Text and images by Jeff and Stephanie Sylva
From majestic alpine scenes and pristine lakes to picturesque medieval towns, Switzerland is a beautiful European country that offers much more than just its famed skiing. A culturally diverse nation, Switzerland is influenced by a number of surrounding countries. Three languages – German, French, and Italian – are spoken in various regions of the country.
We decided to tour Switzerland with Gate 1 Travel on its 10-Day Classic Switzerland with the Glacier Express tour. The tour included a perfect blend of nature and culture. Spending a few days in the Alps, we got to check off one of our bucket list sights – the majestic Matterhorn. We also got to experience the history and charm of cities like Geneva, Zurich, St. Moritz, Lucerne, and Zermatt.
The first of Switzerland’s Old Towns – Zurich
Our tour began in Zurich, Switzerland’s major finance center and largest city where German is the predominate language. Zurich’s charm is its “Old Town”, the historic heart of the city. Our Gate 1 Tour Manager, Beatrice, conducted a short walking orientation of Old Town providing interesting facts and details. We then had some “free time” to explore a little on our own. This orientation/free time approach was done in all of our destinations.
Lining both sides of the Limmat River and the shoreline of Lake Zurich is an inviting mix of small traditional stores and creative boutiques, together with inviting restaurants and sidewalk cafes. Enjoy a river or lake cruise; explore some of the iconic churches; or just wander the pedestrianized streets and soak in the history. Old Town encompasses what was the entire city before 1893.
Geneva – Switzerland’s most cosmopolitan city
Our next destination was Geneva, another lakeside city. The landlocked country boasts more than 1,500 lakes, from small alpine lakes to grand bodies of water known worldwide. Fed by the snowmelt of the surrounding Alps, these crystal clear lakes offer post-card worthy views, charming village scenes, and numerous recreation opportunities.
Geneva is Switzerland’s most cosmopolitan city and where the headquarters of the European United Nations and the Red Cross are based. Our tour took us by the UN and Red Cross campuses and then we drove to some of the city’s top attractions – the Reformation Wall and The Horloge Fleuri, the large flower clock in the “Jardin Anglais” (English Garden). French is the primary language here. An optional Gate 1 excursion was a cruise on Lake Geneva to the small medieval French village of Yvoire.
Gate 1 Travel does its best to make travel-day lunch stops more than just food and restroom stops. On our way to Geneva we stopped in Bern, Geneva’s capital city. Bern’s Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage site, boasts wonderful Renaissance architecture. The Zytglogge is a landmark medieval tower in Bern, Switzerland. Built in the early 13th century, it has served the city as a guard tower, prison, clock tower, center of urban life, and civic memorial.
Our travel day from Geneva to Zermatt also included a wonderful stop in the lakeside town of Montreux. Known as the “Swiss Riviera,” Montreux is home to the medieval Chillon Castle. A tour of the castle by a local guide is included with the Gate 1 tour. Our last travel day – to Lucerne – included another pleasant lunch stop in the Principality of Liechtenstein nestled in the heart of the Alps. These planned stops provided wonderful interludes to the bus rides.
The home of The Matterhorn
Our favorite Swiss destination was situated at the foot of the “world’s most beautiful mountain.” This may be what Zermatt Tourism says about The Matterhorn, but we are not ones to argue this opinion. The Matterhorn’s landscape is a unique natural spectacle in Zermatt looming over the breathtaking Alpine panorama. This Switzerland landmark – certainly the most famous mountain in Europe – offers a paradise for all nature-lovers looking for peace and quiet. Its symmetric pyramid shape – a rocky tooth reaching into the sky – presents an indelible image. One we will not soon forget.
The car-free village of Zermatt packs a lot into a small area. A variety of shops, cafés, bars and hotel lounges offer plenty of excitement. A number of the houses in the village are fairytale Swiss chalets dating back more than 500 years. Our Tour Manager gave an informative walking tour of the town providing various details of the different ways to see The Matterhorn up close.
