Top reads: 11 classic books about Switzerland

From Mark Twain to James Baldwin, American-Swiss author Ashley Curtis takes us on a tour for some of the best books ever written about Switzerland. Read on!

Top reads: 11 classic books about Switzerland
US author James Baldwin wrote about his experiences at the 'first black man' in the Swiss village of Leukerbad. Photo: Ralph Gatti/AFP

Henry James, Transatlantic Sketches, 1875.

James’s wit, erudition and awesome powers of observation animate the Switzerland he travelled through in a manner that is still vivid today. Everything James casts his eye on, from village fountains to the ugliness of the Bernese, from British tourists fretting about their bathtubs to the wars of the great Grey Leagues, dances and dazzles in his prose. Not all of the “sketches”concern Switzerland, but there are enough that do to make this collection one of my very favourites.

D.H. Lawrence, Twilight in Italy, 1916.

Despite the title, there is a lot here on Switzerland, which Lawrence walked across in 1912. Lawrence’s delightfully sour take on the country makes for a bracing read, especially in moments when you are fed up with Swissness!

Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad, 1878.

Twain’s hilarious and good-natured take on everything from bedbugs to beggars renders his serious moments all the more profound.

Alexandre Dumas, Travels in Switzerland (Impressions de Voyage, en Suisse), 1832.

Dumas is as funny as Twain, but more rambunctious and high-spirited. His spirits are so high, in fact, that you might doubt the veracity of all of his details—but you are so taken with them that you won’t care.

Helen Maria Williams, A Tour in Switzerland, 1798.

An abolitionist and influential supporter of the French Revolution, Williams was imprisoned once during the Reign of Terror and a second time by Napoleon. After her release from prison in 1793 she fled to Switzerland and travelled about the country with her (still married) lover. A Tour in Switzerland is just that, and Williams’s observations about the many places she visits are incisive and heartfelt.

Read also: Six authors who found inspiration in Switzerland

Her account of the over-the-top pomp surrounding the installation of a Swiss-German bailiff to rule over what is now Ticino is a hilarious tour-de-force, and her comparisons of Milton’s Satan with the Devil who is said to have built the Gotthard road demonstrate how much our views of the landscape have changed since her time.

Elizabeth Robins Pennell, Over the Alps on a Bicycle, 1898.

In the late 1890s the American art critic Elizabeth Robins Pennell crossed ten Swiss passes on her bicycle (which bore little resemblance to today’s mountain bikes!) Her accounts range from caustic to swooning.

James Baldwin, Stranger in the Village, 1953.

Baldwin spent the winters of 1952 and 1953 in the small village of Leukerbad in the Valais working on his novel, Go Tell it on the Mountain. This essay from Notes of a Native Son depicts his reception by children and adults who had never seen a black man before.

Vincent Carter, The Bern Book, 1973.

Carter claimed to have been the only black person living in Bern in the 1950s. The Bern Book: A Record of a Voyage of the Mind is a phantasmagoria, a mix of fact, fancy and fiction that has been compared to Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy.

Mark Morrison-Reed, In Between: Memoirs of an Integration Baby, 2009.

Morrison-Reed’s personal account of growing up black during the era of the civil rights movement includes two years as an adolescent in Switzerland, the first in Bern and the second at the Ecole d’Humanité in Hasliberg (BE). His description of the treatment he received at the hands of gawking Swiss and racist Americans provides much food for thought about the different types of prejudice that were prevalent in the two countries. Morrison-Reed also writes about the far more diverse Switzerland he encountered on his visits to the country in later decades.

Thomas Coryat, Coryat’s Crudities, 1611,

Switzerland as seen through the eyes of a former jester at the court of James I is spicy, ribald, and down-to-earth Shakespearean. Coryat’s account of his five-month foot-tour of Europe, with a significant section on Switzerland, is worth it for the title alone—Coryat’s Crudities: hastily gobled up in five moneths travells in France, Savoy, Italy, Rhetia commonly called the Grisons country, Helvetia alias Switzerland, some parts of high Germany and the Netherlands: newly digested in the hungry aire of Odcombe in the county of Somerset, and now dispersed to the nourishment of the travelling members of this kingdome. When he returned to England, Coryat introduced the table fork, which he found in use in Italy, to his countrymen—who have been using them ever since.

