Know Before You Go - Switzerland
Do I need a visa? Is it safe? How do I get around? We cover the essentials so you can travel like a pro, and relax while you do!
A trip to Switzerland is a must for any bucket list. One of the most beautiful places on earth in any season, the majesty of the Alps should be experienced firsthand. However, there are a few important things you should know before you leave home to ensure your trip is as smooth as possible.
PASSPORT & VISA
United States citizens do not need a tourist visa prior to visiting Switzerland. Ensure your passport is valid up to 6 months after your departure date.
HEALTH & SAFETY
Switzerland is generally very safe, and has some of the best health care in the world too. That said, always be aware of general crime targeted towards unassuming tourists.
METHODS OF PAYMENT
Switzerland breaks from its neighbors by not using the euro. Instead, it uses its own currency: francs. Though some merchants may accept euros, they are not required to, and you likely won’t receive a favorable exchange rate this way. Credit cards will work at most established vendors, though cash is often preferable, particularly at locally owned shops.
COST OF LIVING
In general, Switzerland is known as being one of the most expensive countries to visit, not only in Europe, but the entire world! Dining, activities, and transportation, particularly through the Alps on gondolas, funiculars, etc., are quite expensive. Expect to pay roughly 1.5 to 2 times what you’d pay in the United States for things like dining, lodging, and transportation through the Alps. Your final costs may vary, but this is meant as a rough guide in order to set your expectations appropriately. Plan in advance for these expenses, or risk frustration and stress. You can mitigate the impact to your food budget by buying at local markets. This can actually be preferable, as the country is known for its cheese and chocolate, and there is no better place for a picnic than on a glorious hillside in the Alps.
Typically, haggling is not accepted in the established shops in Switzerland, and will be met with disdain and frustration.
Tipping is generally expected and recommended in all of the typical circumstances, but may not be as high as is customary in the United States. For example, a tip of 10% is generally acceptable at a restaurant, and more may be appropriate if the service was superb. However, it is possible to over-tip, which would happen when you give too much and therefore imply the staff needs financial assistance. Don’t overthink it, and simply stay within the 10-15% range for best results.
Public transportation is everywhere in Switzerland, with even more unique options due to the spectacularly steep scenery. Whether by train, bus, metro, funicular, gondola, ferry, hiking trail, bicycle rental, or other, you can often get where you need to go quickly, easily, and with an amazing view. The Swiss are also known for their punctuality, with the most reliable public transportation network on the continent. This punctuality is refreshing coming from any of Switzerland’s neighboring countries where strikes and delays are frequent. Do be warned, however, that if you have a transfer from one form of transportation to another, even one train to another, the connection times can be very short. We’ve experienced transfer times of 5-6 minutes between trains, which for slower visitors can be quite a challenge to unload your luggage, walk down the bin through the crowds, find your next train, and walk to your assigned car. Either make sure you’re comfortable navigating train stations, or scheduler longer transfers, as most trains run frequently, with routes running typically between 20 to 60 minutes, depending on the route.
WHEN TO GO
Do you want sun or snow? Switzerland is enjoyable throughout the year depending on what activities you would like to do. For our money, traveling in June or July to some out-of-the-way alpine towns is the best way to experience Switzerland. Hiking through the Alps is second-to-none, especially when the wildflowers are blooming and the bells of the cows are ringing.
WHERE TO GO
You’re convinced, you want to see the Alps, but which Alps should you see? Switzerland is a maze of mountains and valleys, each with their own flavors and experiences to be tried. But with so many options, and often so little time available, how will you choose? To help, we’ve listed our recommendations for the can’t-miss places in Switzerland. If your time is limited, go to these places first. Or to satisfy your sweet tooth, go on a Swiss Chocolate Tour.
WHERE TO STAY
Gimmelwald is Switzerland’s best-kept secret, one that has been wonderfully hidden and faithfully maintained by its forward-thinking people. Beautifully stuck in tradition, and the simple, pure pleasures of life, Gimmelwald is the perfect place to experience the Alps. In all of our travels, it’s the closest we’ve found to everything being exactly as it should be. Perched on the steep hills of the Lauterbrunnen valley, caught between the peaks of the Schilthorn and the “top of Europe,” the Jungfrau, the views alone will have you murmuring to yourself every few minutes, “I can’t believe places like this exist. If you can only stay in one place in Switzerland, make it Gimmelwald. For more about Gimmelwald, including where to stay, read our Perfect Day in the Perfect Alpine Town. Because rooms in Gimmelwald are limited, they book up quickly. Thankfully, Mürren is a short walk or cable-car ride away, with plenty of lodging options.
If it’s alpine adventure you’re craving, head for Zermatt and the iconic Matterhorn, with near endless alpine adventures to be had in all directions. We recommend finding a comfy bed & breakfast, a place where you can wake up on your own schedule to pastries and fresh bread, coffee, tea, and alp cheese, like the Hotel Romantica in Zermatt, which even provides the opportunity to stay in 200 year old cottages built in the traditional style, but with modern comforts.
No matter where you go, make sure you find a Swiss chocolate shop or factory for some of the best chocolate treats anywhere in the world. Read our guide to the Ultimate Swiss Chocolate Tour for more info.
Dress in Switzerland is casual. It is advisable to pack some warmer clothes, as the country is obviously known for its alpine scenery.
Don't stress about wondering how you will communicate, learning a new alphabet, or anything else communication related. In Switzerland, you will find that most people speak English very well, and most signage is also in English. Still, Switzerland has a unique mix of German, French, Italian, and Romansh depending on which border you’re traveling near. The Swiss are taught all of these languages from an early age, so don’t fret about communicating. German is most prevalent, and Romansh is seldom heard, even in the few areas where the map below specifies it can still be found. Be kind and respectful and you will have no problems. Use the map below to get an idea of the predominant language where you’re traveling.