Use Switzerland’s efficient and comfortable railway system to combine ideal winter city-break destinations – Lucerne, Bern, Basel and Zurich – with a ski holiday and other excursions for the perfect alternative to hibernating.
The scale of Switzerland is at once both grand and intimate. The mighty Alps and lakes provide the epic sweep, but its culturally rich cities (the largest, Zurich, isn’t even in the top 100 for population in Europe) are small.
So it’s easy to enjoy beautifully preserved old city centres, architecture from medieval to contemporary, museums, shops, bars, restaurants and clubs… and then take excursions across the lake, along the river or up into the mountains. Combining a city break with a ski or snowboard holiday is also easy, with packages that include flights, hotels and train travel; the country’s rail network is one of the most efficient and picturesque in the world.
The Bahnhofstrasse is one of Europe’s grandest international shopping streets
With a Swiss Travel Pass or Swiss Travel Pass Flex from the Swiss Travel System, you have unlimited train, bus and boat transport covered in the country. This includes public transport within cities (if you get tired of walking and craning your neck at the sights) and paddle steamers on lakes.
Not only that, but there is complimentary access to more than 500 museums across the country and free mountain excursions, as well as 50 per cent reductions on many others. What’s more, children under 16 travel free with an accompanying adult, so a family break makes even more sense.
The Swiss Travel Pass (£162 for three consecutive days, £194 for four) is perfect for short breaks, while the Flex version – where you choose which days you use it within a month – is great for longer holidays where you might not travel on consecutive days (from £187, available with three, four, eight or 15 days’ travel).
The largest city in Switzerland, Zurich, is a thriving, culturally diverse metropolitan centre and, at its heart, the main railway station (hauptbahnhof) is a hub for travel all over Switzerland and beyond.
In fact, the mile-long Bahnhofstrasse is one of Europe’s grandest international shopping streets. But there are more street-fashion brands to be found in Aussersihl, one of the city’s youthful quarters. Zurich is a clubbing hotspot, too, no matter what your style, whether you like house music, hip hop, the gay scene or a bit of 1980s nostalgia.
If you’re more inclined to traditional culture, there is plenty: as well as many galleries (including the Kunsthaus Zurich and Museum Rietberg, which specialises in non-European works), art suffuses the city – a police station with a Giacometti entrance hall; stained windows by Marc Chagall in Fraumünster abbey.
Bern has stunning cathedrals, clock towers, fountains, cobbled streets and fountains
A must-visit excursion from the city is the Rhinefalls at Schaffhausen. This dramatic, 150m wide cascade – the largest in Europe – is even more stunning in the winter months, with the water fighting its way between rocks and ice, and the visitor numbers vastly reduced.
Furthermore, Zurich is the gateway to many of the great resorts of Switzerland. St Moritz, Davos, Klosters, Engelberg, Arosa and Andermatt are among the world-famous ski and snowboard destinations between two and three hours from the city by train.
The Swiss capital Bern is also capital of the Bernese Alps – the Berner Oberland, where the grand trio of mountains (Mönch, Jungfrau, Eiger) play out their eternal drama, as the monk protects the virgin from the ogre. It’s the perfect place to combine a weekend city break with a winter sports trip.
The city’s medieval old town – a Unesco World Heritage site – is held in the crook of the meandering River Aare, crossed by the city’s dramatic bridges. A picture-postcard central-European city, Bern has stunning cathedrals, clock towers, fountains, cobbled streets and fountains, as well as the unique lauben (covered arcades with traditional and contemporary shops, restaurants and wine bars).
From Bern, the Swiss Travel Pass allows you unrestricted rail access to the great resorts of the Berner Oberland: Grindelwald, from where you can continue by rail into the Eiger itself (stopping at the viewing window in the North Face, before continuing to Europe’s highest railway station, the Jungfraujoch); the unspoilt car-free village of Wengen, home of the world-famous Lauberhorn downhill ski race; or Mürren, where you can complete your mission On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
Book the Bond Experience and you can spend three nights in the traditional village, including a visit to “Blofeld’s lair” for brunch at the Piz Gloria revolving restaurant at nearly 3,000m atop the Schilthorn. After a visit to the interactive Bond World 007 exhibit, escape 007-style by riding down on a toboggan.
Winter brings out the magic of lakeside Lucerne, as the lights from its pretty buildings (a living history of architecture – neo-Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque) reflect on the water, and snow settles on the roof covering the Chapel Bridge.
The importance of Lake Lucerne is apparent from the moment you arrive by train – Jean Nouvel’s futuristic railway station seems to float on the water. From here, paddle steamships (part of the Swiss Travel System and included in the price of a Swiss Travel Card) depart for excursions across this beautiful mountain lake.
The importance of Lake Lucerne is apparent from the moment you arrive by train
For a different perspective on the lake, take an excursion to Pilatus Kulm, via the Dragon Ride cable car, taking you to 2,073m in comfort with unrestricted views. There, you can enjoy a toboggan thrill ride and other activities. Alternatively, spend the day at nearby Rigi, one of Switzerland’s little ski-resort gems, with 9km of pistes, plus 35km of groomed hiking trails and four toboggan runs. Both excursions are included with the Swiss Travel Pass.
Easily reached by train from Zurich, Basel is Switzerland’s cultural capital. The Kunstmuseum Basel is virtually a history of art degree spread across two buildings. It was born from the acquisition in the 17th century of what’s still the world’s largest Holbein collection.
Artists from the four centuries since are represented – famous names from the Flemish and Dutch schools, Impressionism, Surrealism, Pop Art et al through to living artists such as Bruce Nauman and Andreas Gursky….
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