If you’ve ever dreamed of traveling to Europe with your family, Switzerland is an incredible destination to include on your bucket list. It has something for everyone between its Alpine peaks, rolling meadows, pristine lakes, and rich cuisine of cheese and chocolate. My wife, 19-year-old son, his best friend, and I recently took an 8 day vacation to Switzerland. Here are some tips and locations to consider for your next trip to this gorgeous country.
Switzerland is a popular tourist destination in both the winter and summer. It’s known for its picturesque landscapes during both seasons, and if you enjoy winter sports like my family, then there’s no better bucket list vacation.
This can be an incredibly accessible place to visit. Outdoor activities are abundant. If your children are accustomed to hiking, camping, or snow sports, then this country has what you’re looking for. With that, however, you may consider taking younger children later in the year. We visited at the end of February into early Mach. Most families travel in July and August when it’s much warmer. Overall, travel for families is at its best in June and September.
Vacation to Switzerland: The Geography
If you’re planning a vacation to Switzerland, there’s good and bad news. The geography both works with and against you. At only 15,940 square miles, the country itself is limited in size. This is roughly the U.S. states of Vermont and New Hampshire combined. You’ll be able to take in quite a few Swiss cities because of the compact nature of the country.
With that, however, comes the “bad” news. To get to many parts of Switzerland, you’ll have to travel over or through the gorgeous Swiss Alps, which can add time to your journey if you’re hoping to reach remote cities or towns.
Fortunately, public transportation is abundant. Cities and towns in Switzerland are incredibly well-connected with trams, buses, funiculars, and trains. Overall, train is the most popular way to travel, especially for locals. If you’re looking to stay on a budget for your vacation to Switzerland, traveling by train is a great way to do so.
Depending on how long you’re in country, it can be highly advantageous to purchase the Swiss Travel Pass. If you purchase the Swiss Family Card, then children, stepchildren, and foster children between 6 and 15 travel along for free with a parent. Children 5 and under always travel for free and do not require a Card.
Vacation to Switzerland: Late Winter Edition
So the reason for choosing to vacation in Switzerland came as a result of a promise we made to our kids. Graduate from high school and you get to choose any place in the world to visit as well as take one friend with you. I got this idea from a coworker many years ago whose uncle would do this as a gift for his nieces and nephews.
Our son is an avid snowboarder so what better than to hit the Swiss Alps! I had visited the beautiful town of Lucerne more than 20 years ago while studying abroad. So was excited to return with some of my loved ones to experience much more of this beautiful country.
Geneva is a city located in the south-westernmost corner of Switzerland right across the border from France making it primarily French-speaking. This city is considered the diplomatic center of Europe due to its political stability. As a result, there are numerous international organizations headquartered here such as the United Nations and the Red Cross.
It’s widely appealing to tourists due to its idyllic setting on Lake Geneva’s shores in addition to its history and classical appeal. Here are some of the must-see sites:
There is something special about places located near large bodies of water. It adds natural character intermixed with modern city life. Lake Geneva provides all sorts of water-based activities in the summer for visitors and locals to enjoy. Since it was winter season, our options were limited, but we had the pleasure of taking a 50 minute stroll on the lake in a newly renovated paddle steamer called the Rhone.
The view by water is well worth the ticket for admission even if it is only for a short ride. The tour offered a more panoramic view of the immense mountains that is less visible when venturing along Geneva’s streets. The full sunny day added to the whole experience bringing everything into a clear, majestic view. During the spring and summer months, there are many more longer haul cruises available which include full meal service. Check out CGN’s site as they are largest cruise operator with multiple options for ideas prior to your trip, but feel free to consider other providers as well.
While roaming around the main sanctuary is worth it, our favorite part was climbing the 157 stairs up to the spires for awesome views of Geneva. As you venture up the narrow steps and cross through the internal bell towers, it makes you imagine what people more than 5 centuries where doing before we arrived. Pierre Cathedral also boasts an expansive underground museum showcasing excavations from as for back at the fourth century.
