Switzerland’s striking great outdoors
Written by Brian Johnston
Switzerland is best known for the Alps, but former Geneva resident of 25 years and repeat visitor Brian Johnston thinks its plateau country provides just as beautiful and active a holiday.
In the land of Heidi, snow, and skiing, Alpine Switzerland gets all the attention, leaving the rolling countryside between Geneva and Zurich overlooked. Yet this region combines vibrant urban centres with rich history – and plenty of options for sporty visitors.
The Swiss are industrious, indoors types who manufacture chocolate, money, and watches. Okay, they’re good at skiing, but they aren’t exactly known for their international sporting prowess. And didn’t Harry Lime comment in The Third Man: “In Switzerland… they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” Ouch.
The Swiss, however, seldom worry about misleading stereotypes. Come the weekend and they’re out sailing, kayaking, hiking, and snowshoeing. And why wouldn’t they? They’re surrounded by lovely scenery organised to be enjoyed. Local trains – punctual to the second – propel you through terraced vineyards and fertile farmland to rural destinations where the great outdoors beckons. Care to cycle? You can rent a bicycle at many train stations. Want to hike? Yellow signs point the way with time estimates. And as the seasons change, the Swiss hardly slow down. In winter you can cross-country ski, snowboard or skate in landscapes fit for a snowdome.
The vast majority of Swiss live on the wide plateau between the Alps and the Jura mountains. This region is often overlooked by visitors, but travel between Geneva and Zurich and you’ll find a marvellous outdoors that borrows the distant Alps as its backdrop. You’ll also get a look at an alternative Switzerland, one that provides two languages, two distinct cities, and a host of culture-rich, history-filled country towns that add depth to an active holiday.
Start in Geneva: you can see the best of it on a long walk around its lakefront, which will take you from Botanic Gardens on one side to Parc des Granges on the other: a couple of hours’ stroll past villas, rose gardens, and Geneva’s famous 150m fountain. It’s an easy warm-up for the first leg of your journey out along Lake Geneva, whose shores are perfectly designed for enjoyment of the outdoors without outrageous physical challenge. Rural rambles – all well signposted – take you through chestnut forests and neatly pegged vineyards into open meadows where Alpine panoramas unfold across the lake. My favourite walk (or cycle) links the villages of Begnins, Féchy, Bussy, and Lully. Autumn is a particularly pleasing season, when vines turn orange, yellow leaves rustle in country lanes, and snowpeaks are crystal clear.
This is a 20km route, so detour into lively Lausanne for a well-earned overnight. From here, the shores of Lake Geneva get increasingly spectacular, with cycling tracks (marked by red signs) leading across steep terraced hillsides where vineyards and medieval villages tumble. If even this scenery isn’t enough, a paragliding flight from the mountains behind Montreux, or a hot-air balloon ride from Château d’Oex, provides heart-stopping panoramas and exhilaration.
The eastern end of Lake Geneva is nicknamed the ‘Swiss Riviera’ for its balmy micro-climate. From elegant Montreux, walk or cycle along the lakeshore to Chillon Castle. This is especially agreeable in summer, when promenade flowerbeds bloom. Winter merits a detour to the world-class ski resorts just beyond the lakes end in the Rhone Valley, such as Verbier and Crans-Montana.
The journey to Zurich, however, requires trekking northeast from Lake Geneva, skirting the Alps. Stop first at tiny Gruyères, one of the best-preserved medieval, fortified towns in Europe. Then head on through lush farmland to Fribourg, which for me is Switzerland’s most delightful ‘unknown’ town. It was once the prominent capital of a small medieval republic. Defensive walls enclose fine Gothic and baroque houses, but the town also has a lively vibe thanks to its many university students. Get active as you wander the old town: Switzerland’s first urban 18-hole golf course takes you on an 8km route right through Fribourg’s historic core. You can also admire the citadel from a different angle by kayaking on the river that almost encircles it. The kids will love these novel ways to admire history and architecture.
