How to Be Swiss (and Enjoy Switzerland on the Cheap)

Feb 28, 2018

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Yes, it’s expensive, and, yes, going just about anyplace else in Europe is bound to cost less, but you just can’t beat the mountains, clean air and quiet of Switzerland. The Swiss know this, and while they have packaged the country to maximize the money spent by visitors to their oasis — not a part of the European Union, and a member of the United Nations only since 2002 — they themselves are historically penurious.

It’s important to keep in mind the Swiss weren’t always rich — the country used to be kind of like the Maine of Europe: A place where vacationers lived it up while locals provided service. So the memory and upbringing of the recent past informs the current penny-pinching behavior of many Swiss. They want value for less.

You, too, can enjoy Switzerland like a Swiss. Here are 10 suggestions on how to do Switzerland like a Swiss, some free but all within most budgets.

Food and Sundries

All over the country you’ll find stores called Migros. Established in 1925, this superstore is like Walgreens in the US in the sense that inexpensive, quality household goods are available under one roof. You can get terrific buys on prepared foods and fresh ingredients. There’s only one thing missing, and that’s…

Entrance to Migros supermarket in Geneva. Migros is Switzerland's largest retail company, its largest supermarket chain and largest employer. (Photo by
Entrance to Migros supermarket in Geneva. Migros is Switzerland’s largest retail company, its largest supermarket chain and largest employer. (Photo by


Gottlieb Duttweiler, the founder of Migros, was a teetotaler, and so even today if you want to enjoy alcoholic beverages at a premium price, you need to go to Coop. Coop has stores all over Switzerland — even at the airport (where they are open on Sunday, which is unusual for this country). You can also get delicious food (at somewhat higher prices than Migros), as well as first-rate Swiss wines, hard cider, hard liquor and beer.

Speaking of Beer …

The Swiss have jumped on the microbrewery bandwagon. The major companies continue to put out OK beer, wonderful mostly after a long summer hike, but at Coop (and elsewhere) you will find first-rate IPAs, wheat beers and even hemp beer from Appenzell.

Organics, Man

For a variety of cultural, agricultural, and economic reasons, Switzerland has the highest percentage of organic food for sale in the world. About 12% of what they have on offer is Bio Suisse-certified, and while any improvement in taste may be debatable, the purity is never in question.

It’s Free to Walk

Before or after enjoying the food and beverages, you ought to take advantage of the gazillions of paths that riddle the country. You can picnic in gorgeous settings, and it won’t cost you a cent to traverse the country if you have strong legs.

(Photo by Bastian Bodyl / EyeEm/Getty Images)
(Photo by Bastian Bodyl / EyeEm/Getty Images)

It’s Also Free to Ride

In recent years, some Swiss cities have been offering free bicycle loans, which is a terrific way to get around. You can pedal or even sit back on an e-bike. This site in Zurich is a good place to start.

Stay in Touch

I recently came across a terrific service called Travelers Wifi that provides Wi-Fi access all over Switzerland. It costs about $13 per 24-hour period, and is extremely useful should you need help while hiking in the Alps, on a train en route to a town where you need to book a room, etc. You save a ton on roaming charges, too.

These devices can be picked up at the airport and returned in any mailbox. And because the Swiss and EU don’t allow monopolies on communication towers, reception and sound quality are often better than in the US.

Head for the Peaks

With enough stamina, you ought to go deep into the mountains. Unlike cities, towns and villages, where rooms can be costly at times, huts in the mountains offer, very inexpensive Matratzenlager (“mattress rooms”), dormitory-style rooms lined with single beds. It may sound spartan, and sometimes it is, but after a long day of hiking, a good bowl of barley soup and a beer, you’ll be out in seconds.

Baby, It’s Cold Outside

Winter in Switzerland compels locals to hit the slopes on skis, but there’s far more to it than that. Less expensive options include snowshoeing and indoor spas. Winter hiking has become increasingly popular in Switerland, and the country’s affluence and commitment to public infrastructure mean that trails are often plowed for walkers.

If you’d rather be indoors, the Swiss have a whole bunch of water parks. One of the best (and the largest in Europe) is Alpamare, in Pfäffikon, where for about $34 you have a day of frolicking. Some water parks have nude “sauna lands.”

Hikers with snowshoes in Switzerland. (Photo by deimagine/Getty Images)
Hikers with snowshoes in Switzerland. (Photo by deimagine/Getty Images)

Give Back

If you really want to feel Swiss, and have the time, why not give of yourself? You can volunteer to work on a Swiss farm or in a mountain hut. Here is a resource for working in a mountain hut. Just don’t yodel, please.

Featured photo of the historic city of Thun, in the canton of Bern in Switzerland. (Photo by ake1150sb/Getty Images)

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