It’s easy to get into a rut when traveling abroad. Museum, cathedral, cafe, repeat. Not this traveler. When I’m out to see the world, I want to experience the culture, but I also want to experience it up close and personal with some heart-pounding activity that might (or might not) be topped off with a bit of adrenaline.
Switzerland is an outdoor lover’s paradise. No matter how hard you try, you can’t possibly do all there is to do here, even considering Switzerland’s small size. So, if you’re interested in burning off some of those fondue and chocolate calories, consider one of the activities below. Whether on foot, on two wheels, on the water, or up in the sky, you won’t regret getting outside in that clean alpine air.
I like to call this activity “the cure for jetlag.” There is nothing quite like arriving in Switzerland and (as I did for the shooting of Real Rail Adventures: Swiss International Hubs) starting off with a 150-foot rappel down into the frigid waters of a glacier-fed alpine river. From there, the folks at Outdoor Interlaken lead you downstream on a 4-6 hour tour that includes leaping into pools, racing down natural rock chutes, and a zipline, among other delights. This is brain freeze Switzerland style. At the end of the trip, they offer a snack and a beer as you warm up in a meadow near the canyon exit. Wetsuit, helmet, harness, beer, and snack included!
Interlaken literally means “between the lakes.” To the west of Interlaken, Lake Thun offers breathtaking sunset views. To the east of Interlaken, Lake Brienz glimmers turquoise with silt washed down from the glaciers that hang high above in the alps. I spent a couple of hours tooling around Lake Brienz with my guide from Hightide Kayak, admiring the breathtaking views and the picturesque villages and castles on the shore. This is an environmentally low-impact way to get in some very high-impact sightseeing. And, at the end of your kayaking day, make sure to have dinner at Harder Kulm to watch that Lake Thun sunset.
Just up the valley toward Lauterbrünnen, the Lütschine River tumbles out of the mountains along a broad valley floor. With class III-IV rapids, you and a few of your closest friends will make some serious memories as you splash and bump your way toward Lake Brienz. The folks at Outdoor Interlaken make sure your trip is safe and fun, with a guide in each boat and a short paddling lesson before you launch. Bon voyage!
From the town of Ilanz, the Vorderrhein River (which means, literally, “before the Rhine,” which this river feeds into) travels through what the locals call the Swiss Grand Canyon. While it can’t compete with Arizona’s Grand Canyon for size and majesty, its high chalk walls and towering rock spires are still a great backdrop to enjoy a day in the rapids. Pick a half-day or go with the full-day option, which comes with a BBQ lunch. Ilanz is a nice stop on your way across Switzerland and easy to reach by train.
From Appenzell, take the Appenzell Railway to the last stop at Wasserauen. There, you’ll board the Ebenalp cable car, which whisks you up the mountain in just a few minutes. From there, hike as little or as long as you like through the network of trails. Just ten minutes from the upper cable car station, hike down through the Wildkirchli caves, which were once inhabited by Neanderthals. Once through the caves, you’ll come out to the exceedingly Instagrammable Aescher Hostel, a great place for an al fresco lunch of rösti and sausage to fuel your afternoon adventures.
Locals know how to get the best out of a city, and the residents of Basel are no exception. When I visited this artsy town, one of my guides told me about how locals beat the heat here. After leaving work, they change into their swimwear, put their clothing, phone, and laptop into a special dry bag called a “Wickelfisch,” roll up the bag so that it contains a puff or two of air, and then float the river using the inflated bag as a flotation device. Drift for a while, then hop out at a “buvette” (riverside cafe) for a beer and a snack, and repeat. This is my kind of local experience.
The grapes grown here are said to benefit from “three suns” - direct sunlight, the heat stored by the walled terraces, and light reflected off of Lac Léman (aka Lake Geneva). The wines are superb and the views sublime. Touring with an e-bike makes navigating the steep hills a breeze, and stops for wine tasting are a must. If you’re looking for something even more unique, look up the wine spa, La Vigne, for a massage and spa treatment with byproducts from the winemaking process and a soak in a copper tub overlooking the vineyards and the Alps beyond.
Picturesque, even by Swiss standards, Mürren sits on a sunny ledge, thousands of feet above the magical Lauterbrünnen Valley. Getting there is part of the fun - ride the train to Lauterbrünnen then board the big yellow Post Bus to Stechelberg where a cable car carries you up to Mürren. The Via Ferrata (Iron Way) is a permanent course of iron rungs, cables, ladders, swinging bridges, and a zipline. Wearing a helmet, gloves, and climbing harness, you’re always clipped into a permanently mounted cable. Your guide leads you as you walk on metal rungs across sheer rock faces, down waterfalls, and over deep gorges in what will surely be a highlight of any Swiss adventure. Not for the faint of heart or those with a fear of heights.
