When I traveled to Switzerland I planned our itinerary to a tee. I think I was well-prepared for two weeks of train travel in Switzerland.
Nevertheless, there were some things that surprised me about Switzerland. Some surprises were good, some were… unexpected.
To help you with your travel to Switzerland I sum up the things that surprised me the most about this amazing Alpine country in Europe.
And I share practical tips for you, that can help you plan your trip to Switzerland so you’ll have an amazing time.
I paid for everything myself, therefore, all opinions and experiences are my own.
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Amazing weather in September
What surprised me the most of our 2 weeks in Switzerland was the weather. We visited Switzerland during the first two weeks of September. I packed a sweater, numerous long-sleeve t-shirts, and thick winter socks and even a woolen hat!
But I was not prepared for 2 weeks of sunshine, 28 degrees, and a summer feeling. The weather in September in Switzerland really surprised me in a good way. I loved it.
As it turns out: when the sun’s out, it can get really warm high in the mountains. If you plan to visit Switzerland in September I can highly recommend it. Of course, it can rain but when the sun does shine it will be a bright sunny day.
Not everything in Switzerland is in 3 languages
I speak German, a little bit of French and I understand 3 words of Italian. I imagined all communications in Switzerland would be in all these three languages.
So I thought all road signs, announcements and information would be in multiple languages. But it is not. It seems the country has invisible borders, where, once you cross them, you change the language.
This was particularly noticeable on the trains. We rode most trains for hours and one moment, the same train staff would ask for our tickets in French, but after passing a tunnel, the next time they came around, they switched to German.
Swiss language is not German or French or Italian
I love interacting with locals when I travel. And speaking a few words in the local dialect or language always helps with that. But to my surprise, the Swiss language or dialect is really something else. There I am, with my English, German, French and Italian language skill. And I really cannot understand a single word anyone speaks! What a surprise.
Of course, locals quickly switch to either German or French to talk to us, but I was rather disappointed not to understand any conversation around me. Want to make a strong impression? Learn before you travel to Switzerland. Here is a website with a short introduction to the Swiss German dialect. My personal favorites are “Grüezi” (pronounce as Gr-uh-tzi) and “genau”, which just means “exactly” but the Swiss around us, just seem to use it twice in every sentence!
Switzerland is not part of the EU
I knew this. But what surprised me, we didn’t have any border checks when we entered or left the country. We arrived by train from Basel and talked about how they would check our passports or even our bags, but we didn’t see any border patrol on the trains. This might change of course in every situation and I’m not sure if you can use this to your advantage, but it did surprise me.
Switzerland was never occupied in World War I or II
Duh. I knew that. Of course, I knew that. I knew Switzerland remains impartial in any war and they were not occupied or fought in in WW I or WW II.
But when we were in Basel, walking on our guided tour and the tour guide said to us:
Basel looks lovely, don’t you think. This is what the whole of Europe could have looked like if it wasn’t for the World Wars (I and II).
And this struck a chord with me. We stood still in the middle of an intersection and I looked around me. Of course, I’ve seen historic centers and many European streets have that cobblestone charm, but Basel (and the rest of Switzerland) was different. It felt like I was Alice and fell down the rabbit hole and came out at the other end in a world that had never seen war. It completely jumbled with my mind (I know, that even though Switzerland remained neutral, the locals still suffered from the consequences around them).
How little we know about close to home history
Related to the subject above, I surprisingly discovered how little I know about the history of the countries around us. In school, we learned about World War II and the effects on our country. I learned about the invasion of Normandy and the battles that followed. But never learned about life in Switzerland at that time. Or what role Switzerland played in the conflict and how they maintained their neutral status.
As we walked along the shores of Lake Geneva, walking in Switzerland, only kilometers away from France, I wondered what life would have been like for the Swiss during that time. You can see the houses and streets on the other side of the lake. One country was ‘free’, the other occupied.
Churches in Switzerland are not always used for religious purposes
Again, I was baffled by my own ignorance. Maybe I travel too much in the same countries, but I was surprised to learn that Switzerland has catholic religion and the protestant religion! I actually thought the Netherlands and Germany formed a sort of geographic line on the map where the north is protestant and the south is Catholic.
Maybe I’ve been traveling too much in Italy and Spain, but I figured we’d go to Switzerland and we’d visit some (Catholic) churches. Turns out, I know too little. Switzerland has a Catholic and Protestant population.
But, another shocker. Religion is not that important (anymore?). We’ve seen numerous churches that do not have a religious function anymore and are used as a cafe or event hall. Can you imagine something like that in Italy?
The Swiss love nature and gardens
This might not be so surprising to me, as I imagined the Swiss as nature lovers and quite the outdoorsy kind (how can you not?). But what did surprise me as we traveled through the country, was the state of all the parks and gardens.
As we traveled by train, we often passed people’s front yard or back yard. Almost all the bigger houses in the countryside had perfectly manicured gardens with a colorful abundance of flowers. And quite a few had well-maintained vegetable gardens. We saw many pumpkin patches, tomato bushes and heaps and heaps of herbal fields. All surrounded by a lovely picketed fence, in neat rows with readable sign in front of them. It was a treat to look out the train window and see all those lovely gardens!
