The best places to visit in Switzerland

Switzerland possesses both jaw-droppingly beautiful scenery and smart, dynamic cities, with the bonus of working like clockwork. Here are the best places to visit in Switzerland.

The Swiss mountainside in Spring. Image credit: by-studio/iStock
The Swiss mountainside in Spring. Image credit: by-studio/iStock

For many, Switzerland conjures up images of snow-capped mountains, pretty wooden chalets, and delicious fondues and chocolates. Yet there is much more to be discovered in this beautiful and surprisingly diverse little country. 

Switzerland boasts both spotless cities and breathtaking landscapes, including the Jura mountains to the north, the Swiss plateau, and the Swiss Alps to the south. 

The ever-changing vistas often include little red trains meandering through dramatic valleys, brightly colored boats on deep blue lakes, or a meadow of wildflowers below a picturesque traditional wooden chalet.

What are the best places to visit in Switzerland? Well, where do you start? Switzerland’s German, French, Italian, and Romansh-speaking cantons all possess their own distinct characteristics, with their own special cuisines, traditions, and festivals.

Around 10 million people visit Switzerland annually. Its location in the center of Europe makes it easily accessible by train internationally, while a number of airlines serve Geneva Airport and Zurich Airport, the country’s main aviation gateways.

Switzerland is perfect for business travelers and its remarkable efficiency means traveling around the country is effortless and quick.

In the winter, the crisp snow in the mountains is ideal for skiing at all levels and for snow sports. The summer months can be surprisingly hot, with temperatures very often in the 20s. During the fall and spring months, the terrain is ideal for hiking, biking, and cycling, which the Swiss do in droves.

Zurich – An adventurous city boasting incredible nightlife

An aerial view of Zurich and the Limmat River. Image credit: AleksandarGeorgiev/iStock
An aerial view of Zurich and the Limmat River. Image credit: AleksandarGeorgiev/iStock

Often dismissed as a place of grey suits and dull business, in truth this city is never boring thanks to its vibrant nightlife — Zurich has more nightclubs than any other Swiss city. 

There almost always seems to be a cool new bar, club, or restaurant around every corner and with around 50 museums and more than 100 art galleries, culture vultures won’t ever be disappointed. 

With its narrow, cobbled alleyways and boutique shops, the old town is undeniably pretty, but Zurich West, a dramatically redeveloped former industrial quarter, is the trendy place to go for a busy art, design, culture, food and shopping scene.

In summer, the locals head to the Limmat River, which curves its way through the city, to lounge in the hot sun or jump into its fresh, sparkling clear waters.

For hikers and skiers, mountainous landscapes are on the doorstep. The city even has its own little mountain, the Uetliberg, where Zurichers head to on the weekends for a beautiful country walk — if they’re not relaxing by Lake Zurich, the city’s large lake. the city is truly one of the best places to visit in Switzerland for those with a taste for the outdoors.

Weatherwise, the best time to visit Zurich is in the summer, when it is warm and sunny enough to swim in the river. But this is the time with the most tourists, and prices are at their highest. For a quieter, more inexpensive experience, visit in spring or fall.

Basel – Where history and modernity converge

The Old town of Basel with Munster cathedral in the background. Image credit: Xantana/iStock
The Old town of Basel with Basel Minster cathedral in the background. Image credit: Xantana/iStock

Basel is Switzerland’s oldest university city, where diverse cultures, a multi-faceted history, and modern art all converge. One of the country’s more underrated tourist destinations, its location, sharing a border with both Germany and  France, makes it especially cosmopolitan. 

The Rhine river cuts through its center, separating the more industrialized Kleinbasel (Little Basel) from the older commercial and cultural center Grossbasel (Big Basel).

Its attractive medieval old town center has impressive examples of architecture, including the Romanesque cathedral, Basel Minster, and Renaissance town hall. This entire town is one of the best places to visit in Switzerland for history buffs.

For more contemporary architecture, look to the city’s museums, created by architectural greats such as Renzo Piano, Mario Botta, and Jacques Herzog & Pierre de Meuron

Once you’ve had your fill with museums, there are restaurants, specialist shops, and small boutiques to be explored, especially around the Matthäus neighborhood and the Old Town.

The best time to visit Basel is mid-May to the end of June and mid-August to October to avoid the crowds and higher prices. 

Geneva – Where business, shopping, and beauty meet

An aerial view of Geneva. Image credit: JaCZhou/iStock
An aerial view of Geneva. Image credit: JaCZhou/iStock

Geneva Airport brings many visitors from around the world for both business and pleasure. While the United Nations, World Bank, World Trade Organization, and the World Health Organization, are all based in Geneva, the city is an attractive destination in its own right.

