Facts About Switzerland
In many ways, what you get out of your vacation depends on what you put into it. There are many other differences you’ll notice, both large and small, which is part of what makes foreign travel so much fun. As a guest in Switzerland, try to approach their country with an open mind and wide-eyed wonder. Enjoy the differences, and remember we are all ambassadors for our home countries. You’ll probably find that you enjoy many things that you can’t find at home. Don’t be afraid to open up to people or to ask questions. Most locals are very friendly and are quite happy to talk to a stranger from a different land. At the end of your trip, the people you meet and the interactions you’ve had will be among your favorite memories.
When to Go
Switzerland looks very different depending on when you travel there. Most likely, when you travel is going to be determined by what time you have available. While some seasons are better for certain activities than others, all seasons are beautiful in the Alps. No month has reliably sunny weather, nor is there any time that promises rain or snow. There’s always something to enjoy in Switzerland no matter when you go! Here’s a quick breakdown:
December – April
This is ski season in the Alps. If you like to ski, you’ll love it here. There are tons of great resorts, good snow, and many sunny days in the mountains. Christmas and February are the busiest times of the year, as all of Europe comes to ski then, but other times in the winter can be relatively quiet. For the non-skier, scenic cable cars and panoramic trains are open and are at their prettiest. It’s not necessarily a time for hiking, but many areas have plowed walking trails. Lower airfare during the winter can make this a very affordable time to travel to Switzerland.
Definitely off-season. This month is quiet and often fairly rainy. Many hotels in the mountains will be closed, although there are always places open, and the cable cars and trains are almost always open. You’ll probably be able to do some hiking, although this varies from year to year, since snow often still packs the highest trails. I love the Alps in May – a nice time with a lot of snow on the peaks, but with green grass, wildflowers poking up, and huge waterfalls. Plus, it’s quiet, so you can have many of these sights to yourself.
June – August
This is the Switzerland summer. Wildflowers peak in June (and the cows haven’t eaten them yet). It’s a popular time, although still not as busy as in the winter. Of course, it’s the perfect time for hiking and sightseeing! Early June is one of my favorite times in Switzerland, although it’s a bit too early for some mountain villages and definitely too early for most of the high passes. July and August are high summer, and everything will be open. Summer weather in Switzerland is always mixed, so expect a little bit of everything.
September – October
The fall is a beautiful time in Switzerland as well. It’s not as green and the flowers have mainly disappeared, nor is there as much snow in the high peaks (although there are always lots of glaciers), but fall is probably the quietest time of year and there’s a peacefulness about traveling now that’s great. The weather is usually chilly, but with very little haze which leads to superb views… great hiking weather. Whether you’re walking or sightseeing, the mountains never look closer or more crisp than they do on a clear autumn day. Many hotels in the mountains close, but there are always enough that remain open.
Like May, solidly off-season. It’s often rainy and colder. You can’t really hike and it’s too early to ski. It is very quiet though, and you can still see the sights by cable car and panoramic train and expect the beauty of fresh snow in the mountains.
The currency in Switzerland is the Swiss franc, written SFr or CHF. Euros are generally accepted in Switzerland (if you’re coming from elsewhere in Europe), but you’ll probably get change in Swiss francs and a bad exchange rate to boot. If you’re coming for more than a day, do a currency exchange at a bank in Switzerland for some Swiss francs.
How much spending money you need to bring depends on your habits. If you forget to bring something, don’t worry – everything you might need for the trip can be found in Europe. I recommend bringing a couple hundred dollars in cash, either exchanged before you leave or at the airport when you arrive. The currency exchange booths at the airport and at train stations in Switzerland are just fine. Almost every little village in Switzerland has a bank or at least an ATM.
Traveler’s checks are a thing of the past, but ATM cards are easy. Visa, MasterCard (called Eurocard), and American Express are all about equally accepted. You probably won’t be able to use your credit card at the grocery store, to make small purchases at a souvenir shop, or to pay for drinks at many hotels and small mountain inns. You will be able to buy train tickets (train stations accept all 3 cards), or pay for a meal at a restaurant or night at a hotel. Most importantly, you can use bank machines to get cash advances in the local currency when you need cash. ATM machines are fairly well distributed throughout Switzerland, even in small villages, and you usually pay only a 2-3% fee, which is as good or better than you’ll get at currency exchange counters. If your PIN code is a word, make sure you know the number sequence before you leave, as ATMs in Europe usually don’t have letters on them. Bring two different cards, in case one gets lost, demagnetized, or just plain doesn’t work in the machines you find.
Public phones in Switzerland require a card instead of change. For local and international calls, you can buy cards of different denominations at train stations, post offices, and many hotels and magazine shops. Just insert it into the phone, and make your call. Some of them require you call a toll-free number and enter a pincode. Phone calls internationally from Switzerland are very reasonable (10-15 cents/minute), even if you just put your credit card directly in the phone. You can also call from your hotel. Ask about rates before you call from your hotel, but they’re usually pretty good.
