2 weeks exploring the wonders of the alpine foothills in Central Switzerland.
Switzerland is well known for it's breathtaking views, stunning lakes and towering mountain peaks. It is also home to many quaint mountain villages and much larger city destinations, making it a holiday that can be tailored to almost anyone. It took us just under 3 days of travelling to reach the Swiss lakeside town of Brienz, but boy was it worth the drive. Surrounded by endless greenery and vast mountains in the heart of one of the most beautiful countries in the world, I couldn't have imagined a more perfect holiday location if I tried.
I was so excited when my parents invited me to spend 2 weeks with them caravaning in Switzerland over summer. I have a lot of happy childhood memories tripping around in our caravan; we used to take it out every chance we got, exploring both the UK and further asees. However since I've grown up and moved out I regrettably don't tend to go on a lot of family holidays anymore, so I jumped at this chance to relive the good old days (sadly minus my sister since she's on her year abroad).
When I initially told people we were driving all the way to Switzerland I was met by looks of disbelief. They all thought we were crazy, but we saw it as an adventure. Catching the overnight ferry from Hull, my current city of residence, we woke the next morning in Zebrugge. Rather than attempting to drive straight to Switzerland (which would have be no fun at all), we decided to split the journey, spending a night in Strasburg, France.
When we finally arrived at our final destination, we parked up on the lakeside of Brienzersee just outside of Brienz, a small town in central Switzerland close to the popular destination of Interlaken. Right near the lake shore and enclosed by mountains, the site of Aaregg really was postcard picture worthy. Many people may be a little hesitant at the thought of spending 2 weeks cooped up in a caravan, however anyone who has ever owned (or stayed in) one will understand the sense of freedom they bring. They are also definitely ideal for those of use who love our home comforts, aka food for me.
There is so much to see in Switzerland, it was impossible to cram everything into just 2 weeks. Unfortunately for us the weather was a major factor in deciding what we could do. In total we probably only had 3 days of sun, but rain or shine we definitely made the most of our time.
This wasn't actually our first visit to Switzerland. Around 15 years ago we stayed in Lauterbrunnen, a nearby town which is situated much deeper in the mountain valleys. Although I don't remember much of our previous visit (since I was quite young), one thing that did stick with me was our trip up to Jungfrau.
Standing at 3454m tall, the mountain station of Jungfraujoch is the top of Europe but feels like the top of the world. It is an absolute must for anyone staying in the surrounding area and it was definitely something we were keen to experience for a second time.
Half the excitement of a trip to Jungfrau is undoubtedly the journey up there. It takes multiple train rides, each gradually climbing in altitude and with more spectacular views than the last. You also have the option to travel two different routes to reach Kleine Scheidegg; the final station before the summit. We opted to take the train through Lauterbrunnen on the way up and via Grindelwald on the way back down to soak in as much of the views as possible.
The last portion of the journey is tunneled through the mountain so it is hard to know what to expect when you arrive. Stepping off the train and catching your first glimpse of the top of Europe is so hard to put into words. It is one of those experiences which feels like a dream; the dramatic landscape completely takes your breath away. It is a totally different world up there and one which I could never get tired of looking at.
The best way to truly experience the marvel of Jungfrau is from the Sphinx Observation Deck. Climbing an additional 108 metres, you get a spectacular view of the Grosser Aletsch glacier and surrounding mountain range. After soaking in the scenery, there is a number of additional highlights to experience at Jungfraujoch. The snow fun park provides the exciting enjoyment of winter sports all year round including sledging, skiing and snowboarding, with the option of a day ticket to try out all the activities on offer. Another element not to be missed is the Ice Palace featuring a carved tunnel of ice beautifully detailed sculptures, but beware the floor is also made of ice!
A trip to Jungfraujoch is by no means a cheap excursion, but it is well worth the money for the totally unique and spectacular experience. I'd even consider returning a third time to do the glacier hike to the Mönchsjochhütte; the highest serviced hut in Switzerland which you can even stay in overnight as a guest!
