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March 13, 2013

Travel Guide to Switzerland

Travel Guide to Switzerland

If you could travel through only one European country, which might you choose? Italy? France? Germany? How about a taste of three in one? That can only mean Switzerland!

Known as a summer and winter sports paradise (just look at those glistening white 4000m-plus Alpine peaks and glittering lakes), Switzerland is where people first skied for fun. Illustrious names evoke all the romance and glamorous drama of the mountain high life: Zermatt, St Moritz, Interlaken, Gstaad, the Jungfrau, Verbier and more. Cities like Geneva (the most cosmopolitan), Zürich (the most outrageous), Basel and Lausanne heave with heady artistic activity and sometimes incendiary nightlife.

Beyond the après-ski chic, edelweiss and Heidi lies a complex country of cohabiting cultures. It not only has four languages (Swiss German, French, Italian and Romansch), but the cultural variety to match. You could be chomping on sausages over beer in an oom-pah-pah Stübli one day and pasta over a glass of merlot in a granite grotto the next. And if over-indulgence becomes a problem try one of the country's thermal baths, from Yverdon-les-Bains to Scuol.

Travel Guide to Switzerland

The grandeur of the finest churches, such as the cathedrals in Lausanne and Bern, contrasts with sparkling but lesser-known treasures like the frescoes of Müstair or the abbey complex of St Gallen (both World Heritage sites).

The list of enchanting towns is endless: from Lucerne with its covered bridge to Neuchâtel and its fountains; from Gruyères with its cheese, and Grimentz with its traditional timber houses to the sgraffito-blazoned buildings of Engadine towns like Scuol and Zuoz.

Whether visiting the remotest Ticino villages or sampling the finest of Valais wines, you'll find Switzerland a chocolate box bursting with unexpected flavours.

Weather
You'll need to be prepared for a range of temperatures, as the mountains create a variety of local and regional microclimates. That said, most of the country has a central European climate, with daytime temperatures around 18° to 28°C in summer and -2° to 7°C in winter. The coldest area is the Jura, in particular the Brevine Valley. By contrast, Ticino in the south has a hot Mediterranean climate.

Summer tends to bring a lot of sun, but also the most rain, and there were terrible floods in 1999 and 2005. Look out for the Föhn, a hot, dry wind that sweeps down into the valleys and can be oppressively uncomfortable (though some find its warming effect refreshing). It can strike at any time of the year, but especially in spring and autumn.

When to go
When you visit Switzerland you will, at least in part, be dictated by where you want to go and what you intend to do, but there are good reasons for exploring at least parts of the country at any time of year.

Summer lasts roughly from June to September and offers the most pleasant climate for outdoor pursuits (apart from exclusively winter sports). In fact, many adventure sports, such as canyoning, are only offered during this time. The peak period is July and August, when prices are high, accommodation often fully booked and the sights packed. You'll find better deals, and fewer people, in the shoulder seasons either side of summer: in April, May and October. With the exception of the busy Easter break, spring is a beautiful time of year to explore the blooming countryside. In Ticino, flowers are in bloom as early as March. Hikers wanting to walk at high altitudes, however, should be equipped for snow and ice until well into June (and, in some tricky spots, all year).

The winter season in Alpine resorts kicks off in mid-December and moves into full swing around Christmas, closing down again when the snows begin to melt around mid-April. Between the summer and winter seasons, Alpine resorts all but close down (except where year-round glacier skiing is on offer). At the very best, they go into snooze mode and can even be a little depressing.

At any time, as you travel around the country you'll hit many different climatic conditions. The continental climate in the Alps tends to show the greatest extremes between summer and winter. Mid-August to late October generally has fairly settled weather, and is a good period for hiking trips.

Getting there & away

When visiting Switzerland from outside Europe, it's worth investigating whether it's cheaper to fly to a European 'gateway' city and travel on from there. London and Frankfurt are the most obvious candidates.

