Switzerland has a rich cultural life, with many fine museums, theaters, and world-renowned orchestras, but most people visit the country for its superb scenery -- alpine peaks, mountain lakes, and lofty pastures. As important as Geneva, Zurich, St. Moritz, and other obvious tourist centers are, they do not convey the full splendors of Switzerland. To experience these, you must venture deep into William Tell country, into the heart of Switzerland.
The Federal Republic of Switzerland covers 41,287 sq. km (15,941 sq. miles). It has four recognized national languages -- German, French, Italian, and Romansh, a romance dialect. Many of its people, however, speak English, especially in the major tourist regions. You will find the Swiss hospitable, restrained, and peace loving. Switzerland's neutrality allowed it to avoid the wars that devastated its neighbors twice in the past century. It also enabled it to achieve financial stability and prosperity.
Switzerland occupies a position on the "rooftop" of the continent of Europe, with the drainage of its mammoth alpine glaciers serving as the source of such powerful rivers as the Rhine and the Rhône. The appellation "crossroads of Europe" is fitting; from the time when the Romans crossed the Alps and traversed Helvetia (the ancient name for part of today's Switzerland) on their way to conquests in the north, the major route connecting northern and southern Europe has been through Switzerland. The country's ancient roads and paths were eventually developed into modern highways and railroad lines.
The main European route for east-west travel also passes through Switzerland, between Lake Constance and Geneva, and intercontinental airports connect the country with cities all over the world. London and Paris, for instance, are less than 2 hours away by air. The first modern tourists, the British, began to arrive "on holiday" in the 19th century, and other Europeans, as well as a scattering of North Americans, followed suit. The tradition of welcoming visitors is firmly entrenched in Swiss life, and the entire country is known for its efficiency and its cleanliness.
Don't be misled. A visit to Switzerland is not tantamount to a visit to paradise. Even in the well-ordered and immaculate city of Zurich, there are drug addicts and the homeless wander its streets, although not in the vast numbers found in most of the world's capitals.
Readers often comment on the reserve of the Swiss. The locals don't necessarily rush to embrace you, as they are, for the most part, a conservative people. Even if they don't have the spontaneity more associated with their southern neighbor, Italy, they will most often welcome you politely and provide you with a good bed and a good meal for the night -- for which they'll charge a good price! Few people return from Switzerland commenting on how cheap it is. However, good value is to be found by those who seek it out, and the Swiss probably have fewer "tourist traps" than most of the top 10 major tourist destinations of the world.
Did You Know?
- Nearly 6% of the working population of Switzerland is employed in the banking industry.
- As a financial center, Switzerland ranks in importance behind only New York, London, and Tokyo.
- Since the late 18th century, there has been no foreign invasion of Swiss territory, despite the devastating conflagrations that surrounded it.
- Until the early 19th century, Switzerland was the most industrialized country in Europe.
- Famous for its neutrality, Switzerland once was equally known for providing mercenaries to fight in foreign armies. (The practice was ended by the constitution of 1874, with the exception of the Vatican's Swiss papal guard, dating from 1505.)
- Switzerland drafts all able-bodied male citizens between the ages of 20 and 50 (55 for officers). These soldiers, who continue to live at home, form a reserve defense corps that (in theory) can be called to active duty at any time.
- With its four major language groups, Switzerland effectively contradicts the axiom that a national identity cannot exist without a common language.