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Italian lakes, Switzerland, Alsace itinerary

I’m dreaming of our next trip and would love your input. This is what I’m thinking: Three weeks starting in mid-June due to school schedules. Flying from the west coast. Two adults, two teens. We love small villages, mountains, forests, castles, history. We’ve travelled extensively throughout Europe. We prefer to drive for the flexibility, and know there could be high drop off fees with renting in one country and returning in another. We would have to weigh this against the hassle of picking up/dropping off three separate cars and taking the train between countries. We like to have a home base at a house or apartment and day trip if it makes sense. Prefer 3 night minimum per stop.

I’m thinking of starting with the northern Italian lakes/Dolomites. We’ve been to Lake Como. Lake Garda looks beautiful. Also interested in some lakes in the Dolomites. Then train to Switzerland - but from where? Milan? Bolzano?

In Switzerland, Lauterbrunnen and Grindelwald call to me. We’re not really into big cities. Any other great villages in Switzerland to see? Spectacular drives?

We would then continue to the Alsace region (by train?) to visit family history sites near Colmar.

For the return flight, we’d travel by train probably from Strasbourg to either Paris or Frankfurt. I’m leaning toward Frankfurt, just because we’ve been to Paris 3 times but have never been to Frankfurt. We’d arrive a day before our return flight.

I‘d love to hear about any recommendations you have for must-see places in these areas. Also, any tips on travel between the countries? How would you allocate 19 days (not including arrival and departure days) to these three regions?

Posted by
18906 posts

For finding spectacular drives you can use ViaMichelin.com. Ask for the route between two of your stops, zoom way in, and you'll see the most scenic roads marked in green. For what you're planning, I'd want the appropriate paper highway maps. I don't think Michelin is the only company that flags scenic roads, but not all maps will have them indicated. I'm sure other posters will be able to make some specific suggestions to you. I've never driven in Switzerland (trains are extremely frequent and there's no risk of having an accident while ogling the scenery), so my experience with travel by road is limited. I have taken the postbus from Locarno up the Valle Verzasca more than once and found it a very nice ride.

There are many, many tunnels in Switzerland; some are quite long. Be sure you know how to spot them on the maps you use so you can avoid them if you want to.

Switzerland is so gorgeous that some guidebooks don't attempt to say which places are the very most scenic. One book I used back in the 1970s came right out and said there was only one rather plain city in the entire country. (It may have been La Chaux de Fonds, but I'm not sure.) Some of the picturesque high-mountain villages are not accessible by road, so if you want to see them you'll need to park the car and use the provided public transportation (lift, cogwheel train, etc.)

You'll need to figure out your last stop in Italy and your first stop in Switzerland to determine the easiest rail route (which might or might not be the most scenic). Just use the Deutsche Bahn website, specifying your starting and ending points, and it will list the most efficient train connections. Click on "Show details" to see each travel segment and necessary connections. Then, if you're interested in all the stops the train makes along the way, click on "Show intermediate stops".

Avoiding rail routes that spend a lot of time in tunnels (no scenery there) will mean longer trips. The Bernina Express line is considered by many to be the most beautiful in Switzerland, which makes it one of the most beautiful in the world. It runs from Tirano, Italy, to St. Moritz and Chur in Switzerland. The Seat61 website, which is chock-full of information on train travel in Europe and elsewhere, has an extensive section on the Bernina Express. It even tells you how you can buy tickets very cheaply through the Deutsche Bahn if you're in a position to buy well ahead of time.

The rail line running north from Bolzano goes to Austria, though you certainly could travel that way. You'd need to change trains in Innsbruck to get to Switzerland, and many departures require more than one connection. A tip from my 2015 ride along the Bolzano-Innsbruck route: There was no food available at the small Brenner train station except for what one could get out of a vending machine. I wished I had bought something before leaving Bolzano.

I don't know anything about lakes in the Dolomites. If I zoom way in on Google Maps I see some blue splotches, but I think they are rather small lakes and probably not like Como, Lugano, Maggiore, etc. I wouldn't expect boat service, for exampe (but I could be wrong).

