It’s no secret that there is lots to love about Switzerland: the food (chocolate!), landscape, passion for punctuality, cleanliness, respect for nature, culture, those cute Swiss clocks, and, perhaps our favorite trait, their overall mirrored way of life to our beloved Japan(!). But did you know that Switzerland, that small unbiased country tucked away in the center of Europe, is home to an array of languages and cultures in that very small space? Enjoy reading below about the four corners of Switzerland and why visiting just one country will check off more than one culture on your bucket list.
The Geography of Switzerland
In order to best understand the cultures of Switzerland, it’s important to note the geography of the country. Remember when I mentioned above that it is located in central Europe? Well, this makes a HUGE impact on Swiss culture. To the north of the country, we have Germany and a smidge of France, to the east you will find Liechtenstein/Austria, Italy to the south, and France to the west. Not only does Switzerland share a border with these countries, but it has adapted to the culture of its neighbors as well. Switzerland does not have one but FOUR official languages, and if you’re following along, I’m sure you can guess what they are (and if not, I’ve got you covered with the map here)!
Please continue reading below as I delve into the four corners of Switzerland and each amazing culture it has to offer!
With 62.8% of Switzerland’s population speaking German, this culture is certainly the most widely adapted throughout the country. It is important to note, however, that the dialect of German spoken here is much different from proper German. The Swiss have added their own flare to the language, which has since broken down into many varieties of “Swiss German”. Three of the countries surrounding Switzerland including Germany, Lichenstein, and Austria are all German-speaking and lead to the 2/3 majority influence in Switzerland. It is for this reason that the Swiss culture is mostly known to the outside world as heavily German infused – even when it comes to the food (yummy meats, cheeses, and carbs – like its very own Bavaria!).
Please see below some of the most popular (and our favorite!) destinations in the German-speaking areas of Switzerland:
- If you are flying to Switzerland from the U.S, you are more than likely going to be flying into Zurich. This is the largest/most populated city in the country and gives insight to a more “urban” side of Swiss life. Here you can visit the Old Town, city zoo, the National Museum, and even a casino or two.
2. Luzern (Lucerne):
- Located just 45-minutes from Zurich by either car or train, Lucerne is one of our favorite cities to visit in all of Switzerland. It is the perfect mix of city life and nature – with a touch of mountains and vast space to explore. Mountain enthusiasts can enjoy three surrounding options – Mt. Pilatus, Mt. Rigi, and Mt. Titlis. We also recommend a boat ride on Lake Lucerne, a visit to the Transportation Museum, and a city tour to learn of the infamous bridge, history, and interesting architecture found here.
- If magical Swiss mountains and charming villages are what you are looking for, look no further than Zermatt! The car-free village sits in a valley surrounded by the most beautifully intimidating mountain ranges, including the Matterhorn (pick-up a Toblerone chocolate bar for a photo!). Whether you are looking for adventure via hiking, skiing, cycling, etc. or seeking relaxation and wellness, Zermatt is a haven for all kinds of travelers!
- If you are a fan of art and history alike, a visit to Basel is a MUST. This university town has the highest density of museums in the country. The city is also split by the Rhine River, which continues into nearby Germany. From the beautiful red sandstone Town Hall, on a clear day, you can look out from the perched looking point and see into Germany to one side and France to the other. If you happen to visit at the right time, you may run into the Carnival Festival, or even one of the many art and film festivals throughout the year.
- We can’t promote a list of cities in this region without mentioning the country’s capital, Bern! With its Old Town having the distinction of being a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is a rarity for a country’s capital to retain such historic features. If the city wasn’t unique enough, we urge you to visit the city bears at the Bear Park (the symbol of the city!). Museums are a plenty, but we give special recognition to the Albert Einstein Museum, although I was quite shocked to learn of the darker side to the genius mind.
- Another town made for mountain and adventure seekers, Interlaken is the base of the Jungrau’s “Top of Europe” rail experience and is a gateway to so many Swiss rail adventures. Interlaken can be used as a base for day trips to many locations, or, can be utilized as a hub to nearby hiking, skiing, and skydiving(!) activities! Don’t forget to make an appointment at the exclusive Bucherer watch shop as well, an experience found nowhere else.
If you happen to find yourself in the west of Switzerland, you’ll note that friendly faces will be saying “bonjour!” to you as you head to the local cafe in the morning for your fresh coffee and croissant. That’s because this region of the country, about 23% of the Swiss population to be exact, are French speaking! This region has coined its own name, known to most Swiss folks as “Romandy”, which is home to about a quarter of the entire population. The Romands have adapted much of the French way of life, from fine dining to humanitarian efforts on a global scale. Oh, did we mention their love for wine and stunning vineyards?! C’est la vie!