Hiking in Grindelwald
After a glance at the scenery when travelling through on our journey back from Jungfrau, we decided to do a little exploring of the mountain town of Grindelwald (not to be confused with the Harry Potter Character...). It is not hard to see why Grindelwald is a popular location all year round, boasting numerous hiking trails in the summer months and being an ideal skiing destination in winter. We ended up spending 3 days here and there was still so much more we could have seen.
On our first visit we took a cable car up to Pfingstegg. There are a number different hiking trails of varying lengths and intensity in this area, you could probably spend a good week just on this mountain alone. We opted for the striking cliff side walk to Berghaus Bäregg which has spectacular views of the Ischmeer glacier and the plummeting valley below. Rather than riding the cable car back there is also the option of following one of the several trails down to Grindelwald, and of course I just had to have a ride on the mountain toboggans!
Our second visit was originally intended to be another hike, but sadly the weather had other plans so we decided to explore the town instead. Grindelwald is most definitely what you would picture an Alpine village to look like. The main street of Dorfstrasse is lined with quaint chalets, each with wooden window shutters and an abundance of balcony boxes filled with cascading geraniums of all colours. There are plenty of unique (and touristy) shops to spend your time visiting, in addition to restaurants, cafes and you can even stop for a game on mini golf.
On our third and final visit to Grindelwald we took a trip to First. This is definitely one to put on the list for any adrenaline junkies like myself, with plenty of thrilling activities to do both in the summer time and the winter season. I'd always wondered what it would be like to fly like a bird and now I know - The First Glider soars you head-first down the mountain side, reaching speeds of up to 83km/h! There is also a zip-line, mountain carts and scooters. A must-do when visiting the mountain is without a doubt the cliff walk. Built into the side of the mountain, this walk is terrifyingly spectacular with unparralel views of Grindelwald and the surrounding Swiss Alps (just don't look down!).
Another trip I highly recommend is a visit to Pilatus, a mountain overlooking the city of Lucerne. There are four ways to explore the surrounding area and reach the top of Mount Pilatus; by hiking, cable car, cogwheel train or the luxurious option of the Golden Round Trip which combines the cableway and train with a boat ride - We opted for the latter.
Setting off from the heart of the city, we began our journey sailing on the calm blue waters of Lake Lucerne. The boat trip ranges from 50-90 minutes depending on the time of day and was the perfect way to sit back, relax and enjoy the breeze through my hair. The boat provides a different scenic perspective of Mount Pilatus before dropping you off at Alpnachstad to board the cogwheel train.
Our next leg of the journey was up the side of the mountain by the steepest cogwheel railway in the world. The train reaches an impressive gradient of 48 percent and passes by mountain trails and beautiful meadows, taking around 30 minutes to reach Pilatus Kulm. Once we reached the top there is plenty to experience including a wild flower trail and walks to stunning viewpoints of the surrounding mountain ranges and city below.
After spending a good while taking in the views we descended by the appropriately named 'Dragon Ride' which is a cockpit style gondola to Fräkmüntegg. Here there is another selection of activities including the famous Fräkigaudi toboggan run which, at 1350 meters, is the longest summer toboggan run in Switzerland. The final descent is 30 minutes via a classic cable car, providing panoramic views of Lucerne below.
My main advice for planning a trip to Mount Pilatus is to be wary of the queues. Unlike other trips in Switzerland, you are unable to book in advance for the train up Pilatus and we ended up having to wait for 2 hours due to the sheer volume of people. We did pick a particularly sunny day but it would still be wise to arrive as early as possible.
There were some days during our stay where the weather wasn't great so a trip to the higher mountain peaks would be pointless due to low visibility from the looming clouds. However there is still plenty to do in Switzerland on days such as this without sacrificing the beautiful scenery. Reichenbach Falls is the perfect trip to do regardless of the weather - You'll get wet anyways! As you ascend in the steep funicular train you can spot the lower steps of the falls before reaching the Grand Reichenbach Fall.
Reichenbach Falls are amongst the most famous waterfalls in Switzerland, yet I wasn't quite prepared for how spectacular they would be. Crashing down 120 meters, you immediately have to put your raincoat on to avoid getting absolutely soaked by the powerful falls.
