When I added Lucerne and Interlaken, Switzerland, to our itinerary, I imagined sparkling snow covered peaks, blue skies and spring flowers adorning the lower slopes. After all, we were going to be there in May, so I didn’t think this would be too much of a stretch. What I did not imagine was days of continuous rain nor, as we got to experience for a whole day, snow! Needless to say many of my plans were derailed, and I am going to have to plan another trip back to Switzerland to tick some of the big name attractions off my bucket list.
We were driving down into Switzerland from Germany having just said goodbye to our friends and picked up our rental car that we will have until we fly home. Our first task was to work out how to get a vignette at the border. We got off the motorway a bit before the border to look for a service station. I think we must have driven on the only roads for miles that didn’t have one. Eventually we came across one, just as we thought we would be over the border without one the way we were going. All happy, we cross into Switzerland – to find a place at the border crossing selling vignettes and we could have just gone straight there instead of spending half an hour driving the back streets. Live and learn!
Like everything in Switzerland, a vignette is not cheap at 40CHF ($58AUD/$40USD) for the one off visitor but if you are living nearby this one lasts for a whole year, so at that price it is similar to the surrounding countries. It is possible to drive in Switzerland and avoid all the motorways and highways so you don’t need a vignette (we actually did this for some of the trip) but if you are on a motorway and get caught without one, well, that 40CHF will look exceptionally cheap.
From my first glimpse of the mountains in the distance, topped with snow and flanked by green fields with lovely little towns nestled amongst them, I was in heaven. I just love this scenery. Unfortunately arriving in Switzerland brought with it the rain. We get to our hostel in Lucerne in a downpour. We immediately decide to just duck across the road to the supermarket and pick up some supplies to cook our own dinner in before resting up.
We stayed at Bellpark Hostel in a private room with an ensuite. The room was basic, but it had everything we needed. The hostel is located in the area of Kriens, outside the centre of Lucerne, but the bus stopped right outside and it was a short trip into the city centre. The hostel (and I presume any other accommodation in Lucerne) gave us a discount card allowing free rides on the public transport and discounts off of a few attractions in the city. One of the big draw cards for this hostel was that it offered free car parking, which I had discovered could be quite substantial if staying in one of the inner city hotels or hostels. The free breakfast was an Asian style noodle dish, which I think was because most of the other people staying there were Asian. I was okay with it, but others may prefer a different breakfast. I would happily recommend this as budget option for Lucerne.
When we got up, it wasn’t pouring with rain so we decided to chance doing the planned free walking tour offered in Lucerne. We spent a couple of hours learning about the main sites around town, and only managed to get rained on twice (although once was a pretty good downpour!)
During the walking tour we saw many of the big attractions in the city centre including the iconic Chapel Bridge (Kapellbrücke). Here is where I finally learnt why I am seeing skeletons in churches in the area (see my post on the Black Forest) – and I can’t believe I haven’t come across this before. It’s to do with the tradition of the Danse Macabre (Dance of the Dead). In the middle ages it was common to to have artwork showing skeletons dancing with live people. This was a reminder that we are all equal in death. Lucerne was a strongly Catholic area, and underneath the roof of the Chapel Bridge there are panels with various scenes including skeletons and people for people to see every day as they went about their business.
The Chapel Bridge was built back in the 14th Century and really is the icon of Lucerne. Only a few years ago this wooden structure was almost lost. There was a huge fire in 1993 that destroyed much of the bridge. It has since been rebuilt, but it is easy to see the old parts of the bridge that didn’t burn and the new parts. Unfortunately many of the old Danse Macabre paintings were lost, and as yet there has not been a decision of whether they will be replaced as copies of the original, left without anything in those spaces, or have something completely new there instead. Luckily at each end of the bridge some of the originals have survived.
We also got to see the winding streets and squares of the old town, and walk up to the old town walls, the Museggmauer. There are still nine towers remaining along the wall. We visited the Zytturm, or clock tower. This was the first clock in Lucerne, and was built here high up on the top of a hill so that even fishermen out on the lake could see the time. In recognition of it’s status as the first, it is set one minute early, and thus it’s bells ring first and then all the others across the city follow. It’s possible to go inside the tower, which has a small exhibition on historical clock towers.
