Once you get past the cliched notion of yodelling milkmaids, winding cuckoo clocks and silky-smooth chocolate, contemporary Switzerland is all about epic experiences and travel adventures. Here are 10 really cool things you should know about Switzerland in 2017:
Switzerland has a true democracy, not a single head of state
Switzerland’s form of governance is officially known as parliamentary democracy with a direct democracy. The country is divided into 26 different areas (called cantons), much like the different states that make up the United States of America. The country’s Federal Assembly consists of the Council of States, which represents the various cantons, and the National Council of Representatives of the People. Together, these members elect the Federal Council – 7 members that collective represent the head of state. The 26 cantons enjoy strong autonomy in their various regions and have a direct hand in political decision-making. Similarly, individual Swiss citizens also have the opportunity to influence the government by means of quarterly initiatives and referendums. This strong federalism underpins Switzerland’s direct democracy.
The Swiss don’t just make clocks, they follow them
Swiss punctuality is more than just a international punchline, it’s a way of life. The alpine nation takes great pride in their world-renowned punctuality and visitors will quickly find this strict adherence to self-enforced timelines has to do with more than just national efficiency – it is, in fact, rooted in a deep respect for their fellow countrymen. By showing up on time, the Swiss are saying ‘I value you, and therefore, I value your time.’ So what does this mean for travellers in Switzerland? For one, if you make plans with a Swiss national, arrive on time if you don’t want to offend your hosts; for another, their trains leave on time, so don’t miss your connections!
You’ll be transacting in Swiss Franc, not Euro
Switzerland is not part of the European Union, which means the country is not obliged to trade in Euro. The Swiss do business with the Swiss Franc (indicated as CHF), but visitors will find that many prices are also indicated in Euro so they can compare prices. Certain shops and merchants may accept Euro, but they are not obliged to do so by law, and visitors can expect to receive Swiss Francs in change. You can change money at any Swiss bank, airport, Western Union railway station and major hotels.
Top Tip! You’ll get the best exchange rate at the banks. Official exchange offices and hotels often charge a fee for the service. Banks are usually open Monday to Friday between 08h30 and 16h30, and closed on Saturdays, Sundays and Public Holidays.
Switzerland is pricey, but it’s worth it (and there is tax-free shopping!)
Truth be told, Switzerland is very pricey if your currency does not match up with the Swiss Franc (and few do!). A cup of coffee comes in at 4 CHF, a public transport ticket at 2.5 CHF, a three-course meal at 35 CHF and a movie ticket at 18 CHF. However, the country’s quality of life measures up – it was rated the 4th happiest country in the world in 2017 according to the World Happiness Report. Visitors can also take advantage of tax-free shopping. Switzerland offers a wide variety of beautiful souvenirs that range from embroidered linen and woodcarvings, to pocket knives, drafting sets and other precision instruments that can easily be shipped back home. VAT in Switzerland stands at 8%, but travellers can ask for Global Blue Cheques at any shop (provided their purchase exceeds 300 CDF, including VAT) to reclaim the tax at the airport. You can read more about the refund process here.
Top Tip! Gratuity is included in the price of your meal at restaurants in Switzerland. If you want to reward good service, it is accepted practice to round up to the nearest Franc.
There are 4 national languages
The Swiss have four national languages and a great variety of regional dialects, and most citizens are at least bilingual. The four main languages are Swiss German (very different from actual German, with a vaguely French quality on the ear), French, Italian and Romansch.
You can take the train almost everywhere
The Swiss public transport system is out of this world. With a whopping 5600 km of train tracks throughout the country, you can travel by rail almost anywhere! Visitors can look forward to regular-interval timetables with precise connections coordinated by 150+ transport companies, as well as world-renowned scenic rail trips with companies like the Glacier Express and Bernina Express. However, you don’t have to go first class to enjoy all the amenities of a Swiss train – second class in Switzerland is far more luxurious than first class in many other countries in the world. Be aware, however, that Swiss trains leave promptly, so time your connections properly if you don’t want to run from one platform to the next.
Top Tip! Visitors get great deals on Swiss Travel System tickets. Depending on you requirements during your stay, you could for instance invest in the all-inclusive Swiss Travel Pass that gets you free travel on premium panorama trains, use of public transport in 90+ urban areas, admission to 500+ museums and up to 50% off on mountain excursions.
Recycling is the norm & visitors should conform
The Swiss are serious about sustainability and particularly fastidious about recycling. Visitors are encouraged to be respectful of this recycling culture, and to contribute to the country’s sustainability efforts by dispensing with their own trash in a responsible way. Always check to see whether a trash can in a public space is designated for a particular type of waste (e.g. plastic, paper, glass, edibles) before you put something in it.
Fun fact! The Swiss are roping in horses for community tasks like garbage and paper collection. Specially-trained horses pull electric carriages that work similarly to an E-bike, generating kinetic power that lessens the load on the horse and stores energy for future trips at the same time! This cuts down on carbon emissions and offers a nice noise-free transport solution for urban areas.
Happy cows + alpine pastures = exceptional dairy
The Swiss are world-renowned for their exceptional milk, chocolate and cheese for a reason. Switzerland’s dairy industry owes a great deal of its success to alpine pastures – the frequent rain and mild sunlight, as well the diversity of plants means that Swiss milk has traditionally been richer and more flavourful than milk from flatter farming areas. When you visit Switzerland, make a point of sampling their incredible dairy products and to buy some (tax-free!) to take back home.
Fun Fact! You can buy fresh, unhomogenised milk from vending machines in some Swiss metropoles thanks to Stadtmilch, a crowd-funded project that was inspired by a young entrepreneur’s nostalgia for the days when milk was still delivered to your door.
The tap water is often better quality than bottled water
Feel free to drink as much tap water as you want when you visit Switzerland. Around 80% of Swiss drinking water comes straight from natural springs and groundwater, the rest from its alpine lakes. Due to strict water quality preservation initiatives, the quality of Swiss tap water is often measured as purer than that of bottled mineral water sold in the country.
Switzerland is actually pretty small
In terms of both geography and population, Switzerland is relatively small. At 41,285 km² is just as big as the greater Shanghai region in China or the states of Vermont and New Hampshire combined. It’s entire population, at 8.1 million, is the same as that of New York City, and the country’s biggest cities are Bern, Zurich, Geneva and Basel.
These are just a few of the wonderful things you’ll discover about Switzerland on our European coach tours. Book your spot on one of our tours that travel through Switzerland ahead of time and enjoy wonderful early-bird savings. All you need is a 10% deposit to secure your seat!