Imagine stepping out of your apartment and across the street to hop on the city train that runs by regularly. A few minutes later you transfer at the main station to a regional train that quietly whisks you away from the urban center. Soon you're in countryside, and within an hour you see the largest waterfall in Europe churning and misting over the next hill.
You follow the well-marked paths from your station to the falls, where you can get close up via various observation points, let your young traveling companion swing around on a playground, or explore a neighboring castle. Then you hop on a boat that takes you down a cool clear river, one full of history and poetry as it defines the border with another country. Swimmers float by, laughing and splashing.
You get off the boat at a shady clearing nestled in the trees and see a beautiful swimming pool complex and cafe on the river. You spend a couple of hours playing and sunning. When you're tired you take the boat and trains home, and get ready for the next day's adventure.
This was just one of the days that came to pass during three weeks living in Switzerland this summer, and it's a good example of the kinds of adventures that my wife, daughter and I (along with a friend who visited us for part of the trip) had in that time. With a centrally located apartment in Zürich and our travel passes in hand, we were fortunate to explore a lot of different corners of this awesome country. From snow-capped mountains to rushing rivers, lush woods to bustling lakefronts, beautiful cities with amazing architecture, innovative museums and interesting festivals, we saw a lot.
Beyond Zürich, cities visited included Basel, Montreaux, Lucerne, Interlaken, Grindelwald, Weggis, Zermatt, Bern, Rapperswil, Konstantz (Germany) and Winterthur.
One of the reasons I was excited to visit Switzerland was to be in a place that optimized its cities and travel around mass transportation and being walkable and bike-able, instead of optimizing for everyone individually driving everywhere...and I was not disappointed. With infrastructure and engineering that seemed far more advanced than I'm used to in the U.S., the Swiss transport system was absolutely incredible.
Trains, buses, trams, boats and cable cars seemingly went everywhere, and in many cases went places cars were not allowed to go. They were modern, clean, quiet and very much ran on time. They also appeared to run all the time, making cross-town or cross-country adventures something that could start at a moment's notice and able to be changed easily along the way.
I was glad for my daughter to see this in action, along with pervasive pedestrian and bike paths and a deference to cyclists and walkers that I've only seen a few other places. (The one time we rented a car, we were stuck in traffic for hours and our trip felt much more complicated logistically; we walked or used mass transit exclusively after that.) Since we got home, she's been wondering and asking why we drive everywhere instead of taking the train.
Speaking of how a young person might experience Switzerland, we were so very impressed with how there were play spaces everywhere we looked, and some places we weren't expecting them. The city parks in Zürich were impressive in themselves — creatively laid out playgrounds set against beautiful landscapes of water and gardens — but then there were the play spaces at rest stops, up mountains, next to train stations, in museums, and even in fancy restaurants.
We got the distinct impression that kids were invited to learn, play and have fun anywhere they went, and it was so cool to know our preschooler would always have something to look forward to on our trips.
We grown-ups found ourselves in constant motion, too. A typical day saw us hitting 10,000 steps or more, sometimes double that, as we climbed, biked and swam along mountains, lakes and rivers.
Steps taken per day: A is my life in a city designed around individual vehicle usage. B is my life in a city optimized for mass transit, walking and biking.
On multiple levels, I really like how B feels. pic.twitter.com/HAYj8UUrRI
— Chris Hardie (@ChrisHardie) July 7, 2019
The swimming, by the way, was idyllic. We only ended up in a chlorinated swimming pool once; the rest of the time we were in the rivers and lakes that seemed impossibly clean and clear. Unlike the publicly accessible waterways around much of the U.S. that we by default assume to be contaminated in some form, Switzerland found a way not to pollute them. Swimming holes, beaches, and random steps leading down into the water are just everywhere, and seemed to be a core part of public life for people of all ages and backgrounds.
It was really fun to go to bed most every night completely worn out from exploring.
Every time we thought we'd seen the most beautiful spot in the country, there was something else stunning and impressive just around the corner.
As with past trips like this one (Prague, Asheville, DC, Portland, Ecuador) we try to stay long enough to be a bit settled, more than tourists passing through on a bus or whirlwind weekend. We noticed the difference between how the first few days felt and all of the things our brains were concerned with – figuring out the currency, navigating transportation, orienting ourselves to the basic geography of the area, small cultural differences in everyday things like grocery shopping and restaurant ordering – and how we felt three weeks later, when we could wander through our neighborhood or a city center and pay more attention to the sights and sounds of what had become a familiar place. Our preschooler quickly started referring to our apartment as home, and for a time, it was.
I'm told Switzerland is a popular place to visit right now, and it's easy to see why. We had a great experience and I'm so glad we were able to do it.
You can see all of my public photos from the trip here.