Going underground: Ten fascinating sights below Switzerland’s surface

Author thumbnail
Caroline Bishop - [email protected]
Going underground: Ten fascinating sights below Switzerland’s surface
The caves in Vallorbe are one of Switzerland's underground treasures.

It’s certainly stunning above ground, but did you know Switzerland has some incredible places to visit below ground too? Put these on your list to visit on a rainy day.


1. St Leonard underground lake, Valais
Photo: Caroline Bishop
At 300 metres long, this is the largest natural underground lake in Europe and was opened to the public in 1949. Taking a boat tour on the crystal clear, frigid water is an eerie experience. The acoustics make it a great place for the concerts that are sometimes held there, the musicians playing from one boat and the audience sat on several others.
2. Salt mines, Bex, Vaud
Salt was discovered in the canton of Vaud in the 15th century and it was an important find for landlocked Switzerland, until then reliant on foreign suppliers. Since then salt has been extracted from the rock at Bex, and visitors can see the vast underground labyrinth where it all takes place on a tour. Currently due to renovation work the mine is closed to visitors but it will reopen in spring 2018.
3. Undergrounds mills, Le Locle, Neuchâtel
Photo: Caroline Bishop
A 17th century genius had the idea of putting mills inside this cave complex to harness the water of the river that disappears underground through the cave. At one time there were seven separate mills in this underground cavern, including a grain mill, oil mill and even a saw mill – tree trunks were brought in through a specially constructed tunnel. Take a fascinating audio tour of the caves to discover exactly how it all worked. It’s all too easy to imagine how terrible working conditions must have been in these low-lit, cold, damp caves.
4. Sasso San Gottardo, Ticino
This underground army fortress was built between 1941 and 1945 as part of Switzerland’s ‘national redoubt’, a defensive plan to deal with potential German invasion that primarily involved building a network of fortifications throughout the Alps. This secret fortress remained operational until 1998 and its presence was finally revealed to the public in 2001. A tour of the preserved building shows how 420 men would have lived and worked here, ready for action.
5. La Claustra hotel, Ticino
Photo: La Claustra
Near to the Sasso San Gottardo on the Gotthard pass is another underground bunker you can actually stay in the night in. Now a hotel – and a pricey one at that – La Claustra is a former military facility that now has a hot tub, a restaurant, a library and a minibar in your room. No windows though – your only view is of the austere grey rock of the inside of a mountain.  
6. Sonnenberg bunker, Lucerne
Explore a fascinating part of Switzerland’s history on a tour (once a month in English) of the country’s largest nuclear bunker under the Sonnenberg mountain in Lucerne. Opened at the height of the Cold War, the 20,000-capacity bunker says a lot about Swiss mentality at the time: their desire for neutrality, their fear of being caught in the middle, and their somewhat deluded vision of how to deal with it.
7. Vallorbe caves, Vaud
Photo: Caroline Bishop
Open to the public since the 1970s, these natural caves were carved out by the underground passage of the river Orbe over millions of years. In the cool, still air stalactites and stalagmites have been growing for thousands of years, creating a stunning, otherworldly atmosphere. It’s all beautifully lit, and builds up to the final showpiece – an immense space dubbed the ‘cathedral’ which is the setting for a sound and light show.
8. Fairy grotto, St Maurice, Vaud
Set in a mountain above St Maurice, this was the first cave in Switzerland to be open to the public, back in the 19th century. The unusual rock formations have given rise to several legends over the years, including that of fairy Frisette, who lived in the cave and protected a nearby noble family.
9. St Beatus caves, Interlaken, Bern
Photo: St Beatus caves
Hike down to 1,000m below the surface in these limestone caves on the shore of Lake Thun to find waterfalls, ancient rock formations and eerie passageways. There was once believed to be a dragon lurking down here – it was driven away by Irish monk Beatus, who found refuge there in the 6th century and gives the caves his name.
10. Hell’s grotto, Baar, Zug
These dripstone caves were discovered in 1863 and opened to the public 20 years later. These days they are beautifully lit to showcase their natural rock formations, lakes and stalagmites. The history of the caves is told by a mischievous cave sprite in a free audioguide (in Swiss German) geared towards families.


Join the conversation in our comments section below. Share your own views and experience and if you have a question or suggestion for our journalists then email us at [email protected].
Please keep comments civil, constructive and on topic – and make sure to read our terms of use before getting involved.

Please log in to leave a comment.

See Also