Switzerland

By: Connie Kwan-Wong

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Lake Zurich

Last August I had the pleasure of visiting Switzerland with my four-year-old daughter, Zoe, and my mother-in-law, Judy Wong. It was my first international trip with my daughter, which was exciting in itself, and it was wonderful having Judy accompany us. It was a real girls’ trip encompassing three generations.


Switzerland has so much to offer: the majestic Alps; gorgeous vistas; some of the most picturesque countryside anywhere; and, to tantalize our taste buds, delectable Swiss cheese and chocolate. It also has a cosmopolitan attitude. Zurich, its largest city, is a cultural mecca and is often recognized as one of the most livable cities in the world. Long regarded a savvy center of commerce, Zurich has entered the 21st century as one of central Europe’s hippest destinations.


As a family with a love of all forms of culture, especially art, music, and food, Judy, Zoe, and I couldn’t wait to touch down at our first destination and begin our adventure.


Where We Went


Zurich
Located at the juncture of Lake Zurich and the Limmat River, Zurich is surrounded by shimmering water. Clean, efficient, and culturally exciting, the wealthy metropolis earns it reputation as a global city. Most of its ancient center remains intact, and the city has embraced the trend of converting historical factories into contemporary cultural spaces and living areas.


I knew before we left Houston that Zurich would be the perfect European city for Zoe to visit. I’d done my research and discovered there were lots of attractions all three of us would enjoy.


Lake Zurich
If you were to view Lake Zurich from an airplane, you would notice its shape slightly resembles that of a banana due to the bend in its middle. It is framed by the Albis and Zimmerberg hills to the south and the Pfannenstiel hills to the north. Zurich lies at its western end. The best way to discover the lake area is to take a boat trip. The many amenities around the shore are served by regular boat service year-round. You can even take a musical boat tour or ride on a historic paddle steamer.

Zurich Zoo
One of Zoe’s favorite spots was the Zurich Zoo. Judy and I loved it, too. This amazing site is open 365 days a year, and you can buy your admission tickets on-line. Its over 380 species of animals roam freely in nature-oriented enclosures that replicate the animals’ natural habitats as closely as possible. The Kaeng Krachan Elephant Park was an incredible experience in itself. It houses Asiatic elephants and nine other species, and has an underwater view that is not to be missed.


Niederdorf
Zurich’s historic section, Altstadt, features cobblestone streets, small stores, cafés, restaurants, and many of the city’s most noteworthy religious landmarks. Niederdorf is the promenade that runs through Altstadt. The locals refer to it as Dörfli. It’s a pedestrian zone filled with fascinating shops, many of which are almost hidden away in the alleyways. We were all quite taken by the variety of goods that could be purchased there and the different kinds of food that were available.


Lindenhofplatz
Also located in Altstadt, Lindenhofplatz is a serene public square that sits atop Lindenhof hill affording a bird’s eye view of the old town, city hall, Grossmünster Church, the Limmat River, Zurich University, and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. Dating back to Roman times, Lindenhofplatz has its own rich history. It once housed a Roman fort, and, in the ninth century, the grandson of Charlemagne built the royal palace here. The palace remained until Zurich ceased to be a monarchy. Today, a popular meeting spot for the city’s inhabitants and chess players, the square is lush with trees and has a beautiful fountain at its center.


The Dolderbahn
Once a funicular, which began operation in 1825, the Dolderbahn is a mountain railway with two railcars that operate on tracks. Meant to provide a quick escape from the city, it transports passengers 2,300 feet to the top of the Adlisberg, a forested hill overlooking Lake Zurich, in only six minutes. When we exited the railway, we entered the Dolder recreation area, where there were lots of hiking trails, sports facilities, and leisure spots. The train operates daily from 6:20 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. and leaves approximately every 10 minutes.


Grossmünster Church
We were fascinated to discover that one of Zurich’s most famous landmarks, the Grossmünster church, has its own legend. According to this legend, Charlemagne discovered the graves of the city’s patron saints, Felix and Regula, and built a church on the same spot as the graves. The stunning edifice, with its towers and spire that reach for the sky, has many extraordinary features. Among them are seven stained glass windows made from agate that were created for the nave by influential German artist Sigmar Polke in 2009. His design gives the appearance of brightly glowing walls. The choir windows by Augusto Giacometti, the bronze doors by Otto Münch, the Romanesque crypt, and the Reformation Museum in the cloister are other outstanding features.

