Best things to do in Switzerland
Find out more about those top places in Switzerland
Lugano, the most important city in the Italian speaking Ticino region, is where Swiss and Latin cultures come together in spectacular fashion. Similar to many hilltop towns across the Italian border in Lombardy, Lugano’s streets precipitously wind their way down alpine hillsides to the crystal clear waters of Lake Lugano and the picture-perfect Piazza della Riforma. On the hillsides many of the town’s star attractions offer dazzling views across the water to Italy proper with the Renaissance-era Cattedrale San Lorenzo and the medieval church of Santa Maria degli Angioli also highlighting Lugano’s fascinating history. In recent years, Lugano has received a welcome boost from the opening of the Lugano Arts Center, a world-class exhibition space that has put the town on Europe’s cultural map.
One of the buzziest cultural events of 2015 was the opening of Lugano’s world-class arts center. Known as LAC, the center is home to a jaw-dropping number of cultural institutions, including an old masters gallery, one of the largest concert halls in the Alps and the groundbreaking Museo d'Arte della Svizzera Italiana (MASI). The latter, which hosts a series of conceptual exhibitions throughout the year, is a must-see for contemporary art lovers.
One of Switzerland’s most picturesque peaks, Monte Bré, rises above Lugano. Providing spectacular views across the Italian border and the glacial-capped mountains of the Bernese Alps, the mountain is the starting point for many hiking and mountain biking trails. If you do not fancy walking up to the summit, a funicular railway runs from Lugano.
Set high on the hillsides above Lake Lugano is the Chiesa di Santa Maria degli Angioli, Lugano’s most spectacular church. While it may look simple from the outside, the interior is dominated by impressive 16th century frescoes by Bernardino Luini. In short, no visit to Lugano would be complete without seeing these jaw-dropping works of art.
For Lugano’s best view, take the funicular railway to the top of the 912 meters Monte San Salvatore where you will be treated with vistas ranging from the high Alpine peaks in the west to the shimmering waters of Lake Como in the south.
Dedicated to the Nobel Prize winning German author, the Museo Hermann Hesse is one of Lugano’s most rewarding museums. Housed in the house where Hesse spent much of the interwar period, the collection encompasses artifacts important in the writer’s life, including his typewriter, glasses and watercolor paintings.
Founded in the Middle Ages but completely rebuilt during the 16th century Renaissance, the Cattedrale di San Lorenzo is one of the finest churches in the Alps. Concealing numerous dazzling frescoes and baroque altarpieces, it is a must-see when visiting Lugano.
Bern, Switzerland’s capital, is one of Europe’s most beguiling cities. Centered around a UNESCO World Heritage listed Altstadt and backed by a series of glacial peaks, Bern is a microcosm of Switzerland itself. Spreading out around the stately Spitalgasse are the cobbled lanes, medieval sandstone tenements, covered arcades and flag bedecked plazas of the old town, which is undoubtedly Switzerland’s best preserved. The centerpiece of Bern’s historic core is the gothic splendor of the Münster, a 15th century cathedral with the tallest spire in Switzerland. Beyond the Altstadt, Bern is a typically Swiss city with excellent public transport and groundbreaking contemporary art, which is on full display at the architecturally mesmerizing Zentrum Paul Klee. Typically, bypassed by tourists traveling around Europe, Bern is one of the continent’s true hidden gems and showcases the best Switzerland has to offer.
Bern’s UNESCO listed old town is one of the best preserved in Europe having scarcely changed since it was rebuilt in the 13th century following a devastating fire. To see the area’s historic sites, take a walking tour of its many cobbled streets, covered arcades and flag bedecked squares, where you will see the famed Zytglogge, one of Europe’s most iconic clock towers, and the decorative fountains erected in the 16th century.
The heart of the Altstadt is the 15th century Münster, which is Switzerland’s tallest cathedral. The gothic spire rises 100 meters above the city and for vertigo-free visitors a trip to the top provides impressive views of the not-so-distant Alps. The interior of the Münster is also spectacular with the highlight being The Last Judgement, which is located at the main portal.
Housed in one of Switzerland’s most daring pieces of modern architecture, the Zentrum Paul Klee is Bern’s standout museum. The gallery plays host to a rotating selection of the Swiss-born artist’s iconic works and details his prodigious life working with other masters at the Bauhaus School of Art. Guided tours of this remarkable museum are available throughout the day and are one of Bern’s most rewarding experiences.
It is popularly thought that the name Bern derives from the German word for bear (bär), as the Duke of Zähringen trapped one on a hunting trip near the location of the future city. Today, the Bären Park is home to three bears that roam the park’s wooded landscape freely and if you are lucky you will catch a glimpse of them from the observation deck.
