Western Switzerland comprises most of the French part of Switzerland with the exception of the Valais. It includes the cantons of Geneva, Vaud, Neuchatel, Jura as well as the French speaking parts of the cantons of Fribourg and Berne. It stretches over all the three topological regions of Switzerland, from the Jura mountains in the Northeast, over the Plateau with among others Lake Geneva and Lake Neuchatel to the Alps in the Southwest.
The cities of the northern Jura are where the famed Swiss watch-making industry took off in the 18th and 19th centuries, and so there are a lot of interesting watch-making related things to see in the region. The Plateau is the most densely populated area, with the two important cities of Lausanne, known as a university town, and Geneva, famous for housing numerous of international organisations. Fribourg is known for its cheese making tradition, being the origin of both the Gruyeres cheese and the moitie-moitie fondue.
This part of Switzerland, also called Romandy, has its own culture and customs, well different from the German speaking part of Switzerland. The towns might look the same to you, as neat and clean as anywhere else in Switzerland, but ask any local on either side of the language border and they will tell you about the weird people on the other side. There is even a name for this separation, called Röstigraben (Rösti ditch, named after the Swiss German dish). This difference in culture and ideology is best seen during one of Switzerland's many referendums, where Western Switzerland tends to favour more state intervention in foreign policy and social matters as compared to the rest of Switzerland.
Culturally Western Switzerland is also much more influenced by France. This is where many of its traditions originated. The Swiss watchmaking industry for instance started when French protestant artisans fled France to Geneva, then an important centre of protestantism thanks to Jean Calvin.
Regions and Cities
|Geneva (Geneva, Hermance)|
The canton of Geneva with the capital of the same name: Geneva is the biggest city in western Switzerland.
|Vaud (Château-d'Œx, Lausanne, Montreux, Vevey, Villars-sur-Ollon, Yverdon)|
This diverse canton with the capital of Lausanne stretches from the shores of lake Geneva up to the mountains of the Vaud Alps and Jura.
|Swiss Jura (Delémont, La Chaux-de-Fonds, Le Locle, Neuchâtel and Saint-Ursanne)|
The cantons of Jura and Neuchâtel as well as the French speaking part of the canton of Berne.
|Western Fribourg (Fribourg, Gruyères, Murten)|
The capital Fribourg is home to the moitié-moitié fondue. The small town of Gruyères is where Gruyère cheese comes from.
The German speaking part of the canton of Fribourg is part of the Berne region.
The public holidays are different in each canton. These are the public holidays in addition to those observed in the whole of Switzerland:
- St. Berchtold (2 January, observed in Berne, Fribourg, Jura and Vaud)
- Establishment of the Republic (1 March, observed in Neuchâtel)
- Labour Day (1 May, observed in Jura and Neuchâtel)
- Corpus Christi (60 days after Easter, observed in most parts of Fribourg, in Jura and Neuchâtel)
- Commemoration of the Jura Plebiscite (23 June, observed in Jura)
- Assumption (15 August, observed in in most parts of Fribourg and in Jura)
- Jeûne genevois (Thursday after first Sunday of September, observed in Geneva)
- Lundi du Jeûne (Monday after the third Sunday of September, observed in the canton of Vaud)
- All Saints Day (1 November, observed in in most parts of Fribourg and in Jura)
- Immaculate Conception (8 December, observed in in most parts of Fribourg)
- Restoration of the Republic (31 December, observed in Geneva)
In the predominantly protestant See/Lac district of Fribourg, the catholic holidays of Corpus Christi, Assumption, All Saints and Immaculate Conception are not observed. In the canton of Neuchâtel 26 December and 2 January are observed as holidays if 25 December and 1 January are Sundays.
The western part of Switzerland is entirely French speaking, though you will also hear Swiss German, Italian, and English. While it might be hard to get around the country side without speaking French, Geneva and Lausanne are much more international and it is not uncommon for people around you to be having conversations in four different languages.
The only airport in this region is in Geneva (Genève-Cointrin). It is much smaller than the airport in Zürich, but very heavily internationally connected due to the UN's presence in Geneva. You can also easily fly into Zürich and catch an express train west.
International trains from both France and Italy travel to Western Switzerland. The TGV Lyria has frequent connections from Paris to Geneva, as well as a handful connections via Dijon to both Lausanne an Neuchatel. Local train services to towns near the Swiss border also exist. There are also a couple of daily Eurocity connections from Milan via Valais to Montreux, Lausanne and Geneva.
Western Switzerland is well connected by train to the rest of Switzerland. Which line you should take will greatly depend on your specific destination.
