water before AND during your flight. I became dehydrated on the flight over even though I felt like I drank my weight in water before we boarded. I guess I hadn’t prepared enough and, because I was trying to sleep, I went a couple hours without water and woke up light-headed. Thankfully after chugging some water and taking a breather I was ok, but for my first intercontinental flight I became paranoid this was my fate for long distance travel. It’s wasn’t. Trip back went smooth and no fainting!
- If you drive a car:
- If you’re from the US, you’ll love driving in Switzerland because they drive on the same side of the road.
- Most freeways are two lanes, however, one should not coast in the left lane. It is strictly for passing slow cars on the right. If you’re from the US Midwest, this is normal, but we do not have such a law or common courtesy on the US West Coast. We endured many cold stares until we caught on.
- The Swiss drive FAST (not as fast as Italians though!), be prepared to always be moving to the slow lane.
- Lots of mountain roads. They are steep on the sides, so have someone confident drive.
- Even though we saw maybe one police car, we received TWO tickets. One of them being a speeding ticket! Why? Because we went over the speed limit in a tunnel. We are very curious about all the cars flying past us as my friend knew to stay below the speed limit, but yet the moment the dial went over the radar picked up on it. DON’T GO OVER THE SPEED LIMIT. The Swiss police know. Ticket price: about $25. Guess the Swiss speedsters make enough money not to care.
- Our second ticket was turning right on a red light. DON’T TURN RIGHT ON A RED LIGHT. If you’re from the US, this is habit. We were warned of this law and my friend remembered there was one right turn she made by accident. Again, no Swiss police, so they must have radar and cameras everywhere. They really are ahead of the times. No big deal right? WRONG! Ticket price: $200! So you can drive your car like a maniac, but God forbid you make a safe right turn on a red. The Swiss man…
- Eat fondue in the the small towns. We had our first true Swiss fondue in the small, but well-known town of Gruyere (heard of Gruyere cheese?!). In a small chalet called Restaurant le Chalet de Gruyeres, right next to the entrance to the castle, we split a small fondue that came with bread, pickles, and pearl onions. It was only $25 as they charged for the meal itself and not per person. THIS IS IMPORTANT! We had fondue again in Historic Bern when our other friend joined us and it was $30 PER PERSON! In the tourist towns/areas, expect to pay a pretty penny. Another reason to not spend long in the cities.
- Visit a Victornox store (the infamous makers of the Swiss Army knife). You will find them EVERYWHERE, but don’t leave Switzerland without visiting one store (or two!) and buying something. Swiss Army knives were invented in Switzerland and it’s actually a right of passage for every Swiss boy to be given a Swiss Army knife when he is old enough. Walk inside and see all the different combination of Swiss Army knives. They have one even equipped with a USB drive for the modern century human. The small ones come in all kinds of neat designs and I found them as fun souvenirs for family and friends. They like to say they have a true Swiss Army knife now! Also, if you are a lover of knives in general, apparently Switzerland makes some of the highest quality knives. A storeowner in Lucerne informed me that true Swiss Army knives (not the combo sets) are at a minimum of $300 (small pocket knife) because of their high-quality manufacturing. I wanted to buy my brother one, but I am not that rich…one day!
- Don’t be afraid of gas station grocery stores. Not sure about other countries, but in the US, buying food from a gas station usually means you’re either a high school kid or desperate. This is not the case at all in Switzerland. Actually all their Coop and Migros gas stations are mini-grocery stores. Coop and Migros are grocery store chains. Since many places, including general grocery stores, are closed on Sunday, these gas stations are a saving grace for last minute planners or tourists who didn’t know everything shuts down on Sundays!
- On that note, again, EVERYTHING CLOSES ON SUNDAYS! Ok maybe not everything, everything, but grocery stores and other storefronts shut down or close early on Sundays. Some restaurants are still open, but plan your week accordingly and prepare for that Sunday darkness.
