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Still Dreaming of Switzerland—A Trip Report.

First, brief introductions. We (myself, my sister, and my bro in law) are mid 40s (ok. I’m more late 40s) and this was our first trip to Europe and our first time travelling together. Besides a short trip to Arizona from Chicago, this was my first trip in 22 years and my first time outside of the US. About 5 years ago now, my sister and mom were both diagnosed with breast cancer 8 months apart. Both are fine and I mention it only because it’s an important part of the story. Those diagnoses really shifted my thinking from “oh, I’m fine staying home” to “I really want to get out there and see the world while I can.” So, off to Switzerland we went.

Second, I’ll try not to repeat what I have already reported while in Switzerland, which can be found here

https://community.ricksteves.com/travel-forum/switzerland/i-think-we-re-in-switzerland-unless-we-re-still-dreaming

Long story short, the trip was originally going to be a trip to Italy and then a trip to Italy and Switzerland in March/April 2020. Then it was cancelled and rescheduled and then off to Switzerland (with day trips to France and Germany) we went in Sept. of 2021.

Off to a rocky start in Zurich. We had a great flight from Chicago to Zurich. We were all so excited to finally be going on this trip. Things got a little rocky once we landed in Zurich though. After landing and getting our bags (yes, we checked bags 😊) we stopped at the grocery store in the airport and tried to use the self-checkout to pay for our sandwiches. We had to wait for someone to come help us because apparently my credit card requires a signature for purchases outside the US. Not a big deal, we were off to the ticket machines to buy our train tix to Basel. Note: We did purchase the Swiss Travel Pass but wouldn’t start using it until a few days later. And because I knew we would be using the Pass most of the trip, I didn’t research too much ahead of time how to buy tickets. Plus, everyone always says how easy it is. Well, it wasn’t easy for us. I’m not sure what the trouble was, but we couldn’t complete the purchase. A nice SBB employee came to the rescue. This would not be our last time relying on the kindness of strangers and certainly not the last of our troubles with ticket machines. More to come on this later.
So, off we go to catch the train. And there was an orange box like thing that I thought I was supposed to put the tickets in to validate. I couldn’t find a way to put the ticket in anywhere or to scan it. So, we gave up on that.
Once on the train, we were looking for the luggage racks, that I thought would be in maybe every other train car. They’re weren’t and we never saw any of the big luggage racks at the end of the cars in any of the trains we took. Ever!! And we were on a lot of trains. So, we were stuck with the overhead luggage bins for our 26 inch suitcases. (Yes, we learned our lesson and will try for smaller next time). Luckily, there was a nice muscle-man on the train who kindly helped my bro in law put the suitcases up. Luggage taken care of, we sat down to relax and charge our phones. Not so fast!!! The electrical adapters I bought ahead of time from the RS website did not work. The website said “They'll do the trick across the Continent— and even in Iceland.” I took this to mean they’ll work in Switzerland. They did not. I emailed RS when I got home and they responded almost immediately with an apology for the confusion and added an “except Switzerland” to the product description. Not to worry, a kind stranger on the train lent us his adapter to us and we later bought the correct ones. I am quickly learning how nice people are. One of the things that struck me most on this trip was the people and we had such great encounters with so many people.

More to come, as we haven’t really gotten started yet. . .

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Carrie Great intro to your trip. Meeting and interacting and connecting with (nice) people while traveling is what makes a trip memorable for me.

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Basel—First Home-Base. I had no expectations of Basel other than it was a great location for day trips to France and Germany. We ended up really liking Basel and the staff at our hotel (Hotel Schweizerhof) was fabulous. I’ll write a hotel review later. We liked Basel because it was not crowded or touristy. My favorite part was the city gate Spalentor. If you are ever in Basel, do try to see this city gate. Easily reachable by tram, like everything in Basel. And the city has a great church, or munster, as we got corrected in Bern by the bear guy. 😊 One thing we didn’t like was all the trams. They are convenient for getting around, but we are not used to having to look for them while we are walking. I still can’t believe we got out of Basel without one of us being run over by a tram!

Day trip to Strasbourg. Before we left the US, I had fallen in love with France, but once we arrived, I quickly fell out of love. Obviously, this is my opinion and I mean no disrespect to anyone who lives in France or likes France. We had the hardest time in France—we went to both Strasbourg and Colmar.

