After about 10 years, we decided to take an international trip. We went to London (to really see the family) and then went on to Switzerland and Paris. In this post, I share our travel plan and experience that can hopefully help others doing the same.
While there are many blogs, write-ups, and other things you will find with Google, this post is from a non-travel connoisseur, non-wanderer, non-hiker. I am a dad and husband on a mission to fulfill my family’s dreams. My travails and experiences felt like it warranted a write-up. So I did it – A Travel Guide to visiting top places in Switzerland.
Scheduled/Guided Tour or Self-Guided Tour
Our planning started at least 6 months before the actual travel. In general, we found that the flight tickets traveling into Zurich, Basel, or Geneva were rather expensive. We got lucky because we were first going to London to visit family and then from there fly into Zurich.
After we locked down the broad dates and flight tickets, our first decision was do we consult a travel agency for a scheduled and guided group tour or a self-guided tour.
We looked at many of the travel agencies, educated ourselves of potential locations to visit, and researched those locations separately. Apart from our preference as a family to be in control of our own plans with a child, we learned that the weather makes a big difference to your experience.
Most of the hills are 8000+ feet high and change from being clear to being cloudy to thunderstorm to rain. A scheduled and guided group tour wouldn’t offer that much flexibility and would cause us to chance our experience at the hands of the company or the weather gods. In contrary, with a self-guided tour we could switch around our plans. So, we decided on Self-Guided Tour.
Smart Tip: You can use the descriptions in those scheduled and guided tour descriptions to inform yourself about the sights that are worth watching.
Immigration and Visas
Well, now that we decided to do our self-guided tour, we had to do our own visas. Before you proceed any further, check if you need a visa. Visa requirements vary based on country of citizenship and various others factors. I could write a separate book on it. I recommend thoroughly researching your visa requirements.
If you have a US Passport, you can just book tickets and go otherwise, you need to allocate a minimum of 15 days of visa processing time as well as time to plan and attend a short interview. To get to Switzerland, if you need a visa then you need to apply for Schengen visa.
To get a visa, the immigration officer will expect you to have your entire plan ready – flight tickets booked, itinerary write up, special Schengen Medical Insurance, and hotels you are going to stay. The immigration officer typically values and insist on flight/train tickets. Getting your trip organized and easier for the immigration officer to understand makes it easy for you.
Schengen Visa grants you access to countries within the European Union. You can find the list of countries online. The most important thing to note is that you should apply at the consulate for the country, you intend to spend maximum time. For example, we spent 5 days in Switzerland and 3 days in Paris, we had to get our visa processed via consulate of Switzerland. Switzerland designated Republic of Brunei as the designate for our geographic location. If you are spending equal number of days in different EU countries then the consulate or designated consulate of country where you land first will review your visa request. As with all matters legal/medical, please research for your specific situations or consult an expert.
Smart Tip: You can use immigration/visa has a forcing factor to finalize your plan. It was really helpful for us.
Planning your stay/Getting around
For planning your stay, there are two things you can do – 1) Pick a base and then travel to other locations 2) Simply have multiple have multiple bases and keep changing hotels every 2 days. (2) is our recommended option.
We used Interlaken as the base and then travel to other regions. It is great for the first day or two and then begins to wear you down and eat away from your tour/experience time.
Switzerland has a well-organized travel system. Trains, Boats, Cars, Buses, Cable Cars are all synchronized so you don’t waste time waiting for them. It was really surprising. In addition, it also has so many sights that you can visit. We as humans have a way of complicating it all. If you google for ways to get around, you will see as many permutations and combinations of things – one day trip, two-day trip, one-day two sights guided trip with a guide who can speak a certain language, so on and so forth. We went into a tizzy.
The simplest thing to do is to buy a Switzerland Rail Pass also called as Swiss Pass. As soon as you land, you should look for a Railway concierge and get your Pass. The Rail Pass comes in 3, 4, 8, or 15 days or a flexi pass. We were staying for 6-days. For some reason 8-day pass was cheaper than the two 3-day passes and cheaper than us booking tickets via SBB Mobile App (Download it).
A bit more complicated thing to do is via SBB Mobile App, look for deals and super saver options. However, it doesn’t save you any money on visits to mountains. In the grand scheme of things, you may end up losing money with it.
If you are in doubt, please visit the SBB offices. We loved having it because when all else failed we could simply talk to a person who was knowledgeable and helped us with our questions. You can find tickets to your tourist sites at the SBB concierges available in every large station. Just walk in without the fear of getting manipulated. Alternatively you can buy discounted trips from sites like Get Your Guide/Viator and then walk into the SBB station and exchange the voucher for your tickets.
Smart Tip: Buy the Switzerland Rail Pass (also called as Swiss Rail Pass) for peace of mind. Kids have a special pass that can save you a lot of money – don’t forget to ask for it.
Things to do
As we are learning in the trip, Switzerland is a beautiful country. It is blessed with serenity, pristine waters, the majestic Alps, and a well-organized transportation system that makes it a pleasure. We would agree to it. Despite all the planning, you are likely to feel missing out on things. It is not an issue with your planning but rather abundance of beauty that this place has to offer. Your planning will be constrained by budget, number of days, what you like to do, and several other factors. No doubt almost every tourist we met called it a trip of their lifetime and we would agree to it.
Before you start planning, get familiar with the country’s map as it will allow you to geographically position places. We organized our trip into four distinct regions. Let’s go over them now.
Region 1: Interlaken (2-4 Days)
When serenity meets majesty meets beauty meets nature, you get Interlaken. It is beautiful and is situated in midst of snow-capped and green mountains on all sides, a river called Aare and two sprawling lakes called Thun and Brienz. Every ounce of it is serene. The water is pristine blue, green, or sometimes feels like Teal. The mountains are majestic standing tall in their own right offering uniqueness that is perfect for brooding. At the same time, you get enough buzz from tourists.
