Even though this was my second time in Switzerland, it might as well be the first. Last time I was in Switzerland was about 15 years ago when I was seven years old. According to my mom, my sister and I kept saying that it was “the most beautiful country in the world,” but obviously I don’t remember much except that Switzerland was lush with greenery and really chilly during summertime.
15 years had passed and I had traveled to many other places since then. Unlike most people, I haven’t been having a strong desire to travel to Europe. Partly because I’ve traveled to some major European cities already, but mostly because it’s not as exotic as the new world.I’ve always found it more exciting to explore the Americas and visit places where you can only go when you’re young and reckless.
But since my sister, Bonnie, was doing an internship in Switzerland, I decided to grasp the chance to visit her and return to the country I loved so much as a kid. During this 10-day trip, we visited mostly the northern and central part of the country including Zurich, Lucerne, Interlaken, Grindelwald, Bern, and Lausanne and covered two different linguistic areas – Swiss German and French.
While Switzerland is amazingly beautiful with all the historical architecture, medieval castles, Swiss Alps, and crystal blue lakes, what impressed me the most is the diverse culture the country holds. It amazes me that such a small country needs four official languages and 26 different cantons to operate and I couldn’t wait to learn about its history and how they managed to be the only country that hasn’t been in a war since the 1800s despite such dissimilar backgrounds.
With its complex cultures, Switzerland can be a bit difficult to understand. But the best part of our trip is that our Swiss friends were very willing to show us around and teach us about Switzerland. You can read about the country’s history, geography, and places to visit, but the only way to learn about the culture is to talk and hang out with the locals. I learned so much more about Switzerland thanks to them and they made our trip very special.
Places We Visited
Arrival in Zurich
I flew in from Philadelphia to Zurich at 9 AM on Sunday morning. Bonnie was already waiting for me at the arrival hall so we kicked off our Switzerland trip right away. First I had to activate my Swiss Travel Pass at the tourist office in the train station. The Swiss Pass was a great investment as it lets us ride the trains, buses, and ferries for free and offers discounts to almost everything else – like cable cars, museum tickets, etc. It lets tourists travel to places that are otherwise really expensive for the Swiss people.
The Zurich Airport was only a 10-minute train ride to Zurich. All the major train stations offer lockers for luggage storage so people can put their luggage there.
We didn’t have much planned for Zurich besides walking around the old town and visit the Swiss National Museum, one of the biggest historical museums in Switzerland, as I believe that to understand a country, you have to know its history. I spent most of my time planning for the mountains and villages we were visiting because my father who goes to Switzerland several times a year for business, told me that rather than visiting the big cities in Switzerland, small towns can teach you more about the Swiss lifestyle and culture
I have been warned that Switzerland was experiencing an unprecedented heat wave but I didn’t think it was going to be that hot!
Mt. Rigi – The Queen of the Mountains
Mt. Pilatus and Mt. Rigi are the two most famous mountains in the Lucerne area. Hiking in the Swiss mountains was the thing I wanted to do the most as I had seen so many beautiful pictures. At first, I had a hard time deciding between Mt. Pilatus and Mt. Rigi because they both look spectacular. Mt. Pilatus offers a bit more variety of scenery as it is higher in altitude; however, Mt. Rigi has a couple of things that really attracted me. First, the cog railway on Mt. Rigi is the oldest in Europe and the second oldest in the world. Having been to the oldest one in Mount Washington, NH, I really wanted to add the second oldest cog railway to my collection as well! Second, compared with Mt. Pilatus, Mt. Rigi is lower in altitude and therefore less subject to bad weather. The view is pretty even on a cloudy day. And third, visiting Mt. Rigi is completely free with the Swiss Pass. You can ride the railway and cable cars for free, whereas Mt. Pilatus only offers discounted tickets.
There are a couple of ways to get to Mt. Rigi from Lucerne. You can take the ferry from Lucerne to Weggis and then take the cable car up the mountain, or if you have your mind set for the cog railway like us, you can take the ferry to Vitznau and exchange for the cog railway.
The Lucerne port was easy to find as we just walked towards the water from the Lucerne train station. With the Swiss Pass, we didn’t have to purchase additional ferry tickets at all. We simply boarded the ferry and showed our Swiss Pass to the ticketing people when they check for tickets. One thing to note is that with the Swiss Pass, we could only sit on the first floor of the ferry. Bonnie and I, along with many other tourists who thought we found a good seat on the second floor, were told that we had to move to the lower level by the ticketing person.
The ferry ride from Lucerne to Vitznau takes about one hour. The weather was a warm 77 degrees Fahrenheit and the breeze caressing our faces felt great. The ferry was crowded with tourist groups but we were lucky enough to find a spot facing Mt. Rigi to enjoy the great views.