Posted by
25766 posts

Lauterbrunnen and Grimelwald call to me

Looks like a typo or conflation of two names here. They are quite similar names but significantly different places.

Grindelwald is at valley level, the next valley over from Lauterbrunnen valley, both served by the same train from Interlaken Ost so be sure to board the part of the train that actually goes to your destination. It says in big illuminated letters on the doors, and in the overhead signs. Grindelwald allows cars, buses and trucks, so is popular with the bus tours which didn't choose Interlaken. Because cars are allowed you have parking choices. It faces the Eiger, and trains and cable cars go up into the mountains. All the usual town amenities are available.

Gimmelwald is smaller than a village, at the junction of a couple of trails and a cable car station, on a ledge over the Lauterbrunnen valley just over and down a bit from Mürren. Reached by parking (or train) in Lauterbrunnen, then across the street to the cable car and train up to Mürren and walk down to Gimmelwald or walk across Mürren and take the cable car one stop to Gimmelwald. Or from the car park or station in Lauterbrunnen take a Postbus to Stechelberg (or drive and park in the open car park at the foot of the cable car) and take the cable car one stop to Gimmelwald. That cable car is the one up to Schilthorn, which calls at Gimmelwald, Mürren, and Schilthorn. At each station you get out of the vehicle and walk over to the next one which is waiting, get on that until the next station and go from one to the next again.

There are a couple of B&Bs, a Youth Hostel, and a somewhat rickety hotel. No shops, no restaurants. You can eat at the hotel or Youth Hostel (the view while eating Raclette or pizza is sublime). Some of the farmers sell home made sausage or cheese from the house. No vehicles, no roads. You carry what you brung. You don't have to go up for the view - you're there. But you do have to go everywhere else, for everything.

So two very similar names and two very different experiences.

Which one did you mean?

Posted by
497 posts

Nigel, Thank you, that was a typo. I meant Grindelwald and have updated my post.

So much great info already! Thank you for taking the time. Researching a trip is half the fun for me, and this gives me much to consider. I suspect we won’t be traveling to Europe until summer 2022 (we have some Alaska Airlines credits to use next year) but dreaming and planning gives me something to look forward to.

Posted by
169 posts

We had a great 3 nights in late May, 2019 in Lauterbrunnen. I found the campground (Camping Jungfrau) had various options for staying - tents, campers, a hostel and several small cabin/modular units. I found them on Booking.com but did directly book since there were no units available on booking for our dates. They fill up early. We rented a 2 bedroom "Mobilehome Staubbach” for two couples (CHF140/night) and had a great time. It's directly "under" the waterfalls in the valley, farms and cowbells abound and a very short short walk beyond town. You could either take the train or drive (we had a car). You can then enjoy easy access to all the area's sights. We had a great time watching the waterfalls change throughout the day, taking walks, the cable cars and generally exploring. Bonus was they had the best restaurant in town along with a small grocery information desk and a game room.

If you don't have your heart set on the Italian lake towns - you might visit Locarno or Lugano - both Swiz. You could fly into Zurich - train to Lucerne (1 or 2 nts. for jet lag recovery) rent the car for your time in Switzerland.. .Locarno (lakes), Lauterbrunnen, maybe Taoch [for Matterhorn/Zermatt] . Drop car back in Lucerne - then continue on to Colmar etc. via train and end wherever. So no multi country car fees.

No matter where you go in Switzerland - you will have beautiful scenery. And a great trip.

Posted by
760 posts

With four people, and needing a car in at least two of the locations, it probably makes sense to rent a car for the whole trip. Obviously if the drop off fees are not outrageous you'd do that - fly into Italy (Milan or Venice) for the Dolomites, and fly out of Paris after Colmar. You said you were thinking Frankfurt instead but it's a quick train from Strasbourg (near Colmar) to CDG and you can't see much of a city in only one day (you said you'd go the night before).

