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A Taste of Switzerland

July 7 – 17, 2018

Back at the beginning of the year, my wife, mother-in-law and I decided to visit Switzerland. None of us had ever been, and we were excited to go some place new. We thought this would be a fun way to spend our 10th trip to Europe. Our typical trips involve lots of cities, museums and churches, so Switzerland was a nice change of pace.

Since we had used miles to book our flights, we didn’t have the best itinerary. We had early flights out of both Las Vegas and Zurich, long layovers in San Francisco and Newark and two layovers on the return trip. However, we were ready for the inconveniences since we were flying for free.

We left very early on Saturday July 7, 2018 and arrived in SFO in time for breakfast. Since we had a seven-hour layover, we decided to take an Uber into the city. Breakfast at La Boulangerie, a walk through the Ferry Building’s market and a tour of the Cable Car Museum filled our time quite nicely. After an Uber ride back to SFO we were ready to get on with our trip.

We arrived in Zurich on Sunday morning, and stopped by the airport train station to get tickets to Lucerne and our 8-day Swiss Travel Passes. The Zurich airport and the train station made a nice first impression on us – clean, friendly, efficient, and easy.

Now a quick primer on my highly scientific rating system:

10/10 – don’t miss
9/10 – definitely recommend
8/10 – recommended
7/10 – solid but not necessarily a recommendation
6/10 – inconsistent experience, but OK
5/10 – forgettable
4/10 to 1/10 – mistake to disaster

Our hotel in Lucerne was the Waldstaetterhof Swiss Quality Hotel – 8/10. I chose it because it was very close to the train station and had solid reviews. The staff was friendly, the breakfast was excellent, the rooms were clean and generally good enough, but lacked air conditioning (which we expected). Since we were so exhausted the only night we spent there, I can’t speak to the noisiness or anything else after 7pm.

After checking in, we had lunch at the Rathaus Brauerei – 7/10. We had sausages, chicken salad, a pretzel sandwich and beer. Following lunch we did a modified reversed version of Rick Steves’ Reuss River Stroll. We’ve done Rick’s walks in many cities, but I always seem to forget that they all don’t work as well in reverse. That was the case with this one.

Since we had a late lunch and were quickly fading, we opted to skip our dinner at Made in Sud and pick up some prepared salads at the Coop. Sadly, I somehow managed to spill THE ENTIRE THING all over the bedsheets. This was definitely a low-point in the trip. On the bright side, I woke up the next day smelling like pasta salad.

We woke up on Monday and had breakfast at the hotel. The original plan was to visit the famed Lion Monument and the Bourbaki Panorama; however, we weren’t really “feeling” those sights. Instead, we opted to take the hour-long “Panorama Yacht” cruise around the lake. This was a great decision as it gave us some history of the area and set the pace for the rest of the trip – 9/10.

After some more wandering of Lucerne, we headed for the Berner Oberland where we would stay at the Pension Gimmelwald – 9/10. The Pension has a spectacular location, good service, clean rooms, and is very family-friendly. The bar and lounge was quite lively in the evenings, but the World Cup was airing, so I’m not sure how bustling it is otherwise. The downsides are less a criticism and more a reality of staying in a village such as Gimmelwald. There are shared bathrooms and showers on each floor, and the flies are very prevalent during the day and especially breakfast. Staying in Gimmelwald definitely requires a little extra effort and a willing attitude, but I can see the appeal. It’s a unique experience, and fortunately, we’re not high-maintenance travelers.

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Even if you’re not sleeping in town, Gimmelwald is worth a quick visit 9/10. Rick Steves’ Gimmelwald Walk was very informative and a lot of fun. We enjoyed visiting the Honesty Shop and the Self-serve cheese and butter place. I picked up some delicious butter for only 1,40 CHF.

We dined at the Pension Gimmelwald on our first night there. The raclette was very tasty and the views from the patio are stunning. Since they only served raclette that evening, I can’t give a proper rating.