Zermatt is a famous mountaineering and ski town nestled away in the Swiss alps at the bottom the iconic Matterhorn. The Matterhorn is known worldwide for its almost perfect pyramid shape. We had purchased a Swiss Travel Pass so we made the 3 1/2 hour train ride from Geneva. Europe by rail is a joy with plenty of trains running to meet various time schedules. I’d high advise making this your primary mode of travel during your vacation to Switzerland.
The town is not accessible by car — only by train, helicopter, or taxi. So if you choose rent a car and drive to Zermatt, all private vehicles must be parked (for a fee) in one of the valley parking lots in Täsch, which is 5 km (3.1 miles) from Zermatt. From there, you can train or taxi into Zermatt so that’s why I still advise making the rail pass your best friend.
My son chose Zermatt because its rated as the country’s best location for hitting the slopes. While one can enjoy this destination year-round, skiing and snowboarding is its main attraction. The season for snow sports lasts until July. During the summertime, hiking is a great substitute and offers much-needed fresh air.
This is a special note to my fellow readers who share the same limited ski abilities as I do. If you are a novice skier whose only shooshed down a green circle slope a couple of times, get a ski instructor or stay at the lodge and enjoy some hot chocolate! There are no green circles on Zermatt and their easy slopes would be intermediate at most other resorts in the US.
I bravely struggled down my first run falling a couple times, but managing to get to the bottom. The second run was not so kind. Despite keeping upright after accidentally clipping a fellow skier from behind, I took a nasty spill midway down contorting my knee in ways not thought possible. Thankfully, there were plenty of ski patrol guides to prop me up as I found some way to get back down to the bottom of hill. That was the end of my fun for the day.
Even if skiing isn’t your thing (which obviously isn’t my gift), joining your family or friends up to see the sights is still worth a tram ride. There is something enriching about seeing the Matterhorn in full view as multi-generations of people from all over the world convene to enjoy this beautiful place.
The town of Zermatt is the quintessential depiction of Swiss ski town. With only small electric taxis and buses allowed for transport, the visitors take control of the town center streets en route to the slopes, returning to their chalets, shopping or catching a bite to eat. At night, the town quiets down, but the view from our rental offered a memorable light display spread throughout the valley.
If you’re looking for a part of your vacation to Switzerland to treat yourself, Zermatt offers endless luxury from chic ski chalets to VIP gondola rides.
Riding the rails is a common and effective way to travel throughout Switzerland. However, the Glacier Express is a truly uncommon experience that I advise everyone to do at least once in their lifetime. Hailed as one of the slowest trains in the world, the Glacier Express turns a standard 3 hour trek from Zermatt to St. Moritz into an 8 hour adventure through the Swiss Alps.
The train offers full panoramic views of the terrain whether you select the 2nd, 1st or Excellence class seating option. We opted for the 1st class section so that all 4 of us could be seated together. As we headed out of Zermatt at around 8 am, it wasn’t long before the wait staff began our service with good coffee and small bites to eat. Everything is designed around ensuring you are comfortable and ready to take in the beauty of the country’s rugged, rolling landscapes.
I could try to detail in words what we saw throughout our journey, but I believe these images help tell it best:
Many people lament about the fast paced world we live in today. We don’t seem to give ourselves enough space to simply enjoy the day or the moment. Booking a ride on the slowest train in the world is sort of like making a commitment yourself to slow down and appreciate the now. This was especially poignant forn me as I shared this time with my wife, son and his best friend.
So I’d strongly encourage you to make space in your vacation to Switzerland itinerary for a ride on the Glacier Express.
St. Moritz is another ideal spot for snow sports. It boasts massive ski resorts with some of the best skiing and snowboarding in the country. If you’re considering this location for your vacation to Switzerland, you’re probably focused on the 200 miles of terrain and six main slopes.
