What to do on a spontaneous Switzerland trip starting ASAP?
July 29, 2018 7:05 PM   Subscribe

I'm flying from the US to Zurich tomorrow, solo, on a last-minute ~10 day trip. I'm looking to hike, take in art and architecture, marvel at functional railways, and move around the country a bit. Where should I go? What should I do?

I'm starting a new job in a few weeks, and my last project unexpectedly wrapped sooner than expected -- so I find myself in the very lucky position of being able to travel last minute. Due to the spontaneity, I'm traveling solo.

I'm a happily-taken dude in his early 30s in reasonably good shape, and a fairly experienced traveler.

My only absolutely firm constraints at this point are that I'm entering via Zurich, exiting via Geneva. I already have a Swiss Travel Pass good for the duration of my trip, and expect to change locations a few times.

I'll be in the country, and probably in Zurich, for Swiss National Day. Anything I should seek out (or avoid)?

Trip goals, in no particular order:
+ Travel by train, taking scenic routes where I can. I'm a transit nerd.
+ Take in art and architecture. (The Kunsthaus was extremely my speed on an earlier trip.)
+ Day hike, and if possible, overnight in a SAC hut. (I know I'm super late to the game for hut reservations.) I'm an experienced hiker/backpacker, though not looking for the most strenuous days possible.
+ Drink some good beers from the likes of BFM, 523, etc.
+ Talk with other travelers and locals -- trying not to be a hermit on the road

Thanks in advance, hivemind!
posted by theoddball to Travel & Transportation around Switzerland (15 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Lucerne is lovely and worth visiting for anyone, but you may be interested in knowing it also has the Swiss Transport Museum.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 7:28 PM on July 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

It’s been 20 years since I’ve been to Switzerland... But...Also, Lucerne = Luzern- variant spellings

Try Rivella. It takes like a fruit punch soda but my understanding is that it’s the liquid left over from the cheese making process. It’s pretty good and definitely unique!

Go to a touristy spot and have fondue. Real Swiss people only eat fondue in the winter but who cares! Or Raclette, which is a chunk of melted cheese which is then deposited on a piece of bread/salami/etc.

Yes to the transportation museum in Luzern. Also the “glacier garden.”

You can often ride the ski lifts up a mountain and hike down saving you a lot of exertion.

Lake Luzern has a lovely paddle boat that stops at different cities all around the lake

Window shop in Migros which is the Swiss equivalent of a big box store. The more Ms on the sign the larger the store. It will give you a look at typical Swiss life. Go to a grocery store and marvel at the 20 flavors of yogurt and 3 pitiful cereal choices. Grocery stores in Switzerland are smaller with less choices than American stores.

Freak summer thunderstorms are a thing FYI. So are bathroom stalls that you have to pay to enter even while hiking. Swiss hiking signs list estimated hiking minutes instead of distance FYI
posted by ticketmaster10 at 8:27 PM on July 29, 2018 [2 favorites]

Tour a chocolate factory- there is Sprüngli one near Zurich, or go to the Callier one near Gruyere. And go to Gruyere and see how cheese is made! And eat all the cheese and chocolate!
posted by netsirk at 8:51 PM on July 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

hi, my wife =^.^= and i spent a week in zurich because i got sent out on a business trip and we thought it would be fun to get to know a new city.

disclaimer: i've lived in several cities -- i most recently ragequit san francisco and moved back to nyc because sf felt like a tiny town to me. =^.^= is from massachussets and prefers quieter cities. we both live together in manhattan. i acknowledge that this might have colored some of my tastes. that said, i was born in germany, and lived there for 5 years before coming to the states, so i'm not totally new to europe. i also have family who live in germany. but, whatever, enough disclaiming.

i'll cut straight to it: zurich completely blows. we made a concerted, consistent effort to get out and explore the city every day of the week, and we were severely disappointed. after 3 days we had dined at all of the interesting-looking restaurants in the city center (they were average-quality). there were several asian-fusion places which all ended up being weird because they were more european-interpretation-of-asian-fusion than asian fusion.

places we liked:

- Freitag's flagship store is pretty cool -- the reason being that it's a bunch of old shipping crates; you can climb to the top and look at the trains coming and going. see if you can find the "relationship 6-s-es" graffiti at the top. we definitely had nothing to do with it.

