Welcome to Travel Planning 101. Find country specific information about where you are going and what to do to prepare to get there!
- Travel highlights of the country.
- Fun facts and background information.
- History notes, facts on currency, health, holidays and transportation.
- Pre-departure tips, when to go, and visa information.
- Information on weather and electricity plugs.
- Suggestions on things to do if you have extra time to explore on your own.
Places To See
Château de Chillon
This extraordinary, oval-shaped castle was brought to the attention of the world by Lord Byron, and the world has been filing past ever since - they say the castle receives more visitors than any other historical building in Switzerland.
Occupying a stunning position on Lake Geneva, the 13th-century fortress is a myriad of courtyards, towers and halls filled with arms, period furniture and artwork. The landward side is heavily fortified but lakeside it presents a gentler face as a princely residence. Chillon was largely built by the House of Savoy and then taken over by Bern's governors after Vaud fell.
These Roman ruins by the Rhein are Switzerland's largest, and the last remnants of a colony founded in 43 BC that had grown to 20,000 citizens by the 2nd century. Today, restored features include an open-air theatre and several temples, plus the Roman Museum, which features an authentic Roman house among its exhibits.
Overlooked by most visitors, this pretty woodlands area in the Jura mountain chain has hiking trails and cross-country ski trails. Horse-riding is also popular, and the horses in the area are supposedly renowned for their gentleness and calm disposition. The main town in the region is Saignelégier, which hosts the national horse show in August.
When to go?
Summer, meaning June to September, offers the most pleasant climate for outdoor activities, obviously with the exception of exclusively winter sports. Indeed, some extreme pursuits such as canyoning are only offered at this time. Peak months are July and August when prices soar, accommodation gets fully booked and most sights are rammed with tourists. Predictably, you'll find better deals and less people in summer's shoulder months: April, May and October. Spring is a beautiful time to explore the countryside. In Ticino, flowers blossom as early as March. Hikers planning to walk at high altitudes should be equipped for snow and ice well into June (and, in some tricky spots, all year). Mid-August to late October generally has fairly settled weather, and is a good period for hiking trips.
In Alpine resorts the busy winter season kicks off mid-December and moves into full swing from Christmas onwards, closing down again when the snows start to melt around mid-April. Between the summer and winter seasons, Alpine resorts close down (except where year-round glacier skiing is on offer) or, at best, go into frustrating snooze mode.
Then, of course, there is Switzerland's fabulous fiesta of festivals around which to plan a trip: it parties year-round, although Switzerland's renowned international music festivals happen in summer, as do some of those lesser-known, decidedly eclectic local festivals that best express the country's deep-rooted Alpine culture.
Travel Visa Overview
Citizens of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, the EU, Norway, Iceland and the USA do not require a visa. A maximum stay of three months applies, though passports are rarely stamped.
For up-to-date details on visa requirements, go to the Swiss Federal Office for Migration (www .eda.admin.ch) and click 'Services'.
European plug with three circular metal pins
At altitudes higher than 2500m (8202ft), the lack of oxygen affects most people to some extent until they become acclimatised. The effect may be mild or severe and occurs because less oxygen reaches the muscles and the brain at high altitude, requiring the heart and lungs to compensate by working harder.
Symptoms of acute mountain sickness (AMS) usually develop during the first 24 hours at high altitude but may be delayed up to three weeks. Mild symptoms include headache, lethargy, dizziness, difficulty sleeping and loss of appetite. AMS may become more severe without warning and can be fatal. Severe symptoms include breathlessness, a dry, irritating cough (which may progress to the production of pink, frothy sputum), severe headache, lack of coordination and balance, confusion, irrational behavior, vomiting, drowsiness and unconsciousness. There is no hard-and-fast rule as to what is too high: AMS has been fatal at 3000m (9842ft), although 3500m (11482ft) to 4500m (14763ft) is the usual range at which it becomes dangerous. Treat mild symptoms by resting at the same altitude until recovery, usually a day or two. Paracetamol or aspirin can be taken for headaches. If symptoms persist or become worse, however, immediate descent is necessary; even 500m (1640ft) can help.
