Where do the Swiss live? With 60 percent of Switzerland covered by mountains, there is limited space for dwellings.
The need for flat space is one reason why most Swiss live in urban agglomerations. The good news is: for you and me as a visitor, the proximity of the Alps means it is very likely there will be stunning views from nearly any Swiss city you go to.
On top, there seems to be a common (and winning) formula for Swiss cities: take a charming old town, add a river or a lake and put some scenic mountains within sight. Yet, each Swiss city holds a different vibe and has its own character, from the language spoken by the locals to the main landmarks.
Scroll down to see all the Swiss cities to visit in your lifetime:
Basel - The City by the River Rhine
Home to global pharmaceutical companies, Basel is also the cultural center of Switzerland. There are more than 40 museums and a picturesque old town split in two parts by the Rhine. Architecture and unique boutiques abound. In other words, Basel has countless faces and you will be able to experience tradition and modernity all at once.
Two major annual events, Baselworld and Art Basel, have helped to make Roger Federer's hometown famous all over the world. Fun fact: if you want to visit three countries all at once, visit the border triangle where the borders of Germany, France and Switzerland meet.
Why you should visit Basel: after diving deep into art and culture in Basel's world-class museums, do as the locals do by jumping into the Rhine with a typical Wickelfisch bag. In winter, visit Basel to get into the Christmas spirit at one of the largest Christmas markets in Switzerland. How to locate the market? Simply follow the smell of mulled wine and raclette...
Bern - Home of the Swiss Parliament
It comes as a surprise to many that the de facto capital of Switzerland is not Zürich or Geneva, but the modest yet lovely city of Bern. Belted by the glacier water fed River Aare, Bern is green and walkable. And despite hosting the Swiss government, Bern is known for its laid-back vibes.
Why you should visit Bern: Bern's one-of-a-kind old town is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The alleys with cobblestone streets and decorated fountains are home to countless cozy cafes where Bernese enjoy their unhurried tradition of käfele – enjoying a cup of coffee together with someone.
Possibly unique to Bern, the traditional farmer's market in front of the Federal Parliament building attracts not only locals but also high-ranking politicians. Take a walk along the River Aare, then stop by Gelateria di Berna to taste arguably the best gelato in Switzerland. (If you were to ask me, it's hardly an argument.)
Biel - The Watchmaking Capital
Time is literally money in this bilingual French-German city near Bern.
Don't let the charming little city nestled in the dreamy surroundings fool you: Biel has a big name in the watchmaking industry. Since the 19th century, Biel has been a major hub of watchmaking and is home to such mega watch brands as Rolex, Tissot, Mido and others.
(Photograph copyright Juan-Luis Konitzer/Wikimedia Commons)
Why you should visit Biel: take some "time" to visit the new The Cité du Temps museum dedicated to two local watch brands – Swatch and Omega. Often underrated as a travel destination, Biel has a lot more to it than its industrial side. The crystal clear Lake Biel is perfect for enjoying activities ranging from swimming or canoeing to lake cruises. The picturesque St. Peter's peninsula can be accessed by boat from Biel.
Chur - The Oldest City in Switzerland
With history reaching back more than 5000 years, Chur is the oldest city in Switzerland.
Despite the respectable age, Chur feels very lively due to the presence of a university. Shopping opportunities and its important geographical location add to Chur's likeability factor. Since it is at the crossroads leading to various mountain valleys and to cities like Zürich, Munich and Milano, Chur is within reach for most anyone.
Why you should visit Chur: check out the starting point of the Bernina Express, some of the most scenic train rides in Switzerland. The city is also a great starting point for exploring the nearby natural wonders, such as the Swiss National Park or spectacular gorges like the Viamala gorge or Ruinaulta, the Swiss Grand Canyon.
Geneva - Where the World Meets
Perhaps the most glamorous of Swiss cities thanks to the financial industry, Geneva is located in a beautiful setting at the shores of Lake Geneva.
In the distance, you will even see the white peaks of the French and Swiss Alps. Geneva is also home to more than 200 international organizations such as the European seat of the United Nations, making it an important global hub for humanitarian affairs.
Beyond the fanciness of Geneva, you can also find off the beaten path locations. Some special spots in Geneva's nature include peaceful lakeside beaches (think Perle du Lac), the junction point of the rivers Rhône and Arve, or the Salève mountain across the border in France. The flea market at Plaine de Plainpalais attracts bargain hunters and collectors from near and far.
Why you should visit Geneva: sign up for a tour at the United Nations and at CERN, the birthplace of the World Wide Web. Afterwards, see some of Geneva's best monuments such as the Broken Chair or the Jet d'Eau. In Geneva, you can enjoy the cosmopolitan vibes on the lakeside as you walk along office buildings, glitzy restaurants and posh hotels with parked cars outside that look like straight from the Geneva Motor Show...
