IN MY MIND, Switzerland is always snowy – and I imagine myself schussing down an alp. In reality, my chance to tour Switzerland came in summer and while the Alps were definitely there, no skiing was involved. Instead, my time was filled with hiking, biking, swimming and exploring – all the things that make for a great warm-weather Swiss holiday.
I began in Zurich, after a quick and convenient train ride from the airport – the first of many during this holiday. Train travel in Switzerland and on Swiss Rail is so precise that trains will be scheduled to leave at 8:03 am or 10:17 pm with no rounding up or down to the quarter hours. And you can be sure those trains swoosh into the station on schedule and leave exactly on time. The coaches are modern and spacious, with dining cars offering hot food as well as snacks. Even better, the Swiss Rail system also includes rides on premium panoramic trains and cable cars, free public transit in more than 90 towns and cities, half price on most mountain excursions and free admission to more than 500 museums. A first-class rail pass has all the makings of a great vacation in itself.
Train travel in Switzerland is the perfect way to see the country. Photo credit: Erik Suesskind / Rhaetische Bahn
Zurich in summer is all about strolling in the old town, where you’ll be fascinated by the ancient guild houses with their intricately carved signs showing that this was the gathering place for butchers, and that, for bakers. Today, many guild houses have been converted into restaurants, shops and hotels but that sense of reverence for the hard work of skilled craftsmen that lies at the heart of the Swiss sensibility remains.
A wander by Lake Zurich where a paved pathway stretches for miles is a good idea – you can stop and feed the very friendly swans. Later, use your Swiss Rail pass to hop on one of the lake boats that stop at various points and take a round-trip cruise to see the city from a watery perspective. A surprising summer treat in downtown Zurich are the baths – swimming clubs where, for a few Euros, you can pop into your bathing suit and enjoy either a fresh water pool or a swim in the very clean lake itself.
Though I’m usually a committed carnivore, no trip to Zurich would be complete without a dinner at Haus Hiltl, the world’s first vegetarian restaurant. This unassuming spot – also home to Switzerland’s first vegetarian “butcher” shop – has been serving up plant-based cuisine and freshly squeezed juices since 1898. The size and complexity of the menu is impressive – and a bit intimidating to the non-vegetarian diner – but the staff is more than willing to help and the enormous buffet offers so many choices, you’re bound to find something delicious.
Dining at Zurich's Haus Hiltl, the world's first vegetarian restaurant. Photo courtesy of Haus Hiltl.
The next stop was the small mountain town of Appenzell. With a population of less than 6,000, Appenzell is filled with gingerbread-trimmed shops, restaurants and small hotels, all with colourful facades. There seems to be a chocolate or cheese store on every corner and this is where the famous Appenzell cheese is made. Even the cows ringing their polished brass neck bells in the neighbouring farm fields are charmingly photogenic.
It would have been tempting to sit at one of the many outdoor cafés gazing at the mountains all day, but a summer holiday in Switzerland is all about healthy activity. On my first day in Appenzell, I saddled up and hit the hills on a bike. For 47 kms, I pumped up and down the slopes and though I did have the extra oomph provided by e-bike technology, it was a serious workout. But it wasn’t without its rewards. The bike rental company had created a package that included the day of cycling as well as four dining stops at restaurants dotted throughout the hilly countryside. I chose one for my soup course, another for salad, another for my main course and another for ice cream and tea. The food was delicious and made more so by the knowledge that I had pre-burned all the calories!
Bern's famous clocktower
The next morning, I hopped on yet another train for a short trip to Wasserauen followed by a cable car ride to the top of the Ebenalp for a walk down the beautiful mountainside. The sun was poking out when I reached the summit and finding the pretty, mountain-hugging Wildkirchli café was easy – a gentle incline and winding paths made it all very relaxing. I savoured my breakfast croissant, basked in the sun a bit, then headed off to start my climb down with the path proving to be fun but more challenging than I’d expected. I climbed carefully, hung on to the railing drilled into the mountainside and two hours later, I was at the bottom – and intact!
That evening, back in Appenzell an early dinner at Gasthaus Marktplatz beckoned, as did a huge plate of traditional pork schnitzel and spaetzle, a delicious pasta dish that accompanies so many Swiss meals. Complementing our meal was some traditional Appenzeller music played by a young musician on a dulcimer. The songs were clearly local favourites and many of my fellow diners joined in for a sing-along. It was here that I truly felt I’d found the heart of the Swiss mountains.
Hiking the scenic Ebenalp path. Photo credit: Christian Perret / Appenzellerland Tourismus AI
Though I would have enjoyed a summer sojourn in Appenzeller, my next train journey took me to the Swiss capital of Bern with its wonderful medieval old town, some buildings dating from the 12th century. There, I visited the Einstein House and Museum – both fascinating records of Bern’s most remarkable son and his achievements – and of course, a climb up into the famous Bern clocktower, the Zytglogge, to view its ancient inner workings was on the list.
By far my favourite aspect of the city, however, was something less well-known – a learning session at Art of Scent, a tiny elegant store in the city centre. There, owner Brigitte Witschi, introduced me to more than 20 different perfume essences and explained how she works with each client to create a scent that is entirely her own. Together in her tiny, elegant store, we sniffed and mixed and stirred, as Brigitte explained how various flowers, citrus, leaves etc. were processed to extract their delicate essence. I left, my custom scent in hand, smelling and feeling fabulous. It’s a lovely indulgence anyone with an afternoon in Bern can enjoy.
On my last train trip back to the airport, I gazed at field after field of picture-perfect cows, thought about the snowy ski runs I hadn’t explored but realized that the cycle-dining, downwards hiking and charming old towns had more than made up for them. Switzerland has the power to captivate in every season.
IF YOU GO: It’s easy to get to Switzerland via Air Canada and your travel advisor can give you tips on where to go and places to stay. Check out Swiss Tourism at www.info.caen@MySwitzerland.com
Written by Liz Fleming for Cruise & Travel Lifestyles (Summer 2019).