Switzerland: rediscover the romance of slow travel
With dairy-white mountains, soaring alpine scenery and lakes pure enough to drink from, it’s no surprise that Switzerland ranks as one of the world’s most liveable countries. But there’s more to the good life than clichés of chocolate and cheese. Crack its sugary outer shell, and Switzerland reveals itself as a country rich in diversity -- with twinkling chalets and fairytale forests in the north, palm trees and mimosas in the south, and nearly everything else in between.
Slow down and savour the journey
A Swiss Travel Pass is the best way to discover Switzerland, with spectacular scenic routes reminding passengers that the journey is as important as the destination. The travel pass covers unlimited travel by train, bus and boat, including premium panoramic trains, as well as admission to over 500 museums. From 232 Swiss francs (£183) per person, it’s less than the cost of a return trip from Manchester to London.
You can ride from the valleys to the mountains on specially-designed luxury panoramic trains, which have seats with guaranteed views to bring you closer to nature. In typical Swiss fashion, the trains run like clockwork, and they travel along lines that were constructed thanks to some incredible feats of engineering. The Bernina Express ascends gradients of up to 70%, while the Glacier Express traverses over the Oberalp Pass at 6,706 feet.
Live like a local
Switzerland’s cities are far more than gateways to its natural wonders: hip, forward-thinking and eco-friendly, they are often tourist destinations in their own right. Zurich was named “most sustainable city on the planet” in 2016, and nearly every town has a water fountain where you can fill up on pure water straight from the Alps. Bicycle-friendly streets mean its easy to explore, and guided cycling tours are plentiful -- many use motorised e-bikes, which make uphill ascents a breeze. Since the glacial-melt waters are so pure, swimming in the city rivers is popular among locals -- in summertime, some Bernese have been known to commute to and from the office along the River Aare.
It's time to unplug
Switzerland boasts some of Europe’s greatest nature parks, and all are open to the public free of charge. The Swiss National Park is Europe’s first protected national park -- it’s a vast expanse of undisturbed wilderness, populated by elks, chamois, ibexes, golden eagles and bearded vultures. Over 80 kilometres of signposted walking trails make the park accessible to daytrippers and hikers alike. Other famous beauty spots include Lauterbrunnen Valley, which is home to 72 waterfalls, including Europe's tallest free-falling free-falling waterfall in Europe, Staubbach Falls. Elsewhere in the country, you can find Europe's widest waterfall, Rhine Falls; Europe's most photographed mountain, the Matterhorn; and Europe's largest underground lake, Lac Souterrain St Leonard.
The country also has a refined viticultural pedigree that might just surprise you -- the UNESCO World Heritage-listed terraced vineyards of Lavaux have been carefully tended for over 1,000 years, while the history of Swiss wine-making dates back to the Romans. There are plenty of guided walks through the grapevines, many of which involve regular refuelling with the excellent local vintage.
The call of the mountains
Cosy Alpine lodges, bubbling pots of fondue and easily accessible slopes make Switzerland a long-time favourite for ski and snow holidays. There are a huge variety of pistes, with green and blue runs suitable for novices and challenging mogul slopes for seasoned skiers. If you’d rather leave your ski goggles at home, there are plenty of ways to enjoy the snow away from the slopes: you can try your hand at mushing a team of huskies in Toggenburg, or spend the night in an igloo village in the shadow of the Matterhorn.
A cultural melting pot
Did you know that Switzerland hosts one of the most colourful carnivals on the continent? Basel attracts half a million revellers in spring to celebrate before the start of Lent, and it all kicks off at 4am when hundreds of masked cliques parade the streets with surreal handmade lanterns.
In fact, Swiss culture is a lot more bohemian that its straightlaced reputation might have you believe. It’s a historic haven for artists, with past residents including Byron, Goethe and Audrey Hepburn, but its cultural melting pot ensures lives very much in the 21st century. You'll hear chatter in nearly every language on the streets, and as the culture changes from city to city, it's possible to eat traditional Alpine muesli for breakfast in Lucerne, then enjoy pasta and gelato for supper under the swaying palm trees of Italianate Ticino.
To tour the country with an experienced guide and a group of like-minded travellers, see Intrepid Travel's website. If you book by 28 February, you can secure any tour departing before 14 December with a deposit as low as £50 per person.