The Perfect Summer or Fall 7-Day Switzerland Road Trip
Scenic October in the Swiss Alps
Summer is fast approaching and it’s time to stop procrastinating and plan your Switzerland vacation. Switzerland is every hiker, photographer, adventure enthusiast, or winter sport athlete’s dream. There are virtually endless hikes and excursions in all parts of this tiny European gem. My perfect Switzerland road trip is meant to hit up what I consider the most visually stunning areas that also offer opportunities for less outdoorsy travelers. This was my second trip to the country and so I was okay with skipping major destinations like Geneva, Zurich, and even Interlaken. For a first timer, you might want to squeeze a visit in to these spots and that’s totally fine too! Just do whatever makes you happy :)
Growing up in New England, I’ve been fortunate enough to annually witness some incredible fall colors. Like a slow-rolling wave, the vibrant reds and yellows descend from the Green Mountains in Vermont before crashing onto the White Mountains of New Hampshire and flooding the rest of New England below. The whole process takes weeks and is a landscape photography enthusiast’s dream.
This past fall, my friends and I strategically planned hikes and camping getaways that would maximize exposure to the foliage. Adventures were charted for the White Mountains, the foothills, and coastal Maine. It was set to be an epic experience that would cover many miles of scenic roadtripping.
… Then a killer flight deal to Europe was found…
My equally as adventurous girlfriend and I found round trip flights (bags included) from Boston to Milan at an unbeatable price in the low $400s. Tack on some Chase Ultimate Reward points from a signup bonus and suddenly the journey was free.
(If you want the card, here’s my referral link and you’ll get 50,000 points that equals $625 for travel or can be transferred as miles 1:1 to tons of airlines. https://www.referyourchasecard.com/6/18UPWDNP69. I’ve seen free round trip flights to Australia before by transferring to Delta.)
Now enough preface, here’s a perfect one week fall roadtrip through Switzerland.
Switzerland Road Trip Day One - Milan, Italy to Zermatt, Switzerland
So I’ll clear up two things right off the bat for those confused by our decision to fly into Italy and to drive in Switzerland when their rail system is amazing. We flew to Milan because it was $350 cheaper than Zurich, Basel, or Geneva at the time and it offered us the quickest access point to the car-free mountain village of Zermatt at the base of the Matterhorn. Plus, I’d never set foot in Italy and this technically counts as visiting. We rented a car through Auto Europe because it was mid-October, we had a ton of hiking gear, and the weather was supposed to be unpredictable. Our decision was the right one because we got to see several things that would have been far more challenging to reach by train. With only a week in Europe, we wanted to maximize our options.
Renting a car from Milan-Malpensa Airport (MXP) was fairly easy considering it was situated northwest of Milan and only two and a half hours from Zermatt, which is also northwest. The drive starts off in suburban Italian towns before transitioning to marvelous Italian alps. One thing you’ll need for for driving in Italy is Euros and an International Drivers Permit which can be obtained from your nearest AAA location for a pretty reasonable price. The IDP is basically just a book with your photo that has translations into a ton of languages. You face huge fines if you get pulled over by police in Italy without one. You won’t need it if you fly into Switzerland and don’t enter Italy. Those Euros I mentioned are for paying the cheap tolls along the Autostrade, the faster highway in Italy. They take credit cards too but I hear Americans have issues sometimes because of the chip and signature format of US cards.
Driving the E62 to SS33 route into Switzerland introduces you to towering snow-capped peaks like Hübschhorn as you cross over the Simplon Pass from Italy to Switzerland.
One important thing to remember if you rent outside of Switzerland is that you MUST pick up a Swiss Vignette sticker if you want to drive on any of the major highways. Stop at any convenience store and it’s 40 Swiss Francs (CHF) for a car sticker that’s good for a year.
The route continues weaving through mountainous crossings before descending towards the town of Brig where you’ll veer off in the direction of Täsch, a town about five miles north of Zermatt. In case you overlooked my previous description of Zermatt, I’ll remind you that it’s a car-free village. That makes driving there an impossible task for visitors. So in order to get to Zermatt, the best option is to leave your car in the Matterhorn Terminal Täsch parking garage for 15.50CHF per day and take the 12-minute Zermatt shuttle train to Zermatt station. The train from Tasch to Zermatt will set you back about 16.40CHF round trip unless you purchase the Swiss Half Fare Card. The Swiss Half Fare Card is about 120CHF for one month of use and gets you up to half off most trains, buses, and gondolas in Switzerland. It’s great for longer duration stays or lots of travel on the rail system.
