Ever since I was kid growing up in Jamaica, I’ve dreamed of visiting Switzerland. Images of rolling green hills dotted with mountain chalets and majestic snow-capped mountains loomed in my mind.
I finally had the opportunity to visit in November 2016 and planned a 8 day road trip that spanned 11 Swiss cities: from Marseille, my home base in Europe to Geneva->Zurich -> Luzern-> Lungern->Interlaken -> Lauterbrunnen -> Grindelwald -> Lago Ritom -> Locarno -> Lavertezzo ->Bellinzona and ending the trip in Lugano.
Switzerland is infamous for being one of the most expensive countries in the world to visit. According to budgetyourtrip.com, the average travel expense is $175 per day. I encountered that in Zurich where a Big Mac at McDonald’s cost $13 and a double espresso was $6. To cut down on costs, I carried a week’s worth of groceries (and wine) from France, did Couchsurfing, stayed with friends, and rented an inexpensive AirBnB.
I went to Switzerland with the expectation that life isn’t usually how it appears in postcards. I was excited to explore the country but I was not expecting it to be as beautiful as the Pinterest images I’d been pinning for the last year.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Every place I visited in Switzerland surpassed my expectations. Never before had I been anywhere with so many breathtaking vistas. There were so many unexpected qualities about Swiss life that surprised me.
The first thing I noticed in Geneva was how clean and orderly the streets were. No dog poop or cigarette butts littered the streets, and there wasn’t one speck of trash on the sidewalk. The Swiss embody the Burning Man principle of Leaving No Trace. While trash cans are on every street corner in New York City yet cigarette butts still litter the streets, in Switzerland it’s rare to find a public garbage can. People simply take care of their trash themselves and respect the environment.
This was true of every Swiss city I visited. After spending the night in Geneva, we drove to the German speaking part of Switzerland to Zurich which was even more orderly than Geneva.
I actually came to Switzerland in November not merely for the gorgeous scenery, but to see an underground DJ play. Nightlife isn’t what usually comes to mind when Switzerland is mentioned, but Zurich has a thriving nightlife scene, especially in regards to underground house and techno.
The main nightlife areas are in the Niederdorf, and the streets around Langstrasse and Zurich West. My destination for Saturday night in Zurich was Club Lexy, a brand new underground club by the Langstrasse red light district that boasted a great sound system and sophisticated lounge decor. The headliner for that night was Be Svendsen, a Danish DJ who blew my mind (and ears) at this year’s Burning Man. His set at White Ocean Saturday morning was my favorite musical experience in my 4 years of Burning Man.
It’s hard to describe Be Svendsen’s unique style of music which is a hybrid of hypnotic desert-circus-shaman-cowboy-techno. His set at Club Lexxy didn’t disappoint. It was a melting pot of vocal tracks, repetitive techno beats, and cowboy ryhthms where one song flowed effortlessly into the next, creating a joyous vibe on the intimate dancefloor.
The next stop on our road trip was Luzern, Switzerland.
Luzern, located in Central Switzerland, dates back to the early Middle Ages. The city is most famous for the Chapel Bridge ((Kapellbrücke)- the oldest covered bridge in Europe- which was built in 1333.
We were only in Luzern for a few hours and my main concern was seeing the Old Town. In Old Town Luzern, you can still see traditional timber houses lining the narrow cobblestoned streets. What surprised me the most were the tiny details that differentiated each house.
In other European cities, most of the buildings are a monotone beige or grey. In Zurich and Luzern however, among the sober colored houses would be a few painted pink, green, or yellow. I fell in love with the architecture of Old Town Switzerland. Each house had a special characteristic- carved wooden statues that jutted out over the doors, painted faces on the front of houses, brightly painted shutters, gargoyles on top of the roof… thee was so much diversity in the little details.
The German influenced architecture was so different from the brick buildings and glass towers of New York City that I was used to. Walking through the cobblestoned streets, I felt transported to another time, an era when streets teemed with horse drawn carriages and women in long skirts.
