The Most Charming Towns in Switzerland
The cities of Zürich, Geneva, and Basel have their charms, but no visit to Switzerland is complete without escaping to its pastoral countryside—a storybook landscape of lost-in-time villages divided by snowcapped mountain ranges, pristine lakes, and rolling meadows blanketed in alpine wildflowers. Whether you're seeking the history of their medieval churches and squares or the curative benefits of their high-altitude trails, these 11 towns have beauty to spare.
Senior Editor, Jetsetter | @lindseytravels | lindseytravels.com
That Switzerland’s small-town capital is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site is telling of what kind of history lies within Bern’s borders. This “City of Fountains,” on the banks of the Aare River, is blessed with some of the most unique medieval architecture in all of Europe—think medieval arcades, open squares, 16th-century fountains, and, everywhere you look, window boxes overflowing with vibrant flowers. Take a stroll through the streets and market stalls, stopping to admire the city’s famous clock tower (complete with dancing figurines that emerge on the hour) as well as the Renzo Piano-designed museum Zentrum Paul Klee, which houses the world’s largest collection of pieces by its namesake artist.
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For anyone visiting Interlaken, the hub of the Bernese Oberland, a snapshot of themselves paragliding over the city has become requisite. And why not? The bird’s-eye views of town, which is sandwiched between two lakes and surrounded by some of the country’s tallest peaks—Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau—are second to none. Such beauty has lured many an artist over the centuries, including landscape painter Franz Konig, writer Goethe, and composer Felix Mendelssohn. The gateway to the Bernese Alps, this adrenaline capital is best known for its adventurous pursuits: paddle-boating on Lakes Thun and Brienz, hikes up local mountain Harder Kulm, and—yes—seeing it all from above, be it skydiving or hang-gliding.
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Unlike other alpine villages in the Valais, zero cars are permitted on the roadways in Zermatt—all the better for admiring the tooth-like peak of the Matterhorn, Europe’s most photographed mountain, as you walk or bike through its lanes lined with century-old barns and throwback chalet architecture. The Museum of Mountaineering is a worthy stop if you’re interested in learning about the area’s rich farming and climbing history. Otherwise, get your blood pumping on the Matterhorn Trail, whose 300-mile network of paths leads hikers through surrounding larch forests and around alpine lakes. For an easier time of it, take the five-minute Sunnega lift ride to the top for a locally sourced lunch (dry-cured meat; homemade sausage; Alpine cheese) and stunning Matterhorn views at Chez Vrony.
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This glamorous resort town is a playground for Europe’s rich and famous. Sure, St. Moritz and Zermatt may have the better slopes, but you won’t find a more fashion-forward crowd, who make good use of downtown’s upscale boutiques, restaurants, and high-end galleries. Factor in the mountains littered with traditional alpine chalets and you have all the ingredients for an unforgettable escape.
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On the shores of Lake Lugano, in the southern part of Switzerland bordering Italy, Lugano possesses a distinctly Mediterranean flair—just look to the palm trees and sub-tropical plants bordering the lake, the Italianate architecture of its buildings, and the cobbled squares’ historic cafés (Grand Café al Porto is a favorite) frequented by Italian-speaking locals. The streets of Old Town are closed to cars, so visitors are free to stroll as slowly as they wish, taking in the many gelato shops and piazzas. For even more immersion, hop on the Monte San Salvatore funicular headed south for a tour of surrounding villages like Carona, home to churches full of frescoes, and Morcote, known for its Middle Ages-era arcade buildings and botanical park awash with wisteria, oleander, and cedar and cypress trees.
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High above Lauterbrunnen Valley, this alpine ski resort is the storybook version of Swiss villages. Its old timber chalets, reachable only by railway or cable car (cars have been banned here for over a century), are shadowed by the imposing summits of the Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau mountains, where more than 300 miles of trails draw hikers and mountaineers year-round. Skiers especially flock here come winter to carve its 4,200-foot slopes and, for experts, test their skill during the Ski World Cup each January. Many historic homes and hotels—like the family-run Hotel Bellevue—date back to the Belle Époque era, with picture windows that look out onto the surrounding crags, waterfalls, and Eiger’s north face. (See if you can spy tiny climbers attempting its summit.)
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The magic of Lauterbrunnen, 20 minutes south of Interlaken, is undeniable: the town sits at the base of a U-shaped valley with mountains that rise on either side. The sheer cliff faces are home to—count them—72 cascading waterfalls, one of which appears to plummet directly into town. Fun fact: during a hike through the valley in 1911, J. R. R. Tolkien was so moved by the landscape that it served as a model for his sketches of Rivendell—a fictitious elven realm in his Lord of the Rings saga.
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Switzerland possesses more than its fair share of mountain villages sprung up besides tranquil lakes—and Spietz, on the shores of Lake Thun, is no exception. What makes it stand out: a dreamy medieval castle with original 12th-century shield walls, an imposing stone tower, a graffitied chimney carved by tournament knights, and a 1,000-year-old early Romanesque church whose ceiling paintings date back to the Middle Ages. Before continuing your Swiss adventure, be sure to get a taste of Spiezer, the local wine, at the winery.
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This isolated farming village in Switzerland’s Bernese Oberland lay hidden away from the world for centuries until, in 1818, its first hotel was built. Thus began Grindelwald’s steady rise to fame as more and more people sought out the astonishing beauty of its valley’s wildflower-strewn meadows and mountains— carved millions of years ago by melting glaciers (hence its nickname “Glacier Village”). The first skier arrived in 1881; today, its ski resort is the largest in the Jungfrau region. That it’s one of the few mountain resort towns reachable by car makes it all the more accessible. The First Flyer, a zip-wire ride that transports guests up the mountains, is a great way to see the surroundings—though it’s also worth booking a ticket for a spot on the area’s cog train, which lugs visitors to the “Top of Europe”—the 11,330-foot-high train station on Eiger.
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Stein am Rhein
It’s impossible not to fall under the spell of Stein am Rhein, whose medieval village on the leafy shores where Lake Constance meets the Rhine looks like an illustration ripped from a compendium of Swiss folk tales. Its mismatched gingerbread houses, especially those lined up along the cobblestoned Rathausplatz, are half-timbered and covered in colorful frescoes, while the rest of Old Town is lorded over by a 13th-century castle. History buff? This is also the site of a well-preserved 11th-century Benedictine monastery as well as the Museum Lindwurm, whose galleries depict local village life during the 1850s.
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There’s something irresistibly charming about this tiny city on Lake Lucerne. We chalk it up to its car-free Old Town and countless bridges than span the numerous canals. Chapel Bridge, a 14th-century covered wooden bridge whose ceiling beams are lined with paintings, is by far its most famous. Walk its length and you’ll find the octagonal Water Tower, a city landmark that has lived many lives as a medieval dungeon, an archive, and a treasury vault. To see the city and its surrounding countryside from a new perspective, take a ride on the open-air, double-decker tram known as the CabriO, which deposits guests on the summit of Mount Stanserhorn for 360-degree views and hiking trails galore. Though, a lake tour aboard one of the steamer ships that departs from Lucerne’s Vierwaldstättersee dock promises to be equally as romantic.
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