Since there are so many choices, one of the hardest things about going to the Alps is deciding exactly where to go. The Alps are filled with wonderful destinations, and all of them feature gorgeous mountains and waterfalls, countless hiking trails, and breathtaking panoramic trains and cable cars. There are famous stops like Zermatt and Chamonix that never fail to impress, hikers favorites like Mürren and Ortisei, and beautiful off-the-beaten-path stops like Riederalp, Guarda and Canazei that are wonderful in their own right. And you can add beautiful, walkable cities, and scenic train rides to any trip.
While we can arrange custom tours to anywhere you want to go, we like to focus on the best of the best. Places not to be missed. Starting with our favorite.
In the middle of Switzerland, just below the lakes of Interlaken and tucked against the great northern wall of the Bernese Alps is the Bernese Oberland. I like to say that the Bernese Oberland is what you hope Switzerland will look like. The Jungfrau and Eiger are the two most famous mountains, part a huge mountain wall that soars almost straight up, over 10,000’ above the flowery meadows below. This core of the Bernese Oberland is called the Jungfrau region, stretching essentially from Grindelwald to Mürren. Many other lesser-known peaks are just as inspiring as you walk the trails that cover the landscape, peering up at the glacier-covered giants above you. The mountains here are second to none in terms of sheer physical beauty and grace.
But it’s not just the mountains. The Oberland is also a lush area, filled with green meadows and towering waterfalls. Handsome brown and white Simmentaler cows with super-sized bells dot the landscape, happily munching wildflowers while the local farmers busily cut grass (often by hand) to store away for the winter months. Despite the obvious tourism draw, the rhythm of typical alpine farm life is still strong here. The Swiss national identity is strongly tied to the alpine dairy farmer, and the Bernese Oberland is where you will find the root of the stereotype.
One of our favorite stops is the remote farm and inn of Obersteinberg. Hidden away at the upper end of the Lauterbrunnen valley, Obersteinberg is only reachable on foot, a steep two hour climb from the nearest bus stop. But that hike is rewarded by one of the prettiest landscapes in the Alps. It’s a simple inn, with private rooms (with candles instead of lights), hearty home-cooked meals, and milk, cheese and butter made fresh from the cows next door. It doesn’t get any more Swiss than this.
If staying in a comfortable village hotel is more your thing, Grindelwald is the largest mountain village in the region. Right at the base of the Eiger’s North Face, the stunning scenery and convenient access to both easy and hard trails make it easy to see why it is so popular. The main road in town can be busy mid-summer, but they close that all down for their weekly village festivals, which add a memorable cultural element. Grindelwald is a great base for easy walks and scenic train and cable car rides, and it is also easy to escape the crowds on gorgeous hikes that lead deep into the mountains. There are lots of places to stay, from simple inns to 5-star luxury, all sharing the same awesome views.
Meiringen, Wengen and Kandersteg are all small villages in the area that have a ton to offer as well, with the Oeschinensee lake above Kandersteg a particular surprise, but tiny Mürren is my favorite stop, and stars frequently on our tours. A car-free village clinging to the edge of a cliff, Mürren is reachable only by cablecar, and as you arrive, the fairy-tale landscape unfolds. Mürren has just a handful of family-run hotels and a couple of shops, and is surrounded by beautiful mountains, offering many days worth of great hikes right from town. If you only make it to one place in the Alps, this is where I think you should go.
If you’ve read about Switzerland, you’ve heard of the Matterhorn. This towering pyramid is without a doubt the iconic mountain of the Alps. In photos, it looks elegant, and it certainly is, but in person a new realization comes to mind… the Matterhorn is also absolutely massive, and it manages to dominate an area that is filled with some of the highest and most impressive mountains in the Alps.
Many people think that Zermatt is all about the Matterhorn, and if that were all, it would be enough of a reason to visit here. But there is much more. Monte Rosa is the highest mountain in Switzerland, and anchors one end of a huge glacier wall that, when seen from the Gornergrat ridge, is among the most breathtaking views in the Alps. The Gorner gorge is a thrilling and unexpected walk through an extremely narrow gorge on suspended wooded planks. Schonbiel hut offers impressive views of the Zmutt valley, and the Trift valley is a great hidden gem, with waterfalls, handsome mountains (with unpronounceable names such as Obergabelhorn), some practically private viewpoints, and a particularly energetic mountain inn that makes a great lunch stop or memorable overnight. Zermatt has no end of things to do… summer skiing on the glacier, great spas and shopping in town, classic hikes that should not be missed, and quiet hidden corners to escape the crowds. It’s easy to come here for a few days and feel like you could have stayed longer.
