An iconic rail route, soaring over the spectacular Bernina Pass and reaching lofty heights of 2,134 meters, the famous Bernina Express is the only railway connecting the North and South Alps. Starting in Switzerland, from the ‘Top of the World’ in St. Moritz, the narrow-gauge railway runs through the untamed gorges of the Engadine valley, past the shimmering glaciers and snow-capped peaks of the Bernina mountain range, through cliff-hugging tunnels and over hair-raising bridges. Finally terminating in the palm-tree framed Tirano in north Italy, the entire journey takes a mere 2.5 hours, and offers an unbeatable introduction to the Alps.
The acclaimed railway route was finally awarded UNESCO World Heritage status back in 2008 for the Thusis to Tirano section, celebrating the extraordinary feat of engineering that allowed the railway to be constructed. The tracks, laid between 1896 and 1904, include an incredible 196 bridges and 55 tunnels.
Lake Geneva (Lac Léman to the locals) is land-locked Switzerland’s largest body of water, though most of its southern shore is in French territory. The lake is ringed by Alps and almost any point along the shore offers jaw-dropping scenery, as well as some of the most sought-after real estate in the world. More active visitors can swim, dive, windsurf and row in the warmer months.
The western extremity of the lake is dominated by the city of Geneva. Travelling eastwards you enter the canton of Vaud, whose capital Lausanne is known for the Musée de l’Art Brut, a world-famous survey of early outsider art, as well as a museum celebrating the Olympic Games, whose governing body is situated here. Further east you pass through Vevey, the heart of the Swiss Riviera, before coming to picturesque Montreux, famous for its jazz festival and the imposing Château de Chillon, a medieval bastion right on the water.
From Roman mosaics in the foundations to the neoclassical columns of its facade, the Cathédrale de Saint-Pierre is not only Geneva’s main house of worship, it is also a fascinating time capsule of the different influences that have dominated the city over the centuries. Depending on how you approach it, you could be forgiven for thinking the cathedral is actually a group of smaller buildings huddled together, as successive building programs – most notably Romanesque and Gothic – never completely wiped out previous traces.
Saint-Pierre is associated above all with the Protestant reformer John Calvin, who preached here in the 16th century; his rather uncomfortable looking wooden chair is still on display. And if you’re feeling energetic, just nearby is the entrance to the cathedral’s north tower, which will reward your 157-step climb with one of the best views of Geneva.
A masterful marriage of horticulture and technology, the Geneva Flower Clock is one of Geneva’s most striking landmarks, a gigantic clock face fashioned from over 6,500 plants and flowers. Located in the picturesque Jardin Anglais (English Garden), the iconic timepiece was built in 1955 in honor of the city’s internationally renowned watchmaking industry and is now one of Geneva’s most photographed sights.
This is no mere monument – the Geneva Flower Clock is also a fully functioning clock, among the largest of its king in the world, with a diameter of 5 meters and a seconds hand reaching over 2.5 meters long. The impressive floral arrangement now features eight dials and is replanted 4 times a year, with local landscapers creating ever-more elaborate designs each time, utilizing seasonal blooms and on-trend color schemes.
The Palais des Nations Unis - or Palace of United Nations - is a monumental structure worthy of the European home of the United Nations, the international organization’s most important seat outside of New York. The neo-classical complex was originally built in the early 1930s as the headquarters of the League of Nations, the predecessor to the UN. These days it hosts major global conferences as well as numerous smaller meetings at which diplomats work at the coalface of day-to-day international relations.
Highlights of the guided tour include the enormous Assembly Hall, the Council Chamber and an exhibit of official gifts. A short film detailing the work of the UN puts it all in context. There is no charge to enter the surrounding Ariana Park. Here peacocks roam freely and the landscaped gardens offer splendid views of the lake and nearby Alps.
Bahnhofstrasse is THE shopping street in Zurich. Running from Bahnhofplatz outside the main train station all the way to the lake, it's full of luxury shops selling designer fashion, furs, porcelain, and, of course, chocolates, clocks and watches. Halfway along is Zurich's first, biggest and best department store Jelmoli. The basement food-hall is a must. Or if you want the best in Swiss chocolate, take a break at Cafe Sprungli, the epicenter of sweet Switzerland since 1836.
Bahnhofstrasse follows the line of the moat of medieval Zurich and is mainly pedestrianized, although watch out for the trams running along it. It runs parallel to the river Limmat and it's easy to punctuate your shopping with visits to churches and other important sites of Zurich dotted in the narrow streets between. Culture and consumerism: Zurich has them both.
