11 Things to Do on the Cheap in Switzerland
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Switzerland has a well-earned reputation as being a playground exclusively for the rich — it was here, around the Victorian era, that the English invented tourism with group travel, package deals and guided vacations. Flush with cash from the labor that created the Industrial Revolution, or simply having inherited money, Brits arrived in droves for the Swiss mountains, inventing the sport of alpine skiing in the Bernese Oberland. They even designed the country’s famous railways, which is why trains here go on the left. After World War II, jet setters like Charlie Chaplin and David Niven bought vacation homes here. Later came Tina Turner, Roman Polanski and David Bowie, followed by Russian oligarchs and Middle Eastern princes, and, in the past few years, enormous group tours from China and India.
For tourists, the country remains expensive and inundated with camera-wielding travelers, but for locals, it’s a whole different shebang. Ever thrifty and still recalling the days before the country got rich from banking, the Swiss have found ways to have a great time without spending a lot of money. And you can, too. Here are 11 secrets to enjoying Switzerland with the excitement of a tourist and the wallet of a local.
1. Enjoy Local Cuisine in Lucerne
With Italianate architecture lining the River Reuss, an old city free of cars, an enormous lake, classic hotels like the magnificent lakeside Palace Hotel and an extraordinary concert hall, Lucerne is Switzerland’s most beautiful city. Locals steer clear of the tourist hubbub and dine at establishments with traditional cuisine that make use of the farms nearby. One of the best is Wirtshaus Galliker, a 140-year-old, family-owned bistro with low ceilings, a lively crowd, great veal dishes and good vegetarian options as well as delicious regional wines and beer on draft. Wirtshaus Taube is another favorite, and here you’ll find real Swiss dishes like veal dumplings in a flaky pastry pie with rice and vegetables. Note that reservations are a must at both restaurants.
The city is also home to Switzerland’s best open-air cheese market along the river on Tuesday and Saturday mornings, where you can buy spectacular Emmental, Gruyere and Alpine cheeses. On Saturday mornings at the first booth on the right bank of the river (if your back is to the lake), you’ll find the booth of Rolf Beeler, surely one of the best cheesemakers in the country.
2. Go Dancing in Biel
Switzerland is revered for its peace and quiet, but the bilingual city of Biel is known for its raucous nightlife and underground music: no yodeling, no cowbells, no cuckoo clocks, no zithers. One of the best clubs, with live music and dancing, is Le Singe.
3. Get Away From It All in Braunwald
This mountaintop village, car-free and reachable only by funicular, is one of Switzerland’s best-kept secrets, with few visitors from outside the country and stunning views of the Glarus Alps. With its tiny farms, panoramic hikes and mountain air, a visit to Braunwald will clear your mind.
4. Stay at An Apartment in the Mountains
Hotels are fine, but if you want to really feel Swiss, plug into the national apartment-rental network for a clean, spacious, modern, two-bedroom pad in the mountains for as little as $1,000 per week. Every village in the country has a website with listings so you can correspond directly with the owners. And while you won’t usually have to put down a security deposit, you are often asked to pay in full in advance by wire. Expect a well-equipped kitchen — complete with fondue pot and raclette maker — great views and a spotless interior with eiderdown covers and pillows. Oh, and don’t forget to take off your boots! Check out the Swiss Tourism Board website if you’re interested in finding holiday apartments.
5. Use Your Feet to Get Around
Several Alpine villages in Switzerland have no cars, and if you want to experience what life was like before sitting in traffic, this is the way to do it. Automobile-free villages include Braunwald, Mürren, Rigi, Saas-Fee, Wengen and Zermatt. Note that Zermatt, Wengen, Rigi, and Saas-Fee attract international guests, while Braunwald and Mürren have more of a local scene. You’ll notice time slows down when you’re hoofing it.
But don’t forget about train travel in Switzerland. Depending on how long you’re going, where you’re going, and your budget, the myriad of train passes should be on your must-do list. The Swiss Travel Pass is the priciest, especially for first-class compartments, but it can be a cultural experience. The trains of the country, many of which were designed with amazing vistas in mind, are an amazing way to get around. You can also get airport-destination vouchers, half0-price passes, regional passes, passes that offer a number of nonconsecutive dates within a month, family passes, and student and senior passes.
6. Live on a Farm
The Swiss have an impressive network of farms that are ideal for couples or families with young children — you can sleep in a clean apartment, often in the same house as the farmer and family; enjoy the freshest milk, cheese, meat and vegetables imaginable; and even help out with chores. Two of the best sites to find a place like this are Agrotourismus and Magnificasa.
7. Take a Break From Budget and Add a Quirky Hotel
Switzerland is thought of as a staid place that’s mired in tradition, but its affluence also allows for fun and improvisation. Nowhere is this more evident than in its quirky hotels that maintain high standards despite their uniqueness. This is where to bust out the secret stash in your wallet.
At Therme Vals in Vals, you can enjoy one of Europe’s most beautiful spas, designed by award-winning architect Peter Zumthor and built out of local granite — the property also has a two-star Michelin restaurant. Berggasthaus Aescher-Wildkirchli is built into the side of a mountain and in order to reach it, you must take a cable car up and hike another mile or so. At Villa Principe Leopoldo, high above the city of Lugano, is a former private mansion turned Relais and Chateaux member that takes luxury to a whole new level — it’s also where Herman Hesse wrote some of his books.
Still want to keep on the cheap? It’s always free just to gawk!
8. Go Jump in a River
Switzerland is landlocked of course, and its high mountain rivers and lakes are much too cold to swim in no matter how hot and tired you may be from hiking. But in Bern and Zurich, you can bathe with locals at 19th-century bathing clubs that allow access to their roaring rivers. In Bern, you can hang with families and people taking lunch breaks along the Aare, nude or clothed.
9. Take in Art
Switzerland is home to numerous world-class art museums. One of the best, built only 12 years ago, is The Zentrum Paul Klee museum in Bern. The Swiss artist’s permanent and rotating collections are not to be missed.
10. Go Budget in a Big City
City hotels can be pricey — like the elegant Hotel Bellevue Palace overlooking the river and parliament in Bern — but the budget-minded may prefer the Ibis chain, which has properties all over the country and usually offers a clean, quiet, secure room for about $120 per night. Of course, there’s also Airbnb and your hotel points to cash in.
11. You Don’t Have to Eat Just Meat and Potatoes
Foreign residents are everywhere in Switzerland, and that means you’ll find first-rate food from all over the world. On top of the Jungfrau, you have Bollywood, which serves Indian dishes. Down below, Tanaka in Bern has terrific Japanese food. Sukhothai in Basel is the real thing. And, let’s face it, sometimes you just want a great, thin-crust pizza — that’s at Santa Lucia in Zurich.
Additional information regarding rail travel was added to this story after its initial publication.
What do you to do enjoy Switzerland on a budget? Share your tips, below.
Photo by Natapong Supalertsophon / Getty Images.
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