To prevent acute mountain sickness, note the following: ascend slowly - have frequent rest days, spending two to three nights at each rise of 1000m (3280ft). If you reach a high altitude by trekking, acclimatisation takes place gradually, and you are less likely to be affected than if you fly directly to high altitude; if possible, sleep at a lower altitude than the greatest height reached during the day. Once above 3000m, care should be taken not to increase the sleeping altitude by more than 300m (984ft) per day; drink extra fluids. The mountain air is dry and cold and moisture is lost as you breathe. Evaporation of sweat may go unnoticed and result in dehydration; eat light, high-carbohydrate meals for more energy; avoid alcohol as it may increase the risk of dehydration, and avoid sedatives.
This occurs when the body loses heat faster than it can produce it and the core temperature of the body falls. It is frighteningly easy to progress from very cold to dangerously cold due to a combination of wind, wet clothing, fatigue and hunger, even if the air temperature is above freezing. If the weather deteriorates, put on extra layers of warm clothing immediately: a windproof and/or waterproof jacket, plus wool or fleece hat and gloves, are all essential. Have something energy-giving to eat and ensure that everyone in your group is fit, and feeling well and alert.
Symptoms of hypothermia are exhaustion, numb skin (particularly toes and fingers), shivering, slurred speech, irrational or violent behaviour, lethargy, stumbling, dizzy spells, muscle cramps and violent bursts of energy. Irrationality may take the form of sufferers claiming they are warm and trying to take off their clothes. To treat mild hypothermia, first get the person out of the wind and/or rain, remove their clothing if it's wet and replace it with dry, warm clothing. Give them hot liquids - not alcohol - and some high-energy, easily digestible food. Do not rub victims: instead, allow them to slowly warm themselves. This should be enough to treat the early stages of hypothermia. The early recognition and treatment of mild hypothermia is the only way to prevent severe hypothermia, which is a critical condition.
At high altitude you can get sunburned quickly and seriously, even through clouds. Use a strong sunscreen, hat and barrier cream for your nose and lips. Calamine lotion and aloe vera are good for mild sunburn. Protect your eyes with good-quality sunglasses, particularly if you will be near water, sand or snow.
The mountains are mainly responsible for the variety of local and regional microclimates. Ticino in the south has a hot, Mediterranean climate, but most of the rest of the country has a central European climate. Summer temperatures are typically in the low-to-mid 20°Cs (60-70°F) and between 2°C (36°F) and 6°C (42°F) in winter. Travellers need to be prepared for a range of temperatures dependent on altitude. There is perennial snow cover at altitudes above 3000m (9842ft). Summer is the most pleasant time for outdoor pursuits (with the exception of skiing). Strong winds from the south, known as the Föhn, bring high temperatures (and sometimes red dust from the Sahara) and are a major cause of avalanches.
History and Culture
Pre-20th Centure History
The first inhabitants of the region were a Celtic tribe, the Helvetia. The Romans appeared on the scene in 107 BC by way of the St Bernard Pass, but owing to the difficulty of the terrain their conquest of the area was never decisive. They were gradually driven back by the Germanic Altemanni tribe, which settled in the 5th century. The territory was united under the Holy Roman Empire in 1032 but central control was never very tight. That was all changed by the Germanic Habsburg family, which became the most powerful dynasty in Central Europe. Habsburg expansion was spearheaded by Rudolph I, who gradually brought the squabbling nobles to heel.
