Switzerland is a small country—about half the area of South Carolina or a little more than three times the area of Los Angeles County—but it’s one with stunning scenery pretty much wherever you go.
My first and only visit there was in October 2007. It was a whirlwind driving trip with one night in Appenzell and two nights in Böningen, just outside of Interlaken. I really wanted to see the Alps near Interlaken, but a storm rained me out both days that I could have gone. I always knew that I had to return, and more than a few “somedays” have gone by since.
Last December, Delta Airlines had a 24-hour sale for its Delta One service to Europe. That was incentive to turn a “someday” into a real day, so I booked my trip to leave San Diego on 1 April and return on 11 April. It wasn’t the best time of year from a weather perspective, but I had to travel between February and early May to take advantage of the sale.
With ticket in hand in December, I really procrastinated on planning the details of the trip. Part of me wanted to repeat the concept of my 2007 trip: Rent a car and make it up as I go for ten days. But another part of me wanted this to be a more relaxing vacation, spending time exploring a few different locations at a slower pace and without the expense and hassle of a car.
It took until mid-March for me to finally opt for Plan B and to start making hotel reservations.
Planning the first half of the trip was easy: three nights in Luzern and two nights in Interlaken. I spent about three hours in Luzern in 2007 and it really appealed to me and, of course, I had to try to see the Alps again in the Jungfrau region.
Planning the second half of the trip was more challenging. I wanted to see something new, so I opted for one night in Bern, the capital, and two nights in the small village of Fiesch in the Rhone River valley. It would make a great jumping-off point to see the Aletsch Glacier. (I didn’t make those two reservations until 31 March, the day before I left!)
Instead of renting a car, I opted instead for using the Swiss transportation system and bought a Swiss Pass for the trains and other public transit.
Finally, I checked the weather forecast before leaving and packed a lighter spring jacket for those 60° F days, and a medium weight coat that would work down into the 30s or 40s. I figured I could put the jacket under the coat to layer for warmth if it got any colder than that.
My flight was non-stop from San Diego to New York’s JFK where I had a 4+ hour layover before flying non-stop straight into Zürich.
Luzern (& Lugano, Sort Of)
When I put the trip together, I really didn’t want to spend much, if any, time in the big city of Zürich, and Luzern was just an hour train ride away from the Zürich airport. It would be a good base for a day trip to someplace like Lugano on the Swiss-Italian border.
Luzern is situated on the northwest part of a beautiful lake and it’s bisected by the Reuss River flowing out of the lake. It’s got a very walkable old town and easy access to plenty of transportation—train, bus, and boat.
It took 22.5 hours from locking my door at home to walking into my hotel, the Hotel des Alpes at noon. Unfortunately, my room wouldn’t be ready until 3:00 p.m., so I left my suitcase at the front desk and wandered around getting reacquainted with the city once again. Besides, getting some exercise in daylight is a great way to combat jet lag.
I found a little gift shop that sold postcards and stamps, so I bought 10 of each for a mere $32.00—yes, you read that right; it’s not a conversion error!—and sat down on a cool but sunny afternoon in a lakefront park and scribbled out a bunch of postcards telling everyone what I great time I was having (in my first two hours there).
At precisely 3:00 p.m., I was standing at the Hotel des Alpes reception desk checking in. By 3:15 p.m., I was collapsed in my bed taking a post-flight siesta. Three hours later, I was refreshed and took another stroll around the city before the sunset at 8:00 p.m. A light rain began to fall just as I entered the hotel, just as the forecast had predicted.
The forecast also called for rain into the next day, but when I woke, there was none. In fact, the sun was popping up and it was going to be a great day from all appearances.
By 8 a.m., I was out the door and walking to the Löwendenkmal, a quite moving memorial to the Swiss Guard soldiers killed in the French Revolution. It was interesting to see the number of tour groups that were at the monument that early. There were groups with tourists from America and Asia, both equally armed with selfie sticks.
