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Switzerland is a country as famous for its pocket knives as it is for its chocolate. But to travellers, Swiss fame is largely focused on its Alpine landscape. Beautiful and majestic, many visitors prefer to take in the scenery through activity, rather than mere sightseeing: skiing, hiking, hang-gliding and rafting are only a number of the outstanding opportunities the Alps award.
Swiss culture and history afford interesting cities and monumental castles, for those visitors able to tear themselves away from the mountains. Cities like Zürich, Bern and Lucerne all feature medieval streets and housing, giving travellers that pleasant sense of stepping back in time which so many great European cities offer. Modernity has also struck, as the nation has elevated its economic status to become one of the world's richest nations; but fortunately, developers have had the good sense to retain Switzerland's priceless historic heritage.
The oldest traces of hominid existence in Switzerland date back about 150,000 years. Archeological evidence suggests that hunter-gatherers were already settled in the lowlands north of the Alps in the late Paleolithic period. By the Neolithic period, the area was relatively densely populated. The oldest known farming settlements in Switzerland, which were found at Gächlingen, have been dated to around 5300 BC. Remains of Bronze Age pile dwellings from as early as 3800 BC have been found in the shallow areas of many lakes. Around 1500 BC, Celtic tribes settled in the area. The Raetians lived in the eastern regions, while the west was occupied by the Helvetii.
In 1291, the cantons of Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden conspired against the Habsburgs. Their union, the nucleus of the Old Swiss Confederacy, is recorded in the Federal Charter, a document probably written after the fact, in the early 14th century. At the battles of Morgarten in 1315 and Sempach 1386, the Swiss defeated the Habsburg army, allowing the confederacy to continue within the Holy Roman Empire. The Swiss victory in a war against the Swabian League in 1499 amounted to de facto independence from the Holy Roman Empire. In 1506, Pope Julius II engaged the Swiss Guard that continues to serve the papacy to the present day.
During the French Revolutionary Wars, the revolutionary armies boiled eastward, enveloping Switzerland in their battles against Austria. In 1798 Switzerland was completely overrun by the French and became the united Helvetic Republic, effectively abolishing the cantons. The Congress of Vienna of 1815 fully re-established Swiss independence and the European powers agreed to permanently recognise Swiss neutrality (Restoration). At this time, the territory of Switzerland was increased, by the new cantons of Valais, Neuchatel and Geneva.
As a consequence of the civil war, Switzerland adopted a federal constitution in 1848, amending it extensively in 1874 and establishing federal responsibility for defence, trade, and legal matters, leaving all other matters to the cantonal governments. From then, and over much of the 20th century, continuous political, economic, and social improvement has characterized Swiss history.
The major powers respected Switzerland's neutrality during World War I. During World War II, detailed invasion plans were drawn up by the Germans, but Switzerland was never attacked. Switzerland was able to remain independent through a combination of military deterrence, economic concessions to Germany, and good fortune as larger events during the war delayed an invasion.
In 1963, Switzerland joined the Council of Europe. Women were granted the right to vote only in 1971, and an equal rights amendment was ratified in 1981. Switzerland is not a member state of the EU, but has been (together with Liechtenstein) surrounded by EU territory since the joining of Austria in 1995. In 2005, Switzerland agreed to join the Schengen treaty.
Switzerland is a landlocked country, sharing borders with Germany, Liechtenstein, Austria, Italy and France. The country covers around 41,000 square kilometres and has around 8 million inhabitants, many of them living in the bigger cities. The more mountainous southern half of the country is far more sparsely populated than the northern half, and Graubünden is the least populated area, located in the mountainous southeast of the country. Switzerland lies between latitudes 45° and 48° N, and longitudes 5° and 11° E and consists of three regions: the Swiss Alps in the south, the Central Plateau in the center of the country, and the Jura mountains in the north. There are many glaciers to be found, totalling an area of 1,063 square kilometres. From these originate the headwaters of several major rivers, such as the Rhine, Inn, Ticino and Rhone, Large freshwater lakes include Lake Geneva, Lake Constance and Lake Maggiore. About a hundred of Switzerland's mountain peaks are close to or higher than 4,000 metres and at 4,634 metres the Dufourspitze, part of the Monte Rosa group, is the highest, although the Matterhorn (4,478 metres high) is the most famous. The Jungfrau (4,158 metres) and Eiger are two other fantastic mountains. The Central Plateau has greater open and hilly landscapes, partly forested, and with most of the bigger cities of the country.