- The Thomas Lachenmeier Art Supply Store. (=^.^= is an artist so we came here a couple of times to get supplies)

- the old botanical garden was cute

- the area around the succulent conservatory was really nice, and there was a cute island where we found some ducklings trying to hide from the sun under their parental unit. we didnt spend much time at the succulent conservatory (they closed right around when we arrived there). i did really appreciate the pamphlets they had -- they were some of the best general-audience-yet-scientific pamphlets ive seen.

- the bahn is great. i love trains.

places we did not like:

- langstrasse: AVOID AT ALL COSTS. we tried three times (morning, afternoon, nighttime) to walk this street, and every time it felt like we were going to be verbally harassed (at best) or physically attacked (at worst). the second time we went there we found outselves right in the middle of a yelling match. i'm trans, my wife is afab, we got the fuck out of there SWIFTLY and made all attempts to never walk that street again. that said, walking 50 meters away from langstrasse in any possible direction makes everything better -- for some odd reason, it's literally that street that totally sucks.

- this one restaurant that was serving ostrich??? =^.^= left that place in a hurry, i had to stay because it was a work outing. but i ordered from the vegetarian menu.

- meh, pretty much the rest of the city

i know this sounds like a pretentious new yorker complaining about a quiet european city, buuut more than 5 people who have lived in europe for more than 5 years (some their entire lives) have confirmed that our experience was not only typical, but in fact a little more exciting than they'd expected. but i will happily acknowledge that this is a very salty review of what is otherwise (probably) a totally fine, albeit unremarkable, destination.
posted by =d.b= at 10:19 PM on July 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

I reckon Basel has the best art galleries in Switzerland, though it's a bit out of your way. The Klee museum near Bern is quite nice, though it depends on how much you like Klee. I particularly enjoyed the Art Brut gallery in Lausanne. I wouldn't say any of the art galleries in Geneva are unmissable- but I liked the ethnography museum.

The train between Lausanne and Geneva will give you plenty of views of vineyards on one side and the lake on the other. Obviously in Geneva you should get up close to the Jet d'eau. The United Nations is also quite cool. Mont Saleve, a big raised plateau on the other end of Geneva is hikable in a few hours and might be a nice way to finish your trip (you can hike up and then take the cable car back down).

Finally, if I were travelling across Switzerland, the thing I'd most recommend are the Trümmelbach Falls near Lauterbrunnen- well worth a detour. The lakes at Interlaken are also spectacular as lakes go. You can get some good alpine scenery around that area as well.
posted by leibniz at 10:25 PM on July 29, 2018

Near Zurich is a day hike that includes train to get there and a trolly up the mountain, and if I recall (it has been 20 years) some modern sculpture on the trail along with the views. It's the Uetliberg ridge hike, and we did it in a day trip from Zurich. Easy hiking but long enough to be tiring. There was at least one restaurant along the ridge, though we didn't try those.
We were there in winter, and I suspect it might be packed in summer months based on my googline. It has a cool lookout tower at the start of the hike.

My other favourites in Zurich were the Chagall church windows. Just amazing.

And the modern art museum http://www.kunsthaus.ch
posted by chapps at 11:31 PM on July 29, 2018

There's not much in Geneva, but worth spending a day there before you go. Nice waterfront with the crazy high fountain, and I spent a while sampling beers at a craft beer place Au Coin Mousse
posted by JonB at 12:07 AM on July 30, 2018

I've spent a lot of time housesitting near Lucerne, Switzerland and can give you a few pointers. (Alas, I'm leaving for a trip tomorrow, or I'd say we should meet up!)