With the weather so good, I decided to take my day trip to Lugano. I should have checked the weather forecast there before hopping on the train for two hours. When I got off the train, it was about 15 degrees cooler (high 40s or low 50s) and raining steadily. I wandered around for a little before getting too chilled in my spring jacket and hopping on the next train back to Luzern.
The scenery between Luzerne and Lugano was fantastic. The landscape was painted in the vibrant lime green of fresh spring growth, with splashes of white, pink and yellow provided by flowering trees and forsythia in bloom. That is, until the view from the window went dark.
There were a number of tunnels of varying length along the route, and then we hit the granddaddy of all tunnels: The Gotthard Base Tunnel. Leave it to the industrious Swiss. They simply said, “Alps, schmalps,” and bore a 57 km / 35.5 mile long tunnel under the massive mountains. It’s the world’s longest tunnel, and it took us about 24 minutes to go through it at approximately 140 km/h or 88 mph. Fun.
When I returned to Luzern, I headed straight for the hotel and took a little nap for a couple of hours. My body clock was still somewhere over the Atlantic, slowly catching up with my physical body.
When I woke up on Thursday, my last full day in Luzern, I woke up to snow. It was a wet, heavy snow with snowflakes as large as quarters at times. Undaunted, I grabbed my umbrella and headed out to explore the city in the snow. At one point, so much snow had accumulated on my umbrella that it felt like it was two to three pounds heavier, so I had to invert it and dump a bunch of snow onto the ground. Trying to take photos with my camera in one hand and the umbrella in the other was a real challenge.
I headed inside to the Gletschergarten Museum, a quirky museum dedicated to the glaciers that formed the region but it also had a maze in a hall of mirrors and a museum that featured items in a traditional Swiss home. Later, I went to the art museum and, while it was a nice facility, their collection really didn’t float my boat. (I got into both for free using my Swiss Pass.)
Friday morning, I packed everything up and headed to the train station for the two hour trip to Interlaken.
Interlaken & Lauterbrunnen
I arrived at the Interlaken West train station in mid-afternoon, and I grabbed a pre-made sandwich for lunch at one of the convenience stores before walking to my hotel, the Weisses Kreuz.
Interlaken is definitely a tourist town, with kitsch shops that cater to the tourists, tour buses parked everywhere, and restaurants featuring food from about half the countries in the United Nations. It’s the jumping-off point for day trips to places like Grindelwald and going to the top of the Jungfrau or Schilthorn. If you want to see any of those places, you need to endure Interlaken.
Because it was so nice and because the weather had been so fickle, I unpacked my winter coat and headed straight back out to head to Lauterbrunnen. It was a 20 minute walk to the Interlaken East train station and another 30 minutes or so to get to Lauterbrunnen.
Lauterbrunnen is in a valley that reminds me of Yosemite Valley in many ways, with its sheer cliff walls and waterfalls. It’s gorgeous. I wandered for an hour or so in the late afternoon, and had a pleasant chat with a young woman from Texas traveling solo and another woman from Germany. The three of us compared travel notes for a few minutes before heading our separate ways.
On the way back to the hotel, I noticed that my zipper on my coat had broken. It wouldn’t go up or down no matter how hard I pulled on it, and the zipper had separated both above and below the the pull. The only way I could get my coat off was to pull it off over my head. This was going to be a problem.
The next morning, I was planning on going to the top of the Schilthorn (elevation 9,744 feet / 2970 m) in hopes of catching the early morning sun on the Alps, but in the early morning, the temperatures at that altitude were in the high 20s. Going up with a coat that couldn’t be closed didn’t seem to be a wise idea.
Saturday morning, I ran around from store to store in search of a new coat. Most stores already had their spring wear out, so finding winter coats was a challenge. The two that I did find were in the $250-$400 range. Nope. Not going to happen. I put my spring jacket on and then pulled my coat over my head and headed up the mountain.
Heading up the mountain was no easy task.