Fribourg stands on the Sarine River; cross the bridge and it becomes the Saane. By the time you arrive in Bern, 35km away, you’re well into German-speaking territory. Like all federal capitals, Bern can be a little stuffy, but the Bernese Alps on the horizon remind you that the great outdoors is never far away in Switzerland. Bern residents have some rather quirky activities in the surrounding countryside. Join a hiking group with goats to carry your baggage; ride a decommissioned railway line between Laupen and Gümmenen by dint of pedalling a carriage along the tracks; or scuba-dive in the Aare River that embraces Bern in a lazy three-quarter circle.
Winter brings other pleasures: local Gurten mountain has a 1,200m toboggan run and some basic skiing that might give your kids a first go on the snow; equipment can be rented from the ski lift. Also practically in the Bern suburbs, Gantrisch cross-country ski centre has 45km of groomed trails where long-shanked Swiss skim past as snow glints on fir trees and sun shines on mountaintops.
It’s only an hour on the train from Bern to Zurich, though you could break your journey in Solothurn, another charming, self-assured Swiss provincial town dotted with Renaissance architecture and flower-draped fountains. Its art museum has a fine collection by Ferdinand Hodler, one of Switzerland’s best-known painters, famous for his angular, oddly coloured mountain landscapes.
In Zurich, urban pleasures return. The city has undergone quite a transformation in the last decade, and is popping with trendy restaurants and bars, curious art galleries, and hip shops, especially in revitalised Zurich West. Between May and October, pedal around the sights and notable art and design museums on a free city bike. Then relax at the public Lakeside Sauna (ladies only on Mondays), where the brave leap into the lake afterwards, even in winter.
Above Zurich, most tourists reach the Uetliberg lookout on the tramway. Locals, of course, tackle the hill on foot instead; the path leading from Uitikon-Waldegg is the least challenging. There’s a mountain-bike route too, and in winter the Hohenstein walking trail is transformed into a sledging run. Just another way to soak up the great outdoors in Switzerland, and always accompanied by a side of marvellous views.
The Olympic Museum
Lausanne’s well-heeled lakefront suburb of Ouchy has 5km of promenades: a fine place for a workout, and particularly pretty in spring, when flowerbeds burst with tulips. Ouchy is also home to the International Olympic Committee and has a fine Olympic museum. Although you shouldn’t expect an analytical study of the Olympic movement or its various scandals, you’ll discover much about the ancient games and the development of the modern movement, as well as the origins of various sports and the story of its greatest heroes. A video library runs historical footage of great Olympic moments. Lovely gardens are studded with statues on sports-related themes, and Olympic records are brought to life by the presence of markers and equipment giving you an idea of how long, high, and far athletes have to run and jump to claim sporting immortality.
Quai d’Ouchy 1, +41 21 621 6511
Patek Phillipe Museum
If rain drives you indoors, then this grand collection of European timepieces in Geneva is entrancing. Objects range from early 1630s pocket watches glinting with gemstones to 19th-century watches created for Chinese and Brazilian customers, as well as beautiful examples of contemporary Patek Philippe creations. Not a single object on display is less than perfection.
Rue des Vieux-Grenadiers 7, Geneva +41 22 807 0910
The House of Gruyère
The village of Gruyères is home to the famous Swiss cheese of (almost) the same name. You can see Gruyère being made by master cheesemakers in this ultra-modern dairy. Then touch, smell, and taste your way around an exhibition on the iconic product before stretching your legs on a themed walk through the lush surrounding countryside, where cows graze.
Place de la Gare 3, Pringy-Gruyères +41 26 921 8400
Stop off in the vineyards at Cully near Lausanne to sample the upscale cuisine of young Chef Flavien Jauquier, who favours local produce, whimsically enlivened with oriental spices. Bresse chickens and pheasant are roasted on coals; fish comes straight from the lake. The 15th-century buildings interior of wood panelling and antiques has an elegant, almost alpine atmosphere.
Place de l’Hôtel-de-Ville 1, Cully +41 21 799 2131
Distance: 4,490 km
Flight Time: 6 hours, 25 minutes