|Currency||Swiss franc (CHF)|
|Population||8,183,800 (June 2014)|
Switzerland (German: Schweiz, French: Suisse, Italian: Svizzera, Romansch: Svizra), officially the Swiss Confederation (Latin: Confoederatio Helvetica) is a landlocked country in Central Europe. It has borders with France to the west, Italy to the south, Austria and Liechtenstein to the east and Germany to the north.
Switzerland is known for its mountains (Alps in south, Jura in northwest) but it also has a central plateau of rolling hills, plains, and large lakes. The highest point is Dufourspitze at 4,634 m (15,203 ft) while Lake Maggiore is only 195 m (636 ft) above sea level. The climate is temperate, but varies with altitude. Switzerland has cold, cloudy, rainy/snowy winters and cool to warm, cloudy, humid summers with occasional showers.
Switzerland is intrinsically culturally more diverse than perhaps any other European country. It has four official languages, which have historically been dominant in various regions, or cantons - German, French and Italian in the regions bordering the respective country, and the uniquely local Romansch. Switzerland also has one of the proportionally largest expat/immigrant populations, consisting of almost all of the world's nationalities and enthnic groups. Renowned for tolerance, neutrality and direct democracy, as well as almost-legendary affluence, Switzerland has one of the highest standards of living in the world - and prices to match.
Switzerland can be a glorious whirlwind trip whether you've packed your hiking boots, snowboard, or just a good book and a pair of sunglasses.
Politically, Switzerland is divided into cantons, but the traveler will find the following regions more useful:
On the northern shores of Lac Léman, from the Jura to the Alps
|Jura Mountains and Fribourg
Hiking, lakes, watch-making
The core region of traditional Bernese influence
The majestic Bernese Alps
The birthplace of the Swiss Confederation and the legends of Wilhelm Tell
|Basel and Aargau
Culture, arts and home of the Swiss pharmaceutical industry; neighbouring Germany and France
The country's largest city with a sprawling metropolitan area
Between the Alps and Lake Constance, Abbey of St Gall, and home to many scenic dairy farms on rolling hills in Appenzell
Switzerland's highest peaks and Europe's largest glaciers
Officially trilingual, the region is very mountainous, lightly populated and home to many great tourist cities and includes the ancient Romansh minority language and culture (in English also known as The Grisons)
Italian-speaking region including famous alpine lakes
The Swiss Alps stretch through the regions of the eastern part of Lake Geneva, Valais, Bernese Highlands, southern part of Central Switzerland, almost the entirety of Ticino except for the most southern part, southern part of Northeastern Switzerland, and Graubünden.
- Berne (Bern) — as close as this highly devolved nation gets to having a capital with an amazingly well preserved old-town, with arcades along almost every street; great restaurants and bars abound
- Basel — the traveller's gateway to the German Rhineland and French Alsace with an exceptional medieval centre at the knee of the Rhine river
- Geneva (Genève) — this centre of arts and culture is an international city home to around 200 governmental and non-governmental organisations, birth place of the World-Wide-Web at CERN and the Red Cross organisation (ICRC)
- Lausanne — scenery, dining, dancing, boating and the Swiss wine-country are the draws
- Lucerne (Luzern) — main city of the central region with direct water links to all of the early Swiss historic sights
- Lugano — a gorgeous old-town, a pretty lake; much Italianata combined with Swiss seriousness
- St. Gallen — main city of north-eastern Switzerland, renowned for its Abbey of St. Gall, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it also functions as the gate to the very special Appenzell region.
- Zurich (Zürich) — Switzerland's largest city and a major centre of banking with a thriving nightlife
- Bellinzona — renowned for its medieval castles, world UNESCO heritage, pretty centre and capital of the canton of Ticino, overlooking one of the few flat rural areas of Switzerland towards Lake Maggiore.
- Davos – large ski resort where the annual meeting of the WEF takes place
- Chur — capital of the canton of Graubünden (The Grisons) it is the only trilingual Swiss canton, in the east-south of the country; gate to several glitzy ski and hiking resorts
- Grindelwald — the classic resort at the foot of the Eiger
- Interlaken — the outdoor and action sports capital of Switzerland; anything from skydiving, bungee jumping, hiking, white-water rafting, to canyoning
- Rhine Falls — the largest falls of Europe, close to Schaffhausen
- St. Moritz – glitzy ski resort in the Engadine valley in south-eastern Switzerland
- Zermatt — famous mountain resort at the base of the mighty Matterhorn
Switzerland has a history reaching far back into the Roman Empire times, when the tribes inhabiting it were called "Helvetians" by Roman sources - hence the modern-day Latin name "Confoederatio Helvetica", used internally wherever it is not advisable to give preference to any of the country's official languages. You can find many references to "Helvetia" or "Helvetic" in the naming of Swiss organisations and companies, and the International Registration Letter and Swiss top-level Internet domain are CH and .ch, respectively.
The Helvetians and their successors have adopted various forms of democracy and devolution to govern their lands, rather than feudalism or autocracy prevalent in the rest of Europe, thus conserving and in a sense modernising Germanic traditions otherwise only found in the Nordic countries. Functioning as a (initially very loose) confederation for centuries, the country has grown to become one of the most diverse in Europe, while also vividly celebrating their national and local identity and the direct democracy employed to make a wide range of civic decisions.
Switzerland's independence and neutrality have long been honored by the major European powers and Switzerland has not been involved in any international war since Napoleonic times and has been at peace internally since the 1850s. The political and economic integration of Europe over the past half century, as well as Switzerland's role in many UN and international organizations has strengthened Switzerland's ties with its neighbours. However, the country did not officially become a UN member until 2002 and maintains a neutral position in foreign relations. Unlike all of its neighbours (bar Liechtenstein), Switzerland is NOT a member of the European Union.
Switzerland showcases three of Europe's most distinct cultures. To the northeast is the clean and correct, 8-to-5-working, more stiff Swiss-German-speaking Switzerland; to the southwest you find the wine drinking and laissez-faire style known from the French; in the southeast, south of the Alps, the sun warms cappuccino-sippers loitering in Italian-style piazzas; and in the center: classic Swiss flugelhorns and mountain landscapes. Binding it all together is a distinct Swiss mentality. Switzerland is sometimes called a "nation of choosing" as the Swiss are one nation not because of ethnicity or language, but because they want to be a nation and want to be distinct from the Germans, Italians and French around them. Even though conflict sometimes arises between the different groups, the common Swiss identity is usually stronger than the dividing factors.
While most of the cantons, save for the small Romansch-speaking regions, use languages in common with neighbouring countries, the language spoken there is not necessarily just the same as across the national border. In particular, Swiss German is very different from any of the variations of German spoken in Germany or Austria, with its own peculiar pronunciation and vocabulary. Even fluent speakers of standard German (Hochdeutsch) may have a hard time understanding even the regular Swiss spoken on the street or in mass media. Fortunately for the visiting, most Swiss are perfectly capable of speaking both Hochdeutsch, English, and at least one other national language (e.g. French). Even in its written form, Swiss standard German differs notably from its German and Austrian counterparts, though most differences are minor and the one you are most likely to notice is the fact that Switzerland doesn't use the letter "ß", replacing it with "ss", which however doesn't affect pronunciation. Swiss French and Swiss Italian differ only lexically from their counterparts spoken in other countries, while Romansch is different enough from all European languages that only people who learned it can understand it. Romansch is, however, only spoken in remote alpine communities, where most people speak at least one other Swiss language just as well.
Switzerland is a peaceful, prosperous, and stable modern market economy with low unemployment, a highly skilled labour force, and a per capita GDP larger than that of most of the big European economies. The Swiss in recent years have brought their economic practices largely into conformity with the EU's to enhance their international competitiveness, and ensure smooth trade with their biggest trading partner, the EU. Switzerland remains a safe haven for investors, because it has maintained a degree of bank secrecy and has kept up the franc's long-term external value. Both of these have recently been called into question, as the Swiss Franc has risen to almost parity with the Euro due to being seen as a "save haven" and the famous Swiss bank secrecy is more and more under attack from fiscal offices in America, Germany and elsewhere, with many high profile cases of tax evasion via Swiss banks recently ending up in court. Even so, unemployment has remained at less than half the EU average. This together with the exchange rate (especially to the Euro) make Switzerland one of the pricier destinations.
Minimum validity of travel documents
Switzerland is a member of the Schengen Agreement.
