Whether on snow-capped mountains or in glitzy resort towns, you can experience the high life in Switzerland. Visitors are elated by its soaring outdoor recreation, riding cable cars up peaks near the Matterhorn, sipping Swiss wine while cruising on a crystalline alpine lake, and skiing the immaculate slopes of St. Moritz. At the end of the day, lavish spas beckon, along with lively après ski scenes and pots of fondue. Sophisticated cities like Zurich and Geneva take luxury to new heights, with posh boutiques and upscale restaurants lining their cobblestoned streets.
The entire country of Switzerland is smaller in area than the state of West Virginia, so flying from one region to another is a luxury that, considering how efficient the trains are, few travelers require—unless there’s a convenient connection from your intercontinental arrival point (Geneva, Zürich) to a smaller airport (Basel, Bern, Lugano, and Sion).
In Switzerland, you will not usually need to check in more than an hour before boarding. Be sure to check your airline’s limit on checked and carry-on luggage; most airlines accept one carry-on item, while Swiss and other national carriers will turn a blind eye to two.
For 22 SF per bag round-trip, passengers on Swiss and partner airlines with tickets on Swiss Federal Railways can forward their luggage to their final destination, allowing them to travel unencumbered. Baggage check-in and airline boarding passes can be arranged at more than 50 train stations around Switzerland, but can only be done less than 24 hours in advance. An English-language “Fly-Rail Baggage” brochure is available free of charge from the Swiss Federal Railways.
Note that many budget airlines such as easyJet charge for food and drink during flights.
Swiss even stocks Nicorette gum. Flying time to Geneva or Zürich is about 1 hour from London, 8 hours from New York, 9 hours from Chicago, 11 hours from Los Angeles, 11 hours from San Francisco, and 23 to 25 hours from Sydney.
In Switzerland, there is no longer a need to reconfirm your flight, though it won’t hurt to do so. Swiss and other airlines now send electronic delay messages to passengers who provide cell phone numbers.
The major gateways into the country are the Zürich Airport (ZRH) and Geneva’s Cointrin Airport (GVA). Most Swiss flights will fly via Zürich Airport, the airline’s hub. Be sure to allow yourself at least an hour to transfer to your connecting flight. The EuroAirport on the outskirts of Basel is used by many airlines as a stopover and has low-cost flights to numerous destinations across Europe. Its proximity to Zürich makes it very convenient.
Swiss International Air Lines, the national carrier more commonly known simply as Swiss, flies from Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami, Montréal, and New York to Zürich, as well as from New York and Montréal to Geneva. United flies from New York, Newark, Washington, and Montréal to Geneva and from Washington, Miami, Chicago, Newark, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Toronto to Zürich. American Airlines connects New York with Zürich, while Delta flies from New York and Atlanta to Zürich.
Low-cost airlines flying into Geneva include easyJet (from London and many European cities), Etihad Regional (from Lugano, Florence, Venice, and other European cities), and flybe (from Exeter, the Isle of Man, and Southampton). If you’re headed to Zürich, then easyJet (from London Gatwick and Luton), bmibaby (from Edinburgh), Helvetic Airways (from Cardiff, Bristol, or Inverness), and Air Berlin (from London, Ibiza, and other European destinations) are among the low-cost carriers.
When looking to continue your travel from Switzerland, easyJet flies to around 50 European destinations from Basel’s EuroAirport.
All of Switzerland’s larger lakes are crisscrossed by elegant steamers, some of them restored paddle steamers. Their café-restaurants serve drinks, snacks, and hot food at standard mealtimes; toilet facilities are provided. Service continues year-round but is greatly reduced in winter. Unlimited travel is free to holders of the Swiss Travel Pass. The Swiss Travel Pass Flex may also be used for boat travel. For some travel such as night or themed cruises, you may have to pay a fee.
Tickets can be purchased at ticket booths near the docks before departure; for some shorter boat rides tickets are also sold at a counter on board before departure. Tourism offices usually have the latest schedules, though it may be better to check with the boat companies. Credit cards are generally accepted, as are Swiss francs and euros.
The Compagnie Générale de Navigation offers excursion boat rides on Lake Geneva from around 20 SF to 100 SF, depending on the distance covered and the type of excursion. Numerous options are available on Lake Luzern, including with Schifffahrtsgesellschaft des Vierwaldstättersees. In the Ticino, the Navigazione Lago di Lugano and Navigazione Lago Maggiore-Bacino Svizzero run frequent daily boat trips. In Zürich, boat rides of 1½ to 7 hours are available in summer with Zürichsee Schifffahrtsgesellschaft. In winter, the number of boat rides dwindles.
Switzerland’s famous yellow postbuses (called Postautos, cars postaux, autopostali), with their loud tritone horns, link main cities with villages off the beaten track and even crawl over the highest mountain passes. Both postbuses and city buses follow posted schedules to the minute: you can set your watch by them. You can pick up a free schedule for a particular route in most postbuses; full schedules are included in train schedule books. You can also check the Swiss Post website. Watch for the yellow sign with a picture of the distinctive curly horn. Postbuses are handy for hikers: walking itineraries are available at some postbus stops.
