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Nine maps that help you understand Switzerland today

Small in size, Switzerland is big on diversity. Here are nine maps that help you understand this curious country.

Nine maps that help you understand Switzerland today
The 26 cantons of Switzerland with their crests and major cities. Image: Wikicommons.

Indeed, while its reputation as a neutral country might suggest the Confoederatio Helvetica is homogenous, its federal structure and regional variations can mean it has more in common with the United States than its European neighbours. 

And while you’d have to live in Switzerland to truly get a feel for it, some Swiss residents who have lived there for years still feel a little foreign when stepping outside their home canton. 

See more: Seven diverse maps that explain Berlin

So whether you’re thinking of making a trip to Switzerland, or if you’ve lived there for as long as you remember, these maps can help you make a little sense of the country. 


First things first, Switzerland is known for its linguistic diversity. 

While the country is one of the smallest in Europe – it finds itself out of the top 30, behind countries like Denmark, Estonia, Iceland and Ireland – it supports four native languages, while English is also widely spoken. 

Röstigraben: What is Switzerland’s invisible language and culture barrier?

German – or more specifically Swiss German – is the largest native language in Switzerland, spoken by around 65 percent of the population. 

Around 25 percent of the population live in Romandy, the French-speaking west of Switzerland. 

Around eight per cent of Swiss speak Italian as their primary language, while approximately one percent speak Romansh. 

READ MORE: Everything you need to know about Romansh, Switzerland’s fourth official language

The four native languages of Switzerland. Image: Wikicommons

…and what about English?

Switzerland prides itself on its multi-lingual nature, which makes it all the more surprising that the country sits so low on the global scale of English speakers. 

As The Local covered early in November, Switzerland has dropped to 19th in the world for English proficiency, down from 12th just two years ago. 

It hasn’t been an even fall however, with the lowest level of English in both the French and Italian-speaking regions. 

Switzerland’s English proficiency by canton. Image: Education First

Cantons of Switzerland 

Switzerland is made up of 26 ‘sovereign’ cantons.

Pursuant to the Swiss constitution, federal law does not limit that of the cantons, except in relation to a handful of issues including military, currency, telecommunications and postal services, immigration, criminal law and foreign affairs. 

The reaction to the Covid pandemic – where measures differed widely from one canton to another – was a sign of how ‘sovereign’ Switzerland’s cantons consider themselves to be. 

The cantons vary widely in population and in area. Zurich is the largest canton with a population of approximately 1.5 million, while Appenzell Innerrhoden is the smallest with a population of just 16,000. 

Area wise, the Basel City State is the smallest at 37 square kilometres, while the canton of Graubünden/Grisons is the largest at 7,105 kilometres squared. 

The 26 cantons of Switzerland. Image: Wikicommons

Die Dreizehn Alten Orte (the Thirteen Old Cantons)

In the 16th century, the Original Swiss Confederacy was made up of 13 states, before expanding to 19 and later to 22 in the early 1800s. 

Jura was the most recent canton to join the list, splitting from Bern in 1979. 

The thirteen cantons which formerly made up the Swiss Confederacy. Image: Wikicommons

The small Swiss town of Moutier is the latest to indicate a desire to change things up, with a 2017 referendum seeing a majority of residents wanting to leave Bern and join neighbouring Jura. 

In 2017 the Neue Zürcher Zeitung discussed a proposal to reduce the overall number of cantons to 12, while in 2014 state broadcaster SRF considered a proposal reducing the number to nine, but the ideas failed to gain much traction. 

The right to vote in Switzerland

Switzerland’s peculiar federal structure can lead to odd results, particularly when it comes to democracy. As a stable country which in many ways represents liberal Western European values, it comes as a surprise to some just how recently women were allowed to vote in some parts of the country. 

Due to Switzerland’s unusual system of referenda, only those who were currently allowed to vote would be allowed to vote on an expansion of the electorate – which explains why a 1959 men-only vote resulted in 67 percent of electors rejecting expanding voting rights to women. 

EXPLAINED: What happened after Swiss women got the right to vote in 1971?

Women got the right to vote at a federal level in 1971.