There are no border controls between countries that have signed and implemented the treaty – the European Union (except Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Ireland, Romania and the United Kingdom), Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. Likewise, a visa granted for any Schengen member is valid in all other countries that have signed and implemented the treaty. Please see article Travelling around the Schengen Area for more information on how the scheme works and what the requirements are for your nationality.
In autumn 2015 an exceptional number of refugees entering the European Union has prompted some countries to reinstitute border controls within the Schengen area and traffic by some border crossings is much less smooth than normally. Delays may occur in particular in the south-east of the European Union.
Switzerland is not a member of the EU, however. Therefore, travellers entering Switzerland are subject to customs controls even if there are no immigration controls, and persons travelling elsewhere in the Schengen Area will also have to clear customs.
As a tourist: Keep in mind that personal goods worth a total of more than CHF 5,000 and cash and all cash equivalents in excess of CHF 10,000 have to be declared. Also some amounts of alcoholic beverages, foodstuffs and tobacco goods are liable to duty. Note: The importation of animal products coming from countries other than EU states and Norway is prohibited. When you enter Switzerland, personal effects, travelling provisions and fuel in the tank of your vehicle are tax and duty-free. For other goods being carried, VAT and duty will be levied depending on their total value (over CHF 300) and according to the quantity. Also take care if you want to travel with your pets. And generally comply with bans, restrictions and authorisations regarding animals and plants, cash, foreign currencies, securities, weapons, pyrotechnic articles (fireworks), narcotics and drugs, transfer of cultural property, product piracy, counterfeits, medicines (medicinal products) and doping, radar warning devices, and citizens' band radio (CB radio).
Unaccompanied minors (travellers under the age of 18 years) are strongly advised to have a note of consent from their parents/guardian, as well as a copy of the parents' or guardian's valid passport or ID card. For more information, visit the FAQs section of the website of the Federal Office for Migration (under the 'Border-crossing/Travel documents' heading).
Major international airports are in Zurich IATA: ZRH, Geneva IATA: GVA and Basel (for the Swiss part: IATA: BSL) , with smaller airports in Lugano IATA: LUG and Berne IATA: BRN. Some airlines fly to Friedrichshafen, Germany which is just across Lake Constance (the Bodensee) from Romanshorn, not too far from Zurich.
Basel airport is a peculiar case, as it also serves neighbouring Mulhouse and Freiburg and has three different IATA codes, as well as different customs procedure (and sometimes even airfares) depending on whether you fly to "Basel" or "Mulhouse". The airport also has an area code for the "metro-area" IATA: EAP that should get you flights for both destinations.
Almost all major European airlines fly to at least one Swiss airport. The flag carrier of Switzerland are the Swiss International Airlines, a member of the Star Alliance and the Lufthansa Group. Together with their subsidiaries, charter/holiday airline Edelweiss Air and short-haul Swiss European Air Lines, they offer connections to most major airports across Europe, as well as many intercontinental destinations.
Additionally, some smaller Swiss-based airlines also offer connections to Switzerland - Darwin Airline mainly out of Geneva and Lugano, Helvetic Airways out of Zurich and Berne and Sky Work Airlines out of Berne. AirBerlin also has a marked presence in the Swiss market through its subsidiary Belair, although pretty much all flights are sold as AirBerlin flights.
The major European low-fare airlines, however, have very limited presence in Switzerland, usually offering a singular flight from their home hub to either Zurich or Geneva. The exception is EasyJet, who has a dedicated subsidiary, EasyJet Switzerland, and offers flights to and from Basel, Geneva and Zurich within its usual low-fare business model. Ryanair does not fly to Switzerland at all, neither to airports very close to the Swiss border.
On balance, especially in the winter season, many airlines specialising in charter and holiday flights offer connections to Swiss airports to cater to the skiing and winter holiday markets.
It is possible to fly into an airport nearby in a neighbouring country. Grenoble in France is an alternative for Geneva and Stuttgart (IATA: STR) and Munich Airport (IATA: MUC) in Germany are in driving distance to Bern and Zurich respectively. There is a small airport in Memmingen (IATA: FMM), catering primarily to no frills airlines that is close to the border and marketed as being close to Munich (which it isn't).
Switzerland is, together with Germany, one of the most centrally located countries in Europe, and trains arrive from all parts of Europe. Some major routes include:
- TGV Lyria (Train à grande vitesse, French/Swiss high-speed railway connection), with several trains daily from/to Paris, Dijon, Lyon, Valence, Avignon, Aix-en-Provence, Marseille, Toulon, Cannes, Antibes, and Nice.
- Examples of travel time: Paris-Geneva 3h, -Lausanne 3.5h, -Basel 3h, -Berne 4h, -Zurich 4h;
- and Geneva-Lyon 2h, -Avignon 3h, -Marseille 3.5h, -Nice 6.5h;
- and Basel-Marseille 5h
- Examples of travel time: Milano-Berne 3h, -Basel 4h, -Geneva 4h, -Zurich 4h
- Regular ICE (InterCity Express, German high-speed trains) from Zurich / Interlaken via Berne, Basel to Freiburg i.B., Offenburg, Baden-Baden, Karlsruhe, Mannheim, Frankfurt a.M. (main railway station or airport) in Germany, many continuing toward Cologne and Dortmund, or Hannover and Hamburg, or Berlin, or Amsterdam.
- Examples of travel time: Frankfurt Airport-Basel 3h, -Berne 4h, -Interlaken 5h, -Zurich 4h
- Regular ICE trains between Zurich and Stuttgart, travel time 3h
- Regular EuroCity (EC) trains between Zurich and Munich, travel time 4h
- Regular RailJet (RJ) trains between Zurich and Innsbruck (3.5h), Salzburg (5.5h), Vienna (8h) in Austria, and further to the east
- Night trains from Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, Hamburg, Dresden, Prague, Vienna, Belgrade, Barcelona, Rome and Venice to Basel, Geneva, Zurich and some also to Lausanne. These trains are either EuroNight (symbol: EN) or CityNightLine (symbol: CNL) services.
- Eurolines has incorporated Switzerland in its route network.
- There are several bus companies serving the Bosnian diaspora, which provide a cheap way of getting to the Balkans. Turistik Prošić runs from various destinations in the Federation of Bosnia and Hercegovina to Switzerland.
Common tourist destinations within Switzerland are easily reachable by car, e.g. Geneva from central eastern France, and Zurich from southern Germany. Although Switzerland is now part of the Schengen agreement, it is not part of the EU customs/tariff union. Therefore EU/Swiss border posts will focus on smuggling etc. and checks on roads on or after the border stay in place (even after 2008).
Delays are usually short but cars may be stopped and no reason needs to be named, even inside the country. Some delay may be caused by queuing at busy times and there are often queues lasting hours to use the tunnels under the Alps from Italy such as Mont Blanc, St. Gotthard etc. Swiss motorway vignettes (40 Swiss Francs) can and should be purchased at the border if your car does not already have a valid one for the year and you intend to use the Swiss motorways which is almost unavoidable. Keep in mind when choosing means of transport that most cities do not have free parking; expect to spend between CHF 25 and 40 for a day parking. Some cities are entirely off limits to cars but well reachable by public transport, so if your final destination is one of these places, strongly consider arriving by train instead.
When using mountain roads, bear in mind that they are also used by buses - most relevant on hair pin bends, which they will occupy entirely in order to get around. And most mountain roads are frequently used by the yellow Swiss PostAuto bus. If you see a postal bus, or even much better, hear it approaching a bend by its distinctive three tone horn, hold right back (before the bend!) and let it pass, they always have priority and their drivers count on your passive driving (see also mountain road hints below)!
As Switzerland has probably world-wide the most well-developed public transportation system, and the country's airports are not that far away anyway, there is very limited domestic air traffic. The connections offered by Swiss International Airlines and Darwin Airlines include Zurich-Geneva, Zurich-Lugano and Geneva Lugano. In most cases taking the train, sometimes combined with bus or other means, will be a cheaper option, and oftentimes it may prove just as fast and convenient as flying. If you arrive on an international flight to Flughafen Zürich (in Kloten) or Genève Aéroport (in Cointrin), you may take a direct train or an easy connection with several means of transportation incuding only one or two swift tansfers – often taking only single-digit minutes – to many of the country's destinations from railway stations integrated into the airport terminals.
