Smack dab in the centre of Europe you’ll find Switzerland, a petite alpine nation that offers an endless array of unforgettable experiences: from chic cosmopolitan cities to postcard-perfect mountain villages, unforgettable folk songs accompanied by massive alphorn and choir of yodellers, and a diverse culinary scene showcasing the multilingual nation’s regional roots.
Last Fall I train-hopped through the country’s most popular Swiss-German destinations: the art mecca of Basel, gorgeous bridges which straddle Bern’s winding river, a rural retreat at the luxurious Chedi Andermatt, face to face with the Matterhorn in the iconic ski village of Zermatt, and nibbled on cheese and chocolate on the historic covered bridge in Lucerne.
This Spring I returned with an interest in tapping into Switzerland’s French side, embarking on a week-long train journey which would take me from the chic streets of glamorous Geneva to the picturesque alpine cow farms in cheese-loving Gruyere.
Exploring Switzerland’s French Side
Ritz Carlton Hotel de la Paix
Craft cocktail fans looking to enjoy an inspired sip while loitering in luxury should perch on a comfy couch at the recently renovated Ritz-Carlton Hotel de la Paix. The hotel’s chic bar offers guests pretty views of Lake Geneva while talented mixologists shake up perfectly balanced libations such as aquavit, dolin and lime spiked Oyster Foam, and Chambord, hibiscus and lemon muddled Love Me More.
Brasserie du Virage
In the majority of Switzerland beer lovers are happy to slurp back traditional old school lagers. The flavourful brews that have developed through North America’s craft beer movement are just starting to please palates here. One of the most innovative of Switzerland’s craft breweries is Brasserie du Virage, located a short drive outside of Geneva at the Distillery of Saconnex-d’Arve. The brewery has fantastic branding…I mean who doesn’t love sipping a pink unicorn adorned IPA Session? You can visit the brewery in person and grab a few bottles from their retail shop, or simply head to one of Geneva’s hipster bars or restaurants and sip yourself silly.
Brasserie de Montbenon
Located in a historic 1908 building graced with an 8-meter sky-high ceiling and offering breathtaking views over Lake Geneva, Brasserie de Montbenon is a restaurant devoted to classic, high quality French-Swiss cooking. The menu celebrates local culinary highlights from Vaud Canton with signature dishes including oozing cheese and ham stuffed Chicken Cordon Bleu and a puff pastry topped bowl of field mushrooms swimming in rich cream. The place gets packed so be sure to call ahead and make a reservation for a table that overlooks the fountain and gardens. If you’re thirsty I suggest taking a break from Swiss beer and wine to indulge in an ice cold bottle of locally produced cider.
Since first opening its doors in 1915, Lausanne Palace has been one of the Swiss city’s social hubs, providing a meeting place for well-heeled locals and an escape for luxury travellers. If you’re looking to enjoy an afternoon of rest and relaxation, spend a few hours at the hotel’s large Ayurveda spa featuring a maze of pools, saunas, hammams and a state-of-the-art fitness facility. Skip past the hot tub and step outside on a sunny day and you’ll find a lush terrace garden offering beautiful views of Lake Geneva and the snow-capped Alps.
At the heart of Lausanne’s old town you’ll find one of Switzerland’s most famous religious icons. The majestic Lausanne Cathedral sits perched over the city and is considered one of the most beautiful gothic art monuments in Europe, attracting more than 400,000 visitors each year. Constructed from 1165 onwards but not consecrated until 1275, it has one of the finest stained-glass windows in Europe and is home to the biggest musical instrument in Switzerland, a jaw-dropping organ. Fans of quirky traditions take note: every night a watchman announces the time every hour from 10pm to 2am in the morning from the top of a tower.
The Olympic Museum
Lausanne is the headquarters for the International Olympic Committee (the president lives at the Lausanne Palace, so chic). It also plays home to The Olympic Museum, which stands perched over the shores of Lake Geneva. Spread over 3,000 sqm, The Olympic Museum is organized into three themes, which are spread out onto three floors: Olympic World, Olympic Games, and Olympic Spirit. Visitors have an opportunity to learn about the history of the Olympics (from it’s Greek origins to present day Summer and Winter iterations), and explore the fashion, architecture, design, merchandising, and innovations in sports training that make the Olympics the worlds most globally recognized celebration.