There’s also a special scenic postbus route, the Palm Express. This route goes from St. Moritz to Lugano via the Maloja Pass with a stop in Italy, so bring your passport. The buses run daily from mid-June through mid-October and from late December through the first week of January. From the second week of January to the first week of June and from late October to mid-December, the Palm Express scheduled is curtailed and the buses run only from Friday to Sunday. Reservations are obligatory and must be made by 8:30 am on the day of departure. They can be made online, as well as at any train station or tourist office. Passengers with a Swiss Travel Pass must pay an Alpine Ticket surcharge of 15 SF.
The Swiss Travel Pass gives unlimited travel on postbuses; however, you may have to pay a supplement of 5 SF to 20 SF on some Alpine routes. Check the timetables or ask the staff.
Be sure to ask whether reservations are required, as is the case for some Alpine pass routes.
Note that information about prices and schedules on the Swiss Post bus system are at least as readily available on the main Swiss train website, www.sbb.ch (which covers both national train and bus routes), as on the less-comprehensive Swiss Post website.
If there’s one thing that’s generally cheaper in Switzerland than elsewhere in western Europe, it’s gasoline. If you are crossing borders, try to fill the tank in Switzerland, as both regular and diesel gasoline are cheaper than in neighboring countries. Regular unleaded gas costs just over 1.90 SF per liter (about $8 a gallon). Prices are slightly higher in mountain areas. Be sure to have some 10 SF and 20 SF notes available, as many gas stations (especially in the mountains) have vending-machine pumps that operate even when the station is closed. Simply slide in a bill and fill your tank. Many of these machines also accept major credit cards with precoded PINs. You can request a receipt (Quittung in German, quittance in French, ricevuta in Italian) from the machine.
Parking areas are clearly marked. In blue or red zones a Parkenscheibe, disque de stationnement, or disco orario (provided in rental cars or available free from banks, tourist offices, or police stations) must be placed clearly in the front window noting the time of arrival. These zones are slowly being replaced by metered-parking white zones. Each city sets its own time allotments for parking; the limits are posted. Metered parking is often paid for at communal machines that vary from city to city. Some machines simply accept coins and dispense tickets. At others you’ll need to punch in your parking space or license plate number, then add coins. The ticket for parking may or may not have to be placed in your car window; this information is noted on the machine or ticket. Parking in public lots normally costs 2 SF for the first hour, increasing by 1 SF every half hour thereafter, although prices vary by location, with cities charging more than small towns.
Road signs throughout the country use a color-coded system, with the official route numbers in white against a colored background. Expressway signs are green, while other major roads have signs in blue (unlike in the rest of Europe, where the colors are reversed). Signs for smaller roads are white with black lettering. All signage indicates the names of upcoming towns as well, and it is generally easiest to use these names for navigating.
Swiss roads are well surfaced, but when you are dealing with mountains they do wind a lot, so don’t plan on achieving high average speeds. When estimating likely travel times, look carefully at the map: there may be only 32 km (20 miles) between one point and another—but the road may cross an Alpine pass. There is a well-developed expressway network, though some notable gaps still exist in the south along an east–west line, roughly between Lugano and Sion. In addition, tunnels—notably the St. Gotthard—are closed at times for repairs or weather conditions, or they become bottlenecks in heavy traffic, especially over holiday weekends. A combination of steep or winding routes and hazardous weather means some roads will be closed in winter. Signs are posted at the beginning of the climb.
To find out about road conditions, traffic jams, itineraries, and so forth, you can turn to two places: the Swiss Automobile Club has operators standing by on weekdays from 8 to 5 to provide information in many languages. Dues-paying members of the Touring Club of Switzerland may contact the organization for similar information. Note that neither of these numbers gets you breakdown service. For frequent and precise information in Swiss languages, you can dial 163, or tune in to local radio stations.
All road breakdowns should be called in to the countrywide emergency numbers, 117 (for the police), or 140 (for roadside assistance). If you are on an expressway, pull over to the shoulder and look for arrows pointing you to the nearest orange radio-telephone, called bornes SOS; use these phones instead of a mobile phone because they allow police to find you instantly and send help. There are SOS phones every kilometer (roughly every ½ mile), on alternating sides of the expressway.
Rules of the Road
As in most of Europe, driving is on the right. Vehicles on main roads have priority over those on smaller roads. At intersections, priority is given to the driver on the right except when driving on a road with right-of-way and when merging into traffic circles, where priority is given to the drivers coming from the left (i.e., those already in the traffic circle). In some residential areas—notably Geneva—traffic coming from the right has the right-of-way.
In urban areas the speed limit is 50 kph (30 mph); on major roads it’s 80 kph (50 mph), and on expressways, the limit ranges from 100 kph (60 mph) to 120 kph (75 mph). On expressways the left lane is only for passing other cars; you must merge right as soon as possible, and passing on the right is a no-go. It is illegal to make a right-hand turn on a red light. The blood-alcohol limit is 0.05.
Despite its laid-back image, Switzerland suffers from aggressive driving. Tailgating, though illegal, is a common problem, as is speeding. If you are being tailgated on the expressway, just move into the right lane and ignore any high-beam flashing and visible signs of road rage behind you. If you are driving extra slowly, let the people behind you pass.