For those who are not familiar with the main Basel train station, to buy tix for France you have to buy from a machine on the France side of the train station. We were there super early to buy our tix on a Saturday, so there was no one around. Surprise, we could not figure out the one green ticket machine. Finally, another fellow passenger came by and helped us buy a ticket. Or so we thought. She bought us what she called a group ticket so we thought we were all set. It wasn’t until we were on our way that I realized the ticket was only for one person. In my head, I am hearing everyone on this forum saying “make sure you buy a ticket, don’t get on a train without a ticket, be sure to validate your ticket or you will be in big trouble and will be fined on the spot.” So, the entire ride to Strasbourg I am so worried we’re going to get yelled and I didn’t want to be embarrassed or thought of as another dumb tourist. It was a most uncomfortable train ride. But luckily, no one came around to check the tickets. And I’m sure it would have been fine if they did come around. At this point in the trip, I was still determined to do everything right and not make any mistakes. So, it killed me that we ridding illegally on the train.

As far as the city, we loved, loved the cathedral. It really is amazing!! When we turned the corner and first saw it, we let out a few “Wows!!!” and a “Whoa!!!” much to the surprise of a few people standing nearby. We really startled them. One lady came up to us and said she lives there and walks by the cathedral all the time and pays no attention to it. Other than that, we didn’t enjoy Strasbourg as much as I thought we would. And this was for sure our fault. We had the hardest time communicating here. The few French words I had learned just were not cutting it. We had trouble reading our map and there didn’t seem to be a lot signs. I guess we’re used to Chicago where there’s signs for everything all over the place. And would you be surprised to hear that we had trouble getting back to Basel? 😊 More dreaded ticket machines and I learned you should not rely on the SBB app for the French train platforms. We walked all over that station looking for platform 30, which turned out to be the platform the train would end up in at Basel. After missing the first train, we found someone to help and I was reminded to check the departure board in the train station for the platform. Oh yeah, the departure board. It took us a few days to get the hang of the trains.

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Day trip to Colmar. For our day trip to Colmar, we were not going to make the same train ticket mistake, so we bought our tickets from a person in Basel the night before. We definitely liked Colmar more than Strasbourg, but I don’t know, it didn’t seem to have the same appeal in person as when I was watching videos on-line. We arrived early when there were few people, but then it started to get more crowded. The public restrooms surprised us, and not in a good way. The toilets at the train station had no toilet seats. And the ones in the market we used were so dirty and had no TP. We knew to bring TP so we were prepared for that. Like I mentioned earlier, this was our first trip to Europe so also our first experience with the public restrooms. Obviously something we need to get over if we plan to travel more in the future. Or, we can just travel to Switzerland where you pay for a nice, super clean bathroom. 😊

So, France got moved down on the list of places to visit in the future. For us. Definitely not easy first days for first time travelers. And again, the majority of the fault is on us. Anyway, this is also the point in the trip where I realized that book research only gets you so far. We don’t know everything, or much of anything, and that’s ok. So, we embraced the fact that we were tourists and just had to laugh at ourselves.

Day trip to Bern. From Basel, we had also planned to go to Freiburg, Germany, but the train strike scared us off and we ended up going to Bern instead. We did get eventually get to Freiburg later in the trip. More on that later. As I previously talked about our time in Bern, I won't duplicate any of that.
https://community.ricksteves.com/travel-forum/switzerland/fyi-current-situation-in-bern-6-sept

But, I did want to describe the encounter we had over by the bears. There were a couple of what I would call park rangers over by the bears. We were talking to one of them and my sister at one point said we were off to see the church. The ranger replied, “It’s not a church, it’s a cathedral. Actually it’s a munster. And that’s munster not monster.” That cracked us all up. We’ll always remember munster, not monster. 😊

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Great report. Following along for the next installment!

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Lauterbrunnen—Second Home-Base. Next, we were off to Lauterbrunnen, which I had been looking forward to for years. We stayed at the Hotel Oberland and we were less than impressed with the staff, but it was the perfect location for us. On the way to Lauterbrunnen from Basel, I had a very interesting conversation with a nun. I went to Catholic schools, so I was a little afraid to have a nun sit down across from me. 😊 But, she was a very nice and helpful nun. She at one point reached into her habit to pull out, not a rosary, but a cell phone to show me some apps on her phone. She had recommended one called Swisstopo. She also recommended a book—Lend me your alphorn. Our train was a little late getting into Interlaken, so we had a bit of a struggle with the luggage up and down the stairs to make the connecting train. I’ll say it again—smaller suitcases next time.

Lauterbrunnen definitely impressed us. And of course, this is where my bro in law finally got to see “a mountain.” We loved walking down the valley and my sister and bro and law made it up behind Staubbach Falls. I got as far as the tunnel as I had decided from watching videos that the view was more impressive from in front of the waterfall and not behind it. We did see a few cows here too.

Day trip to Schilthorn and Mannlichen. This was my favorite day of the entire trip. We were up early to make the journey to Mt. Schilthorn as we had breakfast reservations at the revolving restaurant. We had absolutely perfect weather. Really, perfect weather for most of the trip. Schilthorn was impressive with excellent views of course. We enjoyed our breakfast, especially the mini waffles. We almost had the place to ourselves. Just a few others with us on top and some dogs. I was pleasantly surprised to see dogs were allowed on the cable cars and the mountains. I at one point saw a Jack Russel on one of the cable cars that looked just like my dog.