Tuesday and Wednesday were slated to be our hiking days in the Berner Oberland. As you’ll soon read, we enjoyed it so much, we added two more hiking days. The plan for Tuesday was to do the Männlichen-Kleine Scheidegg Hike – 9/10. We followed Rick Steves’ instructions to the “T” and had a great time. Unfortunately, we slept in a bit and there was some cloud cover so the views weren’t as spectacular as I suspect they could have been. We opted to take the Männlichen Gipfel detour – 9/10, but I think it’s worth pointing out that it’s steeper and longer than Rick indicates in his book. We were in noticeably better shape by the end of the trip, but since this was the first hike we took frequent breaks on the way up. However, the views are terrific and worth detouring to see.

We had our picnic, which we purchased from the Wengen Coop, on a bench along the hike and were glad we didn’t wait until we reached the shelters that Rick mentions in his guidebook. Our bench was more solitary and peaceful… and the views were plenty good. After the hike, we lingered around Kleine Scheidegg for a bit. Did some souvenir shopping and I had a beer. Kleine Scheidegg feels like a base camp and offers a surprising amount of places to eat, drink and shop – 8/10.

Following the Männlichen-Kleine Scheidegg Hike, we decided to forge ahead with the planned Grutschalp-Mürren Hike. The first half of this hike (to Winteregg) is 8/10 and the second half (Winteregg to Mürren) is 6/10. There’s a lot of following the train tracks during the second half. In hindsight, we should’ve caught the train in Winteregg to get to Mürren. We had planned on having dinner at the Hotel Edelweiss because of the terrific views. Once we reached it, we knew that we made the right decision. The views are spectacular, and the patio is terrific; however, we ended up moving inside because it was too cold. The menu is varied and the food was very good – 9/10. We had schnitzel, a burger and rosti. Note that when I list the food that was eaten, I am following the order of me, my wife, and my mother-in-law. The attentive reader can determine which one of us doesn’t like traditional German-Swiss food.

Wednesday the 11th would prove to be our favorite day on the trip. After breakfast at the Pension, we made our way to Grindelwald to pick up more picnic supplies at the Coop. It was there that we won a backpack sponsored by the cookie company Kambly. They had a demonstration table with samples and a “spin the wheel” prize offer. We ended up putting that backpack to good use and we later bought a bunch of their cookies. One of my favorite activities when traveling is to visit the local supermarkets. The outdoor farmer’s markets are fun, but there’s something so real about watching locals buy toilet paper. I also love stumbling upon strange variations of ordinary products. For example, I once bought a squeeze bottle of Hellman’s Patatas Bravas sauce in Barcelona. Where else are you going to find that? Still haven’t opened it yet though.

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Equipped with our new backpack, we headed out to the cable car to First. I was initially shocked at the price to go up – 30 CHF with our Swiss Travel Passes, regularly 60 CHF. However, after spending the day in First, we realized its value. The first thing we did was the Tissot Cliff Walk – 9/10. This was free, a little nerve-wracking and had spectacular views. After the Cliff Walk, we realized we were underdressed for the chilly weather. We decided to stop into the souvenir and apparel shop to buy gloves for me, and a heavy sweater for my wife. Next to the souvenir shop is a sizable cafeteria with both self-serve and seated service. We enjoyed our smuggled picnic on the large, stunning, patio. After lunch we hiked from First to Bachalpsee. The first half was spectacular – 10/10, and the second half was merely beautiful – 9/10. The lake was picturesque and served as a nice respite. On the way back we saw a beautiful fox wandering near the trail. Unfortunately, we didn’t see any cows along the way. At this point, I’d like to give a shout-out to the Emmi brand Caffé Latte chilled drinks. We first had them on this hike, and they gave us the sugary, caffeinated energy we needed to keep plugging along. Very tasty – 8/10.

Following the hike we all decided to try the zip line from First to the station below at Schreckfeld. Surprisingly, the ride was only 26 CHF. I assume the high cost of the cable car ride subsidizes the cost of this and other activities in the area. We waited nearly an hour, but the zip line was a lot of fun and definitely worth doing – 9/10. They “launch” people in pairs, and since there were three of us, my mother-in-law was able to go ahead of us by filling an opening they had for a single rider. She downed her little bottle of Swiss white wine and then got strapped in. We were so proud of the fearlessness. While she waited for us to make the flight in to Schreckfeld, she wandered around until she found some cows, which was something we were excited to see.