Interlaken has two stations – Interlaken West and Ost (pronounced as one word for east). Although both stations are 15 minutes from each other, Interlaken Ost is the terminus for many trains and connects to almost all of Switzerland.
We stayed at Hotel Interlaken which is about 6-minute walk to the train station. It also has Restaurant Tavern that serves one of the best Cheese fondues in that area. There are all kinds of hotels around the area – so please research reviews/ratings thoroughly. We would also recommend keeping your hotel search with in 1-1.5 miles of the Interlaken area. There is also a Youth Hostel nearby.
Jungfraujoch – Top of Europe
Schilthorn – A James Bond Special
Below are some helpful tips:
Check how far are you from Interlaken Ost. It is recommended that you pick a spot that is within walking distance (say 1.5 miles from the station)
There are several good hotels in that vicinity (say 2 miles). However, check hotel ratings/reviews before you pick one. For the single wanderers, there is also a Youth Hostel nearby.
If possible, book a hotel that offers a great breakfast in the morning. In most situations, you are likely to eat up in the morning, survive on snacks for the day, and have a great dinner in the night.
Ask if the hotel has Interlaken specific discount tickets that can help you save money and get you free bus/train rides within the area.
Interlaken has a lot of things to do. Really depending on the number of days you can prioritize as follows:
Day Attraction - Jungfraujoch
Evening Attraction - Harder Kulm
Day Attraction - Schilthorn
Evening Attraction - Lake Brienz
Day Attraction - Schynige Platte
Evening Attraction - Sunset at Lake Thun or ParaglideDay
Day Attraction - Grindelwald
Evening Attraction - Depart
*Day 3 and 4 can be combined into one day and you can choose to skip sunset at Lake Thun or paragliding. You will not hear a lot about Schynige Platte and First at Grindelwald until you ask the locals here.
Check out and head-over to Luzern.
Region 2: Luzern (Lucerne) – 2 Days
Mount Pilatus – Cable Car Docking Station
In stark contrast to Interlaken, Luzern is a big city and an important junction accessible via train. Since we didn’t stay in Luzern, I can’t really talk about hotels but would recommend checking out stations near the Luzern station, probably something that faces the lake, or in Hergiswil near Luzern.
Luzern has many things to do.
Our recommended plan is as follows:
Day Attraction - Mount Pilatus
Evening Attraction - Luzern City Walk or ParaglidingDay
Day Attraction - Mount Titlis
Evening Attraction - Depart
Both Mount Pilatus and Mount Titlis are very different. We strongly recommend seeing both.
If you are visiting Titlis with a kid, look for a special brochure on Globi Express Toy kit. Your child will get a small gift. Our son was ecstatic receiving it.
Smart Tip: As you look at Mount Pilatus, explore the various packages. The best experience is going up the hill via Gondola (Cable Car), coming down via world’s highest cog wheel train, and getting back to Luzern via the boat.
Check out of the hotel and head-over to Zermatt.
Region 3 – Zermatt – (1-2 Days)
View from Zermatt – Matterhorn Glacier
Zermatt is easily the most charming town that we saw in Switzerland. It is a mountain resort with a distinct charm, boutique hotels, shops, restaurants and more. Getting to Zermatt is a bit of work. It took us 2.5 hours one way from Interlaken and my take away is you will need about that much time from any direction. It is car-free and free of any vehicles that use combustion which means any cars, trucks, and others.
Zermatt is connected by Matterhorn Bahnoff and the train takes you through a picturesque ride. Get your camera’s out and keep clicking. The world-famous Glacier express is another way to get to Zermatt. Once in Zermatt, you can get around walking, biking, skateboarding, or one of those cute electrically powered buses.
I really can’t say much about it but things we saw a lot of boutique hotels that are unique to the town. We read a lot about Matterhorn Glacier Paradise and it is truly breathtaking. I would say it offered the best scenic views of my lifetime. On our way to Zermatt, we also learned about Gornergrat Express but it was too little too late.
Day Attraction - Matterhorn Glacier Paradise
Evening Attraction - Zermatt town
Day Attraction - Gornergrat Express
Evening Attraction - Depart
Check out of the hotel and head-over to Geneva. We did the same.
Region 4 – Geneva – (1-3 Days)
Jet d’Eau – Geneva
Geneva is almost France and you will see the French written all over Geneva (literally). We stayed at a hotel closer to the station and the lake as we were spending less time there. We only truly spent a 3/4th of a day in Geneva. The portion of the city where we stayed at was phenomenal. We took a train from Interlaken to Genève station and walked 10 minutes to the hotel.
Floral Clock – Geneva
Across from the hotel, we saw Lake Geneva and at the distant sprawling Mont-Blanc mountains. Our recommended itinerary:
Day 1: Geneva Lake – Jet d’Eau, Floral Clock, Old Geneva City Tour, and other UN headquarters (if interested), Geneva City Dinner
Day 2:Trip to Gruyere/Chocolate Factory Tour offered by Nestle, Geneva City Dinner
Day 3:Trip to Monte-Blanc or Charmonix, Geneva City Dinner
Smart Tip: Do NOT visit Geneva on a Sunday. Although, the many sites you would like to visit are open, the shops are closed.
An experience of a life time
As we exit Geneva and we are well on our way France, there is only one thing I can say about our trip to Switzerland – it is an experience of a life time. I wish I could come back here and explore each of these locations intimately – hiking my way. The beauty of the location consumed me and if I could only consume it back entirely!
I will also document our experience across each of the locations so you can benefit from it as well. Please stay tuned for the rest.