While scenic Alpine regions are a must for any visit, Switzerland’s cosmopolitan cities are also well worth a visit.
Most incorporate Old Town districts with well-preserved scenic squares, ancient churches, and handsome monuments that attract walkers, picture-takers, and history-lovers. Bustling markets (especially around holidays) keep these areas lively — and especially tempting to shoppers.
Among the most notable: Basel, Switzerland’s only port, has a 15th-century city center that serves as the backdrop for its daily market. Architectural gems from that era include the Town Hall and Basel Cathedral, a symphony in pale red sandstone topped with Gothic towers.
Train travelers to Bern, Switzerland’s capital, arrive in one of the country’s most vibrant and modern train stations. It belies the historic city that stands above it. Thanks to its perfectly intact Old Town, Bern was designated a UNESCO landmark in 1983.
Zurich, at the edge of Lake Zurich and surrounded by forests, is Switzerland’s largest metropolis and a haven for shoppers. Large department stores, small boutiques, flea markets, and world-class auction galleries all contain treasures. Like most big cities, it has museums and galleries, dance clubs, bars, and cultural events to keep visitors entertained. Zurich West is the trendy neighborhood to see.
If you want to explore Zurich on foot, start from the train station, a focal point thanks to its central location and proximity to the wealth of shopping on Bahnhofstrasse. Then head for the Old Town. Climb the hill to arrive at historic Lindenhof plaza, originally settled by the Romans. Its three distinguished churches include the Fraumünster, whose fanciful stained glass windows by Marc Chagall delight and inspire.
Serious without being stuffy, Geneva is home to the European headquarters of the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and many other global organizations. While it’s common to see their representatives hobnobbing in hotel lobbies, the view few can ignore is Mont Blanc, the continent’s highest mountain.
Closer in, Jet d’Eau, a 420-foot-tall water geyser, streams into Lake Geneva. Inline skaters, lovers strolling arm-in-arm, and entire families licking ice cream cones are all drawn to the waterfront parks. The young – and young-at-heart – visit the bistro by the beach for a snack and to watch mouettes (small boats) sail between the banks.
Geneva’s shopping district, with its luxury boutiques and markets, occupies the Left Bank. A waterfront park sprinkled with sculptures and the world’s largest flower clock completes the picture. Its Old Town is dotted with antique stores, art galleries, and small boutiques. And do take time to visit the Watch & Clock Museum.
Sunny communities nestled between Lake Geneva, Montreux and Vevey sport lush vegetation not usually seen in these latitudes, such as palm trees and magnolias, and fig and almond trees. A 9.4-mile lakeside promenade connects the two locales, which are favorite vacation destinations that boast hotels dating back to the Belle Époque and world-class cultural events.
Since these areas’ mild climate yields wonderful wines, pause for a tasting. Vineyards can be explored on foot or by bicycle. Their well-marked trails afford spectacular views, and pleasant beaches invite you to test the waters. A number of train excursions bring visitors to the nearby mountains. The MOB train Golden Pass connects Montreux to Gstaad and continues further to Lucerne.
Beside a lake surrounded by mountains, picture-book-pretty Lucerne is yet another easy-to-reach Swiss city. Its lakeside promenade; historic, car-free Old Town; museums; and cultural events all inspire guests to linger. If you set out on a walking tour, stop and marvel at the covered Chapel Bridge that spans Reuss River.
In the afternoon, take refuge in one of the town’s ten museums – including the Swiss Transport Museum and the Picasso collection. Scenery lovers can hop a steamboat and sail Lake Lucerne, or take a nostalgic mountain railway to one of the surrounding summits. Life looks better, and the air is sweetest, at such aeries.