After our fun day in First, we decided to return to Mürren’s Hotel Edelweiss for dinner. We had rosti, pizza (ahem), and goulash. All items were excellent, as were the Swiss red wine and cider. We rushed a bit through dinner so that we could catch the traditional Alpine Festival that the town was hosting that evening. The festival featured music, dancing, a Swiss flag twirler, an alphorn player and his Bernese mountain dog. This was a lot of fun and we’re glad we saw it advertised on a bulletin board the day before.

Sadly, we departed the Berner Oberland on Thursday. However, not before my wife and I went paragliding in Interlaken. When we were researching where to go paragliding, we had it narrowed down between Interlaken and Lauterbrunnen. I think Lauterbrunnen would offer more spectacular mountain and valley views, but it was fun flying over lake Thun and the town of Interlaken. Also, the Lauterbrunnen “exits” are close to the cliff edge; whereas ours was along a sloping field which was much less nerve-wracking. We flew with Paragliding Interlaken and they offered a great experience with experienced pilots (not sure if that’s the right term) – 10/10.

Following our paragliding adventure, we visited Harder Kulm to kill some time before our Golden Pass journey to the Lake Geneva area. Harder Kulm is a steep funicular ride up from Interlaken. There’s a restaurant, some souvenir shops, and nice (nearly 360-degree) views at the top. We had forgettable lunch at the restaurant. Harder Kulm – 6/10 – is an OK way to kill some time, but nothing more.

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From Interlaken, we made our way to Zweissimmen. In Zweissimmen we stumbled upon a professional poker tournament being held in the main town square. It was amazing to see what seemed like the entire town show up to a temporary festival on a Thursday afternoon to watch some people play poker. After wandering through the festival we wandered into the Molkerei Zweissimmen where we bought single-serve ice cream cups for the train ride and a refrigerated bag of truffle fondue. That, along with some ingredients from the local Migros market, would be our dinner that evening in Lausanne – 9/10.

I had purchased front row seats for the Golden Pass from Zweissimmen to Montreux. Based off everything I had read, I expected the train car to be full since this is a popular route. However, except for one other person in the back, we had the ENTIRE train car to ourselves. It was a very strange experience and completely unexpected. Of all the trains we took in Switzerland (and there were many), this was the most “well-worn.” I had read that it can get hot in the panorama train cars, and ours was no exception. The feeble air conditioning could not overcome the heat from the sun. Also, since we departed later in the day, the sun was shining in our eyes for the first half of the trip. Another irritating detail was the dirty windows on the train car. I set up my GoPro to capture the scenery, but every shot features dirt, smudges and bird poop. Finally, the scenery on this route was nice, but disappointing after having just seen the Berner Oberland. I’d give the Golden Pass from Zweissimmen to Montreux 6/10.

After arriving in Montreux we took the next train to Lausanne. Our initial impression of French Switzerland was that it is much different from “Regular” (or German) Switzerland. Montreux and Lausanne felt much more like France than what we had just seen further north – dirt, grime, panhandlers, etc. I’m very comfortable with these elements in our travels, but after arriving from the Berner Oberland and spit-shined Lucerne, it was a startling transition.

In Lausanne we opted to stay in an Airbnb, which is our typical preferred method of lodging. The apartment was very nice, spacious, and on the top floor of an apartment building (with an elevator). The only downside was that the apartment did not have air conditioning. Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be a problem, except the city was hosting a huge music festival called Festival de la Cité Lausanne. We stayed in the St. Francois district and the festival was near the cathedral; however, the sound from the various bands carried into our apartment forming a jumbled mélange of acoustic garbage. Sleeping with open windows was not an option since the music lasted until after 1am. Not ideal.

On Friday we visited the famed Château de Chillon. It was a fine sight and worth a visit if you’re in the Lake Geneva area. 8/10. We had lunch at the Manora in the town of Vevey. Manora is an up-scale cafeteria-style eatery in the Manor department store. I believe it’s a chain, but it’s a good way to get variety on a budget. 8/10.

