Switzerland’s rail system is one of Europe’s finest. It has speedy trains, on-time arrivals, spotless cabins, and scenic routes that pass through some of the continent’s most gorgeous terrain. Switzerland has some of Europe’s best-preserved cities, which escaped the 20th century wars with little physical damage. These well-manicured towns are oozing medieval and Renaissance history, often with views to boot. If you like chocolate, cheese, and crisp mountain air, you’ve come to the right place. Which cities in Switzerland should you put on your Eurail trip itinerary? Here are some of my top choices:
Cities in Switzerland
Known for its medieval arcades and 16th century fountains, elegant Bern is one of the most unassuming capitals in the world. Framed by the Aare River, Bern is not only a medieval architectural showcase, but holds the world’s biggest collection of artist Paul Klee.
Bern can charm even the most jaded of travelers, with its atmospheric cobbled streets, public fountains, clock towers, and relaxed ambiance. You can also visit the Einstein House, where the 20th century genius wrote the Special Theory of Relativity in 1905.
Must-see: Ever seen a bear in a city? I didn’t think so. Welcome to Bern’s Bear Park. Bern is inseparably linked with bears and here you can see them in their open-air enclosure by the river.
Insider tip: Want to do the local thing? In the heat of the summer, swimmers float down the River Aare. The glacial melt water sure is refreshing, but be careful, the current is swift!
How to get there by train: Bern is within an hour’s train ride of Zürich, Lucerne, and Basel, and two hours of Geneva. Frequent trains service all four. Bern’s rail station is a five minute walk from nearly all hotels and sights.
Situated along the Rhine River, Schaffhausen’s old historic core is lively and packed with pedestrians, except it’s a decidedly local vibe. Despite its location 2.5 miles (4 km) upstream from Europe’s largest waterfall, the Rheinfall, the city remains remarkably free of tourists.
Schaffhausen is a great place to experience a captivating medieval town center, admiring the Gothic and Renaissance buildings with their celebrated oriel windows. For a view over the town, walk up the vineyard-covered slopes to the fortress on the hill.
Must-see: A quiet 45-minute riverside walk leads you to the impressive Rheinfall. To return to Schaffhausen simply hop on one of the numerous trains for the 10-minute journey back.
Insider tip: The splendid village of Stein am Rhein makes an ideal stop on the way to or from Schaffhausen. Beautifully positioned on the River Rhein, the town’s well-preserved medieval center and beautifully painted fresco-covered buildings are a delight.
How to get there by train: Schaffhausen’s train station is serviced regularly by both Swiss SBB and German DB trains. It’s conveniently on the northwestern edge of the Old Town. Direct trains from Zürich take about 45 minutes.
The financial center of Switzerland, Zürich has long had a reputation of being overly efficient and too sterile. But recently, the county’s largest city has become its capital of cool. Sure the bankers are still around and the streets are nearly spotless, but the city is developing its edge, with newly arrived hipsters, street art, and legalized prostitution.
What does this all mean for tourists? Some cool bars and coffee shops, and the same gorgeous old city there always was.
Must-see: Marc Chagall’s stained glass windows in the choir of the Fraumunster will have you transfixed. They’re unique and positively a part of Zürich – not like art on canvas which can tour the world.
Insider tip: To hang with the cool kids, head to Zürich West (District 4), the epicenter of the city’s counterculture. Start on Langstrasse and make your way one vintage clothing boutique and trendy cafe at a time.
How to get there by train: Zürich is very well connected not only to cities in Switzerland, but with Europe’s major cities. Zürich’s Hauptbahnhof is conveniently located in the city center at the beginning of Bahnhofstrasse. It offers easy access to the Old Town as well as the city’s excellent public transportation.
Located at the extreme south of Switzerland, Lugano is a lakeside city in the Canton of Ticino, Switzerland’s Italian-speaking region. After emerging from the tunnel which takes you under the Alps, you may be surprised to notice the palm trees which populate this temperate micro-climate.
The Mediterranean vibe only gets more pronounced, with delicious Italian-inspired cuisine, elegant boulevards, graceful piazzas, and stunning views of Lake Lugano and the Alps. From here visitors can take scenic boat trips on Lake Lugano, explore villages stuck in time, and ride mountain lifts to lakeside peaks. For outdoor enthusiasts, numerous cycling and hiking trails lead to the countryside in all directions.
Must-see: To get high above the city at the level of the Alps, take the funicular up Monte San Salvatore from Paradiso. At the top follow the trail back down to Lugano or go in the opposite direction. You’ll pass through tidy villages with nice views most of the way.
Insider tip: On your way to or from Lugano, stop in nearby Bellinzona (just to the north) to get awe-inspired by its three imposing castles.
How to get there by train: Lugano is actually closer to Milan (1.5 hours) than to any of the major cities in Switzerland. To get here from Zürich it will take about 3 hours – try to avoid EuroCity trains which require reservations. The trip from Geneva takes about 5.5 hours and requires a change in Zürich.
Wedged neatly between Germany, Austria, France, and Italy, Switzerland fuses the best of all its neighbors. It also adds a healthy dose of chocolate, alpine scenery, and perfectly preserved villages. Visiting cities in Switzerland with a Eurail Pass is convenient and cost-effective. Very few trains in Switzerland require reservations for Eurail Pass holders, and point-to-point tickets are costly.
After you’ve heard your share of cowbells, taken in enough epic views, visited a castle or two, and stuffed yourself on fondue, it’s easy to pick up your backpack and move onward to the next country.