In December 2019 I was lucky enough to be selected as one of seven agents to go on a beautiful Switzerland trip with Rail Europe, enjoying the Christmas Markets, the amazing train network, and a host of other activities along the way.
The first stop on our holiday was the beautiful city of Zurich, which is the largest city in Switzerland. Set on Lake Zurich, it is lined with parks and promenades, and in summer you will find locals swimming in the pristine water. The city also has the most amazing architecture, as well as some of the most gorgeous Christmas markets that you will find in Europe. I was enchanted by the “Wienachtsdorf” (the main Christmas market) in front of the Opera House, a stone’s throw from the hotel I was staying in, the Opera Hotel Zurich. There you could find “glühwein”, fondue, Christmas presents for loved ones, and traditional and not-so-traditional decorations for your tree. I was also lucky enough to enjoy a walking tour of Zurich (pack comfortable shoes and be ready for some very steep hills), which showed off some of the beautiful views of Old Zurich from great vantage points around the city. One of my highlights was the Fraumünster, with breathtaking Chagall windows, which is a must visit on any trip to Zurich.
The next stop on the trip was Lucerne, a short 45-minute train ride away. Switzerland’s public transport network and travel system is world renowned as one of the best; and I would absolutely agree with this sentiment. The connections are seamless, and your Swiss Travel Pass (available from Rail Europe) allows you to travel on trains, trams, buses and ferries easily, as well as offering discounts and free entry into many of the top attractions in Switzerland. Lucerne is the home of Mount Pilatus, a fantastic family friendly day trip, with jungle gyms and outdoor activities for children and adults alike, including a ropes course, hiking trails, picnic areas and winter snow sports when the weather is right. There is also the opportunity to stay on Mount Pilatus, in a tree tent in summer, or if you prefer your creature comforts, then there is also a full service hotel on top of the mountain.
The following day, I caught the Interlaken Express to - you guessed it, Interlaken. In winter this is a sleepy little resort town, with a famous drawcard – Jungfraujoch, The Top of Europe. As the highest railway station in Europe, 3,545 metres above sea level, there is snow all year round and a plethora of activities for the young and young-at-heart. Being December, it was cold; minus 4 degrees to be exact and there was some serious wind chill factor, so if you are heading up there then make sure you rug up! We visited the Sphinx terrace, the Ice Palace and my favorite place Lindt Swiss Chocolate Heaven.
Our action-packed day at The Top of Europe meant the next day we needed some recovery time, and this was spent on the panoramic train on the Golden Pass Line (seat reservations are compulsory for scenic trains and can be made through Rail Europe). The scenery was breathtaking as we wound our way up and down mountains and through valleys to arrive at our next destination, Montreux. Being a French speaker, I am biased and fell in love with Montreux on sight, but there is so much to endear the region to any traveller. Great wine, castles, amazing food, and some very famous former residents (including Freddie Mercury and Charlie Chaplin to name a few), as well as one of the biggest Christmas Markets I have ever seen, which makes for a simply spectacular place to spend a few days.
Chillion Castle was an unexpected surprise. It is located on a rocky island off the shore and the image drew me back in time. We had a guided audio tour around the castle and spectacular views of the surrounding countryside from the towers. This tour is not for the faint hearted as there are some 400 plus stairs to get to the top of the tower! After all that climbing I was in desperate need of dinner, and found myself indulging in some fondue at the local Christmas market.
Unknown to me, Charlie Chaplin spent the last 20 years of his life not too far from Montreux in Corsier-sur-Vevy, and his house has been restored to its former glory to when he and his wife Oona lived there. ‘Chaplin’s World’ is a fantastic interactive museum, dedicated to the man himself, from his film and artistic work, to his home life and later years in Switzerland as an exile, and even if you know nothing of his films or life, I recommend paying ‘Chaplin’s World’ a visit.
Sadly, my time in Montreux came to an end, and I headed off to Basel. As one of the closest border cities to France and Germany, you can visit all three countries in one day. While Basel is mainly a city for commencing or finishing a river cruise, there is a host of museums, as well as a rich history that the residents of Basel are extremely proud of. In addition to this, I was also able to make my own chocolate, and visit my final Christmas markets.
While the trip was short and sweet, it was a magical experience, which allowed me to see and experience a country I had not been lucky enough to go to before now. The public transportation system blew me away with its efficiency and scope and Rail Europe makes it incredibly easy and can give fantastic advice regarding itineraries in Switzerland. The history and architecture of many of the cities is awe-inspiring, as is the stunning scenery that you see passing you by as you travel around on the train network. I found the hotel to hotel luggage service to be invaluable (I definitely did not miss lugging my suitcase on and off trains) and would suggest this to anyone who is planning on travelling to Switzerland.