There is a short walk to reach a footbridge over the height of the falls and if you continue a little further on you can reach a spot famous in popular culture... Any Sherlock Holmes fans out there? You might recognise this as the place Sherlock vanquished Professor Moriarty in The Final Problem by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. You can also pay a visit to the Sherlock Holmes Museum located in the village centre of Meiringen below.
Exchanging the enchanting mountain views for a more intimate environment, a walk through the beautiful rock formations of Aare Gorge is quite the spectacle. Another activity perfect for those not so sunny days, a trip to the gorge is definitely worthwhile to experience the narrow the wooden walkway over the powerful river Aare.
After weaving in between the limestone ridge that has been carved away by glaciation long ago, the gorge opens up into a wider area. There are also many sites to see along the walk including the remains of a closed an underground cavern from WWII which was used as a dormitory for officers and soldiers.
Close to Meiringen, the gorge can be combined with a trip to Reichenbach Falls for a discounted price and during the summer months the ticket allows you to re-enter the gorge after sundown to witness the limestone formation illuminated at night.
Town and cities of Central Switzerland
If I was ever to move to Switzerland (something which I thought a lot about during this holiday), it would definitely be to the city of Lucerne. Picture everything great about a city break then place it on the side of a beautiful lake and combine it with stunning mountain views - Then you have Lucerne. It is also home to Glasi Hergiswil, a fascinating glass blowing factory founded in 1817 which is still running today. If you plan your time carefully it would also be possible to combine a visit to Lucerne with a trip up Mount Pilatus.
One place we came across by total accident when driving around was the nearby town of Thun, located at the lower end of Lake Thun. This peaceful Swiss town is divided by the river Aare flowing through the centre of the historic Old Town and has a variety of places to stop for a bite to eat, shops to browse, and is home to the historic Thun Castle.
Other noteworth places to visit include Interlaken and Meiringen. Interlaken is a picturesque town situated between Lake Brienz and Lake Thun. It is a popular destination year round due to its ideal location for exploring the Bernese Oberland region of the Swiss Alps. Meiringen is another small town well known for two things: The Reichenbach Falls and for being the home of the meringue - Sadly I was unable to find a vegan version! We combined a visit to Meiringen town with the Falls and the Gorge since they are conveniently located close by.
As a vegan I was a little apprehensive about spending two weeks in the land of wiener schnitzel and cheese, however I was pleasantly surprised. Don't get me wrong, there were several restaurants which didn't have many (if any) vegan options, but often we came across places that had vegan friendly meals, or were more than happy to adapt options, which I definitely appreciated.
Since we were staying in the caravan we did do the majority of the cooking ourselves on the campsite, which I really enjoyed being totally honest. I was overjoyed by the amount of vegan food in the local supermarkets - The Coop (different from the English store) have their own vegan range called Karma which was incredible. I was able to enjoy everything from jackfruit fajitas to soy steak on the BBQ. I also made lunches to take with me when hiking (just in case)!
Thank you for taking the time to read about our little Swiss adventure. I had the most incredible time exploring one of my favourite countries in the world, but what made it even more special was being able to share the experience with my parents and spend some much needed quality time with them, something I will always look forwards to no matter how old I get.
My top tips for travelling to Switzerland
You don't need to worry about transportation is Switzerland - They have excellent rail and bus links which run like clockwork and will take you to all the main destinations.
If you are planning to do any large day trips, it is probably worth investing in a Swiss Half Fare Pass. This offers half price transport tickets to most major tourist destinations including Jungfrau and includes some mountain railways. It is a little pricey but if you use it as much as we did, it pays for itself.
That being said, Switzerland is probably not the ideal place if you are looking for a cheaper holiday. It has a reputation for being the most expensive country to visit in the world but can easily be planned for those on a budget so don't let that put you off.
In my personal opinion, Lucerne is the ideal spot to stay. It has plenty of things to do there, a large variety of shops and restaurants, and great transport links if you want to take a day out of the city.
The Schilthorn is another mountain I would have loved to experience for it's well known stunning views and thrilling cliff pathway, but sadly we ran out of time. The rotating restaurant at the summit is also famous for being featured in the 1969 James Bond film, On Her Magesty's Secret Service.
Until the next adventure!