Following lunch we headed out for the Rick Steves’ Lausanne Walk. Rick is not kidding… Lausanne is very hilly and maps do not do it justice. Many intersections on a map don’t actually exist because one of the roads is high above on a bridge. I think we did more uphill hiking in Lausanne than in the Berner Oberland. The Lausanne Walk was fine and we got to wander through the big festival.

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We opted to have galettes and crêpes at Crêperie la Chandeleur. The service, food and cider were solid – 7/10. That evening in the apartment we decided to call an audible. The next day’s (Saturday) itinerary called for us to visit Gruyères and Broc. However, all three of us were thinking the same thing… we really missed the Berner Oberland. Therefore, we decided to replace Gruyères and Broc with Sunday’s itinerary, which would free us up on Sunday to visit the Berner Oberland from our Bern home base.

So on Saturday we headed to Bern to check out the capital. We followed Rick Steves’ Heart of Bern Walk after a quick lunch at Mishio where we had fried rice, pad thai and spring rolls – 8/10. We enjoyed Rick’s walk and spent quite a bit of time at the Einstein Museum – 7/10. Note that the museum has a lot of information on the history of Bern and tries to steer you away from the Einstein exhibit and into other parts of the museum. However, we didn’t have enough time for such a detour. We then departed Bern and headed to Mürten. Mürten is a beautiful walled town, and the walk around the ramparts was a memorable experience. Since we were there in the mid-late afternoon the open-air market was closing up and the town was quieting down before dinner. We ate in the town at the Pizzeria Taverna Italiana where the flies from Gimmelwald (presumably) joined us for some delicious pizzas – 9/10. After a 90-minute train ride, we were back in hot, noisy Lausanne.

The following day started with an early departure from Lausanne so that we could drop our luggage off in Bern as early as reasonably possible. We ditched our bags at the Hotel Savoy and then were back on the rails headed for the Lauterbrunnen Valley by way of Interlaken. Note that all trips into the Berner Oberland involve a train change in Interlaken because the railway gauge changes. This makes for a bustling train station.

A train and a bus ride from Interlaken took us to our destination – the Schilthornbahn Cable Car station near Stechelberg in the Lauterbrunnen Valley. This is where we began Rick Steves’ recommended Lauterbrunnen Valley Hike – 9/10. The hike was very enjoyable, and we got to see cows, goats, a rushing river and lots of nature. As Rick notes, this is a good hike for a cloudy day, which is what we had.

After the hike we had lunch in Lauterbrunnen at the Hotel Oberland where we ordered sausages, goulash and rosti – 9/10. The restaurant at Hotel Oberland has friendly service, tasty food, convenient location and reasonable pricing. We decided to cap lunch with some wandering and souvenir shopping in the resort town of Wengen. Less than two hours later we were checking in at the Hotel Savoy in Bern.
The Hotel Savoy was the nicest place we stayed on the trip – 9/10. It’s maybe 100 meters from a Bern train station entrance, and the street was quiet and safe. The rooms were clean and modern with good air conditioning and nice blackout shutters. The shower was large and the rooms were spacious.

For dinner we chose to visit the Altestramdepot – 10/10. It’s a popular brewpub in an old tram depot building next to the bear habitat. The patio looked great, but it was raining so everyone was seated inside. Fortunately, we were able to get a table without a reservation or a wait – presumably because of the weather. We ordered Schnitzel (served with Rosti instead of pasta), spaetzle (with pesto and vegetables) and goulash along with beer, cider and radler. The food was terrific and the burgers looked good (and huge) as well. We sat near the kitchen and there were lots of burgers coming out.

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On our final day, Monday, we decided to call another audible. The original plan was to linger in Bern then head to Zurich to check out Rick Steves’ Zurich Walk. However, the Berner Oberland still beckoned. Since the most efficient trains from the Berner Oberland to Zurich connect through Bern, we chose to leave our luggage at the Hotel Savoy. The plan was to head to Grindlewald where we would wander the town and make our way back up to First for a hike down to Schreckfeld (the cable car station below First).