Several major highways connect this region to the rest of Switzerland. Depending on where you want to go A1, A5, A9 or A12 will take you there.
The region has an extensive network of train lines serving most towns. The main lines (IC and ICN trains) go along Lake Geneva from Geneva via Lausanne to Aigle (towards Valais), from Lausanne to Fribourg (towards Berne) and from Lausanne/Geneva via Yverdon and Neuchatel to Biel.
Most towns on Lake Geneva are served by the boats of the Compagnie Génerale de navigation (CGN). As well as modern boats, CGN operates five heritage paddle steamers built at the beginning of the 20th century. On some routes, boats are the fastest mean of transport (between Lausanne and Evian, for example). On most other routes though, boats are much slower than trains, but they often offer more scenic views.
- The Château de Chillon is a mediaeval castle prominently built on a small island and connected to the shore via a bridge near Montreux. There is an exposition inside and most of the castle can be toured, but it also offers very scenic views just seen from the outside.
- Watchmaking has a big tradition in the Jura region. You can visit historic sites and also factories in the towns of La Chaux-de-Fonds and Le Locle which together make up a UNESCO world heritage site on their watchmaking town planning.
- Visit the chocolate factory of Cailler in Broc in the Fribourg Alps. On the way there you can stop over at Gruyeres, a quaint town which gave its name to the world-famous cheese.
- Take a walk around Geneva to discover its role in international diplomacy. Visit the Palais des Nations, the seat of the UN in Geneva or the Museum of the Red Cross at its headquarters.
- Like all of Switzerland, this region is laced with hiking trails (marked in yellow) and biking trails (marked in vermillion). You can buy first-rate hiking and biking maps (about Fr. 28) at tourist information offices in all towns of any size. For going up into the Jura, a map is strongly recommended; elsewhere you can get by without one.
- There is plenty of opportunity to ski in this region. Most of the stations are concentrated in the Vaud Alps with destinations such as Les Diablerets, Leysin and Château-d'Œx, however there are some smaller stations in the Fribourg Alps and the Jura. If you are more interested in cross-country skiing, then the Jura mountains are a good choice.
- There are many interesting events taking place throughout this region during the year. Head to Geneva for the yearly Motor Show, to Montreux for the Jazz festival, to Saint-Ursanne for the medieval festival or to Fribourg for St Nicholas Day.
Western Switzerland is home to a couple of regional dishes and products:
- Quite a number of Swiss chocolate brands are produced in this region. Notable examples are Cailler (visit the factory in Broc), Camille-Bloch (producer of Ragusa chocolate), Villars (from Fribourg) and Favarger (produced in Geneva).
- Cheese is another mainstay of this region. The most famous is probably Gruyère, the production of which can be witnessed in the town of Gruyères. This is also supposedly the birth region of fondue, so head to Fribourg for a taste of the traditional moitié-moitié fondue. There are also numerous local cheeses which are worth a try: The Tomme Vaudoise is a mild, soft cheese from the Vaud region. The Tête de Moine (monks head) is a semi-hard cheese usually eating with the help of a special scraping device.
- Meat lovers will find their share of local dishes as well: The Saucisson vaudois is a boiled pork sausage traditionally eating with leek and potatoes. Atriaux is a product made of minced pork and pork liver wrapped in crépine (the fat lining of a pig stomach) and if you are getting a cut of meat, you might get it with Café de Paris sauce, which despite its name has been invented in Geneva.
- Western Switzerland (together with the Valais) has a long tradition of making wine. Especially along the shores of Lake Geneva terraced vineyards are plentiful. The Lavaux wine growing area is even inscribed as a UNESCO world heritage site.
- Absinthe originated in the area around Val-de-Travers in the canton of Neuchâtel. It was illegal for almost a century but has been legalised again in 2005 and locally produced absinthe can again be legally found in the area.
As everywhere in Switzerland, this regions is overall quite safe. In comparisons with other regions, crime rates are higher than the national average. However, this is still on a fairly low level and violent crime is very rare.
Especially Geneva is considered a bit of a crime hot spot. Be vigilant around crowded areas, as pickpockets are common, and keep and eye on your luggage while on the train. Scams such as the cup shuffling game are also fairly common.
- Geneva and Lausanne are well connected to Berne and other major Swiss cities by train, bus and road. From Montreux you can ride the Golden Pass train to Lucerne and the Bernese Highlands.
- The region of Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes in France is both physically and culturally close to Geneva.
- You can drive to Aosta Valley, the northwesternmost part of Italy in 2-3 hours from anywhere in the region. Train and bus connections usually take a little longer as you need travel via France.