Backpacking Switzerland Travel Guide (2018)

 JUMP TO : Switzerland Travel Itineraries | Places to Visit | Where to Stay | Travel Tips | Cost of Travel

For most of my adolescent life I was under the impression that I was of German heritage. Made sense to me, as I have all of the classic features of a Deutschlander: tall, brown hair, blue eyes, and a pinch of angst.

It wasn’t until a later conversation with my father – while I was backpacking in Africa no less – did I realize that I was, in fact, Swiss German, which isn’t really German at all. It was at that moment that I decided that it was absolutely necessary to travel to Switzerland.

Let me tell you that everything that you’ve heard about Switzerland is true: the Alps are spectacular, the cities are clean, the people are diverse (and beautiful), and the prices are steep. Luckily, I’m here to help you with all of the above!

With this travel guide for Switzerland, we’re going to break down how to experience this amazing country and save a buck or two in the process. We’ll cover topics ranging from cheap accomodation to finding good deals on trains to how to go backpacking in the Swiss Alps.

Everything and then some is covered in this guide; with it, you’ll be more than prepared to backpack Switzerland.

Go trekking in the Bernese Oberland! Enjoy superlative views from your comfortable train cabin! Eat the world-famous Swiss chocolate! All this and more is possible when you travel to Switzerland.

matterhorn switzerland

 

Where to Go Backpacking in Switzerland

Situated in the heart of the Alps, Switzerland is arguably one of the most scenic countries in the world. Many people, including some of the most respected artists of our time, have and will vacation in Switzerland to enjoy its many pastoral delights.

See the iconic Matterhorn! Wander around the many alleys and old towns of the Swiss cities! Go skiing just about anywhere! All of this and more is possible with this travel guide for backpacking Switzerland.

Before jumping in head-first though, we’re going to outline the best Switzerland itineraries. Each one is specially drafted to give you the best possible experience.

Afterward, we’re going jump into the meat of the article – the destinations – and then follow with some more specific information e.g. Costs, Lodging, Trekking, etc. By the end of this guide, you’ll be equipped with all of the necessary tools to travel in Switzerland on a budget!

schilthorn-switzerland

There are plenty of viewpoints in Switzerland. This is Schilthorn.

 

Best Itineraries and Routes for Backpacking Switzerland

Bellow is a list of three travel itineraries for backpacking Switzerland. They vary from 4 to 10 days in length and cover the majority of Switzerland’s must-do attractions.  

The ultimate budget guide to backpacking Switzerland! Get tips, tricks, and itineraries for traveling around this amazing country on a budget...

 

Backpacking Switzerland 4 Day Itinerary #1: Zurich and Lucerne

backpacking switzerland 4 days itinerary

Map of Switzerland not to scale.

 

4 Days: Zurich to Lucerne

Just passing through? Then get a taste of Switzerland on this 4-day itinerary!

Arrive in Zurich and spend a day or two exploring the city. See the it’s top landmarks by day and go clubbing at night. Be sure to make a day trip out to Rhine Falls, the largest waterfall on continental Europe, as well.

Head to Lucerne afterward for a slightly more relaxed experience. Bathe in one of Switzerland’s most beautiful lakes then hike or take the cable car up to Mt Pilatus for some superlative views of the Alps.

 

Backpacking Switzerland 7 Day Itinerary #2: Geneva to Zermatt

backpacking switzerland 7 days itinerary

Map of Switzerland not to scale.

 

7 Days: Geneva to Zermatt

On this itinerary for backpacking Switzerland, spend a week between the shores of Lake Geneva and the mountain village of Zermatt.

Start in the international hub of Geneva, and then make your way around the eponymous lake. Be sure to visit the lovely Lausanne and quaint little Montreux.

From the edge of Lake Geneva, catch a train that heads deep into the Alps of Valaise. You’ll arrive in Zermatt, which is one of the premier outdoor destinations in Switzerland. See the glorious Matterhorn and then go skiing, hiking, or mountain biking under its shadow.

 

Backpacking Switzerland 10 Day Itinerary #3: Berne to Zurich

backpacking switzerland 10 days itinerary

Map of Switzerland not to scale.

 

10 Days: Berne to the Bernese Oberland and Zurich

The Bernese Oberland is one the best places to visit in Switzerland! Here you’ll find some of the country’s most spectacular scenery.

Start in the lovely federal capital of Berne and – after exploring the city a bit – head out to mountains. Choose between Lauterbrunnen, Murren, Grindelwald; hell, any village as your base of operations and then just start walking. Hike to the amazing Kleine Scheidegg and stare in awe at the face of Switzerland’s most impressive peaks: Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau, to name a few.

You could spend several days just touring these mountains and the high passes.

Head back north and spend some time in Interlaken after wrapping up the Bernese Oberland. Still have a day or two? Head to Lucerne and pick up the first itinerary in this guide – it’ll be a nice way to round out your trip.

 

Places to Visit in Switzerland

Backpacking Zurich

Zurich is the financial hub of Switzerland. Given its strong economy and continued growth, it has also become Switzerland’s largest city both in terms of size and population. With such prosperity has come a hugely diverse population, a dynamic cultural scene, and one of the best nightlifes in Switzerland.

Zurich is close to the German border and is, historically, of German heritage. Many of the sights around Zurich appear very similar to their German neighbors’. The famous Grossmünster, Wasserkirche, and Fraumünster churches look like they would fit right in Munich.

Being Switzerland though, Zurich has some wonderfully diverse attractions. The cobble-stoned Old Town (Altstadt) is certainly a lovely place to walk around as is Lindenhof Hill. For a slightly more modern tour, head over to the Bahnhofstrasse, which is known for being the most expensive shopping strip in the world. While shopping here may not be reasonable for backpackers, it’s still a great place to people watch.

Zurich has a thriving art scene as well. The Kunsthaus is perhaps the most prestigious museum in the whole country, having an art collection that dates all the way back to the Middle Ages.

Be sure to visit some of Zurich’s satellite neighborhoods. Of particular note is Districts 5, which was once one of the most decrepit in the city. In recent years, it’s been renewed and has turned into one of the coolest parts of town.

Outside of Zurich are a number of natural attractions. There is Lake Zurich, an alpine lake of the most arresting shade of blue, and Üetliberg, which has a number of good hiking trails plus an amazing view of the city from its summit. About an hour away is Rhine Falls, which is the largest waterfall in continental Europe!

Book Your Zurich Hostel Here

zurich-backpacking switzerland

The Grossmünster.

 

Backpacking Basel

Basel is a bit of a forgotten sibling when compared to Zurich, which is unwarranted. Basel offers many of the same sorts of activities as Zurich does: there is a charming Old Town, several wonderful buildings, and parties that will knock you on your ass (that last bit should actually be stressed).

There are several cultural landmarks that need to be visited in Basel. First and foremost, the Basel Munster should be one’s top priority as this red-colored church is very impressive – inside are some very respectable artifacts and inscriptions that are among the oldest in the German world.

The other must-see sight in Basel is the Basel Town Hall or Rathaus. This complex was once a palace and could give Munich’s own Town Hall a run for its money.

Other attractions of note in Basel include the Kunstmuseum, the largest art museum in Switzerland, the Museum Tinguely, Vitra Design Museum, and the HeK, the last of which showcases various electronic art pieces. Be sure to also visit the Spalenter and the Old City Walls as well.