John Ruskin, Modern Painters Volume IV, 1856

This volume of Ruskin’s great work is dedicated to the Alps and contains the sections “Mountain Gloom”and “Mountain Glory,”with profound reflections on life in Switzerland that delve into the misery of its impoverished peasants and the destructive influence of the newly burgeoning tourist trade.

Ashley Curtis is the author of “O Switzerland!“: Travelers’s Accounts, 57 BCE to the present (Bergli Books, 2018) and of Why Do the Swiss Have Such Great Sex?, also published by Bergli.

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Your complete guide to Switzerland’s best Christmas markets in 2019

Christmas is just around the corner, which means its just about time to don a winter hat and get a hot cup of Glühwein. Here are the ten best Christmas markets in Switzerland.

Your complete guide to Switzerland's best Christmas markets in 2019
The Christmas market in Montreux. Photo: Depositphotos

Every diverse region of Switzerland celebrates Christmas with its own cultural tradition, and there's no better way of experiencing these differences than by visiting a local Christmas market. 

While some run for almost a month, others only last a weekend – so make sure to get in while you can. 


Photo: Interlaken Tourism

The Christmas Market in Interlaken is built around the massive Ice Magic skating complex (3000 square metres), which features five rinks all linked by runways.

If you're not confident on the ice, fear not. You can sign up for skating lessons and, bringing a taste of Scotland to Swiss markets, there is also a curling lane available for booking. 

Of course, there's also more than 100 stalls to browse and a chalet-style restaurant to enjoy. The market runs from December 14th until 22nd, but Ice Magic opens on December 14th (running into the new year). 


Photo: Montreux Noel

Now in its 24th year, the Christmas Market in Montreux is known for its grandeur and spectacle. Stretching along the lake promenade (which is, of course, specially lit up for the occasion), the market offers thousands of gift ideas for grown-ups and children alike.

New attractions this year include a 3D light show, craft workshops for kids, a gourmet area and an open-late bar. Or just stick with the classics and visit Santa Claus, enjoy the carnival rides then wash it all down with some tasty grub and Glühwein.

Runs from November 21st to December 24th.



The Christmas Market in Basel is said to be the oldest in Switzerland, and the people living in the city are well known for getting into the festive spirit with lights and decorations.

No wonder, then, that there are not one but three Christmas Markets to enjoy there. Basel's offering is known as one of the biggest and best markets in Switzerland and was recently voted as the 8th best in Europe – so naturally there is a whole lot of fun to be had.

The children's railway, craft workshops, the delicious Basel Läckerli (a hard, spiced type of biscuit) and performances from the Basel Music Academy are just some of the reasons you might want to stop by. The markets run from November 28th until December 23rd. More information can be found here.


Photo: Christof Sonderegger/Swiss Image

Einsiedeln might be small, but its Christmas Market is known as one of Switzerland’s best. As well as offering 130 stalls, the market is said to be the home of the world’s largest nativity scene – with a whopping 450 colourful figurines telling the story of the birth of Jesus.

The stunning backdrop of the Benedictine Einsiedeln Abbey and its twin spires adds to the fairy-tale feeling and the nearby gingerbread museum really puts the icing on the Christmas cake (gingerbread is a local speciality).

You'll have to get in early to catch it though; it runs from November 30th until December 8th.


Photo: Weihnachtsmarkt der Sinne Facebook Page

Like Einsiedeln, Zofingen isn’t the biggest. But its “Christmas Market of the Senses” is worthy of a mention for the remarkable way it offers guests a sensory experience. 

The market provides more than 200 stalls within the cosy old town setting, as well as a section just for “medieval” wares – and there’s a support programme to keep you entertained too. Short and sweet, the market runs from December 6th to December 8th.