Children under age seven are not permitted to sit in the front seat. Headlights are compulsory and should be switched on at all times. Always carry your valid license and car-registration papers; there are occasional roadblocks to check them. Wear seat belts in the front and backseats—they are mandatory.
To use the expressways, you must display a sticker, or vignette, on the top center or lower corner of the windshield. You can buy one at the border or in post offices, gas stations, and garages. A vignette costs 40 SF, or €33, and is valid for a year. Driving without a vignette puts you at risk for getting a 200 SF fine. Cars rented within Switzerland already have these stickers; if you rent a car elsewhere in Europe, ask if the rental company will provide the vignette for you.
Traffic going up a mountain has priority, except for postbuses coming down, in which case the ascending traffic must make way for the buses. A sign with a yellow post horn on a blue background means that postbuses have priority. On winding mountain roads, a brief honk as you approach a curve is a good way of warning any oncoming traffic. In winter be sure your car is fitted with snow tires and that you have snow chains in the trunk. Snow tires are mandatory in Switzerland in winter. Snow-chain service stations have signs marked service de chaînes à neige or schneekettendienst, meaning that snow chains are available for rent.
Switzerland is exceedingly pedestrian-friendly, so whether you are walking or behind the wheel, be on the lookout for crosswalks. Cars must stop for people waiting to cross, and it is common for someone to walk right out in front of you. Caution should be your modus operandi when driving through towns.
Car rental rates in Zürich and Geneva begin around $50–$70 a day for an economy car with air-conditioning, a manual transmission, and unlimited mileage. Some, but not all, prices include the 8% tax on car rentals. Although you can usually rent a car upon arrival, significant savings can be made by booking in advance through a third-party wholesale website. European companies like Europcar and Sixt often have better deals.
Your driver’s license is acceptable in Switzerland, but an International Driving Permit (IDP)—available from the American and Canadian automobile associations and, in the United Kingdom, from the Automobile Association and Royal Automobile Club—is a good idea. An official translation of your license done in 10 languages, it can help local law enforcement understand the terms of your license (IDPs are only valid in conjunction with a valid license). If you intend to expand your trip beyond Switzerland, you may need an IDP to rent a car. The minimum age is generally 18. Note that some agencies do not allow you to drive cars into Italy. In Switzerland some rental agencies charge daily fees of about 25 SF for drivers under 25. If you wish to pay cash, agencies will request a deposit.
All children under the age of 12 who are less than 59 inches tall must be fastened in an infant car seat, child seat, or booster seat while riding in a motor vehicle. If you are traveling with children and renting a car, be sure to ask the rental car company for the appropriate seats in advance, or plan on taking trains and buses instead. (There are no exemptions to this rule for taxis, and finding a taxi willing to provide the seats is nearly impossible.)
The Swiss Federal Railways, or SBB/CFF/FFS, boasts one of the world’s densest transportation networks. Trains and stations are clean and, as you’d expect, service is extremely prompt. Trains described as Inter-City or Express are the fastest, stopping only in main towns. Regionalzug, train régional, and treno regionale mean “local train” and make frequent stops.
In addition to the federal rail lines there are some private rail lines, such as the GoldenPass and the Rhätische Bahn. Most private lines are integrated into the main network and generally accept discount rail passes or offer other reductions on the price.
If you’re planning to use trains extensively, you can download the official timetable (Kursbuch, horaire or orario) at www.fahrplanfelder.ch. The comprehensive Swiss Federal Railways website allows you to work out itineraries, including suburban trains, trams, and buses, and buy tickets online.
Tickets aren’t available on board any trains, so make sure to buy them in advance. Fines for riding without a valid ticket are a painful 90 SF.
If you are eager to read or get some work done on the train, look for the quiet zone compartments, available on a number of routes in Switzerland. Travelers are asked not to use cell phones, listen to music, or engage in loud conversation. Most Inter-City and Express trains feature power outlets in both first- and second-class cars. If you need Internet access, you will need to hotspot your phone, as Swiss trains generally do not have Wi-Fi on board. Swisscom does offer Wi-Fi hotspots at 31 stations.
If you happen to suffer from motion sickness, note that the Swiss ICN trains—and the German ICE, the French TGV, and the Italian Cisalpino—all use “tilt technology” for a less jerky ride. One side effect, however, is that some passengers might get “seasick,” especially if the track is curvy (as it is between Biel/Bienne and Geneva). An over-the-counter drug for motion sickness should help. Also, close the shades and avoid looking out the window.
Consider a first-class ticket only if the extra comfort is worth the price. The principal difference between first and second class, the only two options, is space: first-class cars are less crowded. Seat size is also larger, upholstery fancier, and you usually will be delivered to the track position closest to the station.
If Switzerland is your only destination in Europe, there are numerous passes available for visitors. The Swiss Travel Pass is the best value, offering unlimited travel on Swiss Federal Railways, postbuses, Swiss lake steamers, and the local bus and tram services of 41 cities. It also gives reductions on many privately owned railways, cable cars, and funiculars. And it gives you access to 480 museums in the country.