The Matterhorn region is drier than the Bernese Oberland, so overall should expect more days of sun here. It also changes the vegetation, with soft-green larch trees replacing the spruce forests in the north. Larch trees let in a lot of light, and make some very pleasant trails that lead you above treeline to the mountain views higher up. And if you are hoping to spot edelweiss, there’s no better place to find this modest flower than the high meadows above Riffelberg or on the slopes of the Rothorn. While there aren’t many cows, you’ll find sheep and goats high in the meadows, and stand a good chance of spotting marmots, deer, and wild Steinbock mountain goats.
At the heart of the Matterhorn region lies Zermatt, the quintessential mountain resort. For a mountain village, Zermatt is huge – with over 130 hotels – and it is constantly buzzing with activity. Step off the train and immediately into a chaotic maze of hikers, mountaineers, hotels, and chocolate shops. It can be overwhelming if you’re not prepared, but you’ll be amazed at what the people of Zermatt have managed to do. Zermatt is a car-free village – electric carts move people and luggage to various hotels around town, and are restricted to certain main routes – so the town itself is very walkable. And Zermatt is filled with rustic alpine charm. Dark-timbered chalets overflow with colorful geraniums, narrow cobblestoned alleyways lead to hidden surprises, and hikes into the countryside start from every corner. It’s a great town to walk and explore.
Zermatt is also home to, without a doubt, the best hotels and restaurants in the Alps. Competition is tight in Zermatt, and as a hotel or restaurant, you have to excel to survive. Meals are superb, rooms regularly renovated, spas abound, and hosts go out of their way to make sure you’re comfortable. The 5-star Riffelalp resort above Zermatt is among the best hotels I’ve seen, and does everything perfectly. Our local favorite, the 4-star Europe, exudes a downhome family atmosphere with great rooms and world-class meals. Along the trails, the Zum See restaurant is hidden away in a 500 year old hamlet up in the mountains and serves fantastic meals with baby greens from their garden and homemade ice cream.
Zermatt is the most famous mountain village in the Alps, and the Matterhorn is perhaps the most recognizable mountain in the world. They absolutely live up to their reputation, and should be on everybody’s list of places to see.
If there is a “Big 3” to the Alps, they are the Jungfrau region (Bernese Oberland), Matterhorn, and Mont Blanc. As you probably know, Mont Blanc is the highest mountain in the Alps. At 15,782 ft (4810 meters), and elegantly draped with long, white glaciers, Mont Blanc soars above the nearby towns of Chamonix and Courmayeur, providing a focal point to an already stunning region. But it’s not just about Mont Blanc. Straddling the borders of France, Italy and Switzerland, the region abounds with huge peaks, long glaciers, and great rocky spires, with trails that wind through forests, along lakes and into little-known side valleys.
Chamonix, France sits in the middle of it all. At about 3400’ above sea level, Chamonix is a sunny, warm, plaza-filled village with Mont Blanc visible from most parts of town. At the center of Chamonix a statue of Jacques Balmat and Michel Paccard points up to the mountain that they first conquered in 1786, kicking off mountaineering as a sport. Chamonix is alive with shops and restaurants, and hosts a number of special events each year. You’re never bored here and enjoyable days can be spent taking in the sights in town and soaking up the sun from a nice outdoor cafe.
On the other side of Mont Blanc, and connected by a highway tunnel beneath the mountain, is Courmayeur, Chamonix’s Italian counterpart. In contrast to the open plazas of Chamonix, Courmayeur is buttoned down, almost medievel feeling, with narrow cobblestoned alleyways leading through ancient stone hamlets. The atmosphere is both fascinating and refreshing, and is a true Italian village, filled with gelaterias, cafes, shops and pizzerias. The mountains from the Italian side mirror this character, vertical and rocky, with a wildness that is less apparent on the French side.
Of course the Tour of Mont Blanc, the TMB, is the queen of alpine hikes. The most popular inn-to-inn route in the Alps, the TMB links a series of trails taking you all the way around the mountain group, from Chamonix to the quiet southern stretches of the mountains, into Italy and Courmayeur and then across the border to Switzerland. Finally, about 7 passes and 100 miles later (numerous variations make it hard to pinpoint exactly) you cross back in to France to Chamonix, making the full circuit in normally 8-11 days.
It’s a great hike, and being so popular, not one you should expect to be making alone. In fact, one of the joys of the TMB is that you are likely to meet others from around the world who are doing more or less the same route as you on about the same schedule. On top of that, you’ll normally spend at least a couple nights in rustic gites, small mountain inns, sometimes with private rooms, sometimes not, but always with big communal meals where it is especially fun to meet other hikers and swap stories and plans. Hiking the TMB becomes part of a greater journey, something shared with many people along the way as you forge your path to alpine villages and over mountain passes, through three countries, and around a mountain.