National Day: There's also a cool fireworks display at the Rheinfalls the evenings of the 31st--take the train to "Neuhausen Rheinfall" or "Schloss Laufen am Rheinfall". On the 1st, there should be a morning parade down Bahnhofstrasse toward the lake followed by a festival in the afternoon. Honestly, most Swiss will hit the hiking trails that day rather than attend a celebration.

Zurich: Despite the unhappy comments above, I like the city well enough. It has pleasant areas to stroll and look at old buildings, a nice lakeside area, and a good national history museum. But it's an expensive place, and to me, it's better to spend the time in the mountains.

Other cities: Basel for the art museum. Bern for traditional architecture and floating around the city in the river with all the locals. Lucerne is very, very touristy, but very pretty, with colorful painted buildings and a great transportation museum that sounds like your thing. Bellanzona for the 3 castles. Locarno for a taste of Italy if you like.

Hikes: So many beautiful places. Every cable car station will have a map of all the hikes around the region. I like riding up and starting high level hikes from the top stations. All the Americans seem to head to the Grindelwald/Murren/Lauterbrunnen area of the Bernese Oberland, which is indeed beautiful. But other areas are also beautiful and crowded only with the Swiss!

A few favorite hiking areas (Google them for pics and info):
Saas Fee
Engadine region
Kandersteg (for hikes, but also do the walk through the Aare gorge--it's crowded but really interesting)
Val d'Anniviers

And specific hikes I have loved:
the Stoos ridge hike near Schwyz (amazing views)
Bannalpsee near Wolfenscheissen
Aletsch Glacier Panorama Trail
Faulhornweg near Grindelwald
Gemmipass from Leukerbad to Kandersteg
Val Bregaglia trail from Maloja to Soglio

Enjoy the trains! Buses are good too. They are covered by your pass and often connect with the trains to get to more remote areas (the Swiss are good at timing!). And use your pass to go up at least one big peak.

Also -- we are getting the same nasty heat wave as the rest of northern Europe, so consider joining the locals and jumping in a lake to cool off ("Badi" means "beach/swimming area"). And the higher you go in the mountains the cooler it is...
posted by mkuhnell at 1:04 AM on July 30, 2018 [3 favorites]

In the French speaking part of Switzerland the tradition for August 1 is a big communal brunch at a farm. I am less familiar with the German part but it may be the case there as well. This would be perfect if you want a bit of local color and to mingle and talk to people. I don’t have specific recommendations but it’s easily googled. Around Geneva reservations are highly recommended or required; the family needs to know how many they are cooking for, and the best are very popular.

Lausanne makes a great visit for a day, there are local breweries and a few good art museums. The lakefront is stunning, and the old town on market day is really fun.

Geneva is not that interesting, but in general people enjoy the guided UN visit (reservations required) and the guided CERN visit (also reserve in advance). The Saleve is a fun half day hike, there’s a decent Tibetan restaurant at the top. Also need to reserve.

If you didn’t notice, reservations are kind of required all over Switzerland. People like to plan ahead.
posted by ohio at 5:33 AM on July 30, 2018

Nobody likes Zurich, unless you've never been anywhere better. It's the embodiment of a lot of Swiss-German stereotypes: quiet, orderly, functional, etc. Those are actually really nice qualities, but they make for a pretty nice vacation. It's the European equivalent of somewhere like St. Louis. There's a lot of cool stuff in St. Louis, and if you happen to find yourself there, you can probably have a good time, but nobody ever intentionally vacations there unless they've got family in the area or something.

The coolest part of Zurich, IMO, is the Spitzplatz, which is a cute little park on the river, a short walk from the HB (the main train station). If you'd like to try raclette (and you should), there's a famous place also not far from the HB called the Hotel Adler. It's kind of touristy, but they play up the experience well.