A visit isn’t complete without a stroll around the city’s Alpine lake and a tour of its varied architecture. Structures worth visiting include the striking spherical church Église Sainte-Trinité and the Hans-Wilsdorf bridge, a modern construction made from interwoven steel girders. The “Smurf Houses” built between 1982-84 in the Quartier des Grottes are also worth a visit for their vibrant colors, elaborate balconies, and curvy forms.

Despite its small size, Geneva is one of the best shopping destinations in the world. Check out the Rue du Rhône, home to famous designer flagship boutiques, the Rue du Marché, offering contemporary fashion brands, and the quieter Rue du Mont-Blanc with its independent Swiss boutiques.

The best time to visit Geneva is during the warm, sunny summer months. 

Zermatt – Ideal for superlative skiing

The mountain peak Matterhorn above Zermatt, Switzerland. Image credit: mbbirdy/iStock
The mountain peak Matterhorn above Zermatt, Switzerland. Image credit: mbbirdy/iStock

If you are keen on skiing in Switzerland, the gorgeous, picture-postcard small mountain town of Zermatt, in Switzerland’s Valais canton, is a must. 

Dominated by the mighty Matterhorn nearby, it’s a popular starting point for hikes into the nearby mountains, including the Haute Route, which leads to Chamonix in France. There’s also public outdoor rinks for ice skating and curling, and an absorbing museum covering the town’s history.

This town has a long skiing tradition and its cozy restaurants, swish bars, and good selection of hotels make for delightful apres-ski activities. 

Wandering Zermatt is a pleasure, with its narrow car-free streets lined with characterful weathered old chalets.

Zermatt has the longest ski season in Europe, from late November to early May. For dedicated skiers, the best time to visit Zermatt would be peak season between November to January, but that equates to correspondingly high accommodation costs. Otherwise, the town enjoys pleasant, warm summers, and skiing is possible then too.

Lugano – A slice of Italy in Switzerland

Tulips in Lugano, Switzerland. Image credit: advjmneto/iStock
Tulips in Lugano, Switzerland. Image credit: advjmneto/iStock

It’s fascinating how the different regions of Switzerland are influenced by their multicultural backgrounds. Bordering Italy, the Italian influence is undeniable in Lugano. 

There’s a more Mediterranean feel here compared to other cities across Switzerland and being in the south of the country, summers here are warmer. The architecture and cuisine also have an Italian vibe and things are a bit more relaxed than in the German-speaking cantons.

Lugano’s breathtaking scenery and gorgeous lake have made it a magnet for celebrities, giving it the nickname the “Monte Carlo of Switzerland”. 

Lugano has a number of impressive heritage sites, including grand neoclassical palazzos, and there’s a buoyant nightlife scene, with smart casinos, clubs, restaurants, and bars. Shoppers will delight in the Via Nassa, a long stretch of arcades with top designer stores and jewelry shops. For antiques, crafts, and vintage clothing, head over to the curving Via Cattedrale. 

Lugano can be particularly hot during high summer, so the best time to visit is May/June or September, with the bonus of missing the busy height of the tourist season and corresponding high prices.

Lucerne – Medieval architecture against a backdrop of mountains

The Chapel Bridge is a popular attraction of Lucerne. Image credit: Aleksandar Georgiev/iStock
The Chapel Bridge is a popular attraction of Lucerne. Image credit: Aleksandar Georgiev/iStock

Surrounded by snow-capped mountains, the compact lakeside city of Lucerne is known for its well preserved medieval architecture. The city’s Half-timbered structures with painted fronts are showcased in its old town. 

A well-known landmark of the city is the Chapel Bridge — a wooden structure that goes over the Reuss river, connecting the old town with the city’s right bank. Built in 1333, it’s the oldest covered bridge in Europe, although it had to be restored after a fire in 1993. 

For great views of the city, take a cable car up neighboring Mount Pilatus, Mount Rigi, or the Stanserhorn.

Despite its small size, Lucerne is a surprisingly good shopping destination, centered around Schwanenplatz and Mühlenplatz in the old town, and between the railway station and Hirschengraben Street in the new town. Here you can find what Switzerland is famed for, such as luxury Swiss watches, chocolates, and cheeses, as well as boutiques with goods from both Swiss designers and international luxury brands.

With cold and rainy winters and unstable springtimes, the summer is the best time to visit Lucerne. 

Engelberg – A mountain resort on Zurich’s doorstep

The town of Engelberg in Switzerland. Image credit: Denis Linine/iStock
The town of Engelberg in Switzerland. Image credit: Denis Linine/iStock

The alpine town of Engelberg is central Switzerland’s largest ski resort, with slopes for skiers and snowboarders of all levels. 

