December. What do you want? Sunshine and beaches to not think about the festive season or cold and snow and mulled wine to soak it all up? If it’s the latter then you can do a lot worse than travelling to Switzerland for the festive season.
We had 5 nights based in Zurich over the Christmas period and took full advantage of the amazing train network they have in Switzerland to explore some of the surrounding areas.
Although convenient they are expensive so do the math and explore purchasing a Travel Pass for the amount of days you need it. We got it at Zurich HB (central train station) and you need to have a valid photo ID with you. Our Singapore work passes were good enough. We opted for the 3 day pass as we would do the bulk of our travelling in the middle three days of our stay. I used the Swiss Rail website to predict how much our train journeys would total without the pass and it was financially worth it to buy the pass. Do it if you will save money.
Zurich has a reputation for nothing much going for it. True that it is a business city but it’s certainly worth a night or two to see the sights. Perhaps, without the delightful Christmas markets, there may not be much of a vibe apparent but we enjoyed our time wandering around. Looking at how we travelled over the 3 days it probably makes more sense to base yourself in Lucerne. We stayed in the Central Plaza Hotel which was a couple minutes walk from the train station and across the road from a Starbucks (if that floats your caffeine boat).
So, in retrospect, we didn’t really do much in Zurich apart from walk the old town areas and visit the few churches they have there, wandered down Bahnhofstrasse (the main shopping street), and took in all the festivities at the various Christmas markets. There is a National Museum and a few other museums but time wasn’t on our side with all the day trips we took.
A quick 50 minute train trip out on the S9 regional train to Neuhausen Rheinfalls station then a brisk walk over the Rheinfallweg bridge and you get to the Schlosslaufen (Castle overlooking the Rheinfalls). The entrance fee is 5CHF per person which you tap on an entrance gate before descending to the falls.
The falls are a must-see if you’re in the region and the vantage point you get viewing them is very unique. You make your way down right to the falls where you can touch the thunderous water flowing down the falls at a break neck speed. Worth the entrance fee.
There is a train stop right at the castle if you can’t walk back to the Neuhausen stop but there didn’t seem to be a ticket machine there and you can’t buy on the train. So be fore-warned on that.
Winterthur is not prominent on the tourist trail but it was another 40 minute short hop on the train from Rheinfalls so we went. Winthertur’s art gallery wasn’t open when we went so we just spent time wandering down towards their Christmas market then looped back towards the train station. Moving on.
Stein am Rhein
Again, another spur of the moment trip but I heard this place was quaint and worth the trip. 40 minutes on the train from Winterthur wasn’t going to kill us. It IS a quaint and cool little town. Little. And nothing was open for the Christmas period apart from one bar/restaurant where we killed some time downing a Swiss beer before making our way back to the train station. The buildings are cool and walking around the silent streets we could have been in the 16th century.
I would imagine it’s quite a nice place to visit in the Summer with bustling restaurants, a beautiful river-side vantage point, and perhaps some markets in the town square.
We got up early on one of our days to reach the heady heights of Rigi Klum. No cable cars for us so this was a perfect option due to its cog-wheel train that runs up every hour from Arth-Goldau. So that was our route: Zurich HB-Arth Goldau-Rigi Klum. We then descended the other cog-wheel train to Vitznau and got a boat (boat tickets included in the 3 day travel pass too!) back to Lucerne.
The ascent to Rigi Klum was misty until we got above it then you start to see the breath-taking mountains surrounding the area. It was misty every day in Switzerland in December so I feel we missed out on some lovely scenery while travelling around.
Being at the summit of Rigi Klum takes your breath away. Literally. Icy blasts pummel you into near submission but the views from the top sate the urge to run for shelter. Something about looking over landscapes from great heights rustle up some primal feelings of power and awareness of life. We had a mulled wine in the small cafe up there before heading back down to…..mull….over existential ponderings.
Vitznau after the descent on cog-wheel train isn’t worth it’s own little section here. We had to wait for the boat so we had a beer and something to eat in a cafe. Nothing much else to see but, again, I’m sure it’s a lovely place to stroll along the water front in the Summer time.
Lucerne feels a little more lively than Zurich. It seems to be a hub for tourists rather than business. One of the main highlights is the “dying lion” statue which on paper doesn’t really seem to justify so much attention. In my opinion, it’s well worth the attention. It’s one of the most powerful statues I’ve seen. Somehow it’s much much bigger than you can expect from photos. The facial expression, the body position, and the lion’s place embedded into the rock face all culminate in a truly powerful work of art. Venus de Milo? Pffttt in a very distant second place.
Lucerne also has areas for just wondering around taking in the architecture. Chapel Bridge cuts an interesting slice down the middle of the city. Built in the 14th Century (what?!?!) it provides an interesting angle on the city from the river’s vantage point and adds a unique flavour to Lucerne’s appeal as a tourist destination.
We actually visited Lucerne twice in our travels. On the second visit we spent time at their Christmas market/ice rink beside the Lucerne HB and then popped into see the Art Museum. The Swiss Travel pass guarantees you free access to some museums and art galleries around Switzerland and this museum is part of that package. This art museum was okay, nothing special.
Again another hour or so away from Zurich we popped along to Basel. Another plethora of Christmas markets to distract us. Got in from the cold to visit their Museum of Fine Arts (another free admission with the Swiss Travel Pass) which was quite good and they had a Jackson Pollack exhibition on which was interesting to see. Like other towns we wandered around, taking in the architecture and finding a vantage point over the Rhine from a Christmas market.
Finally, our last stop of this whirlwind trip to Switzerland we stopped off in Bern (1 hour train journey from Basel). It was bloody freezing. We needed warmth and food but we settled for more mulled wine at one of their biggest Christmas markets.
Bern, through my frozen eyelashes, felt older and more historical than any other city. It felt like nothing had changed apart from cars and electricity. The buildings all looked unchanged. Not feeling like any museum visits we took in Bern by walking around and eyeballing the different sights that Google told us we had to (Zytglogge, Käfigturm, Kindlifresserbrunnen, Bern Minster). No, I didn’t just make all those names up.
Ende. It was great to see all these areas of Switzerland (and remember my fading German) and left me wanting to see other areas in more affable weather. I contemplated the long trip to Jungfraujoch but maybe next time….
About the author
Irish. In Finland. For now. Past: Singapore. Hong Kong. Germany.