Home TRAVEL Switzerland beyond Zurich and Geneva: 6 lesser-known but stunning places to visit

Switzerland beyond Zurich and Geneva: 6 lesser-known but stunning places to visit

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The appeal of Switzerland is not only in its larger towns like Geneva and Zurich, but in visiting less-known and smaller towns and villages. Many of these have an old-world Alpine charm and feel like a time warp. Our pick of six to explore

appenzell switzerland cows sennen

Living the high life in Pontresina

beautiful switzerland

Pontresina, perched at 1805 metres above sea level, in a sheltered valley near the Italian border in Switzerland, is the less glitzy sibling of St Moritz which is just six km away. Translated, the name Pontresina is derived from ‘Bridge of the Saracens’ referring to robbers who raided the village in the 10th century. Pontresina has hosted celebrities from writer Hans Christian Anderson, to music composer Richard Strauss.

It is part of the second largest cross country skiing race in the world held in March, that runs through 42 km. The slope behind the small village is home to a colony of rare ibex (mountain goats) that are protected. They usually remain on high slopes, but sometimes come into the valley to graze on fresh grass.

The picture postcard town is lined with Belle Epoque hotels, bakers and Engadine style homes built in the 17th century, with massive walls and gables, with their wide, arched doors that were originally meant to accommodate farm carts, distinctive funnel-shaped windows which let in a lot of light and conserve heat, and sgraffito (derived from Italian word sgraffiare, to scratch) decorated façades with geometric motifs as well as motifs of fish, stars and beasts scratched into the plaster, an ancient art brought from Italy in the 16th century.

The Grand Dame of the town is the Neo Baroque Grand Hotel Kronenhof that was originally opened as the Rossli Gasthau (guesthouse) built in 1848, by Andreas Gredig. With a history of over 170 years, the horseshoe-shaped building has undergone many conversions down the years and opened after a contemporary renovation in 2021.

The Alpine Museum in the centre of town is a great window into the town’s past housed in an old Engadine house, with a collection of crystals, climbing gear, and re-created rooms with period furniture and kitchen implements.

skiing in st moritz

Pontresina is famous for its hiking trails.  Take a vertiginous ride on a funicular up to   Muottas Muragl at 8000 feet, and get a panoramic view of the valley and the crystal lakes dotting the countryside. A hike through pine forests and rocky floors with the distant clang of cow bells and the babble of mountain streams, flanked by the Bernina peaks and glacier views, takes you to Alp Languard where the chair lifts bring you down again to Pontresina.

Where to stay

Grand Hotel Kronenhof: A tourist magnet because of its spa and restaurant and rooms in both classic and modern styles

Hotel Muller: In the centre of town, is a mountain lodge with wooden floors and offers great views from the windows

switzerland hills

Slow time in Lauterbrunnen

Lauterbrunnen is an idyllic Alpine village situated in a deep valley between rock faces and mountain peaks, sitting in between the villages  of Mürren and Wengen. It has 72 waterfalls and alpine meadows and mountain inns, and is a great base for excursions in the Jungfrau area. In 1779, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe visited the valley, and was inspired by the roaring waters to write his well-known poem Song of the Spirit Over the Water.

Chalet style homes line the streets of the small village, with a centrepiece church and a picturesque cemetery. The small village is dotted with hikers and craggy-faced climbers, pizzerias and cheese fondue restaurants. Housed in an old mill, the local museum gives you a view of Lauterbrunnen and the valley’s past. Lauterbrunnen is a base for adventure and extreme sports like hang-gliding, canyoning, skydiving, skiing and base jumping off the cliffs. The lush mountain air is perfumed with the sweet smell of hay and wildflowers. At night, one can only hear the rattle of the windows in the wind and the symphony of bells from the celebrated Swiss cows.

The 300m tall Staubbach Falls is the most famous waterfalls here, and one of the highest free-falling waterfalls in Europe. Trümmelbach Falls is an unusual geological phenomenon: It’s a subterranean waterfall cork-screwing its way through a network of galleries, tunnels, paths and platforms and accessed by a tunnel lift. It is said that the volume of water is around 20,000 litres of water per second!

lauterbrunnen

The town has many walking trails with stunning views of the three summits, Jungfrau, Eiger, and Monch.   You  can make use of the mountain railway to reach the resorts of Wengen and Mürren.

Where to stay

Hotel Oberland: Has  quaint rooms with a balcony and a magnificent view of the waterfalls.  Lauterbrunnen also has a range of holiday homes that can be booked online

switzerland restaurant

Also read: Holiday in Ticino: A little slice of Italy in Switzerland

La Dolce vita in Morcote

This former fishing village on the shores of Lake Lugano, in the canton of Ticino, has been voted as one of Switzerland’s prettiest villages. Vineyards separate the lakefront villas from the towering church of Santa Maria del Sasso with its 16th century frescoes and terraced graveyards, on the hilltop, which can be accessed by 400 steps called the Way of the Cross.