Outside winter, it’s a popular destination for hikers and mountain bikers. Graced by a 12th-century monastery in the center of town, its range of accommodation spans both cozy and large hotels, comfortable guesthouses, and mountain lodges. 

Engelberg is a popular day trip choice for Zurich residents, being just a 90-minute drive away.

The best time to visit Engelberg is during the summer or winter months.

Bern – The historic Swiss capital

Aerial view of Bern Old Town. Image credit: VogelSP/iStock
Aerial view of Bern Old Town. Image credit: VogelSP/iStock

The medieval city of Bern is Switzerland’s capital, home to its parliament, and boasts an incredible UNESCO World Heritage Site, perfect for exploring.

A magnificent cathedral, churches, and fountains dating back hundreds of years are dotted around the city and together make for an enjoyable stroll. 

Arcades contain boutiques, bars, and cafes, and you can take a stroll in the impressive botanical garden.

The best time to visit Bern is during the summer months when visitors enjoy the Aare river and public pools.

Montreux – A pretty town with a fine musical heritage

The traditional resort town of Montreux, one of the highlights of the Swiss Riviera, is nestled on the banks of Lake Geneva. You can start or end a trip here on the Golden Pass Line train, which passes beautiful lakes and mountains and the towns of Interlaken and Zweisimmen, on its way to Lucerne.

The best way to experience Montreux’s lake is to take a walk along its promenade, which is lined with Belle Epoque-era buildings, flower displays, and sculptures.

Montreux is a musical city, famous for its Montreux Jazz Festival that hits town each July. The city also inspired a number of bands, with Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Nina Simone, and Queen all recording here.

In the center of the city is a weekly Friday market that features a fine selection of local produce, and in summer there’s a flea market as well. 

The best time to visit Montreaux is from June to September, as outside summer the weather can be unpredictable and, for half the year, cold. Music lovers will want to go in July during the jazz festival, although prices tend to be highest then. 

Ascona – A charming laidback lakeside town

Ascona on the edge of Lake Maggiore. Image credit: Roman Babakin/iStock
Ascona on the edge of Lake Maggiore. Image credit: Roman Babakin/iStock

Ascona sits on the shores of Lake Maggiore and is in the canton of Ticino. You’d be forgiven for thinking you were in Italy if it wasn’t for all the Swiss car number plates around, with the never-ending chorus of Italian voices, restaurants serving Italian food, and Italian-style buildings.

This popular destination is an eternally attractive destination with an elegant tree and cafe-lined promenade and winding old town of charming cobbled alleyways. 

It’s a place that remains unspoiled, seemingly set in the 1960s, with its old-style resort feel. Head over to one of its open-air, ridiculously rustic grottos for a taste of the real traditional local cuisine. These grottos, once stone cellars used to store wine and cheese, became simple restaurants full of character and lively ambiance.

Visit Ascona in late June and early July and you’ll stumble upon a little traditional jazz festival, JazzAscona, especially focusing on New Orleans jazz.

The best time to visit Ascona and enjoy its mild climate is from May to July. The snow tends to be best for skiing in December.

Lausanne – A thriving commercial center with a strong sports slant

A village beside Lake Geneva in Lausanne. Image credit: luxiangjian4711/iStock
A village beside Lake Geneva in Lausanne. Image credit: luxiangjian4711/iStock

The Swiss have a real knack for creating impossibly picturesque cities, and Lausanne, on Lake Geneva in the French-speaking region of Vaud, is no exception. The Savoy Alps beckon in the distance, making Lausanne one of the best places to visit in Switzerland for winter sports enthusiasts.

Lausanne is also home to a thriving center of commerce and conventions, a university town, and home to the International Olympic Committee headquarters, the Olympic Museum, and lakeshore Olympic Park. 

Culture-lovers, gastronomes, and shoppers alike will enjoy the hilly old town, with its mainly car-free medieval streets lined with shops, alleyways peppered with cafes and restaurants, and 12th-century gothic Cathedral of Notre Dame. 

There’s also the grand 19th-century Palais de Rumine, which contains museums dedicated to science and art. Shoppers should also head for the waterfront neighborhood of Ouchy, where further boutiques can be found – one of the best places to visit in Switzerland for culture-vultures.

Winters can be colder than normal by Swiss standards here, so the best time to visit Lausanne is between June to September to enjoy the warm, sunny weather.


Ben West

Ben West has written for many newspapers and magazines around the world and visited 80 countries. Until recently, he called both the UK and Switzerland home.