We never knew that panning for gold and eating cordon bleu are intrinsically linked. But they are, as we would find out while spending a weekend in the Swiss region of Brig and Simplon.
Without switching once, our train from Zürich pulls into the Brig station here in southern Switzerland. The smooth access has long been a USP of Brig, the unofficial capital of the Upper Valais. Centuries after Roman merchants navigated the narrow trails across the Simplon Pass, Napoleon Bonaparte would leave his mark on Brig. And yet, this town has another patron who capitalized on its strategic location: Kaspar Stockalper.
Those interested in history, food, or the outdoors will not be disappointed by the Brig Simplon region. And those who simply want to strike gold and retire early might just find El Dorado…
In this Brig and Simplon guide, we’re covering activities from Brig to the Simplon Pass and Gondo. Let us know if you have any questions on how to design the perfect getaway to the Upper Valais.
1. Start your weekend in Brig
We have never spent more than a few hours in Brig, usually on the way to another destination. But after a weekend there, we conclude that Brig is legit and should be on anyone’s radar.
For one, there is a nice climate in Brig. Here in the Upper Valais, the weather is influenced by the Rhône Valley as well as the sheer proximity to the Mediterranean. Thanks to warm seasonal winds, Brig often enjoys hot temperatures despite being at an altitude of 691 meters above sea level.
During our visit in late May, we get a preview of summer’s heat. And we get a feel of the Italian vibes buzzing on Brig’s piazzas. Late on Saturday night, many locals are still gathered outdoors for a chat or a drink at one of the many restaurants. The town is buzzing, just like we would expect it from a place in the south.
Brig is as much the unofficial capital of the region as it is a cultural hotspot. The charming old town offers lots of discoveries, from museums to tours.
👉 Things to do in Brig
Eat the original Cordon bleu at Restaurant du Pont
Our Brig tour guide points out Restaurant du Pont, a structure by the River Saltina drawbridge. Apparently, this old building is the narrowest hotel in all of Europe. We change our vantage point, and sure enough: it’s narrow!
Something else about Restaurant du Pont is narrow, or flat, rather: their legendary Cordon bleu. The crispy schnitzel filled with ham and melted cheese was invented here. More than 200 years ago, the chef had to feed a large group of patrons. When another party of 30 people showed up, she had to figure something out.
The chef’s solution was to split the pork carrés in half, then stuff them with ham and cheese. Cordon bleu was born, and it is still the reason why many foodies flock to Restaurant du Pont in Brig.
Stockalper Palace: Feel the legacy of a Brig dynasty
The Stockalper Palace is Brig’s veritable treasure. Constructed in the 17th century by a private citizen, the building oozes power and wealth. In fact, the eclectic owner of this palace, Kaspar Stockalper vom Thurms, was likely one of Europe’s richest individuals at the time.
Recognizing the importance of the merchant route across the Simplon Pass, Stockalper invested heavily in transportation. From creating a mule path to building storage sheds, Stockalper soon held a monopoly over logistics between Milan and Geneva.
During our guided palace tour, we learn that Stockalper personally owned a number of exclusive trade licenses, including for salt, turpentine, and even snails. And only thanks to our guide’s various keys do we get a glimpse of the palace’s interior spaces.
Behind one of the heavy wooden doors is a courtroom, and behind another a hall for musical performances. Our guide steps up onto the stage and sings a few tunes from the bottom of her heart: “If you grew up in the Upper Valais, you would have performed on this stage at least once with your school choir,” she explains.
Apart from attending a guided tour or relaxing in the lush gardens, the Stockalper Castle Museum is a good way to start your Brig discovery. The castle museum offers an overview of 400 years of history surrounding the strategic merchant route across the Simplon Pass. Admission is free, and the museum is open Tuesdays to Sundays from May through October.
Go on a refreshing roundtrip hike at Rosswald
When in Brig, do yourself a favor and ascend to Rosswald for a memorable hike. It is best to use the postal bus and cable car since the access road is intended for residents only.
For one, this hamlet sits on a sunny plateau with bird’s-eye views of the Rhone Valley. During winter, ski lifts start right at the doorsteps of the lovely chalets. And now during summer, a signpost with lots of yellow markers indicates the various hiking trails.
The 1.5-hour Mountain Water roundtrip hike from the station at Rosswald is easy and utterly rewarding. Follow the blue markers that will lead you to the “Stafel” village with sweeping valley views. From there, you will be returning through a forest that reveals more panoramic views around every bend.
A definitive highlight of this hike is the ancient Suonen irrigation system. These clever channels are built in order to allocate water to the various farmers who are part of the cooperation.