Lindenhof

Münsterhof
Münsterhof is an irregular town square in the Lindenhof quarter of the old town. It’s Zurich’s largest town square and is surrounded by medieval buildings. In the 13th century, when construction in Zurich was booming, it became the city’s most important square. Part of it was a cemetery, but, until 1785, it was a market place. After that, the guilds erected their headquarters there. As we walked over the square’s pavement, it was remarkable to realize it is amongst the oldest in Zurich.

Bahnhofstrasse
Zurich’s world-famous shopping boulevard, Bahnhofstrasse, is amazing. It’s considered one of the most beautiful shopping areas in Europe. I would agree with that. Filled with elegant fashion stores, department stores, and boutiques carrying shoes, furs, accessories, porcelain, jewellery, and watches, it is a shopper’s paradise. There are also restaurants, cafés, and pastry shops, as well as stylish art galleries. It’s a street that delights all the senses. I definitely recommend you visit it if you go to Zurich.

Munot Fortress

Schaffhausen
Schaffhausen is in the northernmost corner of Switzerland on the upper Rhine River. We took a day-trip to the beautiful medieval town from Zurich. Noted for its events, Schaffhausen hosts the International Bach Festival every second May, the Schaffhausen Jazz Festival every May, and the Grape Blossom Festival each June, as well as a number of other festivals.


Munot Fortress
The town’s most dominant feature is the Munot Fortress, which dates from the 16th century. Albrecht Dürer designed the ring-shaped stronghold, which was built between 1564 and 1589. Standing on the battlements, we were able to see for miles. If you’re there at 9 p.m. on any night, you will here the Munot guard, who lives in the tower, ring the bell, which was once the signal that the town gates and inns should close.


Old Town
Schaffhausen’s Old Town is considered one of the prettiest in Switzerland because of the lavishly painted facades and oriel bay windows of many of the buildings. Many of its guild and merchant’s houses date back to Gothic and Baroque times. Its streets are traffic-free making it ideal for shopping. In the heart of Old Town is St. Johann church, a graceful Gothic structure known for its remarkable acoustics.


Haus zum Ritter
This is an incredible piece of architecture. The facade of the Haus zum Ritter, which means a knight’s house, features some of the most important Renaissance frescoes north of the Alps. The original frescoes, painted by Tobias Stimmer in 1566, were removed in 1935 and are now displayed in the Museum zu Allerheiligen, also in Schaffhausen. The murals depict and praise the virtues of Swiss knights. The reproductions that have replaced the originals were painted by Carl Roesch and are just as awe-inspiring to witness as the originals.


Rhine Falls
The magnificent Rhine Falls are located on the part of the Rhine River known as the High Rhine, where the waters tumble down to a lower level creating a spectacular waterfall. Like all the other visitors there, and those who have visited before us, we were humbled by such powerful natural beauty. The falls are easily accessible by car, bike, or train. The rail bridge that crosses the river above the falls incorporates a pedestrian path so visitors can walk around the falls experiencing them from every possible viewpoint.

Hotel Bellevue Palace view

Bern
After Zurich, we traveled to Bern, the capital city. I chose to go by private transfer rather than by train, which is an excellent way to travel in Switzerland, so that I would have fewer concerns with luggage and keeping everyone together.


Situated in the heart of the country, Bern is the gateway to the Alps. It’s not located in the mountains, however, but on the flat Swiss Plateau surrounded by hills and forests. If you happen to be at one of Bern’s higher locations on a clear day, some of the Bernese Alps are visible. It’s a very pretty city, and I fell in love with it.
While we were in Bern, we stayed at the Hotel Bellevue Palace, a magnificent venue with extraordinary views of the Bernese Alps. Upon our arrival, we were greeted by the general manager, Urs Bührer, who welcomed us and answered any questions we had. Dating back 150 years, the luxury hotel has been a meeting place for politicians and diplomats. Its bar has even been featured in some of John le Carré’s novels. Gregor Zimmerman, the restaurant VUE’s head chef, puts craftsmanship and fresh produce first in the neo artisanal cuisine he prepares. His food is delicious, some of the best I have ever tasted.


We stayed in room 320 and woke up each morning to an exquisite view of the Aare River and of the Gurten, the house mountain of Bern. Zoe loved it so much she asked me why we couldn’t live there forever. The mornings the three of us spent in our room with that unforgettable view provided us with some of the best bonding time of our trip. Warm, hospitable, and luxurious, the Hotel Bellevue Palace is a wonderful home away from home, and I recommend it to anyone considering staying there.