Granting the right to vote at a cantonal level took much longer however, with women granted the right to vote in the final canton – Appenzell Innerrhoden – in 1990. 

The right to vote in Switzerland in each canton. Image: Wikicommons

Swiss culinary specialties

Something that might elicit a chuckle out of your average Swiss is the tourist walking into a Swiss delicatessen and asking for a piece of Swiss cheese. 

While ‘Swiss cheese’ might be one of the best known Swiss foods across the globe, Switzerland itself has more than 450 kinds of cheese – only some of which are the traditional emmenthal (and few of which actually have the ‘holes’ which are commonly thought to be part and parcel of Swiss cheese). 

In addition to more than 450 types of cheese, many of Switzerland’s regions have their own culinary specialities. 

Ridiculous or genius? Meet the British man selling cheese to the Swiss

Some of these are tasty and some are downright weird, but often they’ll be ever present in one town, canton or region – and inexistent just a few kilometres away. 

The following map, put out by the Swiss government, shows some of the more common specialities. 

It also contains some Swiss stats, such as the fact that the Swiss eat more than 10.3 kilograms of chocolate per year. 

Swiss culinary heritage. Image: Swiss government.

Purchasing power

Switzerland is a lot of things – but it sure ain’t cheap. OK, so it’s a worn out theme, but it still bears repeating. 

Although you’re unlikely to find a cheap area of Switzerland to live in, there ARE some areas which are cheaper than others – particularly if you’re employed. 

As we covered recently, the place with the highest disposable income is the central canton of Zug, where residents have an average of CHF70,500 per year in disposable income. 

READ MORE: Which Swiss canton has the most millionaires?

At the other end of the spectrum, Jura has the lowest disposable income, with an annual figure of CHF36,220. 

Purchasing power in Switzerland (2018). Image: GFK

Where in Switzerland do all the foreigners live?

Almost one third of adult residents of Switzerland are born outside the country – but where in Switzerland do they all live? We take a closer look.

Figures from the Swiss Federal Statistical Office have provided a breakdown of where foreigners live in Switzerland – and how many there are. 

READ MORE: Where in Switzerland do all the international residents live?

Among Swiss residents 15 years of age and over, 30.2 percent are not born in Switzerland – a total of 2,165,000 people out of just over seven million people in Switzerland aged 15 or over. The total population of Switzerland is 8.5 million.

The following map, which contains figures from 2019, provides a geographical indication of where the foreigners live in Switzerland. 

As you can see, foreigners can be found all across Switzerland, but there is a particular concentration in the west of the country around Geneva and Vaud, and in the north of the country in Zurich and Aargau. 

A map showing where foreigners live in Switzerland. Photo: Wikicommons.

Religion in Switzerland

Due at least in part to immigration, Switzerland is a diverse country where many religions are celebrated. 

However, the country’s Christian heritage can still be clearly seen in many ways.

The name one of the country’s major political parties – the Christian Democratic Party – has a clear nod to these Christian beginnings, while a look at the most popular names of men and women in the country clearly shows how prevalent Christian names are. 

Nationwide maps also show the influence of religion. 

Around 36 percent of Swiss identify as Catholic, with a following 24 percent identifying as Protestant. 

A further 6 percent were Christians of various denominations, followed by 5.4 percent Muslims and around three percent of other religions. 

The following map shows which denominations are stronger in which regions. Catholicism is popular in the south and centre of the country, while protestantism is more popular in Romandie, Bern and Zurich. 

Religions in Switzerland. Photo: Von Tschubby – Eigenes Werk, CC BY-SA 3.0,

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OPINION: A lower retirement age for women in Switzerland can no longer be justified

Having a lower retirement age for women is a throwback to more patronising times, yet the Swiss government has struggled to introduce parity in this area for decades. As the latest reform attempt comes to a popular vote, Clare O’Dea asks what’s behind female resistance to this change.

OPINION: A lower retirement age for women in Switzerland can no longer be justified

The retirement age in Switzerland is 64 for women and 65 for men. For generations of Swiss people, this differential treatment is standard. The gap used to be bigger. From 1962 to 1997, women retired at 62.
On September 25, Swiss voters will have their say on a reform of the state pension system (AHV / AVS), which would raise the retirement age for women to 65 and use a VAT hike to help finance pensions. The Old Age and Survivors’ Insurance has been running a deficit since 2014 and this reform is billed as a crucial package to keep it viable.