Switzerland is divided into 26 so-called cantons, which can be grouped into the following geographical regions.
|Northern Switzerland||Basel-Stadt (city), Basel-Landschaft (Land), Jura, Solothurn, Aargau, Zürich, Schaffhausen, Thurgau|
|Eastern Switzerland||Appenzell Ausserrhoden, Appenzell Innerrhoden, St. Gallen, Glarus, Graubünden|
|Southern Switzerland||Tessin/Ticino, Wallis/Valais|
|Central Switzerland||Bern, Uri, Obwalden, Nidwalden, Schwyz, Lucerne, Zug|
|Western Switzerland||Freiburg/Fribourg, Neuenburg/Neuchâtel, Waadt/Vaud, Genf/Genève|
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The Glacier Express is one of the best trainrides in Europe and in fact anywhere on this planet. The route runs between St. Moritz in the southeast of the country and Zermatt more to the southwest of Switzerland. There are several stops on the way, including Davos, Chur, Brig and Visp. The total trip takes you through 91 tunnels, across 291 tunnels and over the 2,033-metre-high Oberalp Pass. It's a narrow gauge railway and is often considered to be one of the slowest express trains in the world, as the total trip takes around 7.5 hours for less than 300 kilometres in total. You can travel either 1st or 2nd class and there are several panorama cars and a restaurant car. The trip is very beautiful in winter, which, together with the summer high season, is a popular time. It's just as nice though in spring and fall, so if you want it to be a bit quieter, go during that time. There is just one daily train in winter and up to 4 in summer, one of which runs directly to Davos.
Hiking and trekking are very popular leisure activities in Switzerland. Lots of hiking tips with descriptions, maps, webcams, some with GPS are available online free of charge:
Areas to go hiking are abundant but both Valais (or Wallis in German) and Ticino (Tessin) offer the most spectacular mountain sceneries of them all. The are around Interlaken and Graubünden are almost equally as good though and for beginners there is the less high and less spectacular but still rewarding Jura region.
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The Jungfrau-Aletsch-Bietschhorn region is a magnificent area with high mountain ranges, glaciers and is actually the most glaciated part of the European Alps. Visiting this area can be done relatively easy by car and if you want to go up, by train up to 3,400 metres above sea level, the highest train ride in Europe, the Jungfrau Railway is very impressive (and expensive!). The area is on the UNESCO World Heritage list because of its unique and wide range of flora and fauna and geological importance regarding the creating of the High Alps. It is located in the Bernese Oberland Alps and for exploring this stunning mountain area your best bet is to base yourself in the adrenaline capital of the country: Interlaken.
Lake Geneva is one of the bigger lakes in Western Europe and is located in the west of the country. Cities along the lakes shores to be visited are Geneva and Lausanne, among many other smaller ones. Geneva is the international capital of the country with hundreds of companies, banks and governmental organisations located here. Although a trendy place for the rich and famous it also has a small but fine historical centre.
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Although it is not the highest mountain in the Alps, the Matterhorn is considered to be one of the landmarks on this mountain range. The distinct pyramid-like summit is its claim to fame. It is part of the Pennine Alps and it overlooks the towns of Zermatt (in Switzerland) and Cervinia (in Italy). However, it is the image from the north side that is most well-known to the world.
The Matterhorn is one of the hardest mountains to climb in the Alps because of its steep ascent and the weather conditions. In the last 150 years, over 500 climbers have lost their lives on this mountain. For tourists, it is probably better to enjoy the view from the top of the Gornergrat Railway that leads up to a height of 3,089 metres, or from the top of the Klein Matterhorn cable car lift at 3,820 metres. The cable car is the highest in Europe.
Along the Swiss Italian frontier between Zermatt and Alagna Valsesia lies a group of ice clad peaks containing the highest mountain in Switzerland and Europe's highest mountain hut. In fact the next 4 highest peaks in the Alps - after Mont Blanc - are situated here. The massif is known collectively as Monte Rosa though on some maps that name is given to the central peak of Signalkuppe - the 3rd highest of the group at 4,554 metres. The highest point is Dufourspitze at 4,634 metres which lies just to the North. The main features of Monte Rosa are the vast Gorner Glacier which sweeps down from the northern ice fields towards Zermatt and the 2,000 metres high East Face - the so called Mirror Wall - which towers above the Italian Macugnaga valley and is the highest mountain face in the Alps. Ascents of the Monte Rosa peaks can be made from both the Swiss and Italian sides with the easiest routes being uncomplicated for a mountain of this size, though all involve glacier crossings so should be done with a guide. The route to Signalkuppe topped by the Margherita Hut - Europe's highest - is long and without dfficulty while Dufourspitze is slightly more technical on account of rock sections to climb in the latter stages.
