What to do in Switzerland in the fall?
November 2, 2016 9:27 AM   Subscribe

The Mr and I are starting to plan a trip to Switzerland and parts of northern Italy next fall, and would like ideas about what to do and where to go in Switzerland that are not hiking or other athletically-inclined activities and are within reach of train stations.

Looking at Switzerland because it's a place neither of us knows anything about and because we both want to spend time on trains going through mountains. I believe the weather's likely to be foggy and rainy in October/November but given that the most surreal, magical experience of our trip to Japan a couple of years ago was a train ride through a snowstorm in the mountains with limited visibility, we're not too worried about it (plus that's the time we can get off).

Anyway, I have arthritis in my feet and can't do much hiking or stair-climbing without pain. Strolling all day is fine, as is strolling in places where my husband can hare off up a mountain for part of the day while I stay on somewhat flatter ground, although cable cars up mountains to look at scenic vistas (provided the weather cooperates) and wandering around lakesides sound good. We're not renting a car because one of the reasons we travel is specifically to go on trains.

Neither of us is into sports or nightlife. We love good food and trying local/regional specialties. Museums and other exhibitions, nature areas are good. Even just walking around interesting architecture and historic areas soaking up atmosphere is something we like doing. Anyplace particularly strong in the fiber arts is also good. Two things we did in Japan that turned out fabulous was sign up for an afternoon cooking course in Kyoto taught out of the teacher's house, and take a tour/class in Tokyo with a professional photographer who took us around to spots we'd never have found on our own and gave tips to improve our photography, so I think short classes and other types of tours might be nice.

Although the entire trip looks to be 3 weeks, we haven't yet decided how much of it we're spending in Switzerland, so it's pretty much down to what we end up deciding to do.
posted by telophase to Travel & Transportation around Switzerland (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Geneva is nice and very compact and walkable. There are some interesting museums and lots of interesting architecture, and boat tours of the lake up until November.
posted by plep at 9:47 AM on November 2, 2016

You'll probably be too late to see the cows come down from pasture, which is too bad, because that's really neat.

Your idea of being on trains in the mountains is a good one. There are numerous scenic railways that will take you to a top of a mountain. I took the Brienz Rothorn Bahn, which was spectacular, and the Harderbahn on Harder Kulm in Interlaken, which was also cool but maybe not for you. The BRB is a steam railway with unbelievable views of the lake, and there's a short (like, a few hundred meters - actually short) hike at the top to a viewing platform that's literally breathtaking. The Harderbahn takes you to a rather commercial viewing platform that gives you a nice view of the Interlaken valley, including the paragliders. We hiked down the mountain (~2 hours) back to Interlaken afterward, which was part of the appeal for us. If you're not interested in hiking, you can ride the tram back down, but I don't know if it's worth it to just go up and down. The BRB, though, is definitely worth it. If you're going from Interlaken to Brienz or vice versa, there's a boat that goes back and forth I'd recommend. (Although it might be too cold; we wore fleeces and winter hats in September when we rode it.) The Schynigge Platte railway and the Jungfrau/Top of Europe railway are nearby as well, although we didn't take either of those. There's also a scenic overlook tram near Luzern as well, and the intercity train between Luzern and Interlaken will give you some spectacular mountain scenery.

Luzern itself is a beautiful city. My wife said it reminded her of Florence a bit in its compactness. The old town area is really just a few blocks (and a magnificent bridge!), and you can walk around it easily. There's a pretty new concert hall right on the lake, and a museum housing a collection of Picassos and Klees from someone who was friends with the artists about a block away from the train station. That, plus the churches and the Lion, should be at least a day or two of your trip.

Bern was another neat city. Not as nice as Luzern, but some things you might enjoy. The fountains, in particular, were a highlight, as was the Barengraben (bear pit). There's a highly-regarded Paul Klee museum there, as well, plus the Federal Government buildings and the Einsteinhaus where Einstein lived in 1905 while writing some of his most famous papers.

You'll probably fly in and out of Zurich, but I wouldn't spend much time there. Very commercial and expensive. There are fun things you can find, but I wouldn't prioritize that.
posted by kevinbelt at 11:20 AM on November 2, 2016

The thing about Switzerland is that it is really small. On the train you can get from Basel (German/French border) to Geneva (French border other side of the country) in 3 hrs. You can also get to Lugano, in the Italian part in less than 4 hrs and even down to Milan in half a day. So you get the idea.

