Post on November 28th, 2021 under Travel
If you’ve been dreaming of a Switzerland/Northern Italy trip, this is your sign to book it.
I recently came back from visiting some of the big and small cities of these spectacular countries. I saw the mainstay cities like Zurich, Geneva, and Milan as well as the smaller lesser-known towns. Have you heard of Gruyeres?
It was a beautiful trip, as well as a less-common trip and I want to give you all the details.
A note about covid
Before you book those tickets, make sure you know all the covid regulations. You can check out the current rules here or speak with your travel agent.
When I visited, I needed to have my American vaccination card converted to a Swiss Health Certificate bar code. It cost CHF 30, and I kept it with me at all times on my cellular phone. I needed to show it and passport to visit bars, restaurants, and even shops.
Once I had my bar code, I was ready to explore.
Alt Stadt in Zurich
I flew into Zurich, the biggest city in Switzerland. Known as one of the financial capitals of the country, it’s known for its high-class dining, luxurious shopping, and delicious Swiss chocolate.
The city itself is breathtaking. Situated at the base of the towering Alps, Zurich is surrounded by the snow-capped mountains in the distance, the peaceful Limmat River, and the sparkling Zurich lake. It’s rare to find a city that combines amazing landscape, charming architecture, and luxury in the way that Zurich does.
I wanted to get a feel for Zurich. I took the tram to the old town or the Alt Stadt in the local German. The city’s old town, called Lindenhof, is full of boutiques, restaurants, and traditional painted houses. It was easy to walk around, enjoying the gentle downhill slope as I followed the Limmat River. Lindenhof covers both the east and west banks of the river.
I took a break at Lindenhof hill, one of the best vantage points in the city. The hill is considered a national Swiss historic site, preserving pre-historic remains from the Romans who conquered this area. Their historical presence can be seen throughout Lindenhof, most notably from the Roman castle.
It wouldn’t be a trip to Zurich without visiting one of the city’s most important churches, Fraumünster. The church is beside the river and dates back to 853 AD. Originally both a church and abbey, the abbey was destroyed in the 20th century, leaving the church to tell its story alone.
I wanted a quick lunch, so I walked the short distance to Centralhof. The courtyard is near cafes and lunch restaurants. It’s a beautiful place to picnic beside the elaborate fountain. If you want to look like a local, fill up your water bottle from the fountain.
I still had more things to explore in the Old City, so I walked along the other side of the Limmat River. The Limmatquai Riverfront follows the eastern bank of the river for half a mile. The pedestrians’ walkway is beside the tram tracks. It’s an enjoyable walk in the rain or shine, and you’ll see almost every important landmark in Zurich. Multiple historic churches line the river. It’s also one of the best places in the city to take pictures.
I stopped by Bürkliplatz, the boat launch area of the city, and one of the first stops to see a full view of Lake Zurich. It’s mesmerizing. The place doubles an event site and marketplace with a glimpse of the Swiss landscape in the distance.
Across the river is the Opera House. The intricate Baroque design provides a stunning backdrop to the seasonal markets outside it. At Christmas, it’s turned into a Christmas market full of stalls of warm food, cute trinkets, and amusement park rides.
Zurich can be explored in a day or a week, depending on how in depth you want to experience it. The shopping and dining is a whole other delight to explore. Since I was visiting many cities on this trip, I didn’t have time to fully enjoy all the specialties of the swiss German city. But the time I spent there was truly wonderful.
The Charms of Lake Geneva
I took the train to Geneva. In 3 hours, the train winds through the mystical Swiss landscape to French Switzerland. Known for its chocolate and cheese, the city is framed by the massive Lake Geneva. The city’s hallmark, the Jet d’Eau, is a 460-foot tall fountain in the lake, propelling 135 gallons of water per second at 125 miles an hour.
I was very thankful for my good walking shoes. Switzerland has a robust public transit system, but going by foot was the best option since I wanted to explore. The old town features winding alleys, art galleries, and Parisian-style cafes. The quiet leafy parks are the perfect spot to sit and stay awhile.
My hotel was looking out to the lake, so I took advantage by taking long walks by the water. Swans elegantly swim by as you pass locals and tourists alike on the walkway. Of course, I couldn’t miss the famous Freddie Mercury statue standing by the lake, his fisted hand stretched out.
Not too far away from the city is the Unesco World Heritage Vineyards of Lavaux. This extremely old vineyard is rumored to date back to Roman times. But the current vine terraces date back to the 11th century, when Benedictines and Cistercians controlled the region.
It’s almost impossible to use modern cultivation machinery on the historical terrain, meaning the area’s wine often has to be creatively developed.
I thoroughly enjoyed my tour of the local wine cellar, learning how the locals manage to reach difficult terrain. The tour was finished with delectable wine accompanied by local snacks from the Lavaux region.
Fairytale in Gruyeres
If you’re a cheese lover like me, you can’t miss a trip to the town of Gruyere. Located in French Switzerland, the area is known for its culinary arts and 13th century fortified Gruyere castle. A quick stop at the colligate church is worth a visit. The H.R. Giger museum is also worth a visit. Giger is famous for the Hollywood Alien movies. The admission to the museum costs 12.50 francs. Or you can buy a combined ticket for the HR Giger Museum and the Gruyères Castle for 19 francs. Interesting museum. Interesting museum.