- Graffiti is everywhere, but no you don’t have to fear for criminal activity or gangs. For a country that prides itself as being one of the cleanest in the world and has so many rules to uphold that cleanliness, including specific rules for throwing away your trash, they are a walking contradiction when it comes to the nature of graffiti. Apparently, the canton of Bern decided it would try and stop the graffiti artists, but attempts proved futile. Eventually, they gave up and followed back in suit with the rest of the country; ignoring the teenage angst. Graffiti has become a right of passage in a way and citizens like to call the artists “Sprayers.”
- Be honest and ALWAYS pay your way even when no one is checking you. The Swiss operate heavily on trust. Be a good person, be a Swiss person, and pay for your bus pass and your gas. There is no place to scan your bus pass when you board and you pump your gas first before paying for it. Among other pay after scenarios, just always do the right thing. The trust in this country fascinates me! Call me a skeptic American.
- Try to learn some general phrases in Swiss German, French, Italian, and Romansch. There are FOUR different prominent languages in this country! Very unusual for a European country. However, like most of Europe, their second language is English. They actually speak it very well; at least the majority of people you will be interacting with speak it well. English is taught right along with their canton’s primary language and they are actually very nice about speaking to you in English. I wanted to at least try and use hello, please, and thank you in their language. However, leave it to me to get all jumbled with my languages and phrases and speak French to the Swiss Germans and Italian to the French at different times. Big fail! I like to think they admired the effort, but really probably thought I was a dumb American. Avoid my mistakes and get your language and canton straight!
- Piggy-backing on the previous tip, here is the most popular cities with their languages: Zurich, Bern, Lucerne, Gruyere, Zermatt – Swiss German; Geneva, Vevey, Montreux (all towns surrounding Lake Geneva) – French; Lugano, Morcote – Italian; St. Moritz – Romansch/mix.
- Swiss German IS NOT THE SAME AS GERMAN! Apparently there is no language course to learn Swiss German. You have to learn it in Switzerland. There are some similarities, but not enough to warrant a fluent German speaker to have it easy trying to talk and understand Swiss German. It’s their most prominent language besides English only because there are more Swiss German cantons than any other.
- Yes there is a red light district in Geneva. Also, Geneva residents see it as a selling point for their AirBNB listings. Learned that only after happening upon the district a few blocks from the AirBNB we were staying at and then re-reading the bio. All three of us missed the part where he excitedly talks about the red light district being a few blocks from his place…
- You are going to walk a lot. I loved it and it’s the best way to see all the nooks and crannies of the cities and mountain villages. Breathe in the fresh air and enjoy strolling while torching calories. We realized why Swiss food was so high in carbs and calories; they literally walk/run up mountains!
- When using your credit card, it is best to NOT convert at the time of payment. The card reader will give you the option to pay in CHF or USD, choose CHF. The bank will do the conversion and it is always at a better rate than the exchange counters will give.
- Bring your student I.D.!!! Many Swiss museums and attractions honor student discounts, even if you’re from another country. My friend did not inform me of this (she has been to Europe before, I hadn’t, and she’s like oh yeah you didn’t know -_-). Some places you can actually have the fee waived if you’re a student. I’ve been well out of college for 5 years now, but you sure as heck know I’m milking that college I.D. until I start turning gray with wrinkles!
- Purchase the unique Swiss adapter! Switzerland’s adapter is a J plug. It is unique to Switzerland and it is NOT included on the universal adapter plug that say work for multiple countries; those only have adapters for the UK, US, Australia, and New Zealand. I purchased a J Plug for less than $10 on Amazon and it came in a pack of 3, which worked perfectly for always having an adapter available!
- Check the voltage of your electronics! I specifically bought a new dual voltage straightener (HSI Glider Original Ceramic Flat Iron for $30) and then luckily the small laptop I borrowed from my parents came with a converter. Nowadays, most electronics we use daily like our cellphone and laptop chargers have a built in converter, but not all. Read this short summary on how to check for single or dual voltage here.
Hopefully you found these tips helpful! Let me know if you travel to Switzerland and learn some things that you did not find on any travel blogs. I’d love to add them to my list. Safe travels 🙂