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) is the kids’ book that spawned a thousand Swiss stereotypes. 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 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 Bildungsroman set in an alpine sanatorium in the resort of Davos-Platz. Mann’s “everyman” protagonist, Hans Castorp, spends 7 years among convalescing tuberculosis 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 bumbling “innocents” touring the mountains and cities of Switzerland’s southwest.
- 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 most comprehensive 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, and 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
Internationally, Switzerland is less known for its own literary works than for those produced by its famous expats and visitors. In the 19th century, it was especially fashionable for English authors to go to Switzerland for inspiration. Prominent among them were Mary 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 gravitated to Switzerland as well.
But of course Switzerland has rich literature of its own, whether in German, Italian, French, or even Romansh. An early luminary was Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–78), the Geneva-born father of Continental Romanticism and author of The Social Contract and the autobiographical Confessions. Other writers from that time 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.
The early 1800s saw the rise of another towering French-Swiss figure: 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 a glowing ode to 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.
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. One of the preeminent historians of the same era was Jacob Christoph Burckhardt (1818–97), known for his great classic The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860). His emphasis on the cultural interpretation of history influenced the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who also produced some of his best-known writings over seven summers in Switzerland.
In the 1800s, two Swiss children’s books became smash hits: Johanna Spyri’s Heidi (1880) and Johann David Wyss’ The Swiss Family Robinson (1813). Both have been translated around the world and have sent countless families to Switzerland in search of the alpine fantasies depicted. Less popular but no less charming are the kiddie fables illustrated by Alois Carigiet, a Graubünden artist who collaborated with author Selina Chönz on works like A Bell for Ursli in the 1940s and '50s.
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, pleaded for ethics in the modern world. Spitteler was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1919.
In the 20th century, two Swiss authors gained an international following. One is Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1921–90), who is known mainly for The Visit and The Physicists. The other is Max Frisch (1911–91), who 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's hometown film industry hasn’t spawned any border-crossing hits, but the country is home to Locarno, one of the top international film festivals. The country’s dramatic geography has made it a preferred shooting location for filmmakers from all over the world. The one quintessentially Swiss film that wasn’t shot here was 1937’s Heidi, which had to make do with the mountains of southern California as a stomping grounds for Shirley Temple’s titular brat. (A 1978 German-language adaptation was shot in the hills above Silvaplana.)
James Bond, debonair adventurer that he is, has made multiple visits to Switzerland: the hairpin curves of the Furka Pass in Goldfinger (1964), Ticino’s gargantuan Verzasca Dam in Goldeneye (1995), and, most memorably, the Schilthorn mountain in Lauterbrunnen, where villain Blofeld schemed in 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Director Blake Edwards used Gstaad and its swanky Palace Hotel for The Return of the Pink Panther (1975); that same year, Clint Eastwood scaled the Bernese Oberland’s treacherous Eiger peak in espionage thriller The Eiger Sanction.
Swiss cities have made it to the silver screen as well: Geneva in 1994’s Trois couleurs: Rouge (Three Colors: Red), the last film in director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s trilogy; Zurich as the place where Matt Damon discovers his Bourne Identity in the 2002 action flick.
Most recently, Oliver Assayas ventured to the Engadine to film some steamy looks between Kristen Stewart and Juliet Binoche in 2014’s The Clouds of Sils Maria, and two distinctive Graubünden hotels—luxury resort Waldhaus Flims and former sanatorium Schatzalp—hosted Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel in 2015’s Youth.
This isn’t counting Bollywood, which has its own love affair with the Alps. Every year, Indian tourists flock to Switzerland to pay tribute to films like 1995’s blockbuster romance Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (The Brave Heart Will Take the Bride), shot in the mountains of the Bernese Oberland. Its director, Yash Chopra, is immortalized with his own statue in Interlaken.
When you think about Swiss music, chances are one of two things come to mind: yodeling, or that comically long horn from the Ricola commercials. But go back in time a few centuries, and no Swiss person would call either of those “music.” Instead, both yodeling and the Alphorn began as a method of long-distance communication between alpine herdsman and villagers.
Today, however, both are firmly entrenched in Swiss musical tradition. Alphorns are everywhere tourists are, but not only: Switzerland has some 1,800 registered players, ranging from enthusiastic hobbyists to seasoned pros, and the horn’s distinctive keening blare can be heard on new classical and even experimental electronic recordings. Yodeling, too, is thriving—there’s even a Swiss Yodeling Association, which keeps the singing style alive with yearly competitions and showcases.
Other than that, Switzerland’s main folk music genre is Ländler, recognizable by its upbeat rhythms and use of Schwyzerörgeli, a specialized type of accordion. This style emerged in the second half of the 1800s as the newly fashionable instrument was sweeping the nation; over the years, it picked up influences from jazz and other types of dance music. The repertoire includes instrumental waltzes, foxtrots, and mazurkas, played by one or more accordions, double bass, and clarinet or saxophone. You can still hear pre-Ländler tunes, played on traditional instruments like hammered dulcimer, fife, and bagpipe, in the rural region of Appenzell, Switzerland’s de facto folk music capital.
Pop and rock invaded Switzerland in the 1960s, along with the rest of Europe. Early successes included Francophone musicians like Les Aiglons and Les Faux Frères; later, Beatles-aping ensembles who sang in German were all the rage. Prog and hard rock took over in the 1970s and the 1980s—the best-known band from this time was Krokus, a metal act who crossed over with 1983’s “Screaming in the Night.”
A smaller, weirder punk and new wave scene sprung up around the same time, spawning groups like Yello (whose “Oh Yeah” you might remember from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) and the experimental all-female trio Kleenex (later called LiliPUT). The post-punk act Grauzone only had one hit, but it was a biggie: even now, every German speaker knows the words to the 1981 polar bear anthem “Eisbär."
Rappers and DJs started making their mark in the 1990s, including Black Tiger from Basel, the first to rap in a Swiss-German dialect. The turn of the millennium even saw the emergence of a Romansh-language hip-hop group, the Graubünden-based Liricas Analas. More mainstream standouts include globetrotting tech-house DJ Luciano and hip-hop producer Ozan Yildirim (aka OZ, of Travis Scott’s “Sicko Mode”).
Today’s best-known Swiss band is likely Gotthard, a hard rock duo from Lugano that has kept its position atop the charts even after the death of its original lead singer. But the country also has a surprisingly robust indie and underground scene. Breakouts in past years have included composer and songwriter Sophie Hunger and retro synth-pop act Crimer.
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