One of the best day tours from the Swiss capital is to the picture-perfect resort town of Zermatt, which is famous the world over for glacier capped Matterhorn mountain. Once in the town you can immerse yourself in its glitzy atmosphere, soak up some history at the Matterhorn Museum or the Mountaineers’ Graveyard or go on an alpine adventure by taking the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise cable-car to nearly 4000 meters above sea level.
Housed in the famous physicists’ former apartment, the Einstein-Haus tells the often-poignant story of his personal and scientific lives through a number of permanent displays and temporary exhibitions. Most interesting are those detailing the development of Einstein’s famed E=mc² equation.
Reopened in 2017 after extensive renovations, Bern’s Museum für Kommunikation is the city’s most hi-tech museum. With a plethora of hands-on exhibits that explore how and why humans communicate with one another and the role of technology in this process, you are sure to learn something new at this one of a kind museum.
Bern’s museum of fine art is home to Switzerland’s most famed collection of works by great masters, including the world-famous Madonna and Child produced by Fra Angelico during the Renaissance. While the gallery does focus on the early modern period, it also encompasses 20th century works by Picasso and Monet that are not to be missed. For the best experience, book a guided tour that will take you to the gallery’s must-see pieces.
Nestled between two of Switzerland’s most picturesque lakes, Brienz and Thun, Interlaken is a paradise for alpine adventures. Surrounded by the glacier capped peaks of Eiger, Jungfrau and Mönch, it is no surprise that Interlaken offers unparalleled opportunities for extreme sports with paragliding, white water rafting, ice climbing, canyon jumping and the more ubiquitous skiing and snowboarding all on offer. The town of Interlaken itself is also one of Switzerland’s most charming with a host of fin-de-siècle hotels, cafes and spas, which were once the favored retreat for weary Victorians, and picture-perfect alpine cottages lining the streets.
Perched 3454 meters above sea level in the snow-capped Swiss Alps is Jungfraujoch, the world’s highest railway station. Day trips from Interlaken take you through some of Europe’s most iconic scenery before ascending to the summit by rail, which is encircled by the Altesch Glacier. Once on the roof of the world you can marvel at the breathtaking landscapes, sample Swiss cuisine at a mountain-top tavern and learn about the history of this remarkable railway station.
One of the quintessential Interlaken experiences is taking the town’s funicular to Harder Kulm, which lies nearly 1500 meters above sea level. From the summit a variety of hiking trails ranging from pleasant strolls to adrenaline pumping epics begin while the recently opened Two Lakes Bridge is Europe’s answer to the Grand Canyon’s Sky Bridge.
The Tourist Museum, which is one of Interlaken’s most low-key attractions, is also one of its most fascinating. The museum details the town’s swift rise to fame during the Victorian-era, the emergence of mass tourism in the region and its recent transformation into an adventure sports mecca. Guided tours of the small but perfectly formed museum are available.
Well beneath the surface of the Swiss Alps that surround Interlaken is the subterranean world of Saint Beatus Caves. Clad in a phantasmagoria of stalactites, stalagmites and other rock formations, the caverns are simply unforgettable – especially once you learn of their fabled history as the home of dragons.
Sandwiched between impressive Alpine peaks is the picture-perfect Lake Brienz. With Interlaken perched on its western tip, the town makes the perfect base for exploring its wonderful scenery whether by vintage paddle boat tours or by something a little more adventurous, such as jet skis or kayaks.
For vertigo-free visitors to Interlaken, one of the area’s most unforgettable activities is paragliding. A variety of highly experienced local operators run tours from the town that let you glide down pine-clad Alpine valleys and survey the snowy peaks from the air.
Trundling up the hill south of Interlaken is the 19th century funicular Heimwehfluh. While the scenery this side of the town may be more rolling than Alpine, the summit station gives you the opportunity to go tobogganing in the winter or simply admire spectacular views of Lake Thun.
Set on the banks of a turquoise glacier fed River Limmat, Zurich combines sophisticated culture with a spectacular mountain setting. The city center revolves around the medieval district of Niederdorf, which is a myriad of cobbled lanes, Reformation-era cathedrals and baroque guildhalls. Beyond the charming medieval core, Zurich is one of Europe’s wealthiest cities with high-class restaurants, luxury shopping arcades and efficient public transport to rival city’s more than double its size. As Switzerland’s financial hub, the city has long been associated with dull bureaucracy but the up and coming district of Zuri-West is the city’s hidden gem with former industrial works transformed into hip art galleries and vibrant clubs giving Zurich some much-needed edge.
Set in the heart of historic Niederdorf, Zurich’s Fraumünster is one of Europe’s most celebrated churches. While it was erected in the 13th century, it rose to prominence in the late-20th century thanks to the addition of a series of dazzling stained-glass windows created by the Russian master Marc Chagall. Guided tours are available that help you explore the building’s beguiling blend of medieval and modern.