Even with gloomy skies and frigid fall temperatures, the city was beautiful. I highly recommend visiting Switzerland in the fall. While the country is the most picturesque in the summer, in the fall there are less tourists and the trees with their leaves of red and yellow frame the city streets. It really feels like you’re living in a painting.
The next stop in our journey was Lungern, Switzerland which I had chosen only because I saw an inexpensive AirBnb listing with a Jacuzzi . In Zurich, a youth hostel could run $65 a night. Paying for a hotel or hostel is a sure way to increase expenses in Switzerland so to save money, we did Couchsurfing in Zurich and rented an AirBnB in a village. Zurich has a huge Couchsurfing community and every Friday night there’s a vegan potluck dinner. Our host Christos truly made our visit to Switzerland special and we had a great time hanging out eating Swiss chocolate and cheese.
It’s harder to find Couchsurfing hosts in the mountain villages which is why we chose to rent an AirBnb in Lungern. For $70 a night we lived in a beautiful loft that featured a Jacuzzi with color changing lights, a luxury kitchen, and a terrace with a view of Lake Lungern, the half-timber village houses, and icy mountain ridges.
Lungern is one of those Swiss mountain villages that make you feel as if you’re living in postcard. Located on the Brünig Pass halfway between Lucerne and Interlaken, it’s a perfect destination if you want to stay close to a city yet still get the feel of rural Swiss life.
Lungern was conveniently situated 30 minutes away from Interlaken- the adventure capital of Switzerland. Here you could find a range of extreme activities including sky diving, white water rafting, and night sledding.
Walking down the main street on our first day in Interlaken, I glanced up and saw two figures soaring through the sky. As they approached the town square, they twirled around doing backflips and crazy spirals before landing. Talk about epic!
It’s always been on my bucket list to do an adrenaline rush activity like sky diving, but I had no intention of trying it in Switzerland since I was traveling on a budget and Switzerland is not cheap. However, seeing how awesome paragliding looked in person completely changed my mind. I ran over to the paragliders and found out that they were a team from Paragliding Interlaken
10AM the next day found me strapped to my flight instructor Pascal, about to run down a steep mountain incline. I had second thoughts- not about flying 4,400 feet above ground, but because it was FREEZING and I’m a pussy when it comes to being cold. Pascal said that due to the high winds and low temperature, this was actually the last day they would offer paragliding until the summer season.
I wore my Fringe & Epaulette sequin cape on the ride, hoping to get an epic video of sparkly sequins flying over the city, but I unfortunately landed too far away for Gilles to get a closeup.
At $176 per session, paragliding was a splurge but definitely a once in a lifetime experience. My flight instructor flirted with me the whole ride, and I could barely respond because my lips were so frozen, but nothing beat the adrenaline rush of soaring through the clouds above Interlaken, surrounded by the Swiss Alps.
It was in Interlaken that I experienced the marvel (and price) of Swiss chocolate for the first time. I’m usually not a huge fan of chocolate, but Swiss chocolate from Laderach is on another level. Walking into the store, I inhaled the heavenly scent of fresh chocolate and felt like I had reached chocolate nirvana. I had never seen so many different types of chocolate in one place: huge multi-colored slabs of chocolate bark, at least 30 different types of pralines and truffles, chocolate gift boxes, covered marshmallows….
We visited Laderach twice and I’m embarrassed by how much we spent on chocolate. Our chocolate addiction almost cost as much as the price of two nights at our AirBnB….
After paragliding and fine dining adventures in Interlaken, we drove to Lauterbrunnen Valley which is famous for its 72 waterfalls. As we drove into Lauterbrunnen, we were greeted by the epic sight of a waterfall cascading down a gigantic rock face right above the town. This magnificient phenomenon was the Staubbach Falls- one of the highest free-falling waterfalls in Europe.
