Surrounded by Austria, France, Italy, and Germany, Switzerland is one of the smallest countries in Europe, stretching only 220km (137 miles) north to south and 350km (217 miles) east to west. It’s divided into a trio of regions: the Swiss Alps, the Swiss plateau, and the Jura Mountains.
Most residents live on the plains and rolling hills of the plateau, which runs from Lake Geneva on the French border to Germany’s Lake Constance and is crossed by three great rivers, the Rhône, Rhine, and Aare. Switzerland’s major urban, economic and industrial centers, including the cities of Zurich, Geneva, and Lucerne, are all situated here.
The Swiss Alps, meanwhile, cover 65 percent of the country’s surface but are far less populated than the plateau. Their residents include a hardy indigenous bunch of farmers and loggers, as well as an army of hospitality workers—some full-time, some winter-only—there to cater to the millions of tourists who visit the mountains each year. The highest peak is Dufourspitze at 4,634m (15,200 ft.), a formation which straddles the Italian-Swiss border, while the highest mountain lying entirely within the boundaries of Switzerland is the Dom, rising to a summit of 4,545m (14,908 ft.).
Accounting for 12 percent of Swiss landmass, the Jura is a limestone range running from Lake Geneva to the Rhine River. The name “Jurassic” comes from this region, because many fossils and dinosaur tracks have been found here. The land around the range has been nicknamed the “Röstigraben” due to its straddling the border between French- and German-speaking Switzerland.
The mountains get most of the press, but Switzerland has also been called “Europe’s water tower.” Between its glacial lakes, rivers, and underground streams, it contains 6 percent of all freshwater reserves on the continent. Nearly 65,000km of Swiss rivers feed the North Sea, the Black Sea, the Adriatic, and the Mediterranean, and fountains in villages throughout the Alps flow with the cleanest, freshest mineral water you’ll ever drink. This makes it all the more frustrating that Swiss bottled water consumption has been soaring in past years. Don’t follow their lead! Bring a reusable canteen on your hikes, and whether in a restaurant or a hotel, always opt for tap water over bottled—it’ll taste exactly the same or better, and it’s good for both your wallet and the environment.
In all, 50,000 plant and animal species call Switzerland home, though many have fallen victim to hunting, agriculture, the timber industry, and urban growth. The country has only one national park, in the Lower Engadine valley, but 1600 other “nature protection areas” offer some shelter to Switzerland’s non-human inhabitants.
Increased restrictions on human activity in these areas have led to the comeback of two alpine species that had previously been hunted to extinction: the ibex, a type of mountain goat with ridged, curving horns; and the red deer, a majestic animal that’s now so widespread it makes limited appearances on Graubünden’s wild game menus. More common is the alpine marmot, a hardy prairie dog-like rodent that lives in high pastures and was once prized for its fat. (Some pharmacies still sell it—look for little jars marked "Murmeltieröl.")
Perhaps more so than any other country in Europe, the Swiss take pride in keeping their natural surroundings squeaky-clean. Switzerland consistently ranks at or near the top of yearly “green” country rankings even has volunteer “mountain cleaners,” who sweep the landscape looking for garbage that careless tourists have left behind.
Switzerland is also looking to a future beyond fossil fuel. If you’re worried about the impact of your tourism on the climate, consider staying in a hotel like the one atop St. Moritz’s Muottas Muragl, whose new solar and geothermal heating system generates more energy than it needs; the Whitepod in Valais, where you sleep in a geodesic dome heated by a pellet stove; or the Valsana in Arosa, heated by a patented thermal exchange system called an “ice vault.”
City tourist offices are getting on board by encouraging visitors to skip flying when they can—the Zurich tourist board, for example, recommends that visitors take the train from London via Paris, saving 176 kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions per person for the 966km (600-mile) journey. In Davos, one of the most famous ski resorts, visitors are urged not to drive cars into town (where overnight parking is forbidden), but to take one of the fleet of public buses that moves skiers and hikers to the mountains.
You can find eco-friendly Swiss tours on the Responsible Travel website, www.responsibletravel.com. The tour provider Alpenwild also endeavors to keep their trips as sustainable as possible, with small group sizes and use of public transit.
The Swiss Alps harbor 1,500 glaciers, great sheets of ice that flow down from the mountains and carve valleys into the landscape. They’re a major tourist attraction, with sparkling ice caves ready to be explored and sheer surfaces meant for mountaineering or daredevil ski runs. They help supply hydroelectric power to over half the country. And they’re melting. Fast.
Anyone who’s still in denial about the impact of climate change need only visit the Morteratsch glacier near St. Moritz in the Upper Engadine. It’s the star of one of the region’s most popular ski trails, the “Glacier Run,” and a local restaurant, Gondolezza, even serves “Glacier Fondue” in its honor. Morteratsch is also the name of the local train station, so christened in 1908 because at the time, the tongue of the glacier lay right next to it. Now, you’ve got to walk uphill for almost an hour until you see any ice.
Scientists are working hard to slow the glaciers’ retreat—ideas have included covering them in artificial snow or even wrapping them in white reflective blankets. But as long as the winters keep getting warmer and drier (which they are; Swiss ski resorts now experience an average of 40 fewer snow days than they did in 1970), Morteratsch and its fellow ice giants will keep shrinking. All the more reason to see them now, while you can—and to do so by train, not plane or automobile.
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.