The Swiss landscape was shaped by glaciers, which hollowed out the valleys and led to the creation of a multitude of magnificent lakes, a large part of Switzerland's beautiful scenery.
The Swiss plateau, set between the Jura and Alps mountain chains and extending from Lake Geneva in the southwest to Lake Constance in the northeast, represents about 30% of the country's surface area. The main cities and industries are concentrated on this plateau, making Switzerland one of the world's most densely populated countries. Most of the Swiss live in this zone, with half the population based in the urban areas of Geneva, Lausanne, Basel, Bern, Olten, Aarau, Zurich, and Baden. The plateau is also the country's center of agricultural production.
Within its borders Switzerland has nearly every variety of landscape, vegetation, and climatic condition known in Europe. Only a few dozen miles, as the crow flies, separate the lowest point in Switzerland, the shores of Lake Maggiore (where palm trees thrive in a Mediterranean climate), from the highest, the Dufourspitze (where the climate is one of eternal snow and ice).
Of course, the Alps are the main tourist attraction of Switzerland, with about 100 peaks above 3,600m (12,000 ft.). Some 1,800 glaciers offer the sight of an awesome and sometimes-savage nature. The view south from the Jungfraujoch, the highest rail station in Europe, is one of wind-swept rock and ice, majestic and dramatic.
The Swiss Alps form the centerpiece of Europe's alpine range. They're broken by the great valleys of the Rhône in the canton of the Valais and the Rhine in the canton of the Graubünden, as well as by many lateral valleys. (A canton is a division similar to a U.S. state.) To the north, the chain ends in the Bernese Alps (Finsteraarhorn); to the south in the Valais Alps (the Monte Rosa range); and to the east, the Alps end at Piz Bernina. In the canton of Ticino, which on the map looks like a triangular section of northern Italy, Switzerland possesses part of the southern face of the Alps.
Zurich -- Close to the northern border of Switzerland, Zurich is not only the country's largest city, but also one of the most scenic capitals of the world, famous for its lakeside promenades set against a backdrop of towering mountains. The lakeside quays lead to the Alstadt, or Old Town, presided over by the city's two most historic churches, Fraumünster and Grossmünster. For a view of the Alps, visitors head for Uetliberg. Two of Europe's greatest museums call Zurich home: the Rietberg with its magnificent non-European art collection, and the Bührle with its array of modern art.
The Bernese Oberland -- Switzerland's best-known alpine region is named after its largest city, Bern, the Swiss capital. Known for the beauty of its mountains, it includes many famous resorts, the largest of which is Interlaken, popular mainly in the summer. At its higher altitudes, where the snowfall is more consistent, are such chic ski resorts as Gstaad, Grindelwald, Kandersteg, Mürren, and Wengen.
Northeastern Switzerland -- Relatively neglected by tourists, this region is separated from southern Germany and Austria by the waters of the Rhine and Lake Constance. Its highlights include St. Gallen, a lace-making center and the economic center of the region, certain sections of the Rhine valley, and the Rhine Falls, near Neuhausen.
Basel & the Jura -- In northwestern Switzerland, Basel, the capital of the region, is an ancient university town and trading center on the Rhine, set midway between French Alsace and the Jura canton in Switzerland. The Jura is a range of "folded" limestone ridges between two great rivers, the Rhône and the Rhine.
The Valais -- This rugged valley of the upper Rhône offers such geographic attractions as the Matterhorn and the Great St. Bernard Pass. Equally divided between French- and German-speaking residents, it's rich in alpine folklore. Its most frequented ski resort is Zermatt.
Lausanne & the Shores of Lake Geneva -- Called Lac Léman by the Swiss, Lake Geneva is the largest freshwater body in central Europe, covering some 583 sq. km (225 sq. miles). It's partially fed by the alpine waters of the Rhône and is emptied by a continuation of the same river, which eventually pours into the Mediterranean. Lausanne, the cultural center of the area, is the second-largest city on Lake Geneva and the fifth largest in Switzerland.
Geneva -- Geneva, Switzerland's second-largest city, is distinctly different from the rest of Switzerland and culturally more attuned to France. It's built on the Rhône, at the lower end of Lake Geneva, and is bordered on three sides by French territory. This center of world banking and commerce -- and the site of many world organizations, such as the Red Cross -- is celebrated for its prosperity, elegance, and sophistication.
Lucerne & Central Switzerland -- The heartland of Switzerland, this region takes in four different cantons: Lucerne, Uri, Unterwalden, and Schwyz, from which the country's name is derived. The region's only major city is Lucerne, a medieval town made famous as a resort in the 19th century. It sits at the northern edge of the lake that bears its name. Despite Switzerland's wealth of attractions, Lucerne is the Swiss city that most North Americans prefer to visit.
The Grisons & the Engadine -- This area is the largest and most easterly of the cantons of Switzerland. It's also one of the least populated, taking in about 363 sq. km (140 sq. miles) of glaciers and legions of jagged, wind-swept mountain peaks. Its capital is Chur, the oldest town in Switzerland, but most visitors bypass it en route to the ski resorts of Arosa, Klosters, and Davos. The Engadine stretches for 97km (60 miles), from the Maloja Plateau to Finstermünz. The region's chief attraction is the glamorous winter resort of St. Moritz.
The Ticino -- The Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, the Ticino is the most southerly -- and warmest -- region of the country. Not surprisingly, it's the retirement dream for many residents in the northern cantons. The region includes the major cities of Lugano and Locarno, which share, respectively, the lakes of Lugano and Maggiore with Italy. The Italian influence is most strongly felt in the region's relaxed tempo.