If we’re being honest though, Basel is one of those neglected cities that really shines in the intangibles. The parties and festivals here, including the awesome Fasnacht, are pretty fuckin’ cool. The theater scene in Basel is some of the best in the country. The city is even supposedly home to a huge population of spirits and ghosts, which are hunted by many a brave soul at night.

Book Your Basel Hostel Here

basel-city-hall-backpacking switzerland

The red walls of Basel’s City Hall.

 

Backpacking Lucerne

Lucerne is my – and probably everyone else’s (including Mark Twain’s) – favorite Swiss city. With the imposing Mt. Pilatus at its back, plenty of enchanting architecture, and the gorgeous eponymous lake, Lucerne is certainly one of the most beautiful cities in Switzerland.

Lucerne is a small city and, admittedly, doesn’t have the sheer amount of attractions that say Zurich or Geneva has; what landmarks it does have are quite pretty though.

Lucerne’s Old Town is quite picturesque. Note: while walking here the many wooden bridges that cross the river – some, like the Kapellbrücke, are among the oldest such bridges in Europe. Also keep an eye out for the Jesuit Church on the other side of Old Town.

On the northern shore of Lake, Lucerne is a nice row of parklands and bathing areas. Many people (myself included) like to go swimming in the lake and then lounge on the lawns around here.

North of the lake are more landmarks like the Church of St. Leodegar and the iconic Lion Monument. Built to commemorate the death of the Swiss Guards at the hands of the French Revolutionaries, the Lion is a deeply moving statue, one that made even Mark Twain weep. A local rumor is that the artist of the Lion Monument wasn’t paid properly though so he made the outline of the monument in the shape of a pig (ha!).

The most impressive site in Lucerne and perhaps the main reason for visiting is Mt. Pilatus. This craggy mountain offers amazing and penetrating views of the Alps and Lake Lucerne. You can certainly hike to the summit in a day, though the impressive cogwheel railway – the steepest in the world – leading up to the summit is worth the ticket price.

Book Your Lucerne Hostel Here

lion monument lucerne

The Lion Monument of Lucerne.

 

Backpacking Interlaken

Now we’re really getting into mountains! Interlaken marks the beginning of the spectacular Bernese Oberland, one of the Swiss Alps’ most magnificent ranges.

Interlaken itself is a pretty small city; it’s more like a village actually, so there’s not much do here. The Höheweg is Interlaken’s main street and has lots of cafes and shops. Unterseen is a pleasant little historical town adjacent to Interlaken. Further out along the edges of Thun Lake are the St. Beatus Caves and Schloss Oberhofen, both of which make for a good day trip.

Most come to Interlaken to kick off their adventures in the Alps, and boy is it a good start. Many participate in a variety sport from sailing to skydiving to swimming to biking. Others, like myself, are just trying to trek long distances to get a good view.

The Schynige Platte is the most frequented viewpoint in the area as it offers awesome views of the Bernese Oberland and is relatively easy to get to. A train is available to the top though it’s possible to hike as well. Be sure to visit the Botanical Alpine Gardens when you arrive.

An intoxicatingly dangerous hike is the Harder. This sheer knife-like mountain should make any adrenaline junky shake with excitement. It is one of, if not the best, day-hike in the world. Traversing the Hardergrat, you’ll be walking on trails no wider than a man, and facing huge drops along the way. The views from this ridge are unparalleled.

If you’re not into extreme hiking, you can find a decent alternative at the Harder Kulm. This viewpoint is easily accessed by public transport and offers comparable vistas.

Book Your Interlaken Hostel Here

interlaken-viewpoint backpacking switzerland

One of the many viewpoints above Interlaken.

 

Backpacking Bernese Oberland

The Bernese Oberland region is one of the most beautiful places in Switzerland! Here are some of the most iconic mountains in the country (not named Matterhorn) including the Mönch, Wetterhorn, Jungfrau, and infamous Eiger. These stunning peaks have to be seen and felt in person while backpacking in Switzerland.

To get to the Bernese Oberland, take the Jungfraujoch, which is probably the best train in Switzerland. As you ride deeper into the Bernese Oberland, its peaks will dominate the horizon near constantly. By the time you arrive at one of the villages, you should be sweating with excitement.

The Bernese Oberland hosts some of the most beautiful villages in Switzerland; any would make a great base. Popular villages include Grindelwald, Wengen, Lauterbrunnen, Murren, and Spiez. Each village is located very near to the other and they are all very similar. Some have their own unique attractions – like the picturesque Staubbach Falls of Lauterbrunnen – but, regardless, each one guarantees amazing views and alpine experiences.

There are many, many trails throughout the Bernese Oberland – most lead to Kleine Scheidegg, which is the centerpiece for the region. This mountain pass, which has been used in several movies, offers perhaps the greatest views of Switzerland’s greatest peaks: treacherous Eiger, regal Jungfrau, humble Mönch; they’re all there.

There are many trails leading in and out of Kleine Scheidegg. The popular Eiger Trail is a good choice for those who want a short walk. The hike to Männlichen is probably the best in the area though. Consider trekking the entire length of the massif from Meiringen to Murren as well – the walk is only a view days and very doable.

Other notable sites in the Bernese Oberland include Bcahaplsee, Trümmelbach Falls, the Aare Gorge, the Aletsch Glacier, and Oeschinen Lake.

Book Your Bernese Oberland Hostel

eiger-bernese oberland backpacking swiss alps

The hallowed Eiger.

 

Backpacking Berne

Berne is the federal capital of Switzerland. This small city that twists and turns with the winding Aare River actually is not terribly exciting. What it lacks in action though it more than makes up for with romanticism. With its many lovely arcades, towers, and the emerald colors of the Aare Lake, Berne is one of the most beautiful cities in Switzerland.

With a proper map, you could easily see all of the top attractions in Berne in a single day. Take a wrong turn down one of its many labyrinthian alleys though and you can easily lose your bearings. Don’t panic if you do – getting lost in Berne maybe one of the best things to do in this city!

The first place to visit in Berne is probably the Zytglogge or City Clock Tower as it’s centrally located. This 800-year old tower is famous for its clockwork figurines, which dance at three minutes before every hour.

From the Zytglogge, visit nearby landmarks like the Bern Munster, the Federal Palace of Switzerland, and the Kunstmuseum. Scientists may be interested in seeing Einstein’s House and the Einstein Museum in Bern as well – Einstein was a patent clerk in this city when he formulated the Laws of Relativity.

Like every Swiss city worth two cents, Berne has its fair share of green spaces as well. Bärengraben or Bear Park is the city’s most important park because it is home to the symbol of Berne: the brown bear. Also worth seeing is Berne’s Rosengarten (Rose Garden) and Gurten Hill, the latter of which offers great views of the city.

On hot summer days, be sure to have a float down the Aare River! Playing in this river is one of the locals’ favorite pastimes.

Book Your Berne Hostel Here

berne night backpacking switzerland

By nacht.

 

Backpacking Zermatt

Whereas the villages of the Bernese Oberland may be the most sublime of Switzerland, Zermatt holds the distinction for being the adventure capital of the nation. In this village, many of the top hut-to-hut hikes in Switzerland commence, including the world-class Haute Route and the Tour de Monte Rosa. Dedicated alpinists may visit in order to attempt the iconic Matterhorn, while skiers quite enjoy the slopes around the peak. For the casual traveler, Zermatt is a great place to just kick back and watch the sun set behind the mountains.  

