Switzerland draws travelers from around the world for its legendary mountains. From the Matterhorn to the Jungfrau to Appenzell, we savor both the country's jaw-dropping alpine beauty and the rich and resilient culture of its people. As we lace together that dramatic mountain wonder with scenic train rides, breathtaking lifts, and unforgettable hikes, we also enjoy alpine life — from exploring glaciers to making cheese the old-fashioned way.
The Gornergrat is my pick if you can fit in only one high-mountain excursion in the Zermatt area. Located between the Klein Matterhorn and the Rothorn, it's not inherently better than these neighboring peaks — but it offers a best-of-all-worlds experience with a fun 35-minute train ride, sweeping views from the summit, a chance to peer straight down at a mighty glacier, and access to one of the area's best hikes.
Perhaps my favorite hike in the Zermatt region is this easy path, which usually opens in late June. Take the train from the Gornergrat summit back down, but hop off at the Rotenboden station. Just down the hillside from the Rotenboden station, you can also enjoy the pretty lake called Riffelsee — and, if you're lucky, catch the Matterhorn's reflection on its surface — before continuing over some gorgeous topography to the Riffelberg station. You can continue on the Gornergrat train back into Zermatt, or disembark at any point to hike down — or follow another trail to the neighboring Rothorn mountainside. In summer you can also ride the Riffelberg Express gondola over to the slopes of the Klein Matterhorn, and ride another gondola up to its summit.
Every day in mid-summer, a small flock of furry "blackneck" goats are twice herded through the center of Zermatt on the way to and from the pasture. The goats are unique to the surrounding Upper Valais region, with a black head and shoulders, a white rear end, and long horns.
An excursion to what's branded as the "Matterhorn Glacier Paradise" (the summit station for the Klein Matterhorn) has three main highlights: the summit (with views across the top of the Alps and a few fun indoor/outdoor activities), the halfway point at Schwarzsee (a nice spot to bask in classic Matterhorn views), and hikes down the mountainside from intermediate cable-car stops (the summit is covered with snow year-round). The best summit feature is an observation deck — on a clear day, you can see Italy and France (including Mont Blanc), as well as the "back" of the Berner Oberland's Jungfrau and Mönch peaks.
This most promoted of the Swiss scenic rail routes travels dramatically between tucked-away-in-the-mountains Zermatt in the southwest of Switzerland and the best-known resort towns in eastern Switzerland (St. Moritz and Davos). While it's an impressive and famous journey, the Glacier Express is not necessarily the be-all and end-all of Swiss rail trips. Much of the journey is down in valleys (as opposed to along the sides of cliffs), meaning that high-altitude views are a little lacking. And doing the whole eight-hour route makes for a longer day than some wish. But the stark landscape, carved by the glaciers that gave the train its name, is striking.
The appealing one-street town of Urnäsch, a 15-minute train ride from Appenzell town, has Europe's cutest museum. It brings Appenzell's folk traditions to life with replicas of local rooms, collections of handicrafts and tools, traditional musical instruments you can try your hand at, and a short movie about the region's four major festivals. The heart of the museum is the aptly named "Old House," with low ceilings, dramatically sloping funhouse floors, and lots of creaks. Warm and homey, it's a happy little honeycomb of Appenzeller culture — you'll feel like a local has invited you over for a visit.
The second highest waterfall in Switzerland is literally in Lauterbrunnen's backyard — and you can climb up "behind" the falls on a trail cut into the cliff (except in winter, when it's closed to avoid the danger posed by rockslides). The waterfall's spray looks like falling dust — Staub — hence the name.
A literal high point of any trip to the Swiss Alps is the Jungfraubahn train ride through the Eiger mountain to the Jungfraujoch. Keep in mind, however, that you can enjoy the Berner Oberland without taking this trip — the train ride is long, slow, expensive, crowded, and cold. But if the weather's perfect and you have a spare day and spare cash, the views are exhilarating, and it's fun to be up on a snowy glacier in midsummer.