When you think of touring great cities like Zürich, outdoor activities don’t immediately come to mind. The new-ish craze of stand-up paddle boarding (SUPing) is a great way to get a new perspective on this very old city. Our tour left from a park on the northwestern side of Lake Zürich. From there, we paddled into the mouth of the Limmat River and then back through the Springbrunnen Aquaretum, an artistic fountain mounted in the lake, where I unceremoniously fell off my SUP into the lake. No worries - the water is clean, cool, and refreshing on a hot summer day.
When was the last time you rode a bike in an art museum? Zürich has a great mixture of publicly funded art and street art, but it’s spread out across the city, making it hard to reach much of it on foot. We rented the ubiquitous Publibikes and used a handy map from StreetArtCities to create our own, free art tour. Zürich is a bike-friendly city and by renting an e-bike, we were able to see many incredible works of art in a half-day tour.
My favorite way to get to the top of Mt Rigi is to take the train to Lucerne, board the boat across the street from the station for a ride across Lake Lucerne to Vitznau, then get on the cogwheel train at Vitznau to ascend the mountain. Since all of this can be done using the Swiss Travel Pass, the only thing left to do is to leap off of the mountain with a qualified pilot strapped to your back. I assure you that paragliding is one of the most incredible experiences you will have in Switzerland. You’ll first coast above the pines on the gentle southern slope of the mountain before shooting out over the Zugersee and settling into a field near the town of Arth, where you can catch the train to your next destination.
I like to say that the biggest gamble I’ve ever made was eating at the Circus Circus buffet in Las Vegas (you never know, right?). But prospecting for gold isn’t gambling, it’s more like hunting. And, much like hunting’s cousin, fishing, you can still have a pretty good day out in the wilderness even if you don’t catch anything. My day in the Napf Gorge was like that. I didn’t strike it rich, but I had fun trying. Panning for gold in the Napf Gorge isn’t something you’d naturally think of as a tourist activity in a place like Switzerland, but it’s an activity you’ll remember every time you look at the tiny vial of gold flakes you take home from your day on the river.
My wife and I believed that taking our girls on hikes when they were young would help make them into strong, independent women. They actually did become strong, independent women, but I think the hiking trips were equally good for their imaginations as they were for their characters. Hiking up a strenuous incline, they would dream, out loud, of trails that were perpetually downhill, which they called “hiking on Happy Mountain.” You can find your Happy Mountain in Switzerland. Rent a bike in Zermatt and take it on the cable car up to Sunegga, where you’ll follow a fantastic route down the mountain through alpine meadows and spruce forests with the Matterhorn often in view. Cap off your ride with a cold beer at Cervo mountain resort, and you’ve just had one of the best afternoons of your traveling life. On Happy Mountain.
This one was a happy accident. We’d shot up to the base of the Matterhorn on a cable car to shoot a segment on sustainability at high altitudes in Switzerland. At the end of our day, hopping off the cable car at the bottom of the ride, we started walking to our hotel in Zermatt but got sidetracked. Up a narrow gorge fitted with wooden staircases and walkways, we were once again mesmerized by water in Switzerland. The Gorner Gorge cradles the waters of the Gornervispe, which has carved the serpentinite rock since the ice age to create a magical world unto itself. Pay the 5 CHF fee at the entrance, and they’re happy to hold your backpack if needed.
We started the day with a ride on the Gornergratbahn cogwheel up to the Gornergrat at over 10,000 ft in elevation. When our guide, a spritely and fit mid-seventies retiree from Switzerland Tourism (brought out of retirement just for us, I’m told) suggested we walk the two miles from Gornergrat station down to the restaurant for lunch, there was a little grumbling among the hungry crew. Once our guide shouldered the tripod and then placed us in the middle of a flock of fuzzy, adorable Valais Blacknose Sheep in view of the Matterhorn, all was forgiven. We spent an hour being nuzzled by the adorable sheep as they grazed their way through another alpine summer. Hiking down from Gornergrat through mountain meadows while making friends with the local sheep will be one of those travel memories you won’t soon forget.
These are my favorite summertime activities in Switzerland. What are yours? Let us know in the comments below, and subscribe to our monthly newsletter so you don’t miss any important updates.