Pretty much everywhere in Switzerland is very accessible by public transport. Where the trains stop there are buses, boats and cable cars. Especially if you have a few days to explore you are spoilt for accessible choices.

You may find the Swiss train operator's information on train journeys that are famed for their picturesque qualities helpful. The page has 4 language options and one is English.

Purely from a pretty old worldly town perspective I cannot recommend Lucerne too highly. Bonus is that you're right by the lake and if leisurely strolling or getting on a boat is of interest you can't go wrong.
posted by koahiatamadl at 11:24 AM on November 2, 2016

My friends love Zermatt. The train to get there goes through a big valley between large mountains, and they keep going back there for vacations because the views, both from the train ride and once you arrive, are so spectacular. It is a car-free town, but easy to walk around, and they have little "eTaxis" that will drive you around if needed. They also have some lovely spas there.

The other thing that I would recommend if you like dogs and you can get over to Martigny is to go visit Fondation Barry. They are open year-round and you can meet and pet the St. Bernards!
posted by bedhead at 11:38 AM on November 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

(Slight aside, but if you ever need ideas for more scenic train journeys, I adored travelling around Norway by train)
posted by kadia_a at 11:50 AM on November 2, 2016

The Swiss Pass was probably invented for trips like yours - covers most of the train/ferry/cable car rides and discounts on others, as well as a lot of museums.

Luzern is nice. We were there around Memorial day and enjoyed walking through the old town and visiting the museums. We visited Mt Rigi - took the ferry to the train up and cable car down. The views were lovely - we also saw some paragliders taking off.

We also spent a day in Murten which is about 40 minutes from Bern by train, bordering the french speaking part of Switzerland. Its a charming little historical town - perfect for wandering around.
posted by busybee at 11:50 AM on November 2, 2016

I spent three months working in Switzerland ten years ago. I still have lots of notes on my blog that may be relevant, mostly weekend trips to other towns.

For mountains and trains I would recommend Zermatt, Interlaken (to go to the Matterhorn), and Sankt Moritz. Weather will be awkward and you're bumping into ski season, so this may not be the best time of year for that.

For towns to visit I'd recommend Lausanne, Zurich, Bern, Lugano, and Luzern. They all have particularly interesting local culture to visit and are hospitable. There are plenty of other fun small towns too. You really can't go wrong in Switzerland unless you're really worried about budget.

The Swiss trains are fantastic. Definitely recommend planning ahead for some sort of train pass. We got the Halbtaxe, but that's intended mostly for folks who live there, a tourist option may make more sense for you.

Also you mentioned being OK strolling but not hiking. A quintessential Swiss outing is to take the train to some nice mountain area, say near Appenzell, and then "hike" the distance of one or two train stops before taking the train back home. I say "hike" in quotes because it's a level path, often gravel, and there will be a nice place for lunch and/or a drink somewhere in the mountains on the way. There's lots of low-key wanderwegs that work well with trains and aren't too strenuous.
posted by Nelson at 2:00 PM on November 2, 2016

Swiss rail is expensive. Definitely look into the Swiss visitor railways pass that gets you a fairly good discount if you are primarily using trains. From memory it covered all "normal" trains, and a discount (50%?) on almost all "panorama" trains.

When you are moving from Italy to Switzerland, do it on the Bernina Railway. Time it so that you stop for lunch at Alp Grum. the whole place is just the restaurant at the railway station with like 3 houses on the other side. Surprisingly the food wasn't too expensive (by Swiss standards)

Definitely visit Zermatt. The hiking was awesome, but even without any hiking you can catch the cable car all the way up to the highest point and have some amazing views over the valleys.

For an ultimate "train" day, do the loop from Interlakken through Lauterbrunnen to Kleine Scheidegg and up to Jungfraujoch, back through Kleine Scheidegg then Grindelwald and back to Interlakken. Pray for clear skies at the top. You can check out the webcam on the morning of if you are flexible with schedule (and are willing to risk a training selling out).

You can easily get to Lichtenstein by train and connecting local bus. I wouldn't say it was amazing, but interesting enough to visit being a whole other country (and you can collect another passport stamp).

In Zurich there is the Lindt outlet/cafe which was pretty cool.
posted by trialex at 4:46 PM on November 2, 2016

Near Geneva is the Large Hadron Collider run by CERN. They do tours, but you need a reservation.
posted by mbarryf at 8:17 AM on November 3, 2016

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