Travel documents

Visas
Visas are not required if you hold a passport for the UK, Ireland, the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand or South Africa, whether visiting as a tourist or on business. Citizens of the EU, Norwegians and Icelanders may also enter Switzerland without a visa. A maximum three-month stay applies, although passports are rarely stamped. Citizens of several African, Asian and Arab countries, plus Eastern European and Balkan states, require visas. A current squabble with Libya means visas for citizens of that country are not being issued by Switzerland. For up-to-date details on visa requirements, go to the Swiss Federal Office for Migration (www.eda.admin.ch) and click 'Services'.

In Switzerland, carry your passport at all times and guard it carefully. Swiss citizens are required always to carry personal identification, so you will also need to be able to identify yourself at any time.

Passport
Ensure your passport is valid until well after you plan to end your trip - six months is a safe minimum. Swiss citizens are required to always carry personal identification, so carry your passport at all times and guard it carefully. Citizens of many European countries don't need a passport to travel to Switzerland; a national identity card may suffice. Check with your travel agent or the Swiss embassy before departure.

Tickets
Check for cheap fares in major newspapers and try the following online booking sites (or their local versions):

www.cheapflights.com
www.ebookers.com
www.expedia.com
www.lastminute.com
www.opodo.com
www.travelocity.com

Money & costs

Costs
Okay, let's get this over and done with quickly: Switzerland is an expensive place. Even people from the UK and Scandinavia will notice this, although the difference between Switzerland and its European neighbours has narrowed over the years, especially since the introduction of the euro in 2002 in Switzerland's neighbouring countries sent prices in those countries soaring. Indeed, UK estate agents specialising in holiday properties in ski resorts have started promoting Switzerland, as nearest rival France becomes 'too expensive'! The floods of Swiss swarming over the French and Italian borders for cheaper goods are largely a thing of the past. One very good piece of news is that petrol in Switzerland is cheaper than in its neighbouring countries (Austria, France, Germany and Italy).

Travellers from North America or Australia will find all of Europe more expensive, and the pain in Switzerland only marginally worse.

Your biggest expenses while in Switzerland are likely to be long-distance public transport, accommodation and eating out. In the most modest hotels, expect to pay at least Sfr70/100 per single/double. A full meal with 500ml of house wine for two can easily cost Sfr50 to Sfr60 and up per person.
But there are ways to keep costs down. Travel passes almost invariably provide big savings on trains, boats and buses. It is essential to check these out and see which might suit you. Camping, sleeping in barns in summer and staying at youth hostels are cheap (ish) accommodation options. Preparing your own meals, not drinking alcohol and eating at the many supermarket and department-store restaurants will keep your food budget under control. Finally, a student card will entitle you to reduced admission fees for many attractions.

Your budget depends on how you live and travel. If you're moving around fast, going to lots of places, spending time in the big cities or major ski resorts, then your day-to-day living costs are going to be quite high; if you stay in one place and get to know your way around, they're likely to come down.

The minimum that budget travellers can expect to scrape by on is about Sfr80 to Sfr100 per day, and that's if they stick to camping/hostelling, self-service restaurants or self-catering, hitching (or have previously purchased a rail pass), hiking instead of taking cable cars, visiting only inexpensive sights and confining alcohol consumption to bottles purchased in supermarkets. Add at least Sfr30 a day if you want to stay in a budget pension instead, and a further Sfr30 for a wider choice of restaurants and sightseeing options. You still have to be careful with your money at this level; if you have a larger budget available, you will have no trouble spending it! Always allow extra cash for emergencies.

Admission prices on most museums and galleries range from Sfr5 to Sfr10, with a handful more expensive still. An expense that can blow any budget is trips on cable cars; these are rarely covered by travel passes (at best you can expect a 25% to 50% reduction). A short to medium ascent can cost Sfr10 to Sfr25. Return trips up and down Mt Titlis and Schilthorn exceed Sfr70.