The Swiss will spoil you with fantastic transport - swift, disturbingly punctual trains, clean buses, and a half dozen different kinds of mountain transport systems, integrated into a coherent system. The discount options and variety of tickets can be bewildering, from half fare cards to multi-day, multi-use tickets good for buses, boats, trains, and even bike rentals. In general there's at least one train or bus per hour on every route, on many routes trains and buses are running every 30 or even 15 minutes, city transit every 5-7 minutes during rush hours, but as with everything in Switzerland the transit runs less often, or at least for a shorter period of the day, during weekends, and particularly on Sundays and public holidays in less densely inhabitated areas.
Authoritative information, routes, fares and schedules for almost all public transport can be found online on Swiss Federal Railway's (SBB CFF FFS) nation-wide coherently integrated timetable, or from posters and screens at any stop, or from a ticket window in any railway station. The nation-wide coherently integrated timetable is also available as a free smart phone app. At any railway station you can get information and tickets (at manned ticket counters) for any of the many integrated railways network of the entire Switzerland and Swiss PostBus network.
There are several regional fare networks throughout the country, which incorporate any kind of public transport (city bus, tram, metro, any kind of train, PostBus, boats, funiculairs and others) by many different providers around urban centers into one single fare system, such as ZVV in the canton of Zurich, or unireso (see also: Geneva's tpg) in the canton of Geneva and its French adjacent area, or mobilis around Lausanne in the canton of Vaud at the northern shore of Lake Geneva, passepartout in the canton of Lucerne, Nid- and Obwalden (Titlis). Usually they sell zones-based tickets valid for a particulair time frame instead of point-to-point tickets for journeys within their fare network borders. Many of them, or the main city transit operators provide their own free smart phone apps.
When there is no train or city transit available, this is not the end, not at all, since there is where the Switzerland-wide network of the bright yellow Swiss PostAuto bus network comes in. Where applicable Swiss PostBus is part of regional fare networks. Of course you find all timetable relevant information also on SBB's timetable or app, nevertheless Swiss PostBus provides their own free app with many additional features.
Almost nobody in Switzerland pays full fare for the transit system. At the very least they all have a Half-Fare Card (fr: abonnement demi-tarif, de: Halbtax-Abonnement, it: abbonamento metà-prezzo) which saves you 50% on all national buses and trains and gives a discount on local and private transit systems. Press the '1/2' (or tarif reduit, reduzierter Preis, tariffa ridotto) button on the ticket machines to indicate you have this card, and be prepared to hand it to the conductor along with your ticket on the train. Annual half fare cards cost CHF175; visitors from abroad can buy a 1-month Swiss Half-Fare Card for CHF120. You save CHF64 on a round-trip ticket from Zurich to Lugano, so if you are planning on travelling a lot, it will quickly pay for itself. Children between ages 6 and below 16 pay half price for travel around Switzerland. Children travelling with a paying parent or grandparent can travel for free, if the parents purchased a Junior Card, or the grandparents purchased a Grandchild Travelcard. Parents from abroad in possession of any kind of a valid Swiss Travel Pass/Card/Ticket from the Swiss Travel System can get a Swiss Family Card for free with the same advantages.
The most convenient way to travel with public transport in Switzerland is either a 1, 2, or 3 years GA travelcard (fr: abonnement général, de: Generalabonnement, it: abboamento generale), or for visitors only a Swiss Travel Pass (equally valid like a GA travelcard), which grants you access to all national buses, including Swiss PostBus, and railways, almost all boats, all city transit systems, and hefty discount on privately operated cable cars, funiculars, and some ski lifts. Swiss Travel Passes range from CHF210 for a 3-day, 2nd class pass to CHF440 for a 15-days pass, 2nd class. Like the half-fare card, you can buy this from any railway station ticket office.
Only two trains in Switzerland require reservations: the Bernina Express (BEX), running daily between Chur / Davos and Tirano and the Glacier Express (GEX) running between St. Moritz / Davos and Zermatt. Reservations is also recommended for the GoldenPass Line from Montreux to Interlaken and further to Luzern, as well as for the Wilhelm Tell Express from Luzern to Flüelen by boat and further from Flüelen through the 135 years old and 15 km long St. Gotthard tunnel in the middle of the Alps to Lugano or Locarno in the southern Ticino by train and its many spiral tunnels. For the Pre-Alpine Express (VAE) between Luzern and St. Gallen/Lake Constance in north-eastern Switzerland you do not need any reservation. For the Lötschberger between Bern, Spiez in the Bernese highlands and Brig in the Valais over the old, 500m higher situated line through the more than 100 years old and 14 km long Lötschberg tunnel you do need no reservations, neither.
Normally, you do not have to make reservation for any of the public transport system in Switzerland. Though, there are some exceptions. Besides to the mentioned scenic trains, some of the yellow bright Post bus lines require them as well. The easiest way to check this is by the timetable. If you find a capital R in a square, then seat reservation is compulsory. And of course, it is also compulsory for many of the international connections, particularly for TGVs to/from France, and ECs to/from Italy.
In general, you will always find a free seat, except for rush hours (departure times ca. 06:30-08:00, and about 17:00-18:30) especially on non-stop connections between the major business cities and its suburbs, and in particular between Zurich and Bern, between Zurich and Basel, and between Lausanne and Geneva in both directions. You can easily check this on the timetable by the statistically based occupancy indication; updated daily and available from 30 days before departure. And during winter season at weekends to and from major ski areas, it can be packed as well. But normally, nobody makes a reservation.
On most trains in Switzerland, tickets can no longer be bought on board, so it is highly adviced to buy tickets before hand. You will get heavely fined if you have not got a ticket. Swiss railway machines accept credit/debit cards, although their ticket machines require that a PIN be entered. You can also buy a ticket on the Swiss Federal Railway website as printable online-tickets (only valid on paper!) or on SBB's smart phone app as a mobile ticket, given you have an account registered with a valid CC, but take care – they must be bought before the train officially leaves the station (automatic time checks with timetable by the scanners) and you are responsible for the working condition of your smart phone (battery!)!
Using the trains is easy, although the number of different kinds of trains can be a bit confusing unless you know that the schedules at a Swiss railway station are colour coded. The yellow sheet is for departures (fr: Départ, de: Abfahrt, it: Partenza) and the white sheet is for arrivals (fr: Arrivée, de: Ankunft, it: Arrivo). Faster trains appear on both of these sheets in red, while the trains in black stop at more stations. For trips with transfers it is often easier to use online timetable information, as it will pick transfers for you. You need not fear transfers of five minutes or less. You will make them, provided you know exactly which platform you arrive on and which one you depart from. Many Swiss commute with a one or two minute transfer! On departure and arrival posters you can consult the standard platform, indicated by a track number. Departure/Arrival screens and boards, as well as SBB's online timetable and smart phone app provide you with eventually updated information. Online you can also track the current location of a train, as well as other real-time information.
At the track, overhead displays indicate the (larger and) final destination(s) and the official departure time. The small numbers and letters along the bottom show you where you can board the train. The letters indicate the platform area you should stand in, so called sectors of the platform indicated by blue overhead signs with large capitals (such as A, B, C, D, E, or F), and the numbers indicate the class. The class (1st or 2nd) is indicated by a "1" (and a thick, horizontal yellow stripe on the coach's outside) or "2" on the side of the coach, these correspond with the numbers on the overhead display. This train composition information (class number, bicycle coach, family coach, restaurant/bistro coach and respective sector letter) you can also find online for most domestic trains (currently the ones operated by SBB or BSL) and international trains leaving from or arriving in Switzerland (currently with exception of TGV) of a particular connection with a departure or arrival time quite close to the future (online timetable: by clicking the plus sign next to platform number; SBB Mobile app: by selecting the respective stop name in the details).
All Swiss trains are non-smoking — this is also indicated on the side of coach, as well as inside.
Small luggage, coats and jackets can be stowed above your seat. In most trains where four seats build a compartment you can store small and middle sized luggage between the backs (!) of the seats. For larger luggage you often find a rack at the end of the coach. During busy periods, people often stow large luggage (or skis) in the entrance area in between coaches. This is usually fairly safe, but apply common sense and keep an eye on them. Further, SBB provides a totally safe and effective nation-wide baggage delivery service to any manned railway station, or Post office reachable by PostBus (usually called "<village name> Post/Posta") destination, especially addressed to tourists and skiers with large, heavy luggage or many suitcases, so that you can fully enjoy you journey and make your swift transfers easily and without any hassle.