The card is available from Switzerland Tourism and from travel agents outside Switzerland, including Rail Europe. You can get a card valid for 4 days (272 SF second class; 435 SF first class); 8 days (393 SF second class; 629 SF first class); 15 days (476 SF second class; 762 SF first class); 22 days (552 SF second class; 883 SF first class); or one month (607 SF second class; 971 SF first class). There’s also the Swiss Travel Pass Flex, offering the same for three to six days in a 30-day period at the user’s convenience (260 SF–414 SF second class; 416 SF–662 SF first class). There’s a 10% discount on the Swiss Travel Pass and the Swiss Travel Pass Flex for two or more people. With both passes, reservation fees may be applicable on certain routes.
The Swiss Family Card is available at no cost to nonresidents of Switzerland and Liechtenstein. With this card, children under 16 accompanied by a parent travel for free.
Within some tourist areas, regional holiday passes are available. Their discount offers vary; prices vary widely, too, depending on the region and period of validity. Passes are available from Switzerland Tourism and local tourist boards, as well as the train stations, but to be on the safe side, inquire well in advance.
Switzerland is one of 24 countries in which you can use a Eurail Global Pass, which provides unlimited first-class rail travel in all the participating countries. If you plan to rack up the miles, get a standard pass. These are available for 15 days ($823), 21 days ($1,061), one month ($1,305), two months ($1,841), and three months ($2,272).
If your plans call for limited train travel, look into a less-expensive Eurail Select Pass. You get a set number of travel days during a specified time period. For example, a two-month pass allows between 5 and 10 days of rail travel; costs range between $582 and $846. Keep in mind that the Eurail Select Pass is good only for four countries that border each other.
In addition to standard Eurail Passes, ask about special rail-pass plans. Among these are the Eurail Youth Pass (for those aged 12–25) and the Eurail Saver Passes (which give a discount for two or more people traveling together).
Many travelers assume that rail passes guarantee them a seat. Not so. You should book seats ahead even if you are using a rail pass. Seat reservations are required on some European trains, particularly high-speed trains, and are a good idea during busy seasons and on popular routes. You also will need a reservation if you purchase sleeping accommodations. Whichever pass you choose, remember that you must make your purchase before you leave for Europe. The Swiss Federal Railways has a user-friendly site that lets you check fares and schedules. You can also call its hotline, which has information in English.
With the Channel Tunnel completing a seamless route, you can leave London around noon on the Eurostar and (thanks to connections via Paris–Lyon on the French train à grande vitesse, or TGV) have a late supper in Geneva. Note that the TGV tracks connecting Geneva and Paris are a bit bumpy, which can be unsettling for sensitive passengers.
Switzerland makes the most of its Alpine rail engineering, which cuts through the icy granite landscape above 6,560 feet, by offering special trains that cross over spectacular passes with panoramic cars. The most popular sightseeing itineraries take 4–11 hours’ travel time. For information on these and other scenic routes, contact Swiss Federal Railways or Railtour Suisse, Switzerland’s largest train-tour company.
Many hotels and some public places have Wi-Fi (in Europe: WLAN) hotspots. About half the time you will have to pay a fee to log on, although some hotels and many bars, cafés, and restaurants provide the service for free. The cost is generally high, at 5 SF for a half hour or 25 SF for one full day’s access. A few cities (such as Geneva) provide Wi-Fi service for free. If you didn’t bring your laptop, tablet, or smartphone, you’ll often find Internet terminals in airports, train stations, and hotels.
The good news is that you can now make a direct-dial telephone call from virtually any point on earth. The bad news? You can’t always do so cheaply.
Mobile roaming charges can be steep ($1/minute, $20/MB and tolls for incoming calls are the norm), so it’s a good idea to ask your service provider about any international plans it offers before setting out. Once abroad, it’s almost always cheaper to send a text message than to make a call, since texts have a low set fee (often less than 5¢).
Cellular phones (natels) for use in Switzerland can also be rented before you leave on your trip or at the airport. You can arrange for a rental on a weekly or monthly basis.
If you want to make local calls and your smartphone is already unlocked (or your provider will unlock it), consider buying a Swiss prepaid SIM card, which can be cheaper and easier than using your U.S. card abroad. SIM cards are available in phone stores (Sunrise, Swisscom, etc.) and supermarkets (Coop, Migros, etc.). Purchase requires a passport and costs approximately 40 SF, which usually includes 20 SF of credit/data. Micro or Nano SIM cards used in most iPhones are also available, although less widely.
Calling from a hotel is almost always the most expensive way to keep in touch; hotels usually add huge surcharges to all calls, particularly international ones. In Switzerland pay phones and calling cards keep costs to a minimum, but only if you purchase the cards locally.
The country code for Switzerland is 41. When dialing a Swiss number from abroad, drop the initial 0 from the local area code.
Calling Within Switzerland
Dial 1811 or 1818 for information within Switzerland (1.90 SF for the initial connection and the first minute, and around 0.22 SF thereafter) 24 hours a day. All telephone operators speak English, and instructions are printed in English in all telephone booths.
Dial the local area code (including the 0) when calling any local number.
There’s direct dialing to everywhere in Switzerland. For local area codes, consult the pink pages, and for international country and city codes, consult the green-banded pages at the front of the telephone book. Include the area code preceded by 0 when dialing anywhere within Switzerland.