The only way to arrive in Zermatt is by train since there are no cars allowed in the village. Most major cities in Switzerland offer regular services to Zermatt. Don’t try to drive in the city at all – police will fine you 350 francs on the spot. Once inside the village, everything is within walking distance.

As mentioned previously, Zermatt is the starting point for many of Switzerland’s best long-distance hikes. For more on these, refer to the Trekking in Switzerland section. Day hikers will have plenty of options as well though. Be sure to check out the Gornergrat Trail, the Five Lakes Trail, and the Edelweiss Hut.

Zermatt is also a great place to participate in one of Switzerland’s favorite summer activities: mountain biking! Biking under the Matterhorn is a surreal experience and even novice riders should give it a try! Check out this website for more on bike trails.

Skiing is of course always an option when you’re backpacking in the Alps. If you’re in Switzerland during the winter, try hitting the slopes!

Book Your Zermatt Hostel Here

matterhorn-switzerland zermatt

The iconic Matterhorn.

 

Backpacking Geneva

Of great international distinction and importance is the city of Geneva, which over the years has been the grounds for many diplomatic missions. It is – perhaps – the most well-known city outside of Switzerland. When planning a trip, be sure to check here for the best hostels in Geneva!

The city of Geneva itself is somewhat humble. There are few if any grandiose landmarks here – just little cafes and lots of charming houses. The Cathédrale St-Pierre is one of the most notable landmarks as are the Palais des Nations and Musée Ariana.

Honestly, the best way to experience Geneva is by just chilling at a cafe table and watching life go by. The Vielle Ville (Old City), with its narrow, cobblestone streets is one of the best places to do this. While people watching, you may notice that the majority of the population is speaking French, which is appropriate as Geneva is a part of French Switzerland.

Geneva’s most well-known feature is the eponymous Lake Geneva, or Lac Leman in French. It’ll be hard to miss the Jet d’Eau as it blasts huge plumes of water into the air from the lake. Be sure to visit the Bains des Pâquis on the shores of the lake as well – this a favorite swimming holes for residents.

Lake Geneva is actually quite enormous, split between two countries and hosting numerous townships. Aside from Geneva, many of these lakeside communities are totally worth seeing as well. Only slightly smaller than Geneva, Lausanne is nearly equal to its neighbor in terms of enjoyability (better some might say) since here you will find the beginnings of the “Swiss Riviera.”

Also worthwhile would be a visit to Montreux, a small city at the eastern tip of the lake known primarily for its jazz festival.

Book Your Geneva Hostel Here

sail boat on lake geneva

Serenity.

 

Backpacking Lugano

It hasn’t been talked about much in this article but there is a part of Switzerland that is distinctly Italian. Lying on the border of Lombardia is the Ticino CantoneLugano is the most important city in the region. A gorgeous lakeside community, Lugano is definitely one the best places in Switzerland to visit.

Lugano definitely feels a lot more Mediterranean – the climate is warmer, the architecture is more earthy, and the churches are of the Catholic sort that you see while backpacking Italy. Just looking at the pictures alone, you could mistake Lugano for Como or Lago di Garda.

Like Como or Garda, the lake is the prime reason to visit. In the summertime, Lake Lugano is full of bathers and sailboats, who are just looking to catch a bit of sun or a puff of wind for the sails.

The lake sits in a steep valley that was carved long ago by glaciers. There are several peaks around that offer breathtaking views – Monte San Salvatore or Monte Bre are the two best examples.

There are a couple interesting attractions in the city of Lugano itself. The Chiesa di Santa Maria degli Angel and the Cattedrale San Lorenzo are both prime examples of Italian-style churches. The Via Nassa is the main street in Lugano and is a good place to have an espresso.

Bookworms may also be interested in visiting the Hermann Hesse Museum, which is actually a bit out of town – the exalted German author, spent forty years in the Southern Alps and his former home is right across from the museum.   

Book Your Lugano Hostel Here

lugano-lake-italian-switzerland

Italy or Switzerland?

 

Backpacking Grisons

The Grisons – or Graubünden or Grigioni or Grischun – Canton of Switzerland is perhaps the most rugged and isolated of all of Switzerland’s provinces. Here are some of Switzerland’s hidden treasures including ancient settlements, the Romansh people, and it’s only national park. To visit this part of Switzerland is to visit a whole different side of the country.

The capital of Grisons is Chur, which is one of the oldest cities in Switzerland having being founded by the Romans. Chur is a quiet city with few interesting sites but that’s probably a good thing. Just being in the city, perhaps on a nice piece of grass in the park, is good enough.

Chur is famous though for being the starting point of the Bernina Express, which is thought to be the best train ride in Switzerland. Crossing the paradisiacal Engadin Alps, the Bernina Express offers some of the most stunning panoramic views that one can get while backpacking Switzerland. There are a couple of different train routes but all of them are worthwhile.

Grisons is home to some of the most beautiful mountain villages in Switzerland as well. Davos and St. Moritz are the two most noteworthy. Both are among the most-loved ski resorts in the nation and are absolutely chalkers in the winter. Summers in these villages ain’t too shabby either.

Visiting the Swiss National Park is a necessity while in Grisons. This plot of protected land is one of the few places that still feels untamed in Switzerland. There is little if any development here and so you’ll feel a little more grounded when backpacking in these Swiss Alps. Check the park’s official website here for more information.

Book Your Grisons Hostel Here

engadin valley switzerland

The pastoral Engadin Valley.

 

Backpacking St Gallen

St. Gallen is a medium-sized city in the east of Switzerland that would appear unremarkable to the common tourist. What few foreigners don’t realize is that St. Gallen has the most magnificent man-made structure in the country: the Abbey of Saint Gall. Visiting this religious complex is one of Switzerland’s must-do activities.

Since its founding in the 8th century, the Abbey of Saint Gall has been one of the leading religious institutions in Switzerland. As Saint Gall gained influence over the years, it grew remarkably in size. New quarters were added on a regular basis in order to accommodate the institution’s increasing clerical population and collection of religious artifacts.

The Abbey of Saint Gall is – currently – composed of several buildings including a grand cathedral and a library that is one of the most impressive in Europe. Saint Gall’s library holds the largest collection of medieval writings in Europe and is just drop dead gorgeous. Built in the Rococo style, this library is possibly the most beautiful in the world.

There really isn’t any other reason to visit St. Gallen outside of the abbey. The surrounding region is mostly agricultural and doesn’t offer much in the way of tourist attractions.

Trekkers may find worth in the nearby Alpstein and Appenzell mountains. These ranges are known for the uniquely jagged profile and offer great opportunities for more daring hikers – the Säntis massif is the most frequented portion.

Book Your St Gallens Hostel Here

library of saint gall switzerland

The gorgeous library of Saint Gall. | Photo: Raphaël Labbé (flickr)

 

Off the Beaten Path Travel in Switzerland

If you’re feeling a little depressed at the sight of all of the ski lifts and resorts while backpacking Switzerland, fear not; there are still plenty of wild and unseen places left in the country! Grab the next train and head east to Switzerland’s less visited cantons including St. Gallen, Grisons, and Lugano (the last three mentioned destinations above).

You may need a car to truly appreciate some of these but – being Switzerland – public transport is never too far away.

