A LATE SUMMER HOLIDAY IN THE SWISS ALPS
Updated: Jul 5
Hello, World Traveler!
Are you thinking about taking a trip to the Swiss Alps? In this post, I’ll share with you my experience from a week in the Bernese Oberland of Switzerland- complete with where we stayed, how we got there and got around, what we did, and what to pack!
A LATE SUMMER HOLIDAY IN THE SWISS ALPS
Bernese Oberland, Switzerland
My husband and I have slowly been ticking countries off of our ‘travel bucket-list’. Together, we’ve been to Thailand, England, Ireland, France, Germany, The Netherlands, Japan, Portugal, Spain, and Italy. This time, we spun the proverbial globe and our finger landed on Switzerland!
If you don’t know where to look on the map for Switzerland, just look right in the middle of Europe. It shares borders with Italy, France, Germany, Austria, and Lichtenstein. (I totally forgot Lichtenstein was even a country. Sorry, Lichtenstein!) There are multiple languages spoken there, and the country is truly a melting pot of cultures. It’s the birthplace of The Red Cross and the Geneva Convention, and their natural resources and landscape-- ever heard of the Swiss Alps?-- are downright breathtaking. They’re super environmentally friendly, especially with their Recycling programs.
Plus, their cheese and chocolate are out. of. this. world.
So, yeah. Switzerland rocks.
DAY 1 – GETTING THERE (& SOME LOGISTICS)
We live in Southern California- about an hour South of LAX- so we decided to fly from Los Angeles (LAX) to New York (JFK), then New York to Zurich, Switzerland (ZRH). The time change is 9 hours from the West Coast of the U.S. to Europe, and total travel time from door to door ended up being about 22 hours (including trains).
Within the country itself, Switzerland’s travel system is wonderfully simple, clean, and efficient. They run almost all their own trains (they’re not part of the E.U.) so I spent a lot of time looking into the various travel options. The region we were going to- The Bernese Oberland- was better accessed by train, so we decided against renting a car.
There are transportation travel passes you can buy for varying lengths of stay in Switzerland. Some of these include boats, buses, cable cars, and trains, and some passes are more regional. The system may be simple, but selecting the right travel pass can be excruciatingly difficult.
It’s definitely expensive, like all of Switzerland, but I’m sure it’s worth the ease of travel that comes with it. There are some things that the Swiss Travel Pass doesn’t cover- like some specific regional trains, funiculars and cable cars- and I found it rather difficult to figure out exactly what was excluded, even after scouring the Internet.
We decided that we would spend the week in one main region, the Jungfrau Region, so we ended up buying the “Jungfrau Travel Pass” – which gets you pretty much everything within the Bernese Oberland. To get us better fares on things not included in the pass (like our train journey from Zurich to Wengen), we supplemented with the “Swiss Half Fare Card”. I did the math, and for us, this was the most economical option.
We waited to buy the passes until we got to the Zurich airport and purchased them from the travel office there, but you can buy them ahead of time online. I think it’s the same price either way.
Our train was from Zurich Flughafen (airport) to Wengen with stops and changes in Bern, Interlaken Ost, and Lauterbrunnen.
It cost us 44 Francs – one way, per person. This price was with the Half Fare Card discount. (A Swiss Franc is nearly equal to the U.S. Dollar)
The Jungfrau Pass for 4 days cost us 155 Francs each, with a discount because we bought the Half Fare Card, which cost us 120 Francs each.
Like I said, expensive, but this was the best option for us and the travel we were going to be doing. It definitely came out in our favor in the end, based on the number of trips we took on regional trains and cable cars between the valley towns.
ARRIVING IN WENGEN
Wengen is quiet, posh- a lovely resort town with quirky boutique hotels and traditional chalets. There’s hardly a car except for the electric “taxis” that take passengers and their bags to wherever they’ll be staying. On the main streets, restaurants and bars with sheepskin-lined patios are nestled next to a mix of high-end shopping and less expensive gift shops. There’s something for everyone in this little town that’s perched on the cliff at the West end of the valley- on the Jungfrau Mountain side.
