The climate is temperate, but varies with altitude. Switzerland has cold, cloudy, rainy/snowy winters and cool to warm, cloudy, humid summers with occasional showers.
Switzerland is known for its mountains (Alps in south, Jura in northwest) but it also has a central plateau of rolling hills, plains, and large lakes. The highest point is Dufourspitze at 4,634 m while Lake Maggiore is only 195 m above sea level.
Switzerland's independence and neutrality have long been honored by the major European powers and Switzerland was not involved in either of the two World Wars. The political and economic integration of Europe over the past half century, as well as Switzerland's role in many UN and international organizations has strengthened Switzerland's ties with its neighbors. However, the country did not officially become a UN member until 2002. Switzerland remains active in many UN and international organizations, but retains a strong commitment to neutrality.
France might have the real Magic Kingdom, but the true Disneyland of Europe belongs to the Swiss. Switzerland is a natural theme park showcasing three of Europe's most distinct cultures. To the northeast is the beer-drinking, sausage-eating German-speaking Switzerland; to the south-west the wine drinking and shopping spills effortlessly into France; in the south-east the sun warms cappuccino-sippers loitering in Italian-style plazas; and in the center: classic Swiss flugelhorns and mountain landscapes. Binding it all together is a distinct Swiss mentality.
Switzerland can be a glorious whirlwind trip whether you've packed your hiking boots, snowboard, or just a good book and a pair of sunglasses. Switzerland packs into it a continent worth of natural wonders and a culture and history rich enough to provide five museums for every rainy day of the year.
Switzerland is a peaceful, prosperous, and stable modern market economy with low unemployment, a highly skilled labor force, and a per capita GDP larger than that of the big Western European economies. The Swiss in recent years have brought their economic practices largely into conformity with the EU's to enhance their international competitiveness. Switzerland remains a safe haven for investors, because it has maintained a degree of bank secrecy and has kept up the franc's long-term external value. Reflecting the anemic economic conditions of Europe, GDP growth dropped in 2001 to about 0.8%, to 0.2% in 2002, and to -0.3% in 2003, with a small rise to 1.8% in 2004-05. Even so, unemployment has remained at less than half the EU average.
No, there is no "Swiss Language" per se. Depending on where you are in the country (or what street you're on in some cities) the locals might sprechen Schwyzerdütsch, parlent français, parlano Italiano, or in the hidden valleys of Graubunden, parlen Romansch, an ancient language closely related to Latin. The Swiss themselves learn one of the other Swiss languages in school, but English is pretty much a requirement for travel related jobs, so you shouldn't have too much trouble using it. With a mostly multi-lingual population, it shouldn't be hard to find someone who can talk your talk whatever it may be.
German, French, Italian, and Romansch are the four official languages. Around two-thirds of the Switzerland lies in the German speaking area, particularly in the center and east of the country. French is spoken at the west such as in Lausanne and Geneva while Italian and Romansh are spoken at the south.
If you should speak some German, don't be surprised if you don't understand Swiss German. There are a number of different Swiss German dialects, all of which are rather distinct. But don't be worried, all German Swiss speak and write standard ("High") German (with a more or less strong accent), too.
Major international airports are in Zurich, Geneva and Basel, with smaller airports in Lugano and Bern. Flying into nearby Milan (Italy), Lyon or even Paris (France) or Frankfurt (Germany) are other options though rather expensive and time-consuming (3h Frankfurt-Basel, 4h Milan-Zurich, 5h Paris-Bern) by train. Some discount airlines fly to Friedrichshafen, Germany which is just across Lake Constance (the Bodensee) from Romanshorn, not too far from Zurich. The Flagcarrier of Switzerland is SWISS which is a member of Star Alliance and successor of the famous Swissair.