To make a local call on a pay phone, pick up the receiver, insert a phone card, and dial the number. A local call costs 0.60 SF plus 0.10 SF for each additional unit. Toll-free numbers begin with 0800. Swisscom phone cards are available in 5 SF, 10 SF, 20 SF, or 50 SF units; they’re sold at post offices, train stations, airports, and kiosks. Slip a card into an adapted public phone, and a continual readout will tell you how much money is left on the card. The cost of the call will be counted against the card, with any remaining value still good for the next time you use it. If you drain the card and still need to talk, the readout will warn you: you can either pop in a new card or make up the difference with coins. Many phone booths now also accept Visa, MasterCard, and American Express cards.
Calling Outside Switzerland
The country code is 1 for the United States and Canada, 61 for Australia, 64 for New Zealand, and 44 for the United Kingdom.
You can dial most international numbers direct from Switzerland, adding 00 before the country code. If you want a number that cannot be reached directly, or if you need an international phone number, dial 1811 or 1818 for a connection. It’s cheapest to use the booths in train stations and post offices: calls made from your hotel cost a great deal more.
A variety of international phone cards in denominations of 5 to 50 SF are available in kiosks located in every train station. They often offer the cheapest rates. You can use the code on the card until you run out of units.
If you travel internationally frequently, save one of your old mobile phones or buy a cheap, unlocked one on the Internet; you can then get various pay-as-you-go SIM cards in each destination.
When entering Switzerland, a visitor who is 17 years or older may bring in a total of 250 units/grams of tobacco products (250 cigarettes or 50 cigars or 250 grams of tobacco); 5 liters of alcohol up to 36 proof (beer, wine, and liqueurs); and 1 liter over 36 proof. Visitors over 17 may bring gifts valued at up to 300 SF duty-free. Medicine, such as insulin, is allowed for personal use only.
Breakfast spreads in Switzerland tend to include coffee, and a selection of bread, marmalade, lunch meat, and local cheese. If you prefer a lot of milk in your coffee, ask for a renversé in French (literally, upside-down) or a Milchkaffee in German. Increasingly popular in German-speaking Switzerland is the latte macchiato, steamed milk with espresso but very little foam, or the cappuccino, lots of steamed and foamy milk with espresso. The signature Bircher muesli—invented by Dr. Maximilian Oskar Bircher-Benner at his diet clinic at the end of the 19th century—is available in most supermarkets (such as Migros and Coop) and can make a hearty breakfast or lunch, especially when served with plain or fruit yogurt instead of milk.
Many restaurants close after lunch (as of 3 pm) and reopen for dinner (about 6 pm). In remote regions it may prove difficult to find kitchens open past 9 or 10 pm, so plan ahead. It’s not unusual for restaurants to close on Sunday; those in Ticino may close for the entire month of August, while resort restaurants may close for a month in the late spring and fall. Bars generally close at 1 or 2 am, although clubs continue serving into the wee hours.
For lunch or dinner, most regions offer cheese specialties. Remember when eating these tasty dishes that you tend to be full before your brain registers the fact, and the fatty cheeses can result in difficult digestion. Fondue (literally, “melted” in French) originated in the western part of Switzerland and comes in regional varieties, of which the fondue moitié-moitié is the most famous (combining equal portions of Gruyère and Vacherin). Bits of white bread are skewered on long, thin forks and twirled in the melted cheese. Anyone losing his or her piece of bread has to perform some small activity as “penance,” like singing a song, or paying for the next round. The grilled cheese remaining in the bottom of the caquelon is known as the religieuse (“the nun”) and is a favorite.
The other big cheese specialty is raclette from the canton of Valais. Traditionally, the cut surface of half a cheese wheel is exposed to a fire and the melted cheese is consistently scraped off (racler means “to scrape”) and eaten with boiled or baked potatoes, pickled white onions, and other condiments. Another cheesy dish is a Malakoff, a dome-shaped chunk of Gruyère that is pressed onto a piece of toast and then deep-fried. You may order only one Malakoff at a time (which may be a blessing in disguise to those who tend to bite off more than they can chew).
Aid your digestion with a crisp wine or a shot or two of kirsch, a popular, colorless cherry digestif—a nip at the midway point and again once you are finished can help soothe your overtaxed stomach. Some fondue experts recommend washing these heavy cheese dishes down with hot black tea and not drinking too much while eating.
There are other fondues that are not so “cheesy.” Fondue bourguignonne involves dipping bits of meat (veal, beef, chicken, or even horse) in hot oil. The lighter “Chinese” variation (fondue chinoise) features meat, fish, and vegetables cooked in bouillon. The boiled or fried tidbits are then dipped in an array of condiments. There is also a sweet fondue, with fruits dipped in a melted chocolate sauce.
On a lighter note, the French-speaking cantons pride themselves on filets de perche (fried perch fillets), possibly the most popular dish in the region. A few variations on the theme exist—some with herbs or cognac sauce—but the traditional version is served with lemon and french fries on the side. German-speaking Switzerland made its mark in culinary history with the ubiquitous Rösti, a grated potato pancake—often spruced up with herbs, bacon, or cheese—that is served with nearly any meat or sausage. Competing with Rösti for most popular side dish, Spätzle (egg-flour dumplings) continue to be fashioned according to age-old local traditions (though the toss-in-boiling-water-and-serve packets have a strong following).