 

Backpacker Accommodation in Switzerland

Switzerland is one of the planet’s premier tourist destinations and so has plenty of different types of accommodation. Finding a place to stay in Switzerland shouldn’t be a problem – finding one that is affordable will be though.

Many of Switzerland’s top destinations have hostels available though the price for these can seem unreasonable sometimes. Some dormitories may cost as much as $50 during peak season. Regardless of how much they cost though, hostels will be your cheapest form of accommodation outside of couchsurfing or bivvying.

Couchsurfing will always be your greatest ally when it comes to backpacking Switzerland on a budget. If you’re lucky enough to find hosts consistently, you’ll save heaps of cash. Staying with a local will also open many doors that you didn’t know existed. Hanging out with a Swiss person means that you’ll see the secret spots, the local cafes, and a more authentic side of Switzerland.

Camping is – of course – a popular means of lodging in Switzerland though the rates for official campgrounds will still be quite high. If you’re trying to spend as little money as possible while camping in Switzerland, you’ll need to bivvy, usually in some forgotten corner of the town or in the mountains. For more on proper bivvying, see the Trekking in Switzerland section.

If you just wanna say “fuck it” and live like a normal human being while backpacking Switzerland, there are many AirBnB options. An apartment will be pricey but you’ll be staying in some pretty comfortable digs. Be sure to check out our guide on how to find the perfect AirBnB, complete with a code for $35 off your next rental!

Check Switzerland Hostels Here!

hut in the swiss alps

That hut is probably worth millions.

 

Where to Stay in Switzerland

LocationDestinationWhy Stay Here?!
ZurichCity Backpacker - Hostel BiberOne of the most affordable hostels in Zurich without any sacrifices.
BaselBasel BackpackLarge hostel located in a renovated factory. Lots of amenities and a terrace.
LucerneBackpackers LucerneLovely dormitories w/ a private balcony for each room.
InterlakenBalmer's HostelVery active hostel w/ awesome features likes a garden, hammocks, and more.
Bernese OberlandSchutzenbach Backpackers & Camping"Cheap" hostel and campground with an onsite bar.
BerneBerne Backpackers Hotel & Hostel GlockeSuperlative hostel located in the best part of Berne. Voted best in Switzerland several times.
ZermattYouth Hostel ZermattAmazing views of the Matterhorn!
GenevaCity Hostel GenevaGreat location but the best part is the free transport card you receive when staying here!

 

Top Things to Do in Switzerland

Check out my list for the top 10 things to do in Switzerland below!

 

1. Go hut-to-hut hiking in Switzerland

The best way to go backpacking in the Alps is by doing a multi-day trek. Switzerland has many world-class hut-to-hut hikes that allow hikers to skip on the tent and stay in some pretty comfortable refuges. Old school backpackers can still, of course, bring their own tent though!

 

2. Visit Rhine Falls

Rhine Falls is the largest waterfall in continental Europe and only a short train away from Zurich. Visit them on a quick day trip and prepared to get wet.

rhine-falls-1344623_960_720

It’s not a tall waterfall but it’s definitely a big one.

 

3. Eat Swiss chocolate and fondue

The Swiss are famous for many things: army knives, watches, cuckoo clocks; none are more enjoyable as chocolate and fondue though! Sample some of the rich flavors of Switzerland in one of the many chocolate or cheese themed cafes.

 

4. Catch some views from the top of Mt. Pilatus

The views from Mt Pilatus are among the best in Switzerland and just about anyone can catch them. Hike or take the world’s steepest railway up to the top of the summit for glimpses of Lake Lucerne and the Alps.

mt pilatus lucerne

Mt Pialtus is remarkably craggy. Photo: Roaming Ralph

 

5. Experience the wilds of Swiss National Park

Switzerland hasn’t been completely lost to over-development; there are still pockets of wilderness here and there. One of the best places to get away is Switzerland’s only national park, the Swiss National Park.

 

6. Relax at one of the many alpine lakes

The lakes of Switzerland are world-famous and for good reason: they’re absolutely gorgeous! Shades of green, sapphire, cerulean, and many more colors are all possible when visiting these Swiss lakes. Go for a swim, take a boat or just chill on the shores.

swiss alpine lake

Couldn’t even tell you where this lake is.

 

7. Go clubbing

9. Switzerland actually has a very active clubbing scene, one of the best in Europe some might say. G party in Zurich or Basel, but try not to spend too much ya animals.

 

8. See the Matterhorn

We’ve all seen the Matterhorn in the postcards or maybe even seen its replica at Disneyland, but nothing compares to the real thing amigos! Catch a train to Zermatt and see why the Matterhorn is so often copied.

 

9. Take a train ride

Switzerland has a very efficient railway system that allows travel to nearly every corner of the country. Grab a seat and soak in the majesty of the Swiss countryside.  

train-switzerland-lake

Views from sixth cabin.

 

10. Pay your respects to Eiger

Mountaineers all know its name and the prestige that goes with it: Eiger. Once a forbidden peak due to the extreme difficulty of its north face, Eiger is now a reminder of how far the sport of climbing has come. See hallowed fortress of stone and consider all those who died trying to subdue this mountain.

 

Switzerland Travel Tips

Below is a guide to everything you need to know before backpacking Switzerland, including costs and how to trave on a budget, how to travel around, and information on Switzerland’s best hiking and mountaineering treks.

 

Books to Read While Traveling in Switzerland

These are some of my favorite travel reads and books set in Switzerland, which you should consider picking up before you begin your backpacking adventure…

The Backpacker Bible – Learn how to ditch your desk and travel the world on just $10 a day whilst building an online income.

Frankenstein – One of my favorites of all time. This iconic novel, about a scientist playing god, was written on the banks of Lake Geneva.

Swiss Family Robinson – The adventurous story of a Swiss family that was marooned in the East Indies while traveling to Australia. Well-known around the world.

Unbearable Lightness of Being – Though more concerned with Czechia and the Iron Curtain, a large portion of the novel takes place in Zurich, which acts as a foil to angsty Prague.

Einstein’s Dreams – A fine novel that explores the concepts proposed by Albert Einstein in some very creative ways. Many of the genius’ most brilliant ideas came about while he was a patent clerk in Berne.

Hotel du Lac – An English novelist runs away to Switzerland to escape her increasingly dramatic life only to discover new trials and pleasures.

11 Minutes – Written by the famous Paulo Coelho, this book concerns a young Brazilian girl who travels to Switzerland to find riches and ends up becoming a prostitute.

Tender is the Night – F. Scott Fitzgerald’s final novel. Concerns a psychiatrist who becomes increasingly involved with one of his rich and hedonistic patients.

Transparent Things – A fictional American editor recalls his many travels to Switzerland.

Lonely Planet Switzerland – It’s sometimes worth traveling with a guidebook. Despite Lonely Planet’s history of selling out and writing about places they haven’t been to, they’ve done a good job with Switzerland.

 

Switzerland Travel Phrases

Switzerland has four official languages: German, French, Italian, and Romansh. Each is, essentially, a variation of their respective mother tongues, having been spliced with the other languages.

Most speakers of standardized French and Italian will be able to understand the Swiss variations, while speakers of standardized German (referred to as High German) will actually find difficulty communicating with Swiss Germans.  

Swiss German derives from the same Alemannic linguistic family as High German. It is, in many ways, very similar to German as the two are based very much upon the same foundations.