Money
Swiss francs are divided into 100 centimes (Rappen in German-speaking Switzerland). There are notes for 10, 20, 50, 100, 500 and 1000 francs, and coins for five, 10, 20 and 50 centimes, as well as for one, two and five francs.

ATMs
Automated teller machines (ATMs) - called Bancomats in banks and Postomats in post offices - are common, and are accessible 24 hours a day. They can be used with most international bank or credit cards to withdraw Swiss francs, and they have English instructions. Your bank or credit-card company will usually charge a 1% to 2.5% fee, and there may also be a small charge at the ATM end.

Cash
Many businesses throughout Switzerland, including most hotels, some restaurants and souvenir shops, will accept payment in euros. However, any change will be given in Swiss francs, at the rate of exchange calculated on the day.

Credit cards
The use of credit cards is less widespread than in the UK or USA and not all shops, hotels or restaurants will accept them. When they do, EuroCard/MasterCard and Visa are the most popular.

International transfers
Western Union (0800 007 107) has a receiving agent in most towns. Charges, paid by the sender, are on a sliding scale, depending on the amount sent.

Money changers
You can change money at banks, as well as at airports and nearly every train station daily until late into the evening. Whereas banks tend to charge about 5% commission, some money-exchange bureaus don't charge commission at all. Exchange rates are slightly better for travellers cheques than for cash, but there's not much difference.

Travellers cheques
All major travellers cheques are accepted, especially American Express, Visa or Thomas Cook. You can call American Express (0800 550 100) on its toll-free number if you lose your Amex travellers cheques.

Top things to do in Switzerland

The birthplace of skiing offers travelers much more than slopes and chalets. From art to food to outdoor adventures, fall is a fantastic time to visit this small country, when airfare and hotels are less expensive, crowds are gone, and changing foliage is a colorful addition to lake and mountain vistas.

Travel Guide to SwitzerlandTake a Hike

With thousands of miles of well-marked trails, Switzerland is a mecca for hikers of all abilities. Stroll in the shadow of the iconic Matterhorn on the Zermatt Lake Trail, take in the country’s history on the Swiss Path along Lake Luzern, or spot native animals like the ibex or marmot hiking through Swiss National Park in Graubunden. Switzerland Tourism offers a free iphone app that details 32 of the country’s routes.
Tip: walking poles and sturdy hiking boots help prevent twisted ankles and knee injuries from uneven ground.


Learn Some Language

Switzerland packs a linguistic punch for a country its size. Travel between four distinct cultural regions without crossing a border and speak French in the west, Italian in the south, German in the northern and central parts of the country, and Romansh in Graubunden, in the east, where there's an enclave of the traditional language. Most Swiss speak English as well, but greeting people with the appropriate local term—bonjour, boungiorno, or gruezi (Swiss German)—will get you far.

Travel Guide to Switzerland
Join a Local Festival

Visitors can easily experience local traditions and national pastimes. Every Saturday from mid-July through August, the Marches Folkloriques in Vevey features Swiss folk music, alphorn performances, crafts, and wine tastings. During the Foire de Martigny in Valais, check out Swiss wrestling, flag or stone hurling, or Hornussen (like golf and baseball in one). Or head to Appenzell on the last Sunday in April to watch the open-air elections in the town square.



Retreat to a Quaint Village

If you want to slow down and unwind, ditch the city and head to one of Switzerland’s smaller towns. Chateau d’Oex, a peaceful resort in the Lake Geneva region, is a great base for outdoor or hot air balloon enthusiasts. Wengen and Murren, two villages perched overlooking the Lauterbrunnen Valley offer access to the Bernese Oberland peaks without the crowds of Interlaken. And quiet Gandria, on the shore of Lake Lugano, has winding alleys and Italian flair.

Travel Guide to Switzerland
Get to Know the Cows

Odds are when you travel to Switzerland, you'll have some sort of interaction with cows—from the production of cheese to hearing the clank of cowbells in the countryside. Get to know the cows on a hike or a dairy farm tour near Chateau D’Oex. Or join the seasonal processions in Gruyeres or Appenzell when cows are led to and from the hills to graze. In fall, Martigny’s cow fights are popular events—cows lock horns but don’t hurt one another.