Trains arrive from all parts of Europe. Switzerland is together with Germany one of the most central-lying countries in Europe, making it a center of railways and highways to the rest of Europe. Some major routes include:
The following carriers offer domestic flights within Switzerland:
The Swiss will spoil you with fantastic transportation - swift, disturbingly punctual trains, clean buses, and a half dozen different kinds of mountain transport systems. The Swiss public transport system offers a multitude of discount options, from half fare cards to multi-day, multi-use tickets good for buses, boats, trains, and even bike rentals. In general there's at least one train or bus per hour on every route, on many routes trains and buses are running every 30 min. The bus network is an addition to the train network, there's no intercity bus network, but there are many scenic bus routes in the Alps. More information and all the timetables for Trains, Buses and Boats can be found at http://www.rail.ch.
Tickets: The most expensive tickets are - of course - the standard tickets. But there are several cheaper ways:
Half-Fare Card: Available for one year (CHF 150) or one month (CHF 99, for foreigners only). The card saves you 50% of the standard fare on all trains and most busses or cable cars, e.g. CHF 57 for a return ticket from Zurich to Lugano in 2nd class. Press the '1/2' button on the ticket machines (same for tickets for children under 16).
Junior Card: Valid for one year (CHF 20). Children up to 16 years travelling with at least one parent (who can use the Half-Fare Card) travel for free.
Swiss Passes: If you will be taking several train journeys in Switzerland it is worthwhile looking at some of the train passes http://www.swisstravelsystem.ch/
Surcharge & Reservation: Trains are all free of surcharge, a reservation is not required. There are two exceptions to this rule, the special trains: Bernina Express, running daily between Chur and Tirano and the Glacier Express running from St. Moritz to Zermatt.
Travel: Using the trains is quite easy, although the number of different kinds of trains can be a bit confusing unless you know that the schedules at a Swiss train station are color coded. The yellow sheet is for departures and the white sheet is for arrivals. Faster trains appear on both of these sheets in red, while the trains in black stop at more stations.
At the track, the signs indicate the destination and departure time. The small numbers and letters along the bottom show you where you can board the train. The letters indicate the zone you should stand in, and the numbers indicate the class. The class (1st or 2nd) is indicated by a "1" or "2" on the side of the car, these correspond with the numbers on the sign.
Luggage can be stowed above your seat or in between seats, or on a rack at the end of the car. During busy periods, people often stow large luggage (or skis) in the entrance area in between cars. This is usually fairly safe, but use common sense.
Information for railway fans
In Switzerland nearly all railways run electrically but it is possible to find many steam railways such as the Brienzer Rothornbahn or the Furka Railway for instance. There are many interesting mountain railways of all types. In Switzerland most electric trains get their power from a single phase AC network at 15 000V 16 2/3Hz. This network uses its own powerlines run with 66 kV and 132 kV, which have, unlike normal power lines, a number of conductors not divisible by 3. (Most powerlines for the single phase AC grid of the traction power grid have four conductors.)
Here is short list of remarkable railway lines:
For using the motorways you need to buy a "Vignette", a sticker which costs 40 CHF that allows you to use the motorways as much as you like for the entire year. Avoiding the motorways in order to save the toll price is generally futile; the amount is well worth it, even if you are only transiting. Other roads may have additional tolls levied, such as the Gottard base tunnel.
Speed limits: 120 km/h on motorways, 80 km/h on normal roads and 50 km/h inside villages. Whilst driving "a wee bit too fast" is common on motorways people tend to stick pretty closely to the other two limits. Fines are hefty and traffic rules are strictly enforced.
The blood alcohol concentration limit is 0.05%. As in every country, do not drink and drive, as you will lose your license for several months if you are cited and a heavy fine may be imposed.
Driving on small mountain roads can be nerve-wracking if you come from a flat country. But beside this, swiss roads are in general safe and very well maintained.
Five tips for mountain roads:
Switzerland is a cyclists place! Veloland Schweiz has build up an extensive network of long distance cycle trails all across the country. Check their website for more details. http://www.cycling-in-switzerland.ch/ There are many Swiss cities where you can rent bicycles if that is your means of traveling and you can even rent electric bicycles. During the summer it is quite common for cities to offer bicycle 'rental' for free! Cycling in cities is pretty safe, at least compared to other countries, and very common.