The view is always better at the top
I imagined we’d go up a mountain or two to see the view, enjoy the scenery and because my boyfriend is crazy about mountains. I never imagined to want to go up every mountain we’d cross on our 2 weeks in Switzerland. It was crazy. But I loved it. Especially when the cable car or the cogwheel train takes you straight to the top.
Although quite expensive, the engineering of these mountain railway lines is amazing. And the views are nothing less than spectacular. We went up Mt. Pilatus near Lucerne and took the funicular up San Salvatore in Lugano. We also hiked high in the mountains near the Matterhorn in Zermatt and climbed high above the lake of Geneva on the Rochers de Naya railway track.
And then, last but not least we had to go up the Jungfraujoch by Europe’s highest railway station. Turns out, the view is always better at the top.
Nature trumps culture in Switzerland for things to do
If you’re reading my blog regularly, you’ll see I have a strong focus on culture and historic buildings, mainly ruins and love for museums and art. Of course, I knew our train journey through Switzerland would be more about nature but I tried my best to squeeze in some cultural-historic sights too. We had a stop in Basel because I had to see the Roman Ruins of Augusta Raurica which were great!
We traveled on the Pre-Alpine Express from Lucerne to St. Gallen to visit the cathedral and library of St. Gallen. Another Unesco World Heritage in the bank, but we also visited the Rhine Falls on the same trip. I was blown away. Totally loved it!
I imagined we’d walk the streets of Lugano, explore the old center and maybe visit the world heritage sites of nearby Bellinzona. Turns out, the mountains were calling and we spent all day in nature.
Same applies for our time in Montreux. I thought to visit some museums and the Castle of Chillon. But once we’d seen the castle we just enjoyed the lovely lake and the views from the hills.
Now, I don’t want to piss off the Swiss by saying their country doesn’t have enough interesting cultural sights and attractions. It does. There are numerous museums and Switzerland has quite a few World Heritage Sites. But in my experience, because we had so little time and the weather was absolutely amazing, as a culture vulture, I rather chose nature instead.
Spa and saunas in Switzerland are amazing
We booked a couple of hotels in Switzerland that had an indoor pool and spa/sauna facilities. As you know, I love a good spa (or called hammam in other countries, like my hammams in Andalusia Spain experiences).
There is nothing better than to relax in warm and hot water after an intensive day of travel and sightseeing. Let alone those grueling uphill hikes in the mountains. When we stayed at the Royal Plaza & Spa in Montreux, we enjoyed their facilities on several occasions. The screaming hot steam bath in the Hotel Steffani in St. Moritz helped get rid of my cold and we spent a whole afternoon at the pool and spa at the Hotel & Spa Victoria-Lauterborn.
Train travel in Switzerland
As we traveled by train around the whole of Switzerland for 2 weeks, some things noticed me about trains in Switzerland. Maybe if we’d done a road trip, other things about Switzerland would have surprised me about getting around in the country, but the next surprises are about train travel in Switzerland.
The public transport is super easy to use
I kinda expected this in Switzerland. The Swiss are known to run on time and be precise and accurate. I imagined the public transport to be no exception. But to experience such easy transportation in Switzerland was a breeze!
Examples? Every bus stop or tram stop or tiny little train station had a ticket machine. No excuses, just buy the ticket with your card or cash on the spot.
Another example? In every bus or train, there is a display that shows the next stop, the expected time of arrival and the final destination. In every compartment of the train. And they all worked perfectly.
Each train also worked with a combination of numbers and letters. So, for example, the IR-trains are the inter-regional trains that run at the most common routes and stop at the bigger stations. The S-trains are only for local routes and stop at every small little station. This felt more like a tram than a train. When we boarded the VorAlpen Express train, the train was indicated with VAE, so we knew it was the right train.
Trains with an “S” stop at every single station
What did surprise me about the Swiss public transport, is that the S-trains stop at every single train station. No exceptions. Big and important but also super tiny, small train stations. This means the train can literally stop every 2 minutes. Add the time to break, wait and pull up again, a stretch of 40 km can take more than an hour!
Note to you: if you don’t absolutely have to take them, avoid the trains with S. Like S40 or S73.
Trains stop on request in Switzerland
I was surprised to see the “stop on request” button in Swiss trains. I’m familiar with it on the bus, as you have to notify the driver you want to get off at the next stop, but I’ve never seen it on trains before.
You just hit the stop button and the announcement in the train also tells you if the next stop is a “stop on request” stop. I only saw it on the express trains I was on or the IR (inter-regional) trains. Not on the S-trains as they stop everywhere!
All scenic train routes in Switzerland are called “express”
In my book, express means fast. Without too many changes and in one direct movement. Sort of. But in Switzerland, they like to advertise all those fancy scenic train routes (which we took. All of them!) as express trains.
But… after two weeks of slowly meandering through the Swiss landscape, I felt it was a bit mistranslated. Maybe not intentional, but definitely not fast.