We had given ourselves 1 full day in the town before heading out the next morning to Zurich. After my harrowing ski moments in Zermatt, I opted to bow out of risking my life again in St. Moritz instead letting the more experienced teenagers board to their heart’s content. It was worth taking the funicular train up with near the top with them as it truly feels like you are top of world.
My wife decided to join me back down as well to simply explore the town. We decided to take a walk on frozen Lake St. Moritz. Just the week prior, the town held their annual horse race with some remnants from the events still left to be taken down. We took the simple pleasure of grabbing a bench on the lake looking at the mountains surrounding this beautiful city. The town of St. Moritz (as is many skii towns in Switerland) is well-known for its wealthy visitors. So about every 10 minutes a private jet would fly overhead leading us to imagine which corporate titan, celebrity or dignitary was coming to town. After a few hours, we made our way back up to retrieve our snowboarders.
If you’re visiting in warmer months, there are plenty of scenic activities that can keep you busy as well. Put mountain biking, Seerhorn Climbing Garden, Nordic walking, and hiking on your list.
Zurich was a perfect last stop for our vacation to Switzerland. Its colorful architecture is framed by the Limmat River, snow-capped mountains, and Lake Zurich. It’s ideal for visitors because its history and beauty can be seen on foot similar to Geneva.
We arrived in the evening so we grabbed an Uber to our AirBnB just outside the city center. The vacation rental experience can be full of fun, memorable surprises and this one certainly fit that description.
The rental owner provided very specific instructions as we were staying in a fairly large apartment complex. The keys were hidden in a lockbox in an unlit garden about 100 feet near the door. The site of 4 Americans snooping through a small, dark garden had to seem a little strange. Upon entering the building, we noticed the a stark, nondescript style to the interior that almost looked like prison cell blocks expect for the pop of color on the doors. Then, it stuck me…this looks like the guards quarters from the show Squid Games!
All got a chuckle from this, but were pleasantly surprised to see our space we’d call home for a few days. The apartment was bilevel with a spacious living room and kitchen area. It was fairly open plan with sliding doors for the room with bunk beds with the boys slept. The most unique feature of the space was the built in sauna!
The first full day in Zurich had no set agenda except to explore and do a little shopping. We weaved through The Old Town district with is old cobblestone streets, beautiful squares and small restaurants. We walked up and down the Bahnhofstrasse, a world-renowned shopping street with designer brands, boutiques, and outlet stores that stretches for a mile. Most of the high-end designer brands reside on this street so get ready for eye-popping price tags. Nevertheless to say, our time was spent mostly watching how the other half lived and wondering why on earth someone would pay that much money for a t-shirt.
On the second day, we hopped on the local train to Kilchberg to visit the Lindt Chocolate factory and museum. The factory is nestled within this quaint, unassuming suburb of Zurich right along Lake Zurich. It was only a 15 minute walk for the train station and you come up to this large facility that produces one of the world’s most well-known treats.
The Lindt museum tour is self-guide and only takes a little over an hour, but is worth the trip even with teenagers. The exhibits explaining the history of chocolate production are interactive keeping everyone informed and entertained at the same time. It was intriguing to learn about how Switzerland became such a powerhouse in craft of chocolate making. The displays showcasing how Lindt manufacturers the product is interesting, but the best part comes at the end when you get to grab multiple pieces of free chocolate.
Zurich is also a gateway to explore central Switzerland. If you’re interested in getting out of the city and into the surrounding area, there are numerous day trips that will allow you to do so. Here are a couple of ideas:
- The Rhine Falls – Europe’s largest waterfall
- Lucerne – a beautiful and historic city nearby
- Mount Titlis – famous for the world’s first revolving cable car
Together, these four destinations created an excellent itinerary for my family’s vacation to Switzerland. We strove to balance traditional Swiss cities that were easy to transit in and out of with our interest in winter sports. Even if you aren’t seeking extreme winter sport with younger children, you’ll be able to adapt many of Switzerland’s activities (such as hiking, museums, etc.) to meet your needs.