Ticino, to the south, has preserved its penchant for Italian cuisine with a simple touch that reflects the former poverty of the region: risotto, gnocchi, polenta, and pasta dishes appear on most menus. Graubünden has its own set of specialties, also harking back to its regional history as a canton cut off from the world during the winter months. In Capuns, Maluns, and Pizzokels, you are likely to encounter a variety of stews and sausages. Classics such as truite meunière (trout rolled in flour, fried in butter, and served with lemon and parsley) are also standard fare.
Children’s menus are available in many restaurants around Switzerland; otherwise, you can usually request a child-size portion and the prices will be adjusted accordingly.
Credit cards are widely accepted. Euros are also often accepted, though change will come in Swiss francs. Note that service is included unless indicated on the menu. It is customary to leave a small tip in cash (up to 10% depending on how pleased you are with the service).
Reservations and Dress
Regardless of where you are, it’s a good idea to make a reservation if you can. We only mention them specifically when reservations are essential (there’s no other way you’ll ever get a table) or when they are not accepted. For famed restaurants, book as far ahead as you can (often 30 days), and reconfirm as soon as you arrive. (Large parties should always call ahead to check the reservations policy.) We mention dress only when men are required to wear a jacket or a jacket and tie.
Wines, Beer, and Spirits
Quality and diversity are the hallmarks of Swiss wine, celebrated in annual festivals where everyone samples the year’s harvest. They may not be widely exported, but Swiss wines are generally available in restaurants, and you can also get to know them in wine cellars (often with delicious local cheese). All of Switzerland’s 23 cantons produce wines, but six areas outdo the rest: Valais, Vaud, Geneva, the Three Lakes region in western Switzerland, the German-speaking region of eastern Switzerland, and Ticino. Chasselas is by far the most successful among white grapes, and Pinot Noir among the reds. Other top white-grape varieties include Müller-Thurgau and Sylvaner; reds feature Gamay and Merlot.
Switzerland counts more than 400 registered breweries that produce lager, Spezialbier (slightly stronger and a touch more bitter than lager), and Festbier (strong, dark holiday beer produced at Easter and Christmas and sometimes sold as Bockbier or Märzenbier). Specialty beers include the amber Altbier, the corn-infused Maisbier, and Weizenbier (wheat beer).
Switzerland is brimming with spirits—most notably kirsch (cherry spirit) from Zug and the Lake Luzern region,which has gained worldwide recognition. Plums are used to make Zwetschgenwasser. The tiny damassine plum, supposedly brought back from Damascus by a crusading knight, is distilled into the delightfully fragrant Damassine, available in Saignelégier. The many apple spirits include Träsch and Gravensteiner; pears and apricots from the Valais give their spirit to the redolent Williamine and Abricotine. A unique variety of grappa is up for grabs in the grottoes of Ticino; this potent firewater gets its name and taste from the skins of the grape. Prohibited for 90 years until 2005, absinthe is a specialty of the Val de Travers in western Switzerland, the spirit’s birthplace.
The electrical current in Switzerland is 220 volts, 50 cycles alternating current (AC); wall outlets take plugs that have two or three round prongs. The two-pronged Continental-type plugs can be used throughout the country.
Consider making a small investment in a universal adapter, which has several types of plugs in one lightweight, compact unit. Most laptops and mobile-phone chargers are dual voltage (i.e., they operate equally well on 110 and 220 volts) so require only an adapter. These days the same is true of small appliances such as hair dryers. Always check labels and manufacturer instructions to be sure. Don’t use 110-volt outlets marked “for shavers only” for high-wattage appliances such as hair dryers.
When hiking or skiing in the mountains, be aware of the dangers of altitude sickness: numbness, tingling, nausea, drowsiness, headaches, and vision problems. If you experience discomfort, return to a lower altitude as soon as possible. It’s a good idea to limit strenuous activity on the first day at extra-high-altitude resorts and drink plenty of water. Adults with heart problems may want to avoid all excursions above 6,500 feet. If you’re traveling with a child under two years old, you may be advised by locals not to carry him or her on excursions above 6,500 feet; check with your pediatrician before leaving home.
Travelers should also be mindful of other afflictions such as heat stroke, dehydration, sunstroke, frostbite, and snow blindness. To avoid snow blindness, wear sunglasses with side shields or goggles, especially if you have light-colored eyes. You should wear sunscreen all through the year; many different brands are available at ski shops near the slopes. In rural areas, take precautions against ticks, especially in spring and summer. Wear long sleeves, long pants, and boots, and apply insect repellent containing the powerful repellent DEET. Remove ticks with tweezers, grasping the insect by the head.
Basic over-the-counter medicines are available from pharmacies (pharmacie, Apotheke, farmacia), which are recognizable thanks to signs with green crosses.
Most businesses still close for lunch in Switzerland, generally from noon or 12:30 to 1:30 or 2, but this is changing, especially in larger cities and in the German-speaking part of the country. All remain closed on Sunday. Banks are open weekdays from 8:30 to 4:30 or 5, and always close during lunch. Post offices generally are open limited hours on Saturday.
Gas station kiosks are usually open daily from 6:30 am until 9 pm. Automatic pumps, which accept major credit cards and Swiss bank notes, are in service 24 hours a day.
