Wilkommen, bienvenue, benvenuto, and bainvegni to the land of cheese and chocolate, of snowy alpine peaks and sparkling clean lakes, of tinkling cowbells and punctual trains, of banking secrets and $15 sandwiches. Quintessentially European but not part of the E.U., politically libertarian but staunchly environmentalist, peaceful but gun-loving, Switzerland is an oft-confounding jigsaw puzzle of languages and cultures spread across some of the world’s most breathtaking natural scenery.
The Federal Republic of Switzerland covers 41,287 sq. km (15,941 sq. miles). It has four recognized national languages—German, French, Italian, and an obscure Latin-derived dialect called Romansh. Many of its people also speak English, especially in the cities and major tourist regions.
Switzerland occupies a position on the “rooftop” of the continent of Europe, with the drainage of its mammoth alpine glaciers feeding the powerful Rhine and Rhône rivers. The appellation “crossroads of Europe” is also fitting; since 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 Roman 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. Other Europeans—then North Americans, Russians, and recently Asians—followed suit.
Switzerland welcomes its international visitors with a blend of personal reserve and professional hospitality. You won’t be able to strike up a conversation with a stranger on the street, but the service at your hotel will never be anything less than exemplary.
The stereotype of Switzerland as a bastion of cleanliness, efficiency, and order is not unwarranted, but don’t be misled: The country isn’t a paradise. Even in the immaculate city of Zurich, there are drug addicts and homeless residents. Pickpocketing and mugging are rare, but they happen—although you’re more likely to have your wallet emptied via legal means, like dinner at a mediocre pizzeria or one night at a hotel during ski season.
Yes, that vaunted Swiss hospitality comes at a cost, as does everything else in this country. Even locals, whose wages are among Europe’s highest, don’t go out to restaurants that often. But bargains can be found if you know where to look. Start with tourism boards, who, recognizing that Switzerland’s prices have been driving potential visitors away, are course-correcting with hotel and ski pass deals, free public transit, and discounted attractions.
Did You Know?
- 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.
- Now famous for its neutrality, Switzerland was once equally known for providing mercenaries to fight in foreign armies.
- Switzerland drafts all able-bodied male citizens between the ages of 19 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.
- The Swiss are the world’s biggest chocolate consumers, eating nearly 20 pounds of the sweet stuff per person per year.
- In addition to milk chocolate and fondue, the Swiss invented the pencil, the computer mouse, aluminum foil, Velcro, and LSD.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.