We stayed in an AirBnB in Wengen called Chalet Stella. It was considerably less expensive than the adorable but pricey hotels we found, and had quite a lot more space. (It was three bedrooms, 2.5 baths and had 3 balconies!)
When we arrived in Wengen, we checked in to our Chalet, dropped our bags and went straight to the COOP grocery store (I think it’s pronounced Co-Op, but my husband lovingly called it “Coop” all week, like chicken coop!) where we stocked up on bread, meat, cheese, wine, fruit, yogurt, muesli, and milk so we could eat most of our meals at home to save money. Most of the dairy you find is local and AMAZING- you can’t go wrong! We had dinner in our apartment and finally collapsed into sleep after close to 24 hours of traveling.
DAY 2- LAUTERBRUNNEN VALLEY HIKE
After a quick breakfast in the apartment and coffee in town, we took the Wengneralpbahn train down into Lauterbrunnen.
Lauterbrunnen is down in the valley at the base of an incredible waterfall, and it’s the first big stop from Interlaken, the entrance into the Bernese Oberland from Zurich. It’s the hotspot meeting point for base-jumping, squirrel suiting and paragliding, and the crowd is young and energetic. Cars are allowed here and the streets are busy- and unfortunately sometimes full of tour buses. But wow, are you surprised? I mean look at this waterfall!
From here, we transferred to take the cable car up the opposite side of the valley to Grütschalp. From Grütschalp, you can take the train to Mürren, or you can choose to hike it instead, which is what we did. The hike from Grütschalp to Mürren was pleasant and easy. Along the way you pass through forests, amazing vistas, fields, and meadows ringing with cows bells. The trail follows alongside the train tracks, so occasionally you catch a glimpse of other travelers on the brightly painted train curving around the cliff ledge.
On this hike, follow the yellow signs- we found the yellow diamond “Wanderweg” paths to be easiest – pass Winteregg, where you can get some locally made gelato. We each ordered the strawberry flavor served in a tall waffle cone. It was so rich and delicious, it was like eating strawberry cheesecake. Here you can take a break, sit on a bench and watch the clouds pass over the mountain peaks.
At one point we heard singing coming up from the valley and turned to see a traveling backpacking choir singing traditional Swiss folk music. It was almost surreal, like we had stepped into another time. From here you continue on the path another 30-40 minutes or so to Mürren.
If Wengen is posh and quiet, and Lauterbrunnen is easy and happening, Mürren is somewhere right in the middle of the two. Perched high on the cliffs at the East end of the valley, it looks across the valley at the North faces of the Triple Peaks. Mürren is full of positive energy, incredible views, but also has hardly any cars, which makes it blissfully quiet. A walk through Mürren will find you lovely gardens, carefully maintained chalets, hotels, winding paths, wonderful restaurants and a variety of shops. Lots of hiking trails leave from and traverse through here. The demographic is a relatively equal mix of young and old.
When we arrived in Mürren, we ate lunch at the Hotel Eiger –a patio overlooking the mountains. The hotel front desk person came out and looked through a viewfinder telescope mounted near our table, finding the mountain house near the peak.
"The flag is out,” she said in English with a heavy German accent, “and they’ve opened the shutters. They’ll overnight there and climb the summit tomorrow to the top of the Mönch.”
She moved aside to offer me a look, and I obliged. I had to search a moment, but found the little wooden hut with red shutters, a climber disappearing through the small door. It was nearly invisible to the naked eye, a tiny speck on the face of an enormous mountain. But she knew exactly where to look.
People have been watching climbers brave these mountains for centuries. At least 64 people have died trying to make the journey up the North face of Eiger. So notorious it is that they nicknamed it the Mordwand, which means “Murder Wall”.
So, Matt and I watched the mountains from the safety of the restaurant, and enjoyed a coffee pick-me-up before we continued on through Mürren.
Don’t forget to stop and fill your water bottle in one of the town’s fountains, with water streaming from the mountain springs that literally tastes like Evian, because, well, it is!
Turning valleyside in between two hotels, (you’ll miss it if you don’t know where it is...we did and had to backtrack) you can start descending to the valley through Gimmelwald.