Swiss German has many peculiarities and exceptions when it comes to pronunciation, grammar, and syntax though, which makes it seem different from High German.

If you understand High German, you’ll probably struggle at first with Swiss German. Swiss Germans can still understand High German, so at least you’ll get your point across. For a list of some common differences between Swiss and High German, check this website.

It’s important to remember that Switzerland is a very polyglottal nation and nearly everyone speaks multiple languages. If you can’t get your point across using one language, try another. English is widely spoken and often preferred in conversation.

A very, very small percentage of Swiss speak Romansh, an archaic language that is derived from Vulgar Latin. This language is found almost exclusively in the Grisons Canton. Speakers of other Latin-based Romance languages will not be able to understand Romansh.

Even if you have no intention of learning the local language, speaking a Swiss phrase or two will impress the locals. I’ve compiled a list of such phrases below. For some French and Italian phrases, check our guides for France and Italy.

 

10 Swiss Travel Phrases

Grüezi – hello

Wie goots Ihne? – How are you?

Uf Widerluege – Goodbye

I heisse … – My name is…

Merci – Thank you

Broscht! – Cheers!

Fröit mi – Pleased to meet you

Es duet mr leid – Sorry

Entschuldigung – Excuse me

Yo – Yes

 

Staying Safe in Switzerland

Switzerland is one of if not the safest country in Europe and suffers from very little crime. Urban areas are extremely secure by most international standards – those backpacking in Switzerland should have to worry very little. Occasionally, violence does break out at football games and there is still some petty crime in the poorer areas so, regardless of Switzerland’s security, travelers should still follow the usual safety practices of travel.

Most who go backpacking in Switzerland will be in the most danger while hiking or being outdoors. Being a (very) mountainous nation, Switzerland’s weather can change at the drop of a dime and sometimes in dramatic ways. If you were caught in a storm while out trekking in the mountains, you could be in a lot of trouble.

Always be aware of your surroundings when hiking in the mountains. Know your location and the direction that you’re traveling in. Avoid leaving trails as you can end up lost and in a perilous position. Always check the weather as well before leaving for the outdoors.

Switzerland’s infrastructure is pretty expansive, which means there really isn’t too much true wilderness here. When hiking on many of Switzerland’s most popular trails, the nearest village or outpost is never too far away.

Should you be hurt while trekking, a rescue team should be able to reach you within a reasonable amount of time. Cell service is often reliable as well though nothing beats a good satellite phone or messenger.

santis-storm switzerland

Storms will be your biggest threat sometimes.

 

Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll in Switzerland

Contrary to the dull, repressed, unadventurous reputation that they unjustly receive, the Swiss actually like to party quite a bit. Whether they’re at a festival, hanging with friends, looking to get pissed, or just walking on the streets (yes, you can drink in public here!). Swiss people still love to have a good time.

Since Switzerland is a pretty strict 9-5 working culture, the best parties are usually on the weekends. Many head to the nearest cafe, pub, club, whatever on Friday night. Bars stay open until as late as 5 am in some cases.

Reportedly, Zurich and Basel are the best cities to party in Switzerland, due in part to their proximity to France and Germany – techno clubs are the best form of after-hours entertainment in these cities. For a good list of bars and clubs all around Switzerland, check this guide here.

As is Switzerland, the costs of partying will not be gentle. Drinking will absolutely bankrupt you and very quickly. There are no drink specials or happy hours in this country either – you’ll have to be truly steadfast in your budgeting while backpacking Switzerland in order to go out partying.

Buy a (only slightly less expensive) bottle of booze at the store and always pre-fade or drink before going out. Since drinking in public is legal, you can drink just about anywhere outdoors; walk around or head to the park, or literally sit outside the bar you want to go to and get buzzed first.

While at the bar, stick to beer as it’s usually the cheapest liquor at around $8. You’ll see most of the locals drinking beer as well as they too feel the strains of the local prices.

adjusting-techno-music-switzerland

Electronic music reigns in Switzerland.

 

Getting Insured

Get insurance! Even if you are only going on a short trip, you should always travel with insurance. Have fun on your Switzerland backpacking trip, but take it from someone who has racked up thousands of bucks on an insurance claim before, you need it.

As a wise man once said, if you can’t afford travel insurance, you shouldn’t be travelling – so be sure to get your backpacker insurance sorted before you head off on an adventure! I highly recommend World Nomads.

 

Find out why I recommend World Nomads, check out my World Nomads Insurance review. Even if you don’t get insurance with World Nomads, Please do get some sort of insurance from somewhere, there are lots of decent options online.

 

What to Pack for Switzerland

On every adventure, there are five things I never go traveling without:

AR Security Belt

1. Security Belt with Hidden Pocket: I never hit the road without my security belt. This is a regular looking belt with a concealed pocket on the inside – you can hide up to twenty notes inside and wear it through airport scanners without it setting them off. This is hands down the best way to hide your cash.

 

gifts camping mat

2. Pocket Blanket: This lightweight, waterproof, super compact pocket blanket is a must for all adventures. Doubling up as an emergency poncho, this picnic blanket is worth its weight in gold when chilling, or camping, on the beach. It comes with a carabiner, a secret zipped pocket where you can hide stuff and pocket loops which you can weigh down using stones.

 

AR microfibre towel

3. Microfibre Towel: It’s always worth packing a proper towel. Hostel towels are scummy and take forever to dry. Microfibre towels dry quickly, are compact, lightweight and can be used as a blanket or yoga mat if need be.

 

 

Headlamp

4. Headtorch: I would never travel without a headtorch. Even if you only end up using it once, a decent head torch could save your life. If you want to explore caves, unlit temples or simply find your way to the bathroom during a blackout, a headtorch is a must. Currently, I’m using the Petzl LED headlamp with red light (which insects can’t see).

 

Hammock for backpackers

5. Hammock: Taking a tent backpacking is not always practical but hammocks are lightweight, cheap, strong, sexy (chicks dig hammocks) and allow you to pitch up for the night pretty much anywhere. Right now, I’m rocking an Active Roots parachute hammock – it’s light, colorful and tough.

 

For plenty more inspiration on what to pack, check out my full backpacking packing list.

 

Best Time to Travel to Switzerland

Backpackers can visit Switzerland at any time of the year depending on what they’re looking for. Every season in Switzerland offers a wide variety of unique activities that will appeal to different travelers.

Switzerland has four distinct climates: warm, semi-humid summers, and cold, snowy winters.

Summer in Switzerland (June-August) is usually considered the peak season as the European holidays have begun and the majority of trails are open; higher alpine trails should be free of snow by July. Prices during this period will be predictably higher and everywhere will be crowded.

Winter (December-March) is ski season in Switzerland, which means that the cities will be emptier, and the resorts will be jam-packed. This time is usually best for those trying to backpack Switzerland on a budget as most urban accommodation will be cheaper. The ski resorts, on the other hand, will be at their most expensive of the year.

Autumn (September-November) and Spring (April-May) are the best times to visit Switzerland. Prices will be lower, tourists will be more sparse, and the weather should still be pleasant, albeit April and November can still feel frigid at times. Hikers and skiers should be able to catch the tail end of their respective seasons as well: snow can linger on the slopes well into May and trails will usually be open until the end of September.