If you’re bringing your cell phone, call your provider first. Some US cell phones will not work in Europe, but most providers offer programs to borrow or rent a phone for your trip. Make sure to sign up for any international plan for calls and data roaming before you go. If you won’t be bringing a cell phone but want one for your trip, there are also many great deals on local pre-paid cell phones, with reasonable rates on outgoing calls and free incoming calls. You can find them at electronic stores or post offices.
Switzerland is a landlocked country, nestled in the middle of Europe between Germany, France, Italy and Austria. Easily overlooked on many people’s travels to Europe, Switzerland is small, but home to a surprising wealth of tradition, history and variety. Switzerland’s mountains and valleys (over 5000 by one count!) form a sort of cultural hub to western Europe, a place where German, French and Italian influences all come together. And somehow, they all get along!
Switzerland is home to 4 national languages – German, French, Italian, and Romansh – each residing in its own region. German is the largest of these groups, spoken in about 67% of the country, with French occupying about 24%, and Italian about 8%. Romansh is an ancient language with roots in the vernacular of Roman soldiers. The Romansh community is very small, with about 50,000 speakers concentrated in isolated pockets of the eastern part of Switzerland. English is spoken widely throughout the country, particularly in the German areas, and you shouldn’t have any problem traveling around with English only.
The Confederation Helvetica (Switzerland) is now over 700 years old, dating back to 1291. Representatives from 3 cantons (or states) met on a meadow near Lucerne to pledge their independence and a mutual defense against the Habsburg empire. The Habsburgs sent huge, mounted armies to test the impudence of these simple mountain folk, and time and again the Swiss prevailed. Soon more cantons willingly joined, and the confederation grew. The association between the cantons was loose, but it held. Soon, Switzerland (taken from the name of one of the original cantons, Schwyz) became downright aggressive, and other cantons were conquered and added to the confederation. Their soldiers became famous for their fierceness and bravery, so famous, that the Pope insisted on, and to this day still has, a Swiss Guard. After defeats to France in the 1500’s, the Swiss started to retreat from their aggression, and turned more to internal matters.
The first stirrings of tourism began in the late 1700’s and 1800’s. Scientists traveled to Switzerland to study glaciers and botany. A few wealthy tourists traveled here and raved about the beauty of the dramatic landscape. The Alps, particularly Grindelwald and Chamonix, became an integral part of “The Grand Tour” of Europe. By the 1860’s, the Alps were attracting large numbers of young men, attempting first ascents of all the peaks. Many more people came to walk and admire them from a distance. “Killing Dragons”, by Fergus Fleming offers a lively account of many of these Swiss pioneers.
The first tourists to travel to Switzerland found no hotels and had to find places to stay among the locals, in a farmer’s spare room or with the local priest. As more and more travelers arrived, a few locals started adding extra rooms to their homes and opening small guesthouses. Zermatt’s first inn was opened in 1839 with 3 beds. The Hotel Faulhorn above Grindelwald was opened in 1830 – making it one of Switzerland’s very first mountain hotels. Many of these simple, historic mountain inns, like the Hotel Faulhorn, are still running today. Often set in remote, spectacular areas, they generally offer private bedrooms with a shared bathroom down the hall, friendly owners, and a hearty dose of traditional Swiss culture. I think everybody should try to spend at least one night in a mountain inn on their travels to Switzerland.
The people of the Switzerland have always been fiercely independent, and place great importance on responsibility and self-sufficiency. It was this toughness and self-sufficiency that enabled their ancestors to move into the mountains, to open up new grazing land and to eke out an existence under extremely difficult conditions. In centuries past, the mountains were not necessarily seen as beautiful vacation spots, but as fearsome obstacles to travel and agriculture. Winters were long and harsh, and in order to survive, the locals relied on a system of moving their animals to progressively higher meadows to graze in the summer – the word “alp” actually means summer pasture or meadow in German – while lower fields were cut and stored for winter hay.
This style of life continues today. These regions are more prosperous now, and travel is a major industry, but many people in the mountain communities continue to keep cows and sheep, driving them to the alps in summer (an event accompanied by a colorful procession of bell-ringing and flowers), and making cheese by hand to keep for the winter. In Switzerland, the price of milk and cheese is now subsidized by the government to help make sure these traditions don’t die out, and holding onto these subsidies – and their traditional way of life – is one of the reasons Switzerland has so far declined to join the European Community.
Hiking tours: My own company, we provide all kinds of guided, self-guided and custom tours to the Alps…
Suggested reading: Here are some of my favorite books on the Alps:
An extensive online site for hotels and general travel info… www.lonelyplanet.com
Official Swiss tourism, and a good overall site for travel to Switzerland… www.myswitzerland.com
A friendly travel agency run by a Swiss couple in Arizona… www.avenuesoftheworld.com
Read more about alpinehikers on our website, and check out our tour overview packet.