The Dolderbahn is a proper mountain railway that, in just under six minutes, leads from the hustle and bustle of Zürich to the top of the Adlisberg, a forested hill on the eastern side of the city. Upon exiting the station at the Dolder Recreation Area next to the luxury Dolder Grand Hotel, one shouldn’t be surprised to see an army of bikers and joggers, as the region is immensely popular due to the many leisure and sports facilities as well as the vast network of hiking trails. The Dolder Train was built to provide the population of Zürich with an easy escape route from the busy city as well as stress-free access to a recreation area and still, there is hardly a better place to practice various sports. Even if you aren’t there to get sweaty, it’s a great destination to enjoy a sunny day.
The 1,328-meter long track of the Dolderbahn overcomes a height difference of 162 meters and is a little piece of history as it has been in operation since 1895.
The historic heart of Zurich, the Altstadt, or Old Town, remains the most atmospheric part of the city, with its striking 19th century buildings and winding cobblestone lanes hosting an array of modern cafes, shops and galleries. For visitors to the city, the Old Town makes the ideal starting point for a sightseeing tour of Zurich, sprawling along both sides of the River Limmat and home to many of the city’s principal tourist attractions.
Zurich’s two landmark cathedrals – the medieval Fraumuenster (Church of Our Lady) and the Gothic style Grossmuenster – make navigating the Old Town easy, perched on opposite sides of the river and linked by the monumental Munster bridge. From here it’s an easy stroll to the charming Niederdorf district, crammed with quirky boutiques and hip coffee shops; the famous Bahnhofstrasse, one of Europe’s glitziest shopping streets; and many of Zurich’s top museums like the Swiss National Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts.
Zürich’s Parade Square, better known as Paradeplatz, is located right outside of the main train station and is one of the city’s most important junctions. Not only do many of the tram lines meet up here, but Parade Square has made itself a name as one of the world’s big financial centers. Large Swiss banks have set up their headquarters here and thus, it has become a synonym for wealth and prosperity. The square also connects to the Bahnhofstrasse, Zürich’s main shopping avenue where luxury labels fight over premiere retail space and the rich and famous come to shop. But Parade Square wasn’t always mentioned in the same sentence as wealth and its history stands in stark contrast with today’s prestigious reputation.
If you’ve seen a panoramic view of Geneva you’ve most likely seen the huge lake Water Fountains, or Jet d’Eau, with its commanding position at the point where the River Rhône empties into Lake Geneva. It started life in the 19th century as a humble safety valve for a hydraulic installation, but is now the city’s foremost symbol.
With every second, some 130 gallons of water are propelled at 125 miles an hour to a maximum height of 150 yards (that's 500 liters at 200 km/h reaching 140 meters). The water shoots into the air before descending in a graceful fan shape back down to the lake, but its exact destination is determined by the strength and direction of the wind. In the warmer months, the fountain is lit during the evening until 11 o’clock.
Lindenhof is both a district in Zürich and a square of the same name and looks back on an eventful history. The district is the oldest part of the city and once, a Roman fort stood in its place on the hill. At Lindenhof Square, a Roman tombstone was found containing the oldest mention of the city, back then a customs post with the name Turicum. Even after the fall of the Roman Empire, the Lindenhof kept playing an important role in the city’s history. In the 13th century for example, Zürich was in a war against Winterthur and ran out of warriors. It was then that the women of the city dressed up as soldiers and stood on the raised Lindenhof, giving the impression that a strong army had come to the city’s rescue and thus, breaking the siege.
The 13th-century Church of our Lady, or Fraumünster, has an elegant blue spire which soars above the Zurich skyline. Situated right next to the lake, it is one of Zurich's key sights. Founded in 853 as a Benedictine convent, around the 11th century it was responsible for minting coins and collecting tolls making the then Abbess a powerful women indeed.
Inside the church are the famous stained-glass windows of 1967 by the famous artist Marc Chagall. The three main windows are: the blue Jacob window, with a ladder to heaven, the green Christ window, featuring Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus, and the yellow Zion window depicting King David and Bathsheba being trumpeted into New Jerusalem. To the sides there are windows depicting the Prophets and Moses. Near the main exit is a window by another famous artist, Giacometti.
In a city with almost 150 museums and galleries, the Swiss National Museum (Landesmuseum) beats off some pretty stiff competition to take its place as one of Zurich’s top museums. The largest of its kind in the country, the museum is devoted to preserving the cultural heritage and history of Switzerland, chronicling the birth and evolution of the nation.
Almost 1 million artifacts make up the permanent collection, which takes the visitor on a journey from ancient Switzerland, through the Middle Ages and into the 20th century. Personal items, handicrafts, artworks, furnishings and household items are among the many relics, bringing the past back to life through a series of evocative displays. Highlights include artifacts from as far back as the 4th millennium B.C; a significant collection of 9th century Carolingian art; a Swiss warfare exhibit of weaponry and armor; and an exhibit devoted to the traditional art of Swiss clock making.
