With all its banking and commercial reputation, it’s sometimes hard to remember Zürich is also an exciting city for tourists. The Old Town poises above the wide Limmat River as it flows from Lake Zürich, and views of the city’s sleek skyline are backed by snow-covered Alps.
Contemporary concrete and glass buildings mix easily with medieval half-timbered and gilded Renaissance façades, and visitors can explore vertiginous winding lanes only steps from broad boulevards. The contrasts between old and new are everywhere.
Those snow-capped mountains that decorate the city skyline lie less than a two-hour train ride away in a region known as the Bernese Oberland. Here craggy peaks rise above cozy Alpine villages, green meadows dotted with grazing Swiss cows, deep-cut valleys and clear Alpine lakes fed by melting glaciers. It’s the idyllic image of Switzerland come to life.
Zürich is well-arranged to explore on foot, with major sights close together and interesting routes between them. Find the best view of Zürich’s Old Town from the terrace of tree-shaded Lindenhof, site of the Romans’ fortified settlement. Across the river in the warren of narrow streets that climb the hillside stand Renaissance mansions, guild houses and medieval towers. Haus zum Napt, on the Napfgasse, now houses a museum, its elegant interior furnished in Renaissance style. After browsing in the antique shops and boutiques, stop on Spiegelgasse for coffee in atmospheric Cabaret Voltaire, where the Dada art movement launched a century ago this year.
Liberal thinking and innovative art are part of Zürich’s heritage, so it’s no surprise its world-class art museum, Kunsthaus Zürich, is especially strong in Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and Modern artists. Major works by Surrealist artists Salvador Dalí, René Magritte, Joan Miró and Max Ernst are highlights, along with a number from the Dada school and an excellent collection of paintings and sculptures by Henri Matisse. Nowhere outside of Paris offers a better collection of Monet, and an entire room is filled with works of Marc Chagall.
Art isn’t confined to museums in Zürich. Admire original paintings by Braque, Matisse, Picasso, Chagall, Klee and Miró as you dine at Kronenhalle, with a menu worthy of the surroundings. Across the river, in the chancel of the Fraumünster, find five monumental stained-glass windows by Marc Chagall.
From the church it’s a few steps to the wide Bahnhofstrasse, one of Europe’s most elegant shopping streets, lined with public art and impressive buildings from the early 20th century. High fashion, fine jewelry and — of course — Swiss watches fill its smart windows. The Savoy Baur en Ville, one of the city’s most legendary hotels, faces the Paradeplatz in the lower part of Bahnhofstrasse. Its restaurants Orsini and Baur offer Italian and French cuisine, respectively.
Set in its own park close to the landing where tour boats leave to explore Lake Zürich, the Baur au Lac is known as one of Europe’s finest hotels and for its Michelin-starred restaurant, Pavillon, where Chef Laurent Eperon interprets classic haute cuisine for the 21st century. Savor a warm summer evening sipping Champagne on Baur au Lac’s airy Rive Gauche Terrasse, or retreat on a winter afternoon to the comforts of tea time in the newly renovated Le Hall.
In the heart of Switzerland, southwest of Zürich, the Bernese massif rises to altitudes above 13,000 feet and includes both the Jungfrau and the resort town of Interlaken. Named for its position between two long Alpine lakes, Interlaken is one of Switzerland’s oldest and most popular summer resorts, a good starting point and a good base for an overview of the region. From here it’s easy to visit lakeside towns by boat or ride rack railways and gondolas to dizzying heights. Guestrooms at the 5-star Victoria-Jungfrau Grand Hotel & Spa look directly at the region’s signature mountain, the Jungfrau.
From Zürich, the best ways to get to the Bernese Oberland are by car or train. Either takes about two hours. While a car gives more freedom to travel at a whim, it’s quite easy to get around by Switzerland’s fast and efficient train/boat/bus system, most of it covered by a single pass that includes — or at least discounts — some cable cars and mountain rides as well.
Seen from below or on high, this land of spectacular views proves a paradise for skiers and hikers. But there’s plenty for everyone: Interlaken’s fashionable shops, plummeting waterfalls, mountaintop dining, cozy chalets, grand hotels, six-mile ski runs, sleigh rides, Europe’s highest railroad and miles of walking and ski trails for every experience and energy level.
Begin by riding the train to the “Top of Europe” and emerging from Europe’s highest railway station just under the peak of Jungfraujoch. Along with restaurants and access to ski trails, an elevator takes visitors to an even higher viewpoint and an Ice Palace carved into the glacier. The Schilthornbahn cable car climbs to the Schilthorn, at about 10,000 feet elevation, for spectacular views and ski trails all the way back to Lauterbrunnen. Its futuristic revolving restaurant, Piz Gloria, enjoyed a role as the filming location for the James Bond movie On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Opened just last year, the world’s first suspension bridge connecting two mountain peaks is part of the Peak Walk on Glacier 3000 at Les Diablerets in Gstaad.
While Interlaken makes a good base for an overview, travelers interested in active summer or winter sports might prefer staying in one of the mountain villages with hiking and ski trails right outside their door. Not only are these convenient to activities and closer to the mountain rides, they are also in picture-perfect settings with postcard views in every direction.
Enclosed in high rock walls with waterfalls dropping in long ribbons, Lauterbrunnen is central to several towns and attractions, with cable car and train access to Grütschalp, Mürren, Wengen and Kleine Scheidegg, and PostBus connections to the Schilthornbahn lift. The entire Lauterbrunnen valley is ideal for skiers and walkers. Mürren sits high above Lauterbrunnen, its narrow streets free of cars and accessed only by cable car or funicular and narrow-gauge railroad. It still looks much as it did in the 1800s and offers splendid views of the Jungfrau.
Wengen, another car-free village overlooking the Lauterbrunnen Valley, may be reached on foot or on the 1893 rack railway from Lauterbrunnen. Trains connect it to the Wengernalp, where the 150-year-old Hotel Jungfrau Wengernalp features sweeping views of the valley and Jungfrau. Beneath the dramatic ledges of the Eiger’s sheer north face, Grindelwald, a village of rustic chalets, lies within walking distance of two glaciers, one with an ice cave carved into its depths. The Bergsteigerzentrum Mountaineering Center offers tours and courses for both beginning and advanced climbers and hikers.
Switzerland Info to Go
Zürich Airport, the hub for Swiss International Air Lines, offers direct flights to New York (JFK, EWR), Boston (BOS), Chicago (ORD) and Miami (MIA). Taxis waiting outside Arrivals 1 and 2 take about 25 minutes to the city center. From the easy-to-find railway station directly below the terminals, trains depart every 10–15 minutes for the 11-minute ride to the Bahnhof (central station).
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