The many different type of trains is bewildering at first, but is actually quite simple. The routes the SBB CFF FFS timetable suggests will make much more sense if you understand them. All trains have a one or two letter prefix, followed by a number, for example RE2709, IR2781. Only the prefix, the destination, and the time of departure are important. However, your ticket will be valid for all of them, given they run the same route. Normally, a train ticket is valid the entire calendar day until the end of day service (legally 5 o'clock AM of the next day), but just for one journey! And, normally, you are allowed to make intermediate stops and continue later on the same day. Exceptions are super saver tickets, which are only valid for a particular train connection, and fare network tickets (check their own regulations!).
- Regio/Régional (R) trains are local trains. They stop everywhere or almost everywhere, and generally reach into the hinterlands of a major station like Lausanne, but not to the next major station (in this case Geneva). If you are going to a small town, you may transfer at a larger station to an R train for the last leg. Most of the time you can use tickets from city public transit on the suburban S system, but ask before trying.
- Suburban trains are usually indicated by an S (for S-Bahn) and followed by the number of the line, such as S12.
- RE (RegioExpress) trains generally reach from one major station to the next, touching every town of any importance on the way, but don't stop at every wooden platform beside the tracks.
- IR (InterRegio) trains are the workhorses of Swiss transit. They reach across two or three cantons, for instance from Geneva, along Lake Geneva through Vaud, and all the way to Brig at the far end of the Valais. They only stop at fairly large towns, or railway junctions.
- IC (InterCity) trains are express trains with restaurant cars. They are sumptuous and comfortable, often putting vaunted services like the TGV to shame, and make runs between major stations, with occasionally stops at a more minor one where tracks diverge.
- ICN trains (InterCityNeigezug, or Intercity Tilting Train) are the express tilt-trains, as luxurious as the IC trains. They run between major cities like Geneva, Lausanne, Zurich, Biel, and Basel.
There are also a number of narrow gauge railways that don't fit this classification that supplement the buses in the hinterlands, such as the line from Nyon to La Cure or the line from Interlaken to Lauterbrunnen.
You can bring your bicycle on almost every train in Switzerland (check the timetable, sometimes you must make a reservation, or it is not allowed at all, e.g. on international connections!), with two provisos: you must have a ticket for it (either special bike day pass for CHF18 a day or a regular ticket, both of which are available from ticket machines; your half-fare card is also valid for your bike, a day velo pass costs then CHF12), and you must get on at a door marked with a bicycle. On ICN trains and some IR trains this is at the very front of the train.
Information for railway fans
In Switzerland more than 99% of the railway infrastructure are electrified, but it is possible to find many steam railways such as the Brienzer Rothornbahn or the Furka Railway for instance.
There are many interesting mountain railways of all types. In Switzerland most electric trains get their power from a single phase AC network at 15,000V 16 2/3Hz. This network uses its own power lines run with 66 kV and 132 kV, which have, unlike normal power lines, a number of conductors not divisible by 3. Most power lines for the single phase AC grid of the traction power grid have four conductors. Railway photography is permitted everywhere provided you don't walk on forbidden areas without permission.
Here is short list of the most remarkable railway lines:
- The Glacier Express (GEX) between Davos / St. Moritz (en: Grisons, de: Graubünden) and Zermatt (Valais), a 8 hours travel through the central Swiss Alps.
- The Bernina Express (BEX) between Davos / Chur and Tirano in Italy, via Pontresina / St. Moritz over the Bernina pass (2253m o.s.l.) the highest rail transversal in the Alps, high mountain scenery.
- The Pre-Alpine Express (VAE, Voralpenexpress) running between St. Gallen / Lake Constance and Lucerne, throught the rolling hills of the Appenzellerland down to Rapperswil, where it crosses the first, eastern part of Lake Zurich, then up again through the lovely moor of Rothenturm (safed from military distruction by a publicly initiated referendum in 1987) and close to Einsiedeln down again to Arth-Goldau at the bottom of the Rigi and further to Lucerne along the Lakes of Zug and Lucerne.
- The Jungfrau Railway, from Interlaken (560 meters) to the Jungfraujoch station (3450m a.s.l.) in two hours. Definitely the most impressive journey in the Alps.
- The Gornergrat Railway, departure from Zermatt to the 3090m a.s.l. high Gornergrat.
- The Mount Rigi Railway, oldest mountain railway in Europe.
- The Mount Pilatus Railway, from Lucerne to the top, the steepest (max. 48% gradient) railway in the world.
- The Brienz Rothorn steam cogwheel railway above lake Brienz to the Rothorn summit (2350m a.s.l.) and almost exclusively run by steam locomotives.
- The Lötschberger is a line connecting Berne / Spiez (Bernese Highlands) and Brig (Valais), not considered as a mountain train but with still impressive scenery, especially if you take the route by a regional train ('RE') through the old 14.6 km long Lötschberg vertex tunnel (between Kandersteg and Goppenstein, 500m above the 34.6 km long Lötschberg Base Tunnel, a high-speed train tunnel newly opened in 2007).
- The St. Gotthard line with its many spiral train tunnels and the 15 km long St. Gotthard train tunnel (built between 1872 and 1882, 199 workers spent their lifes for its construction) connecting the German spoken nothern Switzerland Zurich/Luzern and the Italian spoken southern Switzerland Ticino (Bellinzona, Lugano, Locarno). Also advertised as the Wilhelm Tell Express between Luzern and Flüelen by boat, and further then by train to either Lugano, or Locarno.
Hiking and cycling
As good as the Swiss train system is, if you have a little time, and you only want to travel 1-200 miles, you could try purchasing the world's best footpath maps and walk 10-20 miles a day over some of the most wonderful and clearly-marked paths, whether it is in a valley, through a forest, or over mountain passes. There are more than 60,000 km of well maintained and documented hiking trails and cycling routes.
The trails are well-planned (after a number of centuries, why not?), easy to follow, and the yellow trail signs are actually accurate in their estimate as to how far away the next hamlet, village, town or city is–once you've figured out how many kilometers per hour you walk (easy to determine after a day of hiking).
There are plenty of places to sleep in a tent (but don't pitch one on a seemingly pleasant, flat piece of ground covered by straw–that's where the cows end up sleeping after a lazy day of eating, and they'll gnaw at your tent string supports and lean against your tent sides. And definitey don't do this during a rainstorm!), lots of huts on mountain tops, B & B's on valley floors, or hotels in towns and cities. You could even send your luggage ahead to the next abode and travel very lightly, with the necessary water and Swiss chocolate!
Veloland Schweiz has built up an extensive network of long distance cycle trails all across the country. There are many Swiss cities where you can rent bicycles if that is your means of traveling and you can even rent electric bicycles. During the summer it is quite common for cities to offer bicycle 'rental' for free!
Cycling in cities is pretty safe, at least compared to other countries, and very common. If you decide to bicycle in a city, understand that (in most cities) you will share the road with public transport. Beware of tram tracks which can get your wheel stuck and send you flying into traffic, of the trams themselves which travel these tracks frequently (and may scare you into getting stuck into the track as just noted), and the buses, which make frequent stops in the rightmost lane.
Besides the main types of transportation, the adventurous person can see Switzerland by in-line skating. There are three routes, measuring a combined 600-plus km (350 mi) designed specifically for in-line skating throughout the country. They are the Rhine route, the Rhone route, and the Mittelland route. These are also scenic tours. Most of the routes are flat, with slight ascents and descents. The Mittelland route runs from Zurich airport to Neuenburg in the northwest; the Rhine route runs from Bad Ragaz to Schaffhausen in the northeastern section of the country. Finally, the Rhone route extends from Brig to Geneva. This is a great way to see both the countryside and cityscapes of this beautiful nation.
If you like cars, Switzerland can seem like a bit of a tease. They feature some of the greatest driving roads in the world, but can literally throw you in jail for speeding, even on highways. If you stick to the limits, the back roads/mountain roads will still be a blast to drive on, while ensuring you are not fined or arrested. Driving is the best way to see a wonderful country with outstanding roads.
Don't Think You'll Speed Undeterred
If you get fined but not stopped (e.g. caught by a Speed Camera) the police will send you the fine even if you live abroad.
In Switzerland, speeding is not a violation of a traffic code but a Legal Offence, if you fail to comply there is a good chance that an international rogatory will be issued and you have to go to court in your home country. This is enforced by most countries, including all of Europe, United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and many countries in South America and Asia. Failure to comply can result in a warrant being issued for your arrest by your home country.
Also, starting from 2007, Switzerland banned all GPS appliances with built-in speed cameras databases as they are equipped with "Radar Detectors".