Living in a landlocked country, Swiss people spend hot summer days swimming in lakes and relaxing on the lakeside where they call “public beaches.” It’s too bad that we didn’t get a chance to swim at a Swiss beach this time. I’d really like to try dipping in the freshwater and swim with the ducks and swans.
The one-hour ferry ride seemed fast because we were so busy taking pictures of the beautiful landscape and almost forgot to get off the ferry. Vitznau was the most popular stop because most tourists visiting Mt. Rigi got off here. We got off the ferry with the swarming crowd and immediately saw the red cog railway waiting at the Vitznau station.
Mt. Rigi actually has two different cog railways – the red train and the blue train. The red train departs from Vitznau and the blue train from Arth. They both climb up the mountain to Rigi Klum, the station on top of Mt. Rigi, but go through different routes so people can enjoy different scenery. We only took the red one because we had our plan to get off the cog railway in the middle of the mountain and hike to Rigi Klum on our own.
Again, the cog railway was full of tourists and their chatter permeated the car. I wasn’t too worried that the hiking trails would be crowded because judging from their attire, none of the other tourists look like they were there for hiking. I knew they were just going to the Rigi Klum and take some pictures and ride the cog down. As the cog railway started climbing the mountain at a steep incline of 45 degrees, we started seeing beautiful views of the Lake of Lucerne. All the chit-chat stopped and all we could hear was “wow…” and the sounds of camera shutters.
The beautiful ride got me really looking forward to the hike. Our plan was to follow the Rigi official website’s recommendation and get off the cog railway at the Romiti station and hike through First, Des Alpes, Staffel, and then to the peak, Rigi Klum. However, for some unknown reasons, the actual stops didn’t seem to match the stops indicated on our map and we either missed the Romiti station or there wasn’t one. In a panic, we decided to hop off at the next station – Rigi Kaltbald. Luckily, Rigi Kaltbald was only 200 meters above Romiti in altitude so we weren’t too far off from our plan. There were signs indicating where to go so we pretty much just followed the sign “Rigi Klum” during our hike.
The hike from Rigi Kaltbald to First started off easy with a gradual decline on paved roads under the shades. The temperature was perfect. We were so amazed by the beautiful mountain roads. Behind every turn we made lay a picturesque sight with cute homes with red rooftops amidst hilly slopes surrounded by trees, ranches, and cows.
This is where I first discovered “the sound of Switzerland.” During our hike, we could hear the constant ringing of the cow bells echoing through the mountains. Bonnie had already been in Switzerland for over a month so she was used to it. She told me that the shepherds put bells on the cows so they can know where they are and if you listen carefully, the bells sound differently for different herds. All of these was a new sight for me because in America you get acres and acres of land so people usually live and do farming on flat plains. But in Switzerland where it is so small and half of the country is covered with mountains, people really have to utilize the hills and share the land.
During the first half of our hike, we probably spent a little too much time taking pictures of the beautiful hills and looking at the adorable animals and didn’t account for the rising heat coming in the afternoon. We encountered a couple forks without a clear indication of where they lead to. We decided to deviate from the main trail for some exploration, but both times we had to turn back because the trails eventually end and lead to private homes. The small roads lead us to some amazing scenes we wouldn’t have seen taking just the main trails but it also drained our energy going back and forth the same routes under the hot weather. We were both pretty tired during the last hour of our hike, but I’m glad we got to explore some wilderness at Mt. Rigi.
Compared to some hikes we did later in Grindelwald, I feel like the hiking trails and signs at Mt. Rigi weren’t as clearly marked as those in the Grindelwald area. At Grindelwald, there were painted marks on rocks all the time so people don’t get lost, but there didn’t seem to be any at Mt. Rigi. I had to be really cautious not to get lost when we explored the smaller trails. Luckily I was with Bonnie, who has a built-in GPS in her mind and I never have to worry about getting lost with her!
Two hours went by and Bonnie and I had been muted for a while now. The temperature had heated up to about 82 degrees and it felt like there were just endless uphill in front of us. The terrain wasn’t difficult to hike but the boiling heat made the hike more challenging than it actually was. My mind was shut down to focus on taking one step after another. Despite being drenched in sweat and dehydrated, I really loved the feeling of having the mountain to ourselves as we were pretty much the only people hiking that day.
More people came in sight as we approached Rigi Staffel, the cog railway station right before Rigi Klum. From Rigi Staffle to Rigi Klum is only a 30-minute hike so many people get off the train from here and walk to the peak. The last stretch of the hike was a scenic trail overlooking the Lake of Lucerne but people who started the hike from here didn’t know how much more splendid scenes they had missed.
As we kept walking a red tower and Swiss flag came into sight and we knew we had made it to the Klum! The view from the peak was spectacular with the interweaving lakes and lands.
It is so much more rewarding when you actually hike the mountain and sweat for the gorgeous views and I will forever remember the struggle, the beauty of the mountain, and how great water tasted after the hike for years to come.