The path from Mürren to Gimmelwald is one of my favorites, an easy Wanderweg made for meandering. Weave in between wooden chalets with colorful shutters, lush manicured gardens and the occasional goat or cow wearing a bell.
Watch your step down the gravel paths, then catch your breath every time you look back up at the mountains rising up and the paragliders soaring overhead.
Stop at one of the little “honesty shops” along the way, where you can buy local cheese, beer, sausages and snacks, or any assortment of items. If no shopkeeper is present, just leave your Swiss Francs in the ‘kasse’ and take what you want.
We stopped at one shop called MischMasch. The shopkeeper soon popped in, brushing the dirt off her hands. We bought a Coke to share, some “Good luck tea” with herbs and flowers from her garden, a homemade brownie, and some local sausage from the neighbor’s farm. The calico farm cat with a chewed-up ear greeted us, hoping for a bit of sausage, no doubt. “She’s called Amy”, the shopkeeper said, and smiled, and we were on our way back onto the path into the valley, past a mountain hostel, another honesty shop, and a brewery (Schwarz Mönch).
At this point the sun was setting quickly and we still had quite a ways to go to hike down the valley into Stechelberg.
*Pro tip: If you plan on doing this hike, make sure you start early enough to allow yourself to take a thousand photos and truly enjoy the stops along the way. We found ourselves in a steep forest path to the valley town of Stechelberg completely in the dark, guiding our way past waterfalls and mountain switchbacks with only the light from my iPhone. (Low-power mode is a life-saver!)
We got lucky and were able to catch the bus back to Lauterbrunnen without incident, and lived to tell the tale, laughing over a beer in our Chalet back in Wengen and reveling in the beauty we experienced that day. Cheers!
DAY 3 – JUNGFRAUJOCH / TOP OF EUROPE
Our legs and bodies were tired and jetlagged, so when we woke up and saw the sun was shining and the sky was clear, we decided to skip hiking and make the trip up the Jungfraubahn railway up to the top of the Jungfrau mountain! There’s a research station, viewing platform, and a bunch of activities at the top of the mountain, the station called Jungfraujoch.
The name “Jungfrau”, we found out later, means “Virgin”! Mark Twain has a wonderful way of describing the fitting name and beauty of these stark peaks.
“It is a good name, Jungfrau--Virgin. Nothing could be whiter; nothing could be purer; nothing could be saintlier of aspect. At 6 yesterday evening the great intervening barrier seen through a faint bluish haze seemed made of air and substanceless, so soft and rich it was, so shimmering where the wandering lights touched it and so dim where the shadows lay. Apparently it was a dream stuff, a work of the imagination, nothing real about it. The tint was green, slightly varying shades of it, but mainly very dark. The sun was down--as far as that barrier was concerned, but not for the Jungfrau, towering into the heavens beyond the gateway. She was a roaring conflagration of blinding white.”
Old illustrations of the mountain depict a curvy young girl, lying down with her top half exposed. Her two neighboring mountains, the Eiger and Mönch, are a grumpy old man and a monk, respectively. An odd trio, if I do say so myself!
Anyway, the railway to the top of the mountain is something spectacular in itself. We paid 61 Francs round trip apiece, and that was the discounted rate because of our Jungfrau pass. And let me tell you, it was worth every penny! Matt was skeptical at first, but was quickly won over.
The train left Wengen and stopped in Kleine Scheidegg, another launching off point for some incredible hiking at higher altitudes. We had time to take a photo or two before continuing on to Jungfraujoch- the top of the mountain.
The train disappeared into a tunnel and the rest of the journey was underground, all the way up to 11,371 feet. It’s such a steep climb, Matt and I both experienced some dizziness and had to put our heads down and take deep breaths to adjust to the change in altitude. (We live at sea level, OK? Don’t judge.)
In Wengen, it was sunny and 70 degrees F. When we stepped off the train at the top of the mountain, it was closer to 35 degrees F, so if you do this trip, make sure to bring a jacket! I had my down puffer jacket, and it was perfect.
The views at the top are unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Snowy peaks and craggy cliff faces surround you, punctuated by the bright red of the Swiss flag set against a crystal blue sky.