Besides the main types of transportation, the adventurous person can see Switzerland by in-line skating. There are three routes, measuring a combined 600-plus kilometers designed specifically for in-line skating throughout the country. They are the Rhine route, the Rhone route, and the Mittelland route. These are scenic tours. Most of the routes are flat, with slight ascents and descents. The Mittelland route runs from Zurich airport to Neuenburg in the northwest; the Rhine route runs from Bad Ragaz to Schaffhausen in the northeastern section of the country. Finally, the Rhone route extends from Brig to Geneva. This is a great way to see both the country-side and cityscapes of this beautiful nation. For more information: http://www.myswitzerland.com/en/navpage-Active-Inline%20Skating.html
Switzerland is not part of the European Union and the currency is the Swiss franc (or Franken or franco, depending in which language area you are), divided into 100 centimes, Rappen or centesimi. However, many places - such as supermarkets and the railways - accept Euro (notes only) and will give you change in Swiss Francs. Changing some money to Swiss Francs (CHF) is essential. Money can be exchanged at all train stations and most banks throughout the country. Switzerland is more cash-orientated than most other European countries. It is not unusual to see bills being paid by cash, even Fr 200 and Fr 1000 notes. Some establishments (but fewer than previously) do not accept credit cards, check first. But all ATMs accept foreign cards, getting cash should not be a problem.
"Swiss-made": Souvenirs and Luxury Goods
Switzerland is famous for a few key goods: watches, chocolate, cheese, and Swiss Army knives.
Ski and tourist areas will sell the other kinds of touristy items - cowbells, clothing embroidered with white Edelweiss flowers, and Heidi-related stuff. Swiss people love cows in all shapes and sizes, and you can find cow-related goods everywhere, from stuffed toy cows to fake cow-hide jackets. If you have a generous souvenir budget, look for fine traditional handcrafted items such as hand-carved wooden figures in Brienz, and lace and fine linens in St. Gallen. If you have really deep pockets, or just wish you did, be sure to shop on Zürich's famed Bahnhofstrasse, one of the most exclusive shopping streets in the world. If you're looking for hip shops and thrift stores, head for the Niederdorf or the Stauffacher area.
Swiss employment law bans working on Sundays, so shops stay closed. An exception is any business in a railway station, which is deamed to be serving travellers and so is exempt. If you want to find an open shop on a Sunday, go to the nearest big railway station. If a business is family-owned, you aren't employing anybody so you can open, hence small shops can also open on Sundays.
Swiss supermarkets can be hard to spot in big cities. They often have small entrances, but open out inside, or are located in a basement, leaving the expensive street frontages for other shops. Look for the supermarket logos above entrances between other shops.
For the "self catering":
As of March 2005, Coop launched low-price-line (Coop Prix-Garantie). In Migros, you find "M-Budget" products. Sometimes it's exactly the same product, just for cheaper price. They also offer pre-pay mobiles as cheap as 29.80 CHF, including 19 CHF money on the SIM-Card and the some of the cheapest call rates.
The German discounter, Aldi Suisse started with 5 discount shops in the eastern part of Switzerland in early 2006. The prices are a little lower than at the other supermarket chains, but still significantly higher than in Germany.
Switzerland has some universites of world renown, like ETH in Zürich or University of Lausanne. 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. There are a few English courses as well, but it will be much easier to go with local language. Also have in mind that if you're a foreigner, and you want to go for popular subjects, you have to pass entry-tests, and it will cost you a lot, not only for university fees, but also for living.
If you like cheaper learning, go for Migros Klubschule, they offer language courses in almost every language as well as a lot of different courses for many subjects, just have a look on their website (http://www.klubschule.ch/). You may also want to try the different "Volkshochschule", which offer a large variety of subjects at very reasonable fees (such as www.vhszh.ch in Zurich, for instance).
