There are two sides to Switzerland: the business, banking, and efficient side, and then there’s the life outdoors. The country is just as affluent with natural riches like glaciers, lakes and alpine mountains as it is with the traditional, material kind.
To get a complete taste of the Swiss life, we set out from the southwestern part of the country to the Lake Geneva region on an itinerary to see both sides. Follow along on our trip from Geneva-to-Zermatt as we explore the international business hub of Geneva before seeing the other side of Swiss life in the efficiently-developed ski town of Zermatt. And don’t worry, there are stops for cheese and chocolate along the way.
Although Geneva is the second largest city in Switzerland, it often gets overlooked by tourists. The city welcomes a lot of business travelers for commerce and international visitors for global relations, but very often, the common traveler thinks about Zurich, Lucerne and Bern first. That makes Geneva a bit of an underrated gem. Located on a beautiful lake, it has plenty of history and charm that’s worth exploring.
There are a lot of important international buildings to see around Geneva, but they’re not all next to each other. If you don’t feel like making the hike, hop on a Segway tour with Geneva Segway Tours and go for a ride. The Segway allows you to get around much faster, and your tour guide will make sure you see everything from United Nations to the Red Cross to the Jette D’Eau.
There are a lot of fine, handmade sweets in Geneva, so those with a sweet tooth should prepare to make several stops. You can start at Confiserie Arn, a highly-regarded coffee shop. Get a cup of something warm and pair it with their carac, which is their signature creation. Located in Place du Bourg-de-Four, it’s a good spot for people watching.
For straight handmade chocolates, visit Chocolats Rohr, Favarger, or Auer Chocolatier. If you’re looking for something simpler, like a bar, Milka is the brand to go for. They’re readily available at supermarket stores and even at the airport on your way back.
Chez Philippe Grill
The perception of Swiss cuisine might be cheese and potatoes, but the reality is quite different – especially in Geneva. The city hosts so many international visitors that there’s a constant craving for trendy and exciting flavors.
One trendy spot for a bite is Chez Philippe Grill, which is relatively new but is already viewed as one of the best steakhouses in town. It’s a very stylish restaurant with chic décor. And, of course, meat is the star. You can try everything from American, Swiss, and Irish beef to taste the difference. Almost every type of cut is offered to your liking and there are a lot of fun sides to pair them with, not just potatoes. The Brussel sprouts and the cauliflower gratin are highly recommended.
CGN Dinner Boat Cruise
Taking a cruise around Lake Geneva feels like you’re floating through a watercolor painting. Surrounded by snow-capped mountains, the ride is dominated by whites and greys in the winter and blues and greens in the summer.
As the CGN boat makes its way around the lake, it stops at charming little towns that are worth seeing. If you have enough time, you can go the whole way around the lake. If you’re in for a shorter ride, the sunset dinner cruise is lovely. A three-course menu is served and while you might think that the food quality on these types of rides would be tourist trap-y, this one is well-executed. There are some excellent options, like the foie gras appetizer.
Hotel Les Armures
Hotel Les Armures is a classy accommodation right in the heart of Geneva’s historic quarter. The location is key, as it’s a leisurely ten-minute walk to the lake-front promenade and roughly the same distance from shopping, museums, and other key sights. While the building is from the seventeenth century, the interior has been renovated and the rooms are quite modern. They’ve hosted plenty of A-listers like George Clooney and Hillary Clinton, so they’ll know how to take good care of you too.
It’s possible – maybe even probable – that you haven’t heard, but Geneva has a burgeoning wine country. Don’t be that surprised; set in between France and Germany, it shouldn’t shock you that it has idyllic grape-growing conditions. While the Swiss make great white wines, they only export about five percent of them, which is why we don’t often see them on the international scene.
Outside of the busy Geneva city center – about ten stops by tram – is a beautiful wine region. There are some tours that can be arranged, but a great way to visit them individually is by bike, electric or traditional. In between Chasselas tastings – the signature grape of Switzerland – take the five-minute ride down to the French border just to say you did.
