Ever dreamed of frolicking in the icy wonderland that’s Switzerland? Well, the country that attracts the rich and the A-listers also has a place in the Alps for budget travellers. With the Swiss Franc trading strongly, it’s all about planning before touring one of the most expensive nations in the world.
Reality check: Can a middle-class Joe earning in Malaysian ringgit really afford the high-end travel destination? Absolutely. Those tight on cash can source for the cheapest outlets for shopping, eating and accommodation.
According to a Swiss tourist guide, even the locals, having to pay high taxes, find the country expensive. They also go to local departmental stores where a pair of shoes can cost around SF100 (around RM380) and eat mostly at the open air markets. Thus it all boils down to planning.
Accommodation: Most hostels and homestays are usually fully booked (well in advance) during peak periods. The peak periods are summer to winter (June to February) and, according to local guides, spring (March to May) is when hotels usually slash their rates. This depends on where you want to stay. If you wish to be near the ski resorts during this period, room rates can be pretty high.
Internal travel: Those planning to travel extensively will be wise to invest in a Swiss Pass. The trains are pleasant, punctual and practical. The pass offers unlimited travel on the amazing Swiss transport system for a set number of days. The rail network crisscrosses miles and miles of neverending beautiful landscapes. Within the city, there are trams. Cabs here are super-expensive, even for a short distance.
Food: It can be expensive and bland. Dining at the hotels with fanciful menus is a waste of money for most of the time all you get are tasteless sausages. Ask the waiter for something spicy and he will shove Tabasco sauce in your face. The affordable places to eat are at the open-air markets where you can find a fusion of Italian, French and German fare with no frills. Even here, the makan is so-so. And if you are planning for longer than a week-long trip, seriously, do what a seasoned Malaysian tourist guide who frequents Switzerland does – take a few bottles of spicy something with you. There are Chinese and Indian restaurants but check the prices first.
Chocolates: Going to Switzerland and not buying chocolates is like going to Terengganu and not buying the famous keropok. Shops selling fine chocs are just about everywhere and is very expensive at outlets selling them by weight. Take the advice of a trusted Malaysian tourist guide – head to the biggest grocery chain Migros and Coop (found everywhere). From chocolates to local cookies and other stuff, the prices here are affordable.
Clothing: According to the local tourist guide, there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing. Be warned, it can be very cold in the snow-covered mountains and very chilly in the lowlands during spring. And if don’t want to splurge on winter clothing, there are outlets which rent them out.
Switzerland is all about nature. Yes, there are the museums and churches which are worth the visit but the main attraction throughout the country is its natural beauty. One can experience the best of both worlds – lush greenery and snow – during early spring. A number of places in Switzerland offer such vistas, and it would be somewhat of a steal to visit them during this time of the year.
If you are flying into Zurich, St Gallen would be a perfect staging point. About 15 minutes’ walk from Zurich Airport, the weather here is chilly during spring which would prepare you for the cold days ahead. A quaint traffic-free town, it is a perfect place to limber up after a 12-hour flight. There are no direct flights from Malaysia to Switzerland.
It’s a nice place to take a stroll. If you are into beautiful buildings, looking skywards in the old part of the city is worthwhile. There are buildings from the Baroque period and richly decorated houses. A day in the city is enough.
Take your time exploring Abbey Precinct. Take in the splendour both outside and inside Abbey Church. Abbey Library is must-visit where 2,000 original handwritten medieval manuscripts are on display. The pizzas here are pretty good. But it’s certainly no shopping heaven.
St Moritz is very upscale. To get there, hop on a train to Samedan, a secluded village with nothing much to see or do. The rooms are pretty affordable here. St Moritz is only 15 minutes away by train.
Elegant and exclusive, St Moritz is a top-notch winter destination. Located more than 1,850m above sea level, the mountains here are a breathtaking blanket of white. The beautiful lakes that come alive during summer are still frozen during spring. Home to two Winter Olympics, St Moritz is abuzz with snow sport and excursions even during this period. Unless you have piles of Swiss francs to burn, forget about shopping here.
Scroll down for a video on travelling around Switzerland by train
Get set for one of the most spectacular train rides in the world. To go to Lugano from St Moritz, you can board the Bernina Express to Tirano in Italy first. Take the panoramic coach with enlarged windows – it will cost a bit more than normal coaches, but it’s worth it. The trip takes about four hours and the train runs along the Unesco World Heritage Site known as the Rhaetian Railway in the Albula-Bernina landscapes.
The rail journey across 196 bridges, through 55 tunnels and across the Bernina Pass at 2,253m above sea level is spellbinding but it can get a little monotonous after a while. But do keep your eyes peeled for dramatic changes in the landscape every now and then, such as beautiful lakes thrown into the mix.
The train stops at the Italian border town of Tirano. From there, you can go on a three-hour bus ride, passing by Lake Como in Italy to Lugano in Switzerland. If you plan to eat or buy a little something Italian, make sure you have Euros. Most outlets don’t take Swiss francs and those that do will give you raw deal.
Lugano is a picturesque lakeside city in Ticino, the Italian-speaking part of southern Switzerland. The place is so idyllic, especially by the lakeside, that you feel like you are in slumberland. There are the usual outdoor activities like hiking and boating but the best way to enjoy Lugano is by doing nothing. The streets lined with beautiful flowers are good for a lazy walk while munching Italian pastries.
After days of eating potatoes, Swiss cheese and somewhat bland pasta and sausages, indulge in Chinese food in Lugano. There are many grand-sounding ones. Just check out your neighbourhood-like Wong Ho restaurant. The interior was like in a restaurant in Kepong and the food was quite good. The steamed fish with soy sauce and cili padi was as good as anywhere back home.
From Lugano, head to Zermatt via Italy again. It’s about three hours’ drive cruising by Lake Maggiore, the second largest lake in Italy. Just like Lake Como, this lake too is spectacular and is a bonus for those on a tour.
Zermatt is a car-free village and home to the world-renowned Matterhorn mountain. Take a cable car up to the mountain to enjoy the snow, scenery or just to watch people ski. It’s a bustling village with many shops selling souvenirs; you can buy your Swiss knife here. Accommodation in Zermatt is among the most expensive in the country. If you can afford a room here, ask for one with a balcony, for it will be a room with a view. Otherwise, stay in Taesch, a 10-minute train ride away.
Riederalp is the place for nature lovers and eco-tourists. Located on a high plateau, it is another car-free getaway with no shops or pubs. Time flies here by just gazing at the mountains while the birds chirp. Resorts here offer skiing lessons, which would be a memorable experience. This place is said to be abuzz during summer and winter. Most resorts are closed in late spring, so it’s best to check first.
If you have had enough of the Alps, head to Bern, the capital of Switzerland. This city retains its historic charm with many fountains, towers and churches. It’s a shopping paradise catering to all pockets. Check out the open-air market for some decent food while listening to music played by the buskers.
Switzerland is a dog-loving country, and you can see canines just about everywhere. Watching the people walk their pets, especially the St Bernards, is an attraction in itself.
Language is no problem at all as English is widely spoken. The people here are very friendly and many would gladly guide you to the cheapest places to eat, shop or stay.
Switzerland is well-documented as one of the most beautiful countries in the world and nothing beats being physically there to take in the supremely enchanting sights. As a Malaysian teacher touring the Alps put it: “It’s a die, die, must visit country.”
This media trip was sponsored by Apple Signature West and Switzerland Tourism.