Offbeat Switzerland

Find your own private ridge to hike.
No cows in this barn.
Travel topless on Swiss trains.
Is this where I get off for Bern?
By Rick Steves

Here are my top ten offbeat Swiss travel treats. Enjoy!

1. Walk a ridge.

Perhaps the most glorious hike I've enjoyed in Switzerland is the ridge walk from Schynige Platte to First, high above Interlaken in the Berner Oberland. You're virtually tightrope-walking along a skinny ridge for several hours. On one side are lakes stretching all the way, it seems, to Germany. On the other is Europe's greatest mountain panorama: the dramatic cut-glass peaks of the Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau. And ahead, you hear the long legato tones of an alphorn announcing that a helicopter-stocked mountain hut is open, it's just around the corner... and the coffee schnapps is on.

2. Experience Swiss military readiness.

To protect its prized neutrality in the tumultuous 20th century, Switzerland wired its roads, bridges, and tunnels so they could be destroyed with the push of a button and create an impenetrable mountain fortress. Back then, even the folks living just up the lane might not realize that they had a fortress hiding next door. Today most of the country's formerly secret military installations — big guns in barns, air strips hiding like the Batmobile, and even hospitals buried deep in the mountains — are decommissioned and many are open to the public as tourist attractions.

3. Go topless on an alpine train.

While Switzerland has many impressive train trips and fancy "panoramic" cars, the most thrilling rides might be the ones experienced in the open air — in seats on an open-top train car. You'll eat the wind and be awestruck at both Switzerland's alpine wonders and its ability to tame nature with its railroad engineering. These topless trains run only in the summer months, and in just a few spots (such as along stretches of the Bernina Express route, up the Berner Oberland's Schynige Platte, and to the Gornergrat viewpoint high above Zermatt).

4. Get the big-city perspective.

Switzerland isn't just alpine meadows and quaint cowbells. Zürich, nicknamed zu reich ("too rich") and zu ruhig ("too quiet") by locals, affords a fascinating peek at urban life and clever Swiss solutions to persistent problems. Strolling down the main drag, you'll notice designer boulders breaking through the sidewalk. These aren't decorative; they're there to stop the cars of thieves from crashing into jewelry stores for a grab-and-run. Around the corner, the public toilets have blue lights. This is a pragmatic Swiss solution for preventing needle junkies from using that space for shooting up: Under the blue lights, they can't see their veins.

5. Sleep with a hermit monk.

A century ago, a hermit monk inhabited a humble church in a cave just under a mountaintop plateau called Ebenalp, high above the town of Appenzell. A humble cliff-hanging guest house was built around the corner to accommodate pilgrims who hiked up to pray with the monk. While the monk's long gone now, the guest house survives and accommodates hikers communing with nature. The Berggasthaus Aescher is run by Claudia and Beny Knechtle-Wyss and their five adult children. The Rösti (Swiss hash browns) is hearty, there's running water (but only if it's rained recently), the piano was brought in by helicopter, the guest book goes back to the 1940s, and you're welcome to help feed the goats.

6. Float down the Aare River.

Bern is proud of its ruddy citizenry and pristine river. To celebrate both, fun-loving locals hike upstream, hop into the river, and float back into town. Every summer day at lunchtime, the river is littered with politicians, students, workers, and tourists enjoying this wet, urban Spaziergang (stroll).

7. Ride a high-mountain summer luge.

Ascending Mount Pilatus, near Luzern, is worth it for the heavenly views alone. But for extra thrills, hit the summer-fun zone of Fräkmüntegg, an area on the mountain's north slope. Here you'll find Switzerland’s longest summer luge ride: Sit yourself in a sled-like go-cart, grab the joystick brake, then scream back down the mountainside on a banked stainless-steel course. Then take the lift back up and start all over again. Nearby is a park with of 10 fun ropes courses, with plenty of options for novices.

8. Ponder some insane art.

Lausanne's Collection de l'Art Brut is unique in Europe. In 1945, the artist Jean Dubuffet began collecting art he called brut — untrained, ignoring rules, highly original, produced by people free from artistic culture and fashion tendencies. Visiting his collection, you'll wander through halls of fascinating doodles and screaming colors, marveling at the talent of people our society has locked up as "criminally insane."

9. Relive the Swiss old days.

At the Ballenberg Open-Air Folk Museum (an hour east of Interlaken on Lake Brienz), traditional houses, schools, churches, and shops from all over Switzerland have been reconstructed in a huge park. The layout is just like the country: French in the west, Italian in the south, and so on. Each dwelling is furnished, old-time crafts are kept alive, and goat herders are tooting their slender stretch alphorns. It's Swiss culture on a lazy Susan for the hurried visitor, and a great rainy-day option in the Berner Oberland.

10. Climb the Eiger...the easy way.

You don't need to be a rugged mountaineer to climb the ultimate alpine cliff face — you just need train fare. For a century, a thrilling train has tunneled up through the inside of the Berner Oberland's Eiger mountain. Halfway up, the Jungfraujoch train stops to let travelers hang out the window and enjoy the views clinging to the infamous north face of the Eiger. After a few minutes, the train carries on, taking you about as high as you can get mechanically in Europe: 11,300 feet. The air is thin, and anything goes atop the Jungfraujoch.