Before I start, I have to plug the INCREDIBLE Swiss tourism site. I’ve been on a lot of tourism board sites; a lot of them are pretty terrible, and Switzerland is an attractive destination. They probably don’t need to try that hard to sell themselves (can you imagine being the marketing firm for the tourism board in, say, Egypt?). But this site is one of the best websites I’ve seen in a while, tourism or otherwise. It is seriously a great way to procrastinate and I completely recommend it.
So, Switzerland. As the birthplace and residence of Roger Federer, it could otherwise be known as Mount Olympus. This is a country that, were it in the hands of another group of people, they’d find plenty to bitch about. It’s landlocked! There are too many mountains, where are we supposed to live! It’s cold! My neighbor doesn’t speak the same language I do! As it stands, 8 million people with a hodgepodge of ethnic identities and traditions have formed one of the wealthiest, stablest, most peaceful countries on earth.
Switzerland is unique in Europe in that there isn’t really such a thing as an ethnically Swiss person. Like in the U.S., the commonality is a shared love of democracy, something that sounds a little too kumbaya, but there aren’t many other, if any, European countries that embrace this in quite the same way. Being Swiss is largely about an ideology.
If you were to somehow quantify it, the Germanic traditions, from the language to the food to the dress, are the most dominant cultural influence in Switzerland, but the area in the west around Lake Geneva is thoroughly French, while the southern region in and around St. Moritz and Lugano feels Italian. The Bernese Oberland is firmly in the German camp.
Bernese Oberland Region
Alpbach—Interlaken, 264 Miles
When its reputation precedes it at all, Interlaken is usually better known as a party town than a serious alpine destination, and there’s truth in that. You don’t come to Interlaken for the cultural diversions and true to form, it fails to deliver. There’s a garish casino, mercifully tucked behind a mall, some okay shopping, bars, and the like. Your safest bet for food is one of the few decent bars in town or what is, no joke, considered a family favorite in Interlaken:
White tablecloths are unheard of and anything resembling sophistication has long since fled to trendier towns like Zermatt and St. Moritz. An imported beer is the fine dining option at most restaurants in Interlaken.
This all makes Interlaken sound like a seedy backwater, but it’s really more a grungy mountain town. Unlike Austria’s postcard-ready Alpbach, Interlaken is no one’s idea of a picturesque mountain town. The few Victorian-style houses are far outnumbered by ramshackle clapboard houses punctuated with the occasional 70s, Brutalist style. The atmosphere is friendly and lively, but cozy and scenic it is not.
And it’s absolutely the first place you have to go in Switzerland.
In my experience, Swiss cities are lovely, extraordinarily clean places with absolutely nothing to do. From what I’ve seen previously in Geneva, Zurich, and Basel, you can exhaust any sort of sightseeing activities in a matter of hours and the other diversions don’t really excite if you’re not a local, so the reason to come here is for the mountains. And the best place for that is Interlaken. I have yet to find anywhere that’s a better base for seeing the Bernese Oberland area, to my mind by far the best region of the Swiss Alps.
Interlaken is, you’ll never believe this, located between two lakes. Lake Thun and Lake Brienz sandwich the city on its east and west sides, with the Jungfrau region and the Harder Kulm to the south and north, respectively.
The Harder Kulm is a great hike to make yourself feel falsely accomplished, as it’s the easiest hike for miles, but does reward some of the best views in the area. This is the party peak, though the last time I was here in November, it was so empty it felt like we’d just summited some unnamed mountain in the Himalayas. But a 75-degree day in May and suddenly there’s lawn chairs, lots of beer and snacks, souvies, and a Bollinger champagne stand. There is a funicular to the top, so you can cheat if strictly necessary. As usual, the estimated times on the signs are hilariously inaccurate. What is sold as a 2 hour, 30 min walk I did in just over 90 minutes, and that included plenty of time for me to stop and suck wind along the way.
Standing guard over Interlaken is the Jungfrau, looming over a huge valley that spills into Interlaken and is dotted with smaller, more picturesque alpine towns. Though not exceptionally tall at less than 14,000 feet, the Jungfrau is significantly taller than anything around it, making it seem disproportionately menacing, and it has a reputation for being incredibly challenging to climb for its height. When it’s cloudy and you can’t see it for a while, it almost looks bigger when it reappears again, like it’s slowly creeping up on Interlaken when it’s hidden behind the clouds.
The towns in the valley leading to the base of the Jungfrau, about 40 minutes by train south of Interlaken, are much more picturesque and much less touristy, but also very dead. A great place to stay if you want to cook for yourself and a big group of friends, but there’s otherwise nothing going on. Interlaken, for all its rowdiness, is not short on restaurants and bars ranging from horrific to slightly above average, but it’s hard not to indulge the revelry. (Rowdiness is a relative term here. By 11, it’s pretty quiet). Other things to keep in mind: these towns all got several inches of snow on a cold day in May, so there’s pretty much no guarantees that it won’t be winter, no matter when you go. Interlaken was treated to a cold rain the same day.
If you’re seriously considering going here and want to stay in one of these towns—Lauterbrunnen, Wengen, Mürren, Stechelberg, and Gimmelwald are a few of the main ones—I do have opinions about this and would be thrilled to share it, but won’t get into the minutiae here.
