This month, ExpertFlyer talks with Alex Herrmann, Director Americas, Switzerland Tourism, the official Swiss National Tourist Office promoting Switzerland as a vacation, travel and convention destination. Alex shares the best of the best things to do, places to see, as well as how to get around in Switzerland – efficiently and economically.
“Switzerland is full of mountain railways, cable cars and gondolas – many of the most spectacular ones built a century ago or longer by tourism and hospitality pioneers. They continue to offer access to the mountains like nowhere else.”
– Alex Herrmann, Director Americas, Switzerland Tourism
When one thinks of Switzerland, the famous Swiss Alps and skiing come to mind. What are some of the other lesser known, but equally stunning attractions that Switzerland offers to tourists?
Of course there is amazing skiing in Switzerland, and all kinds of winter sports beyond. Winter tourism started in Switzerland exactly 150 years ago with the British, who already had discovered the Swiss Alps as a destination for their summer vacation.
However, the fact is, more travelers from North America visit Switzerland during the summer half of the year than during the winter. Be it winter or summer, the Swiss Alps are among the main attractions. A convenient and spectacular way to experience the Alps is by traveling on one of the scenic train routes in Switzerland, such as the Glacier Express, the Bernina Express or the Golden Pass. These and other train and train/boat combination trips are between three to seven hours and offer amazing views of mountains, valleys and villages. While the trains cross bridges and tunnels, the passengers can have a leisurely meal or lounge in First Class comfort and enjoy the vistas.
If visitors want a Swiss city experience, what are some options in addition to Zurich?
Geneva and Lausanne, the biggest cities in the French-speaking part of Switzerland on the shores of Lake Geneva, offer a different experience. An international city and the second headquarters of the United Nations, Geneva also maintains its old town charm and rich history. As the heart of the global watchmaking industry, it’s a paradise for lovers of fine timepieces. Lausanne is the Olympic capital, as the International Olympic Committee is based here, and the Olympic museum just reopened after an extensive renovation. Also, as the city is close to the most famous wine-growing area in Switzerland, the Lavaux – a UNESCO World Heritage site – wine and food are big in this city, with many restaurants and hotels situated along the shores of Lake Geneva.
Why do people want to visit Switzerland? What is the country’s biggest draw?
The Swiss Alps and the Matterhorn, in particular, plus popular towns and resorts, like Interlaken and Lucerne, are the main reasons why many travelers visit Switzerland.
One of the biggest advantages of Switzerland is the location of the country. In the heart of Europe, it’s very easy to combine Switzerland with a trip to Italy or France. Also, Switzerland has many direct connections from the U.S. and Canada to Zurich and Geneva, and the flight is less than eight hours.
Recently, many travelers combine a pre- or post-tour in Switzerland with a river cruise, mostly on the Rhine River, which mostly start or end in Basel in the Northwestern corner of Switzerland.
Is there a time of year that is more desirable to visit Switzerland? Are there unique attractions and events travelers can enjoy in every season? What are some of the most popular?
Perfect times to visit the mountains are late summer and early fall (late August, September, early October), as the crowds are gone and rates are more moderate. For the cities, June is a great time. It’s warm and the days are long, and so is the time leading up to the Holidays, as all cities are decorated, many offer Christmas markets, and shopping is fantastic.
There are festivals in Switzerland throughout the year. Some of the most famous are the Lucerne Festival of classical music, with its main festival including many symphony concerts for a full month in late August/early September, the piano festival in December, and the festival for religious music around Easter.
For the fans of popular music, the Jazz festival in Montreux, on Lake Geneva, is a must. It takes place in July, and features world-renowned pop, jazz and rock musicians and bands. Deep Purple’s song “Smoke on the Water” features the festival prominently.
For fans of film, the Locarno International Film Festival, in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, the Ticino, takes place in early August. Highlights are the nightly screenings under the starts, up to 7,000 people watch a movie on the historic Piazza Grande of the town.
Switzerland appears to be a great destination for hikers, bikers and mountain climbers. Where are some of the best trails for beginner to advanced hikers? Same for biking – what are the best trails and tours?
