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Ten free things to do in Switzerland

April 20, 2011, 13 Comments

Free lunches are as hard to find in Switzerland as anywhere else. You might even think that there is nothing that’s free in the land of luxury, but you’d be wrong. Despite this country’s reputation for being über-expensive, actually some of the best things in Switzerland are free. As in, they are gratis. So here are my top ten things that you can see, do and enjoy in Switzerland for free. Enjoying a slice of Swiss life needn’t cost the earth; it can be had for nothing.

  • Parliament. The imposing Federal Parliament, or Bundeshaus, in Bern isn’t just a talking shop; it’s a great example of Swiss nationalistic architecture. I loved the free guided tour, which was full of super anecdotes and trivia. Tours are in a variety of languages, and you must bring a picture ID to get in, but they only happen when parliament is not in session.
  • Scenery. OK, so technically it’s hard to appreciate the splendour of the Swiss countryside without spending a bit of money – it’s not as if you’re going to walk to mountains from Basel (although some Swiss might!). But at least once you get there, it’s all free: no National Park entry fees. Why not start off with any or all of these seven natural wonders of Switzerland?
  • Cheese. When I was researching Swiss Watching, one of my favourite experiences was visiting the cheesery in Affoltern, in the heart of the Emmental. You can watch the cheese being made in all its stages – the huge metal vats, the brine baths, the store rooms – all with an audio guide. And all for free. Then in the shop, there are plenty of types to try. A nibble here, a taste there, and maybe even buy some. I couldn’t resist.
  • Old towns. Thanks to having absented themselves from annoying things like two world wars, the Swiss have managed to keep their historic towns intact. From the biggest cities down, almost every Swiss urban area has a beautiful medieval old town at its core, while some whole towns are pure gems in themselves, eg Murten and Stein am Rhein.
  • Walking. What better way to enjoy Switzerland than go off for an eight-hour hike through the mountains. Or, if you’re vaguely sane and/or a foreigner, go on a more leisurely two-hour stroll somewhere pretty. This could be up high, such as these three walks in the Bernese Oberland, but could easily be the lakeside amble from Montreux to Chateau de Chillon. Lovely in spring with miles of flowers in bloom.
  • Omega Museum. If you like anything horological, then make a bee-line for Biel/Bienne: it’s rather like the mothership calling you home. Omega has been making watches here for decades, and its museum shows the whole timeline. The first fake and the first one on the moon, plus James Bond and the Olympics. Fascinating stuff, even for non-watch freaks.
  • Cathedrals. From the austere grandeur of Lausanne’s to the OTT riot of stucco inside St Gallen’s, Switzerland has some outstanding religious monuments, none of which you pay to go into. No trip to Zurich is complete without seeing Chagall’s magical windows in the Fraumünster, no visit to Bern over until you’ve admired the intricate West portal.
  • Maison Tavel. Tucked away in the old town near Geneva’s huge cathedral (also free) is this engrossing history museum. It’s spread over many floors of a splendid 14th century house, the oldest one in the city. My favourite bits: the coin collection and the vast wooden 3D model of Geneva in 1850, when it still had extensive fortifications.
  • Water. Centuries-old fountains spurting out cold, crystal-clear water straight from the Alps: almost everywhere in Switzerland has public drinking fountains in the street, and most of them are sights in themselves. In Bern, we have blind justice, a bear in armour and a baby-eating ogre among the many beautiful, colourful fountains. Just bring an empty bottle and fill up.
  • Spyri Museum. It’s only open for two hours on Sunday afternoons, so is probably one of the least-visited museums in Switzerland. But if you want to know anything about Johanna Spyri, creator of Heidi, then Hirzel in Canton Zurich is the place to go. The old schoolhouse in her birthplace has everything from sepia family photos to Heidi memorabilia through the ages. Small and sweet, just like Heidi herself.

After all that, if you’re still looking for something free in Switzerland, then all you have to do is go outside and take a deep breath. Fresh Swiss air: there’s plenty of it and it doesn’t cost a penny. Reason enough to love living here.

13 Comments on "Ten free things to do in Switzerland"

  1. Bruno Thursday April 21st, 2011 at 03:32 PM · Reply

    Hello!
    In the free super things you can do with Water:
    Swimming in the lake is free! And is fun! 🙂
    Tschüss!

    • swisswatching Thursday April 21st, 2011 at 03:36 PM · Reply

      Hi Bruno. Funnily enough that was in my original list because I love swimming in the Aare. But you wouldn’t really do it all year round!! At least I wouldn’t, so I cut it out. And in many places you have to pay to use the Strandbad (Zurich and Luzern especially) which really bugs me.

      • Fergus Miller Friday April 22nd, 2011 at 11:30 AM · Reply

        Hi Diccon,
        The Strandbad has cost’s to cover, there are many places in both Zürich & Luzern you can just jump in the lake free of charge, then sunbath on the grass beside them!
        Have a nice Easter
        Regards
        Fergus

  2. Ela Thursday April 21st, 2011 at 05:58 PM · Reply

    First of all I’d like to thank you for making me love my home country more and more! 🙂
    And then I have a little side note: Yes you have to pay for the Lido and Tribschen “Badis” in Lucerne but you can also just enjoy the “free” water (plus beautiful view of the mountains) at the Ufschötti. Although it’s “swim at your own risk”, which (as I have learnt during my time in England) might not be everyone’s cup of tea. 😉
    Liebi Grüess from a temporary expat 🙂

  3. Michael Tuesday April 26th, 2011 at 06:32 PM · Reply

    On the day I read this post, a tourist from India asked me about sightseeing in Berne (and Switzerland in general). He was very happy with the Parliament and the Omega Museum as suggestions 🙂

    • swisswatching Tuesday April 26th, 2011 at 07:30 PM · Reply

      Glad I could help! Of course there are other great sights, such as the Landesmuseum in Zurich and Chateau de Chillon in Montreux, but as you have to pay to get in, I didn’t include them. I’ll have to post againabout tose!

  4. Cedric Thursday May 5th, 2011 at 07:00 AM · Reply

    The Glasi Museum (http://www.glasi.ch) in Hergiswil (right next to Lucerne) is an amazing museum as well and you can visit it for free of course =)…

  5. Victor Thursday September 1st, 2011 at 08:52 PM · Reply

    Several of Zürich’s river badis are free – and even more fun than swimming in the lake

  6. Kyra Núñez Sunday October 16th, 2011 at 11:19 AM · Reply

    Listening to the church’s bells toll and the carrillon chimming specially in a Sunday morning… never mind Spring, Summer, Fall or Winter they go with the air to make you happy and, it is for free!

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