October can be a magical time in Switzerland, as the mountains are beginning to take on their white winter coats, and the trees start to turn golden. Photographers will probably enjoy this month the most when visiting Switzerland.

autumn-in switzerland

Switzerland’s autumn vibes.

 

Apps to Download Before Traveling to Switzerland

Maps.Me – Prone to getting lost or taking that ‘shortcut’ that adds another few hours onto a simple walk? This app is one of the best travel apps, but it’s especially convenient in Switzerland. Download your map before you get here to keep you on track while backpacking Switzerland.

XE Currency – I used this a lot when backpacking Switzerland. It is a great help while calculating expenses.

HIDE.ME –  I always have a VPN ready to go on both my phone and laptop, I personally use Hide Me which is one of the fastest and most reliable options out there. This particular VPN allows for up to five connections which is handy for keeping all your devices connected without having to purchase multiple VPN packages.

 

Swiss Travel Guide to Getting Around

Being a modern European nation, Switzerland benefits from some amazing public transportation. Being Switzerland though, transport is (obviously) very expensive. While backpacking Switzerland, you’ll be battling depressing prices, but with effort you’ll be able to experience everything that you want to.

 

Entry Requirements for Switzerland

Though not a part of the actual European Union, Switzerland is still a part of the Schengen Zone, which is the agency that dictates customs procedures.

The Schengen Agreement/trans-European agreement enables visa-free travel between participating nations. This is an extremely convenient means of entry for those backpacking Europe. You can easily cross the border from Italy to any neighboring country and receive little to no attention from authorities.

Those who reside in the Schengen Zone only need an EU ID card to enter a neighboring country. All other world nations require a passport.

Most non-EU nations can qualify for a 90-day visa that is valid in any participating European nation. There are always exceptions though, so be sure to check the official website before you start backpacking in Europe.

See here for a list of all European nations in the Schengen Zone. Remember that not every nation in Europe is a part of this agreement.

Map_of_the_Schengen_Area.svgRob984

Map of the Schengen Area. | Photo: Rob984 (wikicommons)

 

How to Travel in Switzerland

Switzerland has an amazing public transport system, one that can get you just about anywhere. You can seriously travel from an airport to the tip of a mountain using just public transit, sometimes in less than 2 hours; that’s impressive.

What’s more impressive though is how high the ticket prices can be. Seriously, train rides can cost in the hundreds of dollars range depending on how far you’re going. If you’re going to use any form of public transport, you’re going to have to get serious with your budget tricks.

When taking the train or bus in Switzerland, you’ll have to buy some sort of discount card, which there are a plethora of. Half-fare cards, Day cards, Swiss Passes; these are some examples of ways to save on tickets.

The most well-known travel package in Switzerland is the Swiss Travel Pass. This card enables unlimited and free travel on most forms of transport – i.e. trains, buses, boats, trams – within and outside of the cities. Mountain railways and cable cars can be reduced by over 50% and all museums are, for added benefit, free with this pass. It is, of course, expensive, but, if you think you’ll be traveling often, you may just need to bite the bullet.

Another option is the Swiss Half-Fare Card, which costs a reasonable 120 francs. With this card, you’ll get half off most forms of transport – some urban transport may be discounted less than 50%. A Half-Fare Card is the most popular deal among locals and may be best for you too.

Finally, Day Cards enable unlimited travel for one day. They are available at most COOP Supermarkets for 75 francs. These cards would be a great way to save cash if you know that you’ll be traveling far or a lot in one day.

bernina express switzerland

The famous Bernina Express.

 

Hitchhiking in Switzerland

Hitchhiking is by-far the cheapest way to travel in Switzerland and, thankfully, it’s an acceptable practice. Many holidayers from all over Europe would be happy to give you lift as most of which, I’m sure, have hitchhiked before in the past.

Hitchhiking is easiest around Switzerland’s most popular outdoor areas because these attract the most foreign tourists.

Many who hitchhike around the urban centers and near the borders have difficulty finding a ride. Many local Swiss are unreceptive to hitchhikers, either because they’re nervous about you or the law. Hitchhiking is technically illegal in Switzerland, so many drivers will avoid aiding hitchhikers.

In the less urban and monitored parts of Switzerland, drivers are usually more open-minded when it comes to hitchhikers.

When hitchhiking try to avoid the highways and dense urban zones. Hang out on the outskirts of town or around the ring roads. Gas stations can be a good place to look for a ride if there are no police around. Be courteous and sociable with drivers, and always be upfront about payment – some expect a little cash so be sure to tell them if you have none.

Follow these guidelines in addition to these and you should be good while hitchhiking in Switzerland.

 

Onwards Travel from Switzerland

Lying at the heart of Alps, Switzerland shares a border with many other European nations. Crossing into any one of them is an extremely straightforward and easy task – most borders, in fact, don’t even stop you to check your passport, so you’ll most likely end up in another country without knowing it.

Head south to magnificent Italy for some quality beach time. Head down to France to experience the majesty of the Provence region. Travel north to Germany and Bavaria for some of the best beer in the world. Jump over to Austria for a similar alpine culture. Can’t forget Lichtenstein as well, which is one of the smallest and richest countries in the world.

munich city hall bavaria

Munich makes for a great place to visit after Switzerland. | Photo: Roaming Ralph

 

Costs for Backpacking Switzerland

Before starting this section, let’s all join hands and tell each other “everything is going to be ok.” I’m here for you, my broke backpackers.

Ready? OK.

Switzerland is (seriously) the most expensive country in the world, excluding that of the banker’s haven that is the Bahamas. It is, for all intents and purposes, prohibitively expensive, with prices that steer away even the most frivolous of travelers. Many are intimidated and don’t bother with backpacking in Switzerland.

But you’re the adventurous sort right?! You never let anything dissuade you from visiting a country. Backpacking Switzerland can be accomplished so long as you do everything right. You won’t get by on $10/day but, compared to what other people spend, it’ll sure feel like you did.

So how much does it cost to vacation in Switzerland? Most budget-minded travelers get by on $80-$100 per day. You can, with proper habits, get by on less.

A basic dorm room will cost between $30-$50. If that number seems high (it is), then rely heavily upon couchsurfing. Official campgrounds will, unfortunately, end up costing around the same. While in the mountains, I suggest you try bivvying in the wilderness – it’s free and, if done properly, an acceptable practice. See the Trekking section for more on this.

Meals will cost you $30-$40 minimum in a Swiss restaurant. Usually, in these guides, I suggest allocating some cash to eat out once a day while traveling, but in Switzerland I suggest eating out once or twice the entire time. Cook 95% of your food at home to save cash. Best become a vegetarian too while backpacking Switzerland to avoid buying expensive meat.

Transport will be the most expensive and, frustratingly, the most necessary cost while backpacking in Switzerland. A full-priced train ride lasting a few hours can cost upwards of $100, which is ridiculous.

To save the most on transport you’ll need some serious tactics. Hitchhike, use BlaBlacar, use a push bike, fuckin’ walk; just whatever you do: DON’T BUY A FULL FARE TICKET! See our How to Travel in Switzerland section above for more on using the public transport cheaply.

money-paper-cash-currency-switzerland-seem-coins-banknote-swiss-franc-1086715

Watch these disappear…

 

Money in Switzerland

The official currency of Switzerland is the Swiss franc. As of June 2018, the official exchange rate for the franc is 1 USD=1 CHF or 1 Euro=1.15 CHF.

