Read a few of the books below to get a feel for Switzerland -- its people, atmosphere, and history -- before you visit.
- The Apple and the Arrow (Conrad Buff) is told from the point of view of William Tell's young son Walter, and recounts the 1291 Swiss struggle for freedom.
- Arms and the Man (George Bernard Shaw), a play first produced in 1894, takes place during the 1885 Serbo-Bulgarian War. It features a Swiss voluntary soldier who carries chocolates instead of pistol cartridges. Oscar Straus based his 1909 The Chocolate Soldier operetta on this play.
- Daisy Miller (Henry James), a novella, probes the emotional complications of a rich American traveling in Switzerland. Published in 1878, the novella became one of James's all-time big successes.
- Heidi (Johanna Spyri), a world classic, is the best-known book set in Switzerland. Charming readers of every generation since its publication in 1880, it's the story of a young orphan sent to live with her grumpy grandfather in the Swiss Alps.
- Hotel du Lac (Anita Brookner) is the story of a romance author who has been banished by her friends to a stately hotel in Switzerland, where she hears fascinating tales of the guests she befriends there.
- The Magic Mountain (Thomas Mann) is a classic, one of the most celebrated novels of the 20th century, and it's set in an alpine sanatorium in the resort of Davos-Platz. Mann tells the story of Hans Castorp, a "modern everyman," who spends 7 years in the alpine sanatorium for TB patients before leaving to become a soldier in World War I.
- Scrambles Amongst the Alps (Edward Whymper) is the latest reprint of this classic mountaineer's account of his conquest of the Matterhorn.
- For some light reading, Ticking Along with the Swiss (Dianne Dicks) is an amusing collection of personal tales from travelers to Switzerland.
- A Tramp Abroad (Mark Twain) is the eternal tongue-in-cheek travelogue for "Innocents Abroad" touring the Swiss Alps.
- Walking Switzerland -- The Swiss Way (Marcia and Philip Lieberman) is a useful guide for those who want to walk through the tiny country.
- Why Switzerland? (Jonathan Steinberg) provides the best look at Swiss society, culture, and history.
- Wilhelm Tell (Friedrich von Schiller), a play, is one of the Harvard Classics. It's based on the legendary Swiss hero who resisted Austrian domination. He was consequently forced to use a bow and arrow to shoot an apple placed on the head of his son. Rossini based his famous opera on this play.
The Literary Tradition of Switzerland -- Many 19th-century English writers went to Switzerland for inspiration. Prominent among them were Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (who wrote Frankenstein beside Lake Geneva), Lord Byron, Robert Browning, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Charles Dickens. In the 20th century, Thomas Mann, James Joyce, Hermann Hesse, and Vladimir Nabokov were some of the major writers who gravitated to Switzerland.
Of course, Switzerland has fine literature of its own. Because of the country's different languages, much of Swiss literature has had strong connections with literary traditions and styles in Germany and Austria, in France, and in Italy. Literature produced solely in Switzerland, with few international influences, is usually written in the Rhaeto-Romanic group of local dialects, among them Romansh.
It wasn't until the 18th century that Swiss literature became defined as such. The most important works -- except for those by the Geneva-born Rousseau -- were written in German. Among them, the most famous is the Codex Manesse, first published in 1732 (the manuscript is preserved in Heidelberg). It is a collection of the works of 30 poets, known collectively as the Minnesingers. In the 19th century, Switzerland's national man of letters, Gottfried Keller, made the Codex the subject of one of his Zurich novellas.
Writers who emerged in the 18th century include Albrecht von Haller (1708-77), who wrote voluminous works on physiology and other scientific subjects, and Johannes von Müller (1752-1809), whose History of the Swiss Confederation inspired von Schiller to write William Tell.
In the 1800s, two Swiss works were translated around the world. They were Heidi (1880), by Johanna Spyri, and The Swiss Family Robinson (1813), by Johann David Wyss.
Jacob Christoph Burckhardt (1818-97), one of the preeminent historians of the 19th century, is known for his great classic, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860). Burckhardt's emphasis on the cultural interpretation of history influenced the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.