But if you'd save a bundle by returning at the same location as pick up (and then you'd also fly in/out of the same airport) the whole trip is doable as a loop from Milan. From the Dolomites to the area of Switzerland you are interested in is about 6 hours, then less than half that to Colmar, then another about 6 hours from there back to Milan. But there are endless possibilities of places to visit to break up those 6 hour trips if you wanted. And in the end when you factor in multiple car pick up/drop offs, getting to/from train stations in all the different locations, taking the trains, waiting for the trains..... I don't think you'd save any time doing it that way. I love train travel in Europe but for the places you want to go car really makes more sense. And especially for four people.

Posted by
760 posts

I'd probably split the time equally between the three main destinations. When we visited the Dolomites we based in Bolzano (most people prefer to be up in a mountain village but we loved Bolzano and it didn't add all that much driving time each day given the various places we wanted to see in the region). Depending on how much hiking you want to do , 5 or 6 days is good. If you do stay in Bolzano don't miss the iceman. If you drive from there to Interlaken/Lauterbrunnen you go though amazing scenery so really just pick any place half way to stop. The problem with the Alps (both Dolomites and Switzerland) is that if it's rainy you don't see the great scenery, and hiking in the rain is no fun (at least I don't think it is). My technique for visiting Switzerland is to base in a city for about a week and do day trips - on nice days up into the mountains but on less nice days there are lots of small cities that are interesting. But if rain/clouds don't bother you then staying up in the mountains is a different experience.

When you are in Colmar at least do a day trip to Strasbourg. Yes it's a city, but it's gorgeous and not a "big" city (like Paris). Can be seen on a day trip.

Here's my photos of those places:
Dolomites - https://andiamo.zenfolio.com/p484153363
Switzerland - https://andiamo.zenfolio.com/f283697298
Colmar/Strasbourg - https://andiamo.zenfolio.com/p932441694

If you could shorten each of the three main places to 5 instead of 6 days, and you drove from Colmar back down to Italy you pass some amazing places. The city of Bern Switzerland (if you didn't get there when you were based in Switzerland) is really cool. Then you also go right by Montreux Switzerland (on Lake Geneva) and then the Aosta Valley in Italy.
Valle d'Aosta Italy - https://andiamo.zenfolio.com/p972905159

Posted by
18906 posts

I stayed in Bolzano, too. It's a very nice city. Bressanone is also pretty, but it's smaller and doesn't have the museums of Bolzano. The problem with the valley cities is that they can be very hot in the summer, yet many of the moderate-priced lodgings are not air conditioned (not to mention the restaurants and probably the museums, though I don't remember about the museums specifically). The heat was bad at the time of my visit; it drove me to stay in a 4-star hotel in Bolzano after suffering in Bressanone. I don't know what I would have done if I had pre-booked everything and was locked into a non-air-conditioned room for the duration.

Posted by
1139 posts

Just to note, I drive everywhere. You've been to Como, so I presume you are not going back? Never been to Lake Garda but Orta San Giulio, with its tiny island, old town and sacred mount, was my favourite spot between Orta/Maggiore/Lugano/Como (Lake Orta itself is not as scenic as the other lakes). We had a car and based in Miasino, up the hill from Orta, and from there saw bits of Ticino, Maggiore and down to the interior of Piedmont.

If you are doing the lakes and the Dolomites, a bit of zig-zagging is required to reach the Bernese Oberland area. I stayed in Bern for a week as a youth and hazily visited/was led to some of the mountains. Many years later, my wife and I stayed in Kandersteg a few nights. It's all beautiful around there, as jaw dropping as any place I've visited, but so very expensive. We took a ferry ride on Lake Thun.

The Dolomites area is gorgeous. We stayed four nights in Vipiteno (technically just outside at the northern end). Vipiteno has a very nice small core, some of it arcaded, mountains in the background, the excellent Rheinfenstein Castle, Saben and Novacella Abbies close by. One day we drove to Bressasone, onto Castelrotto and a bit further east, all stunning, before we turned back (never made it to Cortina). A full day driving southeast from Vipiteno to the little visited Merano and back along highway 44, a very scenic drive with many bends. Merano was a special place, also arcaded in parts, promenade walks, a castle with gardens, the fairly easy and very pretty Tappeinerweg Trail above town - there are many more walks about town.

