Eurfirst Trip to Switzerland
Revised February 2022
Say the word "Switzerland" and most people think of mountains, skiing, and secure bank accounts. You admit your age if you think of Heidi and the green hillside pastures where cows and goats are grazing. Switzerland is all those things: modern cities that are the center of international trade and relations dotting a country filled with some of Europe's most dramatic scenery.
Our first trip took us along the Rhine and to the Jungfrau region; we returned a decade later to share the beauty of the Lauterbrunnen Valley with my brother and sister-in-law. For us, the area around Interlaken was like visiting the Yosemite Valley on steroids, with waterfalls crashing over the steepest cliffs in Europe, and the clapping of cowbells echoing through rich green pastures. Our last trip took us to Lake Geneva/Lac Leman, to the Chillon Castle and the hillsides where Charlie Chaplin spent his last days with Oona. The Alps are spectacular and a wonderful holiday could be centered near the great resorts but there is so much more than the mountains to see in this spectacular place.
On a gloomy summer morning, we headed into Switzerland for the first time. Though the forecast promised clearing, the drizzly drive toward Interlaken seemed to contradict the weather gurus. Not realizing how much there was to see in Switzerland, we only planned a few days, primarily in Stein am Rhine. Our stop in Interlaken, a charming small city with great tourist accommodations was brief, to grab some food and get our bearings.
The list of travelers who made their way to the town between Lake Brienz and Lake Thun is long, including J.R. Tolkien. It has hosted skiers and hikers for over a century and the services any mountain-loving traveler would need. From cruises on the both lakes to funiculars up steep cliffs plus trains and cable cars to take you up to the peaks and ziplines and "Trottibikes" to take you back down, you could fill an exhausting summer week and still some of the adventures in the area.
From Interlaken we continued on to Wilderswil to the cogwheel train at the center of town. From the valley floor, you climb into the Alps, through verdant hills where cows are enjoying the summer grass. A series of switchbacks provide you with panoramic views of the city of Interlaken and the two great lakes between which it sits. Eventually, the train leaves the valley wall and heads up a river canyon. A few final turns take you deep into the Alps to Shynige Platte. A small restaurant/hotel provides refreshments and lodging, giving you time to acclimate to the change in altitude. From there you can enjoy a stroll through an alpine garden, set at almost 6500 feet, which carefully identifies the 500 species that can survive the harsh conditions they call home. We wandered with interest through the display but hoped to that we would be able to see the famed face of Eiger, a glacial carved mountain that beckons ice climbers from around the world. Late in the afternoon, the sun burnt away the clouds for a brief moment and gave us some spectacular glimpses of the Alps. And then the clouds quickly reappeared and the great mountains disappeared as quickly as they had materialized.
When you get on board the train in Wilderswil, remember that you are going to climb many thousand feet with a corresponding drop in temperature. Generally, expect to find weather at the top in the 40s or 50s (Fahrenheit), with strong gusty winds.
The train to Shynige Platte is the least expensive round trip into the Swiss Alps on the many trains operated by Jungfraubahn. The moutains are dotted with hotels/lodges/hostels and laced with hiking/cross-country ski trails. The trains will also take many ski resorts which operate sight-seeing rides during the summer. For more information, visit the Jungfraubahn website.
An alternative route deep into Switzerland's alpine beauty is the Lauterbrunnen Valley, where we headed on our second trip. The most common way to visit the Lauterbrunnen Valley is by car though bus and train service is available. It is hard to describe how awe-inspiring the landscape is, even in the rain on a summer afternoon.
An amazing combination of nature and human engineering takes you to Trummelbach Falls where the glacial melt of the Jungfrau region cuts through a narrow slit in the mountain. An elevator through the hillside takes you to the base of the upper falls where the vibrations of the pounding water are both deafening and a bit unnerving. The sheer power, literally, of this place is unforgettable and considered one of Europe's most amazing sights.
While it is amazing to trek through the narrow Trummelbach Canyon as a river drops beside you, the Lauterbrunnen offers so much more to see. The "Top of Europe" reached by a train, gives you an expansive view of the steep valley. Let the weather set your schedule on the day you head to peaks, because views disappear as clouds gather to deliver summer storms. Those who grab an early train (or gondola to Schilthorn peak), will usually be rewarded for their efforts.
As we continued toward Lucerne and Zurich, we drove through the spectacular Aare Gorge. Heading east from Interlaken, the valley narrows and along these steep sides, spectacular waterfalls drop hundred of feet. (continued below)
We spent the night in a clean and comfortable campground not far from the medieval city of Stein-am-Rhein. Famed for the beautiful painted walls that adorn the city center, Stein-am-Rhein fills with tourists during the day but if you get there before 8 a.m, you will share the city with merchants and delivery trucks and be free to wander the empty streets. Save space for some delicious pastry on sale in one of the many bakeries in town.
From Stein-am-Rhein, we continued to the Rhein Falls, the largest waterfalls, based on volume of water, in Europe. While it is smaller than Niagara Falls, there are many similarities that make the falls a popular tourist attraction. In the middle of the river near the base of the waterfalls, there is an island. You can take a boat ride that brings you close to the pounding water, much like Niagara's "Maid of the Mist." Be prepared for a good soaking. The boats then drop tourists on the island where you can get up close and personal with the waterfilled cataract.
You can also experience the intensity of the falls from the shore. A well-maintained trail takes you down the side of the gorge to a viewing platform that lets you see the changes of volume flowing over the cascade firsthand. The platform is so close to the flowing water that it is somewhat intimidating. If you walk further down the path, you'll get the classic shot of a huge waterfall dropping over a sheer cliff.
We picture Switzerland as a land of mountains and snow; but with snow comes snowmelt and with the volumes of snow deposited in the Alps, come many lakes including many large lakes like the Bodensee (Lake Constance) and Lake Geneva. Zurich is one of the many Swiss ciites on the shores of lakes. It's location makes it a great place for watersports. The city boasts many festivals throughout the year including a popular Christmas celebration with candles floating down the river.
Zurich is also the starting or ending point of a trip down the Jura Hohenweg which takes tourists through many small farm towns past impressive castles from days gone by. The trip of more than 100 miles through the Jura mountains is usually done by foot but since many tourists don't have the 14 days it takes to complete the journey, many travel to one of the small medieval villages by car, bus or train and complete a day hike along the "High Road." Alternatively, you may want to do part of the trip on bike, taking advantage of the rail system which accommodates bike travelers.
The ride from Interlochen to Lucerne is one of the most beautiful expressway trips in the world, past spectacular waterfalls, through a mountain pass with breathtaking views at almost every turn and then into a pastoral valley. The road between Lucerne and Zurich is equally pastoral, with classic Swiss chalets and farms along the way. As you tick off the kilometers, you start to understand the relationship between the Swiss and their hole-y cheese.
Like Geneva and Zurich, Lucerne is on the shore of a lake, Lake Lucerne (the Wierwaldstatter See). Nestled on the valley floor, the charming medieval city is a popular tourist destination with good shopping and a busy nightlife and the beauty of its mountains as a backdrop. In February, it celebrates the arrival of Lent with the biggest Carnival in Switzerland, with beer and music flowing throughout the city.
If you choose to stay in hotels in Switzerland, it will cost you dearly. Remember, this is the home of major international organizations and the best banking system in the world. The hotel industry caters to a very affluent clientele. But Switzerland makes provisions for budget travelers as well. There are many youth hostels throughout the country, some are found along the mountain trails near the country's most famous peaks. There is also a very good system of campgrounds that will make it easier to stay in Switzerland.