The first time I visited Switzerland, I was shocked. No way somewhere this beautiful could somewhere exist. And I’m from the Pacific Northwest of the United States, similarly known for lush mountain-filled landscapes. Even still, the magnificence of this country still blew me away. If this gorgeous, pristine alpine country isn’t on your bucket list, it should be. Here are the top cities in Switzerland to visit.
The Cantons of Switzerland
Before we get into the top cities in Switzerland, it’s a good idea to understand Switzerland’s geography a bit better. The country is divided into regions called cantons, which hold geographic and cultural significance. Back in the 14th century, a collection of valley communities in the central Alps formed to facilitate common interests, such as trade and peace, were maintained in the region; this was the Old Swiss Confederacy’s foundation. Initially, the Swiss Confederacy was formed of eight cantons; however, this number has grown to 26 Swiss cantons total. Today, these cantons maintain some degree of autonomy. However, all still abide by the Swiss Federal Constitution, which outlines the federal government’s domain.
My first experience in Switzerland was in Geneva. As I stepped onto the tarmac and witnessed the Swiss Alps surround me, the extraordinary beauty of this country hit me. Located in Switzerland’s southwest and French-speaking area, Geneva is the second most populated city in the country and a significant political and financial hub in Europe.
As a tourist is about what you would expect for a large, metropolitan city in Europe. It’s relatively compact, so you don’t need too much time to explore it. Being a political hub, there are a ton of museums you can choose from. The most unique of them is probably the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum, where you’ll be immersed in years of humanitarian crises and adventures. I’m not the most enthusiastic museum-goer in the world, but this one is definitely worth a visit.
Geneva’s location makes it a fantastic starting point for any trip to Switzerland. Close to both the French and Swiss Alps and a transportation hub, Geneva can be your launchpad for any adventure.
Just north of Geneva but still along the lake is the city of Lausanne in Switzerland. Still very much in Switzerland’s French region, Lausanne is a kind of elegant, resort-feeling city that is a nice pitstop on your trip.
The city is mainly known as the home to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), with an Olympic Museum for the more athletically inclined. The Ouchy Promenade is a kilometer-long walkway along Lake Geneva and is particularly fantastic in the summer months. There is also a pretty exciting museum, Collection de l’Art Brut, created to source pieces from more amateur artists.
Bern is the capital of Switzerland and a beautifully quaint city waiting to be discovered. Bern has been around since roughly 1191, so it holds a fantastic amount of history. Legend has it that this city was named after Berchtold V, Duke of Zähringen, the founder of the City of Bern, who ran into a bear during his first hunt. Since Bern has been around since the 12th century, this probably sits somewhere between the realms of folklore and truth.
In any case, the city has definitely run with the bear theme. The city is home to the Bärengraben, or “bear pit,” originally used to fight bears for sport. Nowadays, though, it acts as more of a bear zoo, with a couple bears roaming the grounds along the river. The city also a “releasing of the bear” carnival in March that has been around since the 16th century. So, yeah, they really took the bear theme to heart.
The city itself is beautiful and quaint. The town is surrounded by the pristine Aare River on three sides. It’s a small and an almost crystal clear river where people can swim and/or raft in the summer. The Old Town of Bern is a UNESCO World Heritage site and precisely what you’d expect from an old medieval city. Beautiful architecture and history seeping from each crack in the cobblestone streets. Of note is the Zytglogge, a 13th-century astronomical clock that is still standing.
The largest city in Switzerland, Zürich is a financial powerhouse in Europe. Sitting on the Limmat River and Lake Zürich, like every other place in Switzerland, you get a very clean and beautiful city. Most people will likely pick between visiting Geneva or Zürich on their trip to Switzerland; I probably wouldn’t do both. With Zurich, you get much of the same as Geneva – a large metropolitan city.
The Old Town of Zürich is where you’ll find most of the notable attractions. The Bahnhofstrasse is their famous, expensive as hell shopping strip. The Zürich Kunsthaus is a modern art museum where you can easily spend a whole day taking it all in. The Uetliburg is a small mountain located within the city limits where you can get panoramic views of the area. Also be sure to check out Zürich West, the edgy-hipster part of town.
Nestled between Lake Lucerne and snow-capped mountains, Lucerne is a fairy-tale city in Switzerland. Sitting right about in the center of the country, the city is a popular stopping point on a trip through Switzerland. The city has almost everything you want in a European city; beautiful architecture, history, panoramic views, and distinct culture.
The old town of Lucerne is notably car-free, so you can spend hours wandering through the cobblestone streets, imagining the Swiss city’s history. One of the more famous, picturesque locations in the old town is the wooden, 14th century Chapel Bridge, which crosses the Reuss and divides the city’s northern and southern parts. This bridge is pretty iconic and likely found in every picture you’ve ever seen of Lucerne. To the south of the city is Mount Pilatus, known as “dragon mountain”, which was once home to dragons and healing powers. In the summer, you can get to the top through the “golden round trip,” a series of boats, trains, and cable cars.