Alsace is pretty villages and vineyards, a great place for all levels of hiking. We stayed for three weeks in Riquewihr, we hiked a lot, delved into parts of the Black Forest. On the day we went to Colmar we took the cheap bus. I very much recommend the Unterlinden Museum, which at the time we visited had a temporary exhibition in one of the churches due to renovations - the church itself, Saint Martin's (?), had gorgeous stonework and stained glass. If I went back to Alsace I'd probably stay in Bergheim, a very attractive, non-touristy village with a just the right amount of restaurants (5 or 6) and shops (2 or 3).

Posted by
58 posts

I agree with Isabel ... I think the day lost travelling back from your endpoint is worth the savings from either having a drop-off charge or the cost of trains (plus the time needed to get from stations to hotels and having to follow schedules) ... it wouldn't be a boring drive, there'd be plenty of neat towns and places to see and take a break along the way ... either Milan or Zurich would be good city to fly into/out of, each having enough to see and do for a few days at the start and/or end of the trip (I could stare at Chagall's 5 stained glass masterpieces in the Fraumunster church in Zurich for hours)... I think 5 days in the Dolomites, 7 days in Switzerland and 5 days in Alsace, with 2 days getting from point to point to point would be a good mix but that depends on your travelling style ... do you like to have places to stay all lined up and things to do scheduled or do you just wing it? ... anyway you slice it, it sounds awesome! ... makes me want to fire up the old excel spreadsheet and get to planning.

Posted by
497 posts

DQ, I am a spreadsheet planner, too! I always start with way too many sites to see for the amount of time we have. Then starts the painful process of paring down.

We like to spend at least 3 nights in one spot. We like to stay in apartments to keep the family together, have access to a kitchen (just for breakfast, drinks and snacks), have a washing machine, and a common hang out space. This means we typically have places lined up in advance. Now that our boys are older (16 & 19 by the time we go) we could do two hotel rooms for a one night stop, which would give us flexibility for the drive back from Colmar to Milan. A one way car rental is about $1200 more than driving a loop, so that helps make the decision easier!

Reading all of these tips is wonderful and torturous at the same time! I just want to be there NOW! I’ve been following “Idressitalian” a d a Swiss photography page on Facebook and seeing all of these places virtually empty is just so enticing.

Posted by
78 posts

I second the Lufthansa Express Bus from Frankfurt airport to Strasbourg (assuming that works into your plan). It was super easy after a long flight. We rented a car from Strasbourg and drove to Colmar, basing ourselves for 4 days there. The car was good to have in terms of flexibility and driving through cute, tiny villages.

I recall that Colmar had a lot of great apartments available on various booking sites, and I'd recommend that instead of hotel rooms, for both space and price.

During the day, Colmar tends to get incredibly packed with tourists by about 10/11 a.m. We enjoyed getting up early, hitting the enclosed market and buying breakfast at one of the stalls, then taking a day trip to another village. By the time we returned each day, the tourist buses were gone and we could enjoy dinner and a walk through town in the evening.

During our day trip to Riquewihr, we hiked to three castles with incredible views - Castle Saint Uhlrich, Castle Girsberg and Castle Haut Ribeaupierre. All three were in the same general area and you just followed a well-marked path to reach them. Trails were moderate level, good hiking shoes needed. Probably could be done in 3 hours total or you could pack a picnic lunch and stay longer. Here's some information about them:

https://www.ribeauville-riquewihr.com/en/visit/castles.htm

Posted by
107 posts

I concur with the advice to do a loop. Milan is generally one of the cheaper airports to fly into and it is a great city to start and end in as well.

I would advise using a car but only if the cost is cheaper than the cost of train tickets for Each major leg. Most likely, it will simply be a means from one area to the next rather than something you will use daily. In the Dolomites, we parked the car for 5 days and simply took the bus and lifts. It will be the same for you in the Lauterbrunnen area as well.