According to some GPS navigator producers, it is advised to remove the Swiss radar database while driving in the country as the police may give you a fine and impound your device even if it is turned off and placed in the trunk of your vehicle!
To use the motorways (known as Autobahn(en), Autoroute(s), or Autostrada/e, depending on where you are), with green signs (and white letters), vehicles under 3500 kg (7,716 lb) weight need to buy a "vignette", a sticker which costs CHF40 that allows you to use the motorways as much as you like for the entire year (more precisely, from 1 December of the preceding year to 31 January of the following, so a 2009 vignette is valid from 1 December 2008 until 31 January 2010). Trailers must have a separate vignette. Avoiding the motorways in order to save the toll price is generally futile; the amount is well worth it, even if you are only transiting. Failure to possess a valid vignette is punishable by a CHF200 fine and a requirement to purchase a vignette immediately (total fine of CHF240). Sharing vignettes is, of course, illegal and subject to the same fines as not having one.
Rentals should have the vignette already paid for that vehicle, but ask to be sure.
Vehicles larger than 3,500 kg (7,716 lb) have to pay a special toll assessed through special on-board units that is applied for all roads, not just the motorways.
Speed limits : 120 km/h (75 mph) on motorways, 100 km/h on expressways (ge: Autostrasse(n), fr: semi-autoroute(s), it: semiautostrada/e; often with oncoming traffic), 80 km/h (50 mph) on normal, principal roads outside of villages and towns and often inside tunnels, and a general valid 50 km/h (31 mph) limit inside villages and towns and often only indicated by the name of the village, or town respectively.
Major roads are indicated with blue signs (and white letters), while for minor roads the signs are white (with black letters). Moreover, some roads are limited to 30 km/h (19 mph) or even to 20 km/h (12 mph) in built-up areas and to 70 km/h outside built-up areas. Vehicles unable to travel at 80 km/h are not permitted on the motorways or autoroutes. Whilst driving "a wee bit too fast" is common on motorways, people tend to stick pretty closely to the other two limits. Fines are hefty and traffic rules are strictly enforced. If stopped by Police, expect to pay your fine on the spot.
The blood alcohol concentration limit is 0.05%. As in every country, do not drink and drive, as you will lose your license for several months if you are cited and a heavy fine may be imposed.
Since 1 January 2014 motorists in Switzerland are required to switch on their headlights or daytime running lights while driving during the day or risk a CHF40 fine.
Driving is on the right side of the road everywhere in Switzerland, just like in most of Europe. Be aware that the priority to right rule exists everywhere in Switzerland on any street, if not indicated otherwise. I.e. that at intersections, priority is given to the driver on the right except when driving on a road with right of way indicated by a Priority Road (German: Hauptstrasse, French: route principale, Italien: strada principale) sign (yellow square with a broad white border sitting on one of its edges). One exception is when merging into traffic circles (roundabouts), where priority is given to the drivers being within the roundabout. But this is no exception to the 'priority of right' rule, since the street signs indicate that the traffic circles entering vehicle has no right of priority.
Some examples of fines by failing to follow traffic rules
Pass on the left, not the right, on motorways as well. When passing, do not cross a double or even a single white line. When completing a passing manoeuvre, you must signal with your vehicle's right indicator before you re-enter the right lane. Actually you have to flash (indicators) all the time when you change your direction or lane.
You are not allowed to pass trams (normally only on the right side) at a tram stop, if there is no passenger island on which pedestrians can wait. If a pedestrian wants to cross the road on a respectively marked place (pedestrian crossing: yellow stripes on the street), then any car approaching must stop and give priority to the pedestrians. This is a general law valid anywhere in Switzerland, but especially applicable for tram stops. Do not stop on a pedestrian crossing, even during rush hours.
You must always give way to police, ambulances, fire engines, and buses pulling out as they have priority.
At traffic lights and railway crossings, you must switch off your engines ("Für bessere Luft - Motor abstellen!", "Coupez le moteur!") to avoid traffic pollution.
On all car journeys in Switzerland you are required by law to wear a seat belt.
Six tips for mountain roads:
- Honk if you're on a small road and you don't see around the bend.
- The Postal Bus (bright yellow) always has priority. You can hear it approaching by means of its distinctive three tone horn. This is most relevant on hair pin bends. If you see a PostAuto, or even much better, hear it approaching a bend, hold right back (before the bend!) and let it pass, their drivers count on your considerate driving!
- The vehicle going uphill has priority over the vehicle coming downhill.
- Don't even think about driving as fast as the locals: they know every bend, you don't.
- In general, drive at a speed which allows you to stop within the distance you can see, in order to be safe; and drive so that you would be happy to meet yourself coming the other way!
- During Winter, although most vehicles are equipped with winter tires (not to be mismatched with all-season tires or even summer tires; winter tires request by Swiss law at least a tread depth of 4mm and are made of different rubber), it may be required to apply tire chains to the wheels of your car if driving in an area with snow on the street. Autos rented in Switzerland are routinely supplied with tire chains, but ask. Some mountain roads, towns and villages may require chains. Illustrated signs showing snow chains will be posted at the beginning of the route. If chains are requested, winter tires are not sufficient at all! Failure to obey may incur a fine. Service stations located on these routes may provide a chain installation service, for a fee. It's worth the expense, since an inexperienced driver can be tortured for an hour or more, sometimes in terrible weather, learning to self-install tire chains. Don't assume all roads are open; higher altitude moutain passes (ex: Gotthard, Furka, Grimsel, Oberalp, Julier) will be closed for part or all of the winter. Check that a mountain road or pass is open before driving, or you may encounter a red multilingual "CLOSED" sign at the beginning of the route.
Switzerland has four official languages at the federal level, namely German, French, Italian and Romansch, and the main language spoken depends on which part of the country you are in. Individual cantons are free to decide on which official language to adopt, and some cities such as Biel/Bienne, Fribourg (or Freiburg), and Sion (or Sitten) are officially bilingual. Any part of Switzerland has residents who speak something besides the local vernacular at home, English, German and French being the most widely spoken second languages. Note that you are unlikely to hear Romansch, as essentially all the 65,000 Romansch speakers also speak German, and they are actually outnumbered in Switzerland by native English speakers, as well as by Portuguese, Albanian and Serbo-Croatian-speaking immigrants.
Around two-thirds of the population of Switzerland are German speaking, located particularly in the centre, north, and east of the country. Swiss German (Schweizerdeutsch) is not a single dialect, but rather a blanket term for the dialects of German spoken in Switzerland. These dialects are so divergent from standard German that native speakers from Germany can hardly understand them. All German-speaking Swiss learn standard German in school, so almost all locals in the major German-speaking cities (e.g. Zurich, Bern, Basel) and many in the countryside will be able to speak standard German. The many different Swiss German dialects are primarily spoken, colloquial languages, and the German-speaking Swiss write almost exclusively in standard German despite speaking Swiss German. Swiss German dialects are highly regarded by all social classes and are widely used in the Swiss media, in contrast to the general use of standard German on TV and radio in other countries.
The second most spoken language is French, which is mostly spoken in the western part of the country, which includes the cities of Lausanne and Geneva. Speakers of standard French will generally not have any major problems understanding Swiss French, though there are certain words which are unique to Swiss French. The most noticeable difference is in the number system, where septante, huitante and nonante (70, 80 and 90) are commonly said instead of soixante-dix, quatre-vingts and quatre-vingts-dix as in standard French. All French speakers understand 'standard' French.
Italian is the primary language in the southern part of the country, around the city of Lugano. Swiss Italian is largely comprehensible to speakers of standard Italian, though there are certain words which are unique to Swiss Italian. Standard Italian is understood by all Swiss Italian speakers. The northern Italian language of Lombard is spoken by some as well.
All Swiss are required to learn one of the other official languages in school, and many also learn English. English is widely spoken in the major German speaking cities and therefore English-speaking tourists should not have a problem communicating. In contrast, English is not as widely spoken in the French and Italian speaking areas, the exception being the city of Geneva, where English is widely spoken due to its large international population.
Politicians lead the way
Swiss parliament is a unique place that displays this multilingualism, as representatives are allowed to speak in their mother tongue and there are no translators of any kind, forcing everybody to be reasonably fluent in all three major languages in Switzerland if (s)he is thinking about a political career. The German speaking Swiss usually speak standard German in parliament for the benefit of those for whom German is a second language, though.