Arriving in Zermatt, you are immediately greeted with a cozy ski village vibe. The air is just a bit crisper and scented with the smells of freshly baked breads, Bavarian pretzels, and cuisines of all kinds. A short stroll past many shops and restaurants will bring you in sight of the Matterhorn (14,692 ft), one of the world’s most iconic mountains. You’ll probably be arriving pretty late in the evening, so I suggest taking a walk around town to orient yourself and catch a meal before bed. By mid-October, many of the shops are starting to close down before re-opening for ski-season. Nevertheless, you’ll still have plenty of choices. The Factory stays open late and has Italian pasta dishes that I still salivate thinking about months later.
Switzerland Road Trip Day Two - Zermatt Gornergrat Railway
You’re in Zermatt, you’re feeling settled, you’ve maybe gotten yourself some breakfast at a cafe. Grab yourself a baguette at Fuchs bakery and stow it in your bag to re-energize yourself later in the day. Now it’s time to journey outward. Hop on the Gornergrat train from Bahnhofplatz and soon you’ll be among the many towering peaks of the alps with panoramic views that are hard to beat anywhere else. The Gornergrat electric cog railway takes about 33 minutes to climb nearly 5,000 feet from Zermatt to Gornergrat Station (10,135 feet). Along the route there are several stops where you can hop off, take some photos or a hike, then catch the next train up or down. All the while, you’ll have an insane view of the Matterhorn. When riding the Gornergrat train, the right side is the best side to sit on as it has nearly constant unobstructed views of Zermatt and the Matterhorn.
While many opt to ride straight to the Gornegrat first, I suggest basing your decision on whether the Matterhorn is visible or not. Clouds develop quickly around the prominent peak and conceal it for hours at a time. If you see any break at all, hop off at Riffelsee and hike down to the lake edge where you’ll get fantastic views of the Matterhorn reflecting off of the water. I’ve heard that this spot is unreal for sunrises because the sun hits this visible side directly in the morning.
Don’t stop there! Take an hour to walk some of the trails and check out the Gorner Glacier from the nearby cliffs. If you really feel adventurous, you can hike back to Zermatt with a 2 or so hour-long downhill hike. We opted not to do that because we like our knees.
If you chose to stop at Riffelsee first, you can hike up the hill to Gornergrat or be a sane person and hop back on the train. As a New Hampshire native, my max altitude is around 4,000 feet (1200ish meters), so climbing up hills at 10,000 feet is a tough endeavor. I have pictures of Gornergrat that I could share, but that would ruin all of the fun for you! If you really need to see it now, they have 360º views on their website - here.
Depending on how early you got the day started, there are heaps of other gondolas you can take to other peaks in the area. We didn’t get to attempt any of those other excursions because we elected to eat our ham and cheese baguettes while staring at the alps for an hour. We all have our unique pleasures.
Switzerland Road Trip Day Three - Oeschinensee and the Drive to Grindelwald
If you’ve read my previous blog posts, you’ll know that I’m ridiculously spontaneous. Day three is one of those days of spontaneity. We had planned all along to hike alongside the Aletsch Glacier, the Alp’s largest glacier, while driving a cumulative 3.5 hours to reach our next AirBNB in Grindelwald, but at the last second we received a text from my friend Sean that there was an epic alpine lake also en route to Grindelwald - though on a different route. Upon further research, we learned that this route was actually shorter because of one reason that we simply couldn’t pass up - a tunnel transport train! The choice was easy. We bought a 25 CHF discounted ticket through the Lötschberg Base Tunnel website and drove our rental car onto the back of a hella sketchy open-air train and away we went into the mountains.
In 15 minutes the train takes you from Goppenstein to Kandersteg, the town beneath Oeschinen Lake. There should be plenty of signage, but if you’re struggling plug in “Gondelbahn Kandersteg Oeschinensee” to your GPS and you’re good to go. Park in one of the many metered lots and take the 30 CHF return gondola up to the lakes edge. Should you wish to thrill yourself, you can book a one way ticket and take a pretty intense looking summer alpine slide down instead — or do a 1-2 hour hike back that honestly didn’t look too interesting.
When you get to the top of the gondola, walk along the well-groomed pebbled footpath for 10ish minutes, at which point you’ll reach some trail markers on the left. If you’re keen for a truly breathtaking and fairly moderate (difficult if you aren’t in shape) hike, take the Heuberg Loop Trail up into the mountains north of the lake. The trail gives an unbelivable panoramic view of the turquoise water protected by snow-capped peaks. All told it’s about a 4hour, 11km (total) out and back hike, but due to time constraints we felt content turning around about 4.5 km into it. If you aren’t up for the hike, you can continue along the pebbled trail for another 7 to 10 minutes where you’ll reach the shore of the lake. There are a few trails along the perimeter of the water.
Be mindful of the time because the gondola lift closes extremely early. I think it was 4pm in late October.
Once you’re back at the car, head towards potentially the prettiest place in Switzerland - Grindelwald. Along the route you’ll probably want to stop at the touristy town of Interlaken if it’s your first time in Switzerland. I’d seen it my last time in the country and found no reason to stop again, so we continued onwards to our next AirBNB in Grindelwald.