The other well known monument is the Lion of Lucerne. Cut into the side of a big rock, this is a memorial to the Swiss Guards who were killed during the French Revolution. While Switzerland wasn’t officially involved, a handful of men were working as personal guards in the French Royal Household. As seems to be common, as the memorial was being built the city ran out of money and so as a revenge, the artist made the cave into the shape of a pig. Can you see it?
We had been discussing doing a boat tour on Lake Lucerne, and as the walking tour finished there were some gaps in the clouds with some blue patches peeking through, so we thought this might be a good time.
The boat we went on was the Saphir, and it was lovely sitting back and watching the scenery from the warmth inside the cabin. An audio tour is included in the price, so each passenger is given a head set with the appropriate language set up on it. We were able to walk out onto the deck to take photos, and I can imagine this tour would be fantastic on a sunny day when it would be possible to stay out here the whole time. Unfortunately the weather didn’t last, and by the time the one hour tour was over, there were dark clouds and rain again.
We braved the rain and went to a place that our walking tour guide had recommended. In fact they gave us a discount card that entitled up to a sandwich and drink for 5CHF ($7.20AUD/$5USD). This must surely be close to the cheapest lunch anywhere in Switzerland. I don’t think we could have beat this from the supermarket even. Where is this place? It’s called Äss Bar, and they actually exist all over Switzerland. You can check out their locations on their website – which is unfortunately only in French and German but not so hard to work out.
Now the concept of this place is that they take yesterday’s bread that other places are going to throw out and use that. It is still all fresh, good food, but not fresh enough for the bakeries who only sell the bread they made that day. Not only is this great for our wallets, but good for the planet too. Now I’m not sure if the price we got is available to everyone, but I can guarantee that it will be cheaper than elsewhere.
One of the reasons I love doing the free walking tours is that we don’t just hear about the attractions and history of the city, we get all sorts of local tips too. Of course Switzerland is well know for it’s amazing chocolate. There are dozens of high end places to go to learn about chocolate, taste some, even make your own. But when the locals want chocolate – and apparently each family would eat a block of chocolate each day! – then they avoid all those overpriced places set up for the tourists, and go and get the good stuff – at the local supermarket!
Yes, according to the locals, who are self-confessed chocolate snobs, the best chocolate is a Supermarket own-brand product. If you want to try it, you will have to find a Migros supermarket, and look for the Frey chocolate. You won’t be able to miss it, because there will be rows and rows of it. Ranging from cheap chocolate blocks for just a couple of dollars right up to truffles and other gourmet chocolate styles. We just picked up a couple of the blocks to keep us going on our road trips over the upcoming days.
Then we did something I rarely do – we went shopping! I had decided before I left home I needed a good pair of waterproof hiking boots. I had looked around there and found nothing that took my fancy (there’s not a whole lot of demand for waterproof hiking boots in Australia so a limited range!) The weather in the upcoming days was not filling me with confidence and my lightweight shoes I have brought with me assuming it would be typical spring weather weren’t going to be good in snow. I found a great pair cheaper than I could find in Australia before I left, so I am happy.
We couldn’t leave town without Simon trying one of the local beers so we stopped at Rathaus Braurei for their popular cloudy beer. A small, 200ml beer was 4.70CHF ($6.77AUD/$4.70USD) if you want to factor some beers into your budget.
The weather was really starting to come in by that time so we decided to call it a day and head back to our hostel. We picked up groceries to cook dinner again. I love to have this as an option when we were in more expensive countries. You honestly do not want to eat out every night in Switzerland if you are on a budget. Main meals were often in the 20-30CHF ($28-43AUD/$20-30USD) range, but it was also not uncommon to see prices around the 50CHF ($72AUD/$50USD) mark for a steak or seafood. The supermarkets are truely your best friend, with many of them even having an attached restaurant where you can buy basic hot food and sit and eat it there for reasonable prices.
The big thing I wanted to do in Lucerne while I was there was to go up Mt Pilatus. Not only are there amazing panoramic views from the top of the mountain, here you can also ride the world’s steepest cogwheel train. It’s also just outside of Lucerne, so easy to access. Unfortunately no matter how many locals I asked, they all said there would be no views, the weather would likely be terrible, and possibly the cogtrain would not be running, so I sadly decided to save my money and hope we could go up a mountain from Interlaken if the weather improved.