To get to the summit of the Schilthorn, I had to walk 20 minutes to the Interlaken Ost train station; take the train to Lauterbrunnen; take the bus to Stechelberg; take the cable car to Gimmelwald; take the cable car to Mürren; take the cable car to Birg; and finally take the cable car to the Schilthorn.
I don’t recommend that you do this on a Saturday morning when there was a recent fresh snow. Half the people trying to go up were locals who wanted to go skiing; the other half were tourists wanting to see the sights. Even with each cable car carrying 100 passengers jammed into a space about 12 feet by 24 feet, the trip on the cable cars alone still took over two and a half hours, and you’re standing the entire time, either in the car or waiting for the next car. It was one of the least pleasant parts of this trip.
Luckily, the weather held and once we got to the summit, the views of the Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau mountains, along with the rest of the Alps, were stunning. Unfortunately, though, when we arrived at the summit, a quarter of the folks lit up their cigarettes, half whipped out their selfie sticks, and the remainder of us just tried to enjoy the view without suckling in too much second hand smoke or getting skewered. It really lessened the experience.
On the way down, I stopped for lunch at the little restaurant at the cable car station at Birg. I was seated at a communal picnic table on a patio overlooking the mountains with a man from Germany. He and I chatted for a while as he ate his chili con carne and I ate my bratwurst. (Think about it.) He was there for a ski weekend with his buddies and he couldn’t help but ask what the hell was going on in the U.S. under the current administration.
After a brief siesta back at the hotel, I headed out in search of Rösti for dinner. Think of hashbrowns on steroids when you think of Rösti. It’s a Swiss comfort food dish of grated potatoes fried like hashbrowns, but you can other items into it as well. I found a place that served it with ham, cheese, onions, and a fried egg on top. I’m not sure how authentic it was, but it was freakin’ delicious.
The next stop on my big tour was the capital city of Bern, but it would be on a Sunday when very few things in Switzerland are open (and the same is true in much of Europe in general).
One of the sales associates at a local camera shop here in San Diego is from Bern, and she said that it was a “must-see” place on a trip to Switzerland. It was nice, but it was different that I expected.
The old city section has these wide streets that I wasn’t expecting in a city that’s been around for centuries. It seemed to lack the intimacy that Luzern had, but that wasn’t a bad thing. Just different.
I stayed right around the corner from the Swiss parliament building at the Hotel Bären am Bundesplatz.
Fiesch & the Aletsch Glacier from Eggishorn
When the snow hit Luzern (and pretty much the rest of Switzerland) on Thursday, it caused the Swiss railway to shut down the line from Brig to Andermatt because of avalanche threats, and that was the line that I was going to have to take to get to Fiesch. The weather forecast called for more rain/snow mix into the weekend and early the next week.
Because of the uncertainty, I came very close to cancelling my reservations in Fiesch; I had to do so by 11:59 p.m. Friday for my Monday and Tuesday reservation. Late Friday afternoon, I checked and the rail line was reopened and the weather forecast, while still dicey, showed less of a chance of precipitation so I decided to keep the reservation.
It was the best decision of the trip.
On Monday, the gray skies of Bern gave way to sunny skies in the Rhone River valley on the way to Fiesch. After checking into the Hotel Fiescherhof, I turned right around and headed up to the Eggishorn overlook over the Aletsch Glacier.
The experience going up to Eggishorn was the complete opposite of that going up to the Schilthorn. There were six of us on the cable car. Six. When we got to the summit, there were no cigarettes, no selfie sticks, no pushing, shoving, or loud talking. It was bliss.
The five others wandered off on their own leaving me alone on the mountaintop to take in the view and to just be at peace with one’s self and the world. It’s just what the introvert doctor ordered. And even though it was 34° F / 1° C outside, the warmth from the sun made me glad that my coat’s zipper was broken in the open position.
I had a nice dinner at a restaurant in Fiescheralp on the way back down. Oddly, the restaurant had a giant tepee in the front. It held a bar for the après ski crowd (wine was chilled in glass buckets filled with snow). My server was from Croatia and we had a nice chat throughout the meal.
