Switzerland is best known for its picture-perfect alpine views, but summer is when this nation really comes alive.
Apart from the hubs of Zürich and Geneva, you won’t find many densely packed cities in Switzerland, so it’s fairly easy to avoid crowds. There are lots of adorable ski villages that are just as charming in the summertime and offer a range of activities for kids, whether toddlers or teenagers.
Interlaken and the Jungfrau region are big tourist attractions, but if you’re anything like us, you might choose to holiday away from the madding crowds this summer. Check out these alternative Swiss vacation spots along with insider tips on how to travel here without a banker’s budget.
1. Saas-Fee/Saas Valley
Just 45 minutes away from glitzy Zermatt, this string of villages is a Swiss family favorite in winter and summer alike. The valley includes the main town of Saas-Fee, with neighboring Saas-Grund and Saas-Almagell as good choices for lower-priced accommodation.
Budget Tip #1: Choose Accommodation Wisely
This brings me to my first budget-friendly tip. When seeking accommodation in Switzerland, look beyond hotels for Ferienwohnungen (holiday apartments). Sites like AirBnB, Booking.com, and VRBO have a wide choice of places that are often half the price — or less — of hotels. Many have amazing balconies with ridge views and offer amenities like playrooms to keep the kids entertained.
You’ll save heaps by doing some of the cooking in your apartment. More often than not, holiday complexes or apart-hotels offer a morning brot service where you can order fresh baked goods off a checklist the night before, to be delivered to your place the next morning.
Don’t forget to include some Schoggi-Gipfeli (chocolate croissants) or Zopf, a white braided loaf that’s a staple of Swiss weekend brunches.
Playground with a View
Now, back to the Saas Valley. The top item on your agenda should be Hohsi-Land Spielplatz (playground) at Kreuzboden, reachable by gondola from Saas-Grund. Most apart-hotels will give you a guest card for the Saas Valley when you book at least one night, and with this card you can ride the Saas-Grund gondola for free. A free gondola ride is a rarity in Switzerland, so enjoy!
There is a 1-hour glacier trail at the top of the gondola when you reach Hohsaas (the stop after Kreuzboden). The name alone—Eighteen 4,000-meter peak trail—is impressive, and the views of 18 snow-capped peaks don’t disappoint. It can be a bit slippery, so firm shoewear is recommended, but we managed this even with a 3.5-year-old walking on her own. If you’re feeling less daring, there’s also a loop trail right near the Kreuzboden station. It’s a wellness trail designed to keep the kids engaged with sensory stops along the route.
After the hike, plan to spend the rest of the day around Kreuzboden. We’ve been to some mind-blowing alpine playgrounds in Switzerland, but Kreuzboden takes the cake. It has so many different playscapes and activities to keep kids in motion, plus disarming 360 views, a small petting zoo and firepits right on the playground. There is some water play involved, so pack a change of clothes for the kids in case.
Budget Tip #2: Pack a picnic
Swiss families are professional picnickers, perhaps because the price of food is exorbitant just about everywhere. And in my humble, honest opinion, Swiss fare is nothing extraordinary (cheese aside—do eats lots of that while traveling here). So if you want to avoid paying $20 for a mediocre plate of pasta, pick up some sausages at the local Coop or Migros supermarket before heading out for the day. Sandwiches work too, but when in Switzerland, savor the sausage tradition.
The local everyman’s sausage is the cervela, an affordable, kid-friendly choice. We really love the kalbsbratwurst (veal sausage) as an upgrade, though. It’s a whitish variety that’s just as mild as the cervelat, meaning the kids will not complain.
Pick up some bread rolls, travel packs of condiments, and voila, lunch is served on the mountain. Most of the firepits around popular trails and playgrounds have firewood nearby, and chances are you’ll also find plenty of perfectly carved sticks left by previous grillers to skewer your sausages.
Toboggans and Marmots
The Feeblitz toboggan run (rodelbahn) in Saas-Fee is another must-do family activity for kids 3 and up. It’s superfast, but even small kids can safely get in on the fun by sitting in your lap.
The 2.5-hour Murmeliweg (marmot path) hike to Spielboden also starts near the toboggan entrance, if you have older kids with strong legs. We didn’t visit this attraction, but it came highly recommended. At the top of the hike, upon reaching Spielboden, you can feed families of marmots that live on the mountain.
Instead of the Murmeliweg, you can take the gondola up to Spielboden directly, too. There’s a restaurant and play area there and it should be pretty just to walk around before heading back down to the village.
Another excellent Swiss Alps summer spot is Leukerbad, known for its thermal waters. We’ve learned the hard way from summer holidays past that the weather does not always cooperate in alpine destinations. But boy when it does, it is over-the-top gorgeous!
Leukerbad is always a safe bet, as even during cold or rainy weather you can enjoy a day’s visit to the Leukerbad Therme. We went every day with a multi-day pass and the kids never got bored. As of writing, this is the only one among several hot springs facilities that accepts young children.
No matter, as the multi-level complex has tube slides, indoor and outdoor areas with jets and other bells and whistles, two kiddie pools, and a sauna/steam area for adults.
Other activity ideas include minigolf outside the Leukerbad Sportarena, which has a large playground on the side. Entrance with balls and clubs was free when we visited. Leukerbad also has a well-organized set of trails surrounding the pedestrian-only village, with many hikes short enough to accomplish even with tiny legs.
Drop by the tourist bureau for maps in English. Accommodation in Leukerbad is plentiful, but I highly recommend the holiday apartments at Les Naturelles. It’s a huge complex with an outdoor playground and indoor playroom, plus incredibly friendly staff (and free mini Lindt chocolates at the reception!).
3. Bielersee (or any Swiss Lake!)
While you won’t find any proper beaches in Switzerland, you’ll find a similar “beachside” experience at many of the alpine nation’s 1,500 lakes. Lake Geneva and Lake Constance are the largest and most developed, but there are plenty of lakes in just about every region of the country, each with its own local flavor and accommodation options.
This summer, we plan to visit Lake Neuchatel, which I’ve heard boasts the best sandy beaches and Wallensee in the popular Heidiland region.
We haven’t tried camping with our kids yet, but last summer we opted for something similar, yet easier. We rented a very funny barrel-shaped cabin from Hotel Camping Sutz on Bielersee (Lake Biel), a venue that also offers traditional tent sites and some hotel rooms.
It was super steamy in the cabin in August, so perhaps these huts are more bearable to sleep in during other months of the year. But the beach area was lovely, with plenty of space to spread out, a playground, several fire pits, plus the added bonus of a small (overpriced) shop and restaurant.