As soon as the snow starts to fall in Switzerland — and that should be any day now — Todd Truitt wants to be on a plane to Europe.
“I like the Alps because I can fly into Geneva for almost the same price as a cross-country U.S. flight, and the resorts are easily reachable by train,” says Truitt, a lawyer from Arlington, Va.
Zermatt, the iconic ski resort in southern Switzerland, is on his wishlist this winter.
Like almost every other destination, Switzerland’s tourism sector has been in recovery mode in 2022. But unlike other parts of Europe and the U.S., many visitors come here during the colder months, drawn by its winterscapes and unparalleled skiing and snowboarding.
This year, some travelers are not waiting for the snow. Cities like Basel and Zürich are reporting a surge of tourists who are enjoying the festivals and shopping. Switzerland has lifted all of its COVID restrictions, and is more affordable than it’s been in years, according to experts.
Why is Switzerland famous for tourism?
Switzerland is on the tourism map for many reasons. It’s not just the country’s famous cheese, chocolate and handcrafted watches. It has some of Europe’s most spectacular alpine scenery, and the mountains offer excellent hiking opportunities during the summer and perhaps the best skiing in the world during the winter.
Switzerland also has postcard-perfect lakes, charming villages and one of the highest standards of living in the world. Of course, perfection comes at a price: A Swiss vacation has traditionally been among the most expensive. But that is also changing. More on that in a minute.
Are there any Switzerland travel restrictions?
There are no COVID-19-related entry restrictions for visitors to Switzerland. No proof of vaccination, recovery or testing is required. Switzerland has open borders with its neighboring countries, so there are typically no barriers to entering the country.
Basel gets busy this fall
Basel, in the northwestern corner of Switzerland, is having its strongest fall for visitors since 2019. Visitors come to this quiet city near the French and German border to enjoy the vibrant fall foliage and the Herbstmesse (fall fair).
The festivities, which end this weekend, attract travelers from across Switzerland, southern Germany and Alsace. Artisans sell everything from handcrafted candles to Christmas ornaments. And there’s plenty of traditional food, including Leckerly (gingerbread) and a sweet pastry called Magenbrot.
This year’s fall fair was crowded not only with locals but also American and British tourists who were on a Rhine cruise. The riverboats dock only half a mile from the fair, offering them a welcome break from cruise food.
“Basel has a reputation for art, and that is one reason why visitors come here,” says Natascha Martin, a spokeswoman for Basel Tourism.
Street art is everywhere, from the spray-painted Bentley parked in front of the Trois Rois hotel to enormous street murals painted by the Art4000 collective.
And, of course, there’s the Kunstmuseum Basel, which is said to be the oldest public art collection in the world. A fascinating display of Zerissene Kunst (castaway modernism) acquired during World War II is among its current exhibitions.
Basel may also be one of only a few places where you can take a bike tour of three countries in an afternoon. Pick up an e-bike at the Hauptbahnhof (main train station) and ride across the Rhine into Germany to visit the Fondation Beyeler, the famous modern art museum. Then hang a left and cross the Rhine into France to see Huningue or Saint-Louis, and then cycle back to Switzerland.
Tourism officials say December will be one of the busiest months. The main attraction is the Christmas Market, one of the oldest and largest in Switzerland and recently named as one of the best Christmas Market in Europe. Among the other winter attractions are the various live performances at the Palazzo Colombino and, of course, the Basel Carnival in February and March.
What’s happening in Zürich?
In Zürich, Switzerland’s largest city, there are also events and new attractions to entice winter visitors. Zürich has its own Christmas market, which rivals some of Europe’s best. The event, which runs from November 24 to December 24, takes place in the Old Town and next to a 50-foot tall Christmas tree at the Christkindlimarkt at Zurich Main Train Station.
The new hotel FIVE Zürich opened over the summer and is hitting its stride this fall. The offshoot of the trendy FIVE Palm Jumeirah in Dubai is easily the most instagrammable property this side of the Alps. Neon lights illuminate the hallways, handblown glass art hangs from the ceilings, and floor-to-ceiling murals of celebrities who stayed at the hotel before it became the FIVE adorn the walls. The former Atlantis Hotel welcomed rock stars like Freddie Mercury and sports icons like Muhammad Ali.
“People are coming to shop and see the sights and enjoy the nightlife,” says general manager Markus Rapatz. And they’re already coming in high-season numbers. Hotel occupancy is running at 85% this month, he says.
In winter, the city also becomes a stopover for visitors bound for Switzerland’s ski resorts. Tourism officials say it’s possible to stay in the city and trek to one of the nearby resorts in the morning. But there are essential experiences — waking up in the morning to make first tracks in the snow and après-ski in the evening — that you would miss.
Zürich is an appealing destination, even for for ski widows and widowers — the spouses who prefer not to go skiing or snowboarding. In addition to the shopping, which is not for the faint of wallet, there are cultural attractions worth seeing. Those include the Landesmuseum Zürich, which has exhibits of Swiss history, and a historic old town that dates back to Roman times, when the city was called Turicum.
Is travel to Switzerland affordable for American visitors?
Switzerland doesn’t exactly have a reputation for affordability. I spoke with Bernard Gademann, who runs the boarding school Institut auf dem Rosenberg, and he estimates that a Swiss vacation is typically 30% to 40% more expensive than other parts of Europe.
“The question is, can a vacation in Switzerland add more value,” he added. “I think so.”
But visitors like Truitt already see that value thanks to the economy.
“Lift tickets are much cheaper than in the U.S,” he says. “I’m also finding the cost of lodging to be very reasonable compared to the cost of lodging in ski resorts out west.”
Wait, Switzerland is a value destination? As counterintuitive as it sounds, there’s something to it, says Jakub Kasperczyk, general manager for Switzerland at Blueground, a furnished apartment rental company.
“With high inflation globally, rising interest rates and global travel becoming more expensive, Switzerland could potentially benefit from an increased inflow of visitors,” he says. “Compared to other places, a stay in Switzerland is less expensive than in the last few years.”
But it’s all relative. Adam Roy, CEO of luxury Swiss vacation property provider The Volla, said demand remains high at the top of the market — where people like Truitt are.
“However, the middle market has tapered off in recent months in what we deem as a response to the rising cost of living and the strength of the Swiss Franc,” he says. “However, the domestic market is still buoyant, and we are seeing more American demand than ever.”
Roy says if you’re interested in visiting Switzerland, you should not wait until the last minute to book. He says the traditional ski season runs from December to Easter. But it hits its peak around Christmas, New Year and spring break.
“Availability is often scarce and can also be more expensive,” he told me. “If you are traveling during this period, I’d recommend booking your accommodation and any restaurant reservations in advance to ensure that you’re not disappointed.”