With limestone viaducts, snow-capped peaks,
swan-dotted lakes and emerald green valleys, Switzerland has scenery you may never
tire of. It is also refreshingly easy for international visitors to hike or
bike through the enthralling countryside via affordable and genuinely straightforward
train, bus and ferry systems. To get under the skin of rural Switzerland, leave
the car behind. Simply rely on the country’s fantastic public transport and
your own two feet.
Take a train (bus or ferry) to the trails
Elsewhere in the world, using trains to travel
around rural areas is often impractical, as stations are few and far between and
schedules are rarely synchronised. But Switzerland's train system is second only
to Japan's for its comprehensiveness and frequency of use by locals. Train
schedules match up smoothly, meaning that visitors rarely wait to make
connections, and the country's buses and ferries also run like clockwork -- as
would be expected in a country that famously makes the world’s most precise timepieces.
Public transport in Switzerland is so good that
there are nine car-free villages. Jungfrau-Aletsch, for instance, located on a Unesco World Heritage-designated glacier's
edge, can be accessed by rail, bus, bike or foot.
In 2008, the non-profit organisation SwitzerlandMobility launched a 19,000km network of hiking, cycling and canoeing routes that
are tightly integrated with rail, bus and ferry services, bike rental stations
and overnight accommodations. Use the
group's website to plot a map-based itinerary, choosing from more
than 600 signposted routes, 100 bed-and-breakfasts and 4,000 points of
interest. Every listed route is linked to at least one of 24,000 public
transport stops, with timetables a click away.
To speed up your planning, SwitzerlandMobility presents
ready-made itineraries that range from daytrips to cross-country
hikes. For example, from Zurich, visitors can take an easy day
hike to the Albis Pass. Take train Number 302 from Zürich Hauptbahnhof (the
main railway station) to Zürich Triemli–Uetliberg, and then follow the yellow
signposts on a 14km-trek. The trail passes through the Black Forest, rising 700m in elevation along mountain paths lined with wild garlic, and eventually
presents views of the distant Glarner Alps.
The site also advises which routes are best for
less athletic people, and which ones will challenge the physically fit. The
routes cover most of Switzerland, with a few rarely accessed areas left out. The
SwitzerlandMobility website even has a free companion iPhone
app to let visitors plot their next moves on the go.
E-bike the Alps
If you are intimidated by the idea of cycling in
the Swiss Alps, you may prefer to rent an electric bike, or e-bike, which gives
your pedalling a mechanical boost and spares you from breaking a sweat. Switzerland
has 400 combined bicycle and e-bike stations along 8,800km of signposted cycle
routes. The stations customarily allow cyclists to swap out fresh e-bike batteries
as a complimentary service included with the rental rate, which is typically 50
Swiss francs a day. Many inns also provide sockets that can be used to recharge
batteries while you break for a meal or stay the night. Book the right e-bike
or traditional bike for your size via Rent a Bike, and find a map of e-bike routes with battery-swap points at Veloland.ch under its "Flyer bike" section.
If planning the logistics of bike rentals,
lodging and rail transport intimidates you, turn to the tour company SwissTrails, which will organise your whole trip for a fee. Note: traditional
pedal-powered bicycles are more widely available as rentals than e-bikes. For
spontaneous rentals, reserve a traditional bike through Switzerland
Tourism because the kiosks at bicycle rental stations
often require credit
cards that have microchips embedded in them (which are standard in Europe,
but are rarely possessed by Americans).
Hikers and cyclists may also like Fast
Baggage, a luggage-forwarding service introduced in
2005 that has since expanded to cover a large swath of Switzerland. Drop off
your luggage at any one of 45 train stations before 9 am and the luggage will
be available for pick-up at your destination rail station after 6 pm the same
day. This service comes in handy when you choose to hike, bike, or canoe a leg
of the journey, a task made more difficult with bags involved. The fee is 22 Swiss
francs each way, much cheaper than the exorbitant cost of gas to make an
equivalent journey in a rental car.
If your ideal itinerary does not take you near
those 45 stations, try an alternate luggage-forwarding service from the tour
company SwissTrails. It covers even the smallest of rural villages at somewhat higher rates
than the Swiss Rail service.
A pass to savings
To save money and time, rail passes allow
travellers to hop on and off the trains, buses and ferries that crisscross the
country on 13,000 miles of routes. Rail passes can save foreign visitors up to
half of the price paid by residents, thanks to tourism-promotion subsidies from
the Swiss government.
Among the various
Swiss rail passes, hikers and cyclists
will generally prefer the Swiss
Flexi Pass, ideal when you want
unlimited, spontaneous travel on a couple of days during your trip and do not
need public transport on other days. A Swiss Flexi Pass sold via booking
Europe for three non-consecutive days of unlimited
train travel recently cost 236 Swiss francs for two people, substantially
less than renting and fuelling a rental car. Passes are also sold at rail
To plot your car-free itinerary, a good starting
point is the English-language version of the website for Swiss Federal Railways. Also helpful is
the Bradt Travel Guides’ Switzerland
Without a Car, which describes
every railway line and what there is to see walking, hiking or cycling near