Here are some of the most noteworthy places to visit in the French-speaking areas of Switzerland:
1. Geneva (Geneve):
- Located on the banks of Lake Geneva, this impressive city is laid out on the left and right banks of the river (does it get any more Parisien than that?!). But have no fear, the “mouettes”, best known as water taxis, will be happy to get you from one side to the other. Perhaps most noteable, you can find the headquarters of some pretty impressive entities here, such as the United Nations of Europe and the Red Cross. But aside from being a city of congress, there is much to do and see. The Old Town is surely worth a visit, as is the Jet d’eau fountain. You can also find many chocolatiers based here as well as watchmakers, for that reminder that you really are still in Switzerland, not France!
- There is something so majestically beautiful about Montreux that cannot be put into words, though it has been attempted by many artists and songwriters for years. The landscape here is simply unparalleled, with the city resting in a valley amongst a backdrop of striking mountains, which leads us to understand why Charlie Chaplin spent the last 25 years of his life here. The Mediterranean-like climate here is perfect for hiking, biking, wellness activities, and, not surprisingly, wine cultivation(!). The city is also home to lots of jazz festivals throughout the year, so sit back and enjoy the sounds of poetry with a glass of vino and a picturesque background and soak it all in!
- Known as the second largest city on the banks of Lake Geneva, Lausanne is yet another picturesque location in the heart of Romandy. It is here that you will find the International Olympic Committee, headquartered here since 1914. We especially love the (mostly) car-free Old Town here due to its impressive Gothic architecture (the cathedral being the oldest example of such in all of Switzerland!). We recommend a visit here if you are looking to unwind and simply enjoy nature and great art without crowds of tourism.
Sharing a border with Italy to the south, it is this region that you’ll find a shared culture with their “bello” neighbors. Approximately 9% of Switzerland’s population speaks Italian as a first language, however, 100% of the country utilizes this stunning region for holidays and local escapes! If you find yourself in this part of the country, you will find it the most contrasting to the rest of the country. While French and German cultures share many similarities, we all know that Italy is its own character. From the way of life to the weather to the food, the Italian culture shines through here and makes for a truly unique experience while in Switzerland.
Please see below our suggestions of the best places to visit within the Italian-influenced areas of the country:
- Set on the northern side of Lake Lugano, this brilliant city is surrounded by water and mountains galore. The Old Town is similar to many Swiss cities in true economic fashion by being car-free, but it also gives visitors insight to the variation in architecture here. There is a large business community here for the financial/banking industry, as well as lots of park space and tropical plants. Did you ever think you could find palm trees and villas in Switzerland?!
- This understated city is one of our favorite places in all of Switzerland! It has culture, beauty, and THREE UNESCO World Heritage castles(!). It is a gateway city, to Italy for those traveling south and to the Alps for those traveling north. Due to this unique position (where the valley narrows), there are lots of examples of defensive architecture. Our favorite castle is the Castelgrande (prepare yourself for spectacular views!), which cannot be missed if you are visiting. We also suggest lots of time to stroll the cafes and unique shops, mirroring the original inspiration they come from just next door!
- Much smaller in size and off the beaten path, this southern city is special in its own ways. We particularly love the amount of sunshine (about 2,300 hours a year!) and boasting the warmest climate in Switzerland. The city’s charming Piazza Grande welcomes visitors from around the world for its annual film festival, and fine art collections are in abundance. For religious travelers, you can find the pilgrimage church Madonna del Sasso, where the Virgin Mary was said to have appeared. The church is a beautiful site to visit even for non-Catholic or non-religious travelers as well, as it has some of the best viewpoints of the city, lake, and mountains in all of Locarno!
Last, but not least(!), we have the Romansh language spoken in a small area of Switzerland to the southeast. Although this language is only spoken by 0.5% of Switzerland’s population, this makes up about 40,000 people (which is what gets it onto this list and deemed one of the official languages!). The language itself comes from Latin origins, surviving from the days of the Roman empire. We truly feel a visit to this unique part of the country is so worth it! Unlike it’s three other counterparts, this culture is less shared and more individual and special. There’s nothing like it!
- Despite being in a region of its own and a bit far from most major cities, St. Moritz has so much to offer to those who make the trek to visit! Winter sports fans will appreciate that it is the birthplace of Alpine Winter tourism and has even hosted the Winter Olympics twice! It is home to one of the first ski lifts, which still runs today. Unbeatable après ski options are also available, including basking in the 3,000-year-old mineral springs that are said to have some serious healing powers! This alpine town can also be enjoyed by those who prefer to hike, mountain bike, etc. and mix with charming surroundings and wellness options. Don’t forget to pick-up a Romansh word or two!