Zurich’s Kunsthaus is one of Europe’s preeminent art galleries housing works ranging from ecclesiastical medieval art to the mesmerizing sculptures of Auguste Rodin. For the best experience, tours and audio-guides are available that offer fascinating interpretations of the gallery’s most famous works.
One of Zurich’s most charming experiences is undoubtedly cruising the River Limmat. For the best experience, hop on a boat at Landesmuseum before cruising under medieval bridges and past the city’s historic core before reaching the shimmering Zurichsee.
A popular day trip from Zurich is the Rhine Falls, which are located in northern Switzerland near the town of Schaffhausen. The falls are Europe’s largest and were formed during the tectonic shifts that followed the Ice Age. Today, this natural wonder is best viewed from observation decks that protrude over the Rhine or the ramparts of the medieval Schloss Laufen.
For visitors looking for a whirlwind tour of Swiss history, there is no better place is stop than the Landesmuseum. Housed in a purpose-built castle, the museum houses artifacts ranging from Switzerland’s prehistory right through to the present day. Guided tours of the vast museum are available that offer a fascinating insight into the collection and the building itself.
The near-1000 meters tall mountain of Uetliberg sits right on Zurich’s doorstep and makes for one of the easiest and most rewarding day trips from the city. In the summer the hillsides are crisscrossed by various hiking trails and charming beer gardens provide ice-cold refreshments while in the winter it transforms into a snow-sports mecca. Atop the summit is Aussichtsturm, an observation tower with remarkable views across the city.
Towering over Zurich’s Altstadt is the Romanesque Grossmünster, one of the city’s most iconic attractions. Built between the 12th and 13th centuries the church sits atop another place of worship, which was allegedly used by the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne. To hear more about its fascinating history take one of the guided tours that are available throughout the day.
Sandwiched between Switzerland’s major metropolises of Bern and Zurich, Lucerne is a perfect getaway from the metropolitan buzz of the big cities. Ringed by forest-clad alpine foothills, Lucerne’s appearance has scarcely changed since the Renaissance with the medieval walled Altstadt remaining remarkably well-preserved. Unusually, the Altstadt straddles both sides of the River Reuss and is linked by the iconic 14th century Kapellbrücke. Despite the city’s palpable history, Lucerne is also a sophisticated city with a clutch of world-class art galleries, including the Sammlung Rosengart gallery, which houses works by Picasso, Cezanne, Renoir, Kandinsky, Chagall, Monet and many other blockbuster artists.
No experience in Lucerne can compare to strolling across the 14th century Kapellbrücke that spans the River Reuss in the heart of the Altstadt. The timber bridge’s highlights are the octagonal water tower that stands in the heart of the river and the 17th century roof panels that illustrate important events in Swiss history and mythology. To better understand this remarkable structure, cross it as part of a walking tour of the old town.
Lucerne’s star cultural attraction is undoubtedly Sammlung Rosengart, a vast treasure trove of art that was accumulated during the 20th century by Picasso’s close friend, Angela Rosengart. Unsurprisingly, the gallery is home to an astounding collection of works by the Spanish master and a permanent photo exhibition that details the great artist’s life. Beyond Picasso, the gallery also includes work by Chagall, Matisse, Klee, Cézanne and more.
Lucerne’s former city walls, known as Museggmauer, provide breathtaking views of the Altstadt and the glistening glaciers of the Alps in the distance. Dating back to the late-14th century, the imposing defenses can be explored individually or as part of fascinating walking tours that reveal their storied history.
One of the few circular paintings in the world is Edouard Castres’ striking Bourbaki, which depicts French troops fleeing to Switzerland following their defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. At over 1000 square meters, the painting is housed in its own specially designed museum, which also tells how Switzerland’s humanitarian response to the military crisis helped forge the nation’s pacifist and humanitarian identity.
Just downstream from the iconic Kapellbrücke is the medieval Spreuerbrücke, which in any other city would be a standout attraction in its own. Opened in 1408, the bridge has an original thatched roof and has intricately carved wood panels that tell the dark history of how the bubonic plague affected Lucerne.
The Swiss Museum of Transport is one of the country’s largest museums with over 3000 permanent displays. Visitors to this colossal museum of all things motorized can get up close to a variety of planes, trains and automobiles from the past, present and future of transport. Entrance tickets to the museum also give you access to the museum’s impressive planetarium and 3D movie theater.
Carved into a rock face in central Lucerne is the 19th century Lion Monument. Designed by Lukas Ahorn, the touching monument commemorates the Swiss soldiers who died defending King Louis XVI during the tumultuous days of the French Revolution. For literature fans, the monument is also of note as it allegedly inspired C.S. Lewis to create the character of Aslan in his Chronicles of Narnia series.