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Four sides of Switzerland: a microcosm of European cultures

Aescher Inn, Switzerland
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Aescher Inn, Switzerland

Switzerland was named the #1 country in the world for the third year in a row by U. S. News and World Report, BAV Group and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School’s  2019 Best Countries Report. 

Little wonder it is one of our favorite places to visit. 

People know about the stunning glaciers, soaring mountains and sparkling clean lakes but are often surprised at the linguistic and cultural diversity. It is only about one and a half times the size of Massachusetts, after all.

Lake Thun from Spiez, Switzerland
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Lake Thun from Spiez, Switzerland

Matterhorn region, Zermatt, Switzerland
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Matterhorn region, Zermatt, Switzerland

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Switzerland, officially the Swiss Federation, has three official languages — German, the predominant language, French, and Italian — the languages of the countries that surround it. The fourth national language is Romansh, spoken by less than 1% of the population.

A Swiss peek

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Zürich, Switzerland

While Switzerland has some of the finest hotels, restaurants and amenities the world has to offer, a visit does not need to be expensive.

The efficiency of its trains makes it possible to visit Switzerland’s largest city, German-speaking Zürich, even with only few hours between flights. Just purchase a 24 or 72 hour ZürichCARD at the airport and hop aboard. 

Swiss National Museum, Zurich
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Swiss National Museum, Zurich

The 10-15 minute ride between the airport and the city center is included and runs every 5-10 minutes. The Swiss National Museum is a short stroll to the left of the train station. Trams, to the right, run throughout the city.

Zunfthaus zur Waag, Zürich, Switzerland
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Zunfthaus zur Waag, Zürich, Switzerland

A ZürichCARD is good for unlimited 2nd class travel by tram, bus, train, boat and cable car in Zürich and the surrounding area, short boat trips and Limmat river cruises, free or discounted entrance to 40 museums, and 50% off a Zürich Old Town Walking Tour. 

Switzerland four ways

Rapperswil, Switzerland
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Rapperswil, Switzerland, across the lake from Zürich

A taste of the city will only make you want to stay longer and savor more. The best way to experience Switzerland is with a Swiss Travel Pass. Travel across viaducts and lakes, up steep mountains or through the spiraling tunnels inside them, even from palm trees to glaciers in a day. The transportation system is designed to handle terrain that can, at times, be challenging.

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Bernini Express train by glacial lake, Switzerland

A Swiss Travel Pass includes unlimited travel by train, bus, boat and public city transport for 3, 4, 8 or 15 fixed or consecutive days and free admission to over 500 museums. Less expensive options are available for those who plan to spend less time traveling.

For the broadest experience, visit all four linguistic regions, each with its own cuisine and customs. It was challenging to choose just one, but here is a favorite place in each area. 

German

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Löwen pharmacy, Appenzell, Switzerland

German-speaking Appenzell, a car-free village in eastern Switzerland, is picture-perfect traditional Switzerland at its most colorful. Buildings are brightly painted and specialty shops feature hand crafted wares from fine jewelry to enormous cowbells. In autumn and you might see a parade of farmers in traditional costumes and cows adorned with colorful flowers as they descend from summer alpine pastures. 

cowbells, Hampi Fassler’s shop, Appenzell, Switzerland
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cowbells, Hampi Fassler’s shop, Appenzell, Switzerland

The Appenzell Museum is a showcase of area culture and traditions and is inside the historic Town Hall. Like the baroque parish church, Kirche St. Mauritius (Moritz), it was built in the 16th century. 

Gasthaus Aescher, Ebenalp, Switzerland
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Gasthaus Aescher, Ebenalp, Switzerland, in the Appenzell Alps

Take a cablecar from Wasserauen up to the Ebenalp (1,644m, shown above) for lunch at Gasthaus Aescher. It has one of the best views in Switzerland.

Back in town, stop in a bakery for some birnebrot (pear bread), biberlis (gingerbread filled with marzipan), or chäsflade (cheese bread). 

mostbröckli, Appenzell, Switzerland
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mostbröckli, Appenzell, Switzerland

Mösler's cheese shop, Appenzell
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Mösler’s cheese shop, Appenzell

 

 

 

 

 

 

Appenzeller Alpinbitter, Appenzell
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Appenzeller Alpinbitter, Appenzell

Appenzell beers, Switzerland
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Appenzell beers, Switzerland

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sample Appenzeller cheese and Mostbröckli, a smoked and dried meat, with some Appenzell beer, Riesling, or Alpinbitter. And don’t forget to try the chocolate! Milton Hershey was from Appenzell. Prost!