This is of course due to the altitude and curves on the railway routes in Switzerland. And who wants to go fast anyway when you travel around such a beautiful country. So forget about the meaning of “express” and just enjoy the ride.
Money in Switzerland
Ok, there have to be some money surprises in Switzerland. But as Switzerland is notoriously famous for being very expensive, I wasn’t that surprised about the price level. I was well prepared, but some things did stand out and surprised me (a little).
You can pay everywhere with your credit card
A small pack of gum at a kiosk? Credit card. 2 euro bus ticket? The machines accept credit cards. Supermarkets? Pay with your credit card.
For most countries in Europe, it is not standard that you can pay these things with your credit card. Sometimes there is a machine that accepts it, sometimes it is cash only. But not in Switzerland. I felt credit cards were widely accepted, even for small purchases.
The only exception was when we wanted to buy stamps. The kiosk owner said that he needed to pay for the stamps himself by cash only.
Even the dreaded American Express credit card was accepted (almost) everywhere. But, I was unpleasantly surprised when I saw they had a very bad exchange rate AND they added commission to all transactions with the card. Maybe I should have looked into that before I left home but I was not amused. I’m going to cancel my Amex card soon as it sucks big time for payments in Europe. But since I know that many Americans have this card, I’d say, if you plan to travel to Switzerland, the Amex card is widely accepted.
Although Switzerland is expensive, some items were relatively cheap
I expected traveling in Switzerland would be expensive. Everything was roughly 10% to 20% more expensive than at home, with some remarkable exceptions.
I don’t smoke, but I saw that a pack of cigarettes in Switzerland costs 7.50 (CHF). Since a pack over here costs 7.50 euros, they are actually 10% cheaper in Switzerland than back home.
Same goes for hard liquor. Same price level as at home. So with an exchange rate of 1.10, it was actually 10% cheaper than where I live.
Switzerland has a discount card for almost everything
This mostly relates to tourist things, like visiting attractions and cities and using trains, but I found a jungle of different discount cards for your travel to Switzerland.
Then the regions or the cities have different passes that give free access to all the cool touristy things to do around the area. Or discount tickets with a lot or a little included.
As we were traveling around the whole of Switzerland on an Interrail train pass, I didn’t look into it. But if you travel to Switzerland, travel around a lot or stay in one area for more than 2-3 days, it can really be beneficial to check what kind of passes there are available and if they can save you money.
The best way is to break out the old fashion spreadsheet and write down the costs for your travel party without any discounts. Then look up rates and discounts for various Swiss discount passes and do the math.
There is a big difference in price level between supermarkets
Switzerland is expensive. If you’re looking into traveling to Switzerland, that is one of the first things you’ll learn. One of the best super saver tips you’ll find is the above-mentioned discount cards AND to shop and buy your food at supermarkets.
Switzerland has several different big supermarkets. You’ll probably bump into a COOP and Migros at some point in time. They will save you money on your drinks and snacks. But I was surprised how much more expensive they were than other Swiss supermarkets.
We found a Lidl supermarket which is at a more affordable price level, but they don’t have the big brands available. Aldi is another budget supermarket but we only found a Lidl in a city once. Aldi and Lidl are usually at the outskirts of cities (great when you travel by car, not so great for train travel in Switzerland).
However, we did find a Denner supermarket. And this one literally saved our food-budget. In almost all the places we stayed, we were able to find a Denner supermarket downtown and saved a ton of Swiss francs on our grocery shopping. And they had the big brands so we knew the quality was guaranteed! I was surprised to see the big price differences within the same country.
Budget saver tip: buy at supermarkets but not just any supermarket. If possible, try to find a Denner, Lidl or Aldi supermarket in Switzerland.
Chocolate in Switzerland
I knew Switzerland is the land of chocolate. And I love myself some chocolate for sure. But I was absolutely shocked to see a 4,5kg (10 pounds!) Toblerone bar in the supermarket! For 119 Swiss Francs or 119 dollars, you can eat yourself into oblivion with this chocolate bar. Wow! I do love myself some Toblerone, but this stick was gigantic!
Of course, you can always try a Chocolate Factory visit for more chocolate overload.
Swiss people don’t mind to talk about money
I imagined that the locals would be sick and tired of all the tourists complain and freak out about the prices. However, on several occasions, we engaged with locals and they almost always brought up the topic of money. They were curious about prices where we live and what we thought of the prices in Switzerland. This surprised me as I imagined talking about money is a no-no in Switzerland.
Surprises when traveling in Switzerland
Travel to me is all about discovering new countries and cultures. I love to be amazed and discover new things. Although I plan and prepare my trips quite accurate, I also love to be surprised (in a good way please) about a new destination.
As I imagined Switzerland to be quite like the Netherlands, some things did really surprise me. Other things are just situations that stood out to me. All surprises can be prevented by a little research and they all depend on your own frame of reference. These are my personal experiences and I hope you enjoyed to read them. I hope they provide a bit of insight into my experiences and help you be better prepared for your trip to Switzerland.
Have you been to Switzerland before? What surprised you the most? Please share your experiences in the comment section below. Or share this post with your friends on Facebook, Twitter or in real life.