Lauterbrunnen is known as one of the most beautiful places in Switzerland. Images of the peaceful valley dotted with timber houses and cows grazing in green pastures are what appear when you Google the most picturesque places to visit in Switzerland.
The plan was to walk through the valley to Trummelbach Falls, a series of 10 glacier waterfalls within a mountain that are only accessible underground. Up to 20,000 litres of water per second cascade over the 10 glacier falls which make them Europe’s largest subterranean water falls.
Unfortunately, I hadn’t done my research properly and missed that the underground lift to Trummelbach Falls was only open in the summer. One of the downsides of traveling through Switzerland in the off-season is that some of the attractions won’t be accessible. Make sure to always check beforehand!
The walk through Lauterbrunen Valley was still worthwhile for the peaceful scenery. We only encountered one other couple during the 2 hour walk and even spotted a farmhouse with a sign that said “Donate some francs and take our cheese.” There was no one in sight to ensure that the cheese or money wasn’t stolen. Only in Switzerland (or Burning Man) would something like that be possible. Both the cheese and the money jar would disappear within 5 minutes in NYC.
Walking back to the main town, we came across an enclosure with sheep and little lambs and I went bananas. As someone who grew up in New York City, I’ve never touched a real lamb before. They are such sweet animals! I fell in love with the smallest one who I christened Lamby.
It was hard to leave Lamby, but we were hungry, so we stopped briefly to take a look at Grindelwald before heading back to Interlaken where we had a scrumptious raclette dinner with lots of melted cheese.
The next day, we left the German speaking part of Switzerland and drove 3 hours to Ticino, Switzerland’s Italian region. My choice to visit Ticino was solely based on photos I had seen on Pinterest of the turquoise waters of the Verzasca River and Lago Ritom.
This was what I expected to see driving up to Lago Ritom:
A beautiful lake with turquoise water surrounded by majestic mountains. Ticino is the warmest region of Switzerland so I anticipated that once we reached the lake, we would treat ourselves to a lakeside picnic of wine and cheese.
Once we left the highway, we were directed by Google Maps to drive up a narrow mountain road. As we drew closer to our destination, I began to wonder if we were going to the right lake. It had been a sunny day before we began the ascent. However as we drove higher and higher along the winding path, we were enveloped in a cold fog, and I noticed that the trees growing haphazardly on the side of the mountain were covered in snow.
There were no railings to prevent cars from falling off the steep mountain cliff, and clumps of snow on the side of the road made driving even more dangerous . The precarious conditions forced Gilles to park the car, and we decided to walk the last 15 minutes.
Not even in the ski resorts of Grindelwald had I seen such wintery weather. Spires of sharp icicles hung off the frozen granite rocks, and it was so cold my toes started to hurt.
It was only when I checked Wikipedia to confirm that we were going to the right lake that I realized my mistake. According to Wikipedia, Lago Ritom was at an altitude of 6,070 ft above sea level which meant that in November, the lake would be covered in snow and ice.
Even though my plans for a sunny lakeside picnic were a pipe dream, we decided to continue the journey just to see what the lake looked like.
As we drew closer to where Google Maps said the lake was, I began to have second doubts. There was no sign of life, and an eerie fog covered everything, making it impossible to see the lake much less 50 ft ahead. Only a mysterious metal structure loomed in the distance. I kept on thinking that this was the perfect scenario for a horror movie. We had left the car behind, and were walking blindly through the ghostly fog on a deserted mountain. If we got attacked by bears or a serial killer, no one would know because our cell phones had no signal.
This was the point where a smart person in a horror movie would turn around and walk back to the car. Not us, Gilles noticed a desolate bridge ahead and wanted to explore the other side. The heavy fog made it impossible to see what lay on the other side, but we continued blindly on. On the other side of the bridge, was a scene that could have been on the cover of a Christmas card: white snow blanketed a sea of frosty trees and formed snow crystals that coated the forest floor.