If you are looking for quality French courses for adults or juniors, you can learn French in one of the ESL schools centres located in Switzerland Learn French in Switzerland with ESL
If you want to work in Switzerland, be aware that you need to obtain a work permit.
Switzerland signed an agreement with the European Union, that makes it easy for citizens of the old EU-15 states to work. In these cases you only need an employer that promotes you and a valid passport. 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 an unemployment rate of about 2.8% (end 2007) and skilled academics will have good job opportunities.
The high level of Swiss salaries reflect the high costs of living, so keep in mind that you must spend a lot for accommodation and food, when you negotiate your salary. Still, if you want or have to make money fast, you can save a substantial amount per month while working in a low-payed job. In general you work 42 hours/week and have 4 weeks of paid holidays.
Switzerland has no legal minimum salary. The salary depends on the industry you work in, with most companies paying at least 3500 CHF, for example as cashier in a supermarket. So you can save, if you really have to, depending on how much leisure time you like. Overtime work is usually paid (unless otherwise agreed in contract).
If you want to check the average salaries by industry or make sure you get the right amount paid, the Swiss employees are heavy organized in trade unions SGB and always keen to help you.
Most tourist areas in Switzerland have a tourist office where you can call and have them book a hotel for you for a small fee. Each town usually has a comprehensive list of hotels on their web site, and it is often easiest to simply call down the list to make a reservation rather than try to book online. Many hotels will request that you fax or email them your credit card information in order to secure a reservation. In general, hotel staff are helpful and competent, and speak English quite well.
Hotel rates in Switzerland can get quite expensive, especially in popular ski resort areas.
There is also a hostel network in Switzerland for students. Types of hotels in Switzerland include historic hotels, traditional hotels, inns located in the country, spas and bed and breakfasts.
Switzerland is not surprisingly one of the safest countries in Europe, but anywhere that attracts Rolex-wearing bankers and crowds of distracted tourists will also bring out a few pickpockets. Obviously, keep an eye on belongings, especially in the midst of summer crowds. In most cities the area around the train stations tend to be the seediest, and there is always some sort of 'red light district', though it may only be a block or two long.
Women traveling alone should have no problems. The younger Swiss tend to be very open with public displays of affection - sometimes too open, and some women may find people getting too friendly especially in the wee hours of the club & bar scene. Usually the international language of brush-offs or just walking away is enough.
Swiss police take on a relatively unobtrusive air; they prefer to remain behind the scenes, as they consider their presence potentially threatening to the overall environment (practice of deescelation). Unlike some more highly policed countries, officers will rarely approach civilians to ask if they need help or merely mark their presence by patrolling. However, police are indeed serious about traffic violations. Jaywalking (crossing a red pedestrian light), for example, will be fined on the spot. The upside to stringent traffic rules is that automobile drivers are generally very well-disciplined, readily stopping for pedestrians at crosswalks, for example. Generally, you are safe anywhere at any time. If, for any reason, you feel threatened, seek a near restaurant or telephone booth. The emergency phone number in Switzerland is 117, and operators are generally English-speaking. Football (soccer) games are the only notable exception to the above rule. Due to the potential threat of hooligan violence, these games are generally followed by a large contingent of police officers with riot gear, rubber bullets, and tear gas, in case of any major unrest.
Switzerland has very strong Good Samaritan laws, making it a civic duty to help a fellow in need (without unduly endangering oneself). People are therefore very willing and ready to help you if you appear to be in an emergency situation. Be aware, though, that the same applies to you if you witness anyone in danger. The refusal to help to a person in need can be punishable by law as "Verweigerung der Hilfeleistung", i.e. refusal of aid. The general reservation of Americans to avoid entanglement with strangers due to possible future civil liability does not apply in Switzerland, for it would be practically impossible to wage a civil suit against anyone providing aid.