We had planned to stop at Brig station on the way down, but decided at the last minute to take advantage of the perfect weather and head over to Mannlichen instead. To see the cows of course. 😊 This was my favorite part of the whole trip. There’s just something about the cows and the mountains that I can’t get enough of. We opted to just hang around Mannlichen instead of taking the walk to Kleine Scheidegg.

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Day trip to Thun and Lake Thun Cruise. As this was our first trip to Europe, we were determined to see some castles. So, we took the train to Thun to see the castle there and then hopped on the boat to see the remaining four castles—Schadau, Hunegg, Oberhofen, and Spiez. By our count, it was 192 steps up to castle Thun. I was more impressed with the outside, than the inside. We enjoyed the boat ride. My bro in law really enjoyed it as he was getting a little tired of walking all the time. With the Swiss Travel Pass it was so easy to get and on and off the boats. We got off to see Oberhofen and Spiez castles. Again, I was more impressed with the outside. At Spiez, we decided to take the train back instead of waiting for the next boat, which was not the best decision. It was an uphill walk all the way from the castle to the train station.

Day trip to Trummelbach Falls and Interlaken (to find a pharmacy). The next morning we had a little rain, so we took the bus to Trummelbach Falls. I was pleasantly surprised as I found the falls much for impressive in person than any of the videos I had seen. We then headed to Interlaken for some shopping and to find my sister a pharmacy as she had at some point hurt her knee. We were not impressed at all with Interlaken, and weren’t expecting to be, but we did achieve our goal of finding a pharmacy and getting some meds and a knee brace for my sister. Later, we headed to Wengen for one of our favorite meals at Pasta and More. And there was a little ice cream cart in the area between the Wengen train station and the Coop that according to my bro in law had the best vanilla ice cream he had ever tasted. Oh and later at the Wengen train station there was a guy facetiming with someone at the ticket machine as he was struggling to buy tickets. I was tempted to offer my help, but he wasn’t speaking English and we had had our own trouble with the machines. He was still there fiddling with the machine when we got on the train, so I’m not sure if he ever got his tickets.

Day trip to Allmendhubel and Gimmelwald. Allmendhubel was another favorite of mine. It’s nice to walk around where it’s not crowded surrounded by gorgeous views with the sounds of cow bells in the background. We saw some cows down in the distance, but we didn’t have the energy to walk down to them. Next, we took the cable car down to Gimmelwald. At this point, my sister’s knee was limiting the amount of walking we could do. Gimmelwald was a little too small for us. We enjoyed the Honesty Shop though and had lunch with a view of some paragliders.

Lucerne—Third and Final Home Base. Our final stop was Lucerne. We arrived on a super busy day as it was the day of the big city run. We stayed at the Renaissance Hotel, a Marriott property, as my sister and bro in law were able to use some credit card points here. It actually turned out to be a good location. Convenient to both the train station and the old town was just a short walk across one of the bridges. There was a nice little park a block away from the hotel and a Dean and David’s, which I believe we ended up eating at 3 times as we loved their juices and chicken salads. Plus, they had a few tables outside as this point in the trip is when the covid certificate was required for inside dinning.

We took some laundry to Jet Wasche one morning. About a 10 -12 minute walk from the hotel. The website said they opened at 8. They didn’t, So, we had to return again at 9. They did a great job on the clothes. We’ve never had clothes that smelled so good or were so expertly folded. It was 56 CHF for 2 very large loads and the price included them dropping the laundry off at our hotel later that afternoon. Well worth the price for us.

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Hi Carrie,
Thanks for sharing your trip adventures!
Sounds like you’re hooked on returning to Switzerland (I read your recent post), good for you!

I’ve not visited Switzerland (yet) but will be bookmarking your post for future reference.

Some of your comments reminded me of my first first trip to Italy.
My mom and I were at the train station in Florence and I was searching the departure board trying to figure out the platform number for the train we’d be taking to Rome. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t find any train going to our destination.
I finally asked someone and they pointed to the board and explained that I would not see Roma but Napoli! Ha!

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Priscilla, those trains can be so confusing!!! I’m hoping to get the hang of them at some point.

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Day trip to Bellinzona. For our first full day in Lucerne we headed to Bellinzona. Remember, we wanted to see castles on this trip. 😊 Of the 3 castles, we only walked to the one closest to the train station—Castelgrande. We really enjoyed it. It was another great day and it was a nice area to walk around. There was also a nice church near the castle. We had a nice lunch, at an Italian restaurant of course. We ended up eating at a lot of Italian restaurants on this trip. I’m a pretty picky eater and can always find a pasta, pizza, or salad at an Italian place.