One experience that we suggest you don’t miss is the 33-minute cog railway ride from Zermatt to Gornergrat. At 10,000 feet of elevation we were surrounded by the stunning alpine world surrounding Zermatt. And, of course, outstanding views of the 14,691-foot high Matterhorn.
At Gornergrat we had an amazing 360-degree view of an alpine wonderland of 29 mountain peaks topping 13,000 feet. After experiencing the breathtaking views from the many platforms and terraces, we toasted our trip to this alpine splendor with a glass of wine on the outside terrace of the Kulmhotel Gornergrat. A perfect ending to a spectacular experience.
St. Moritz – glamor, sports, and nature
Our next stop was another ski town – the alpine playground for the rich and famous – St. Moritz. Birthplace of alpine winter tourism in 1864, St. Moritz has hosted two Winter Olympics (1928 and 1948). Today the village attracts guests from all over the world to revel in the modern Alpine lifestyle. We started our day with “Buongiorno,” as Italian is the predominant language. We enjoyed a delightful walk around Lake St. Moritz which offered wonderful views of the town and the surrounding mountains. An optional excursion offered here was a lovely carriage ride through the Val Roseg, a beautiful country valley.
The importance of an experienced tour manager and the support of a travel company like Gate 1 became evident when our tour experienced a significant interruption in the itinerary. Originally our journey from Zermatt to St. Moritz was to ride on the Glacier Express, considered one of the most scenic train rides in the world. However, the train could not complete the journey to St. Moritz because of rock slides. Beatrice and Gate 1 took no time in arranging to have the tour’s bus return from its trip to St. Moritz, and we completed the trip to St. Moritz by bus. The trip by bus – although not by the famed Glacier Express – was still breathtaking!
Switzerland’s most picturesque city
The city many consider to be Switzerland’s prettiest, Lucerne, was our final destination. Like Zurich and Geneva, Lucerne has a charming historic Old Town with buildings dating back to the 15th century. Our hotel was located on Lake Lucerne, and just a 15-minute stroll on the lakeside path brought us to Chapel Bridge and the city’s Old Town. The covered wooden footbridge has the distinction of being the world’s oldest wooden bridge dating back to the 14th century. Our Tour Manager again provided an informative orientation of the city, and its top attractions including the moving Lion Monument, the Chapel and Spreuer Bridges, and Old Town. And like Zurich, German is spoken throughout the city.
Another alpine experience we recommend is the optional excursion to the top of Mt. Pilatus, which is located just minutes from Lucerne. One way to the top of the 6,800-foot peak is by cog railway. With a maximum 48-degree gradient, it is the steepest cog railway in the world. In addition to wonderful views of the Alps in the distance, the views of Lake Lucerne and the city of Lucerne are outstanding.
Why a tour with Gate 1?
We decided to travel with Gate 1 after so many of our friends strongly recommended their tours. Founded in 1981, Gate 1 Travel has 42 years of experience offering escorted tours at affordable prices. Its slogan is “More of the World for Less.” Having conducted thousands of tours across 7 continents, including escorted tours, river cruises, small group tours, walking tours, and independent travel packages, Gate 1 maintains easy-to-reach information service offices in many major destination cities with round-the-clock support for travelers. Hotel accommodations are 4 or 5 star rated. At our introductory dinner on our first night in Zurich, we learned that of the 27 passengers on the tour, 23 of them were return customers – a testimony to the popularity of Gate 1 tours.
Gate 1 prides itself on their expert tour managers. Our tour manager was very knowledgeable, friendly, and helpful. In addition to providing a wealth of information about the history and culture of the cities and attractions that we visited, Beatrice also offered essential and practical daily tidbits. All of her restaurant suggestions were spot on. We felt the pace and structure of our tour was a perfect balance of group orientation and touring with ample opportunity to explore and experience on our own.