2021 was the year we finally visited Switzerland and for our first visit, we decided to spend the majority of our time in Basel, based on desirable Airbnb options, and its proximity to other towns for day trips. We also spent three nights in Zurich, initially out of necessity (we had a hotel booking from 2020 that we couldn’t get refunded) but we really loved the city much more than we expected.
Some Practical Info:
It’s no secret that Switzerland is crazy expensive. We knew that going in, but it still took us aback a few times. Despite the high cost of being a tourist in Switzerland, we did discover some ways to save money. For example, although restaurant food is outrageously expensive, food at the supermarket was very reasonable. Even if you don’t love self-catering apartments, the money you will save eating “at home” may sway you. If you don’t want to cook, consider getting snacks, wine and beer at the supermarket and have happy hour before you leave your accommodation. In a restaurant, we spent over $120 US on two cheeseburgers, two beers and an order of fries. In comparison, dinner cooked in our flat (with a six-pack of beer) was under $30 at the supermarket.
There are three official languages in Switzerland: German, French and Italian (and Romansh, although more obscure). We had no problems communicating in English as many people in the tourism industry speak fluently.
In Basel, all tourists staying in Hotels or Airbnb are eligible for a free Basel card, which, unlike some city cards, is an actual money saver. It provides free admission to a ton of museums and attractions, free transportation on city trams and buses, and a free e-bike rental. We took advantage of the trams and e-bikes, riding all over the city, and getting out to the edge of town.
If you plan to use the rail system and/or visit the Jungfrau, get the SwissPass. It has a steep price tag, but will pay for itself if you use the rail service a couple times and visit the Jungfrau. If you want to purchase a SwissPass, be sure you are getting it from the SBB site directly! Do not purchase through Rail Europe or another aggregator. We did not purchase the pass and in hindsight, it was a mistake. We traveled to Interlaken and were so close to Jungfrau, but couldn’t stomach the cost of the ticket, which had we purchased the SwissPass, would have been included. Trains in Switzerland are not the bargain they are in other European countries, but they are easy and convenient. Swiss Rail has a good app for purchasing rail tickets and checking schedules. I also like Trainline.
During our weeklong stay in Basel, we took an overnight trip to Interlaken, stopping in Bern, and Thun. After a week in Basel, we took the train to Zurich for three nights, where we were also able to take a day trip to Lucerne.
We rented a very comfortable flat in the Clara neighborhood that was a short walk to the Rhine River, which is lined with bars and restaurants, and miles of walking and bike paths. The tram system in Basel is extensive and easy to navigate. Tickets can be purchased at the stops, or if you have a Basel Card, downloaded to your phone. The trams run on an honor system; there is no ticket validation system, but if you are caught traveling without a ticket the fines are very steep.
Basel has some beautiful medieval sites if you’re in to historical architecture. The Old Town is beyond charming, and at one time was surrounded by a wall. There are four remaining city gates, and mapping a route to see all of them results in a wonderful walking tour of the Old Town. Other sites we really loved during our visit were the Minster, town hall, Tinguely fountain (there’s also a museum), the Tierpark Lange Erlen, and exploring the promenade Oberer Rheinweg.
We spent a few hours visiting Bern on our way to Interlaken. From the train station, we walked straight down the Kramgasse, across the Nydeggbrucke, and checked in on the local bear at Barengraben. We stopped for a light lunch at the Brasserie Barengraben, and made our way back to the station via the Nydeggstalden. We stopped a few times for drinks and pictures, with our entire visit taking approximately three hours. Keep your eyes out for the fountains, of which there are over 100. Don’t forget to fill your water bottle! We would have loved to stay longer but we were anxious to get to Interlaken.
We arrived in Interlaken just in time for dinner. We made the short walk to the Hotel Interlaken to drop our bags and do some sightseeing. Interlaken is lovely, and the views of the famous Jungfrau are spectacular. We had some amazing fondue at the hotel restaurant, and took in a night stroll before bed. The next morning, we headed straight to the Harder Kulm funicular, the Top of Interlaken…. The Top of Europe was a little too pricey for us, so we settled for a less expensive, although fabulous alternative (40 CHF/pp). Upon our return to the valley, we hopped the train for Thun en route to Basel.
If you want to visit the Top of Europe / Jungfrau, as mentioned previously, consider purchasing the SwissPass. Also be aware that it takes hours to get to the Top of Europe, so plan a full day.
Thun is an absolute jewel of a town, and might actually be more attractive than Interlaken. Thun is accessible by train, bus or ferry. From the train station, walk across the Aare River on the Bahnhofbrucke, and be sure to snap a picture of Thun’s beautiful covered bridges. Wander around the small island of Balliz and then over to the Obere Hauptgasse to catch a glimpse of Schloss Thun, built in the 12th century.
My only previous experience with Zurich was the airport, and based on literally no research, I was expecting Zurich to be a modern city full of glass and steel. While there is definitely a modern section of Zurich, its Old Town is magnificent. We only had one full day to explore, since we used one of our three days in Zurich to do a day trip to Lucerne. We went on a really fun bar crawl, ate, shopped, and walked our legs off. We stayed at the Hotel Rossli, which had a marvelous location and a cozy restaurant/bar. We spent the bulk of our time in the Old Town areas around St. Peterhofstatt and the Grossmunster. We really enjoyed strolling the Munstergasse in the evenings before and after dinner.
Lucerne is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful cities in Switzerland and it has earned that moniker. Most people visit Lucerne to see the famous Chapel Bridge, but navigating the town and discovering the stunning murals painted on the colorful buildings was a delight. The Old Town city center is free of car traffic, which makes exploring much easier. The area around the Weinmarkt was especially lovely, as is the area by the Church of St. Leodegar and the Luzern Lion Monument. Before heading back to Zurich, we had some great burgers and sausages at Bierliebe & Friends.
We’ve only just begun our infatuation with Switzerland…St. Moritz and Zermatt beckon!