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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

Brothers keep Swiss mountains in high spirits

Depopulation threatens the future of Switzerland's picturesque mountain villages, but three brothers are trying to keep theirs alive by capturing its essence in a bottle.

Brothers keep Swiss mountains in high spirits

In the one-road hamlet of Souboz, nearly 900 metres (2,950 feet) up in the Jura mountains, the nature-loving Gyger brothers distill whatever they forage, such as gentian roots and juniper, in a bid to sustain the local economy.

Switzerland is trying to stave off the slow-motion extinction of its remote communities as young people move to the cities for jobs and opportunities.

Thanks to a grant from the Swiss Mountain Aid foundation, the Gygers were able transform their grandfather’s old home into the Gagygnole distillery,
turning professional a couple of years ago.

The name comes from eldest brother Gaetan’s nickname Gagy, and gnole — French slang for a drop of the hard stuff.

On the ground floor of an old farmhouse, the scent of coriander and juniper berries hangs in the air, while warmth emanates from the 2.5-metre-high copper still in which Gaetan distills gin over a wood fire.

“This production site has been in our lives since we were very young. We really have roots anchored in our village,” he told AFP.
 An agronomist by training, Gaetan, now 30, had studied in Geneva.

“We didn’t want to set up in the city,” he said, despite the bigger potential client base.

 Mountains in Swiss DNA

The brothers’ choice is a rare one in Switzerland.

The mountains cover 70 percent of the country, but three-quarters of the population lives on the plain between the Juras in the north and the Alps in
the south and east.

Geneva, Lausanne, Bern and Zurich all lie in the area of relatively flat terrain between the two mountain ranges.

The mountain villages are emptying, their grocery stores are closing and, as in Souboz, the schools are shutting, too, as the population gradually
shifts ever more towards the lower-lying towns and cities.

The population of Souboz has dropped from 135 in 2012 to 85 last year.

Faced with the slow-motion exodus, some villages are trying everything they can to reverse the tide, including financial incentives to attract newcomers,
such as offering empty houses for a symbolic sum of one Swiss franc.

READ MORE: ‘Impossible’: Why Switzerland’s one franc homes are too good to be true

And Swiss Mountain Aid provides funding to hundreds of entrepreneurs, such as the Gyger brothers, to bring jobs and business to the hills.

The mountains are “part of our genes, our DNA”, but “if we want to keep the mountains alive, there must be people”, said the foundation’s chairman Willy Gehriger. “We act like the spark,” he explained.

Established in 1943 to help lift mountain dwellers out of poverty, the privately-funded foundation mainly supported farmers initially — but broadened its scope around a dozen years ago. Now it helps small businesses, installs Wi-Fi, pays for computer courses and funds the transformation of dilapidated listed buildings into tourist accommodation.

Gehriger said the agricultural sector alone was no longer enough to keep the mountains thriving.

 Message in a bottle

 Dressed in baseball caps and t-shirts and armed with an iPad, the Gygers are far from the stocky, rustic, grumpy stereotype of mountain men.They are on a mission to repopulate Souboz and revive the economy in the local Juras.

“We’re aware of doing something good for Souboz. Our mountain regions have enormous potential. They’re really something that we Swiss should be proud of,” said middle brother Luca, 27.

Their gamble has paid off as the family business has a handful of employees and occasionally takes on local artisans and farmers to help bottle up the
brothers’ original gin, whisky and vodka recipes.

Last year, they produced 18,000 bottles of spirits.

Gagygnole’s eaux de vie are sold in 200 shops around Switzerland and one of their concoctions was voted the best gin in the country last year — while the brothers’ gin fondue is also a hit.

The Gygers think it is still too early to consider exporting.

“We always refused because it was difficult in terms of logistics, but why not… as long as it goes with our philosophy,” said 26-year-old Tim.
 

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