ATMs are widely available all over Switzerland. Many require a minimum withdrawal of usually 20 or sometimes 50 francs – withdrawing only a bit for, say, a single pint will probably be impossible. Note that many ATMs also charge a withdrawal fee on top of whatever your bank charges internationally.

Many Swiss businesses will still accept euros as a form of payment. When paying in euros in Switzerland, 99% of the time you’ll receive francs as change. Most products or services are listed with prices in both euros and francs as well, so exchange rates should remain official. In the rare instance that these prices aren’t both available, simply ask beforehand for the exchange rate at the business.

When bargaining, be patient and respectful, and know that the price will eventually fall. Don’t try to bargain in restaurants or cafes – prices here are set in stone.

GET IT HERE

You should always have some emergency cash hidden on you and Will (Broke Backpacker founder) has written an entire post on the best places to hide your money. If you want to carry a fair bit of cash safely on your body, your best bet is to get hold of a backpacker belt with a hidden security pocket.

 

Top Tips for Broke Backpackers

Camp: There are lots of opportunities to camp in Switzerland! Check out this post for a breakdown of the best tents to take backpacking.  If you’re feeling real adventurous and want to save some cash, consider picking up a backpacking hammock.

Cook your own food: If you are on a tight budget, you can save money by cooking your own food – I recommend bringing a portable backpacking stove.

Book your transportation early: Both plane and train tickets are much cheaper if you purchase them in advance. This rule does not apply to buses, which you can often book within the day or even hour.

Couchsurf: Swiss people are awesome, but I would be cautious if you are a woman travelling alone. Check for reviews. That being said, Couchsurfing to make some real friendships and see this country from the perspective of locals.

Volunteer: If done properly, volunteering is an excellent way to cut down your costs on the road. I strongly recommend Workaway – you pay just $29 for the year and then have access to literally thousands of projects all around the world where you can help out in exchange for food and board. There are a lot of options in Switzerland.

To learn how to travel the world on $10 a day, check out the backpacker’s bible.

 

Travel Switzerland for Free

There are so many ways to extend your backpacking trip in Switzerland. Workaway is a solid choice and there are plenty of opportunities spread throughout the country. If you manage to land a gig somewhere, then work it.

Perhaps one of the best options for backpackers wanting to explore Switzerland long-term and experience living in this truly incredible country is to get a Teaching English as a Foreign Language course online. TEFL courses open up a huge range of opportunities and you can find teaching work all over the world.

To find out more about TEFL courses and how you can teach English around the world, read my in-depth report on teaching English abroad.

Broke Backpacker readers get a 35% discount on TEFL courses with MyTEFL (simply enter the code BACKPKR), to find out more, please read my in-depth report on teaching English abroad.

bernese-oberland-2967803_960_720

If only we could all live in Switzerland forever…

 

Internet in Switzerland

Finding internet in Switzerland should never be a problem as this nation has some of the fastest and most reliable connections in the Western World.

Most lodges and restaurants offer free WiFi to paying customers. Many public spaces and even whole cities in Switzerland offer free public WiFi as well. All-in-all, finding some internet should be the least of your worries while backpacking in Switzerland.

 

Must Try Experiences in Switzerland

People in Switzerland

Over the course of my travels, I had heard very little in the way of Swiss stereotypes. Perhaps the occasional banker joke or a maybe some quip about yodelling, but nothing terribly serious. Even after meeting the Swiss in person, I wasn’t really left with any strong impression about them: they were, to put it bluntly, quite normal.

In order to get a real grasp on the Swiss lifestyle, I had to actually research the subject. My findings: while there are a number of accepted and false behaviors attributed to Swiss people, none were really outstanding. Indeed, my first impression of Swiss people seemed to be correct: they are, truly, just very level-headed people.

There are a few well-known aspects to Swiss people that are very real. They are a very punctual people and are always on time, which may be a consequence of their hyper-efficient nation. Swiss people are, at times, a little overly-organized and sometimes plan things too far in advance.

In reality though, the Swiss are such a diverse people that they will surprise you very often. Most are very fun to be around and are not in any way buzzkills. Contrary to some Northern European customs (to which they are falesly identified with in the first place), Swiss people are very warm and personable, perhaps as much as the Italians.

During social interactions, a Swiss person will usually jump in quite confidently and introduce themselves, making strong eye and bodily contact in the process.

If I can sum up Swiss people in a few words, it would be that they’re just a very good people. Shrewd sometimes but in no way anti-social. I quite enjoyed all of my interactions with the Swiss both in and out of the country.  

street-parade-switzerland

What were you expecting?

 

Food in Switzerland

Due to Switzerland’s somewhat rural nature, Swiss cuisine is usually a very simple and hearty affair. Most of its dishes can be considered “farmers food” with strong cheeses, rich breads, red meats, and robust vegetables constituting the majority of the diet. Cream is used in abundance in Swiss cooking.

Along the edges of Switzerland, the cuisine does take on shades of the neighboring countries though. Near the border of Italy, cured meats and even risotto are very common. On the French border, cheese reigns supreme as national heroes like fondue and raclette are found here.

I can only imagine that Germany’s love for wurst and bread has certainly had an effect on Switzerland as well.

To kick off your culinary tour of Switzerland, I have compiled a list of several of its most popular dishes. See if you can taste all of them.

Fondue – liquified cheese w/ various items for dipping

Rösti – fried potato shavings in patty form (think hashbrowns)

Raclette – melted cheese that has smokey properties

Birchermüesli – (the original) muesli

Polenta – cornmeal and butter porridge

Bündnernusstorte – nut filled pastry w/ caramelized sugar and cream

Zurchergeschnetzeltes – veal cooked in the “Zurich style” w/ mushrooms, wine, onions, and cream

Zopf  – fluffy bread that’s similar to challah

Bündner Gerstensuppe – barley soup

Capuns Spätzle dough and cured meats wrapped in chard leaves

cow in the swiss alpine

Cows and dairy are a huge part of the Swiss diet.

 

Festivals in Switzerland

Switzerland hosts some of the largest and most innovative festivals in Europe! From cultural celebrations to massive music fests to a buskers’ showcase, Switzerland partakes in all kinds of parties. Those backpacking Switzerland should have no problem finding the one for them.

To get you started, here’s a list of some of the biggest festivals in Switzerland:

International Balloon Festival (January) – Hundreds of balloons from dozens of countries take to the skies in Château-d’Oex. Unique in that it’s held in winter.

Belalp Witches’ Race (January) – Big downhill ski race where everyone dresses up as witches! Held in Belalp, Valais.

Basel Fasnacht (February/March) – The Carnival of Basel. This carnival is noteworthy because of the outrageously oversized and cartoonish masks that participants like to wear. Includes parades and performances.

Festichoc (March) – A chocolate festival! One of the largest festivals in Switzerland. Free admission. Held in Geneva.

Zurich Festival (June) – Huge showcase of everything cultural in Zurich. Includes opera, dance, art, theater, orchestras, and more. Held every two years.

Blue Balls Festival (July) – Annual music festival that includes food carts and local art. Has nothing to do with the colloquial “blue balls” phenomenon. Held in Lucerne.

Gauklerfest (July) – A festival for buskers! Celebration of all things street performance. Hundreds of acts assembled. Also features local beer and snacks. Held in Interlaken.