The seven wonders
- The Castle of Chillon: near Montreux
- The Lavaux vineyards: on the shore of Lake Geneva
- The Castles of Bellinzona: in the southern canton of Ticino
- The Abbey of St. Gallen
- The Top of Europe and the Sphinx observatory: a "village" with a post office on the 3,500 metres high Jungfraujoch above Wengen
- The Grande Dixence: a 285 metres high dam, south of Sion
- The Landwasser viaduct: on the railway between Chur and St. Moritz
The seven natural wonders
- The Matterhorn: from Schwarzsee, Gornergrat or simply from the village of Zermatt
- The northern walls of the Jungfrau and Eiger: two of the most celebrated mountains in the Alps, they can be seen from the valley of Lauterbrunnen or from one of the many summits that can be reached by train or cable car
- The Aletsch Glacier: the longest in Europe, the Aletsch wild Forest is located above the glacier, best seen from above Bettmeralp
- The lakes of the Upper Engadin: one of the highest inhabited valley in the Alps at the foot of Piz Bernina, they can be all seen from Muottas Muragl
- The Lake Lucerne: from the Pilatus above Lucerne
- The Oeschinensee: a mountain lake with no rivals above Kandersteg
- The Rhine Falls: the largest in Europe, take a boat to the rock in the middle of the falls
- See also: Winter sports in Switzerland
Switzerland is renowned the world over for downhill skiing, and the country is also great for many other outdoor activities, including hiking and mountain biking. Mountain climbing from easy to very hard can also be found in Switzerland and there is hardly a place with a longer tradition for it. Some routes, like the North face of the Eiger ("Eiger-Nordwand" in German) have become near-mythical due to the hardships sacrifice and even deaths suffered by the first people to climb them. And because of the breathtaking views, travelling from one place to another by car, bus, train or bike along alpine roads and railroads is often an experience in itself.
Switzerland is not part of the Eurozone and the currency is the Swiss franc (or Franken, or franc, or franco, depending in which language area you are), divided into 100 Rappen, centimes, or centesimi. However, many places - such as supermarkets, restaurants, sightseeings' box offices, hotels and the railways or ticket machines - accept euro bills (but no coins) and will give you change in Swiss francs or in euro if they have it in cash. Many price tikets contain prices both in francs and in euro. Usually in such cases the exchange-rate complies with official exchange-rates, but if it differs you will be notified in advance. Changing some money to Swiss francs (CHF) is essential. Money can be exchanged at all train stations and most banks throughout the country. After an experiment with a "fixed floor" for the exchange rate (meaning in practice that one Euro would always be at least 1.20 francs) the Swiss Central Bank decided in early 2015 to let the franc float freely once more. This, along with speculation regarding the future of the euro and the Swiss franc being seen as a "safe" currency, has led to skyrocketing exchange rates for the franc and, consequently, prices.
Switzerland is more cash-oriented than most other European countries. It is not unusual to see bills being paid by cash, even CHF200 and CHF1000 banknotes. Some establishments (but fewer than before) do not accept credit cards so check first. When doing credit card payments, carefully review the information printed on the receipt (details on this can be found in the "Stay Safe" section below). All ATMs accept foreign cards, getting cash should not be a problem.
Coins are issued in 5 centime (brass, rare), 10 centime, 20 centime, ½ franc, 1 franc, 2 franc, and 5 franc (all silver coloured) denominations. One centime coins are no longer legal tender, but may be exchanged until 2027 for face value. Two centime coins have not been legal tender since the 1970s and are, consequently, worthless. Keep in mind that most exchange offices don't accept coins and with current exchange rates the biggest coin (5 francs) is worth more than five Dollars and roughly the same as five Euros, so spend them or give them to charity before leaving.
Banknotes are found in denominations of CHF10 (yellow), CHF20 (red), CHF50 (green), CHF100 (blue), CHF200 (brown), and CHF1000 (purple). They are all the same width and contain a variety of security features.
Switzerland has been renowned for its banking industry since the Middle Ages. Due to its historical policy of banking secrecy and anonymity, Switzerland has long been a favourite place for many of the world's richest people to stash their assets (sometimes earned through questionable means). Although current banking secrecy laws are not as strict they used to be, and anonymous bank accounts are no longer allowed, Switzerland remains one of the largest banking centres in Europe. Opening a bank account in Switzerland is straightforward, and there are no restrictions on foreigners owning Swiss bank accounts. The largest banks in Switzerland are UBS and Credit Suisse.
Swiss service personnel enjoy a relatively highly set minimum wage compared to other countries, so tips are rather modest. By law, a service charge is included in the bill. Nevertheless, if you feel satisfied, especially in restaurants, you may round up the bill and add a few francs with a maximum of 5–20 francs depending on the kind of establishment, regardless of bill size. If you were not happy with the service, you needn't tip at all. If you just drink a coffee, it is common to round up the bill to the nearest franc, but some people are still quite generous. Keep in mind, tipping is always your personal contribution and never legally requested.
When planning your travel budget, keep in mind that Switzerland is an expensive country with prices comparable to Norway or central London. Except soft drinks and car fuel almost everything from groceries and souvenirs to train tickets and accommodation costs more than in the neighboring countries. In fact, many Swiss people living near the borders drive into neighbouring countries to purchase fuel and groceries, as it is usually significantly cheaper; a trend that has only increased in recent times with the Franc soaring in exchange rate compared to the Euro. Though there are no systematic immigration controls thanks to the Schengen agreement, there are spontanous custom checks, even inside the country, since Switzerland is not part of EU Customs Union, so you must clear customs. Therefore make sure you comply with Swiss custom regulations for importing goods!
"Swiss-made": Souvenirs and Luxury Goods
Switzerland is famous for a few key goods: watches, chocolate, cheese, and Swiss Army knives.
- Watches - Switzerland is the watch-making capital of the world, and "Swiss Made" on a watch face has long been a mark of quality. While the French-speaking regions of Switzerland are usually associated with Swiss watchmakers (like Rolex, Omega, and Patek Philippe), some fine watches are made in the Swiss-German-speaking region, such as IWC in Schaffhausen. Every large town will have quite a few horologists and jewellers with a vast selection of fancy watches displayed their windows, ranging from the fashionable Swatch for CHF60 to the handmade chronometer with the huge price tag. For fun, try to spot the most expensive of these mechanical creations and the ones with the most "bedazzle!!".
- Chocolate - Switzerland may always have a rivalry with Belgium for the world's best chocolate, but there's no doubting that the Swiss variety is amazingly good. Switzerland is also home to the huge Nestlé food company. If you have a fine palate (and a fat wallet) - you can find two of the finest Swiss chocolatiers in Zurich: Teuscher (try the champagne truffles) and Sprüngli. For the rest of us, even the generic grocery store brand chocolates in Switzerland still blow away the Hershey bars found elsewhere. For good value, try the Frey brand chocolates sold at Migros. If you want to try some real good and exclusive Swiss chocolate, go for the Pamaco chocolates, derived from the noble Criollo beans and accomplished through the original, complex process of refinement that requires 72h. These are quite expensive though, a bar of 125g (4 oz) costs about CHF8. For Lindt fans, it is possible to get them as cheaply as half the supermarket price by going to the Lindt factory store in Kilchberg (near Zurich).
Have you ever wondered why Swiss cheese, known locally as Emmentaler, always has those distinct holes? Bacteria are a key part of the cheesemaking process. They excrete huge amounts of carbon dioxide which forms gas bubbles in the curd, and these bubbles cause the holes.
- Cheese - many regions of Switzerland have their own regional cheese speciality. Of these, the most well-known are Gruyère and Emmentaler (what Americans know as "Swiss cheese"). Be sure to sample the wide variety of cheeses sold in markets, and of course try the cheese fondue! Fondue is basically melted cheese and is used as a dip with other food such as bread. The original mixture consists of half Vacherin cheese and half Gruyère but many different combinations have been developed since.
- Swiss Army knives - Switzerland is the official home of the Swiss Army Knife. There are two brands: Victorinox and Wenger, but both brands are now manufactured by Victorinox since the Wenger business went bankrupt and Victorinox purchased it in 2005. Victorinox knives, knife collectors will agree, are far far superior, in terms of design, quality, and functionality. The most popular Victorinox knife is the Swiss Champ which has 33 functions and currently costs about CHF78. Most Tourists will purchase this knife. The "biggest" Victorinox knife is the Swiss Champ 1.6795.XAVT- This has 80 functions and is supplied in a case. This knife costs CHF364. The 1.6795.XAVT may in years to come be a collector's model. Most shops throughout Switzerland stock Victorinox knives, even some newsagents stock them. They are excellent gifts and souvenirs. The actual "Swiss Army Knife" is not red with a white cross (as usually seen by tourists), but gray with a small Swiss flag. The Swiss Army issue knife is also produced by Victorinox. Its main particularity is to have the production year engraved on the base of the biggest blade (and no cork-screw because the Swiss soldier must not drink wine on duty). Swiss Army Knives can not be carried on board commercial flights and must be packed in your hold baggage.