Switzerland Road Trip Day Four, Five and Part of Six - Grindelwald, Lauterbrunnen, Mürren, and the Jungfrau Region
If you visit nowhere else in Switzerland, you must-must-must visit the Jungfrau region that encompasses Grindelwald, Wengen, Murren, Lauterbrunnen, and Hasli. Seriously, the scale and charm of the region is remarkably enchanting. Grindelwald is a somewhat small village nestled beneath the iconic north face of Eiger. Adorable chalets dot the rolling green fields that stare up at the captivating scenery above. You’ll see constant streams of base jumpers and adventure enthusiasts circling the skies, while alpinists and backpackers speed along the streets en route to the nearest gondola or train. This is the spot to be if you are obsessed with nature.
You’re going to have basically limitless hikes and excursions to choose from in the area, but I’ll fill you in on what we selected. I’m including all days together because you may choose to adjust your itinerary on the fly based on things like weather or fatigue. Keep in mind that we just handpicked a few quarter to half-day hikes in different parts of the region, but there were tons of longer and shorter opportunities. If you think you’ll spend the majority of your time in the Jungfrau Region and you didn’t buy a half fare card, you can buy the Jungfrau Travel Pass for 180 CHF and ride most of the region’s gondolas, buses, and trains for free. Just tap the pass or show it to an attendant and skip the ticketing lines. The half fare card will reduce the cost to 135 CHF. You’ll also receive reduced prices on the Jungfraujoch - Top of Europe train connection and excursion.
First (pronounced kind of like Fearssst) is an adventure destination overlooking Grindelwald. You can reach First via an intimidatingly long gondola beginning in the downtown section of Grindelwald. After what seems like 10 hours of surreal floating in front of the backdrop of mountains, you finally arrive at the end of the ride and exit to a number of opportunities. Should you so dare, there is a glider/zipline sort of thing you can take which travels 800 meters at heights topping 50 meters above ground. If you’re one for mountain biking or mountain carting, you’ll find those options as well. Then, if you’re a complete psycho, you can take the cliff walk that brings you out on a cliffside lookout that will probably cause serious vertigo in sane humans. Finally, if you’re just up for a hike, maybe take a two hour return walk to Lake Bachalpsee. Word of advice - if you choose the walk, don’t bring a hiking backpack. It’s up and down the whole route and you’ll find a larger backpack to be burdensome and unnecessary. It’s also super exposed with no trees, so you’ll definitely need sunscreen on any day without overcast. The walk is beautiful for sure, but the trail seems endless and the views don’t change all that much between First station and the lake. I’d almost say to skip the whole walk and just do one of the adventure courses or just do 10 minutes of walking and turn around. You’ll be slightly disappointed in the huge crowds at the lake and it’s nothing compared to Oeschinensee in terms of beauty.
The next valley over from Grindelwald is Lauterbrunnen Valley, the valley of 72 waterfalls. You’ll need to dedicate a full day for this area because journeying into the mountains above is a must. You can catch a train from Grindelwald towards Interlaken OST that has a transfer at Zweilütschinen. From there you ride a short distance into Lauterbrunnen where you’re immediately treated with Staubbach Falls, the third highest waterfall in Switzerland. Shops seem to shut down by late-October, so you may be limited in choice if you want to shop or dine in the area. No matter, the better fun happens when you take the cable car to Grütschalp and transfer onto the train (or walk along the trail) to the car-free mountain village of Mürren.
Mürren and the Schilthorn
Mürren will wow you with its unfathomable views of Eiger and the Lauterbrunnen Valley below. Take your time up here because every view is more impressive than the previous. A number of cafés stand on cliff edges overlooking the impressive nature, so treat yourself to a coffee or meal and enjoy the surroundings. Tons of shops and adorable homes create an entirely unique feel to the town. Give yourself at least a couple of hours to soak it in before carrying on to the admittedly terrifying 82.60 CHF return cableway journey up to Schilthorn - Piz Gloria - the setting of the 1969 James Bond film, On Her Majesty's Secret Service.
So I’ll admit that the Piz Gloria itself is a tad bit corny if you aren’t a die-hard James Bond fan. The spot has been transformed into a relic of sorts to the 007 franchise, so everything inside the building speaks to the history of the franchise. The views offered atop Schilthorn, however, are worth every penny. You’ll be rewarded with a completely 360º panoramic mountaintop view that stretches as far as the eyes can see. In one direction you can see the likes of Jungfrau and Eiger, while other directions extend outwards across Bern and the Black Forest.