The following morning it was time to get on the road towards Interlaken. The direct trip is only about 50km, but we wanted to see a little of the countryside along the way. I’ve discovered in the past an easy way to do this is to select “No Tolls” in Google Maps, and it gives a longer trip off the motorways in countries like Switzerland that have tolls. Our trip now became about 100km.
And scenery there was! Even in the rain, Switzerland really is beautiful. The snow topped mountains, green fields, cows with cow bells, cute little houses – I was in eye-candy heaven. We stopped briefly in a few of the small towns for photos and to stretch our legs, but our first proper stop was in the large town of Thun which we spent an hour walking around.
Thun looked like a town we could easily include on our list of places to stay. It looks like a place where locals go to holiday, possibly to avoid the crowds in Interlaken. It’s at the opposite end of Lake Thun to Interlaken and in my eyes is just as beautiful. There are still cute little streets in the old town, lake views and a castle on the hill. There was a local market going on in the Main Street while we were there which kept us happily browsing through the delicious local produce.
We arrived in Interlaken about lunch time. We were a little bit early for check in to our B&B, but they were happy for us to sit in the kitchen and have our lunch while they got the room ready. We stayed at Home Abroad One. It was fantastically located only a few minutes walk to the centre of Interlaken, even though it was just over the river in the district of Unterseen. As B&B style accommodation, we had our own room, but with a shared bathroom. We also had access to a kitchen which was great, and there was a communal living area with a tv that could be used. There was free car parking, and the wifi was decent. The whole place was clean, the bathroom modern with a great, hot, shower. If you read any reviews about the place you will notice one big complaint – squeaking floorboards! And its true, the floorboards are particularly noisy, but it is an old-style, timber house, so I am not sure what the solution is. We were upstairs, so it didn’t really annoy us, but we were conscious of it as we were moving around.
The weather was still a little rainy, but not too bad, so we decided to go on and explore the nearby small towns of Lauterbrunnen and Grindelwald for the afternoon.
We went to Lauterbrunnen first. This is a lovely, laidback small town. It basically consists of not much more than one road through the valley with houses on each side. They are clearly used to tourists with many guesthouses and tourist facilities, but this is by no means a big town. For example you would not be able to spend time shopping here. I also loved the sign on the pub!
Lauterbrunnen is often referred to as the “Land of 72 waterfalls”, as that is how many waterfalls there are in the town. The most well known waterfall is the Staubbach Falls which is 300m high, and is right near the town so is easy to see. We enjoyed a stroll through the town having a look around. There are plenty of options from here to take you up in the mountains from cable cars to trains. The cable car was running when we were there, but then looking at the map of what was open once at the top showed lots of red lights. Definitely wasn’t worth going up. We also called past the tourist information office to talk to them about the weather over the next two days and what our options were – it really wasn’t sounding very optimistic.
We then drove across to Grindelwald. This is a much bigger town, more like a ski resort town with many guest houses, hotels, shops, restaurants etc. The tourists here seemed to be more likely to be on a bus tour as we often saw big groups instead of more independent travellers in Lauterbrunnen. The town was surrounded by towering mountains which were littered with ski slopes and chair lifts. While the town was nice, it was a bit too touristy for me.
We got back to Interlaken just in time to join in the 6pm free walking tour of the city. It was also just in time for the rain to start.
Interlaken itself didn’t have as much of interest as Lucerne did. Maybe the rain made it hard to enjoy, but we seemed to do a lot of walking and not so much learning about the town. We learned about the gruesome history of the monastery in town. Right next to it was also a home for nuns. While the monks and nuns were not meant to have contact, clearly they did because in recent times tunnels have been found between the two buildings, along with the remains of several babies.
We learned about the history of the Victoria Jungfrau Hotel – and the excesses of some of the more recent guests. Interlaken is very popular with Indian travellers as it is often used as the location for Bollywood films. In fact, outside the casino is a statue of a famous Indian filmmaker, Yash Chopra. The uber-rich Indians love to come and get married in Interlaken, and spend millions of dollars at a time hiring the Victoria Jungfrau for all their guests.
This hotel was originally two different hotels, but has since been combined into one. The Victoria part of it, was named after Queen Victoria in the hope that she might come to visit, but she never did.