Gottfried Keller (1819-90), novelist, poet, and short-story writer, reigned supreme over Swiss literature in the latter part of the 19th century. His works, particularly Der grüne Heinrich (Green Henry) and People of Seldwyla, are still popular throughout the German-speaking world.
The last German-language poet of international reputation born in Switzerland was Carl Spitteler (1845-1924), whose major allegorical work, Olympischer Frühling (Olympian Spring), published before World War I, argued for the need of ethics in the modern world. Spitteler was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1919.
French-Swiss literature is dominated by two towering figures, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78), the father of Continental Romanticism and author of The Social Contract and the autobiographical Confessions, and Germaine (Madame) de Staël (1766-1817), who conducted a famous salon in Paris. During the French Revolution, de Staël sought refuge at the family estate at Coppet, on the shore of Lake Geneva. Her principal work, De l'Allemagne (On Germany, 1810), was an encomium of German romanticism. In 1811, she was exiled from France by Napoleon, who objected to the book; she found comfort in her marriage to a young Swiss officer more than 20 years her junior.
In the 20th century, two Swiss literary figures gained an international following. One is Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1921-90), who is known mainly for his plays The Visit and The Physicists. The other is Max Frisch (1911-91), who has achieved a place in contemporary German literature with his plays, among them Andorra and The Firebugs, and his novels. His most famous novel is I'm Not Stiller, a trenchant critique of Swiss smugness and isolationism.
Switzerland is not Hollywood, not even a Bollywood. But the dramatic geography of the country itself has often made it a locale for filmmakers from all over the world. Of course, the all-time Swiss classic is Heidi, shot in 1937 and starring Shirley Temple as Heidi.
One of the best James Bond films, Goldfinger (1964), uses Switzerland in some of its backdrop scenes with star Sean Connery. Secret Agent 007 returned to Switzerland for more background scenes in the 1969 On Her Majesty's Secret Service and the 1995 Goldeneye. The 1994 version of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, directed by Kenneth Branagh, also used dramatic Swiss backdrops.
Trois couleurs: Rouge (Three Colors Red) in 1994, the last film in director Krzysztof Kieslowski's trilogy, used scenes in Geneva's Old Town as a backdrop, and director Peter Greenaway also used the city in his Stairs 1 Geneva (1995).
Director Blake Edwards used Gstaad and its swanky Palace Hotel for The Return of the Pink Panther (1975). The Bernese Oberland is showcased, perhaps as never before, in Clint Eastwood's The Eiger Sanction (1975). Even people who didn't enjoy this espionage spy thriller were charmed by the scenery. A Zurich bank figures into the plot of The Bourne Identity (2002), starring Matt Damon. The thriller is based very loosely on Robert Ludlum's novel.
For most of its history, religious and folk music has dominated this art form in Switzerland. Traditional instruments included the hammered dulcimer, the fife, the bagpipe, the cittern, the shawm, and the hurdy-gurdy.
Beginning in 1836, the accordion swept the country. The Swiss quickly incorporated this instrument into their folk music.
As more and more Swiss moved to the cities, folk music from rural areas was mixed with jazz and the foxtrot, with the saxophone coming into great prominence.
By the 1960s, trios of two accordions and a double bass ruled the night.
The rural Appenzell region in northeastern Switzerland remains the major center for folk music today.
Pop and rock invaded Switzerland in the 1960s, much to the horror of traditionalists. Swiss musicians like Les Aiglons or Les Faux Frères became major recording artists. Swiss rock began to die out in the late '60s, replaced by more progressive music such as jazz and blues.
Hard rock appeared by the end of the '70s, and a rock band called Krokus became the most popular recording group in the history of Swiss music.
Metal bands dominated music in the 1980s, with a Swiss band, Celtic Frost, the leader of the pack. Swiss new-wave bands began to branch out and become internationally known. Fame came to such bands as Kleenex/LiliPUT and Yello.
Rappers and DJs arrived on the scene in the '90s, including Black Tiger from Basel, the first one to rap in a Swiss-German dialect. Birthed in the 1990s, the band Gotthard survived the millennium to become the leading Swiss rock group and one of the most acclaimed bands in western Europe.