There is also a rotating restaurant with overpriced food and drinks. Don’t tempt yourself with any unless you wish to be disappointed. I’m quite certain that the burger and fries I ate were microwaved directly from a frozen state. But hey, at least the 007 logo was branded into the bun…
Männlichen to Kleine Scheidegg Hike
We did the Männlichen to Kleine Scheidegg hike on the morning of our sixth day and actually ended up spending much of the early afternoon exploring the ridge-line. The hike starts after a ridiculously long ski lift-style gondola ride up to Männlichen from Grindelwald. From there you can hike to the top of Männlichen and get an awesome view of the Interlaken area, Lauterbrunnen Valley, and Grindelwald. It’s a pretty steep ascent, but there is a groomed footpath up it. If you’re trying not to sweat or raise your heart rate at all, you can instead just stick with the popular Männlichen to Kleine Scheidegg hike which offers only the views of Grindelwald and Eiger. All told the hike is about an hour to 90 minutes long and spans 3.5 miles (5.7km). At the end you’ll have the chance to take the cogwheel railway back to Grindelwald, take a separate one up to Jungfraujoch, or hike the famous Eiger trail 6km down to Grindelwald.
Switzerland Road Trip Day 6.5 - Lucerne
If you crave some bigger city Swiss culture, give yourself at least an afternoon and evening in Lucerne. This busy, compact city sits on Lake Lucerne and is surrounded by some pretty impressive mountains, including Mount Pilatus and the steepest cog railroad in the world. When we arrived there this Fall, the whole city was completely engulfed by fog that left visibility down to a couple of miles. Luckily for me, I was there a few years ago and had seen it all coated in a beautiful blanket of snow (pictured above).
I won’t go into too much detail about Lucerne since everyone has their unique interests when it comes to city exploration, but I will offer some words of wisdom. First, the traffic patterns are horrendous and your GPS probably will incorrectly guide you to your hotel. Most of the hotels are situated on one side of the river Reuss, which is basically only accessible by foot. In some instances, the hotel might tell you that there are cobblestone streets which permit you to drive to the hotel entrance temporarily to drop off of luggage. I’ll tell you now that if you’re arriving during any sort of rush hour, you’re simply not going to be able to find those street entrances since they are filled with pedestrian and cyclist commuters. Your GPS will also leave you on the opposite side of the river. Your best bet is probably going to be to park in any of the absurdly tight parking garages and walk your luggage (we chose Parkhaus Kantonalbank and paid a 24-hour rate). There are helpful electronic signs indicating how many spots are remaining in each public lot. The second suggestion is to monitor Priceline or Hotels.com because there are some spectacular deals on hotels come mid-October.
As far as things to do - I would definitely suggest the Gütsch Funicular for a nice view of the city layout, a walk across the wooden Chapel Bridge (Kapellbrücke), and a stroll along the many outdoor markets on the Reuss. There are tons of food options in the area, so pick and choose based on your preferences. I will say that the Beck Koch AG bakery was phenomenal and reasonably priced.
If you’re running low or need some Swiss chocolates as gifts, Lucerne has a number of grocery stores that offer bars for 2 or 3 CHF. Try to avoid the tourist shops or high-end chocolate places if you like having money in your savings account. The chocolates at the grocery stores are still super tasty.
Switzerland Road Trip Day 7 - Morcote
The last stop on the perfect 7-day Switzerland road trip is not a place you may know or expect. A 2-hour drive south of Lucerne is this tiny lakeside town of Morcote, named Switzerland’s most beautiful village in 2016. The adorable village sits on the edge of Lake Lugano at the Italian border and offers outstanding cuisine influenced by its Italian neighbors. By Fall, Morcote has quieted down significantly, giving a feeling of tranquility and exclusivity. The weather also stays beautiful even into the fall, with temperatures in the low 70s F (21ºc). Cozy on up to one of the waterside restaurants and prepare for an epic feast at surprisingly decent prices. Just make sure you eat early because everything shuts down by 7pm it seemed. The Ristorante Pizzeria Della Posta served some of the best pizza I’ve ever had.
Morcote is built into the side of a steep hill and has seemingly endless staircases and stone alleys you can climb up to the Chiesa Santa Maria del Sasso at the top. From there you can see much of Lake Lugano and across to Italy.
The End of the Road
Unfortunately since you decided for your Switzerland road trip to be 7 days instead of something like 14 days, this means that Morcote is your last stop on the road. Luckily for you, it’s only an hour from Milan airport and the drive is on easy highways. You’ll just want to make sure to find your Euros because the roadways is back on the Italian toll system.
Having second thoughts about Switzerland? Maybe try a week in Iceland. Check out an 8-day road trip on Iceland’s Ring Road.
If you’re interested in any more specific details on our route, leave a comment below or send me an email! I’ve added a bunch of pictures to my Switzerland Collection and for sale in the online store. I’m trying to get a blog post up at least every month, so signup at the bottom of the page to join my email list. Thanks all!