Upon Rudolph's death in 1291, local leaders saw a chance to gain independence. Their pact of mutual assistance is seen as the origin of the Swiss Confederation, and their struggles against the Habsburgs is idealised in the familiar legend of William Tell. Encouraged by early successes, the Swiss gradually acquired a taste for territorial expansion themselves and gained independence from the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I in 1499. After a number of military victories, the Swiss finally over-reached themselves when they took on a combined force of French and Venetians in 1515. Realising they could no longer compete against larger powers with better equipment, they renounced expansionist policies and declared their neutrality.
The Reformation in the 16th century caused upheaval throughout Europe. The Protestant teachings of Luther, Zwingli and Calvin spread quickly, although central Switzerland remained Catholic. While the rest of Europe was fighting it out in the Thirty Years' War, the Swiss closed ranks and kept out of trouble. At the end of the war in 1648 they were recognised in the Treaty of Westphalia as a neutral state. Nevertheless, the French Republic invaded Switzerland in 1798 and established the Helvetic Republic. The Swiss, however, did not take too kindly to such centralised control. Napoleon was finally sent packing following his defeat by the British and Prussians at Waterloo. The ensuing Congress of Vienna guaranteed Switzerland's independence and permanent neutrality in 1815.
In 1848 a new federal constitution was agreed on and it is largely still in place today. Bern was established as the capital and the federal assembly was set up to take care of national issues. Switzerland was then able to concentrate on economic and social matters. It developed industries predominantly dependent on highly skilled labour. Networks of railways and roads were built, opening up previously inaccessible Alpine regions and helping the development of tourism. The international Red Cross was founded in Geneva in 1863 and compulsory free education was introduced.
The Swiss have carefully guarded their neutrality in the 20th century. Their only WWI involvement lay in the organising of Red Cross units. In WWII, however, Switzerland played a more insidious role as an amenable money launderer for Nazi Germany. Switzerland's quiet anti-Semitism included shutting its borders to Jewish refugees and forcibly repatriating many of those who escaped Nazi-occupied Europe, in full knowledge of the fate which awaited them. While the rest of Europe underwent the painful process of repairing the ravages of war, Switzerland was able to expand from an already powerful commercial, financial and industrial base. Zürich developed as an international banking and insurance centre, and many international bodies, such as the World Health Organisation, based their headquarters in Geneva.
Afraid that its neutrality would be compromised, Switzerland declined to become a member of the United Nations (though it currently has 'observer' status) or NATO. It did, however, join EFTA (the European Free Trade Association). In the face of other EFTA nations applying for EU (European Union) membership, Switzerland finally made its own application in 1992.
As a prelude to full EU membership Switzerland joined the EEA (European Economic Area), yet the government's strategy lay in ruins after citizens rejected the EEA in a referendum in December 1992. Switzerland's EU application has consequently been put on ice; in the meantime the government has been laying groundwork for closer integration with the rest of Europe. In 1998 the Swiss government agreed to pay US$1.2 billion compensation to relatives of Holocaust victims whose funds were deposited in Swiss banks.
The year 2001 was truly Switzerland's annus horribilis. The collapse of national airline Swissair, a canyoning accident in the Bernese Oberland killing 21 tourists, a gun massacre in the Zug parliament and a fatal fire in the Gotthard Tunnel within 12 months all prompted intense soul-searching.
Switzerland swung to the conservative right in its parliamentary government in 2003, and began to reach out more to the world. It finally became the 190th member of the UN, despite the UN being founded and headquartered in Geneva for aeons. In 2005 it joined Europe's 'Schengen' passport-free travel zone and, in theory, opened its borders to workers from the 10 new EU members.
It still isn't a member of the EU itself and, although the French-speaking regions would like it, doesn't look like becoming one anytime soon. However, in many ways Switzerland no longer views isolation as quite so splendid.
In 2008, in the fallout from the world financial crisis, the two giants of Swiss banking, UBS and Crédit Suisse, had to admit to heavy losses. In keeping with the policies of other affected nations, the Swiss government responded with massive, and unprecedented, support for the banking system.
© 2007 Lonely Planet Publications Pty Ltd. All rights reserved.