Is earlier retirement for women a historical benefit worth defending or should it be abandoned in the interests of fairness and financial good sense? If women voters alone could decide, the proposal would be rejected.

READ ALSO: Reader question: How long must I work in Switzerland to qualify for a pension?

According to the most recent poll, 64 per cent of women intend to vote against the reform, while 71 of male voters approve of the law. This is a much higher gender difference than is usually seen, even in sex-specific voting issues. These numbers, if sustained, would ultimately deliver a yes vote but leave a bitter taste for women.

As a woman who will be directly affected by this decision in the not-too-distant future – well, 15 years from now – and someone who made all the classic gender-based “mistakes” when it comes to my own pension provision, I don’t see this potential change as a threat. If anything, it is an opportunity, a wake-up call.
Swiss women earn less than men over their lifetimes for several well-documented yet seemingly unshakable reasons. Mostly these relate directly or indirectly to time spent caring for children or other family members.

Caring responsibilities, even the hypothetical possibility of such responsibilities, influence women’s career choices, the number of hours they work, and their income. This burden also influences how women are perceived and rewarded as employees.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How does the Swiss pension system work – and how much will I receive?

But there is also a kind of fatalism on the part of women in long-term partnerships who know they can’t sustain a career as the “main earner” without a “wife-like” partner to rely on, so they do not try. Divorced women usually find it’s too late to catch up.

Three things that are bad for pension provision are career interruptions, part-time hours and lower pay. Yet this is the norm for most working women over the long term, mothers in particular.

As I see it, there are three ways to improve matters. Either women change to behave more like male workers, the system changes to accommodate existing patterns better, or we change the existing family patterns altogether.


The problem is that mother workers can only become more like father workers when men pick up the slack (choosing family-friendly jobs, reducing their hours, taking family-centred career breaks, leaning in at home). Where else will the spare capacity come from?

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Everything you need to know about retiring in Switzerland

I think all three changes need to happen in parallel. Some progress has already been made. There is no point in hanging around with the retirement age reform. It’s one of the few changes that can be achieved with the stroke of a pen.

Those campaigning against harmonising the retirement age say that all the other things dragging down women’s lifetime earnings – the structure of the labour market, lack of affordable childcare, gender pay gap, the persistence of traditional gender roles – need to be fixed first before we demand an extra year of work from women. That seems defeatist and totally impractical to me.

The priority for all is to avoid women having a much greater risk of poverty in old age as they do now, especially divorced women and widows.

Swiss women currently receive 37 percent less than men through all three types of pension provision combined – the state pension, occupational schemes and private pension. The picture in Switzerland is worse than in most industrialised countries because of the prevalence of part-time work for women – a double-edged sword.

Swiss voters turned down two previous proposals to level up the retirement age for women – in 2004 and 2017. However, taking into account the compensatory measures included in the current reform, that potential extra working year should not be viewed as a penalty.

READ ALSO: Reader question: Can I take my pension money with me when I leave Switzerland?

If that year is spent working, not only will the women have their salary, but they will also have the opportunity to contribute a bit more to the two other streams of pension funding – occupational pensions and voluntary private pensions.

Working also means being physically active, having more social interactions and stimulating your brain. These are all pillars of brain health that help protect against the onset of dementia, a disease that women are twice as likely to suffer from.

The absolute refusal to acknowledge that an ageing population and increasing life expectancy require changes to long-standing pension norms is one of the blind spots of the Left in Switzerland. According to the UBS International Pension Gap Index, the proportion of active (working) to retired people will decrease from the current level of 3 to 1 down to 2 to 1 by 2050.

The reasons why Swiss women should retire one year earlier than men are lost of the mists of time. Well, not quite, there was some talk of “physiological disadvantage” and wives keeping their older retired husbands company. It seems rather silly now.

The final justification left for an early exit from the workforce is that it offers some compensation for all the other financial injustices. That’s a passive rather than an active approach to our problems. I see this reform as part of the solution. Let’s get on with it.