As great as it is, the TMB might not be the most stunning inn-to-inn hike in the Alps (I’m partial to the Bernese Oberland), it’s not the most rugged or remote (the Haute Route is much more so), it’s not the easiest or the hardest. But it’s a special trip with great variety that never disappoints.
As we’ve mentioned, the Haute Route is a rugged inn-to-inn tour that links Chamonix to Zermatt. We’re listing it as a separate region because most of the tour is spent in the remote valleys that lie between the Mont Blanc and Matterhorn regions. Compared to other popular tours in the Alps, the Haute Route is as close as you’ll get to a wilderness experience. The valleys are long and deep, the passes are high and steep, villages few and far between (and tiny). The Haute Route is great for strong hikers who want to get away from it all, and experience stunning mountain landscapes with relatively few signs of modern tourism.
There are some villages along the way. Chamonix and Zermatt at either end, of course, and the middle sections of the tour take you through some delightfully small villages such as Arolla and Zinal where you can have luggage transferred, stay in a comfortable hotel, and restock supplies. But for the most part, hiking the Haute Route is about being high in the mountains. High above treeline, walking amid (and sometimes across) the glaciers, crossing steep passes, and staying in rustic alpine club huts. There are no easy options… no cable cars to ease the ascents, very few convenient options for skipping hikes, no way to avoid at least a couple nights dormitory-only huts high in the mountains.
So it’s not for everyone, but this ruggedness also keeps the numbers down, and makes this one of the best places to see premier alpine scenery with very few people. For those who do not look forward to a steep pass every single day, it’s possible to visit a few key areas along the way. One of my favorite valleys mid-way is the Val d’Anniviers, with tiny Zinal settled at the far end of the valley. Walking through Zinal is like walking through time, with darkened timber chalets topped with massive slate roofs draped with flowers. A few modest hotels provide a place to base yourself, and more than a few (immodest) trails lead to high huts, remote farms, and unforgettable mountain views.
Let’s take a look at something different. All of these regions we’ve discussed have their differences, but they also share some things that are very, very similar, primarily huge glacier-clad peaks. Tucked away in north-eastern Italy, south of Innsbruck and north of Venice, the Dolomites are pretty far removed from our other main alpine regions.
If you want to see the Alps, maybe you don’t come here first, but if you want to see the Dolomites you’re in for a treat, for they are just as impressive, and in many ways are even more interesting. Starting with the mountains. These are not high pyramids of granite and slate topped with ice and snow, but are instead giant buttes of yellow and pink and grey, rising severely from the green meadows below. The Dolomites are steep and rocky, and are famous worldwide for their vie ferrate – high difficult trails with fixed cables that fall somewhere between hiking and climbing. There are many trails, both cabled and not, that lead you into this surreal rocky moonscape. And the mountains are also surrounded by miles of gentle green meadows filled with cows and horses, huts and inns, and hiking trails to suit every taste, including the largest mountain meadow in the Alps, the Val Gardena’s Alpe di Siusi. Additionally, the area boasts a surprisingly rich array of wildflowers that can be a particular treat in late June and early July… all of the normal alpine flowers (and there are many) are in display here, and also many spectacular varieties not often seen else where like fire lilies and lady slipper orchids.
Culturally, the Dolomites are a crossroads, with Tyrolean, Italian and ancient Ladin cultures all coming together here. Much of the region was Austria’s South Tyrol before WWI, and this is evident still today – the architecture is tidy, the busses run with Germanic regularity, and many of the locals still speak German as their first language. Large parts of the Dolomites, particularly in the south and east, are predominantly Italian, both in language and feel, and Cortina d’Ampezzo – perhaps the most famous village in the Dolomites – is a prime example of this.
Most of our tours focus on the Val Gardena, a beautiful valley in the western Dolomites near Bolzano. The Val Gardena is a Tyrolean area, but locally the Ladin culture dominates. Ladin is an ancient language related to Latin that came with the Roman soldiers who once occupied the area, much like the Romansch language of eastern Switzerland. The Gardena valley is now a delightful mix of all three, where apple strudel lives side by side with spaghetti bolognese, the hotels and huts are great (most of the “huts” have private rooms), English is widely spoken, trails meticulously maintained, and the espresso is a revelation.
Our main village-base, Ortisei, features a wide pedestrian-only cobblestoned core, wonderful hotels, and is ringed by picturesque mountains and tempting trails. Higher up, the village of Selva is tucked against some of the most impressive peaks in the region, such as the mighty fortress-like Sella. In neighboring valleys, Canazei adds a distinctly Italian flair and Corvara offers a slightly more remote ambiance, and larger Cortina d’Ampezzo is more resort-like, surrounded by famous mountains and WWI relics. And Bolzano itself is a beautiful small city, filled with wide-open plazas, and home to the Ötzi iceman, a 5300 year old man found virtually intact in a nearby glacier. The museum where he resides is a fascinating addition to any trip.