Ski and tourist areas will sell the other kinds of touristy items - cowbells, clothing embroidered with white Edelweiss flowers, and Heidi-related stuff. Swiss people love cows in all shapes and sizes, and you can find cow-related goods everywhere, from stuffed toy cows to fake cow-hide jackets. If you have a generous souvenir budget, look for fine traditional handcrafted items such as hand-carved wooden figures in Brienz, and lace and fine linens in St. Gallen. If you have really deep pockets, or just wish you did, be sure to shop on Zurich's famed Bahnhofstrasse, one of the most exclusive shopping streets in the world. If you're looking for hip shops and thrift stores, head for the Niederdorf or the Stauffacher area.
Switzerland is famous for many kinds of cheese like Gruyère, Emmental and Appenzeller. Two of the best known Swiss dishes, fondue and raclette, are cheese based. Fondue is a pot of melted cheese that you dip a piece of bread into using long forks. Usually fondue is not made of one single type of cheese, but instead many different cheeses are blended. That's the reason why fondue doesn't taste the same all over Switzerland. Raclette is made by heating a large piece of cheese and scraping off the melted cheese which is eaten together with potatoes, ham and vegetables. Another typical dish is rösti, potato pancakes quite similar to hash browns. Unlike Germany, France and Italy, Switzerland cannot boast a large variety of indigenous meat dishes. Probably the best known meat dishes are the sausage cervelat and the specialty of region around Zürich, Zürcher Geschnetzeltes (sliced meat and mushrooms).
Swiss chocolate is world famous and there is a large range of different chocolate brands. Also, the breakfast dish Müsli comes from Switzerland.
Like most other things, eating out is expensive in Switzerland. One way to reduce food costs is to eat in the cafeterias of department stores such as Coop, Migros and Manor. These cafeterias are usually considerably less expensive than stand-alone restaurants. Coop and Manor also offer beer and wine with meals while Migros does not. Smaller department store outlets might not have a cafeteria.
Swiss employment law bans working on Sundays, so shops stay closed. An exception is any business in a railway station, which is deemed to be serving travellers and so is exempt. If you want to find an open shop on a Sunday, go to the nearest big railway station. If a business is family-owned, you aren't employing anybody so you can open, hence small shops can also open on Sundays in some cantons.
Swiss supermarkets can be hard to spot in big cities. They often have small entrances, but open out inside, or are located in a basement, leaving the expensive street frontages for other shops. Look for the supermarket logos above entrances between other shops. Geneva is an exception and you usually don't have to go very far to find a Migros or coop.
The most important supermarket brands are:
- Migros - This chain of supermarkets (in fact a cooperative) provides average to good quality food and no-food products and homeware. However, they do not sell alcoholic beverages nor cigarettes. Brand name products are rare as the chain does their own brands (quality is good, which chain that you go to does not matter). Migros stores can be spotted by a big, orange Helvetica letter "M" sign. The number of "M" letters indicates the size of the store and the different services available - a single "M" is usually a smaller grocery store, a double M ("MM") may be larger and sells other goods like clothing, and a MMM is a full department store with household goods and possibly electronics and sporting goods. Offers change weekly on Tuesdays.
- Coop - Also a cooperative. Emphasis on quality as well as multi-buy offers, points collection scheme(s) and money off coupons. Sells many major brands. Come at the end of the day to get half-priced salads and sandwiches. Coop City is usually a department store with a Coop grocery store inside, a multi-floor layout provides space for clothing, electrical items, stationary, paperware as well as beauty products and perfume. Offers change weekly (some exceptions - fortnightly), on Tuesdays.
- Denner - A discount grocery store, noticeable for their red signs and store interiors. Relatively low priced. Offers change weekly, usually from Wednesday. Denner was bought by Migros in late 2006, but will not be rebranded at present.
- Coop Pronto - a convenience store branch of Coop, usually open late (at least 20:00) seven days a week. Usually has a petrol, filling-station forecourt.
- Aperto - also a convenience store, located in the railway stations
- Manor - the Manor department stores often have a grocery store on the underground level.
- Globus - in the largest cities the Globus department stores have a grocery store on the underground level.
Coop offers a low-price-line (Coop Prix-Garantie) of various products and in Migros you can find "M-Budget" products. Sometimes it's exactly the same product, just for cheaper price. They also offer prepaid mobiles as cheap as CHF29.80, including CHF19 money on the SIM-Card and the some of the cheapest call rates.
The German discounters Aldi and Lidl are also present in Switzerland. The prices are a little lower than at the other supermarket chains, but still significantly higher than in Germany.
Usually the tap water is drinkable and in many cities and towns there are fountains with drinking water. Soft drinks in supermarkets are one of the few things that aren't notably more expensive than elsewhere in Central Europe. A local specialty is the lactose based soft drink Rivella. The Lake Geneva region is famous for its wines.
Most tourist areas in Switzerland have a tourist office where you can call and have them book a hotel for you for a small fee. Each town usually has a comprehensive list of hotels on their web site, and it is often easiest to simply call down the list to make a reservation rather than try to book online. Many hotels will request that you fax or email them your credit card information in order to secure a reservation. In general, hotel staff are helpful and competent, and speak English quite well.
Hotel rates in Switzerland can get quite expensive, especially in popular ski resort areas.
As in most European countries, Switzerland offers a wide range of accommodation possibilities. These go from 5-star hotels to campgrounds, youth hostels or sleeping in the hey. Compared to other European countries, accommodations in Switzerland are in general amongst the more expensive. The prices of Swiss Youth Hostels are on the usual European level
The following prices can be used as a rule of thumb:
- 5-star-hotel: from CHF350 per person/night
- 4-star-hotel: from CHF180 per person/night
- 3-star-hotel: from CHF120 per person/night
- 2-star-hotel: from CHF80 per person/night
- Hostel: from CHF30 per person/night
The Swiss hotel stars are issued by the hotelleriesuisse Swiss Hotel Association. All members of hotelleriesuisse must undergo regular quality tests to obtain their hotel stars. On swisshotels.com you can find information on hotel stars, infrastructure and specialisations.
Tips are included with all services. For special efforts, a small tip, usually by rounding up the sum, is always welcome.
There is also a hostel network in Switzerland for students. Types of hotels in Switzerland include historic hotels, traditional hotels, inns located in the country, spas and bed and breakfasts.
Switzerland has some universities of world renown, like ETH in Zurich, IHEID in Geneva, University of Lausanne or the University of St. Gallen (also known as the HSG). Keep in mind, it's much better to speak the local language, so if you can't speak either French, German or Italian, better go for a language course first. There are a few English courses as well, but it will be much easier to go with local language. Also have in mind that if you're a foreigner, and you want to go for popular subjects, you have to pass entry-tests, and it will cost you a lot, not only for university fees, but also for living.
If you like cheaper learning, go for Migros Klubschule, they offer language courses in almost every language as well as a lot of different courses for many subjects, just have a look on their website. You may also want to try the different "Volkshochschule", which offer a large variety of subjects at very reasonable fees (such as the one in Zürich , for instance).
If you are looking for quality French courses for adults or juniors, you can learn French in one of the ESL schools located in Switzerland . You can also choose LSI (Language Studies International) and go for one of the many schools in their extensive network to learn French in Switzerland.
If you want to work in Switzerland, be aware that you generally need to obtain a work permit. In November 2014, the Swiss people narrowly approved a referendum that requires the government to restrict immigration to 0.2% of the population each year. You should check regularly through 2015 to see how this will affect your plans.
Although Switzerland signed an agreement with the European Union that allows citizens of (most) EU states to work, it may be forced to withdraw this agreement because of the referendum and it is unclear what will happen. You should check regularly with your local Swiss consulate throughout 2015 to determine how the immigration changes affect you.
Switzerland has an unemployment rate of about 2.9% (June 2011).
The high level of Swiss salaries reflect the high costs of living, so keep in mind that you must spend a lot for accommodation and food, when you negotiate your salary. Still, if you want or have to make money fast, you can save a substantial amount per month while working in a low-paying job. In general, you work 42 hours/week and have 4 weeks of paid holidays.