From the village of Wengen (reached from a little mountain train from the Lauterbrunnen Valley floor) a six-minute cable-car ride takes you to Männlichen, a ridge-top spot with one of the world's greatest alpine views. I think it's worth a few extra francs to ride on the cable car's open-air rooftop perch. Männlichen is also the start of one of my all-time favorite high-altitude walks (a slightly downhill, 90-minute stroll to Kleine Scheidegg), with the Jungfrau range straight ahead at nearly all times, at least on sunny days.
With his wife Maria, my friend Olle rents Gimmelwald's most expensive and comfortable rooms. The Eggimanns' quirky but alpine-sleek house, where they raised three kids, offers visitors an intimate peek at their community.
Here at the only place to eat in town you can choose between their rustic, jazz-and-blues mellow indoor dining room or a gorgeous view terrace. Every night at 7 p.m. they serve one three-course meal (you have no choices) to a maximum of 30 people (reservations are required). During the day you can drop in for soup, simple meat-and-cheese board-type dishes, and drinks — ask to try their award-winning, very smooth Schwarzmönch dark beer. Upstairs, this family-style inn, converted from an old, low-ceilinged farmhouse, has 13 rooms, most of them simple and sharing bathrooms down the hall.
Among the high alpine meadows above the village of Mürren is a group of huts called Schiltalp, where hikers will find a romantic farm setting to enjoy a resting spot with good self-service food and drink. In July, August, and early September, you can arrange with local tourism offices to attend a weekly morning cheese-making session at the family-run dairy here.
The Schilthornbahn cable car soars from the valley floor, via Gimmelwald and Mürren, to the summit's thin-aired Piz Gloria cable-car station, with a solar-powered revolving restaurant, shop, and panorama terrace. At the top, you have a spectacular view of over 100 peaks — starring the Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau mountains, all lined up just across the valley.
See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
Hey, I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the best of Europe. I'm tootin' the horn of some for my favorite mountain destinations. It's the classic corners of the Swiss Alps. Thanks for joining us!
Switzerland draws travelers from around the world for its legendary mountains. In this episode we'll see no grand museums, no great cities — just jaw-dropping alpine beauty and the rich and resilient culture of the people who live here.
It's a land of dramatic mountains, laced together by scenic train rides and spectacular hikes. Famous peaks are made accessible by thrilling lifts, including the highest in all of Europe. We'll enjoy alpine life, from exploring glaciers to making cheese the old-fashioned way.
Switzerland is small — just half the size of Kentucky. While it has great cities, most of the country is rural and mountainous. We start in Zermatt at the Matterhorn, take the Glacier Express train ride, drop in on Appenzell, and finish in the Berner Oberland, riding lifts to the Jungfrau and the Schilthorn.
Zermatt, at the foot of the Matterhorn, was essentially built for enjoying the Alps. It's hugely popular with skiers in the winter, and hikers in the summer. With its many lifts, it's a springboard for countless trails and unforgettable viewpoints.
The weather's great, and we're hopping a train to one of the most dramatic views in all the Alps. The Gornergrat cogwheel train has been wowing visitors since 1898. The trip comes with sweeping views, first of the town of Zermatt, then of the iconic peak that draws so many to this region: the Matterhorn.
The train climbs steeply into the high country. It takes us to over 10,000 feet, where we reach the end of the line. Across the tracks an old hotel solidly caps the Gornergrat ridge. Grand views stretch in every direction. Stunning Matterhorn views demand the attention of hikers. But there's more. Monte Rosa is actually higher than the Matterhorn. In fact, at 15,200 feet, it's the highest point in Switzerland. And a thousand-foot sheer drop below the platform stretches the mighty Gorner Glacier.
It seems many of my favorite hikes start part-way down my favorite lifts or train rides. Hopping off this train about mid-way, I'm in for a sensational, yet easy, hike [Riffelseeweg]. Getting to these exciting spots with so little work and so far from the crowds, I feel like I'm cheating — and I love it.
There's just something about the Matterhorn, the most recognizable mountain on the planet, that attracts people. It's a dangerous mountain to climb. Each year, while several thousand make it to the summit, about a dozen die trying. And with global warming, the permafrost that keeps it solid is thawing, making falling rocks a new hazard.