Hotel Bellevue Palace

Hotel Bellevue Palace, Restaurant VUE

Bern’s Old Town

Old Town
Bern’s Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has retained many of its historic features. We enjoyed the proliferation of fountains, stone facades, narrow streets, and historic towers that give the area its Medieval air. The Rose Garden, which is elevated, offers stunning views of Old Town and the lovely Aare River that wraps around it. Old Town’s boutiques, bars, cabaret stages, and street cafés attract people from far and wide. It also boasts almost four miles of arcades making up one of the longest weather-sheltered promenades in Europe.


Bear Park
I just had to take Zoe to Bear Park. Bears have made Bern their home since 1513, first in the city itself, and then in the bear pit. Since 2009, however, they have had their very own park to call home. The spacious spot stretches from the former bear pit opposite Old Town to the banks of the Aare River. We toured the bear pit, which is still there for the bears to use, and the park. The hilly terrain includes caves and the Bear Bath in the Aare River.

Münster Cathedral

Münster Cathedral

The Bern Münster Cathedral of St. Vincent, built during the late-Gothic period, is considered to be the most important late-medieval church in Switzerland. It’s also the largest. We climbed the 344 steps above the entrance that took us to the lookout point in the cathedral’s tower. From there, we had a spectacular view of Old Town and the Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau peaks of the Bernese Alps. It was a sight I don’t think any of us will ever forget.

Einstein House

You learn to live in the moment

Einstein House
Albert Einstein lived in Bern from 1902 to 1903 and worked at the federal patent office. It was here that he developed the Theory of Relativity. Stepping into the third-floor apartment at #49 Kramgasse, where the great physicist and his wife, Mileva Marić, once lived, was a thrilling experience. The famous residence is furnished in the style of the turn of the 20th century and documents Einstein’s life during his stay in Bern.

Zytglogge (Clock Tower)

Zytglogge (Clock Tower)
The Zytglogge, Bern’s Clock Tower, is only a few steps from the Hotel Bellevue Palace. It’s one of Bern’s most popular, and most photographed, sight-seeing spots. One of the reasons for its popularity is its remarkable clockwork figures that perform each time the clock strikes the hour. Zoe was especially fascinated by the rooster that crows three times. When we took our tour of the tower, we were able to follow the clock’s movements from inside.

The Gurten
Bern’s local mountain is called the Gurten. We took the Gurtenbahn funicular railway up the mountain to 858 meters, which is almost 2,815 feet, above sea level. The Gurten fields, which were once a golf course, are free to access and offer lovely spots for relaxing and enjoying a picnic. There are also climbing areas, electric cars, a miniature railway with steam locomotives, and bowling for all members of the family to enjoy. The views from here, as you can imagine, are spectacular. Bern itself, the looping Aare River, Mittelland (the Swiss Plateau), the Jura, and the Alps are all visible, providing an extraordinary feast for the eyes.

The Gurtenbahn Funicular

Lucerne
After leaving Bern, which was difficult to do, we headed for Lucerne, a pretty Medieval town situated on Lake Lucerne. This attractive body of water isn’t unlike a fjord in appearance, but without the frigid surrounding climate. Nestled amongst majestic mountains, Switzerland’s fourth largest lake is blessed with the most scenic views in the country. If you want, you can have a lovely time just walking along the lakeside or you can take a cruise on a historic paddle-wheel steamer or an elegant salon motor vessel.


As is Lake Lucerne, the town of Lucerne is surrounded by snow-capped mountains. Though small, which makes it easy to get around and see everything, Lucerne is filled with lots of arresting features: Lucerne’s attractive centerpiece, Chapel Bridge, is one of Switzerland’s longest covered bridges; The Museggmauer, a fortified Medieval wall, stands intact with the exception of one of its towers; Hofkirche St. Leodegar (Court Church of St. Leodegar), with only its distinctive towers and altar remaining of the original building, was part of the monastery that founded Lucerne; The Bourbaki Panorama, a circular depiction of the internment of 87,000 French soldiers who escaped to Switzerland in 1871, was painted by Edouard Castres in 1881. The Lion Monument, or Lion of Lucerne, which was carved from rock face to remember the heroic deaths of Swiss guards killed during an attack on the Tuileries in 1792; The Glacier Garden, The Lion Monument’s next-door neighbor, exhibiting glacier potholes from the last Ice Age and fossils of palm leaves and mussels that are 20 million years old; and The Alhambra Mirror Maze, part of the Glacier Garden and made up of 90 mirrors, were three of Zoe’s favorite spots in Lucerne. Most of these sites are located in and around the city centre.