Museums generally close on Monday. There is, however, an increasing trend toward staying open late one night a week, usually on Thursday or Friday evening.
Pharmacies generally are open weekdays from 9 to 1 and 2 to 6, and Saturday 9 to 1. In cities, they tend to stay open through the lunch hour. To find out which pharmacy is covering the late-night shift, check listings posted near or on the front window.
Shops are generally open every day except Sunday. They usually close early (4 or 5 pm) on Saturday, except in larger cities where they stay open until 6 on Saturday and often stay open until 8 or 9 at least one day a week. Smaller stores close for an hour or two for lunch. Stores in train stations in larger cities often open daily until 9 pm, even on Sunday; in the Geneva and Zürich airports, shops are open on Sunday.
National holidays include New Year’s Day, Good Friday (March or April), Easter Sunday and Monday (March or April), Ascension Day (May), Whitsunday and Whitmonday (May), Swiss National Holiday (August 1), and Christmas and Boxing Day (December 25–26). Labor Day (May 1) is also celebrated in some regions.
The Swiss franc’s value has risen against many currencies over the past several years and the franc has benefited from the European financial crisis, rising nearly 25% against the euro. Switzerland remains one of the most expensive countries on the continent for travelers, and you may find yourself shocked by the price of a light lunch or a generic hotel room. A cup of coffee or a small beer costs about 4.50 SF in a simple restaurant; ordinary wines, sold by the deciliter (“déci”), a small pour of roughly 3.5 ounces, start at about 6 SF. These prices almost double in resorts, city hotels, and fine restaurants. A plain, one-plate daily lunch special averages 15 SF–20 SF. A city bus ride costs between 2 SF and 3 SF, a short cab ride 18 SF.
If you are traveling on a tight budget, avoid staying in the most-well-known resorts and cities; Geneva, Zürich, Zermatt, Gstaad, and St. Moritz are especially expensive. If you are traveling by car, you have the luxury of seeking out small family hotels in villages, where costs are relatively low. You can find inexpensive meals at the cafeterias of Migros or Coop supermarkets and at Manor department stores.
Prices here are given for adults. Substantially reduced fees are almost always available for children, students, and senior citizens.
ATMs and Banks
Your own bank will probably charge a fee for using ATMs abroad; the foreign bank you use may also charge a fee. Nevertheless, you’ll usually get a better rate of exchange at an ATM than you will at a currency-exchange office or even when changing money in a bank. And extracting funds as you need them is a safer option than carrying around a large amount of cash.
Although it’s usually cheaper (and safer) to use a credit card abroad for large purchases (so you can cancel payments or be reimbursed if there’s a problem), note that some credit card companies and the banks that issue them add substantial percentages to all foreign transactions, whether they’re in a foreign currency or not. Check on these fees before leaving home, so there won’t be any surprises when you get the bill. (If you plan to use your credit card for cash advances, you’ll need to apply for a PIN at least two weeks before your trip.)
Before you charge something, ask the merchant whether or not he or she plans to do a dynamic currency conversion (DCC). In such a transaction the credit-card processor (shop, restaurant, or hotel, not Visa or MasterCard) converts the currency and charges you in dollars. In most cases you’ll pay the merchant a 3% fee for this service in addition to any credit-card company and issuing-bank foreign-transaction surcharges.
Dynamic currency conversion (DCC) programs are becoming increasingly widespread. Merchants who participate in them are supposed to ask whether you want to be charged in dollars or the local currency, but they don’t always do so. And even if they do offer you a choice, they may well avoid mentioning the additional surcharges. The good news is that you do have a choice. And if this practice really gets your goat, you can avoid it entirely thanks to American Express; with its cards, DCC simply isn’t an option.
Currency and Exchange
The unit of currency in Switzerland is the Swiss franc (SF), available in notes of 10, 20, 50, 100, 200, and 1,000 (the currency symbol for the franc is CHF). Francs are divided into centimes (in Suisse Romande) or Rappen (in German Switzerland). There are coins for 5, 10, 20, and 50 centimes. Larger coins are the 1-, 2-, and 5-franc pieces.
At this writing, 1 Swiss franc equals 1.11 U.S. dollars, 1.19 Canadian dollars, and 0.65 pounds sterling. Keep in mind that more than 300 train stations have currency exchange offices that are open daily, including lunch hours, when most banks are closed. These booths swap currency, buy and sell traveler’s checks in various currencies, and cash Eurocheques.
Even if a currency-exchange booth has a sign promising no commission, rest assured that there’s some kind of huge, hidden fee. (Oh, that’s right. The sign didn’t say no fee.) And as for rates, you’re almost always better off getting foreign currency at an ATM or exchanging money at a bank.
In most of Switzerland, dress is casual. City dress is more formal. Men would be wise to pack a jacket and tie if dining in any of the expensive restaurants reviewed in this book, even in mountain resorts; otherwise, a button-up shirt or elegant sweater are standard at night. Also keep in mind that sneakers or jeans won’t cut it for most upscale restaurants or clubs, even when paired with a good shirt. Women wear skirts more frequently in Switzerland than in the United States, though anything fashionable is fine. Except at the chicest hotels in international resorts, you won’t need formal evening dress.
