Backpacking in Switzerland
Switzerland has Europe’s third richest population (after Luxembourg and Norway) and, despite its relatively small size geographically, its role with Europe has always belied its size and population.
With famed ski resorts such as Verbier and St Morritz attracting the great and glamorous from around the world, and with a reputation for quality and class, Switzerland is unlikely to be somewhere that you want to spend more than a few days – unless your backpacking exploits are being generously bankrolled!
This said, Switzerland’s location makes passing through and stopping off for a few nights a great option, and the stunning alpine views, fairytale castles and chance to see (and taste!) some of the things that Switzerland is famous for (chocolate, cheese, clocks!) shouldn’t be passed up.
Where is it and what’s there?
Switzerland is a landlocked country, and shares borders with Germany to the north, Austria and Liechtenstein to the east, Italy to the south, and France to the west. Two mountain regions dominate the geography of the country: The Alps in the south, and the Jura in the northwest. The centre of the country has a distinctly Swiss topography with vast lakes and abundant green hills.
The capital and hub for international banking, Zurich, is in the north of the country, while Geneva to the south claims to be ‘cultural’ capital, and is an equally impressive city with plenty to interest backpackers.
On account of its topography, it is impossible to generalise about Swiss weather. The top of some of the Alpine peaks are glacial and offer year round wintersports, while the southern tip of the country can have a distinctly Mediterranean climate during the summer.
Aside from the mountainous regions and the more temperate south, however, the central region (the Central Plateau) has an essentially seasonal climate, with warm (but sometimes wet) summers, and colder winters. The main ski resorts open around November time, and stay open until April or May.
You can fly to one of Switzerland’s three main airports: Zurich, Geneva and Basel, and most other European cities have connections with one of these. Geneva has increased flights during the ski season, particularly amongst the budget airlines. It’s worth remembering that Switzerland is very well placed for ‘continuing on’ from, so is worth having on your list if you’re looking for flights to anywhere else in central or southern Europe.
Switzerland also has fantastic rail links with the rest of Europe, including high speed connections from France and Germany (TGV and ICE respectively). Similarly, road links into Switzerland are straightforward and well managed so driving or catching a bus in is no problem either.
Unsurprisingly, you almost can set your watch by the trains in Switzerland! Their punctuality is pretty much guaranteed, and the comprehensive network will get you to all corners of the country quickly and efficiently. Trains are either shown as Red on timetables (which means less stops and a quicker journey), or Black (stopping more frequently). There is an assortment of discount cards that are worth considering if you are staying for a week or more, or if you are planning on doing a lot of travelling.
Switzerland also has an excellent motorway system so driving around is a pleasure. Be aware that if you are driving on motorways (even just for a short distance) you must have a valid ‘vignette’ (a permit), otherwise you can expect a fine.
Things to Do
Switzerland has some fantastic scenery and has a distinct ‘Swiss’ feeling wherever you travel in the country. The area of the country that you’re in, however, may feel strangely familiar if you’ve arrived via any of Switzerland’s neighbours, as the country does seem to share many of its cultural nuances with its neighbours. Expect a more relaxed wine drinking cafe culture on the southwest where the country borders France, for example, or a more ‘beer and hearty food’ approach to life along the German bordering south of the country. Both areas are worth a visit.
The Lakes. Switzerland’s lakes are crisp and stunning. The most popular to visit are Lake Geneva, Lake Zürich and Lake Constance and, aside from taking a picnic and relaxing by the water’s edge, you can also head out on a ferry or a paddle-steamer to see things from a different perspective.
Watches It’s not surprising that Switzerland is so efficient and timely when you realise quite how many watch makers and watch shops there are. Most medium sized towns have a dedicated watch shop, and the cities seem to have hundreds. It could worth picking one up – then there’ll be no more excuses for missing your next backpacking connection!
Geneva. Switzerland’s ‘arty’ capital has both stunning architecture and historical areas (dating back to Roman times), and a cosmopolitan approach to life. There are art centres and exhibitions throughout the city and an exciting and varied nightlife. The city is also well placed if you are just hopping in for a few nights from France or Italy.
Skiing. With some of Europe’s most famous skiing areas it’s worth heading to a Swiss resort if your budget allows. Aside from the skiing, however, it’s worth just grabbing a coffee and watching the immaculately attired skiers going about their business. It does feel like how you look off the slopes is more important than how you perform on them!
Gruyères. As you’d imagine Switzerland to look on a postcard, the town of Gruyères really is ‘classic’ Switzerland, and also home to one of the nation’s most famous exports: Gruyère cheese. For real cheese-lovers there are factories offering tours and tastings.
Hiking. With so much stunning scenery, it’s not surprising that the Swiss love to hike. There are over 30,000 miles of sign posted trails too, all colour coded and with hiking time. Only in Switzerland!
It’s unlikely that you’ll plan on spending too much time in Switzerland, both on account of its size and the cost of living there. This said, if you want to see an example of a friendly, confident and perfectly run country, then do try to build a Swiss night or two into your plans for this part of Europe. Just don’t be late!