Surrounding Zermatt, as if to enjoy views of the Matterhorn from every angle, are dozens of lifts and hundreds of miles of trails. As is the case throughout the Alps, handy signposts make it clear where you are, what's the altitude, and how long it takes to hike to various points.
Zermatt, straddling its tiny river, is a small town of 6,000 with a big tourist industry. It has more hotel beds than residents — and they're often completely full. Nearly everyone earns a living one way or another from tourists, who flock here for a peek at the peak.
About two million visitors a year arrive by train — cars are not allowed. Electric carts weave quietly through the pedestrians. The town is a collection of over a hundred modern, chalet-style hotels with a well-organized and groomed infrastructure for summer and winter sports.
And this crowd-pleasing herd of traditional blackneck goats, which parades through town every day, has had it with selfies, and is headin' for the barn.
If you explore a bit, you can discover pockets of traditional charm. Two hundred years ago, Zermatt would have looked more like this — little more than a gathering of humble log cabins.
Zermatt works hard to keep its visitors entertained, and tradition-loving locals seem delighted to do just that.
From the town of Zermatt a mighty cable car takes us to the summit of a peak called the "Little Matterhorn." Prices are steep, as the community has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in their mountain lifts in recent years. These lifts are absolutely state-of-the-art, and just experiencing them is worth the splurge.
At 12,700 feet, this is the highest cable-car station in Europe.
While the view of the Matterhorn from this angle is not the iconic postcard profile, the views from the observation deck are stunning. On a clear day, the Alps fill the horizon with all their glory.
The Zermatt train station is busy each morning as travelers invest a day of their vacation to take one of the most scenic train rides in the world: riding the rails across southern Switzerland on the Glacier Express. This journey, designed to maximize your sightseeing thrills, features a masterpiece of railway engineering. The Glacier Express train line crosses 290 bridges and viaducts, and goes through 90 tunnels in eight hours, as it connects two of the leading alpine resorts: Zermatt and St. Moritz.
Over a quarter million Alp lovers ride this train each year. People kick back and just relax, enjoying big windows for bigger views. The scenery unfolds as the train carves its way through the Swiss landscape. In the glaciers high above are born some of Europe's great rivers, which flow from here to both the Atlantic and the Mediterranean.
Now we're trading away some of the staggering alpine peaks for an insight into the Swiss and their heritage. This is Appenzell — cowbell country and storybook friendly.
According to legend, the devil was flying over these hills with a sack filled with houses. A sharp peak tore a hole in the sack, and lots of chalets sprinkled over the countryside. To this day, the farms and hamlets remain widely scattered, and the canton of Appenzell remains one of Switzerland's most traditional.
The Swiss are famously independent, and historically, the big threat to their independence was the Habsburg Empire from Austria. In the Middle Ages, this region was fragmented into small "cantons," or states. In the 13th century, three of these cantons joined together to fight the Habsburgs. By 1291 they established their independence and Switzerland was born. This union eventually grew to include 26 cantons and the country we know today.
Switzerland is unique among its European neighbors. It's not in the EU, and, rather than the euro, it uses its own currency. This stubborn pride and the resulting survival of local traditions is one thing that makes Switzerland such a rewarding place to visit.
You feel that strength of that tradition here in the town of Appenzell. Amazingly, it wasn't until 1990 that Appenzell women were given full voting rights. This has been the capital of the canton for 400 years, and many of the buildings date back to that time.
Switzerland's independence distinguished it from European high culture. Back then, it took royalty, or the Roman Catholic Church, to pay for big-time cultural achievements. So instead of lots of grand palaces and cathedrals, today travelers see Swiss culture on a small and personal scale.
Folk museums here give an intimate peek into Appenzell's humble rural culture, with rooms replicating everyday life, from where they raised their families, to where they worked.
In this 400-year-old building [part of the Museum of Appenzell Customs], the ceilings are low, and the floors are creaky with centuries-old beams. Simple folk art shows the importance of cows, and the ritual of taking the herd up to the high meadows for the summer, and back down for the winter.