Cheese Fondue at Café Restaurant de L’Hotel de Ville
There are few foods that are more comforting than melted cheese on bread. The feeling of warm and gooey meeting crunchy and salty is my ideal soul food. The Swiss agree, which is why they eat cheese fondue about once a week in the winter.
Restaurant de L’Hotel de Ville does a particularly good job of it, although there isn’t much to it. They’ll present you with a cheesy pool made of Gruyere and other varities, and you just go to town, dipping and diving over and over again. Pair with a Chasselas – or an acidic white wine – to cut through some of the heaviness, and order a side salad, so you don’t feel too guilty about downing a bowl of melted cheese.
There are many ski towns around the world that may look similar to Zermatt, such asAspen or Banff, but only one is made with the touch of Swiss efficiency. The difference is that Zermatt’s infrastructure is far more developed, and far more efficiently so.
For example, there are over 70 different trains, chairlifts, and cable cars that take you up the various mountains from Zermatt which are all interconnected. It’s exactly for this reason that there’s so much to do. There are at least 50 restaurants on the mountains themselves, which means you can get a bite to eat or have an aperitif at any level: top, middle or bottom.
In the winter, there is world-class skiing covering an infinite amount of terrain. In the summer, there are hikes in every direction. Whichever sport you’re doing, you can start or stop at any point. In other words, you can ski all the way down to your hotel if you like.
It would be easy for a restaurant on a ski hill to cut corners – just serve fast casual options – but Alphitta has no interest in doing that. Hosted in a century-old preserved home, Tanja and Dave put in a lot of passion that comes out in the result. Almost everything in the restaurant is made in-house – including the pasta, which is made fresh. That’s a lot of effort.
While they do have a ‘foreigners’ section to cater to the crowd, – usually a burger for the Americans, aglio e olio for the Italians, and seafood for the French –what’s recommended are Swiss classics like Roesti with a sausage or egg. The giant potato latke is a Swiss standard but some are pre-cooked, dense and over-fried while Alphitta’s is fresh and crisp
The restaurant is located in Riffelalp and is easy to access. There is a train stop right there or if you’re skiing, you can glide directly into the restaurant – literally.
Matterhorn – Lake Riffelsee
The Matterhorn, one of the most famous mountains in the world, is the masterpiece of Zermatt. While there are a number of ways to appreciate it, – everything from simply looking up from the village to climbing to the top – a happy medium that doesn’t require as much energy or skill is a visit to Lake Riffelsee. On a clear day, it’s an Instagrammable moment, as you’ll find the Matterhorn in front of you standing tall along with its reflection off the lake.
Gorner Gorge has been created from centuries of water piercing through stone. More recently, a safe infrastructure was privately put in place so that visitors can get down into the gorge and witness this incredible waterfall.
The gorge is a mini canyon with a beautiful stream running through it. It’s only accessible in the warmer months, so it’s the ideal place to end one of your hikes.
Restaurant Chez Heini
If you’re looking for a unique dinner spot, Chez Heini is a story to tell. Incredible lamb and a singing chef is what you’ll tell your friends. Owner and chef Dan Daniell basically does it all in this rustic joint, and what you’ll want him to do for you is the lamb. Roasted on an open flame, the selections from his homegrown herd will have your mouth watering. Stay for the evening show as he breaks into song to wrap up the night!
There is an endless array of hotel options in Zermatt but staying on the main pedestrian street gives you a real feel of the town. Hotel Pollux is precisely where you want to be. It’s a five-minute walk from the train station, which is perfect for when you’re transferring, and it’s right in the heart of the social activities.
The rooms are spacious, and the beds are comfortable. In the evening, the hotel restaurant is a lively spot for a bite or a drink. There’s also always a fire crackling by the bar, which is welcoming at any time of year.