Things to Do in Switzerland
Bahnhofstrasse is THE shopping street in Zurich. Running from Bahnhofplatz outside the main train station all the way to the lake, it's full of luxury shops selling designer fashion, furs, porcelain, and, of course, chocolates, clocks and watches. Halfway along is Zurich's first, biggest and best department store Jelmoli. The basement food-hall is a must. Or if you want the best in Swiss chocolate, take a break at Cafe Sprungli, the epicenter of sweet Switzerland since 1836.
Bahnhofstrasse follows the line of the moat of medieval Zurich and is mainly pedestrianized, although watch out for the trams running along it. It runs parallel to the river Limmat and it's easy to punctuate your shopping with visits to churches and other important sites of Zurich dotted in the narrow streets between. Culture and consumerism: Zurich has them both.
Riding Europe‘s highest open-air cog railway is a popular pastime for visitors to Zermatt and the dramatic Gornergrat railway serves up jaw-dropping views as it winds its way to the summit of Gornergrat Mountain.
The 45-minute journey might be impressive, but the real highlight is the destination and the Gornergrat Bahn boasts the title of Switzerland’s second-highest train station (after Jungfrau), located at a dizzying 3,089 meters. On arrival, make your way to the dedicated viewing platform, where the views span 29 of Switzerland’s highest peaks, including the mighty Matterhorn and one of the longest glaciers in the Alps.
A long winding valley cupped between the snow-capped mountains of the Swiss Alps and following the Inn River, the 80-km-long Engadine (or Engadin) Valley is one of the country's most desirable holiday destinations. With a sunny climate, beautiful lakes and a stunning alpine backdrop, this makes Engadine one of Europe’s most highly populated valleys, including star-studded destinations like St Moritz. The Rhaetian Railway and the Bernina Express both run into the Upper Engadine valley, where the highest mountains of the Bernina Range play host to ski and snowboarding resorts, mighty glaciers and a range of year-round outdoor activities. The valley also hosts a number of annual festivals and events – look out for skiing competitions, horse racing and polo on the frozen St Moritz lake, windsurfing marathons and the day parade of traditional horse-drawn sleigh rides that takes place each winter.
Carved into the low cliff face on the outskirts of the Old Town, the Lion Monument is Lucerne’s most distinctive landmark, evocatively described by Mark Twain as ‘the most mournful and moving piece of stone in the world’. The giant sandstone sculpture depicts a 10-meter long dying lion resting in a shaded nook above a shimmering pond, and was created in 1821 under commission of Captain Carl Pfyffer von Altishofen.
Hewn out of the natural rock on-site, the monument was the handiwork of stonemason Lucas Ahorn, to the design of Danish classicist sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsenwhilst and commemorates the Swiss Guards that lost their lives in the 1792 French Revolution. Look closely and you’ll see that the lion’s paws rest on the symbolic Fleur-de-Lis (Lilies of France), while a broken spear juts from his back. The poignant inscription reads ‘Helvetiorum Fidei ac Virtuti’ – ‘To the loyalty and bravery of the Swiss’.
More Things to Do in Switzerland
The 13th-century Church of our Lady, or Fraumünster, has an elegant blue spire which soars above the Zurich skyline. Situated right next to the lake, it is one of Zurich's key sights. Founded in 853 as a Benedictine convent, around the 11th century it was responsible for minting coins and collecting tolls making the then Abbess a powerful women indeed.
Inside the church are the famous stained-glass windows of 1967 by the famous artist Marc Chagall. The three main windows are: the blue Jacob window, with a ladder to heaven, the green Christ window, featuring Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus, and the yellow Zion window depicting King David and Bathsheba being trumpeted into New Jerusalem. To the sides there are windows depicting the Prophets and Moses. Near the main exit is a window by another famous artist, Giacometti.
Sometimes called the Gross Monster by English-speaking locals, Grossmunster is a Romanesque-style Protestant church in Zurich. According to legend, Charlemagne discovered the graves of the city’s patron saints, Felix and Regula, and ordered a church to be constructed on the spot. Construction of Grossmunster began in 1100 and was finished around 1220, with the core of the building built on the site where Charlemagne’s church stood. The only original decorations that remain today are some faded frescoes in a side chapel and a depictions of battle scenes and Charlemagne’s discovery of Felix’s and Regula’s graves. The church’s crypt is the largest in Switzerland and dates to the 11th and 13th centuries. Modern stained glass windows were added to the church in 1932 and bronze doors were added in 1935 and 1950. Also known as the starting point of the Reformation in Switzerland in the 16th century, Grossmunster’s twin towers make it one of the most recognized landmarks in Zurich.
In a city with almost 150 museums and galleries, the Swiss National Museum (Landesmuseum) beats off some pretty stiff competition to take its place as one of Zurich’s top museums. The largest of its kind in the country, the museum is devoted to preserving the cultural heritage and history of Switzerland, chronicling the birth and evolution of the nation.