This room shows life as it was for the herder in the high Alps, who spent summers alone milking cows and making cheese. These decorative cow bells awaited the festive day when the herd would descend from the high meadow.
It was a world of wood. The woodshop is where milk pails would be fashioned out of maple and fir: soaked in water to be made pliable, assembled watertight with no nails, and then artfully carved.
The woodworker's bedroom reflects the pride he had in his profession. He earned enough to afford some fine painted furniture. This wardrobe dates from 1817.
Whether traveling by train or by car, mountainous Switzerland has fine infrastructure, and you can get nearly anywhere in the country in just a few hours.
The Berner Oberland is a particularly scenic region. Its Lauterbrunnen Valley, which stretches south from the city of Interlaken, is a wonderful springboard for some of my favorite Swiss Alp experiences.
Lauterbrunnen Valley, with its vertical sides and flat bottom, is U-shaped — a textbook example of a glacier-shaped valley. While the main town, also called Lauterbrunnen, sits on the valley floor, neighboring towns hang on cliffs high above.
Lauterbrunnen means "loud waters" — an apt name. Waterfalls plummet from cliffs all along the valley. Staubbach Falls — one of the highest in Switzerland — drops nearly a thousand feet. The valley — with its riverside trails, traditional farmhouses, and chorus of surrounding peaks cheering you on — is a magnet for nature lovers.
Towering high above are the icy Jungfrau, Mönch, and Eiger peaks — named for the legend of the young maiden (Jungfrau) being protected by the monk, or Mönch, from the mean ogre, or Eiger. And perched on a saddle between two of those mountains is the Jungfraujoch station — and that's where we're going…by train.
From the valley floor, a cogwheel train takes tourists and mountaineers alike on this ear-popping journey.
As we gradually climb, the views continually unfold. Eventually, we arrive at Kleine Scheidegg, a rail junction at the base of the peaks. For well over a century, this has been the jumping-off point for rock climbers attempting to scale the foreboding North Face of the Eiger.
Kleine Scheidegg has souvenir shops, hearty food for hikers, and rustic 19th-century hotels — a reminder that tourism is nothing new here.
With the craze for social media these days and with millions of people from countries with emerging economies now able to afford that dream trip to Europe, famous destinations like this can be really crowded. Do what you can to minimize the crowds. Arrive early, arrive late — it really helps.
Continuing our journey to Europe's highest train station, the ingenuity of Swiss engineers is apparent as we climb the railway they built back in 1912. Amazingly our train tunnels through the Eiger on our climb all the way to the Jungfraujoch.
Think about it: The Swiss drilled this tunnel through solid rock — it's four miles long. This train is smooth. And they did it a hundred years ago. Why? To show off their engineering skills and to celebrate nature.
Halfway up, the train stops at panorama windows. While expert rock climbers can exit here into an unforgiving world of ice and air, sightseers get their thrills by simply marveling at the icy views.
Continuing up the tunnel, from here the train's cogwheels earn their keep. You emerge at 11,000 feet — the Jungfraujoch. Spectacular views of majestic peaks stretch as far as you can see. Cradled among these giants, you understand the timeless allure of the Swiss Alps.
The Jungfraujoch [station] is like a small resort perched on a mountain ridge. From the highest viewing point, you can see the Aletsch Glacier, which stretches about 10 miles to the south. While shrinking with the warming global climate, it's still the longest glacier in the Alps. The air is thin — people are in giddy moods.
The station is a maze of shops, restaurants, and amusements. A tunnel is actually carved through the glacier to a cavern of ice sculptures — an especially big hit for visitors from lands where ice is a rarity. Outside on the glacier, people enjoy the scene. From here, many venture even higher as a snowy trail leads to more mountain thrills.
But, for me, I'll call this good…and savor the sense of accomplishment I get when climbing to 11,370 feet before lunch.
The Berner Oberland has something for everybody.
Part of the fun — and much of the expense — of enjoying the Alps is riding the various lifts. Funiculars let hikers gain altitude quickly and easily. This lift [the Männlichen cable car] actually lets visitors ride on the rooftop — a great way to more fully appreciate the staggering beauty of the region.