Day trip to Mt. Riggi. For the next day, we took the boat/train combo up to Mt. Rigi, taking full advantage of the Swiss Travel Pass. This was another favorite of mine. We had another gorgeous day. The boat ride was nice and relaxing. The train up to Rigi had incredible views. And a great big surprise for me, there were cows on Rigi!!!!! That for sure made my day. 😊 My sister’s knee was still bother her so we didn’t walk around too much. We had lunch at the cafeteria-type place, eating outside. Oh, I almost forgot the weirdest thing about this day. There was a lady who had brought her cat up to Rigi was filming it. Perhaps the cat is a big You Tube star. . .

Day trips to Zurich. We ended up spending the next 2 days in Zurich as my sister needed some “easier” days. So, what did we do? We walked around all over Zurich. 😊 We did some shopping and had a nice lunch at Sprungli. We had originally had reservations for breakfast inside, but had to cancel because they would not accept our CDC cards. But when we were there, we were able to get a table outside for lunch. My bro in law was amazed at all the fancy cars in Zurich, taking pictures of the Tesla taxi cabs.

At the Zurich train station, my bro in law was trilled to find a Dunkin Donuts as he had been missing his American coffee. Apparently though, Dunkin Donuts is not quite the same outside of the US. My sister and I did enjoy their donuts though. I got in trouble from the kid working there. I had taken a few napkins from the counter, which apparently was a big no no. Due to covid protocols, only he was allowed to touch the napkins.

Day trip to Freiburg, Germany. As I mentioned earlier, we had originally planned to go to Freiburg when we were in Basel, but got scared off due to the train strike. We were worried about getting “stuck” in Germany. Although we ended up really loving Freiburg, so getting stuck would not have been a bad thing. Due to our earlier trouble with some of the ticket machines, we were still too afraid to buy tickets ourselves the few times we couldn’t use out Travel Pass. So, we bought our tickets from a person the night before.

Freiburg turned out to be one of our favorite places. We did up liking the more non touristy places. We all preferred Freiburg over Colmar and Strasbourg. Crazy, right?? Maybe part of it was because the public restrooms were a lot cleaner. We loved the market, the long red sausage, the church/munster. The cobble stones here were pretty rough on my sister’s knee so we didn’t walk around too much. We really wished we had more time here. Well, we sort of did, because our train back to Lucerne was cancelled. So, we ended up waiting at the train station a bit. Not to worry though as there was a bakery with some very nice pastries. We had some sort of lemon bread thing. And my bro in law loved the prices compared to Switzerland.

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Last day in Lucerne. For our final day we decided to take it easy and stay in Lucerne. We did a little shopping, stocking up on more chocolate. And my sister and I found a couple of clothing stores we liked—Kofler and C and A. We went to the Bucherer watch shop where me sister was asked to remove her sunglasses. Lots of security at this place. And I later walked over to the lion monument, which was a nice area.

Flight home from Zurich. As often mentioned here, Lucerne was super easy to get to the Zurich airport from. We of course were all sad to come home. Although my sister and bro in law were starting to miss the US a little. Not me. I could have stayed forever!!!!! 😊 In fact, I may have just booked a return trip for June. 😊

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Great trip report! It’s so nice to be able to read these again.

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Carrie,

Thanks for writing such a great trip report!
I’m looking forward to reading your (sequel) trip report when you return to Switzerland in June!

We ended up eating at a lot of Italian restaurants on this trip. I’m a pretty picky eater and can always find a pasta, pizza, or salad at an Italian place.

Since you enjoy Italian food, you should definitely consider going to Italy!

I love Italy and can’t wait to go back!

Happy planning!

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Thanks for this great report. Switzerland is one of my next two planned trips. And I have to agree with Priscilla--Italy is fabulous!

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Priscilla and Barbara, yes, Italy is definitely high on my list. The issue for me is there are no nonstop flights from Chicago to Italy during the off season. So, a little more difficult to get to. I would most likely fly in and out of Zurich to avoid a connecting flight. Also, my impression is the trains in Italy are not as “easy” as they are in Switzerland. So, I’m a little leery. But, hopefully soon I will get over my fear of trains.

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my impression is the trains in Italy are not as “easy” as they are in Switzerland.

My experience over several years of riding trains in Italy is they are easy to understand, easy to find, some stations have more stairs than some Swiss stations, and are generally pretty good. Both Trenitalia and Italo, although for high speed trains I prefer Italo.

Do keep an eye out for strikes though - just like in France and Germany.

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Nigel, thanks for the info. Hopefully some more research can help to shake this recent fear of trains. And i think it's more a fear of the ticket machines since we had trouble the few times we needed to buy tickets. I'll have to look into ticket buying apps for the phone. I might have better luck that way.

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yes, apps can be great. Buy your tickets in English in the privacy of your hotel room....