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Peak experiences in Switzerland
Switzerland is a paradox. It features breathtakingly pristine mountain, glacier and lake scenery alongside splendidly engineered craftsmanship, as evidenced by its watchmakers and prompt trains. A microcosm of Europe, it includes regions where you'll hear the languages of Germany, France and Italy, and discover the food, architecture and lifestyles of all those countries.
A nation proudly apart, neutral in wars, Switzerland isn't part of the European Union. And it represents a triumph over obstacles: with few natural resources and mountains covering more than 60 percent of its terrain, it built a banking empire as a survival strategy and became a premier tax haven with one of the world's highest standards of living.
Best-known for skiing and chic resorts like St. Moritz and Gstaad, Switzerland offers many surprises, from noteworthy art and architecture and wine and food scenes to a palm tree-filled region that's pure Mediterranean. Here's a look at some of the country's must-see destinations.
Ticino: A Taste of Italy
In Ticino, the Italian-speaking canton (state) that abuts Italy, La Dolce Vita meets Swiss efficiency in pastel-colored lake towns abloom with palm trees and flowers, less than an hour from the Alps by train or car, or 10 minutes by helicopter.
The town of Locarno on Lake Maggiore hosts a movie festival famous for premieres on Europe's biggest outdoor screen on Piazza Grande, an enormous square lined by Renaissance-style buildings in peach, pink and yellow, dramatically floodlit at night. The Locarno Film Festival draws more than 200,000 people each August.
Nearby Lugano, a city whose palm-studded promenade on Lake Lugano faces mountains Monte Bre and San Salvatore, features Parco Ciani, a serenely beautiful place to stroll or read. It overflows with azaleas, camellias, palms, olive trees and flowering dogwoods.
Bellinzona, Ticino's capital, presents a different look: its three castles and teeth-like walls were honored by UNESCO World Heritage for their role in defending this strategic trading town, a gateway to Italy and the Alps. One castle, Castelgrande, offers a terrace restaurant that overlooks the countryside.
In Ticino, do as the Ticinese do: dine in a "grotto," a rustic traditional inn. You'll sit outdoors at a granite table and bench, often in a hideaway location, and enjoy local specialties like risotto, polenta, salami and mortadella, marinated fish, rabbit stew and Merlot, Ticino's signature grape.
While Switzerland produces more than 50 wine grape varieties-including some found almost nowhere else-the Swiss are so fond of their wine that little is exported. In Ticino, about 40 wineries offer tastings and tours.
Graubunden: A Gourmet Safari
Take a thrilling palm trees-to-glaciers route from Ticino to St. Moritz, Davos and Chur on the Bernina Express, the highest mountain railway in the Alps. Bernina's luxury bus takes you from Lugano to Tirano, Italy, and then the train goes to Graubunden. A masterpiece of engineering built more than a century ago (and newly recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site for part of its route), the railway crosses vertiginous viaducts way above precipitous gorges and abysses, amid magnificent snow-crowned mountains and glaciers. At one point, it ascends 1,200 feet in less than three miles.
In the Graubunden canton, where residents speak German, Italian and Romansh (a centuries-old language derived from Latin and Italian), you'll find the epicurean St. Moritz Gourmet Festival. It showcases chefs from the resort's acclaimed hotels. There's a gourmet safari, featuring a dinner course at each hotel; a party to taste samples fresh from the stove; and a gala on frozen Lake St. Moritz.
Badrutt's Grand Hall is an ornate lounge of coffered oak ceilings, velvet armchairs and marble floors that's a favorite place to see and be seen in St. Moritz. During a Chocolate Cult event, guests were able to customize their own hot chocolate and add dried chiles, peppercorns, ginger, whisky and other ingredients to grand cru dark chocolate from Confiserie Sprungli, a top patisserie in Zurich.
Lake Geneva Region: The Swiss Riviera
Known for the Castle of Chillon in Montreux, immortalized by poet Lord Byron, the stunningly scenic Lake Geneva region hosts one of Europe's biggest summer parties, the Montreux Jazz Festival. It's home to Switzerland's biggest concentration of Michelin-starred restaurants, as well as the Lavaux vineyards, built on steep hillsides facing the lake.
Nicknamed the Swiss Riviera, the towns of Montreux and Vevey offer promenades on the shimmering sea of blue that's Lake Geneva, framed by snow-capped Alps. Many creative people have found inspiration from living near or visiting Lake Geneva, including poet Percy Shelley; his wife Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein; Ernest Hemingway; Noel Coward; Graham Greene; Igor Stravinksky; Peter Tchaikovsky; and Vladimir Nabokov. A statue of Charlie Chaplin stands on the lakeside promenade in Vevey, where he lived for 25 years.
Despite its name, the Montreux Jazz Festival each July actually features everything from rock, blues, pop and reggae to Brazilian and African music. Since the festival began in 1967, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Johnny Cash, Joan Baez, Prince and a wide variety of other artists have performed here.
You can walk, bicycle, drive or take a train through the Lavaux vineyards, which offer fabulous panoramas high above Lake Geneva. Footpaths display signs about local wines, and while the entire trail that winds from the Castle of Chillon takes eight and a half hours, it's best to pause in picturesque villages with flower-box-crammed windows for wine tastings in cellars called "caves."
