Although a small country, Switzerland makes up for its size with its diversity. German, French, Italian. Breathtaking mountain vistas, sparkling lakes. Sophisticated cities, enchanting villages. While all areas of Switzerland offer something worthwhile, my favorite is the Bernese Oberland. There are 26 cantons in Switzerland, somewhat equivalent to our states. The Oberland is in central Switzerland, canton Bern. A favorite of tourists, there are alternatives to some of the more heavily visited areas in the Oberland.
Interlaken is a prime destination for tourists. Its central location between the lakes of Brienz and Thun and in the shadow of the towering Jungfrau mountain makes it a transportation hub for many excursions. Large ships provide tours of both lakes. Lake Brienz has Giessbach falls, the charming village of Bönigen, and the woodcarving capital of Brienz, however, my preference is for Lake Thun where you can visit medieval castles, a cave, and enjoy picturesque views.
A less touristed alternative to Interlaken 12 miles away or 20 minutes by train is the city of Thun. Thun is a real jewel.In addition to its namesake lake, there are flower bedecked covered bridges over a fast flowing river, a beautiful rathausplatz (town square), medieval double decker shopping street, and a romantic castle which offers a spectacular view. Thun has modern department stores and a row of restaurants and sidewalk cafes along the water that provide many dining options.
Grindelwald is another tourist favorite. Surrounded by snow capped peaks, it faces the north wall of the Eiger mountain; two glaciers spill down into the town. Its various cable cars are starting points for some wonderful alpine hikes, or, as the Swiss call it, walking. From Grindelwald, you can take the Jungfrau Railway to Jungfraujoch…more on that later.
My preference over Grindelwald is Mürren. A carless village perched on a precipice with the “big three” mountains of Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau literally “in your face”, I cannot even begin to describe how stunning it is. You reach Mürren by training to Lauterbrunnen, switching to a cable car to Grütschalp, and then an electric train to Mürren. All modes of transportation arecovered by the Swiss Rail Pass. Alternatively, you can walk the relatively flat four miles from Grütschalp to Mürren.
The train to both Grindelwald and Lauterbrunnen leaves from Interlaken Ost (east) train station. Be careful which train car you choose, however. At one of the stops on the way, the train divides; part of it goes to Grindelwald, the other part to Lauterbrunnen. Each car has a sign on it with the name of its final destination. Check the sign before boarding.
Our favorite place to stop in Mürren is the Edelweiss, a self service cafeteria. The food is good, but the seating spectacular. An outdoor terrace juts out over the Lauterbrunnen Valley, while you are so close to the “big three”, you feel you could reach out and touch them.
A nice hike from Mürren is to take the gondola to Allmenhubel and walk back down to the town. An alternative upon leaving Mürren is to either walk or take the cable car down to Gimmelwald (not to be confused with Grindelwald!) and then the cable car toStechelberg and bus to Lauterbrunnen. The trip down from Gimmelwald passes cascading waterfalls. Lauterbrunnen means “many fountains”and there are more than 70 falls in the Lauterbrunnen valley. Between Stechelberg and Lauterbrunnen is a stop for Trümmelbach Falls, a waterfall within a cave.
Visitors flock to take the trip to the Jungfraujoch. Getting there is an adventure, albeit an expensive one. Accessed by train from either Grindelwald or Lauterbrunnen, at Kleine Scheidegg a cog train travels 40 minutes through the Eiger tunnel, an engineering marvel, to the highest railway station in Europe at more than 11,000 feet. Along the way, there are stops at viewing windows. Actually a saddle between the Monch and Jungfrau mountains, the terminus has restaurants, a post office, an ice palace with intricate ice carvings, an observation terrace, even dog sled rides. The weather often obscures visibility; a webcam at the bottom shows the condition on top, but that can change quickly.
A less expensive and time consuming alternative is the Schilthorn, accessible from Mürren. At the top is the Piz Gloria, a revolving restaurantthat was used as a locale for filming the James Bond film, “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.” The 360 degree view is, for want of a better word, spectacular. Weather again can wreck havoc on the view; check the webcam before purchasing your ticket. The earlier you start out, the better the chance of an unrestricted view. As heat builds up, so do the clouds.
The Swiss transportation system is remarkable. Boats, buses, trains, and even mountain cable cars and funiculars are all precisely timed to make connections flawless. The best bargain in Switzerland is a Swiss Rail Pass. Available in intervals of 4, 8, 16, 15, 22, or 30 days, it provides unlimited travel on the Swiss Travel system including trains, buses, lake ships, and some mountain transports. Show it at private mountain cable cars and trains, including the trip to Jungfraujoch, and receive a discount. It also covers city trams and buses, as well as free entrance to more than 400 museums. Swiss rail passes must be purchased in the United States; there is a discount for 2 or more adults traveling together.