Collection de L’art Brut
Switzerland’s most visited castle, Chateau Chillon, is a jaw-dropping fairy tale attraction located just outside of Montreux. The castle is uniquely located on a petite island on Lake Geneva, surrounded by water and filled with period pieces such as ancient chests, hand-carved chairs, and fading frescoes. Chillon began as a Roman outpost, guarding the strategic road through the Alpine passes. Today, visitors can step back in time while strolling through the castle’s nooks and crannies which include a grand bedroom, hall, dungeon, bedrooms, courtyards and illuminated chapel (pictured here) that features a wooden limewood statue of Saint George slaying his dragon. Be sure to pop into the Camera domini (the castle’s oldest bedroom), which was once occupied by the Duke of Savoy – and is decorated in 14th Century medieval murals.
Domaine Close du Boux
Head west from Montreux and you’ll find yourself skipping through lovely Lavaux, one of Switzerland’s most picturesque wine regions. Located on the rolling hills of UNESCO World Heritage Site Epesses, Domaine Clos du Boux is a fifth generation winemaking family who specialize in producing award-winning bottles crafted with the celebrated white wine grape, Chasselas. The Clos du Boux mansion was built in 1649 by Bernese noblemen and today plays home to the winery’s intimate tasting room. Enjoy a splash or two of wine while taking in the awesome views at the winery’s al fresco terrace then march through the historic village in search of another bottle worth popping.
One of Switzerland’s newest attractions, Chaplin’s World, is located a short drive from Montreux at the famous comedian/actors Swiss abode. Guests begin their journey by watching a short film that showcases Chaplin’s most memorable movie moments. You can hear movie buffs audibly gasp as the theatre’s back wall falls away, revealing a maze of thematic rooms filled with life-like waxed figures which offer an homage to each of Chaplin’s iconic films. Afterwards stroll through the property’s gardens before skipping through the Manoir. It’s here you can step back in time to see how Chaplin lived with his family in his new Swiss home sweet home.
If you’re a cheese lover dreaming of a weekend away in Gruyere be sure to book yourself a homestay with a local cheese farm family. The charming Swiss-chalet styled B&B Le Ferme du Bourgoz has been open to visitors for over 17 years, offering three quaint and comfortable rooms with swoon-worthy views overlooking Gruyere Castle. Owned by 5th generation cheese farmers Jacques and Eliane Murith, guests are treated each morning to a locally inspired breakfast featuring orange juice, coffee, fresh bread, homemade jam, and the family’s own Gruyère d’Alpage AOP.
After enjoying an early morning breakfast teaming with cheese fight the fat by enjoying a leisurely hike up to Gruyere’s historic medieval village. It’s here you’ll find a petite square with frothing fountain, a handful of boutique hotels, gift shops, and sun-soaked patios.
At the end of the road you’ll find the imposing Gruyere Castle, which dates back to the 13th century, and today is a museum depicting 800 years of regional architecture, history and culture. Inside the castle you’ll find endless rooms decorated in period furniture, art, and elegant halls covered in finely painted frescos. Be sure to skip onto the chateau’s spacious balcony and you’ll enjoy jaw-dropping views of the stunning castle garden, beautifully juxtaposed against the lush green farm-scape beyond its ancient walls.
Chalet de Gruyeres
No trip to Gruyere is complete without the ultimate indulgence, a decadent Swiss fondue feast. Grab a seat at Chalet de Gruyeres, the local experts on all things molten cheese, and fork your way through a divine dinner, best accompanied by a bottle of cool white wine.
If you’ve traveled Switzerland extensively you’ll notice that fondue’s recipe varies depending on where you are in the country. Local cheeses are substituted wherever you are and each community seems to have a patriotic opinion on who does it best. In North America we’ve been taught that cheese fondue is equal parts Gruyere and Emmental, but locals in the country’s cheese capital scoff at the idea (they say Emmental is too stringy and rubbery).
I think it’s safe to say that Gruyere has perfected the fondue tradition, serving up a sublimely creamy rendition they call Fondue Moitié-Moitié (half and half) featuring a perfect balance of alpine aged Gruyere with creamy Vacherin Fribourgeois.
It should be no shock that one of Switzerland’s most visited attractions is a chocolate factory. Fans of Willy Wonka will be jumping for joy at the state-of-the-art multi-sensory experience at Maison Cailler in Broc. Give yourself 90 minutes to enjoy the self guided tour, which begins with a hilarious Disneyland-style history of how the Swiss became so famous for their chocolatiers. You’ll then enjoy a hands-on zone where you can sniff, touch and taste the high quality ingredients used at Switzerland’s oldest chocolate factory (vanilla, cocoa, hazelnuts and almonds). Skip through the chocolate factory and watch as pralines are prepared from tiny logs to freshly wrapped confections. At the end of the tour guests loiter in luxury in an all-you-can-eat chocolate tasting room.
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