French

Lavaux slope, Switzerland
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Chexbres, Lavaux, Switzerland

The French-speaking Lavaux region in Switzerland’s southwest is the country’s major wine-producing region and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In the 11th century, Benedictine and Cistercian monks planted vines and built retaining walls on the steep sun-drenched hillsides along the north shore of Lake Geneva. It’s now a place where you can sample wines right in the cellars of local winemakers.

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Yves Ruchonnet vigneron, Rivas, in the Lavaux region, Switzerland

There are picture-perfect villages with hiking and cycling trails and scenic picnic areas that run right through the lush, green vineyards. The Lavaux-Express or yellow Train des Vignes are specialized trains that let you sit back and enjoy the scenic ride.  

Au Bon Vins, Onnens
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Au Bon Vins, Onnens, Switzerland

Le Train des Vignes in the Lavaux region of Switzerland
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Le Train des Vignes in the Lavaux region of Switzerland

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pair regional wines with local specialties like lake perch, papet vaudois,  (leek and cabbage sausage), gateau á la raisinée, (fruity cake). Á votre santé! 

Romansh

Val Müstair, Switzerland
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Val Müstair, Switzerland

As the tourism industry developed in places like St. Moritz, roads were built to surrounding areas once isolated by the Alps. You can ride a yellow postbus through the wilderness of the Swiss National Forest to Val Müstair, a tiny Romansh-speaking region that was secluded for so long that it retained the language of the 500 B. C. Roman conquerers.

post bus from Zernez to Val Müstair
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view from the post bus from Zernez to Val Müstair

Get off the bus at the Convent of St. John (Clostra Son Jon) stop. The Carolingian art-filled convent and museum was built as a Benedictine monastery and has an exceptional collection of medieval frescoes as well as Romanesque art. It has been a nunnery since 1200.

Hotel Chalavaina, Val Müstair, Switzerland
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Hotel Chalavaina, Val Müstair, Switzerland

Across the street, step back in time once again at the historic Hotel Chalavaina.  Chalavaina is Romansh for Calven, and this is the place where orders were given for the battle by that name against Maximilian’s Austro-Habsburg forces.

balcony of the Hotel Chalavaina, Val Müstair, Switzerland
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balcony of the Hotel Chalavaina, Val Müstair, Switzerland

The fresco of St. Rocco and the Madonna on the balcony is from 1497. Here you can dine on local foods like wild boar, vegetables from the garden, local wine and Engadine nut torte. Viva!

Italian

Gandria, Switzerland
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Gandria, Switzerland

For a taste of Italy and the palm-treed Mediterranean climate, head for the Italian-speaking Ticino region for some “dolce far niente”, or sweet leisure. Ride a funicular up Mount Bré, on the edge of Lugano for the view or enjoy the great city view from the terrace of the Cathedral of San Lorenzo.

Salumeria, Lugano, Switzerland
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Salumeria, Lugano, Switzerland

Santa Maria degli Angioli is a simple structure built by Lake Lugano in 1499 for Franciscan monks. Early Renaissance masterpieces were discovered after removal of lime applied to the walls as a sanitizer after plague victims were brought here centuries earlier.

boat to Gandria, Switzerland
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boat to Gandria, Switzerland

Take the boat to tiny Gandria. Work up an appetite as you follow the Olive Tree Path, a narrow labyrinth of stairs and cobbled lanes that scale the steep lakefront slope. Enjoy an Italian specialty with some Ticino white merlot and enjoy the view from a restaurants with a lakeside balcony. Salute!

Gandria restaurant, Switzerland
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Gandria restaurant, Switzerland

Lugano is on one end of the Bernina Express, a scenic trip from palm trees to glaciers and beyond. Book a reservation on the first class observation cars for the best view. 

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Bernina Express train, Switzerland

Switzerland. With all this and more in just one country, why go anywhere else?

 

 

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