Now that we were “seasoned veterans” of the Berner Oberland, it was a lot of fun to watch the reactions of the first-timers as they first saw the magnificent scenery. It continued to remind us how stunning the landscape truly is. On the train to Grindlewald, we met an American family who was headed to Grindlewald for the first time. It was fun sharing tips and recommendations with them as they began their Swiss adventure while we were completing ours.

We ate lunch at the First cafeteria and sat on the spectacular patio. We got sausages, soup and salad from the cafeteria – 7/10. Also, this was the day I finally got to try the Swiss soda Rivella. I opted for the red version, which I believe is the original flavor. It was very tasty – 9/10.

After lunch we hiked down to Schreckfeld – 7/10. We chose this hike because the Jungfrau Hiking website labeled it as “easy.” We either took a wrong turn somewhere or have different definitions of “easy” because this was much steeper than we were expecting. I think I would’ve felt more comfortable hiking this uphill rather than downhill because the footing was a bit precarious. Fortunately, none of us slipped, but it was definitely slow going as we scrambled down. Despite the tricky footing, the hike was worthwhile because the views were terrific with more flowers, mountains and cows.

Following the hike, we decided to check out the Rodelbahn in Pfingstegg via the cable car from Grindelwald. The Rodelbahn was fun – 8/10; however, there was a big tour group of 12-year old boys with very few chaperones. The kids were screaming in Arabic so loudly that we were longing for the relative peace and quiet of the Lausanne music festival. There’s nothing more insufferable than un-chaperoned 12-year old boys. Trust me, I was one once.

After the Rodelbahn, we made the long trek back to Bern to get our luggage, before heading to Zurich. We decided to pick up some prepared meals at a Bern Coop for dinner as well as some “souvenir” chocolate. Note that the “souvenir” chocolate selection at the Coop wasn’t great, so if you see something you want to get elsewhere, be sure to pounce on it.

In Zurich we stayed at the Swiss Night by Fassbind – 7/10. It was a 5-minute tram ride from the Zurich train station. The hotel was fine, but it had a paltry air conditioner. Fortunately, a storm blew in and we were able to open the windows to cool the room down.

We left the hotel by 5:15 to catch an early train to ZRH for our 7:40 flight to Vienna. Unfortunately, we only had an hour layover in Vienna and since we arrived a little late and had to pass through border control we were freaking out. The signs indicated that our gate was a 15-minute walk from border control so we decided to jog. The jog turned into a sprint once I heard my last name announced on the intercom. We arrived at the gate in a sweaty, panicky mess only to discover they were calling for someone else with my last name. The flight to Newark was uneventful; however, a storm in the area canceled and delayed many flights. We arrived back in Las Vegas early Wednesday morning at 1am, which made for a very long day of travel.

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Here are a few stray thoughts that I’d recommend any visitor to Switzerland peruse:

SBB app - SBB is the Swiss transportation agency, and their app makes traveling around Switzerland a breeze. It covers all modes of transportation and we used it for railroads, gondolas, cable cars, funiculars, subways, buses, trams, and ferries. Simply enter your departure and destination locations, the date and time of travel and the app will present you with the various ways to make the journey. I believe you can even purchase tickets through the app, but since we primarily used our Swiss Travel Passes, we didn’t typically have the need.

Swiss Travel Passes (STP) - Prior to the trip I mapped out our various transportation itineraries and admissions to determine if we should purchase the STP or the Half Fare Card. Both were viable options, but the STP would save us each 30 CHF over the Half Fare Card. Also, the STP was great because we did not have to purchase tickets before every ride. With the STP, we just walked onto all the various modes of transportation like we owned the thing. Of the dozens of rides we took, I’d estimate that someone asked to see our tickets 25% of the time. However, if you get caught on a train without a ticket (or STP), there’s a 100CHF surcharge, so beware.

Bern – I wish we had another half-day in Bern to better see the city and to float down the Aare River – either on a raft or by swimming. Bern is a small capital with an efficient tram and bus network. I’ll be back, and I’ll stay at the Hotel Savoy and eat at the Altestramdepot.

Zurich – Skipping sight-seeing in Zurich for the Berner Oberland was an easy decision, but I am looking forward to checking it out on our next trip.