I called it a night by having a local brew in my hotel’s restaurant/bar and had a great conversation with the bartender, a young man from Moldova who came to Switzerland by way of Rome.
Bettmeralp & the Aletsch Glacier from Bettmerhorn
Tuesday morning started a little cloudier than it was Monday, but the webcams for the Bettermerhorn showed it quite clear at elevation, so I decided to head there for the day. That meant another train ride and two more cable car rides, but it was worth it.
You have to walk about 20 minutes between the two cable car stations in Bettmeralp, a small village halfway up the mountain. Along the walk, I passed a ski school in session for toddlers who could not have been much more than three or four years old. Start ’em early, I guess.
There are no cars in Bettmeralp, so getting around is done on foot, skis, snowmobiles, or ATVs. It’s really pretty cool to be in a car-less place.
Just like the day before at Eggishorn, I had the mountaintop to myself except when a cable car would deliver a load of skiers. They would stay long enough to clip their ski boots into the bindings and start down the mountain, and then I’d have the place to myself again.
At the end of the day, I was running on empty and had a nice dinner in the hotel’s restaurant—a big bowl of pasta and a nice glass of wine.
Fiesch to Zürich
Wednesday, I had to begin my trip back to Zürich for my flight out Thursday. Rather than take the same route that I had used to get to Fiesch (which was the faster route), I opted to take the Matterhorn-Gotthard train to Andermatt. It runs through some amazing scenery and it’s definitely the milk-run train with plenty of stops along the way. In fact, some of the stops are on-demand only. You push a little button in the car to signal the driver/engineer to stop the train at the next stop, much like you would a city bus.
It took about four hours for me to get to Zürich with all the intermediate stops and train changes (three of them). I put my suitcase in a locker for a few hours at the main train station and wandered around Zürich for a while, but I was done. I was ready to call the vacation over, so I hopped on the train to my hotel, the Holiday Inn Express near the Zürich airport, and called an end to this trip.
Final Thoughts & Observations
This trip was different from many of my more recent trips where I just throw my camera in my car and go off on my own to capture nature in solitude. Being in tourist centers such as Luzern and Interlaken threw me off my game a little. Rather than being alone to recharge my introvert batteries, I was crammed in a cable car with 99 other folks and that sucked energy from me. I usually try to avoid those situations, so I was very thankful that I could stand at Eggishorn and Bettmerhorn on my own, taking in the natural world before me. Nonetheless, I’m glad that I made the ride all the way to the Schilthorn. The view was well worth the energy drain.
While I’m on my curmudgeonly soap box, I don’t think I’ll ever understand the selfie culture. I mean, are we really becoming that self-absorbed? You’re standing in front of a glacier that may not be there for your grandchildren, and the first thing you think of is, “I need a picture of me in front of this glacier”? Or in front of a monument to the war dead? Really? Turn around and look at the glacier or memorial. You might find it interesting. [Editorial over.]
On the whole, though, it was a great trip. Even though the weather was a bit uncooperative, I still got out in the snow to snap a few photos. I met a number of interesting people along the way—folks from Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia, and even Texas. I even received a couple of compliments on my German-speaking ability (which surprised me). Of course, the scenery speaks for itself, and it was a pleasure to see Swiss efficiency in action.
I would love to return again at some point in the future but I will say one thing. I’ve seen enough Swiss chocolate shops, Swiss Army knife shops, and Swiss watch shops to last me a lifetime. And that was in Interlaken alone.
If you’re interested in some of the logistics of this trip, read on.
Swiss Rail System
The Swiss rail system is a marvel of efficiency and engineering. Period.
They’re so punctual, you could set a Swiss watch by them. (Or, perhaps, it’s because they all have Swiss watches that they’re on time.) When the schedule says that the train leaves at 10:07 a.m., the train leaves at 10:07 a.m.