It was freezing cold but oh so beautiful.
My eyes applauded the spectral beauty of nature which was so pure and untouched. I was dwarfed by the size of the towering trees whose branches glittered with white crystals. It seemed as we were the first to discover this pristine winter wonderland.
Looking back at these photos now, I’m amazed at how lucky we were to fall upon this beautiful place.
The snow blanketed landscape was a far cry from what I expected to find at Lago Ritom. This unexpected adventure through the cold and floating mist took us to a frosty dreamworld that seemed to stand still against time.
Lesson learned: always venture in search of the unknown 🙂
We ended up having our wine and cheese picnic back in the car where we were happy to get warm again. That night we had the pleasure of staying with another awesome Couchsurfing host in Locarno. Marina lived with her two dogs and cat in a cozy house that had an amazing view of Lake Maggiore. We spent the night feasting on more melted cheese and potatoes and drinking wine. Yay Swiss life!
The next morning we ventured to Valle Verzasca in Lavertezzo which was my main motivation for coming to Ticino. Known for it’s clear jade green water, the Verzasca River is a popular destination for tourists in the summer. The worn rocks form natural basins and jaccuzzis. In the summer, the river is so crowded it’s hard to find a comfortable rock to sit on. But because it was fall, we had the whole river to ourselves.
The beauty of the Verazasca River completly lived up to my expectations. With it’s swirling turquoise water that was so clear you could see straight through to the bottom, the river valley seemed like a magical landscape from the Lord of the Rings. I could just picture Arwen riding along the river banks waiting to meet Aragorn.
We ended up spending much longer than we planned idling by the river banks. I was entranced by the rocks which were the most beautiful I had ever seen. A layer of frost lightly covered each pebble so that they shimmered in the early morning light.
Some of the rocks even sparkled due to bits of quartz that were embedded in the stone. I was so enamored that I spent 30 minutes examining all the different kinds before packing 10lbs worth of rocks to take back to France with me. They ended up becoming unique Christmas gifts for my friends.
While I had fun playing with the rocks, Gilles took macro shots of the various frozen pools of water that lay in the boulder cavities alongside the river. Even something as commonplace as frozen water is magical in Switzerland.
The rest of my visit to Ticino wasn’t as well planned as my itinerary for the German region of Switzerland had been. Other than Lago Ritom and the Valle Verzasca, I wasn’t sure where else I wanted to visit. I made the mistake of waiting till we were at Marina’s house to start looking for activities to do the next day.
Turns out I had seriously underestimated the amount of adventure to be found in Ticino. The tourism website for the region featured so many attractions that at first, I felt overwhelmed trying to figure out what to fit into our last day. Ticino.ch is the epitome of what a tourist website should be. It was organized according to season, region, or type of experience which made choosing what to do based on the weather simple. They also had amazing drone footage of each attraction Ticino offered. I basically picked locations that looked the most epic from the drone footage.
Thanks to Google Maps and the efficient organization of the Ticino website, in 8 hours we were able to visit:
- The Contra Dam which was the site of James Bond’s infamous bungee jump stunt in GoldenEye (1995)
- Lavertezzo to see the Valle Verzasca
- Hike to and cross the longest suspension bridge in Europe, the Ponte Tibetano
- Visit 2 castles in the medieval town of Bellinzona
- End the day by watching sunset over Lake Lugano
Six sites in less than 8 hours was only possible because we had a car. Most travel guides recommend taking a train through Switzerland, but I recommend driving instead. Driving gives you the freedom to visit more places and train rides are not cheap- a 2 mile train ride up to Stilthorn is $68…Gas was drastically cheaper than what train tickets for both of us would have been. 143 euros worth of gas (3 tanks) lasted 8 days and drove us through France, Switzerland, and Italy. We returned to Marseille via Italy and drove along the coastline which had beautiful views of the Italian and French Riviera.