Switzerland has no legal minimum salary. The salary depends on the industry you work in, with most companies paying at least CHF3500 (PPP US$2275) per month, for example as cashier in a supermarket. Overtime work is usually paid (unless otherwise agreed in contract).
If you want to check the average salaries by industry or make sure you get the right amount paid, Swiss employees are heavy organised in trade unions SGB and always keen to help you.
Switzerland is not surprisingly one of the safest countries in Europe, but anywhere that attracts Rolex-wearing bankers and crowds of distracted tourists will also bring out a few pickpockets. Obviously, keep an eye on belongings, especially in the midst of summer crowds.
Quite a few Swiss establishments will print your entire credit card number onto the receipt, thus raising identity theft concerns when shopping with a credit card in Switzerland. Therefore, visitors using credit cards should carefully review the information printed on all receipts before discarding them. This happens, for instance, in some book and clothing stores and even at the ubiquitous K-Kiosk. This list is obviously not exhaustive; therefore, the visitor must beware whenever using a credit card.
Women traveling alone should have no problems. The younger Swiss tend to be very open with public displays of affection - sometimes too open, and some women may find people getting too friendly especially in the wee hours of the club & bar scene. Usually the international language of brush-offs or just walking away is enough.
Swiss police take on a relatively unobtrusive air; they prefer to remain behind the scenes, as they consider their presence potentially threatening to the overall environment (practice of deescalation). Unlike some more highly policed countries, officers will rarely approach civilians to ask if they need help or merely mark their presence by patrolling. However, police are indeed serious about traffic violations. Jaywalking (crossing a red pedestrian light), for example, will be fined on the spot. The upside to stringent traffic rules is that automobile drivers are generally very well-disciplined, readily stopping for pedestrians at crosswalks, for example (but note that, in Basel city at least, whilst the cross-walks give priority to pedestrians many drivers will stop on and reverse over cross-walks without much care or attention). Generally, you are safe anywhere at any time. If, for any reason, you feel threatened, seek a nearby restaurant or telephone booth. The emergency phone number in Switzerland is 117, and operators are generally English-speaking.
Football (soccer) games are the only notable exception to the above rule. Due to the potential threat of hooligan violence, these games (especially in Basel or Zurich) are generally followed by a large contingent of police officers with riot gear, rubber bullets, and tear gas, in case of any major unrest.
Switzerland has very strong Good Samaritan laws, making it a civic duty to help a fellow in need (without unduly endangering oneself). People are therefore very willing and ready to help you if you appear to be in an emergency situation. Be aware, though, that the same applies to you if you witness anyone in danger. The refusal to help to a person in need can be punishable by law as "Verweigerung der Hilfeleistung", i.e. refusal of aid. The general reservation of Americans to avoid entanglement with strangers due to possible future civil liability does not apply in Switzerland, for it would be practically impossible to wage a civil suit against anyone providing aid.
The drinking age for beer, wine and alcoholic cider is 16 (but not in all cantons, so make sure to ask before buying) while the age for any other alcohol (e.g. spirits, "alcopops", etc.) is 18. The public consumption of alcohol in Switzerland is legal, so do not be alarmed if you see a group of teenagers drinking a six-pack on public property; this is by no means out of the ordinary and should not be interpreted as threatening.
Switzerland is not a country of insane civil lawsuits and damage claims; consequently, if you see a sign or disclaimer telling you not to do something, obey it! An example: in many alpine areas, charming little mountain streams may be flanked by signs with the message "No Swimming". To the uninitiated, this may seem a bit over the top, but these signs are in fact a consequence of the presence of hydroelectric power plants further upstream that may discharge large amounts of water without warning.
In mountain areas, be sure to inquire about weather conditions at the tourist information office or local train station as you head out in the morning. They should be well informed about severe weather conditions and will advise you about possible avalanche areas.
There have been problems with police assuming that any Black, East European, or Arab person without an ID card or passport is an illegal immigrant, and treating them accordingly. That could be a considerable problem if you are travelling alone.
Generally there is no problem with food and water in Switzerland. Restaurants are controlled by strict rules. Water is drinkable everywhere, even out of public fountains unless specially marked (Kein Trinkwasser - Non potable - Non potabile). There are many organic food stores and restaurants available and it's currently illegal to sell any genetically modified food.
Take care not to inadvertently violate privacy of anybody in Switzerland. The Swiss Civil Code and Federal Act of Data Protection states that it is forbidden to make recordings of a person without their explicit consent and this is also true for pictures and video recordings as soon as a person is recognisable. Potentially you could be sentenced for up to 3 years prison for taking and especially publishing pictures and other recordings of any person without their explicit consent, so take care of what you make pictures and respect the request for privacy for both the general public and celebrities alike
English is widely spoken in Switzerland, but any attempt to speak the local language is always appreciated (especially in the French-speaking part of the country), even if you're replied to in English. It’s always polite to ask if they speak English before starting a conversation.
Make an effort to at least learn Hello, Goodbye, Please, and Thank You in the language of the region you will be traveling in. "I would like..." is also a phrase that will help you.
German, French, and Italian all have formal and informal forms of the word you, which changes the conjugation of the verb you use, and sometimes phrases. For example, the informal phrase don't worry about it in French is ne t'en fais pas and the formal is ne vous en faites pas. The formal is used to show respect to someone who is older than you, who you consider to be a superior, someone who has a greater rank than you at work, or simply a stranger in the street. The informal is used with close friends, relatives, and peers.
As a general rule, you shouldn't use the informal with someone you don't know well, someone who is your superior in rank, or an elder.
Use the informal with your close friends and younger people. Peers can be a grey area, and it is advisable to use the formal at first until they ask you to use the informal.
Friends kiss each other on the cheek three times (left - right - left). This is the usual thing to do when being introduced to someone in the French and German speaking part. If it is a business related meeting you just shake hands. Don't be shy, if you reject the advance it appears awkward and rude on your part. You don't have to actually touch your lips to the skin after-all, as a fake kiss will do.
Littering is seen as particularly anti-social. While Switzerland will not fine you (as in Singapore), littering is definitely seen as bad behaviour in this country and in general in German speaking Europe or Central Europe for that matter. Also make sure that you put your litter in the correctly labeled bin (e.g. recyclable). Some bins actually have times when this should be done to avoid excess noise!
Be punctual. That means no more than one minute late, if that! Not surprisingly for a country that is known for making clocks, the Swiss have a near-obsession with being on time.
Many of the internet cafes that have emerged in the 1990s have closed since, probably because Switzerland has one of the highest rate of high-speed internet connections in homes in the world, but almost any video rental shop and most train stations will have a few internet terminals. The tourist office should be able to direct you to the nearest one. The going rate is CHF5 for 20 minutes.
Also, you can send email, SMS (text messages to cell phones) or short text faxes from just about every public phone booth for less than one franc. Some public phone booths allow you to browse the internet. There are many shopping centers and cities (Lausanne and Vevey for example) that offer free wireless internet access: ask the young locals; maybe they know where to go.
The public phones are surprisingly cheap, and have no surcharge for credit cards.
If you stay for some time, it may be advisable to buy a pre-paid cell phone card that you can use in any phone that supports the GSM standard on the 900/1800 MHz bands - they usually cost around CHF10-40 and are obtainable in the shops of the mobile service providers Swisscom, Orange or Sunrise in most cities. Mobile network coverage is close to 100% by area, even in the mountainous, non-populated areas.
There are also a lot of cheap prepaid cards for local calls from other providers. The prepaid cards of the big supermarket chains Migros (M-Budget-Mobile ) and Coop ( Coop Mobile ) for example cost around CHF20 and include already CHF15 airtime. The cheapest prepaid card for calls within Switzerland is Aldi Mobile : 0.14 CHF/min Switzerland fixed and Aldi mobile, 0.34 CHF/min other mobiles. The cheapest prepaid card for international communication is yallo : 0.39 CHF/min within Switzerland as well as to all European and many more countries (to the mobile and fixed networks). This includes the UK, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. SMS cost CHF 0.10. The prepaid cards can be bought online (CHF 30 with CHF 30 airtime inclusive), in most post offices (CHF 29 with CHF 20 airtime inclusive) or Sunrise shops (CHF 20 with CHF20 airtime inclusive). Another prepaid card with cheap rates offers Lebara Mobile (Sister company of Sunrise). The prepaid card is available for CHF5 with an equivalent talk time and recharge vouchers offer the talktime equivalent to the price of the voucher.