Nature had one of her finest moments in Switzerland. Where else can you find such varied and intense beauty – colossal glaciers, raging falls, hidden valleys and 4000m mountains – in such a small country?
On foot or skis, by bike or raft, with karabiner or paraglider, the Swiss have harnessed these wild places with impeccable precision. And no matter how ‘switched-on’ life gets, this will always be a land where you can find adventure and solitude.
On a high in Valais
Nothing says Switzerland more than that mountain. As the train chugs from Täsch to the ritzy outdoor resort of Zermatt, the pop-up effect of the Matterhorn is surreal. The 4478m fang of rock and ice forces your gaze skywards and elicits gasps of wonder.
Closer, you say? Kein problem. The Gornergratbahn, Europe’s highest cogwheel railway, has been trundling up to Gornergrat (3089m) since 1898. At the summit, the view of the Gorner Glacier and 29 peaks rising above 4000m – including Switzerland’s highest, Dufourspitze (4634m) – opens up. Skiers, mountaineers and hardcore hikers are in their element at Matterhorn Glacier Paradise, Europe’s highest cable-car station on the Klein Matterhorn (3883m), with views reaching deep into the Swiss, French and Italian Alps.
Ever since British climber Edward Whymper made the first successful ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865 – albeit a triumph marred by rope-breaking tragedy – Zermatt has been the Holy Grail for mountaineers. Here you can tackle some of Europe’s most epic ascents: the Matterhorn, say, or Monte Rosa (4634m), with an Alpine Center guide. Hikers, meanwhile, can set out along the two-hour, 6.5km Matterhorn Glacier Trail. When the flakes fall in winter, the car-free resort is laced with 360km of ski runs in the Matterhorn’s shadow, some of which dip over the border into Italy.
Land of lakes & legends
Sitting on the mountain-rimmed shores of its eponymous lake, Lucerne, with its pristine Old Town, medieval wooden bridge and promenade, is every inch as genteel as it was back in the 19th century when Goethe, Wagner and Queen Victoria fell for its charms. And Lake Lucerne is no ordinary lake: this is where the Swiss legends were made and born. Cruise the fjord-like waters of Lake Uri and you’ll glimpse Rütli Meadow, hallowed birthplace of the Swiss Confederation in 1291, and the Tells’ Chapel, where apple-shooting hero and Swiss rebel William Tell apparently escaped from the boat of his Hapsburg captor, Gessler.
Lucerne itself is a cracking base for striking out into the surrounding lakes on low-key adventures. Without venturing too far or expending too much effort, you can marvel at the Alps cycling the trails rimming the waterfront, taking a refreshing dip at lakefront beaches in the warmer months, or hiring a boat to explore Lake Lucerne at your own steam.
The mountains that rear above Lucerne and its lake are the stuff of myth. Green peaks seem to ripple into infinity from 2128m Mt Pilatus, where the restless ghost of Roman prefect Pontius Pilate is said to roam. Reached by the world’s steepest cog railway, the mountain has walking trails commanding views as far as Germany’s Black Forest on cloudless days. Its rival in the beauty stakes is 1797m Mt Rigi, famous for its magical sunrises and sunsets.
Little Italy, Switzerland style
Lakes are a defining feature of the Swiss landscape, but they take on a very different quality in the southern Italian-speaking canton of Ticino, where pines give way to palms. South of the fortified town of Bellinzona, topped by a trio of Unesco-listed medieval castles, mountains tumble down to the shores of lakes where the water is warm enough to swim. Baroque campaniles chime in waterfront towns and stylish cities with Italian flair: Locarno, Lugano and Ascona included.
Lago di Lugano looks sublime from the boats that ply the lake, but 1701m Monte Generoso gives a great overview from above. Reached by a rack-and-pinion railway, it affords a broad vista of the Alps and Apennines and is crowned by a Mario Botta-designed visitor centre resembling a giant stone flower. For more expansive views over the lakes and into the Alps, take a funicular above Lugano to Monte San Salvatore or Monte Brè.
Beyond the lakes the real appeal lies in Ticino’s hidden valleys, where streams of dazzling blue burble past chestnut woods and granite hamlets pasted onto hillsides, and rustic taverns called grotti dish up polenta and brasato (beef braised in red wine) with local Merlot. The Valle Maggia is particularly beloved of mountain bikers and hikers, with 700km of trails to explore, including the challenging, 52km, six-day Via Alta, showcasing the region’s best.
If after all that you’re still craving adventure, get yourself over to the rugged Val Verzasca, bisected by its namesake emerald river and crisscrossed by the Sentiero Verzasca trail. Almost every Alpine activity imaginable is offered in this valley: from hiking and cycling to rafting, bouldering, paragliding and bungee jumping from the 220m Verzasca Dam, which starred in the opening scene of Golden Eye.