Switzerland lies at a major European crossroads, linking western and central Europe and Mediterranean and Germanic Europe. Contrary to popular notions, only 60% of the country consists of the Swiss Alps, across the southern half. About 10% is covered by the Jura Mountains in the west, leaving 30% of the land to the Swiss Plateau, home to the majority of the population. The Alps provide the headwaters of the Rhine, Inn, Ticino and Rhône rivers, thus contributing to the critical network of transportation, agriculture and ecological zones of an entire continent.
Switzerland is a federal parliamentary republic comprising 26 cantons, each of which once operated as its own sovereign state. The nation has not designated an official capital, but Bern is the political center, referred to by the Swiss as the Bundesstadt, or “federal city.”
The official languages of Switzerland are French (in western Switzerland), German (in north, central, and eastern Switzerland), Italian (in southern Switzerland), and Romansch (a derivative of Latin spoken in southeastern Switzerland).
While knowledge of the local language is not necessary, you may want to learn some fun and useful phrases to use during your walking tour. The effort seldom goes unappreciated and by trying some greetings and salutations with a smile, your interactions are likely to grow into rewarding exchanges. See BBC Languages for helpful hints on speaking French, German, and Italian. Country Walkers also recommends a phrase book or two in our Reading Guide that you’ll receive after you reserve.
The Swiss have a reputation for their punctuality. Justified or not, it likely rests in the watch-making industry that has flourished here for centuries. Its origins lie in Jean Calvin’s 16th-century puritan reforms that banned jewelry; so jewelers turned to the craft of watch-making, which spread from Geneva to other towns in the Jura Mountains. Known for its many luxury watch brands, most “firsts” in the watch-making trade took place in Switzerland, including pendant winding (19th century), wrist watches (after World War I), and quartz watches (1967).
Life in Switzerland
Shopping and banking hours: Shops and stores are generally open Monday to Saturday between 8:30 a.m. and 12:00 p.m., and from 2:00 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.; in larger cities they don’t close for lunch. Banks are open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday to Friday.
Meal times: Breakfast is served at hotels from 7:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. In restaurants, lunch is served (almost exclusively) from 12:00 p.m. to 2:00 p.m., and dinner is from 7:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.
Tipping: Gratuities in restaurants and bars are included (15 percent) in the total bill; for exceptional service, you may round up the total or leave two to five Swiss francs. Taxi drivers can also receive two to five Swiss francs or a rounded-up total. For luggage assistance, a tip of one to two Swiss francs per bag is appropriate.
Switzerland public holidays: Swiss public holidays, festivals, or calendars of events may affect your travel planning. For details, visit the Swiss tourist board’s website, navigating to “General Information” and “Public Holidays.”
Although a small country, Switzerland’s cuisine is varied according to each region’s particular geography and history. Dairy products—cheese in particular—are the common thread, with each region and village producing its own cheese variety; fondue and raclette with potatoes are examples of cheese-based meals. Cheese is almost exclusively made of cow’s milk (99%, 1% production from sheep and goat’s milk) and comes in over 450 varieties. The most common are the recognizable “hole-ridden” hard cheeses of Emmental and Gruyère; Raclette falls in the semi-hard category.
Locally pastured beef and lamb are common on menus, often as roasts with savory sauces accompanied by potatoes, fresh vegetables, and salad. Many regions have fresh sausages, as well as dry-cured sausages and hams. It is also the land of muesli cereal, creamy yogurts, and a variety of baked goods, from fresh breads and croissants to many types of cookies and cakes (often hazelnut-based).
Switzerland, despite its mountainous landscape, also produces wine in its southern and western regions, with a history dating back to Roman and perhaps even pre-Roman times. Wine production is just over 50 percent red, predominantly of Pinot Noir grapes, and just under 50 percent white, with many grape varieties, the most common being Müller Thurgau, Chardonnay, Sylvaner, and Pinot Gris.