Switzerland is a natural playground for kids and adults alike. Thousands of miles of hiking, cycling and mountain biking trails, well-marked and always connected to the public transportation network – crisscross the country. An excellent place for hikers is Zermatt. This resort offers hikers of all levels not just excellent trails, but also wonderful views of the Matterhorn. Switzerland is full of mountain railways, cable cars and gondolas – many of the most spectacular were built a century ago or longer by tourism and hospitality pioneers. They continue to offer access to the mountains like nowhere else. So, even beginners can hike in high alpine terrain, as a gondola takes them up and a chairlift brings them back down to the valley again.
For bikers, a huge trend in Switzerland is the e-bike. The electric bike, with several different levels of support, which require pedaling, but allow the bikers to go farther and higher, is perfect for a country of mountains and hills. Particularly for groups with various levels of fitness and strength, e-bikes help keep everyone together and going to the same places at roughly the same speed.
How would you describe the Swiss people? What are some of the culturally significant places and things visitors should experience?
The Swiss are generally a friendly people. While not as outgoing as Americans, once you get to know them a bit, they are warm and have a great sense of humor. Another point of pride among the Swiss is that the hospitality industry was founded in the country – and the legacy of Swiss hospitality continues to attract visitors today.
If timing allows, a visit to a local festival is one of the best ways to get to know the locals – be it carnival in Basel or Lucerne, Sechselaeuten in April in Zurich (celebration of the beginning of spring), festivities for the Swiss National Day on August 1st, countless other summer festivals throughout the country, many harvest festivals in the rural and wine growing areas in the French- and Italian-speaking parts of the country, or the many Christmas markets.
What’s the best and most economical way to get around Switzerland? Car rental, train, bus?
The best way to travel around Switzerland is by its unique public transportation network – the trains, buses, boats, and the transit systems in the cities. All can be enjoyed with one ticket, the Swiss Pass, which includes unlimited travel for four, eight or fifteen days on all the means of transport mentioned. Included is access to over 450 museums throughout the country, and most gondolas, cable cars and mountain railways offer discounts. Every town and village in Switzerland can be accessed by either a train, a postal bus or a boat, and these are all included in the Swiss Pass. The Swiss Pass can be bought in North America through RailEurope by going to www.myswitzerland.com/rail.
Where do you recommend visitors seek accommodations? What are some options on the luxury side, middle of the road and cheap deals, particularly for college students?
Via our website www.myswitzerland.com, visitors find information on hotels in various categories, e.g. family-friendly hotels, wellness hotels, design and lifestyle hotels etc. For the five-star category, the Swiss Deluxe Hotels offer 38 mostly independently owned and managed hotels throughout the country. For the traveler looking for a three or four-star property, a group called “Typically Swiss Hotels” consists of about 300 independent hotels run by a family or a local host, with typical architecture and the gastronomy of the region. Great options for college students are the Youth Hostels, which offer very good value for reasonable prices. Several recently opened Youth Hostels offer amenities usually expected in higher star establishments, including wellness areas and cutting-edge architecture.
Where do the Swiss like to spend their holidays in Switzerland?
Many Swiss spend their vacation right alongside many international visitors in the most famous resorts, such as Zermatt, Grindelwald, Gstaad or St. Moritz. However, they also like the smaller, lesser-known resorts, oftentimes just in the next valley, such as Saas Fee (near Zermatt), Wengen or Muerren (near Grindelwald), Adelboden or Lenk (near Gstaad), and Maloya or Pontresina (near St.Moritz). Oftentimes the smaller resorts offer more value for families and are less busy during high season.
A very popular area for the Swiss is the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, the Ticino. Not just the language is Italian, the palm trees, the Italian-style cuisine and the excellent Merlots and other wines allow visitors to enjoy Switzerland Mediterranean-style.
Switzerland is still the most popular vacation destination for the Swiss, both in the summer and the winter.
What else is there to know about Switzerland and projects that are in the works with the office of Switzerland Tourism?
Switzerland Tourism as the official Swiss National Tourist Office promotes Switzerland as a vacation, travel and conventions destination. In these times of increasing global competition, we are always active in our mission to keep Switzerland at the top of potential travelers’ minds. We’re doing this through campaigns with major travel magazines such as AFAR or National Geographic Traveler, online and social media activities (via our website www.myswitzerland.com), collaboration with TV producers for travel and reality TV shows – Just last month, The Amazing Race visited Switzerland! And some of the models of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition visited Switzerland for the current anniversary edition. Who knew Switzerland could be so tempting.