Countless lakes, medieval castles, towering snow-capped mountains, the best chocolate, clean streets, and a high quality of life….I don’t think I’ve ever been so impressed with a country. Every aspect of life that I experienced in Switzerland raised the bar. Even McDonald’s tastes better! In America companies can get away with selling mediocre food to the masses, but in Switzerland, the average quality of goods is much higher than in the U.S. so American companies are forced to increase their standards. I actually ate one of the best veggie burgers of my life at the McDonald’s in Zurich where I enjoyed a quinoa curry burger. That doesn’t even exist at McDonald’s in the U.S.
Whatever you dream of doing is possible in Switzerland. After only 8 days driving through this amazing nation, my new life goal is to one day live in a Swiss mountain chalet with a view of a beautiful lake. (Apparently rent in Lungern is an average of $1000 a month for an apartment, totally doable!)
Interesting Facts about Swiss life that amazed me:
- The Swiss government will pay 70-80% of your salary for a year and a half if you quit your job or are fired
- There are enough nuclear fallout shelters to accommodate the entire Swiss population, due to laws that require everybody to have access to a shelter in their building or nearby.
- The Swiss military keeps fully stocked artillery bunkers, disguised as quaint country homes, in the middle of populated villages
- 40 euros pays for a toll pass that covers ALL tolls in Switzerland for 1 year.
- There are no homeless people living on city streets
- Switzerland was ranked the world’s happiest country in 2015 (2nd place after Denmark in 2016)
- Switzerland ranks 3rd after the U.S for gun ownership yet they have one of the world’s lowest crime rates. 40 people per year are murdered by guns compared to 30-40 per day in America
Admittedly the cost of living in Switzerland is high, but your quality of life equals what you pay. The public sector doesn’t try to make a profit off their population and you get the sense that the government actually cares for its people.
Nothing I experienced in Switzerland was mediocre because Swiss products are renowned for precision and perfection. My biggest takeaway from my road trip through Switzerland was to strive for this same excellence in my daily life, especially in regards to producing high quality apparel for Fringe & Epaulette.
A Summary of Where We Visited
- Lago Ritom
- Lavertezzo, Valle Verzasca
- Contra Dam
- Pontei Tibetano
I’m already looking forward to visiting Switzerland again, and I would love to experience what the country offers in the summertime. I posted a few tips below on how to save money while traveling. Nomadic Matt’s blog was a huge help in figuring out how to travel inexpensively. If it hadn’t been for the chocolate splurge and paragliding session I would have actually kept to my budget, but even with those expenses, we spent a little over $1000 for 2 people traveling through 11 cities in 8 days.
Tips for Traveling in Switzerland on a Cheap Budget
1.Skip the hotels and hostels and do AirBnb and Couchsurfing instead.
2.Really try to avoid eating out. A standard entree at a restaurant that’s not McDonald’s will cost $25 and up. We carried our own groceries and cooked most of our meals. However, I did make an exception for special meals like raclette dinners and lunch at Hiltl in Zurich- the oldest vegetarian restaurant in the world.
3.Bring a portable coffee machine if possible or you’ll end up paying $4-$6 for a cup of coffee everyday
4.Rent a car or drive instead of traveling by train. Driving allowed us to see vast expanses of the country without breaking the bank. Taking the trains through Switzerland would have allowed us to see some of the highest peaks but this was quite expensive. For example, a ride up to the Jungfrau, the highest mountain peak in Switzerland, was $115 per person. In comparison, we spent less than 150 euros on gas for 8 days.
5.Exercise some self-restraint and don’t go crazy buying cheese and chocolate.
6. Skip the guided tours and go explore nature free of charge. The country offers so many diverse natural landscapes you don’t have to spend money on any touristic activities. Check out the Ticino.ch website for awesome things to do.
Next Destination: BARCELONA! Stay tuned for another travel blog post
Article by Yoshi Churnac
All photography by Gilles Bonugli Kali