Once you get 10 minutes outside Interlaken, the crowd changes dramatically. You’ll see one of three groups. 1) lost Texans who read Rick Steves and were told to stay in the impossible to get to town of Gimmelwald. 2) groups of Chinese tourists who picked up a lifetime supply of Lindt chocolate truffles at the store at the Jungfraujoch (more on that in a minute); and 3), groups backcountry and/or heli skiers, and other moderately insane alpine adventurers.
Assuming you’re not planning on summiting, you can still get close to the Jungfrau at the Jungfraujoch, an all-glass enclosure on the saddle between the Jungfrau and its neighbor, the Mönch. Here’s some advice on this: don’t do it. I think in general, observation decks are a high risk, high reward endeavor. They are always, without fail, overpriced but sometimes the views are truly incredible. I don’t think the Jungfraujoch is such a place, although admittedly I wouldn’t know because it was completely enshrouded in clouds the day I was there, but I’m fairly confident that the better views of the Jungfrau are at the last station before the train makes the final ascent, in Kleine Scheidegg, which you can hike to as well.
There’s the usual souvenir shop/restaurant line-up at the Jungfraujoch, but these are more disgusting than most. The whole place smells vaguely like boiled meat, a smell anyone who’s ever been to an IKEA has seared into his sensory memory. On a nice day, you could escape the smell of overcooked vegetables and instant noodles on the outdoor decks, but I truly doubt that these outdoor spaces are usable for more than a few dozen days a year, particularly if you’re not there first thing in the morning. The only other thing up there is some sort of polar experience exhibit thing that feels uncannily similar to that Arctic fight simulator ride at Sea World. So save the time and money and don’t go. I won’t even say how much it was and reveal what a heinous racket I bought into.
That said, there are tons and tons and tons of trails all through the valley that have great views of the Jungfrau and are a far more productive use of your time. The Swiss are masters of the hiking trail system. The signage is incredible, which sounds like a pedantic observation but if you’ve ever done a hike without proper signage, you never take it for granted again.
I would recommend Interlaken so, so strongly, which is saying something considering there’s nowhere to eat and the town is not much to look at. The location just cannot be beat, and I really do think this is the best region in the entire Alps for hiking, no matter how adventurous or lazy you are. May is a bit of a risky time because rain is still common, but the blooming fields, the terrifying snow-capped Jungfrau, and the huge waterfalls just above Lauterbrunnen are amazing. When I visited in the first week of November—a week everyone would agree is truly the worst week of the year to visit—it was equally incredible. Nothing was open and it was threatening to snow every day, but predictably the place is empty, and it’s a completely different experience.
As a point of comparison, Interlaken is a lot like Queenstown in New Zealand. It’s like a giant playground for adults and so you’re going to eat too much fried food and go parasailing and drink bad beer and hang in nature. But the location makes you forgive the fact that the whole place seems like it was custom designed to serve as a frat’s wilderness retreat compound.
Lake Geneva Region
Interlaken—Montreux, 92 miles
For a town you’ve maybe never heard of near the French-Swiss border, Montreux has a shockingly rock ‘n’ roll history. Keith Richards had a house in the surrounding hills for a few years and Queen recorded several albums at a studio in the city. Freddie Mercury is the adopted hometown hero. There’s also a huge international jazz festival here every July.
Though it’s only two hours from Interlaken, it feels very different. The mountains are still big, but there’s less variation in the landscape, making it seem less dramatic. While Interlaken and the Bernese Oberland feel very German, Montreux is all about the French.
In what seems like an impossible phenomenon, Montreux is full of palm trees. Aside from the jazz festival, this is basically its claim to fame. The town is nothing particularly special or offensive. For a small city, there’s a lot of business that goes on here and like in nearby Geneva, everyone is chronically dressed in expertly tailored business wear and seems forever en route to something important, while you wolf down a baguette sandwich on a park bench.
The Chateau du Chillon is Montreux’s main sight, its most unique and interesting feature being that you can get a nice picture of it along the lake. I must confess that now having seen the inside of roughly 9,000 castles and chateaux, I didn’t go in but it looked like your standard fare. The walk from Montreux to the chateau is lovely though and takes you past some gorgeous lake homes, which range from Miami, to the South of France, to California in terms of architectural influence.
Above the city are the Alps and with Lake Geneva and the French Alps on the opposite shore locking the city in on its south edge, it feels like Monteux has just managed to squeeze itself in along the hillside hoping no one would notice. The mountains to the northeast of the city are arguably the best feature of the area.
While I really enjoy Switzerland, it can feel a bit identity-less, which isn’t to say that it’s not unique. Being Swiss almost inherently makes someone seem worldly because the population is inherently diverse, and there doesn’t seem to be a cohesive agreement about what a true Swiss person is. We may ourselves be a country of immigrants, but there is absolutely an idea (several competing ideas) about what it means to be American.
As for traveling here, I’ve encountered few places in Europe that are easier to navigate. The roads are excellent, but unlike in France, it doesn’t cost you a king’s ransom to drive on them. The train system is flawless. This is a country that is actually clean and fully lives up to its reputation as such. People in Switzerland speak anywhere from 3-9 languages and, to steal a line from David Sedaris, their attitude upon meeting you is “welcome and thank you for allowing me to practice my perfect English.”
You come for the scenery, but stay for the je ne sais quoi cool factor. Just don’t hold your breath for the meal of your life.
I next found myself back in Paris, of all places. More on that later.