Things to Do in Switzerland
Interlaken’s nearest mountain, sandwiched between Lake Thun and Lake Brienz, Harder Kulm is the easiest way to get a taste of the Bernese Alps without having to don your hikers. An eight-minute ride on the funicular railway – a modern version of the carriages that have traversed the 1,322-meter summit for the past 100 years - will land you at the top, affording staggering views over the neighboring mountains on the breathtaking ascent.
The dramatic vistas might be the mountain’s biggest selling point – best viewed from the garden terrace of the mountaintop castle-cum-restaurant or by gawping through the glass floor of the vertigo-inducing Two Lakes Bridge – but there’s plenty to keep the whole family entertained. Spot ibex in the Alpine Wildlife Park, let the kids loose in the playground, enjoy the easy 1.5-hour circular Theme Trail or stick around until dusk when regular folklore evenings take over the mountaintop.
Carved into the low cliff face on the outskirts of the Old Town, the Lion Monument is Lucerne’s most distinctive landmark, evocatively described by Mark Twain as ‘the most mournful and moving piece of stone in the world’. The giant sandstone sculpture depicts a 10-meter long dying lion resting in a shaded nook above a shimmering pond, and was created in 1821 under commission of Captain Carl Pfyffer von Altishofen.
Hewn out of the natural rock on-site, the monument was the handiwork of stonemason Lucas Ahorn, to the design of Danish classicist sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsenwhilst and commemorates the Swiss Guards that lost their lives in the 1792 French Revolution. Look closely and you’ll see that the lion’s paws rest on the symbolic Fleur-de-Lis (Lilies of France), while a broken spear juts from his back. The poignant inscription reads ‘Helvetiorum Fidei ac Virtuti’ – ‘To the loyalty and bravery of the Swiss’.
The historic heart of Zurich, the Altstadt, or Old Town, remains the most atmospheric part of the city, with its striking 19th century buildings and winding cobblestone lanes hosting an array of modern cafes, shops and galleries. For visitors to the city, the Old Town makes the ideal starting point for a sightseeing tour of Zurich, sprawling along both sides of the River Limmat and home to many of the city’s principal tourist attractions.
Zurich’s two landmark cathedrals – the medieval Fraumuenster (Church of Our Lady) and the Gothic style Grossmuenster – make navigating the Old Town easy, perched on opposite sides of the river and linked by the monumental Munster bridge. From here it’s an easy stroll to the charming Niederdorf district, crammed with quirky boutiques and hip coffee shops; the famous Bahnhofstrasse, one of Europe’s glitziest shopping streets; and many of Zurich’s top museums like the Swiss National Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts.
Bahnhofstrasse is THE shopping street in Zurich. Running from Bahnhofplatz outside the main train station all the way to the lake, it's full of luxury shops selling designer fashion, furs, porcelain, and, of course, chocolates, clocks and watches. Halfway along is Zurich's first, biggest and best department store Jelmoli. The basement food-hall is a must. Or if you want the best in Swiss chocolate, take a break at Cafe Sprungli, the epicenter of sweet Switzerland since 1836.
Bahnhofstrasse follows the line of the moat of medieval Zurich and is mainly pedestrianized, although watch out for the trams running along it. It runs parallel to the river Limmat and it's easy to punctuate your shopping with visits to churches and other important sites of Zurich dotted in the narrow streets between. Culture and consumerism: Zurich has them both.
More Things to Do in Switzerland
Lake Geneva (Lac Léman to the locals) is land-locked Switzerland’s largest body of water, though most of its southern shore is in French territory. The lake is ringed by Alps and almost any point along the shore offers jaw-dropping scenery, as well as some of the most sought-after real estate in the world. More active visitors can swim, dive, windsurf and row in the warmer months.
The western extremity of the lake is dominated by the city of Geneva. Travelling eastwards you enter the canton of Vaud, whose capital Lausanne is known for the Musée de l’Art Brut, a world-famous survey of early outsider art, as well as a museum celebrating the Olympic Games, whose governing body is situated here. Further east you pass through Vevey, the heart of the Swiss Riviera, before coming to picturesque Montreux, famous for its jazz festival and the imposing Château de Chillon, a medieval bastion right on the water.
From Roman mosaics in the foundations to the neoclassical columns of its facade, the Cathédrale de Saint-Pierre is not only Geneva’s main house of worship, it is also a fascinating time capsule of the different influences that have dominated the city over the centuries. Depending on how you approach it, you could be forgiven for thinking the cathedral is actually a group of smaller buildings huddled together, as successive building programs – most notably Romanesque and Gothic – never completely wiped out previous traces.
Saint-Pierre is associated above all with the Protestant reformer John Calvin, who preached here in the 16th century; his rather uncomfortable looking wooden chair is still on display. And if you’re feeling energetic, just nearby is the entrance to the cathedral’s north tower, which will reward your 157-step climb with one of the best views of Geneva.