Our walk continued on, taking us to the small wildlife park (which I will tell you about a little further down) and then on to Unterseen to learn about the other half of the city. It was then back into the centre to finish off the tour. We noticed that the most common restaurants to find in the main tourist area are Indian restaurants, reflecting the high percentage of Indians tourists that visit the town.
Unsurprisingly in a Swiss tourist town, there are dozens of shops selling Swiss watches. You may think that going from one to the next might give you a better price (and I guess it might) but all of these shops are owned by just one man. Often the shops are visited by tour groups, and our guide was telling us that each bus averages as astronomical about of cash spent. I can’t remember the exact amount, but it was well over 100 000CHF! Per bus! The guy owning all those stores is one of the richest men in Switzerland.
Two wet and cold hours later, we shivered our way back to our accommodation. It was so nice to walk into the warm, prepare a nice, warm pasta dish for dinner, and spend the rest of the evening washing and drying our wet clothes! Sometimes it’s the small things that give pleasure!
The following morning we had again hoped to head to the mountains, but instead we woke up to find that it was snowing (yes, in May!) and many of the mountains would yet again be closed or would not be enjoyable. Disappointing! Looks like we will be getting our mountain fix in Austria instead of Switzerland.
We did brave the snow for a while in the morning, but it was just as bad as being out in the rain, and we had a couple of hours of that the night before. I am by no means a snow expert, having only seen it a handful of times in my life, and I had not experienced wet, sloppy snow like this before. It was pretty much melting as soon as it hit the ground, or any other surface, such as me. It was not really pleasant to be in.
We had a couple of small jobs to do like drop off a book Simon had finished reading at the book swap phone box, and then we retreated indoors for a bit, trying what our walking guide the evening before had declared to be the “best hot chocolate in the world.” This hot chocolate can be found at Funky Chocolate Club. Not only do they serve delicious drinks, but they also hold some great chocolate making and tasting workshops. Be warned though, there is very little seating in the shop to drink your hot chocolate, so take away might be the best way to go. We ended up sharing a table, and it just happened to be that the other two girls were Australian too, so in the end we had a long chat about our travels. Like us, they were disappointed in the weather and were hoping like anything that it cleared a little in the morning as they had booked to go paragliding over the town.
So the hot chocolate verdict? It was good, I’ll admit, but I don’t think I could declare it the best.
We got sick of the cold and went back to the guest house we were staying in. The snow slowed down a bit, and I started looking for things to do. Maybe we just could go up the funicular to Harder Kulm (the lookout right over the town) but just as I was checking the details and looking at the livecam on the mountain, the clouds blew over again and it again started to snow.
I had a bit of cabin fever and could not sit still. Around 5:30 it was not too bad, so we donned our wet weather gear and headed out for a walk. It drizzled nearly the whole time, and was only about 2 degrees Celsius, but it was not too bad.
We walked along the river until we reached the place where the Harder Kulm funicular left from. There was really no visibility, so I reluctantly shelved those plans. At about $50AUD each to go up, it would not have been worth it to not be able to see anything and for it to be so cold we would have just come straight back down.
Just behind the funicular is a small wildlife park. So small it has only two animals, the marmot and ibex. Both are native to the area, and the ibex is on the Interlaken flag. The marmots were hiding from the rain, and the ibex weren’t a whole lot better, standing under the eaves of their huts to keep a little dry.
We really did decide to call it a day after that! Back to our guest house and we packed up ready to leave in the morning to another new country – albeit a teeny tiny one!
I woke up the next morning to see something amazing – the sun was out! And it was neither raining nor snowing. This would have been the perfect opportunity to go up the mountains, but alas, we had to move on. I again chose to travel off of the toll roads, and I am so glad we did. There was some fantastic scenery over the lakes and it just looked lovely whenever the sun was shining. Why couldn’t it have been like this the day before?
Early afternoon we crossed over the border and said goodbye to Switzerland. It had been a frustrating and disappointing few days, but I still mostly enjoyed what we did manage to do. Switzerland really is all about it’s beautiful natural scenery to me, and I won’t be satisfied until I have been back and had the chance to explore some of those alpine regions properly.
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Josie is a forty-something budget traveller. She only discovered travel in her late thirties, but since then has travelled extensively including taking an adult gap year. She is now based in Australia and loves sharing all she has learned about travelling on a budget but with the comforts a Gen Xer requires.