The climate in Switzerland varies according to region and elevation. Late spring can be pleasant and sunny with temperatures up to the 70s, occasional showers, and some snow on the ground at high elevations. Summer days can be hot (high 80s), with local rain or thunder showers. In early autumn, the weather is often dry and sunny, although early snowfalls at higher elevations are not uncommon. Evenings are typically cooler in all seasons at mountainous elevations.
U.S. citizens: Passports are required and must be valid for at least three months beyond the dates of travel. Visas are not required for stays of up to 90 days. For more information, see travel.state.gov.
Switzerland uses the Swiss franc (CHF). The current exchange rate is 1 USD = 1 CHF. Exchange rates can vary greatly month to month, so we recommend you visit oanda.com for the latest.
Many businesses in Europe will no longer accept credit cards without PIN numbers (chip and pin cards). Contact your bank or your credit-card company for details on fees and card use when travelling, and to inform them of your travel destination and dates so they do not freeze your accounts when they see charges appear from a foreign country.
We recommend having a variety of payment options readily available to help you start your trip: ATM card(s), credit card(s), some U.S. dollars to exchange, and some euros in small denominations.
No immunizations are required to enter Switzerland. Requirements and recommendations change frequently, so always check directly with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC: cdc.gov/travel; 800-232-4636), a travel clinic, and/or your personal physician for the most current information. Plan ahead for immunizations, as some require administration several months prior to departure.
Electricity: Alternating current of 230V and 50Hz is used in Switzerland. Plugs have either two round pins and a hole, or just two round pins. For a full listing of electrical outlets worldwide, see electricaloutlet.org. If you are bringing your own hair dryer or other electrical device, you will need a travel converter, available at most hardware, travel, or consumer electronic stores. For laptops or an electronic device with a dual voltage switch, you will only need the adapter plug, not the converter.
Phone: Switzerland’s country code is “+41.” Cell phone coverage throughout Switzerland is extensive, but we cannot guarantee adequate signals on all American phone models or while on walking trails or in remote areas. For more information regarding international phone use, please refer to this blog post.
Internet: Internet access is generally very good in towns and villages; however, all of the hotels used on our tours do not necessarily provide it, or they provide it at an additional cost. Details regarding Wi-Fi availability in each hotel are available in the Itinerary Overview that you’ll receive once you’ve reserved.
Switzerland is in the Central European Time Zone, Eastern Standard Time plus 6 hours. For more information on worldwide time zones, see: worldtimezone.com.
A wealth of travel information is available at myswitzerland.com.
Direct flights from the U.S. are available to Zurich, Geneva and Basel.
International Airports in Switzerland
- Basel EuroAirport Basel–Mulhouse–Freiburg
- Bern-Belp Airport
- Geneva International Airport
- St. Gallen-Altenrhein Airport
- Zurich Airport
Swiss Federal Railways: Switzerland’s national train company is sbb.ch. You may book your train travel directly with them. Or, if you plan to travel for longer periods, consider Rail Europe, a U.S.-based company that provides schedules, reservations, and ticketing for all European train networks. Their multi-day, -week or -month passes in one country or combinations of countries may be a more economical and convenient choice. For more information, go to raileurope.com or call 800.622.8600.
Other local transportation
Once in Switzerland, short internal flights can get you to other cities. However, reaching any destination is often easier on its excellent—and both stunningly beautiful and punctual—rail network or extensive regional bus lines. Zurich (zurich-airport.com) and Geneva (gva.ch) airports have direct rail service.
Taxis are available at all major airports, train stations, and in smaller towns, and can be reserved in advance (your hotel can usually provide assistance). Most major car rental agencies are available at Swiss airports and train stations.
For more information go to myswitzerland.com, and click on “Transport.” Or instead visit swisstravelsystem.com, another official site providing ticketing, pass, and schedule information for all interconnected public transport including rail, bus, and ferries, as well as legendary rail lines such as the 7-hour-long Glacier Express from Zermatt to St. Moritz.