Switzerland certainly shines in the mountains, but Switzerland’s cities are filled with history and charm – always very walkable, often with historic, pedestrian-only sectors.
Many of Switzerland’s urban centers grace the shores of gorgeous lakes and offer easy panoramic day trips into nearby mountains. Very often you’ll also find outdoor music festivals, lively markets, and interesting local museums.
Zürich is the city that most will fly into, and is known, unappealingly, as the banking center of Switzerland. But Zürich’s Old Town is really atmospheric. It sits astride a lazy river and along a beautiful (swimmable) lake, with dinner cruise boat rides and cogwheel trains up to mountain viewpoints, plus great restaurants, luxury shops, museums and churches all packed into a very nice, walkable old town. Zürich West is the hipster part of town, an old warehouse district sparkling with energy, restaurants, bars and shops. It’s the big city, but it’s a fun one.
Lugano is the center of the Italian-speaking region of Switzerland, 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. Plus it’s a great base for train rides, with great connections to the Bernina Express and Gotthard Panorama Express trains.
Montreux is our favorite base on lake Geneva, in the French-speaking region. 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.
But for a city stay in Switzerland, Lucerne is our favorite. Small and walkable, Lucerne has a cobblestoned, pedestrian-only old town core partially surrounded medieval city walls. You can and should walk along the walls 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 sculpture 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. And the outdoor farmer’s market on Tuesdays and Saturdays is a visual treat. A stop in Lucerne is a great way to experience the more cosmopolitan side of this mountainous land.
OK, OK, not Switzerland, but if you’re heading to the Dolomites in Italy, Bolzano is worth a stop. Like many others, Bolzano boasts a beautiful, pedestrian-only old town core, filled with plazas and outdoor cafes. It’s surrounded by vineyards and mountains, both of which can be visiting on day trips, and the Messner Mountain Museum nearby is always interesting. Bolzano’s biggest draw has to be Ötzi, the 5300 yr-old iceman found in a glacier nearby, with tattoos, clothes, backpack mainly intact. He’s fascinating, and the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology that houses him is always worth a stop.
There are other interesting cities… Basel, Bern and Lausanne, but these are just a few that we like visit on our travels in the Alps.
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