St Gallen

Photo: Photo: St.Gallen-Bodensee Tourismus

The Christmas Market in St Gallen is another popular one – and for good reason. During advent, the city is lit up by 700 stars, covering the streets and the stunning medieval abbey district.

Guests can enjoy an advent tour of the city and a concert within a UNESCO World Heritage site cathedral. The market features a selection of handmade products and, for any carnivores out there, the region’s traditional sausage is well worth trying.

The St Gallen Christmas market runs from November 24th until Christmas Eve. 


The medieval town of Bremgarten in Aargau hosts one of Switzerland’s bigger Christmas Markets, with more than 320 stalls filled with trinkets and delicacies to browse.

It is well worth a visit if only so you can say that you've been – but be warned; the Bremgarten market is popular and is usually very, very busy as it takes place only on one weekend.

In 2019, the market will take place from December 5th until the 8th. 


Photo: Christkindlimä 

Flying perhaps a little under the radar, the Christkindlimärt in Willisau, canton Lucerne, is nonetheless a bit of a favourite with locals.

The romantic old-town setting and the daily performances compliment the festive feeling and there’s a packed programme to keep the kids happy.

Don’t miss the yodelling Christmas concert, and make sure you try some Ringli – a sweet local delicacy that's a bit like a very crispy doughnut.

Running for just three days, the Christkindlimärt opens on December 6th and closes on December 8th.


Photo: Ticino Tourism Facebook Page

Ticino is always worth a visit but perhaps even more so when it’s Christmas time.

Featuring a market inside a UNESCO World Heritage site castle, a massive (2000 square metre) ice rink in Locarno’s Piazza Grande and all the usual festive fun with a distinctly Mediterranean flavour, this one is not to be missed.

Dates vary in different places, so be sure to triple check before you head in. Some only run for a short period of time – with the market in Locarno open for just one day (December 8th). 


Set in and around the town’s stunning medieval castle, the Christmas Market in Yverdon-les-Bains is a mostly traditional affair that is notable for being a little more relaxing than some of its peers. You’re unlikely to have to fight your way through the crowd here, giving you more time to enjoy a few drinks and soak up the Christmas spirit. The stalls mostly feature regional produce (including local beers) and there’s also an ice-rink to enjoy too.


For more than 30 years, Bern's Christmas Market has aimed to offer guests what it calls a quiet and sensitive take on Christmas markets. Featuring arts and crafts of the “highest quality”, the market is set in front of the imposing Munster cathedral and runs from December 1st to December 24th. It also runs entirely on renewable Swiss energy. 



Neuchatel’s Christmas Market has been dubbed Switzerland’s “largest indoor market of craft-creators” and organisers put a particular emphasis on showcasing the region’s craft and culinary specialities. Plus, the fact that it is indoors means you won’t have to worry about the weather. The market runs from December 8th to December 16th.


Photo: Morgesmarchedenoel Instagram

The Christmas Market in Morges isn't the biggest but it does win points for its historic qualities as it is set in and around a castle that dates back to the 13th century. This year, the castle grounds will be home to 20 chalets that surround a large tented restaurant area. There will also be a healthy selection of artisan stalls and attractions to keep children interested.  


Every year, Lucerne's Franciscan square in the heart of the city's old town is converted into a winter wonderland full of colourful wooden houses. Nestled away from the hustle and bustle of the city centre, the market is rightfully known as being one of Switzerland's most attractive.

With around 70 stalls to enjoy and a variety of entertainment for children, the market runs from December 5th to December 22nd.


Christmas in Lausanne is like nowhere else. “Traditional but extremely modern” is the tagline they like to use and they certainly back it up. The annual festival of lights sees installations set up all over town, and even though they sometimes have very little to do with Christmas, they do help boost spirits. 

Markets in Lausanne are actually held in three different locations, each with its own style. There's lots for the kids to enjoy, a nice selection of local craftwork to browse and, of course, lots of wine. Markets run between November 20th and December 31st. More information on locations can be found here.

A version of this story was originally published in November 2018.