In St. Saphorin, a tiny town that boasts its own wine appellation in the Lavaux area, Auberge de l'Onde is a charming, unpretentious one-Michelin-star restaurant.
Lucerne: Centuries-Old Wonders
One of Switzerland's quaintest cities, Lucerne is dominated by the 14th-century wooden Chapel Bridge, whose 17th-century paintings depict the area's history. The city also hosts one of Europe's largest classical music festivals, the Lucerne Festival, which draws the world's top orchestras and soloists in August and September.
It's held in KKL Luzern, a state-of-the-art and architecturally striking concert hall. Concertgoers enjoy floor- to-ceiling views of Lake Lucerne and mountains from the foyer and open rooftop terrace of the hall, a glittering, glamorous sight at night.
Lucerne also boasts one of Switzerland's most amazing train rides, on the Pilatus, the world's steepest cog railway. Hold onto your seat for the 48-degree ascent to Mt. Pilatus, a 7,000-foot peak that boasts a drop-dead, 360-degree panorama of the Jungfrau, Eiger and Monch mountains in the Alps, not to mention six lakes.
Basel: Abundant Art, Unforgettable Food
The world's largest modern and contemporary art fair, Art Basel, lures thousands of dealers, collectors and artists to this city, which straddles the German and French borders in northwest Switzerland. About 300 galleries worldwide present paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs and videos from more than 2,500 artists.
The Fondation Beyeler, one of the city's top museums, exhibits the collection of gallery owner and Art Basel cofounder Ernst Beyeler: works by artists ranging from Picasso, Klee, Miro and Matisse to Braque and Rothko. The Renzo Piano-designed Beyeler is an artwork of its own, flooded with natural light from floor-to-ceiling windows, skylights and a conservatory that overlooks a landscaped garden.
Traveler Report Card
Switzerland offers a wide variety of accommodations-from luxury and boutique hotels, guesthouses and chalets to mountain huts and Mongolian-style yurts. Hotel standards are high-Cesar Ritz was from Switzerland-and some hotels offer perks: You can ride in a Rolls-Royce at Badrutt's and Palace Luzern offers a package that includes an Aston Martin or Lamborghini.
Influenced by the dominant culture of the region you're in, which may be French, Italian or German. Varies from Michelin- and Gault Millau-rated restaurants to rustic, traditional eateries serving sausages. Some restaurants are in breathtaking locations, like Restaurant Botta 3000 in Gstaad's Glacier 3000 ski area, a white cube designed by Mario Botta; and Piz Gloria, the revolving mountaintop restaurant seen in the James Bond film On Her Majesty's Secret Service.
A year-round destination offering skiing, hiking, bicycling, paragliding, tennis, golf, hot-air ballooning, sailing, fishing and more-all amidst awe-inspiring scenery. Many music, arts and wine festivals happen here, not to mention the World Economic Forum, held in January in Davos, which draws top political and business leaders.
Getting Around (A+):
A train, Post bus, cable car or boat is nearby. Panoramic trains have giant picture windows and dining cars. Some trains can transport your car as freight.
Expect gorgeous countryside and fresh mountain air. One caveat: the Zurich airport terminal train plays recordings of cowbells and cows mooing.
Traveler Fast Facts
What it is:
A microcosm of Europe, reflecting languages and cultures from Germany, France and Italy, with gorgeous mountain and lake scenery and glamorous ski resorts.
Prompt, efficient, clean, well organized and a dream for the independent traveler due to a splendid transportation system.
Official neutrality since the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, cemented again in 1815 by the Congress of Vienna, after centuries of battles with neighboring countries. The Swiss Confederation began in 1291 with three cantons (states), later joined by others, which originally had their own currency, laws and army, with language and religious differences. Switzerland isn't in the EU or NATO and doesn't use the Euro, though Geneva has often been headquarters to international organizations.
Most business aviation passengers use the commercial airports serving Zurich
and Geneva, which both have excellent FBO and handling facilities for private aviation. Depending on conditions, you may also be able to fly into smaller airports that could be much closer to your destination. Here are two examples:
Three miles from St. Moritz, Engadin in Samedan is Europe's highest-elevation airport at 5,600 feet. Serving private aviation exclusively, with no scheduled flights, it has a 5,905-foot runway, with landings possible under visual flight rules only, due to deep snow, strong winds and downdrafts on valley sides. Customs is required for all travelers flying to or from non-Schengen Area countries, and possibly even within the Schengen passport-free zone (25 European countries, but not the United Kingdom or Ireland). [The Schengen Agreement, signed in Schengen, Luxembourg in 1985, removed systematic border controls among the participating countries-Ed.] For more information, contact airport manager Corado Manzoni (email@example.com, +41 81 851 08 51) or visit www.engadin-airport.com.
Lugano-Agno in Ticino is a regional airport with scheduled international and domestic flights, and an alternative to heavy traffic and congestion at Milan Airport, a 40-minute drive away. It's located at the mouth of a valley, and instrument landings present challenges due to the steep angle descent of 6.65 degrees, more than twice the standard angle. For more information, contact chief services officer Paolo Speziali (firstname.lastname@example.org, +41 91 610 11 11) or visit www.lugano-airport.ch.