Ten ways to experience Switzerland like the Swiss
Having spent almost a decade living in Switzerland, American journalist and author Chantal Panozzo knows a thing or two about the lesser known side of Switzerland.
Her new book, 99.9 Ways to Travel Switzerland Like a Local, aims to help others do just that. Aimed at both tourists and Swiss residents who want to get to know the country a little better, it outlines little known places and truly Swiss experiences outside the remit of the average tour group.
“It encourages souvenir shoppers to cut the Swiss army knife from their list and replace it with a rubber messenger bag. And it gives tourists the inspiration they need to stop following umbrella-toting tour guides (or books that act like them) and start following 320,000 well-dressed Swiss cows instead,” she says.
Here, The Local picks out ten of Panozzo’s tips for getting the most out of your time in Switzerland.
1. Don’t be a tightwad
The Grandhotel Giessbach. Photo: Chantal Panozzo
As we all know, Switzerland is expensive. But, says Panozzo, “For reasons unknown to the rest of the world the Swiss are about as price-insensitive as a people can be”. So to be truly Swiss you should throw caution to the wind and splash out on an expensive hotel.
Panozzo’s pick is the Grandhotel Giessbach above Lake Brienz, a belle époque hotel dating from 1873 that will wow you with its amenities and location. How to get there? “Yes of course it is possible to get to a hotel on a cliff in the middle of nowhere via Swiss public transport,” she writes. Naturally.
2. Take scheduled coffee breaks
“The Swiss like to take morning and afternoon breaks. But they do not just take a timeout when the spirit moves them. Their breaks are like the Swiss themselves – scheduled,” says Panozzo.
To do coffee breaks like the people in German-speaking Switzerland take one break at 9am – the z’Nüni – and a second at 4pm – the z’Vieri. Grab a Gipfeli (a Swiss German croissant) in one hand and a coffee in the other “and you’ll be well on your way to becoming culturally appropriate”.
3. Chill out at a badi
The Frauenbadi. Photo: Christof Sonderegger/Swiss Tourism
“Contrary to popular belief, the Swiss do know how to kick off their shoes and relax – you just have to discover where it’s socially acceptable to do so,” says Panozzo.
Switzerland’s outdoor bathing areas are the perfect places to do this, she says. For women she recommends the Frauenbadi on Zurich’s Limmat river, which at night turns into a bar where both sexes can enjoy live music and barefoot dancing.
4. Know your bread
Yes, cheese and chocolate are the Swiss clichés, but the outside world may not know that Switzerland is equally obsessive about bread. “To be Swiss, you must know your breads,” says Panozzo, pointing out that the Swiss eat an average of 49kg of bread (or 98 large loaves) per person per year and that there are 200 different types of bread.
5. Cycle 50km for fun
SlowUp on a 50km bike ride. Photo: Brian Opyd
“To experience the real Switzerland, it is necessary to be athletically humbled,” says Panozzo. “This is quite easy to achieve in a country where people grow up on an incline. Simply huff and puff up a mountain in your fancy hiking gear until a person three times your age overtakes you in their dress shoes.”
Alternatively, take part in a SlowUp bike ride, a mass 50km cycle ride on roads closed to traffic for one day. Taking place all over the country in spring and summer, SlowUps are convivial days out and “might just be the most fun you can have for free in Switzerland,” writes Panozzo.
6. Swim across a lake
Taking part in a very organized swim across a clean Swiss lake is another must-do ‘local’ activity. Panozzo recommends the Seeüberquerung on Lake Zurich which, if it isn’t cancelled due to bad weather, sees up to 10,000 people tackle the 1,500m crossing “because yes, Zurich has that many physically fit people and also that many people who can take a Wednesday afternoon off work”.
7. Hike in unspoiled nature
The Gastern valley. Photo: Brian Opyd
Anyone who has spent some time in Switzerland knows that hiking is a national pastime. There are many amazing places to hike across the country where you won’t find tons of tourists, but for Panozzo one of the best is the Gastern valley near Kandersteg.
“One of the first things you’ll notice about the Gastern valley is the silence. Well, okay the silence and the ringing of cowbells,” she says. “Not everything is as perfect as it seems in Switzerland... but this valley comes close.”
8. Enjoy Swiss wine trails
Not many people outside Switzerland know it's a wine-growing country, but a train ride from Geneva to Brig will show you just how many vineyards there are here. Sampling the stuff is an essential part of spending time in Switzerland – and why not do so on one of the country's many wine trails?
“Graubunden’s Weinwanderweg is one of the best,” says Panozzo. Combine your hike with the Open Cellars day – held in various places across Switzerland during spring – and you can sample the wares of various vineyards along the trail.
9. Grill Cervelat over an open fire
Cervelat over an open fire. Photo: Robert Boesch
Not being a sausage-eater, Panozzo says she encountered a problem when she arrived in the country. “When out and about in Switzerland, sometimes it’s sausage or starvation,” she writes.
So it’s best to change your ways. The most popular Swiss sausage is the Cervelat, ideally cooked over an open fire – and it’s easy to find a place to do that since there is an entire website devoted to the 500+ documented fire pits across the country. Just don’t make an embarrassing mistake – “they don’t roast marshmallows,” says Panozzo.
10. Hit the incredible sales
Yes, Switzerland is expensive, but canny locals know that shops offer surprisingly heavy discounts during sale time, with many offering up to 70 percent off – meaning “jeans for normal American prices,” says Panozzo.
“These bright spots come in January and July. During these two months the rules of Swiss economics need not apply, and you can enjoy your Swiss shopping with all that Swiss quality but none of that high-priced guilt.”
99.9 Ways to Travel Switzerland Like a Local was published on May 2nd priced $21.99/24.90 francs and is available in stores and online. Find out more at swisstravelbook.com or chantalpanozzo.com