Although it is home to St Moritz, one end of the Glacier Express train route (Zermatt is the other) and one of the rich-and-famous magnets in the Alps, the Engadine region in general is little known and lightly visited. In the far eastern part of Switzerland, where Switzerland, Italy and Austria meet, the Engadine valley follows the En river, from its headwaters in the jewel-like lakes near St Moritz, to the quiet traditional valleys of the lower Engadine.
Tradition is the word that best describes this area. This is a Romantsch region – Switzerland’s tiny 4th language, with only 50,000 speakers, many of whom live in the Engadine. The architecture of the villages is magical, with cobblestoned roads and lopsided houses with decorative etchings that give a decidely Italian look. The tiny village of Guarda is a particularly atmospheric example, an idyllic cluster of houses and barns high on a bluff, and it is often cited as Switzerland’s prettiest village, but the style pervades the entire region.
In the upper Engadine, Pontresina is a favorite among hikers. A quiet but developed village, Pontresina has a good amount of tourist shops and nice hotels packed into a small package. It sits at the base of the Bernina group of mountains, with numerous hikes in every direction. Although smaller than the mountains of the Bernese Oberland, Zermatt or Mont Blanc regions, the Bernina groups is still a dazzling collection of peaks and glaciers with a number of scenic huts to visit and passes to cross, and Pontresina is the perfect base to explore from. Nearby, the lakes of St Moritz are a quick daytrip away, and the very Italian-feeling Bregaglia valley adds a lot of flavor to the region.
The Engadine is also home to Switzerland’s only national park. The Swiss National Park was established a century ago in response to the rapid disappearance of wild areas in Switzerland. It’s purpose is provide a space for nature to thrive without human interference. It’s Switzerland’s last wild corner, and a great place to spot herds of chamois antelope or the majestic bearded vulture soaring overhead. The park headquarters in Zernez is great place to learn more than you ever thought you needed to know about marmot burrows and rock strata. Again, the Engadine might not be the most spectacular choice for a first and only trip to the Alps, but for a second or third trip, its quiet charm, beautiful mountains, abundant wildlife, and friendly people are an extremely enjoyable combination.
I think that the mountains are where Switzerland really shines, and that most of your time on a trip should be spent there. But still, Switzerland’s cities are surprisingly attractive – always very walkable, often with historic, pedestrian-only downtown cores, many grace the shores of gorgeous lakes and offer panoramic trips into nearby mountains, and very often you’ll find outdoor music festivals, lively markets, and interesting local museums.
Zürich is the city that most will fly into, and is known as the banking center of Switzerland. But Zürich also sits astride a lazy river and along a beautiful lake, with dinner cruise boat rides, cogwheel trains up to mountain viewpoints, great restaurants (and expensive shops), and a very nice, walkable old town.
Lugano sits down in the Italian-speaking region, sunny and on the shores of Lake Lugano, lined with palm trees. It has a small spaghetti maze of pedestrian-only alleyways that’s fun to walk, filled with fresh fruit and vegetable stands, cafes and outdoor pizzerias. You can visit a chocolate factory or a nearby castle, take a swim in the lake or a quick bus or train ride to lake Como in Italy.
Montreux, in the French-speaking region is on the northern shore of lake Geneva. Also sunny and warm, this is Switzerland’s Lavaux wine-region, and the surrounding hills are filled with vineyards that you can explore by boat or on foot. The Montreux Jazz festival lights up the town every July, but walks along the lakeside promenade to the surprisingly accessible Chillon castle are a delight anytime. This is also your base for the chocolate train to the Gruyères region.
There are many others – Basel, Bern, Lausanne and Geneva – but for a city stay in Switzerland, Lucerne is my favorite. Small, and walkable, Lucerne has a cobblestoned, pedestrian-only old town core partially surrounded medieval city walls (you can walk along the wall and visit many of the towers). It has a beautiful lakeside promenade that leads to a nice swimming beach and further to the very fun transport museum (planes, trains and automobiles). There are other museums and quick and easy local monuments, such as the Lion sculture and the flower-covered Chapel bridge, plus a lot of fun family stops (like a summer luge and hall of mirrors). Mount Pilatus is one of the best of the city mountaintop stops, even if it is not nearly as impressive as anything in the Bernese Oberland or Zermatt. And the outdoor farmer’s market on Tuesdays and Saturdays is a visual treat. I like to go to Lucerne for a couple days every year for a city-stay away from the mountains, and think it’s a great way to experience the more cosmopolitan side of this mountainous land.