My love affair with Switzerland started in the third grade when we had to choose a country and write a book report.
Flipping through the pages of the World Book Encyclopedias (B.I.-before internet) on our bookshelf at home, I stumbled across photos so glorious I knew I had found the right country to explore.
Snow-capped mountain peaks and crystal blue glacial lakes, alpine valleys, fancy cows, fondue and chocolate, all these things of beauty succeeded in capturing my imagination.
During my school years, I wrote many papers about Switzerland and created countless salt and flour maps (before 3D printers) of the country. Complete with snow-capped Swiss Alps!
Fast forward a lot of years…and I finally made the trip to see this exquisite country.
Cliff Notes on Switzerland
Founded in 1291, Switzerland is a small country in Europe which shares a border with Austria, France, Italy, and Germany.
Nearly half of the Swiss landscape consists of uninhabitable, rugged, snow-capped Alps, and the rest of the landscape consists mostly of small farms spread throughout its 26 cantons.
With a population of eight million and nearly double the size of New Jersey, Switzerland’s largest cities are Zurich, Geneva, Basel, and the capital city of Bern.
The Swiss speak French, German, and Italian depending on which area of the country you’re in.
Switzerland is a very diverse, incredibly efficient, orderly, and high-tech society.
The Swiss are most well-known for their Alps, skiing, chocolate, cheese, neutrality, banks, watches, and Swiss Army knives, just to name a few.
Lake Geneva and French Switzerland
I arrived in Geneva and noticed immediately how clean and not chaotic the airport was.
Signs clearly marked the path to my train to Lausanne where I would base my visit.
Trains are a very quick and efficient way to travel around Europe, but especially in Switzerland where they are sparkling clean and always on time.
Switzerland is an expensive place to visit, but I was able to find and book a budget-friendly hotel room directly across the street from Lake Geneva in the old town district called Ouchy (ooh-she).
This small hamlet is at the bottom of a very steep hill from the town center of Lausanne (loh-zahn), on the lakefront, and home to the Olympic Museum (unfortunately closed for renovation during my visit).
I received a Mobilis Card from the desk clerk at my hotel, which is a ‘free’ pass to use local transit, paid for by your hotel tax.
The transit pass made it convenient to take the local Metro up the hill and into the town center.
Upon exiting the Metro station, I zigged and zagged my way up the hilly cobblestone streets admiring the centuries-old buildings filled with boutiques, and chocolate shops where I sampled and bought boxes to take home as gifts.
I strolled through the vibrant outdoor farmers market, admiring the colorful flowers and fall vegetables.
Finally, I stopped in the very large and Gothic Lausanne Cathedral (originally built in the 13th century), home to one of the grandest pipe organs in the world.
And if you’re up for it, you can climb to the top of the bell tower.
Furthermore, you can visit with the watchman who has called out the hours since the Middle Ages and still does to this day.
The Chocolate Train
Having only a few precious days in Switzerland, I decided to make the most of my time by boarding The Chocolate Train.
That’s right, a magical, old-timey mode of transportation that whisks you up into the hills and deposits you in the land of chocolate and cheese!
Boarding the train, one town over in Montreux, home of the legendary Montreux Jazz Festival, it is everything you hoped it would be.
As you walk through the luxuriously wood-paneled, brass-handled, velvety salon cars of yesteryear, you might think you have hitched a ride on the Orient Express.
As you ascend into the Swiss hills, you are rewarded with breathtaking views.
So, open the very large window and stick your head outside to breathe in the crisp alpine air.
And what would a ride on The Chocolate Train be without…chocolate!
As attendants roll the snack trolley down the aisle, creamy, hot chocolate, warm chocolaty croissants, and chocolate candies entice salivating guests to indulge their chocolate craving. OUI!
First Stop: Gruyeres
The first stop was the medieval town of Gruyeres, namesake of one of Switzerland’s most famous cheeses and charming beyond belief.
A visit to Gruyeres is not complete without a visit to the town’s namesake cheese dairy, La Maison de Gruyere, so take the tour, eat the samples, and they’ll even wrap up cheese for you to take with you.
Gruyeres is small and very walkable, filled with quaint restaurants serving fondue and raclette. Mmmmm…..cheesy goodness.
There are several quirky museums and the very medieval Gruyeres Castle with its gorgeous views of the lush hillsides and tales of ancient history.
Second Stop: Maison Cailler
Next, we were on our way to the chocolate factory (YASSSSS!!).
Producing chocolate since 1819, La Maison Cailler is where the magic happens.
Consequently, I felt like I was right there in Willy Wonka’s chocolate heaven.
The factory tour is worthwhile.
In addition to covering the history of chocolate, they share with you the process of making it into what we love today.
And, your reward for patiently listening is free chocolates at the end of the tour.
Well worth the wait.
Located on the shores of Lake Geneva, Vevey is a flower-decked jewel, with alpine views, and a lovely lakeside promenade.
In addition, it is Charlie Chaplin’s last place of residence before his death in 1977.
This picturesque village is the jumping off point for the Wine Train (oh yes, they have one of those too).
The Lavaux vineyard terraces were given UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 2007.
These vineyards have been cultivated and cared for since Roman times, according to the locals.
But UNESCO states the current vines trace back only to the 11th century.
Less than one percent of Swiss wines are exported, and only to Germany, so you should definitely enjoy drinking them while visiting the country.
Being able to walk in the vineyard terraces and partake in a wine tasting in an old cellar was enlightening since I knew little about growing grapes and making wine before my visit.
To cap off my visit to this beautiful region, I hopped aboard an old-fashioned steamer ferry on Lake Geneva and rode over to visit the amazing, history-laden Castle Chillon.
Til the Cows Come Home
During the harvest season, cows journey down from the alpine perches where they’ve spent the summer happily grazing grass and flowers.
The Cow Parade was one of my favorite things to do while in Switzerland.
The herds begin their descent down the hills and as a result, you can hear the tinkling cowbells signaling their approach.
Once in sight, you see these beautiful beasts decked out in floral headdress, hats, and cowbells, accompanied by farmers and their families also decked out in traditional garb.
Then when everyone is on terra firma, the party begins.
Food and wine flow freely, music and dance take center stage, crafts are for sale, and the mood is joyous and festive celebrating the harvest season.
A perfect end to my enchanting visit to Switzerland.
For My Next Visit
I am eager to visit Switzerland again.
There are many things I did not have the chance to see and do, especially hiking and riding the Glacier Express through the Alps.
As such, they’re on my list for the next visit.
It’s been fun breaking out my trusty vacation journal and sharing something different with you all.
I hope you’ve enjoyed a bit of armchair travel today.
Perhaps I’ve inspired you to visit the most beautiful country in the world.
Where have you been and where would you like to go? Please share in the comments below.