Take to the Lake

Switzerland’s mountains hog the spotlight, but the country’s lakes are equally awe-inspiring. Glacial blue waters and shoreline vineyards create great photo ops, and locally sourced fish are a specialty on many menus. Cruise by the cascading Jet d’Eau and imposing Chateau de Chillon on Lake Geneva, ride a historic paddle steamer past the Rutli Meadow and Wilhelm Tell Chapel on Lake Luzern, or cross the border into Italy on Lake Lugano. City slickers in Zurich cool off with a dip in Lake Zurich, and bird watchers flock to Lac Neuchatel.

Travel Guide to Switzerland
Gorge on Cheese

Just because the Swiss only eat fondue in winter doesn’t mean you can't indulge year round. The best is in Fribourg, where Gruyere and Vacherin Fribourgeois cheeses are melted together with white wine, garlic, and kirsch (cherry brandy). Other cheese dishes to try include raclette and alpen magronen (alpine macaroni and cheese). But also be sure to sample local regional varieties such as Sbrinz in Central Switzerland, Emmental in Bern, or Bundner Bergkase in Graubunden.

See Contemporary Art

Home to some fantastic classical collections, Switzerland is also a top spot for cutting-edge contemporary art. Gruyeres, a medieval village best known for its cheese, is a surprising art hub—stroll around the chateau to see modern works inside a 13th century castle, or pop in the nearby Giger Museum and bar to see alien-like designs by H.R. Giger. In June, Basel hosts the glamorous Art Basel festival; check out the Kunsthalle and Carnival Fountain while you’re here. For serious art buffs, a trip to the spectacular Beyeler Foundation, 20 minutes from Basel, is not to be missed.

Travel Guide to Switzerland
Sip Local Wine

Whether it’s white wine made from Chasselas grapes on the shores of Lake Geneva, Merlot from Ticino, or Pinot Noir from the Valais, take advantage of the chance to savor local labels. Most Swiss wine is not exported so it’s hard to get outside of the country, but that doesn’t mean the quality is lacking. In Vaud, take a walk through the protected Lavaux vineyards—the views of Lake Geneva from the steep terraces are breathtaking.


Reach Great Heights

Vistas from Switzerland’s summits are spectacular, and you don’t need to be a climber to enjoy them. Cable cars, funiculars, and trains whisk you up thousands of feet to viewing stations and mountaintop restaurants. Visit a James Bond villain’s lair at Piz Gloria, an eatery atop Mt. Schilthorn, breathe in the chilly air on the Sphinx Terrace on the Jungfraujoch, or ride the world’s steepest cog railway to the top of Mt. Pilatus near Luzern.

Travel Guide to Switzerland
Indulge in Chocolate

Once you try really good Swiss chocolate, it’s hard to go back. This is where milk chocolate was invented (you can thank the cows for that), and chocolate-making is as much an art as it is a business. Satisfy your sweet tooth on a tour of Nestle’s Callier factory, or pick up some tasty bites as gifts or souvenirs. One of the great shops are Sprungli and Teuscher in Zurich, Martel in Geneva, and Poyet in Vevey.


Travel Guide to SwitzerlandRide a Scenic Train

With 46 railway companies, more than 5,000 km (3,100 mi) of track, and a transportation system that's rarely delayed, taking the train is the best way to get around Switzerland. Views from most trains will have you reaching for your camera, but for visually-stunning extras try one of the dedicated scenic routes, like the Glacier Express or Bernina Express, which often have panoramic windows and travel at slower speeds to let you soak in the sights.



Article credit to: www.lonelyplanet.com, www.fodors.com
Image credit: www.fodors.com, www.tumblr.com, www.zermatt.ch , www.skyscanner.net , winevibe.com, www.gawker.com, www.eurail.com



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