The journey there included many sights of black and white cows, framed by the towering mountains and trees changing color (I went in November).
I arrived around lunchtime and enjoyed the famous cheese fondue with bread and cold meats. The fondue was worth the wait. The next stop was Maison Cailler chocolaterie, the oldest Swiss chocolate brand still in operation. The self-guided tour spilled some of the secrets of the trade and was made all the sweeter with chocolate tastings at the end. If you’re looking for swiss chocolate to bring home, this is the place to get it.
Gruyere with the delicious food surrounded by the alpine scenery, and hilltop castle made it feel like a fairytale. I’ll definitely be going back.
Steepest railway in the world
If you want a bit of a thrill, the trip to Lucerne can be an adventure. I took the world’s steepest cogwheel railways (the incline is 48 degrees) up the soaring Mount Pilatus. I was intimately near the ragged cliffs that rose higher and higher up the Bernese Alps to the sparkling Lake Lucerne.
Since the Middle Ages, the area has been shrouded in mystery, with tales being told of dragon encounters and visits with unknown people of the surrounding caves. Visiting the site made it easy to imagine a dragon soaring from the Alps to the lake in the 10,000-foot space. Once you reach the top, you can visit the dragon wall to look out at the mountain. Since you’re so far up, the weather can be cold and dangerous. I only went part of the way.
There was just as much excitement on the way down as there was on the way up, and my camera rapidly filled with pictures from the adventure.
Italian Swiss Delights
Switzerland is such a diverse country, I mused as I made my way to Southern Switzerland, otherwise known as the Italian part of the country.
The biggest city in the region, Lugano, is a beautiful Mediterranean-esque city surrounded by the lake and mountains. I took a cruise across the shining waters.
I listened intently when the Captain told the history of the quaint fishing village of Gandria, once famous for its olive oil, silk production, and smuggling of cigarettes, meat, and alcohol. We cruised the Campione d’Italia exclave sovereign: an Italian territory completely surrounded by Switzerland. We also cruised the charming lakeside of Santa Maria dei Ghirli Church, dating back to at least 874 and home to amazing 14-17th century frescoes.
Dinner was at a lovely restaurant with local regional (Ticinese) specialties and best of all was the incredible views of illuminated Lugano at night.
The next day, we visited the ancient Castles of Bellinzona, three swiss castles of the area that looked like they had many stories. All three are UNESCO World Heritage sites. I strolled through Bellinzona’s charming historic district market with stalls selling local products and vibrant live music filling the street. I then found the elevator up to the Castelgrande fort, with a history dating to Roman times.
From up above, I had views for miles around. The rolling hills, lines of vineyards, and people hurrying in the town below were wonderful to behold. We could choose between a light picnic lunch outside or a local restaurant. I decided to stay outside and take it all in.
Visiting Italy’s Lake Como
Italy was beckoning since it was so nearby (fewer than 40 miles away). Since I was going to a different country, I had to fill out another covid health form. Because I’m completely vaccinated, I didn’t have to be tested.
I arrived at the enchanting Como/Bellagio area of the country. I took no time to start exploring the world-famous Lake Como and the picturesque Old Town.
Bellagio is located halfway between the two southernmost branches of the lake and is known for its cobbled streets, expensive villas, and its James Bond filming location. It’s full of art and history, most notably the Piazza della Chiesa and the Basilica of San Giacomo, a Romanesque church built between the 11th and 12th centuries.
I wandered through the alleys full of quaint shops and lots of restaurants. It was definitely a place to get your steps in, though. I was regularly walking up and down stairs during my vacation.
Although I didn’t have time this trip, I would’ve loved to spend time at the Bellagio beach and book a boat cruise around the water. The captain takes you to see the most expensive houses in the area as you get a taste of the beautiful scenery.
Art and Culture in Milan
I had one more stop on my itinerary. Milan. Known as the fashion and design capital of Italy, the city boasts more than shopping and design. Like most European cities, Milan is steeped in history.
The elegant streets, hidden pockets, and mouth-watering food creations make it an enjoyable visit even for those of us who aren’t bigger shoppers like myself. If you are a shopper, though, the many boutiques can take days to explore.
There is a surplus of historical and cultural activities as well. The Duomo di Milano Cathedral cannot be missed. The iconic building is built with a mix of Gothic and Renaissance architecture, first constructed in 1386.
I also visited the Santa Maria delle Grazie convent, which is home to Leonardo da Vinci’s mural “The Last Supper.” I highly recommend it.
Getting back to the US from Italy
My time in Europe was quickly coming to an end. But wanting to finish on a classic Italian note, I grabbed a gelato and “aperitivo” before sorting through my affairs.
I had to get another Covid test to get back into the US. It wasn’t difficult, but it definitely adds another thing to your to-do list. Make sure you check the local rules, though. As these requirements are constantly changing.
My trip to Switzerland and Northern Italy was a whirlwind but full of delicious food, gorgeous scenery, and cultural significance. I cannot wait to visit again and hope you’re inspired to put this trip on your list as well.
Have you done any traveling lately? Let me know ….