Australian, British, Canadian, New Zealand, and U.S. citizens need only a valid passport to enter Switzerland for stays of up to 90 days.
Restroom standards are high even for public toilets. In Switzerland’s large city stations, look for “McClean” restrooms. They have nothing to do with the red-and-yellow hamburger chain; instead, they’re immaculate, sleekly designed spaces, with bathrooms, changing stations, showers, and a toiletries kiosk. Entrance is 1 SF or 2 SF (showers 12 SF) depending on the extent of your use. If you use the facilities at a bar, it’s appropriate to buy a drink.
Switzerland has developed an extensive network of bike trails that crisscross the country, following mountain passes or rivers or set up with a specific theme in mind. The nine national bike routes include the popular (and easy) Mitteland route number 5, the scenic Alpine Panorama route number 4, and the steep Graubünden route number 6. Switzerland also claims 54 regional bike routes. Detailed maps can be bought at kiosks and post offices. A user-friendly website provides information about difficulty, route length, and road conditions. If you want to enjoy the ride without worrying about luggage, several companies offer guided tours. These range from an easy day’s ride to a two-week Alpine excursion, with sightseeing side trips and stays at deluxe hotels along the way.
Crisscrossed with trails, the Swiss Alps are a hiker’s playground. Yellow trail indicators are standard throughout the country. White-red-white signs signal hiking paths, while blue-white-blue designations indicate steep paths requiring climbing equipment. Hiking is an especially popular pastime in the German-speaking areas, such as the Berner Oberland. For suggested hiking itineraries, including lists of huts for overnight stays, contact regional tourist offices or the Schweizer Wanderwege (Swiss Hiking Trail Federation); many newspaper stands, train stations, and bookstores also carry detailed topographical maps with marked trails.
Switzerland’s legendary ski slopes are bolstered by excellent transportation networks, plentiful vacation packages, and impressive visitor facilities.
Slope difficulty levels are indicated with color codes. A black slope is the most difficult (expert level); red indicates intermediate levels; blue is for those with basic skills. Many resorts also have short “bunny” or learner slopes (500 feet long) for novices. If these slopes are accessible from the village, they are usually free. A daily bulletin of weather conditions is available by calling 0900/162333 (3 SF connection then 1.50 SF per minute); reports are in the local language.
Serious skiers may want to join the Swiss Alpine Club. It’s not necessary to be fluent in a local language to enjoy the club’s excursions, which often involve a lot of climbing. A colorful booklet of mountain-club refuges called “Hütten der Schweizer Alpen” can be ordered for 48 SF from the club’s comprehensive website.
What you see is what you pay in Switzerland: restaurant checks and hotel bills include all taxes.
If your purchases in a single shop total 300 SF and the goods are exported within 30 days of the purchase date, you may reclaim the V.A.T. (8% in Switzerland). This tax is included in the sales price of most items.
When making a purchase, ask for a V.A.T. refund form and find out whether the merchant gives refunds—not all stores do. Have the form stamped like any customs form by customs officials when you leave the country or, if you’re visiting several European Union countries, when you leave the EU. After you’re through passport control, take the form to a refund-service counter for an on-the-spot refund (which is usually the quickest and easiest option), or mail it to the address on the form after you arrive home. You receive the total refund stated on the form, but the processing time can be long, especially if you request a credit card adjustment.
Global Blue is a worldwide service with 270,000 affiliated stores and more than 250 refund counters at major airports and border crossings. Its refund form, called a Tax Free Form, is the most common across the European continent. The service issues refunds in the form of cash, credit card adjustment, money transfer, or bank check.
Despite all protests to the contrary and menus marked service compris, the Swiss do tip at restaurants, but it’s not done as a percentage. Instead, they give quantities anywhere from the change from the nearest franc to 10 SF or more for a world-class meal that has been exquisitely served.
If, in a café, the waitress settles the bill at the table, fishing the change from her leather purse, give her the change on the spot—or calculate the total, including tip, and tell her the full sum before she counts it onto the tabletop. If you need to take more time to calculate, leave it on the table, though this isn’t common practice in outdoor cafés. If you’re paying for a meal with a credit card, try to tip with cash instead of filling in the tip slot on the slip: not all managers are good about doling out the waiters’ tips in cash. Bartenders are also tipped along these lines.
Tipping porters and doormen is easier: 2 SF per bag is adequate in good hotels, 1 SF per trip in humbler lodgings (unless you travel heavy). To tip other hotel personnel, you can leave an appropriate amount with the concierge or, for cleaning staff, with a note of thanks in your room. Porter service fees at Geneva and Zürich airports depend on the distance covered and number of bags, but average out at around 5 SF per bag. Tip taxi drivers the change or an extra couple of francs, depending on the length of the drive and whether they’ve helped with your bags.
Comprehensive trip insurance is recommended for all vacations purchased through Vacays4U. Comprehensive policies typically cover trip cancellation and interruption, letting you cancel or cut your trip short because of illness, or, in some cases, acts of terrorism. Ask about insurance policies that cover evacuation and medical care. Some also cover you for trip delays because of bad weather or mechanical problems as well as for lost or delayed luggage.
Always read the fine print of your policy to make sure you’re covered for the risks that most concern you. Compare several policies to be sure you’re getting the best price and range of coverage available.