But the latest craze is Genève Plage, a man made beach at Lake Geneva. From pétanque to beach volleyball or standup paddling, this is the place to be...
Lausanne - The Fountain of Youth
Home to EPFL university and other renowned higher education institutions, Lausanne is an energetic and youthful city in the French-speaking part of Switzerland.
It claims the title of the "Olympic capital" as sports is highly regarded there. Even just a day's visit to Lausanne is close to exercising; in order to reach those stunning city views, you will need to climb, climb, climb. Don't give up, though, it's worth it! The Plateforme 10 arts district is especially noteworthy.
(Photograph copyright Dominik Gehl
Why you should visit Lausanne: Lausanne operates Switzerland's only metro, so you can get from the lakeside to the station with little effort. One of the highlights among the many Lausanne museums is the Olympic Museum, and near it is a traditional Thai temple.
A bit further outside on the shores of Lake Geneva, the Lavaux vineyard terraces are a must-see UNESCO World Heritage site in Switzerland. An autumn sunrise in the Lavaux vineyards makes for an unforgettable experience. That moment when the first sun rays strike through the golden vine leaves with Lake Geneva and the Alps in the background will leave you in awe.
Lugano - Dolce Vita in Switzerland
I find myself going to Lugano every year around April. It's my way of shortening winter because the weather in the rest of Switzerland is often still gloomy. By then, Ticino is already in full spring bloom...
Thanks to the milder climate on the south side of the Alps and its historical connection to Italian culture, Lugano feels more like the Mediterranean and gives you that vacation feeling without having to leave the country.
Why you should visit Lugano: head to Lugano for a dose of Italian dolce vita. With the opening of the Ceneri train tunnel in December 2020, Lugano will be moving even closer. Go there for a lake cruise, a concert at the LAC Lugano or simply to sip an apérol spritz on a restaurant terrace with palm trees waving above your head, flowers all around you and the glittering Lake Lugano at your feet...
Lucerne - Miniature Switzerland
If you are visiting Switzerland for the first time, Lucerne can tick off several items on your Swiss bucket list at once.
Lucerne is a miniature representation of all things Swiss: situated in the heart of Switzerland next to a gorgeous lake amidst snow-capped mountains, adorned with an eye-catching wooden bridge and a top-notch concert hall which makes any other city jealous, Lucerne is undoubtedly a tourist magnet.
Why you should visit Lucerne: take the steepest cogwheel railway in the world to Mt. Pilatus (or ride the red dragon cableway to the top). From there, enjoy far-stretching views over Lake Lucerne. In February, visit the Fasnacht carnival in Lucerne, one of the largest in Switzerland and an important local tradition. You will find thousands of locals and visitors dressed in bizarre costumes, and floats accompanied by joyful Guggenmusig bands.
St. Gallen - Impressive History
Just an hour's drive or train ride from Zürich and within close proximity to Lake Constance, Appenzell and Mt. Säntis, St. Gallen is likely the perfect Swiss city getaway.
The main landmark of this historic town is the Baroque cathedral. It may not impress you a lot from the outside, but its interior will surely make your jaw drop. Adjacent to the cathedral, there is the oldest library in Switzerland. With cozy slippers on your feet to protect the centuries-old library floor, time flies fast as you silently admire the delicate stucco works.
Why you should visit St. Gallen: take your time to explore the Abbey District. And make sure to visit St. Gallen's stadtlounge, an entire city quarter turned into a public lounge area. Last but not least, go for a hike in the nearby Appenzell region, rich in nature and culture, and reward yourself with a local beer. (St. Gallen has a long history in beer making.)
Zürich - The Largest City in Switzerland
Recently ranked as the second most livable city in the world, Switzerland's largest city is a piece of pie desired by tourists and locals alike. One can see why: Zürich has the bustling vibe of a European metropolis, yet it also embraces an alpine charm with its glistening lake and the Alps on the horizon. Zürich has something for everyone's taste, be it top cuisine, museums, nature trails, world-class events or an abundance of family-friendly activities.
Why you should visit Zürich: enjoy the buzzy city life by scanning Zürich's Bahnhofstrasse shopping street with a mix of luxury and budget stores. Next, explore the hip Kreis 4 and hop across the train tracks to the boutique at Im Viadukt.
In the evening, soak in the bubbly atmosphere at one of Zürich's open-air bars like the Barfussbar. For another local summer experience, head to Hafen Enge to have a picnic and to cool off in Lake Zürich.
How many of these Swiss cities have you checked off your list? And which ones do you plan to visit next? Personally, I have been to all of them, but once is never enough and there is always a good new reason to go back...
She is into travelling, photography, handicrafts and online marketing. She doesn't spend the weekends home, and she will never say "no" to an invitation to go hiking in the mountains.
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