Hiking the Swiss Alps: From the time the snows melt in spring until the wind starts blowing in late autumn, tourists and Swiss alike head for the country’s mountains and valleys. Here, immaculately well-maintained trails, funicular trains, and cable cars lead up to high plateaus where the sun is usually shining, the air is fresh and cool even at the height of summer, and the views are straight out of a Ricola ad. Routes in the Bernese Oberland can get crowded, but those in the Valais and Graubünden, especially in the Lower Engadine’s Swiss National Park, are relatively unspoiled. Every major tourist office in Switzerland will offer a free map of walking and hiking paths, and local bookstores sell topographical maps of wilderness trails.
Urban Swimming: For a landlocked country, Switzerland has a whole lot of water. Most of its main cities are situated on sparklingly clean lakes and rivers, and there’s nothing more Swiss than heading to the nearest “beach” at the end of a long, hot workday. On Lake Zurich, two of the most popular swimming areas (Männerbad at Schanzengraben, Frauenbad at Stadthausquai) are single-sex during the day, but turn into thumping co-ed beach bars at night. In Geneva, the democratic Bains des Pâquis on the shore of Lac Léman is the place to go. In Bern, swimsuit-clad locals rush down riverside steps to enjoy a swim in the chilly Aare River, and on summer days in Basel, the Rhine fills with residents and their fish-shaped clothes bags.
Cruising to the Rütli Meadow: In August of 1291 (or so they say), three men representing the cantons of Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden met in a mountainside field on the southern shore of Lake Lucerne. Here, they swore an oath to unite their lands, forming the nucleus of the Swiss Confederation. Immortalized in Schiller’s William Tell, the site of that meeting occupies a special place in the hearts of the Swiss people—unfortunately including right-wing nationalists, who swarm there every year on August 1, Swiss National Day. But any other time, take a boat cruise from Lucerne or Brunnen and see why the Swiss were so eager to defend this beautiful area from intruders.
- Exploring Zurich West: Think Switzerland’s largest city is only about suited-up bankers and watches that cost as much as your house? Head for this revitalized industrial area to the west of town, a onetime wasteland that’s now home to galleries, concert halls, design shops, and offbeat restaurants and bars. Start with the Löwenbräu Areal, a brewery turned mixed-use art center, and round things off with pastis and moules frites at quirky market/bistro Les Halles.
- Riding the Rhaetian Sensation: The peppy red wagons of the Rhaetian Railway chug up, down, around, and through the 900-plus mountains in the canton of Graubünden, connecting minor villages and major resorts alike. Built between 1888 and 1922, the rail network combines impressive engineering with incredible scenery; it’s also the least stressful (and in winter, the only) way for visitors to navigate this region’s treacherous, high-altitude landscape. The Bernina and Glacier Express trains are tailor-made to introduce tourists to the most dramatic stretches, but nearly every journey within the canton can serve as a destination in itself.
- Getting Sloshed on Swiss Wine: Switzerland produces some of the best wines in the world, but very few of them are exported—so use your trip as an excuse to sample all the Chasselas and Pinot Noir you can drink. Oenophiles’ first stop should be Lavaux, the wine-growing region between Lausanne and Vevey, renowned for its hillside terraces full of ancient, family-owned vineyards.
- Eating at a Grotto: In the parlance of the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino, a grotto is an informal, very rustic restaurant where hearty traditional dishes like polenta, risotto, and grilled sausage are washed down with ceramic saucers full of merlot. Every Ticinesi you meet will have his or her own favorite, most of which lie far off the main tourist routes—but to get the experience without making too large of a detour, try Lugano’s Grotto dei Pescatori, Ascona’s Grotto Baldoria, or Grotto America at the mouth of Valle Maggia.
Viewing Castles & Cathedrals: There is so much emphasis on outdoor sports in Switzerland that many visitors forget that it's rich in history and filled with landmarks from the Middle Ages. Explore at random. Visit the castle at Chillon where Lord Byron wrote The Prisoner of Chillon. Or Gruyères, which everyone knows for the cheese, but is also the most craggy castle village of Switzerland, complete with dungeon and spectacular panoramic views. Both Bern and Basel have historic Münsters of cathedrals—the one in Bern dates from the 14th century. Among the great cathedrals, St. Nicholas's Cathedral, in the ancient city of Fribourg near Bern, dominates the medieval quarter, and Schloss Thun, on Lake Thun in the Bernese Oberland, was built by the dukes of Zähtingen at the end of the 12th century.
Joining the Revelers at Fasnacht (Basel): Believe it or not, Switzerland has its own safe and very appealing version of Carnival, which dates back to the Middle Ages. It begins the Monday after Ash Wednesday (usually in late Feb or early Mar). The aesthetic is heathen (or pagan), with a touch of existentialist absurdity. The horse-drawn and motorized parades are appropriately flamboyant, and the cacophonous music that accompanies the spectacle includes the sounds of fifes, drums, trumpets, and trombones. As many as 20,000 people participate in the raucous festivities, which may change your image of strait-laced Switzerland.
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