Carved into the low cliff face on the outskirts of the Old Town, the Lion Monument is Lucerne’s most distinctive landmark, evocatively described by Mark Twain as ‘the most mournful and moving piece of stone in the world’. The giant sandstone sculpture depicts a 10-meter long dying lion resting in a shaded nook above a shimmering pond, and was created in 1821 under commission of Captain Carl Pfyffer von Altishofen.
Hewn out of the natural rock on-site, the monument was the handiwork of stonemason Lucas Ahorn, to the design of Danish classicist sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsenwhilst and commemorates the Swiss Guards that lost their lives in the 1792 French Revolution. Look closely and you’ll see that the lion’s paws rest on the symbolic Fleur-de-Lis (Lilies of France), while a broken spear juts from his back. The poignant inscription reads ‘Helvetiorum Fidei ac Virtuti’ – ‘To the loyalty and bravery of the Swiss’.
Mount Rigi is a mountain in central Switzerland, bordering Lucerne, and part of the Swiss Alps. It's also known as the "Queen of the Mountains.” Rigi offers stunning panoramic views and is famous for its beautiful sunrises. Nowadays, the mountain is easily accessible by public transportation. It offers many winter and summer excursions such as skiing, sledding, or hiking.
It has been popular with adventurous, romantic travellers for quite some time (before the advent of public transportation), including Mark Twain more than a century ago. The Rigi has been immortalized through paintings by JMW Turner, including "The Blue Rigi, Lake of Lucerne, Sunrise".
Riding Europe‘s highest open-air cog railway is a popular pastime for visitors to Zermatt and the dramatic Gornergrat railway serves up jaw-dropping views as it winds its way to the summit of Gornergrat Mountain.
The 45-minute journey might be impressive, but the real highlight is the destination and the Gornergrat Bahn boasts the title of Switzerland’s second-highest train station (after Jungfrau), located at a dizzying 3,089 meters. On arrival, make your way to the dedicated viewing platform, where the views span 29 of Switzerland’s highest peaks, including the mighty Matterhorn and one of the longest glaciers in the Alps.
The Culture and Congress Center, often simply referred to as KKL by the locals, is the work of the French architect Jean Nouvel. It has an extraordinary presence among the more traditional buildings of Lucerne, especially due to the modern square shape and the enormous flat roof overhanging Europe Square. This floating roof, sometimes called the magic roof, soon became a symbol of the city and is definitely the building’s most prominent feature. Also remarkable is the successful fusion of nature and construction. The Culture and Congress Center almost merges with the adjoining water of Lake Lucerne and not only do the aluminum plates covering the surface reflect the light and ripples in the waves but the water also flows into the building itself and separates the KKL into its three parts.
Lucerne's Jesuit Church is the first expansive baroque church built north of the Alps in Switzerland. It is a beautiful and historical site, emphasizing the Catholic tradition of veneration of saints and visual culture. When the Jesuits brought the Counter Reformation to Lucerne in the 17th century; the elaborate church, dedicated to Francis Xavier, was constructed between 1666 and 1677. Architects from Italy and Austria built what many believe to be the most beautiful Baroque church in Switzerland.
Today, Jesuit Church is a major tourist attraction and often serves as a concert venue while it has almost no role in local church and religious life. The powerful-looking Baroque church features beautiful Roccocco interiors and a vault redecorated in the 18th century.
The Red Cross is one of the numerous international bodies associated with Geneva. This museum pursues its progress from the mid-19th century, when local businessman Henry Dunant first conceived of a transnational group which would help the afflicted in times of need. The chronologically arranged exhibits follow this great humanitarian organization through the unparalleled destruction of the 20th century to the present day, where the Red Cross (or Red Crescent in Muslim countries) represents a banner of hope in trouble spots and scenes of natural disaster the world over. Exhibits tell the story through text, video, sound, interactive displays, as well as an archive of some seven million index cards documenting prisoners of war, a testament to the ideals of the Geneva Convention. The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum, also known as the Musée International de la Croix-Rouge et du Croissant-Rouge, is a monument to humanity’s best impulses in the face of its worst.
Opened in 1910, the Kunsthaus, or Museum of Art, in Zurich is Switzerland's premier art gallery. It has a strong collection of modern art, including over 4,000 pieces of sculpture, paintings and installations. It has a particular emphasis on Swiss art, important for the rise of such movements as Dada which began in Zurich in 1916.
The collection includes work by Picasso, Chagall, Munch, Mondrian and Matisse as well as many more. The gallery has an extensive art education program and a library focusing on modern art.