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The Rhine Falls, near the town of Schaffhausen in Switzerland are among the most impressive plain falls in the world and are the largest plain waterfall in Europe. Not being very high (23 metres) they still are a major sight for travellers to the country and their width is very impressive: almost 150 metres. On both sides of the Rhine Falls there are viewing platforms, which can only be reached by climbing some steep steps. One can also get a view from the river, by getting on a boat making trips to the falls, which leave from Schloss Laufen, and Schlössli Wörth.
In winter and even at some parts in summer, Switzerland is one of the finest countries in Europe to go skiing. Although it is more expensive than its alpine counterparts Austria, Italy and France, it offers great pistes, views, delicious food and the most beautifully located resorts. These include Zermatt (with the famous Matterhorn in the background), Davos and Sankt Moritz.
The Basler Fastnacht is one of the more memorable Carnival/Mardi Gras celebrations in the world. It has none of the timeless elegance of the Venice Carnival or the drunken and baudy cheer of the Cologne Carnival, instead it is rougher and the masks are more likely to give you nightmares. And unlike in the Carnival in Venice or Cologne there is a strict separation between participants and onlookers, only participants will wear masks and costumes. The Fastnacht is essentially pagan folk figures and practises for driving away the winter dressed with a tiny fig leaf of Christianity. The feast is held annually and lasts for about 3 days, exact dates vary according to the date of Easter. Basler Fastnacht is held about a week later than the Carnival in Venice and Cologne.
Thanks to its mountainous landscape, skiing is very popular in Switzerland. In February, schools have special skiing holidays. Famous Swiss ski sport champions include Bernhard Russi, Pirmin Zurbriggen, Didier Cuche. Tennis is a pretty popular sport in Switzerland, especially since Roger Federer's rise to the top of men's tennis. Somewhat surprisingly, Switzerland also has a famous sailing team called Alinghi.
Switzerland generally has warm summers and cold winters, though much depends on the area of the country, because the moutains can get much colder and wetter. Summers last from June to September with between 20 °C and 25 °C degrees Celsius during the day, though 27 °C south of the Alps in Ticino, for example Locarno and Lugano. Winters are cold, though generally above zero in the lower parts. In the mountains, temperatures are below zero from December to March and there are sometimes huge amounts of snow, up to 4 or 5 metres a year. This is a popular place to go skiing. Precipitation is quite evenly distributed throughout the year, though somewhat higher in summer when heavy showers and thunderstorms can occur.
Swiss International Air Lines is the national airline of Switzerland, based at Zürich Airport (ZRH). International flights include Amsterdam, Athens, Bangkok, Barcelona, Belgrade, Berlin, Boston, Brussels, Bucharest, Cairo, Copenhagen, Dar es Salaam, Delhi, Douala, Dubai, Dublin, Florence, Frankfurt, Geneva, Hamburg, Hanover, Hong Kong, Istanbul, Jeddah, Johannesburg, Lisbon, London, Los Angeles, Madrid, Malabo, Malaga, Miami, Milan, Montréal, Moscow, Mumbai, Munich, Muscat, Nairobi, New York-JFK, Nice, Palma de Mallorca, Paris, Riyadh, Rome, Santiago de Chile, St. Petersburg, São Paulo, Singapore, Sofia, Stockholm, Tel Aviv, Thessaloniki, Tokyo, Tripoli, Valencia, Vienna and Yaoundé.
Switzerland is well connected by train to many countries in Europe, though most of the trains go to Italy, France and Germany, from where you have to connect to another train. Some trains though go direct to countries like the Netherlands and on some of them you are allowed to take your car. These trains are especially popular during the winter and summer high season.
Switzerland shares borders with France, Germany, Italy, Austria and Liechtenstein. Well maintained highways connect Switzerland with these countries, but there are many other more scenic routes to take as well. To and from France and Italy you can choose to take the direct roads which include passing some tunnels to prevent taking high passes in the Alps. The more scenic routes usually go over these passes but some of them are not advised to take if you have never driven under these circumstances. Just check before you go.