Almost 1 million artifacts make up the permanent collection, which takes the visitor on a journey from ancient Switzerland, through the Middle Ages and into the 20th century. Personal items, handicrafts, artworks, furnishings and household items are among the many relics, bringing the past back to life through a series of evocative displays. Highlights include artifacts from as far back as the 4th millennium B.C; a significant collection of 9th century Carolingian art; a Swiss warfare exhibit of weaponry and armor; and an exhibit devoted to the traditional art of Swiss clock making.
The historic heart of Zurich, the Altstadt, or Old Town, remains the most atmospheric part of the city, with its striking 19th century buildings and winding cobblestone lanes hosting an array of modern cafes, shops and galleries. For visitors to the city, the Old Town makes the ideal starting point for a sightseeing tour of Zurich, sprawling along both sides of the River Limmat and home to many of the city’s principal tourist attractions.
Zurich’s two landmark cathedrals – the medieval Fraumuenster (Church of Our Lady) and the Gothic style Grossmuenster – make navigating the Old Town easy, perched on opposite sides of the river and linked by the monumental Munster bridge. From here it’s an easy stroll to the charming Niederdorf district, crammed with quirky boutiques and hip coffee shops; the famous Bahnhofstrasse, one of Europe’s glitziest shopping streets; and many of Zurich’s top museums like the Swiss National Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts.
From Roman mosaics in the foundations to the neoclassical columns of its facade, the Cathédrale de Saint-Pierre is not only Geneva’s main house of worship, it is also a fascinating time capsule of the different influences that have dominated the city over the centuries. Depending on how you approach it, you could be forgiven for thinking the cathedral is actually a group of smaller buildings huddled together, as successive building programs – most notably Romanesque and Gothic – never completely wiped out previous traces.
Saint-Pierre is associated above all with the Protestant reformer John Calvin, who preached here in the 16th century; his rather uncomfortable looking wooden chair is still on display. And if you’re feeling energetic, just nearby is the entrance to the cathedral’s north tower, which will reward your 157-step climb with one of the best views of Geneva.
The Red Cross is one of the numerous international bodies associated with Geneva. This museum pursues its progress from the mid-19th century, when local businessman Henry Dunant first conceived of a transnational group which would help the afflicted in times of need. The chronologically arranged exhibits follow this great humanitarian organization through the unparalleled destruction of the 20th century to the present day, where the Red Cross (or Red Crescent in Muslim countries) represents a banner of hope in trouble spots and scenes of natural disaster the world over. Exhibits tell the story through text, video, sound, interactive displays, as well as an archive of some seven million index cards documenting prisoners of war, a testament to the ideals of the Geneva Convention. The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum, also known as the Musée International de la Croix-Rouge et du Croissant-Rouge, is a monument to humanity’s best impulses in the face of its worst.
The oldest example of domestic architecture in Geneva, the Maison Tavel traces its origins to the beginning of the 14th century, with its layers revealing the wealth and prestige of its various owners and the growing importance of the city. As you approach, stone heads peer down at you and a corner tower lacks only Rapunzel to complete the fairy tale impression.
Once inside the distinctive dark stone walls you can explore the house from top to bottom. The cellar contains excellent examples of woodcarving and ironwork through the centuries, while the attic boasts a superb model of Geneva in the mid-19th century, when its fortifications were still intact. In between you’ll find displays of domestic interiors, including the surprisingly light and airy private quarters, fully outfitted kitchens, and displays including suits of armour and coins, highlighting the importance of finance to the city.
In a leafy park along the scenic banks of Lake Geneva is the Ariana Museum–a palatial, three-story mansion home to over 20,000 glass and ceramic objects. The museum features a private collection of ceramic vases, cups, statues, stained glass windows and paintings, plus a room of contemporary ceramics on the second floor and a display of temporary exhibitions in the basement. Though most descriptions are in French, the free museum is still worth a visit for its beautiful surroundings.
Held in an impressive, Baroque-meets-classical-style building, the museum gives way to high-vaulted ceilings, rich burgundy walls, massive columns and an accessible balcony overlooking the Parc de l'Ariana. There's also a tea room (similar to a cafe) and an outdoor patio offering lunch (though you'll need reservations).
Things to do near Switzerland
- Things to do in Zurich
- Things to do in Geneva
- Things to do in Lucerne
- Things to do in Interlaken
- Things to do in Basel
- Things to do in Montreux
- Things to do in Davos
- Things to do in St Moritz
- Things to do in Zermatt
- Things to do in Monaco
- Things to do in Luxembourg
- Things to do in Swiss Alps
- Things to do in Central Switzerland
- Things to do in Lake Geneva
- Things to do in Rhône-Alpes