Come summer, Switzerland’s daunting, snowy peaks open up into lush valleys filled with herbs and flowers. Cities empty out on weekends and everyone heads to the mountains. Whether they’re returning to an ancestral village or looking for fondue with a view, almost all will spend hours exploring the mountains by foot.
Hiking is a serious affair in Switzerland. So much so that on the country’s 700th birthday, the government marked the occasion by creating a 35-kilometre trail that covers some of the land’s most important historical sites. Joining the Swiss for what they consider a near sacred ritual is the best way to get to know the country – and its exceptionally fit people. But you don’t need to devote your entire holiday to it. Here are five of the best places to enjoy this strenuous worship in just an afternoon, all within a few hours reach of every major Swiss city.
Kandersteg to Oeschinen Lake (1 to 2 hours)
Often said to be the most beautiful lake in the Alps, Oeschinen Lake sits in a rocky valley hemmed in by snow-peaked mountains in the Bernese Oberland. Arriving in the village of Kandersteg, the hour-long hike to the lake climbs gently through pine forests before revealing a more barren landscape descending into the crystal-clear water . (A newly built cable car cuts down the walk significantly if you’re short on time and energy.) In summer, Oeschinen Lake is warm enough to swim and the surrounding green slopes make it a picturesque setting for a picnic. The dramatic scenery has even landed it on UNESCO’s World Heritage list.
Awesome extra: There is no need to feel ashamed as the only adult sliding down the mountain on a summer toboggan run found next to the top of the cable-car station. oeschinensee.ch/english
Griesalp to Gamchi glacier (2 hours)
Not far from Oeschinen Lake is the Gamchi, a nearly two-kilometre-square glacier that spills down the mountain valley like a blackened tongue. The route to it starts in the quaint town of Reichenbach im Kandertal near Interlaken. From there, a short postal-truck/bus ride – the steepest and, I’d wager, most winding in Europe – runs to the town of Griesalp. (The driver usually provides a running commentary about the region and its legends, albeit in Swiss German.) The trip may leave you dizzied but the hour-long walk through the lush Kien Valley in the shadow of the Hundshorn peak is a perfect place to recover. At the end you’ll find the impressive glacier (which can be walked on without crampons) and its soaring cave. Forgot to pack lunch? Try the nearby Baren Hotel in Kiental, which does relatively inexpensive Swiss classics such as fondue. The tiny hotel became famous after Lenin stayed here with his mistress during the 1916 International Socialist Conference.
Awesome extra: Built in the 13th century to guard the mountain pass into the canton of Valais, the ruins of Mulenen Castle and the Letzi Mulenen wall are national heritage sites that help you imagine life in medieval Switzerland.
Pizol’s Five Lakes (4 to 5 hours)
In eastern Switzerland, the trek around Pizol mountain’s five lakes is extraordinary for its variety of landscapes. The walk from Pizolhutte to Gaffia takes about five hours. Each of the five lakes – Wangen, Wildsee, Schottensee, Schwarzsee and Baschalvasee – each boast a remarkably different colour, created by their varied origins, locations and mineral content. The hike above the tree line can be arduous, so ignore the uber-fit Swiss seniors who will likely pass by (if you want to be polite a simple, “Gruezi” – the Swiss German “hello” – will do) and focus instead on the immense beauty in front of you. A picnic of regional specialties such as bindenfleisch (cured beef sliced thin) and Appenzeller cheese while sitting near Schottensee will confirm why Switzerland is the envy of the world.
Awesome extra: In Bad Ragaz, near Pizol, is Tamina Therme – a luxurious spa that is home to a thermal indoor swimming pool (it was the first in Europe). You’d be hard-pressed to find a better way to relax after a tough hike.
The Eiger Trail (2 to 5 hours)
The Eiger Trail is one of the most famous and jaw-dropping Alpine day hikes. The trail brings hikers close to the north face of the Eiger (the Ogre in English) and its famous neighbouring peaks, Monch (the Monk) and Jungfrau (the Maiden). Together, the three form an imposing mountain wall separating the Swiss cantons of Bern and Valais. The journey begins in Grindelwald, an iconic town where scenes from the James Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service were shot. (It’s also the setting of the memorable Amazing Race cheese-sled challenge.) A small railway takes you to the hamlet Alpiglen, from where the six-kilometre hike begins. (You can also take the railway all the way to Eigergletscher and walk back down.) The view of the sheer cliffs on one side and the rolling valleys below is breathtaking. On good weather days, its not uncommon to see climbers dangling from the limestone rock far above. The hike up is a challenge, but you’re rewarded with Eigergletscher’s mountain restaurant, which offers up traditional dishes such as like croute de fromage, as well as eigerspitzli, a praline chocolate delicacy that is made on-site at what claims to be Europe’s highest-altitude confectionery .
Awesome extra: Onkel Tom’s Hutte, a cozy pizza place in Grindelwald, comes highly recommended by locals. Hauptstrasse, close to the cable car station, Grindelwald
Interlaken to Harderkulm (3 to 4 hours)
Beginning in Interlaken, Switzerland’s most popular town for outdoor adventure, this steep hike offers a big finale: an excellent restaurant and stunning views of the Bernese Oberland . The trail begins down a little driveway of a wooden cottage and rises quickly through fields and pine-filled woods. Though you never climb higher than the tree line (1,800 metres), the forest opens up at points for views of the famous Jungfrau, Monch and Eiger peaks. The summit is the real draw: Two Lakes Bridge, a vantage platform built in 2011, offers a magnificent vista encompassing Lake Thun and Lake Brienz. After admiring the landscape, tuck into an Oberlander rosti along with a bubbly bottle of Swiss cider on the restaurant’s sprawling patio.
Awesome extra: Interlaken is the capital of adventure sports in Europe. Hang-gliding, skydiving and paragliding outfits abound and most activities can be done in just a few hours. interlaken.ch