The drinking age for beer, wine and cider is 16 while the age for any other alcohol (e.g. spirits, "alcopops",...) is 18. The public consumption of alcohol in Switzerland is legal, so do not be alarmed if you see a group of teenagers drinking a six-pack on public property; this is by no means out of the ordinary and should not be interpreted as threatening.
Switzerland is not a country of insane civil lawsuits and damage claims; consequently, if you see a sign or disclaimer telling you not to do something, obey it! An example: in many alpine areas, charming little mountain streams may be flanked by signs with the message "No Swimming." To the uninitiated, this may seem a bit over the top, but these signs are in fact a consequence to the presence of hydroelectric power plants further upstream that may discharge large amounts of water without warning.
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.
There have been problems with police assuming that any Black, East European, or Arab person without an ID card or passport is an illegal immigrant, and treating them accordingly. That could be a considerable problem if you are travelling alone.
Generally there is no problem with food and water in Switzerland. Restaurants are controled by strict rules. Water is drinkable everywhere, even out of public fountains unless specially marked. There are many organic food stores and restaurants available and its currently illegal to sell any genetically modified food.
Learning the mother tongue of the area you will be staying in is a great sign of respect. English is widely spoken in Switzerland, but any attempt to speak the local language is always appreciated, even if you're replied to in English. It’s always polite to ask if they speak English before starting a conversation.
Make an effort to at least learn Hello, Goodbye, Please, and Thank You in the language of the region you will be traveling in. "I would like..." is also a phrase that will help you. If you are in the German speaking region of Switzerland, it is generally wise to try to communicate in High German rather than attempting to speak a Swiss German dialect. The German Swiss almost instinctively switch from Swiss German to High German once they notice that they are speaking to a foreigner.
German, French, and Italian all have formal and informal forms of the word you, which changes the conjugation of verb you use, and sometimes phrases. For example, the informal phrase don't worry about it in French is ne t'en fais pas and the formal is ne vous en faites pas. The formal is used to show respect to someone who is older than you, who you consider to be a superior, someone who has a greater rank than you at work, or simply a stranger in the street. The informal is used with close friends, relatives, and peers.
As a general rule, you shouldn't use the informal with someone you don't know well, someone who is your superior in rank, or an elder.
Use the informal with your close friends and younger people. Peers can be a gray area, and it is advisable to use the formal at first until they ask you to use the informal.
Friends kiss each other on the cheek three times (left - right - left).
Oh... and DON'T LITTER! It's not Singapore where you get fined for it but it's definitely seen as bad behaviour in this country. Also make sure that you put it in the correct bin (e.g. recyclable).
Be punctual. Not surprisingly for a country that is known for making clocks, the Swiss have a near-obsession with being on time.
Many of the internet cafes that have emerged in the 1990's have closed since, probably because Switzerland has one of the highest rate of high-speed internet connections in homes in the world, but almost any video rental shop and most train stations will have a few internet terminals. The tourist office should be able to direct you to the nearest one. The going rate is 5 CHF for 20 minutes. Also, you can send email, SMS (text messages to cell phones) or short text faxes from just about every public phone booth for less that 1 CHF. Some public phone booths allow you to browse the internet. There are many shopping centers and cities (Lausanne and Vevey for example) that offer free wireless internet access: ask the young locals, maybe they know where to go.
The public phones are surprisingly cheap, and have no surcharge for credit cards.
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 (M-Budget-Mobile) and Coop (Coop Mobile) for example cost around 20 CHF and include already 15 CHF airtime. The definitely cheapest prepaid card for international communication is yallo: 0,39 CHF/min within Switzerland as well as to all European and many more countries (to the mobile and fixed networks). This includes the UK, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. SMS cost 0,10 CHF. 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). An other prepaid card with cheap rates offers Lebara Mobile (Sister concern of Sunrise). The prepaid card is avavilable for 5 CHF with an equivalent talk time and recharge vouchers offer the talktime equivalent to the price of the voucher.