After that, do what everyone else has said and go to Luzern. (A note about the spelling: Luzern is the German spelling, Lucerne is the French; English seems to have adopted Lucerne, but the town is in the German-speaking part of the country, so it makes more sense to me to call it Luzern.) It's a really cute, well-preserved little town. My wife said it most reminded her of Florence. As such, there are a lot of tourists, but it's worth it.

From there, take the train to Interlaken in the Bernese Oberland. It's a short (maybe an hour?) but really pretty train ride, and Interlaken is a wonderful base for mountain recreation. It's probably the best hiking in Switzerland, arguably in all of Europe. You can also take the boat over to Brienz, which is itself a wonderful little town famous for its woodworkers, and then take the Brienz Rothorn Bahn, which is a steam train that goes to top of a mountain. They claim you can see 600 other summits from the top. There's all sorts of other stuff to do in the Oberland, too, but really, you're probably there for hiking. Interlaken does have some nice architecture from when it was a stop on the Victorian-era Grand Tour, too.

If you have time, Bern is nice. The art and architecture is memorable, and I'm glad I went. It's a bit out of your way, though, and I'm not sure it's cool enough to go out out of your way for.

Seconding the Rivella recommendation. Hearing it described in word ("fruity-tasting cheese by-product") doesn't make it sound appetizing, but it is.
posted by kevinbelt at 6:50 AM on July 30, 2018

Definitely go to Zermatt. It's beautiful, great hiking, and the train trip up is fun for a train nerd.

Interlaken is also beautiful and the train up the Jungfrau mountain is remarkable. That may not be included in your pass, worth checking if you need to buy an extra ticket.
posted by Nelson at 7:49 AM on July 30, 2018

Places I found in Zurich that I liked a lot:
The international beer bar:
Luisenstrasse 7, 8005 Zürich, Switzerland

Frau Gerolds Garten:
Geroldstrasse 23/23a, 8005 Zürich, Switzerland

And I LOVED this little place:
Zum Gaul
Geroldstrasse 35, 8005 Zürich, Switzerland
posted by nikaspark at 8:35 AM on July 30, 2018

Also: To keep the trains on time the SBB will use "Ersatzzug" trains in the event of slowdowns or delays. These trains are literally "Spare Parts" trains.

If you see "Ersatzzug" on your platform display that's what it means.
posted by nikaspark at 8:41 AM on July 30, 2018

About a year ago, I ended up renting a car in Lucerne after visiting there for a few days, and driving the Nufenen-Susten-Grimsel-Furka-Gotthard passes through the Alps in a loop from Interlaken. That took a day, and the views are absolutely phenomenal, after which I took the trains from Interlaken up to Grindelwald and spent 4 days on hikes in the Bernese Oberland. Some of these hikes were difficult, but they are unparalleled in sheer beauty. Start early to avoid tourists (and there are a lot of them.)

I'd say skip Geneva and Zurich (unless you're doing a chocolate tour or looking for fine dining) and focus on Lucern, Bern and the Bernese Oberland.
posted by Everydayville at 11:41 AM on July 30, 2018

My first answer is always the Lauterbrunnen Valley. Stay overnight in Mürren. Take a walk on the Via Ferrata- but only if you have a head for (extreme) heights.

Or move over to Kandersteg. Walk into the secret and hidden Gasterntal Valley and stay overnight at one of the few hotels. This feels really quite remote. Head towards the Gemmi Pass and stay overnight at a real mountain hotel, the Hotel Schwarenbach. Or if you are up for a demanding two day hike, head up to the Lötschenpass Hut, and cross into the Valais canton.

Or ride the rails all day! Take the Glacier Express. Or the Golden Pass with the upper VIP seats (a small supplement with your Swiss Pass). Or the Palm Express by Postbus- also included with your Swiss Pass.

I have lots of suggestions. Ask away...
posted by Tunierikson at 2:54 AM on July 31, 2018

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