Montreux Jazz Festival (July) – Second largest jazz festival in the world behind Montreal’s festival. Held in Montreux on Lake Geneva.

Paléo Festival (July) – The largest open-air festival in Switzerland. Lots of big-name musical acts from all sorts of genres. Held in Nyon.

Swiss National Day (August 1) – Celebration of the founding of Switzerland! Every region does it differently, but most Swiss people celebrate with food, fireworks, and nationalism.

basler-fasnacht-1980144_960_720

Fasnacht is carnival on acid.

 

Trekking in Switzerland

Switzerland is well-known for being one of the top hiking destinations in the world. Situated in the heart of the Alps, there are seemingly endless amounts of mountain trails to walk on.  

Most camping is done in official campgrounds. Backcountry camping in Switzerland is technically illegal, though bivvying is an acceptable alternative. Bivvying is a type of temporary wilderness camping that involves setting up very basic shelters. Here are some acceptable bivvying practices:

  1. Set up your bivvy late, break down early.
  2. Stay only one night in each location.
  3. Leave no trace.
  4. Don’t bivvy within 50 ft of water
  5. Stay out of sight

In summation, If you’re cautious and considerate, you’ll be ok while backcountry camping in Switzerland.   

I always suggest buying your own tent as it’s a great way to save cash. Consider purchasing a sleeping mat as well, or ditch both by investing in a hammock. A wilderness stove is also a good idea for some hearty rice and beans.

I always suggest getting a sturdy backpack as well. My first backpack was a cheap one. Though it lasted a respectable amount of time, it would eventually be held together by duct tape and carabiners. Needless to say, it was far from waterproof.

Take my advice: invest in a quality backpack because by the end of your trip you’ll be wearing it so much that it’ll become an extension of your own body. You want the best.

I suggest the new Osprey Aether AG 70 backpack, which you can read about here, and don’t forget to consider a daypack as well. A good daypack will be just as useful during your day-to-day activities and should slide nicely into your larger backpack.

Below is a list of some of Switzerland’s best trails.

 

Trekking the Haute Route

2 weeks

One of the most impressive trails on the planet. Walk from Mont Blanc in France to the Matterhorn in Switzerland. Can be done in winter (as a cross-country ski route) or summer.

tour mont blanc

The diabolic spires of Mont Blanc. | Photo:  JR Guillaumi (flickr)

 

Trekking the Tour de Monte Rosa

8-10 days

A lesser-known hike around the second highest peak in the Alps. Wilder and more demanding than the Haute Route.

Monte Rosa Hut Monterosa Glacier

Monte Rosa Glacier is one of the largest in the Alps.

 

Trekking the Tour des Combins

6 days

A seemingly forgotten trail around some of the finest mountains in Switzerland. Classic alpine hikes involving lakes, glaciers, and soaring peaks.

grand combin switzerland

Grand Combin. | Photo: Lionel Roux (flickr)

 

Trekking the Eiger Trail(s)

1-4 days

The true Eiger Trail is only 6 kms, but it can be combined with several other local trails in order to extend your trip. An excellent walk would be the Bernese Oberland portion of the long-distance Via Alpina Route.

eiger bernese oberland

Bow down. | Photo:  Christoph Strässler

 

Trekking the Trans-Swiss Trail

40 days

Hike across the entire southern half of Switzerland. Start in Porrentruy and end in Lugano. Includes wide variety landscapes and not just mountains.

winter landscape switzerland

Maybe try cross country skiing in the winter.

 

Brief History of Switzerland

For most of its early years, Switzerland was valued as a crucial strategic point for commerce and militaries. Being at the nexus of many powerful and competitive European dynasties over the centuries, Switzerland was essentially a giant access-point – its mountain passes were vital for controlling the region and enabling free trade.

Up until the early stages of the Modern Age, Switzerland was juggled between kingdoms. The Romans subjugated the barbarians and founded cities. In the Middle Ages, Burgundians, Italian savoys, Habsburgs, and Germanic kingdoms would compete for the mountain passes of Switzerland. The Holy Roman Empire would eventually hold the majority control over the Alps. Under their rule, the first aspects of Swiss nationalism developed.

In 1300, the Old Swiss Confederacy formed within the Holy Roman Empire. This formation of Swiss cantons, though far from stable and not technically independent, can be considered the first iteration of modern Switzerland. For about 500 years this organization lasted until Napoleon arrived and swiftly subjugated the territory.

There was a period where Switzerland was subject to the Napoleonic rule, though it didn’t last long. In the mid-19th century, following Napoleon’s demise, the Swiss quickly consolidated and reimposed former laws. Following some bumps in the road – mostly of the religious and political kind – the federal state of Switzerland was established in 1848; this iteration of Switzerland has lasted to this day.

Switzerland quickly joined the rest of the modern world in the Industrial Revolution. It, amazingly, avoided participation in both World Wars, though it did end up defending itself aggressively against both sides in WWII. Having been spared the violences of the era, Switzerland quickly outran its neighbors. Since joining the EU in 2002, Switzerland has become one of the most prosperous nations in Europe.

basilica-cathedral-dome-swiss guard

The Swiss Guard have been a national symbol for a long time.

 

Being a Responsible Backpacker in Switzerland

Being respectful in Switzerland comes down to not confusing its many cultures. The French part doesn’t care much for being mislabeled as “Italian” nor do the Swiss Italians like to be lumped in with the Swiss Germans. Likewise, Swiss Germans don’t want to be called straight “German” and neither do any of the other Swiss sub-ethnicities want this for that matter.

Swiss Germans are Swiss Germans and not Germans; Swiss French are Swiss French and not French; Swiss Italians are Swiss Italians and not Italians. No Swiss heritage is to be mistaken for another heritage. See where I’m getting here?

For your sake: just refer to everyone in Switzerland as “Swiss.” If you try to blindly dissect their ancestors and fail, you’re going to look like an idiot. Certainly, inquire about their particular family lineage and demographic – Swiss people are usually happy to oblige.

Swiss people do love to have a good time and definitely drink their fair share of spirits. If you plan on going out in Switzerland, I’ll just give you my usual advice of “don’t be an asshole on holiday” – drink only what you can handle, be respectful, and don’t be a shit stirrer.

backpacking swiss alps

Don’t forget to treat Mother Nature right too!

 

Final Thoughts on Backpacking Switzerland

Switzerland is an amazing country to visit, even with its crazy prices. If giv en the option, I wouldn’t hesitate to return to Switzerlanbd for a second.

Hell! I’d even take it as a challenge! How long can you stay in Switzerland on a shoestring budget? I certainly wouldn’t mind crashing on couches and hitching rides if it meant I could see those glorious mountains one last time.

I challenge any and all of you broke backpackers to travel to Switzerland in the ways that would do this website proud.

With this travel guide to Switzerland in hand, you’ll have everything that you need to begin your adventure. You’ll know where the cheapest hostels are, where to go adventuring, and how to get the most out of your trip.

Follow the travel tips for Switzerland that have been outlined in this guide and you’ll no doubt have a good time in this beautiful country.

matterhorn-984128_960_720

Nice seein’ ya.

Want to learn how to travel the world on $10 a day? Check out the Broke Backpacker’s Bible…

Yay for transparency! Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. This means that if you book your accommodation, buy a book or sort your insurance, I’ll earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. I only link to stuff I’ve actually used and never endorse crap. Your support helps me keep the site going.”


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