Attempt the multi-day ViaStockalper hike from Brig to Gondo
Those with a few days of time on their hands should consider an epic hike connecting Brig and the border town of Gondo. The ViaStockalper trail traces the historic merchant route that has been used since the Middle Ages.
The 33-kilometer hiking trail is open from early June to mid-October, and it is recommended to walk it section by section. We ended up walking parts of sections 2 and 3 - just to get a glimpse of this historic trail. Along the way, we encountered early settlements, typical alpine buildings, chapels, ancient fences, and wooden bridges.
2. Continue to the Simplon Pass
This is Switzerland, so even the most remote places are easily accessible by public transport. The Simplon Pass with its winding roads and scenic views is one such example. Reaching the pass is as simple as hopping onto a yellow PostBus at the Brig train station.
Get started early as this will be a full-packed day. The bus on the Simplon Pass Route will be continuing all the way to Domodossola in Italy. But this is Newly Swissed, so our guide has you remain within Switzerland…
After a 43-minute ride, get off at the “Simplon Pass, Simplonblick” stop. From there, do a leisurely 30-minute hike to Hopschusee lake.
Make the majestic stone eagle your destination as it is easy to spot from afar. At nine meters tall, the eagle makes for an impressive photo spot. Also, the eagle will be close to the bus stop from where you will be continuing.
👉 Things to do in Simplon
Your next stop along the Simplon Pass Route is the town of Simplon. Get off the bus at “Simplon Dorf” and start exploring this charming place. Notice the stone roofs that are so typical for the south. The old village center is surrounded by some of the oldest buildings, one of which houses the Ecomuseum Simplon.
Located inside a former storage house, the Ecomuseum Simplon pays tribute to the cultural heritage of the Simplon Pass. Historical artifacts and documents tell a story of transit and trade - both important landmarks of this part of Switzerland.
This museum wants to break free from the confines of an old building by incorporating the surroundings. In this alpine setting, humans have always been forced to negotiate with nature. The Ecomuseum Simplon strives to showcase this very relationship. As such, historical artifacts are left in place and connected by a trail network. This enables visitors to appreciate local history in a larger context.
Sourdough bread from Bäckerei Arnold
The village bakery is known for its rye bread that can be stored for weeks on end. Now in the fifth generation, Bäckerei Arnold has one of the purest sourdoughs still available: it features only pure rye flour, water, and salt. It is no wonder, then, that this legendary sourdough has made it into the world’s only sourdough library located in Belgium.
3. End up in the border-town of Gondo
If there is ever a town reminiscent of the Gold Rush, it has to be Gondo. This Swiss border town with Italy has a unique history due to its strategic location.
The only Simplon Pass road between Italy in the south and Brig in the north leads straight through the center of Gondo. Therefore, as goods were being transported into Switzerland up until World War I, they had to pass through Gondo.
Sleep (and dine) at Hotel Stockalperturm
One remnant of Gondo’s historic significance as a trading post is the Stockalperturm. This tower is located just steps from the Italian border. Constructed in 1570, it used to serve as a storage facility for goods. But today, it houses an impressive boutique hotel, a museum dedicated to gold, as well as a restaurant.
From our room on the fourth floor, we can see the church tower at eye level - as well as the Swiss border checkpoint and customs office. It is quite an exciting view from so high up as there is always something going on: cars and RVs passing the border at walking speed, locals going to mass at the church, or simply a stunning sunrise in the valley.
We look up at the steep cliffs that surround Gondo, and we feel awesome. Here at the gateway to the Zwischbergental Valley, the pioneer spirit is still alive.
Find El Dorado while panning for gold in Gondo
When in Gondo, look up Rolf Gruber. This former customs officer now runs an enterprise that allows people like you and me to become certified gold diggers: Goldwaschen Gondo.
For thousands of years, the creek in the Zwischenberg Valley has contained traces of pure gold. In the late 19th century, the prospect of unlimited wealth brought some 500 miners to the valley. This has turned these mines into the largest in all of Valais - until the mining company went bust in 1897.
During our one-day workshop, Rolf takes us into the “Leopold” mine, one of the historic gold mines that has been preserved. Inside, we learn how to extract rock with a hammer and chisel.
After a creekside lunch, we get an introduction to gold panning. Rolf is a master, having found his luck in the creek before. We love this experience because it is hands-on: each of us gets to step into the creek, with pan in hand, to try and extract the precious metal from all the rock.
In order to pass the practical test and receive our certificate, Rolf proceeds to hide five pieces of (fool's) gold in each pan. Mamiko and I each find four out of five - a passing score!