Judy, Zoe, and I enjoyed exploring the old town. Walking around, surrounded by pretty Medieval houses, many painted with intricate frescoes; fountains; statues; cobblestone paths; churches; and flower-lined squares, we felt as if we’d gone back in time. It was a peaceful respite from the modern world. There were lots of interesting shops and restaurants to attract our attention as well.


While in Lucerne, we stayed at the Chateau Gütsch. This fairy-tale 19-century castle was not only captivating in itself, but also gave us a spectacular view of the town and the majestic mountains that tower over it. Renovated and decorated in 2014, the hotel offers historic surroundings with a lush modern feel. The elegant Restaurant Chateau Gütsch specializes in Italian-inspired cuisine from lunch to dinner. Weather permitting, the restaurant’s panoramic terrace is a gorgeous spot to eat. One of the most unique features of the hotel is that it has its own funicular to take you into the excitement of the town during the day and up and out of it at night.


I personally think one must do a mountain excursion when in Lucerne. With spectacular ranges so close, and so many packages available, it’s one of the main features of the area. We chose to take a day-trip to Mount Pilatus, a massive peak overlooking Lucerne. The tickets for the tour were available at our hotel. They included bus, cable car, and boat ride from the town to the mountain and back.


For me, this could only be described as a day spent in paradise. As we were taken up the mountain, surrounded by the majesty of the Swiss Alps and the glittering waters of the many lakes surrounding it, I felt overjoyed. It was especially gratifying to be sharing the experience with Zoe and Judy.


There are lots of paths on the Pilatus for hiking, from easy to alpine, making them perfect for everyone. Fondue, brunch, snow-shoeing and other activities are all also available depending on the package you choose and the time of year you are there. Legends surround Mount Pilatus as well. Zoe was particularly fascinated by them. In the Middle Ages, people believed that dragons with healing powers lived among the rugged fissures in the mountain. There is even a dragon trail you can explore.

What We Ate
Fondue; Raclette, a hard cheese that’s melted and then scraped onto the plate; spicy Valais dried meats, which have been hung to dry in Valais; and Swiss meat served on a hot stone are all delicious examples of Swiss Alpine cuisine. One of the restaurants we visited, The Walliser Keller SwissAlpeChuchi, on the Niederdorf in Zurich, is a traditional Swiss restaurant and featured them all on its menu. Tartiflette is another of Switzerland’s tasty foods. It’s a starchy combination of thinly sliced potatoes, smoky pieces of bacon, caramelized onions, and creamy Reblochon cheese. Swiss apple juice, cream, ice cream, and yogurt provided refreshing taste experiences each time we had them.


What I Advise
Switzerland is a family-friendly country. There’s lots to do for everyone’s enjoyment. If you’re traveling with children, research sites, activities, and restaurants that are designed for them, in advance. That way you won’t be stuck trying to figure out how to entertain them, and the trip will be more rewarding for you all.


Switzerland isn’t part of the European Union, so it has its own currency: the Swiss Franc (CHF). I recommend taking out a small amount of cash upon arriving in Switzerland and using your credit card for most purchases. That way, you won’t have lots of CHF left over.


Traveling in Switzerland may involve heights. It certainly did for us. Be mindful of the elevations you are climbing and be prepared. Sun screen is a must to protect your skin from the sun at high altitudes. Water for staying hydrated is also important. And, if you’re hiking, take it easy. The height could effect you.


Speaking of water, it isn’t necessary to buy it bottled in Switzerland. The country is home to the cleanest, freshest, best-tasting water you’ll find anywhere.


I didn’t mention chocolate above, because I wanted to talk about it here. I recommend buying it from the traditional chocolate-makers; there are many in Switzerland. They meticulously create authentic handmade chocolates, following the traditional recipes, as well as new and unusual delicacies. You can also find good chocolate at the grocery stores, which is less expensive and eaten by the locals.


My trip to Switzerland with Zoe and Judy was one of the best journeys of my life. Sharing once-in-a-lifetime experiences with them truly brought us closer together. I’m so grateful to my husband for offering to stay home and take care of our two-year-old daughter, Elly, so we could have that special time. Now I can’t wait to return with Stephen and Elly and make new memories.

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