The Red Cross is one of the numerous international bodies associated with Geneva. This museum pursues its progress from the mid-19th century, when local businessman Henry Dunant first conceived of a transnational group which would help the afflicted in times of need. The chronologically arranged exhibits follow this great humanitarian organization through the unparalleled destruction of the 20th century to the present day, where the Red Cross (or Red Crescent in Muslim countries) represents a banner of hope in trouble spots and scenes of natural disaster the world over. Exhibits tell the story through text, video, sound, interactive displays, as well as an archive of some seven million index cards documenting prisoners of war, a testament to the ideals of the Geneva Convention. The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum, also known as the Musée International de la Croix-Rouge et du Croissant-Rouge, is a monument to humanity’s best impulses in the face of its worst.
In a leafy park along the scenic banks of Lake Geneva is the Ariana Museum–a palatial, three-story mansion home to over 20,000 glass and ceramic objects. The museum features a private collection of ceramic vases, cups, statues, stained glass windows and paintings, plus a room of contemporary ceramics on the second floor and a display of temporary exhibitions in the basement. Though most descriptions are in French, the free museum is still worth a visit for its beautiful surroundings.
Held in an impressive, Baroque-meets-classical-style building, the museum gives way to high-vaulted ceilings, rich burgundy walls, massive columns and an accessible balcony overlooking the Parc de l'Ariana. There's also a tea room (similar to a cafe) and an outdoor patio offering lunch (though you'll need reservations).
If you’ve seen a panoramic view of Geneva you’ve most likely seen the huge lake Water Fountains, or Jet d’Eau, with its commanding position at the point where the River Rhône empties into Lake Geneva. It started life in the 19th century as a humble safety valve for a hydraulic installation, but is now the city’s foremost symbol.
With every second, some 130 gallons of water are propelled at 125 miles an hour to a maximum height of 150 yards (that's 500 liters at 200 km/h reaching 140 meters). The water shoots into the air before descending in a graceful fan shape back down to the lake, but its exact destination is determined by the strength and direction of the wind. In the warmer months, the fountain is lit during the evening until 11 o’clock.
A masterful marriage of horticulture and technology, the Geneva Flower Clock is one of Geneva’s most striking landmarks, a gigantic clock face fashioned from over 6,500 plants and flowers. Located in the picturesque Jardin Anglais (English Garden), the iconic timepiece was built in 1955 in honor of the city’s internationally renowned watchmaking industry and is now one of Geneva’s most photographed sights.
This is no mere monument – the Geneva Flower Clock is also a fully functioning clock, among the largest of its king in the world, with a diameter of 5 meters and a seconds hand reaching over 2.5 meters long. The impressive floral arrangement now features eight dials and is replanted 4 times a year, with local landscapers creating ever-more elaborate designs each time, utilizing seasonal blooms and on-trend color schemes.
The Palais des Nations Unis - or Palace of United Nations - is a monumental structure worthy of the European home of the United Nations, the international organization’s most important seat outside of New York. The neo-classical complex was originally built in the early 1930s as the headquarters of the League of Nations, the predecessor to the UN. These days it hosts major global conferences as well as numerous smaller meetings at which diplomats work at the coalface of day-to-day international relations.
Highlights of the guided tour include the enormous Assembly Hall, the Council Chamber and an exhibit of official gifts. A short film detailing the work of the UN puts it all in context. There is no charge to enter the surrounding Ariana Park. Here peacocks roam freely and the landscaped gardens offer splendid views of the lake and nearby Alps.
The oldest example of domestic architecture in Geneva, the Maison Tavel traces its origins to the beginning of the 14th century, with its layers revealing the wealth and prestige of its various owners and the growing importance of the city. As you approach, stone heads peer down at you and a corner tower lacks only Rapunzel to complete the fairy tale impression.
Once inside the distinctive dark stone walls you can explore the house from top to bottom. The cellar contains excellent examples of woodcarving and ironwork through the centuries, while the attic boasts a superb model of Geneva in the mid-19th century, when its fortifications were still intact. In between you’ll find displays of domestic interiors, including the surprisingly light and airy private quarters, fully outfitted kitchens, and displays including suits of armour and coins, highlighting the importance of finance to the city.
The Geneva Ethnography Museum (Musée d'ethnographie de Genève) holds the largest ethnographic collection in Switzerland–its 80,000 objects and 300,000 documents are beautifully arranged in exhibits highlighting all parts of the world. With rotating exhibitions, an extensive anthropology library and an upstairs gallery featuring music from around the globe, there is enough material to interest an expert and entertain those taking a look around. Though most of the descriptions are in French, the new museum is worth a visit, having reopened in 2014 in an iconic, Swiss-designed pavilion reminiscent of an Asian-style pagoda.
Though the building looks small, its peaked roof gives way to huge exhibition spaces below. The permanent exhibition covers two rooms and is free to enter, while the temporary exhibition changes yearly and is paid for. A tour of both is a good way to spend an hour in the city, with less people around in the morning.
Things to do near Switzerland
- Things to do in Zurich
- Things to do in Geneva
- Things to do in Lucerne
- Things to do in Interlaken
- Things to do in Basel
- Things to do in Montreux
- Things to do in Davos
- Things to do in St Moritz
- Things to do in Zermatt
- Things to do in Monaco
- Things to do in Luxembourg
- Things to do in Swiss Alps
- Things to do in Central Switzerland
- Things to do in Lake Geneva
- Things to do in Rhône-Alpes