The train from Milano Centrale into Switzerland was by far the most breathtaking voyage by rail I have ever embarked on. Lakes. Waterfalls. Roads elevated to the heights of grandiose mountains. Gasps of wonder were not uncommon from our train carriage. Also, it was burning hot in Milan when I left, and by then I was longing for the Swiss chill, the idea of being in the mountains sans burning skin and free from the hell spawn that is the mosquito.
My first stop was Lucerne. Less than a year prior, I met a Swiss girl in a bar in San Francisco with photos on her phone of her beautiful lakeside hometown. I knew then that I had to see it, especially since she offered a couch to sleep on.
The photos were not misleading; the stunning city seems to shimmer in the day and glow at night. Old bridges (namely the wooden Kapellbrücke) stretch across the Vierwaldstättersee (Lake Lucerne or, literally, the “Four Forested-Cantons Lake”) leading from the station to the historic center. There’s much to discover, from historic towers offering panoramic views to Löwendenkmal (the Lion Monument of Lucerne) by Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen, something that looks straight out of the Lord of the Rings films. For dining, search the menus for Chappel Rösti, a must-try entree for anyone in love with potatoes and bacon.
From Lucerne we visited the capital of Switzerland, Bern, as well as Basel, a bustling city filled with art, and Ennetbürgen, a countryside town located along the edge of a scenic mountain. In Bern, we indulged in Swiss steaks at Entrecôte Café Fédérale, not a cheap culinary adventure but one worth every franc.
By rail I ventured into popular Interlaken, a city located at the base of the Swiss Alps from where travelers can venture up several mountains. I chose the Lauterbrunnen Valley (home of the Trümmelbachfälle, the Trümmelbach Falls, a series of glacier waterfalls that run through a mountain) and the hilltop town of Mürren. From here one witnesses the stunning majesty of nature in Switzerland.
My last week in Switzerland took me to the bustling city of Zürich. I had met my host there three years ago on a flight from Toronto to Zürich. As we walked through the city, she described each locale and it seems that the city is just filled with hip restaurants and bars that offer live music or art.
The Zürichsee (Lake Zürich) is a notable attraction of the city. On sunny days you’ll often find locals swimming in the lake, relaxing in the badis, or baths, and drinking by the waterfront. It was raining most of the time when I visited, so I spent much time in the city’s world-class museums like Kunsthaus Zürich and the Museum Rietberg. Each requires at least three hours to thoroughly peruse.
It was in Zürich that I finally tried the Swiss bratwurst, namely the St. Galler Bratwurst with Gold Bürli (a rustic bread) and hot mustard combination at Sternen Grill, a popular spot for grilled sausages. Additionally, we visited Johanniter Brasserie for the local dish Zürcher Geschnetzeltes (meat — veal or pork — with a cream sauce and a side of rösti, the aforementioned Swiss hash browns) and another central spot, Swiss Chuchi for fondue (being summer, one finds the iconic dish only in restaurants catering to tourists). Though not Swiss, Bebek was also a great restaurant for drinks and Middle Eastern mezze. For more drinks, El Lokal was a pretty cool bar with a Latin theme. And in the night, I found much pleasure in being amongst the locals for Openair Wipkingen, an outdoor festival in the hip, more-industrial District 10, and free opera night by Opernhaus Zürich (the Zürich opera house) for a live simulcast of Aida. Classy!
Be sure to also check out Frau Gerolds Garten, an outdoor space with bars, food and shops located near the Zürich Hardbrücke train station, as well as Viadukt, a series of hip shops located under Zürich’s railway viaduct. You can tell all your friends how cool you are after.
SAVING MONEY IN SWITZERLAND
You’d be hard-pressed to find a country more beautiful than Switzerland. That is the first and last thing to know about the diverse country of snow-capped mountains bound by France, Germany and Italy. The home of the United Nations, the country is appropriately diverse in the ethnicity of its citizenry (there are four national languages) and civil in its demeanor. Trains run on time and the rivers running through even the major cities are so clean you can drink the water. Switzerland is an ideal destination for anyone, whether one is interested in nature (the Swiss Alps), art and culture (breathtaking museums) or gastronomy (all hail the meat and potatoes). So what’s the catch? What’s the downside of visiting this veritable paradise of human civilization?
Switzerland is expensive as hell.
Compare the cost of transportation in Switzerland to its southern neighbor, the rambunctious yet obviously cheaper Italy, where one can purchase a regionale ticket to go from one city to the next for as little as 6€ (in this case, Bologna to Reggio-Emilia). In Zürich, the cost of a bus ticket within the zone of the city center costs 5.20CHF at the time of writing. The local bus.
Dining out in most restaurants runs an average of 25CHF or more. If you make the mistake of ordering bottled water, you could pay as much as 8CHF. Wine seems cheap at 6CHF per glass, though it’s only until one realizes it’s served by the deciliter, about half the normal quantity in many other countries.
So how do you save money while visiting Switzerland? Fast food items like bratwurst with gold bürli runs about 7.50CHF at eateries like the aforementioned Sternen Grill, and that’s enough to keep one satiated. Schnägg, a food shop with several locations, offers items at lower-than-average prices despite their high quality offerings. A morning coffee with croissant here costs only 4.50CHF (as opposed to the 5CHF for just coffee at other cafes). Shopping at supermarkets like Migros or Coop can help your budget as well. And, in a bind, you can always find cheap(er) food items at the train stations.
To save money on Swiss transportation, look into city cards (like the ZürichCARD) or train passes like the Swiss Travel Pass. They often include admission to museums and discounts on other tickets, so you can easily save a lot with a little preparation. Additionally, you could plan ahead and buy all-day or multiple-day tickets for the city if you think you’ll be utilizing public transit more than once.
Affordable options abound like outdoor festivals and lounging by the lake. A ticket for a 90-minute ride in Lake Zürich costs 8CHF for a round trip ticket, not a bad price for touring the waters by boat. The Museum Rietberg costs 14CHF for the entirety of the museum, and the Landesmuseum Zürich (Swiss National Museum) only charges 10CHF, despite its vast offerings.
So now, near the end of my European journey, as I write this post in Germany, I look back in awe of the beautiful country I had just left, a fond farewell with a head full of fond memories and a wallet longing to be replenished.
I’ll definitely be back, though after saving up a bit first.