Eurolines operates buses to dozens of destinations throughout Europe. These include but are not limited to Austria, France, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Portugal and Spain. For longer routes it is advised to take trains though, which are usually faster and more comfortable, though more expensive if you don't have a European railpass.
The Schweizerische Bodensee-Schiffahrtsgesellschaft car ferry travels across Lake Constance between Romanshorn in Switzerland and Friedrichshafen in Germany, taking around 40 minutes one way.
Up to 14 boats daily shuttle to and from Evian-les-Bains (France) in July and August (40 minutes), and to seven to nine boats during the rest of the year.
There are domestic flights between Switzerland's major cities, operated by SWISS and Darwin Airline. The public transport options in Switzerland are so good though, that air-travel is not a frequent choice.
Trains in Switzerland are clean, frequent and reliable and operate on a network covering 5,000 kilometres. Some of the world's most spectacular train trips, including the famous Glacier Express, are an added incentive to hop aboard.
The Swiss Federal Railways (SBB-CFF-FFS) is Switzerland's national railway company. If you plan to travel around the country at any length, it would be worth looking into one of their rail passes: 
Reservations are not usually required on trains, but sometimes might be recommended. Dogs (on leashes) are allowed on trains for an extra fare. . Bicycles accommodated for on most trains with special hooks and are also subject to an additional fare. 
Switzerland has an excellent paved network of highways and also the minor roads are generally in a very good condition. There are car rental companies at airports, railway station and cities and you need a national driver's licence to rent one. Note that there are hefty fines for speeding so take it easy and enjoy the beautiful landscapes.
Some mountain passes are impassable after heavy snow but most roads are open year round. You need chains and snow tyres in winter though.
The Postbus will take you to almost any corner of the country, but most are local and regional buses and long distance services are almost absent.
There are a number of lakes where at least a leisurely cruise is a great way of viewing Switzerland from the water surface. Lake Geneva, lakes around Neuchatel and Interlaken are probably the most popular spots. As a traveller, you won't take many regular passenger services in the country as other modes of transportation are better.
CGN has boats from Ouchy (near Lausanne) to destinations around Lake Geneva. From late May to late September there are frequent departures to most major tourist areas, including the French side. There are no car ferries though. There are less-frequent boats to places like Montreux (1½ hours) and Geneva (3½ hours).
Also check the schedules to see what the options are.
As of December 12, 2008, Switzerland is now part of the Schengen Zone and will now be issuing Schengen visas.
For travellers travelling into Switzerland from other European countries, border identity checks for travellers have been lifted for land borders. For air travellers, the controls will be lifted on 29 March 2009.
See the BFM website for more (official) information on swiss visa and immigration policy
See also: Money Matters
Switzerland uses the Swiss Franc (CHF). One franc is divided into 100 centimes (French) (German: Rappen). Banknotes come in denominations of 10, 20, 50, 100, 200 and 1,000 francs. Coins come as 5, 10 and 20 centimes and 1/2, 1, 2 and 5 francs. Switzerland also accepts the Euro (€) as currency but the balance amount will be returned in CHF only. Tourists are advised to keep this in mind while paying by cash.
If you want to work in Switzerland, be aware that you generally need to obtain a work permit. Switzerland signed an agreement with the European Union that allows citizens of the old EU-15 states to work and search jobs at arms length with Swiss citizens. In these cases you only need a valid passport and have to register with the local administration. The same system applies in general to citizens of the new EU-10 states (Eastern European states in general) plus Bulgaria and Romania but there are limitations on the number of permits. For all other countries in the world the best way is to check with your embassy if there are, for example, exchange programs.
Switzerland has some universites of world renown, like ETH in Zurich, IHEID in Geneva, University of Lausanne or the University of St. Gallen (also known as the HSG). Keep in mind, it's much better to speak the local language, so if you can't speak either French, German or Italian, better go for a language course first.
Switzerland has four official languages: German, French, Italian, and Romansh. German is mostly spoken in the central and northern parts though if people speak the Swiss German you might not be able to follow it properly. French is spoken in the west and Italian in the south (mainly Tessin). Romansh, an ancient language related to Latin, is mostly spoken in some small parts in Graubünden and in the (south)eastern parts of the country.
