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Why is everything in Switzerland closed on Sundays – and what can you do instead?

Sunday is a traditional day of rest in Switzerland and much of the country pretty much shuts down. This is why, and what you can do instead.

Why is everything in Switzerland closed on Sundays - and what can you do instead?
You can't even buy a tuba on Sunday in Switzerland. Photo: Pixabay

If you come from a country with a 24/7 retail culture — the United States, the UK, and Australia, to mention just a few —  then Switzerland’s limited shopping hours will come as a shock and disappointment.

Logic would have it that if people have a day off work on Sunday, they might want to use it to shop — either to stock up on groceries and other basic necessities for the whole week, or just indulge in some relaxing ‘retail therapy’.

If this is your thing, then Switzerland is definitely not for you.

Swiss businesses — including shops — can open from Monday to Friday between 6am and 9pm, and on Saturdays until 6pm.  However, even within these parameters, it is rare to find a store that stays open until 9pm.

Why is this?

Historically, the reason in this Christian country was that Sunday should be a day of worship, not work.

With time, however, the religious aspect has diminished, as has church attendance: studies show that the number of people who belong to the Catholic and Swiss Reformed churches has continued to fall in Switzerland.

Also, trade unions have stepped up their campaign against Sunday shop openings on the grounds that they prevent retail personnel from enjoying a day of rest spent with their families.

For instance, Switzerland’s largest labour group, the Swiss Federation of Trade Unions (UNIA), argues that “it is not acceptable to subject humans to the pursuit of profit by forcing them to work 7 days a week in sectors where it is not essential”.

READ MORE: Everything foreigners need to know about trade unions in Switzerland

The work-life balance for retail workers has had a strong support of most Swiss consumers as well. Time and again the issue of Sunday shop openings is brought to the ballot box in various cantons and municipalities, and rejected by voters.

For this very same reason, Switzerland’s employment law generally prohibits the employment of staff on Sundays, with a few exceptions (see below).

A number of readers of The Local had weighed in on this issue as well:

Your views: ‘No Sunday shopping is one of the best things about Zurich’

Is everything closed on Sundays? What if I have to buy a loaf of bread or an unusually large amount of cheese?

Don’t worry, you won’t have to starve.

The law allows certain retailers to stay open on Sundays — for instance, small ‘convenience’ shops at petrol and train stations. Stores are also open at airports (even though there are only three in Switzerland) and in some tourist spots in the mountains.

Keep in mind that these are likely to be more expensive than Swiss supermarkets, so plan ahead and only buy items which are absolutely essential. 

Cost of living: How to save on groceries in Switzerland

Some larger stores will also be allowed to open in the run up to Christmas. 

If you find your cupboards are bare on a Sunday, you can still eat out. 

Many bakeries are open on Sunday mornings, are as coffee shops, tea rooms and restaurants.

So while it seems that life in Switzerland comes to a standstill on Sundays, it doesn’t completely. 

There are, however, limits to what you can (and can’t) do

As The Local has reported on several occasions, Sundays are special days in Switzerland, and not just because of the no-shopping rule.

In Switzerland, Sundays are considered rest days, so your neighbours’ peace and quiet should not be disrupted by any loud sound — such as  a lawn mower, hedge cutter, nail being hammered into a wall, or even the sound of glass bottles being tossed into a communal recycling bin.

Also, you cannot hang your laundry out to dry, as the sight of your undies may be offensive to your neighbours on a Sunday.

And you thought shop closures were your biggest problem. 

READ MORE: Nine ways you might be annoying your neighbours (and not realising it) in Switzerland

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CULTURE

EXPLAINED: When should you greet a Swiss person?

The Swiss have very specific etiquette rules and are sticklers for complying with each one, including when and how to greet friends and strangers. Here's how you can navigate this sometimes complicated web.

EXPLAINED: When should you greet a Swiss person?

You are probably already accustomed to routinely greeting your friends, acquaintances, boss, co-workers, and hopefully neighbours too.

You might even be aware that saying hello (in whichever of the three national languages you speak) to your doctor, dentist, or staff in various administrative or business offices is also de rigueur.

But what about strangers — should you greet them as well?

If you think saying grüezi, bonjour, or buongiorno to people who randomly cross your life’s path is redundant, think again.

Not doing so could be taken as lack of integration — probably the worst mistake a foreigner in Switzerland could make, aside from breaking the law, asking for social assistance, or claiming Belgian chocolate is tastier than Swiss.

READ MORE: 14 mistakes foreigners make on moving to Switzerland

In fact, in some places not saying ‘hello’ could deprive you of Swiss citizenship.

There is an actual case of this happening: in 2016, a family from Kosovo was denied their request for naturalisation in Bubendorf, Basel-Country, because they did not greet people they passed in the street (as well as wearing sweatpants). 

While this is probably an extreme example, the fact remains that greeting people, especially those in your village, is a must (whether or not you are in a habit of wearing your jogging bottoms).

It is all the more important in smaller communities where you are likely to meet the same  people over and over again, and your faux-pas are more likely to be noticed, remembered, and held against you for all eternity.

It is not an impossible scenario in a small community that a person you snub on the street just happens to sit on your local naturalisation committee.

READ MORE: 16 ways to make your life in Switzerland easier without really trying

But this also holds true in general, even in situations where you won’t see the same person / people ever again. For instance:

  • When you enter a small store, café or restaurant, say hello the moment you set your foot inside; when departing, say auf wiedersehen, au revoir, or arrivederci.
  • And if you are in a store and need assistance from a staff member, start with a hello and not an ‘excuse me’.
  • The same greeting etiquette applies when you enter or leave an elevator or any other closed space where you encounter people.
  • This may not be the case in larger cities, but in small towns you should actually greet bus drivers and passengers, bidding them goodbye when you leave. You may be surprised to discover they respond in kind.
  • It is also common to say hello to people you meet on hiking trails or other walks — the rule of the thumb is that if your paths cross, a greeting is in order.

Greeting people on hiking trails in a must. Photo: Pixabay

How do you greet people?

For eons and up until March 2020, the Swiss just loved to say ‘hi’ and ‘bye ‘with a three-cheek kiss.

It didn’t matter whether they knew someone for a long time or for five minutes —the right cheek-left cheek-right cheek ritual was practiced with everyone they met.

Thankfully, this custom has fallen victim to the pandemic and nobody can predict whether it will fully ever re-emerge but, at least for the time being, there is a reprieve from this virus-friendly way of interacting.

Instead the ‘elbow touch’ became the new ‘normal’ way of greeting people.

However, neither the three-cheek-peck nor the elbow bump are considered as signs of successful integration.

As far as we know, practicing either or both will not help anyone obtain Swiss citizenship, though the rules may change.

READ MORE: Nine ways you might be annoying your neighbours (and not realising it) in Switzerland

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