I purchased the Swiss Pass which gave me unlimited travel on any train, city train or tram, buses, and even the trip to the top of the Schilthorn was included. Additionally, I got 50% off other cable car rides and free admission to 500 different museums. They offer a variety of passes, and even though I was here for only 10 days, I bought the 15-day pass to cover my entire stay. It was $95 more than the 8-day pass.
I downloaded the SBB app for my phone and it made finding trains and connections a breeze. It’s one of the easiest and most useful apps I’ve ever used. It also had the QR code for my Swiss Pass, so all I had to do was show my pass on my phone to the conductor, and I was good to go.
Flying Delta One
Flying Delta One (first class domestically, business class internationally) was the way to go, especially on the leg from JFK to Zürich and back. The seats go completely horizontal so you can sleep for a good chunk of the trip.
The meal service was great, with some really tasty items on the menu. Speaking of which, I was emailed in advance asking me to select my meals for each of the flights in advance, and that was nice to know that you had a better chance of getting what you asked for.
Yes, I’m sure that I could have found less expensive lodging for my trip through either less conveniently located hotels or Air B&B (which I’ve yet to use). Because I was using trains to get around Switzerland, I wanted my hotels to be within walking distance to the train station. Location, location, location drove up the price of lodging, but it was worth it for me.
The Hotel des Alpes in Luzern was the most expensive of the trip, but I couldn’t have had a better location. It’s staff was welcoming and friendly; the room clean and more than adequate with a balcony overlooking the Reuss River and Kappelbrücke.
The Hotel Weisses Kreuz in Interlaken is a little hotel that’s trying hard to be a bigger hotel. The rooms are very basic in their appointments and mine had only one electrical outlet that wasn’t in use, and it was just below the light switch as you enter the room (about 3 feet off the floor next to the door). Walking down the hallway reminded me of being in my college dorm instead of a hotel. The staff, however, were amazing and more than willing to help out.
The Hotel Bären am Bundesplatz in Bern is a contemporary hotel for the business client with multiple outlets or USB ports for your electronics. That makes sense given its proximity to the parliament building.
The Hotel Fiescherhof in Fiescher is a nice little hotel with more rustically appointed rooms. The beds are lower than usual—perhaps only 18 inches or so off the ground—so getting out of them if you have mobility issues could be a problem.
I’d stay at all four of them again.
Costs / Budget
Switzerland is expensive. When I was there, the Swiss Franc CHF (they don’t use euros) was essentially on parity with the U.S. Dollar, which made tracking expenses easy. 1 CHF = $1.00 USD
I kept my expenses down by eating breakfast in the hotel when it was included. For lunch, I would stop by a grocery store and grab a pre-made sandwich for 6-8 CHF and a soda or bottle of water for another 3 CHF or so. The least I spent on dinner was 24.40 CHF, and the most was 55 CHF, with the average being 35.49 CHF. My goal was to stay under 50 CHF per day (not including lodging), and I came in at 44.50 CHF average per day. Throw in lodging, and I averaged 161 CHF per day.
Tips & Tricks
- Many of toilets are pay toilets, so make sure you have plenty of small change on hand. Toilets in train stations typically cost 2 CHF for a toilet and 1.50 CHF for a urinal. Because of that, though, there’s an attendant who’s constantly cleaning, so they’re immaculate.
- Make sure that you have the proper converters for your electronics and other electrical devices. Many of the outlets in older buildings are flush, and my two-pronged plug converter worked just fine in those. However, in newer buildings where there are recessed outlets, it would not fit. I’m going to have to look for a new plug adapter.
- Tell your credit card companies and banks that you’re traveling abroad before you leave so you don’t have your cards shut down by the fraud department when they suddenly see overseas charges.
- Research your cell phone company’s international calling and data plans and activate the one that best meets your needs before you go. I went with Verizon’s Travel Pass which allowed me to use my existing plans minutes and data for calls, texts, and surfing. It cost $10 per day, but it was better than paying $1.99 per minute for a call or some high rate per MB of data.