The trains in these areas are the highlights. The Bernina Express was stunning as are the other Swiss train routes. I cannot imagine missing that by having to drive. Also, it is very easy to rent locally at the train stations of major cities when absolutely necessary.

It should be very easy to take short train/bus rides between 2-3 hours to get to a next stop in the loop. For example, Milan to Bolzano.

Garda was nice but a bit of a let down after Como. We stayed in Garda and it was definitely a resort town. Also, it was a horrid drive into town off the main highway due being the start of a weekend. Malcesine may be a nicer, easier stop if you like smaller towns.

Posted by
134 posts

I'll add that we flew in and out of Milan, it's a great city to visit. We loved seeing The Last Supper-one of my fav pieces of art ever! I took my kids to Gardaland, the amusement park overlooking Lake Garda. It was a hoot! So many copies of American rides, or with American themes. We're from AZ, and seeing the cowboy/BBQ restaurant straight out of AZ was hilarious. Super fun rides. I'll also chime in for recommendations for the Lauterbrunnen valley, we stayed in Gimmelwald and were blown away by the summer hikes among the glaciers. Also, stayed in Colmar once...a mix of French and German cultures and really fascinating. Strasbourg is a close site and is really interesting!

Posted by
133 posts

Stay in Stechelberg rather than busier Lauterb. The Alpenhof is my pick, cheap basic and full of character and charm.
Gimmelwald is my one true love since 1985 (shh don't tell my wife) so it is my pick in this part of the World.
It is a beautiful little village.
If you have the legs you could leave all but a light daypack at Stech and do the hike up to Obersteinberg for the night. The Obersteinberg hotel is in an 11/10 location. It is a bit of steep (3 hr) hike from Stechelberg.
Bring cash and a torch. The hotel doesn't have electricity or hot water but is well worth the effort and the lack of hot shower.
The Valle Verzasca is another great Swiss region.
We trained to Locarno and bussed to Sonogno. The train trip was a ripper so I reckon the drive would be pretty good. The bus to Sonogno was pretty special too. Sonogno and the rest of the Verzasca is gorgeous. Great hiking and you can do one way hikes and return via bus. The Alpini hotel /restaurant was right up our alley, cheap, basic and charming.

I haven't been to Colmar since way back but
2 years ago we took a train across France to Strasbourg. Then a regional to the pretty little town of Barr on the Route du Vin at the foot of the Vosges.
Classic old Alsatian buildings, wine villages, castle ruins tucked away in the mountains. Cool place, nice quiet alternative to more touristy Route du Vin towns.

Posted by
302 posts

Lago Maggiore appealed to us in 2019. We took the train from Milano to Stresa and stayed there for three nights. We wanted to explore the Italian lakes region, but didn't want to be in a very busy tourist zone, so that was our choice. We loved exploring Stresa and the Borromean Islands. Perhaps the best part of that stay was our day trip to Lago d'Orta and Orta San Giulio. That was a beautiful place to explore, and it was not crowded at all, thankfully. We were there early in the day, in July. The serene walk around Isola San Giulio truly was a special memory.

We had been in Torino and Milan before this last part of our trip, and decided we will definitely come back to the Piedmont region to explore more by car.

Our 2020 trip that had to be postponed would have taken us to Murren in the Berner Oberland. We anticipated beautiful hikes exploring that region, and would have depended completely on public transportation. I've read so many wonderful posts about this region on the forum - I truly hope we can go in 2021.

Good luck with your trip - it sounds wonderful! I'll be following...the Alsace region is also on our wish list!

Laurie

Posted by
181 posts

This is the perfect post and replies as we are thinking of a similar trip, Stresa, Dolomites and Switzerland hopefully next August/September if we get our Covid shots and it possible to travel there. I am wondering if renting a car in Milan (airport) to go to Stresa and the Dolomites, then returning car to Milan and taking the train to our first city of interest in Switzerland would be practical? I apologize for piggy-backing "travel4fun"!