French Switzerland – I do not recommend going to French Switzerland directly after the Berner Oberland and Lucerne. It’s a jarring experience and French Switzerland is better left to a separate trip – possibly from France.

Lucerne – This is a terrific place to start a trip to Switzerland. The town reminded me of Disneyworld a bit in that everyone and everything in the historic center is so perfectly prepared to make your visit as pleasant as possible. It’s so clean, friendly, and easy.

First – I regret not renting the mountain carts from Schreckfeld. They seem like a fun way to get down to Bort. Also, the eagle glider looked like a blast. It starts in Schreckfeld and pulls you and three other people up to First backwards. Then it releases you and you glide back to Schreckfeld. The lines for that were short, and it is a longer experience than the 20-second zip line. Note that they also offer an Adventure Package that may pay off if doing two or more activities in the First area.

Grindelwald – We enjoyed our time in this busy, resort town. I think it gets unfair treatment by a lot of people. Yes, it’s relatively big and busy with a lot of tour groups, but it definitely serves a purpose in the region. The views are nice and there are plenty of amenities. It’s unfair to compare it to the much smaller, less touristy places in the area.

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Your trip sounded amazing. Thank you for the report. I have been to Lucerne a long time ago and really loved it.

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Thanks for the great report. It really is amazing how beautiful the BO is, especially when the sun is out. I have only stayed on the Murren side of the valley so you’ve given me some great ideas about things to do on the other side.

I paraglided out of Murren. The field we took off from is up above the gondola station. It’s a bit of a steep walk and you’re at altitude so it can get your heart pumping. We were airborne while still over the field but yes you do fly past the lift and the ground drops away. It was actually quite fun flying past the cliff walls.

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we decided to call another audible

You mention that a couple of times. What do you mean? I've never heard the expression.

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15578 posts

Its a very "American football centric" analogy, but I'm sure you know that already, Nigel. Just a reminder that all readers are not necessarily up on this peculiarly American sports slang. Sorry Canada, but first downs are 10 yards and you only get 4 downs. Otherwise, go long. It ain't over till it's over, or until the fat lady sings, whichever comes first.

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No I don't actually, and unfortunately American football stuff is lost on me too. Still not much further ahead.

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925 posts

Nigel - calling "an audible" is changing plans at the last moment to fit one's circumstances.

I thoroughly enjoyed this trip report, being able to see your trip through your eyes and imagine the beauty that you were seeing. Thanks for sharing with us!

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5738 posts

Nance, thanks for clarifying “an audible.”
Great report, vin.

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596 posts

Great report! I really enjoyed your rating system. Thanks for sharing!

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1573 posts

Vin,
I love your rating system! Thanks for lovely report, I'm bookmarking it.

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2078 posts

Loved your report. Thanks for sharing.

Interesting to note that when we went to Switzerland, we went in this order - Bern, Vevey, Murren and Lucerne. We loved Bern and Vevey, as well as other sites on Lake Geneva. Murren and the Berner Oberland were spectacular. Lucerne seemed like a huge letdown after the BO. The order of a trip can make a huge difference.

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507 posts

Enjoyed your report! Particularly liked your rating system!

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908 posts

Enjoyed the report. I am heading to the Berner Oberland & Lucerne the end of next May.

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1961 posts

Thanks for the comprehensive report. I really enjoyed it. A friend and I went to Switzerland last year. We arrived in Zurich and did Lausanne --> Gimmelwald --> Lucerne (hitting Bern as a day-of-arrival daytime stop on our way to Lausanne).

I liked Lausanne a lot -- perhaps because it preceded the awe-inspiring Berner Oberland, but also because I stayed on the lake instead of in the city. I was in Switzerland to see grand nature, not medieval old towns, so I ignored the RS recommendation to avoid the Ouchy area (lakefront). The pay off? I got to watch a couple of spectacular sunrises over Lake Geneva from my hotel room window and from the lake promenade.

I really liked Lucerne, too, even though it came after the Berner Oberland. It was not disappointing to me at all. I will readily admit, though, that I approach most things in life with a little wide-eyed wonder.