A vacation to Switzerland is not cheap, but the beautiful and rugged alpine land of Heidi, the Matterhorn, and yodeling is well worth the expense. Historically neutral despite its centralized location in Europe, Switzerland is home to numerous international organizations such as the Red Cross, as well as a multicultural population that is one of the few to engage in a direct democracy to some extent. Life expectancy is one of the highest in the world, and the largest cities, Zurich and Geneva, number among the top cities in the world with the highest quality of life. A vacation to Switzerland is just the thing to learn their secret (hint – it’s chocolate).
An outdoorsman’s paradise
Its high location among the Alps as a site of glacial activity has positioned Switzerland to witness first-hand the effects of climate change. Consequently, environmentalism plays a big part in the Swiss national consciousness. Energy comes mostly from hydroelectric sources, since Switzerland houses the headwaters of four major European rivers: the Inn, Rhine, Ticino, and Rhône. Carbon dioxide emissions are some of the lowest in the world. And Switzerland has an environment that is worth preserving, a paradise for those who enjoy outdoor activities.
Switzerland features some of the best skiing in the world, with its second largest peak, the Matterhorn, being the highlight. If you enjoy other adrenaline inducing activities, the city of Interlaken offers a variety of thrills from skydiving to canyoning to white water rafting.
Switzerland is ideal for mountain climbers and hikers. The numerous hiking trails are well-developed and feature small villages and other places to shelter or resupply along the way so that it’s possible to hike over 200 miles in relative comfort and safety. Mountain biking is another way to survey the Swiss countryside and there are even some designated routes for inline skating. One unique mode of seeing Switzerland is by riding the cable cars and wind around the high mountain passes and peaks, although these can get pricey.
Getting into Switzerland
Although it’s not part of the European Union, Switzerland is part of the Schengen Agreement, which allows unfettered travel from other countries into Switzerland with only a valid passport. For residents of the US, a valid passport will allow you entry for up to 90 days within a 180 day period that also applies to other countries in the Schengen Area, so if you have stayed for more than 90 days inside the six month period in any of the Schengen countries, you may not be allowed entry into Switzerland. If you stay in Switzerland illegally you can face deportation and future restrictions on entry if you are caught. If you plan to stay in Switzerland for longer than 90 days, you will need to apply for a visa.
Switzerland does not require any specific vaccinations aside from the most common ones, and there is no minimum amount of currency you have to declare. Nor are there any restrictions for those with AIDS or HIV.
The traveler’s tongue
Switzerland is actually a confederacy of smaller states called cantons, and each canton has a slightly different culture including the language they speak. There are actually four national languages that are widely spoken in Switzerland, depending on the region. They are French, Swiss German, Italian, and a romance language unique to much of the southwestern part of the country called Romansh.
Keep in mind that the Italian and French spoken in Switzerland, the southern and eastern parts respectively, is a Swiss variant. They are mostly similar to Italian as spoken in Italy and French as spoken in France with some differences. “Swiss” Standard German is the language spoken in Zurich and the official language for schools, the media, and the like. It is similar to German with minor differences. However, even though this Standard German is the formal language throughout much of the country, particularly the northern half, informally people speak their own dialects of what is collectively called Swiss German.
While most students learn a second language it is usually one of the other languages spoken in Switzerland. Only recently have many students begun to learn English. In the cities, you will find many people who speak English, but in the more rural areas, it is less common.
Money matters in Switzerland
Being one of the wealthiest countries in the world, Switzerland can get expensive. It’s quite easy to spend upwards of $500 a day. Midrange accommodations can start out at around $100 a night. Since many Swiss restaurants are fine dining establishments, meals can get up to $75 per person. Your daily budget will largely depend on what you do, with frequent trips to ski resorts taking the most out of your pockets. You can enjoy a moderate vacation on about $300 USD a day per person.
It is possible to enjoy Switzerland on a budget of about $120 a day, but this involves staying in hostels, couch surfing, buying groceries, engaging in cheap or free activities, using public transportation, and a lot of hiking and camping to get from place to place. Buying train passes in advance can help keep transportation costs from cutting into a daily budget and offers you wider range of travel.
Although Switzerland is not part of the European Union, many places will accept euros as currency although you will probably have your change converted into the Swiss currency, Swiss Francs (CHF). You can change your money at most banks and post offices but money changing bureaus will give you the lowest commission rates.
Most ATM’s will accept major debit and credit cards and give you instructions in English. Throughout the country, cash is the preferred means of exchange, with businesses who accept credit and debit cards less frequent then you find in the US.
Cruising the Alps
The beautiful mountains and forests that make hiking so desirable also make Switzerland a great place to drive around, with winding mountain roads that are fun to navigate. However you must not speed, not even slightly. The Swiss crack down heavily on speeding drivers, and you don’t even have to be stopped to be cited for speeding. Numerous electronic detectors will catch you if the police do not. Because of agreements with other nations, you can even be prosecuted and have to appear in a US court for a speeding violation while in Switzerland.
The reasons against driving too fast through potentially icy mountain roads should be obvious, but you would also be racing through gorgeous landscapes that are worth savoring at a more leisurely rate.
In order to drive legally in Switzerland, you must have a sticker called a vignette on your car. You can purchase one for 40 CHF (approximately $44 US dollars). Most rental cars will have the vignette already paid.
Driving is on the right side of the road, much as it is in the US. You must not pass cars on the right or pass a tram when it’s stopped, and when you are stopped at a traffic light, you are supposed to turn off your engine. If you forget to do so, do not be surprised if other drivers give you grief about it.
When driving through the mountains, be sure and yield the right of way to vehicles driving uphill. You are also expected to yield to the Postal Bus, which is bright yellow and has a distinctive three note horn. It will sound its horn when coming around a hairpin turn, and you should stop before the turn and pull off to the right to let it pass because it generally won’t stop. Whenever you are coming up to tight turns, it’s a good idea to honk your horn to let drivers coming from the opposite direction know that you’re there. If you follow the traffic rules and drive safely, a driving holiday through Switzerland can reward you with astounding views.
Even if you don’t use a car, Switzerland is easy to get around and most people do so by train. Inside the larger cities, public transportation abounds. If you plan on spending a day seeing sights around a city, you can buy a pass that will give you access to the wide array of public transportation options available.
One of the most common dishes served throughout Switzerland is fondue, but aside from this, each region offers a variety of regionally specific dishes. Cheese, chocolate, and wine are all consumed in abundance, and the Swiss are renowned for producing some of the best you’ll find throughout the world. Most of the restaurants throughout the country serve high end meals so that dining is a real treat. Fortunately, the numerous opportunities to hike or do other physical activities afford you an opportunity to work off the calories so that you don’t return from your vacation carrying around excess weight.
Although a Swiss vacation can cost you an arm and a leg, it’s a great opportunity to meet numerous friendly people who are all insanely happy that they get to live in one of the most beautiful places in the world and enjoy sharing this world with visitors.
C.W. Garay is an alumnus from the University of North Texas, where he received both his BA in psychology and an MA in English, specializing in creative writing, fiction. When not traveling he resides in Denton, TX, rated as the number one small town in which to live in the US according to Business Insider’s 2013 survey. In addition to writing articles on traveling, he also writes fiction under a pseudonym. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.