And once again, it's fun to leave the crowds by getting off at an intermediary station and taking a hike. There's a special camaraderie with people who actually get out and hike — and within moments you're sharing the experience with fellow hikers and enjoying the Alps in a way so many miss.
Towns like Mürren were developed to accommodate nature-loving tourists. They cater to your every need. You can stroll through traffic-free centers, and towns are springboards for a popular option: the electric bike. While service roads in the high country may be closed to regular traffic, e-bikes are more than welcome — and they make you look fitter than you actually are.
Remote towns may be beyond the reach of your car, but all are accessible by various lifts. One of my favorites is the idyllic village of Gimmelwald.
The village — established in the Middle Ages, precariously on the edge of a cliff — was one of the poorest places in Switzerland. Gimmelwald works together like a big family — in fact, most of the hundred or so residents here share one of two last names: "Von Allmen" or "Feuz."
My friend Olle, long the village schoolteacher, enjoys showing me around. This is the oldest house, from 1658. And the woodwork is generally unpainted, just bleached in the sun; originally hay up top and cows below. For generations, families have lovingly tended their vegetable gardens. They still are relied on to put food on the table — and this one comes with an artistic side.
Relying on their traditional ways, farmers here make ends meet only with help from Swiss government subsidies. They supplement that by working the ski lifts in the winter. Modern tourism has contributed to the local economy as well. Pension Gimmelwald's terrace restaurant is filled with happy hikers at dinnertime — enthused by the memories they earned with today's hike.
I've been coming to Gimmelwald all my life, and it just never gets old. With the world changing as fast as it is, I find it refreshing to know that there are places like this that still embrace their traditions.
Dairy is the traditional industry here. Collecting grass to get their cows through the winter on these steep slopes is labor intensive.
Each family fills silos with enough to feed a dozen or so cows.
But we're here in the summer, and the cows are in the high alp enjoying a diet of fresh grass and flowers. From their milk, some of the most prized cheese in the world is still made in the traditional way.
We're joining a small tour group [at Schiltalp] organized by the village tourist office. Of the countless visitors in this valley, these travelers took the initiative to enjoy this intimate peek at local culture in action. Once the milk is heated to just the right temperature, the cheese maker, using his teeth as well as his hands, masterfully scoops about 10 kilos of curds from the bottom of the cauldron. He then plops the sopping cheesecloth into a circular mold. It's quickly pressed to remove as much of the liquid, or "whey," as possible. As the moisture is removed and the aging process begins, a wheel of wet curds becomes a wheel of alp cheese, frequently brushed with brine and stored flat on shelves in a shed like this one for up to two years.
In the high country, I also enjoy a chance to hear traditional music — and up here, along with yodeling, that means the long, legato tones of the alphorn.
The alphorn has a range of nearly three octaves. But with no valves, it's limited to the same notes as a bugle. Used throughout the Alps, this horn has played a role in this culture for 500 years: to call cows from pasture to the barn for milking, as a way for herdsmen in the high meadows to communicate with people in the valley below, and even as a call to prayer through remote valleys.
Oh! — and we've got time for one more Swiss summit. High above this meadow, a peak called the Schilthorn emerges from the clouds. And, in good Swiss fashion, a modern cable car — the Schilthornbahn — zips visitors effortlessly to its summit.
In the Alps, while the valleys may be blanketed in clouds, the peaks can be brilliantly sunny. Get an early start: The peaks are often clear in the morning and then cloud up.
The 10,000-foot summit of the Schilthorn awaits skiers, hikers, and sightseers — both winter and summer. This station, which capitalizes on its role in a James Bond film, awaits with a revolving restaurant — perfect for spies nursing their 007 martinis.
Meanwhile on the panorama terrace, families pick out the peaks while others thrill at 360 degrees of alpine splendor.
For me, the majesty of the mountains is easiest to appreciate on my own private perch. As always, try to make a point to get away from the crowds — to be alone to savor an unforgettable moment.
Switzerland may be a small country, but its mountains are mighty — and we hope you've enjoyed this look at a few of its very best. Thanks for joining us. I'm Rick Steves high in Alps. Until next time, keep on travelin'.