In the heart of Switzerland is one of the most popular travel destinations in the world. The teeth of jagged, snow-clad peaks jut into a sky that varies in color from morning mauve to afternoon azure to tangerine twilight, and picturesque Swiss villages dot every hanging valley. Interlaken has been aptly called The Adventure Capital of the World, sporting an exceptional array of adrenaline-inducing activities from rock climbing to whitewater rafting to hang gliding to skydiving. If you like to defy gravity while getting your pants scared clean off, Interlaken is the place to be.
Of course, it didn’t become one of the most popular travel destinations in the world by merely catering to those without a healthy sense of risk management. Interlaken is also a hub of less dangerous fun that involves cable cars, epic sunsets, chocolate, and Bollywood movies. In short, Interlaken has something for everyone, and while it may seem that everyone is there, a little planning will keep you skirting the crowds and getting to the soul of this one-of-a-kind place.
Here are enough activities to fill (at least) two fun-filled days in Interlaken.
Martin Oester met our Real Rail Adventures crew at the Interlaken Ost train station early one morning to be our guide for the day. He carried a small backpack, and when I shook his cool hand, I noticed that his short hair was wet. “You’ve been swimming this morning, already?” I questioned. “Yes,” he said, with a sheepish grin. ”Sunrise on Lake Brienz. It’s such a great way to start the day. I rode the train in an hour ago and brought my trunks with me.” It’s the Swiss way, he assured me.
Interlaken means, literally, between lakes, so taking a dip in either Lake Brienz to the east or Lake Thun to the west (or both) is imperative. I favor the free spots, like the little park at Kifferinseli where you can lower yourself into Thun’s turquoise water after a 10-minute bike ride from Interlaken West train station. That’s the sunset swim, looking west, while the sunrise swim is best off the Brienzersee Viewpoint, about a 10-minute bike ride from Interlaken Ost train station. If you prefer, you can pay to swim at the fashionable beachfront, Bönigen, which offers both lake and pool swimming, an aquapark, a cafe, and kayak and boat rentals.
Kayak Lake Brienz
The same complex that hosts Bönigen is home to High Tide Kayak School. Here, you can rent various boats and/or take a tour or a class. However you plan to spend your time on the water, you’ll be plying the aquamarine waters of Lake Brienz under the towering Alps, passing quaint Swiss homes and churches along the shore. Paddle over to the mouth of the Lütschine River and you’ll see the murky, glacial, milk-laden waters mix with the crystal-clear lake. It’s these glacial minerals that, when dispersed lake-wide, give the water its bluish hue. Wear good sunglasses - the glittering, refracted and reflected light is almost too dazzling for us mere mortals.
Our PBS shows have shot in Interlaken several times, and every time we’ve featured outdoor adventures there, we’ve relied on Outdoor Interlaken guides. For Real Road Adventures, we dropped into the rushing waters of the Lütschine one bright, summer morning for a rollicking ride over the crests and through the chutes of whitewater formed by the stepped rock formations leading down the valley into Lake Brienz. We followed the directions of our guide in the stern, digging in or back paddling to keep our raft upright and pointed downstream. By the time we finished, our throats were sore from cheering, our bellies hurt from laughing, and our minds were full of the glorious alpine memory of a day well spent.
Another outing from our friends at Outdoor Interlaken is something I have come to call “The Cure for Jet Lag.” In the early morning, following our overnight international flight to Switzerland, we drove up Grimsel Canyon where, at a seemingly innocuous bend in the road, we donned wet suits and dropped 150 ft into the canyon via rappel. My own journey began with an unceremonious, ego-bruising fall onto my rear end into the shallow, frigid water. However, as an unintended consequence, I was now undoubtedly awake - awake enough to fully experience leaping into pools, sliding down natural rock slides, wriggling around boulders, and ziplining into deep gorges as we worked our way downstream. Our group was mostly comprised of young Australians in their twenties, but I gamely kept up. After the final obstacle, we posed for a group photo before being treated to a snack and a well-deserved cold beer in the meadow where the van met us to drive back to town.
For a slightly less invigorating (but equally rewarding) outdoor experience, I’ve always enjoyed hiking out from the small mountain station at Schynige Platte. Take a 3-4 minute train or bus ride from Interlaken Ost to Wilderswil, just south of town, where you’ll board the cogwheel train for the 50-minute ride to Schynige Platte. The train ride itself is worth taking the journey for, but trust me, once you’re up on top, hiking along the ridge to the east is a breathtaking walk through an alpine paradise. You’ll trace the top edge of a steep mountain wall that falls away to your left, affording eagle-eye views of the opalescent lakes and the bustling town sandwiched between them. To the south, your eye skips across a blanket of meadows filled with wildflowers that end abruptly at the foot of the daunting Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau peaks. If you haven’t seen a deity yet in your travels, you will fully experience one now. Come back to the station and calm your gobsmacked soul with a drink on the deck of the restaurant; the air there replete with the plaintive wail of alphorns in the afternoon light.
Did someone say rain? Whilst I so often speak of Switzerland as some kind of alpine Camelot, inclement weather does strike occasionally - even during the day. In that case, one should avail oneself of the many indoor activities that even an outdoor paradise like Interlaken has to offer. By all means, stroll through the Schlosskirche, tour the Rugenbräu Brewery and Distillery, and duck in and out of the many souvenir shops in town, but when you’re ready to really whoop it up, schedule a class at the Funky Chocolate Club. Here, instructors will teach you many interesting facts and figures about chocolate which you will instantly forget because…chocolate. I remember that it comes from trees and that people like it, but mostly I remember eating chocolate, playing with chocolate, eating chocolate, decorating chocolate, and eating chocolate. And while I am typically gullible anyway, when my instructor studiously explained that the way to tell if the temperature of my chocolate was correct was to put some on the end of my nose, I complied, while she giggled her way into some kind of apoplectic seizure that I was dumb enough to have fallen for her prank. There I stood, chocolate dripping from the end of my nose, grinning ear to ear, because…chocolate. Take plenty of pictures, because the chocolate never lasts.
Harder Kulm Evening
After a grueling day of canyoning, rafting, hiking, or chocolate-ing, it’s important to replenish your reserves by fortifying yourself with a good Swiss meal. And what are the most important things to think about when searching for the best cuisine? Location, location, location. That’s right, just like real estate, where you take in your Rösti mit Bratwurst may be just as important as the meal itself, especially when we’re talking about sunset at Harder Kulm. The short trip to this mini mountain retreat begins just steps from Interlaken Ost station as you board the Harderbahn funicular for a 10-minute ride up to the Panorama Restaurant, perched on a mountainside with views of the lakes as well as the famous Jungfraujoch peaks to the south. Grab a seat on the terrace and savor both the rich Swiss food and the spectacular views as they sink into purple twilight. On the ride down, your belly full and your brain a little tipsy from the alpine air, the lights of Interlaken wink on as if welcoming you back home.
All of this barely scratches the sparkling surface of the full Interlaken experience. Prepare yourself for the feeling of wanting more of everything this place has to offer and make a promise to come back for more. You’ll never be able to do it all, but you’ll create vibrant memories trying.
Have you spent time in Interlaken? What were your favorite thrills and experiences? Let us know in the comments below and subscribe so you don’t miss a thing.