Morcote has a lazy vibe, lined by cafes and restaurants, gelato stalls and shops inside old Italian style arcades. One of Morcote’s attractions is the exotic Scherrer Park, created by the St Gallen textile trader, Hermann Arthur Scherrer. Walk through the park which is lined with palm trees, camellias, bamboo and  cypresses.  Walking through the narrow streets of the town we admire typical Italian style buildings with porches and loggias, adorned with stucco and frescoes.

switzerland old building

Morcote was once a large trading centre because of its proximity to Northern Italy, later it became a fishing village, until tourism flourished in the late 19th century. Take a bus ride to Tenuta Castello di Morcote, for some wine tasting, which   is situated on a promontory overlooking the lake, over 172 hectares of volcanic soil where the family cultivates grapes for its different wines including White Merlot.

Taking a boat ride from Morcote, visit cellar restaurants peculiar to the area, which were once used as storage spaces for cheese, meats and to age wine as the weather was warm. Today there are rustic restaurants serving hearty meal of freshly caught fish, polenta, pastas, and wine and beer.

Where to stay 

rapperswil viewing deck

Most people stay in Lugano and make the boat trip here. But if you want to soak in the quiet here, stay at the Swiss Diamond Hotel and Spa on the shores of Lake Lugano, with indoor and outdoor pools and rooms with mountain views. Another great option is Albergo Ristorante della Posta situated near the ferry station with wooden panelled rooms and a restaurant serving fish and wood fired pizzas

Smelling the roses in Rapperswil

Picturesque Rapperswil, situated on Lake Zurich in the canton of St Gallen, owes its name to more than 16,000 roses that flower in the rose gardens of the Capuchin monastery, between May to October, as well as in the Schanz which is a rose garden for the blind, with boards in braille. This is the only rose garden for the blind, situated over three plots in the town. The coat of arms of this medieval town has three roses as well.

Walking through the car free old town with its narrow alleys, stately buildings with Biblical frescoes on facades, and benches along the Lake promenade, is a pleasure.  Reached by a boat cruise from Zurich, the 14th century castle towers above the town and lake and affords a panoramic view. Here is an old museum focussing on Polish culture and history which was founded in 1870, by a Polish immigrant as in those days Rapperswil was the cultural centre for the Polish diaspora.

rapperswil building

In the summer, classical music concerts are held in the castle’s Knights Hall. Don’t miss a look at the wooden bridge that was once used by the Pilgrims en Route to Santiago de Compostela- a famous pilgrimage. It was once a rickety and precarious bridge with wooden planks, but was replaced by a sturdy structure in 2001.

The town’s museum housed in a new building with an architectural bronze facade, is actually the Breny-Haus dating back to 1492, and is the right place to discover the 800-year history and culture of Rapperswil.

switzerland hill house

Where to stay 

Sorell Hotel Speer: Is a great place to stay at the centre of the town and  is just steps away from the shores of Lake Zurich

The Jakob Hotel: Dating back to 1830, is another good option. It is located in the car-free Old Town of Rapperswil,  close to the train station

Alpine highs in Appenzell

Appenzell is a page out of a child’s story book- situated in northern Switzerland in the smallest canton of the country, it is famous for its rolling meadows, lofty mountains and cows. It’s a traditional part of the country with its own cultural traditions, folk music and dances. The canton has both Catholic Appenzell Innerrhoden and Protestant Appenzell Ausserrhoden.

switzerland building

Appenzell town is a car-free town with its colourful gabled building facades decorated with frescoes and wrought iron signs, and small shops and boutiques selling cheese and chocolates. Many walking trails radiate from the town through pastoral landscapes and craggy mountains. The Alpstein mountain range forms the backdrop of the Appenzell region.

If you visit between mid-May and June, you can catch the procession of cattle to alpine pastures that takes place every year with Alpine herdsmen, clad in traditional costumes taking the cows up to the alp, for the summer.

A hike to Wildkirchli Caves, which contain a cave chapel and a Hermit’s House, originally built in 1658 and reconstructed in 1972, is worth it, with a meal at the picturesque Berggasthaus Äscher, a mountain inn, built into the side of a mountain which serves rosti and regional cheese.

The local Appenzeller cheese is famous for its herbal brine recipe, which is derived from a variety of herbs, roots, leaves, and flowers. There are a lot of Alpine lakes in the region like Fahlensee which can be reached by short hikes. Walk the Barefoot Trail, without shoes and socks. through grass and small streams, which leads from Jakobsbad to Gontenbad. Don’t forget to taste the local Appenzeller Biberli, a soft gingerbread filled with almond paste.

Where to stay 

Hotel Hof Weissbad: Is a health and holiday hotel, near the railway station with its an indoor pool, sauna, and health center. They also offer an Appenzell evening with folk dancing and music

Berggasthaus Aescher: Is another option, a mountain inn carved into the rock but that involves a gondola ride and a steep hike

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