Switzerland is famous for several products that are widely available anywhere in the world, but are made to perfection here: cheese and chocolate.
Hotel rates in Switzerland can get quite expensive, especially in popular ski resort areas. As in most European countries, Switzerland offers a wide range of accommodation possibilities. These go from 5-star hotels to campgrounds, youth hostels or sleeping in the hey. Compared to other European countries, accommodations in Switzerland are in general amongst the more expensive. The prices of Swiss Youth Hostels are on the usual European level.
The drinking age for beer, wine and alcoholic cider is 16 (but not in all cantons, so make sure to ask before buying) while the age for any other alcohol (liquor etc.) is 18.
See also: Travel Health
There are no great health risks travelling to Switzerland. The water is safe and dining out is hygienic, thanks to strict controls. No immunizations are required, unless you have been in an infected area within the previous 14 days.
There are no vaccinations legally required to travel to Switzerland. It is recommended to have a vaccination against tick borne encephalitis when you go hiking and/or camping for 4 weeks or more in the period of March to November.
See also: Travel Safety
Switzerland has one of the lowest crime rates in the world. Reasonable precautions should always be taken; keep your wallet in a safe spot and keep a close eye on your luggage when in busy places.
In mountain areas, be sure to inquire about weather conditions at the tourist information office or local train station as you head out in the morning. They should be well informed about severe weather conditions and will advise you about possible avalanche areas.
Switzerland has a high rate of people with their own internet connection and computers, so internet cafes are not as common compared to other countries and compared to the past. But still you will be able to find a computer in the main cities and tourist areas, also at libraries, video rental shops, train stations or tourist information places. Wifi is widely available, though sometimes at a cost. A growing number of hotels, restaurants, coffee bars and fastfood joints now offer free wifi.
See also: International Telephone Calls
Switzerland's country code is 41 and the emergency phone numbers are 117 (police), 118 (fire department) and 144 (emergency rescue service/ambulance). Swiss phone numbers consist of the area code and a local phone number. The area code has three digits and starts with a zero, such as 022 for Geneva. The local phone number has usually 7 digits, but there are numbers with only 5 or 6 digits.
If you stay for some time, it may be advisable to buy a pre-paid cell phone card that you can use in any phone that supports the GSM standard on the 900/1800 MHz bands - they usually cost around 10-40 CHF and are obtainable in the shops of the mobile service providers Swisscom, Orange or Sunrise in most cities. Mobile network coverage is close to 100% by area, even in the mountainous, non-populated areas. There are also a lot of cheap prepaid cards for local calls from other providers. The prepaid cards of the big supermarket chains Migros and Coop for example cost around 20 CHF and include already 15 CHF airtime. The cheapest prepaid card for calls within Switzerland is Aldi Mobile. The cheapest prepaid card for international communication is Yallo. The prepaid cards can be bought online (30 CHF with 30 CHF airtime inclusive), in most post offices (29 CHF with 20 CHF airtime inclusive) or Sunrise shops (20 CHF with 20 CHF airtime inclusive).
Swiss Post is the national postal service of Switzerland and has fast and reliable services. For more information about prices to send postcards, letters and parcels, both domestically as well as internationally, they have a very useful Price Calculator. Domestically, there is priority mail (arriving the following day) and economy mail which takes 2-3 days to be send within Switzerland. Stamps can be bought at the post offices or from shops and kiosks that also sell postcards. In general, post offices are open from 8:00am to noon and 2:00pm to 5:00 or 6:00pm, with a lunchbreak in between. Opening times on Saturdays are usually only during mornings. Larger cities and central post offices might keep longer hours and skp the lunchbreak. If you want to send packages internationally, you might also consider international courier companies like TNT, DHL or UPS.
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Ask dream.big. a question about Switzerland
I'm Swiss and I'd love to help you planning your trip to my beautiful country. It's definitely worth visiting!
Ask dindiosk a question about Switzerland
I've been living in Switzerland for four years. It is a small country, so one gets to learn about it fast. As as foreigner living abroad, I also believe I observe and can offer insights on details that even the locals sometimes don't notice anymore... Feel free to ask and I am happy to help whenever I can!
Ask Määrj a question about Switzerland
I live in Switzerland since I was born. If you want to know where to go skiing or what places are the most beautiful in Switzerland, you may ask me.
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I´m a local and visited almost every city in Switzerland.
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I can help you about some regions in Switzerland (Geneva).
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