Switzerland is the home of a dozen exceptional sites of cultural importance. From Neolithic stilt-houses to the modern architectural works of Le Corbusier, 12 sites around the country have been awarded UNESCO World Heritage status.
So what are they and how can you visit them?
Bern Old City
The capital of Switzerland is also home to a wonderfully preserved medieval old city. Founded in 1191, Bern has a rich history as a significant trade town and this is evidenced in the 6km of limestone buildings, medieval arcades, Renaissance fountains and the unique towers that dominate the old town. The impressive Cathedral (Münster) is in late Gothic style architecture and was originally built in 1421 – although the 100m high spire was not completed until 1893. Nearby stand the impressive Clock Tower, Zytglogge and the Armoury-turned-Prison Tower, Käfigturm.
Experience Bern yourself during short break on our Taste of Bern itinerary, including a walking tour of the Old Town and a Bern transport card. Bern is also a stop on a number of our train tours (Deluxe Switzerland & Swiss Museum Trail), coach tours (Swiss Splendour Tour & Swiss Grand Alpine Tour) and our self drive Grand Tour of Switzerland.
Lavaux Wine Region
The terraced vineyards of Lavaux stretch for 30km along the shore of Lake Geneva and are an example of centuries of agriculture in Switzerland. Over 800ha, the steep hills provide spectacular views over the lake and surrounding country below – not to mention producing healthy vines surrounded by 11th century stone walls. After a morning of sampling the local wine, look no further than a ‘pintes’ or mini restaurant for your lunch, set amongst the quaint old villages.
Enjoy a tour of the UNESCO listed Lavaux region on our Wine Experience excursion. Learn about how the grapes go from ground into the bottles and sample three of the regions unique blends, accompanied by gourmet regional treats. For those wanting the full Swiss gastronomic experience, our Swiss Food Trail Rail Journey encompasses the Lavaux wineries and beyond.
Benedictine Monastery of St Johann
The Monastery of St Johann has Charlemagne to thank for its existence and grandeur, although its upkeep has been thanks to the tireless work of the Benedictine nuns for centuries. Even today the building is a working monastery – do not be surprised when a nun turns up as your tour guide. The Monastery is home to the largest and best preserved figurative mural from the 8th century as well as many intricately decorated apses. It is also home to the region’s oldest castle tower, built in 960, which houses an exhibition of 1,200 years of monastic and architectural history.
The Monastery is located somewhat off the beaten path in Val Müstair. Although we don’t have any ready-made itineraries to take in this site, we can tailor-make a special trip just for you.
St Gallen Abbey
The library and monastery of St Gallen are truly beautiful sights to behold. A booklover’s dream, the library or Seelenapotheke (healing place of the soul) holds 170,000 books, a 2,700 year old Egyptian mummy and 2,100 wonderfully preserved manuscripts, many of which are on display in cabinets and on the walls. Another highlight of the district are the 16th to 18th century burgher houses with splendid, brightly painted windows.
Visit St Gallen and its incredible Abbey Library on our Grand Tour of Switzerland self-drive or talk to us about creating your own tailored itinerary. This site is definitely worth the hour drive from Zurich, whether you are a book devotee or not.
Castles of Bellinzona
The three castles of Bellinzona and the old Roman fortress walls dominate Bellinzona, in the shadows of St Gotthard’s Pass. Once a strong line of Roman defence in 590, all that remains from this time is a ruined wall. The three castles, with their complex fortification systems and imposing towers, are from the Middle Ages and were put in place to control the transit of people through St Gotthard’s Pass. Castelgrande, Castello Montebello and Castello Sasso Corbaro were all built around the 13th centuries and are the best examples of medieval castles in Switzerland.
Bellinzona is the capital of Ticino, which you visit on the Grand Tour of Switzerland self-drive. At only 40 minutes by car or 30 minutes by train from Lugano, a visit to Bellinzona is an easy day trip.
Jungfrau – Aletsch Swiss Alps
At 23km. Aletsch is the longest glacier in the Alps and the whole area from Jungfrau to Aletsch is recognised by UNESCO for its staggering natural beauty. The glacier can be trekked across for the truly adventurous or try a little hiking in the Alestch forest, home of some of the oldest stone pines in Switzerland. Down below, the valleys are their very own microclimate, with lush greenery that is largely unspoilt by tourism. From June to September, you can partake in the World Heritage Experience Afternoon and in July to September there are extra guided tours of the area.
Take the precarious train ride up to the ‘Top of Europe’ on Jungfrau; look out to the Aletsch Glacier; and wander through the spectacular ice tunnel through the mountain on an excursion or our Grand Train Tour and Tops of Switzerland Tour.
Monte San Giorgio
The pyramid shaped Monte San Giorgio jutting out over Lake Lugano at just under 1,100m above sea level was once the location of a 100m deep ocean basin. Just like the pyramids of Egypt, today it provides a veritable treasure trove of history – not of an ancient culture, but of land animals and marine life living 240 million years ago. Since the 19th century, over 80 species of fish have been identified from the fossils discovered here and 30 marine and land reptiles. This include the huge deposits of marine saurians bones – some up to 6m in length!
Today, the woods of Monte San Giorgio are a great place for a little hiking as a day trip out of Lugano, where some of our tours leave from. Just keep your eyes peeled for some prehistoric history!
Rhaetian Railway Albula / Bernina
Stretching 122km from Thusis to Tirano, the Rhaetian Railway line is a true marvel of Swiss engineering. Opened in 1889, the route crosses 196 bridges, goes through 55 tunnel and 20 towns. With incredible man-made structures, viaducts, helical tunnels and hairpin turns, rail buffs will be in heaven while everyone else will be absorbed by the rugged landscapes of valleys and mountains that make this route the most picturesque mountain rail journey in the world.
Experience this unforgettable journey yourself as you crest the Bernina Pass on the Bernina Express. Or make this one journey of many incredible Swiss rail experiences on the Grand Train Tour.
La Chaux de Fonds & Le Locle
These two mountain towns are the watchmaking centres of Switzerland that have been built around this industry. Destroyed by fire, the neighbouring towns were reconstructed with a mixture of public and private funds with the goal of mono-industrial manufacturing. The resulting town plan maximised light and enabled ease of movement between towns.
Still working today, if you’d like to drop in to buy yourself a timepiece, there are twice hourly train services from Zurich. Although not home of lakes or medieval buildings, the prosperity of these two towns in the 18th to the 20th centuries created a huge amount of growth and so fans of modern architecture such as Art Nouveau and the early modernism of Le Corbusier (more on him below) will enjoy wandering the streets.
Prehistoric Pile Dwellings
Pile dwellings, or stilt house dwellings can be found all over central Europe on the edges of lakes, rivers and wetlands. Some date as far back as 7,000 years ago and of the 111 sites listed, 56 of them can be found in Switzerland in the Alps. These dwellings have given us invaluable insight into life in the Neolithic and Bronze Age in Alpine Europe.
With 56 sites around Switzerland, many of the local councils have created small museums if you’d like to find out more (beware of the irregular opening hours).
Architectural Work of Le Corbusier
The most recent addition to the World Heritage list in Switzerland, the architectural work of Le Corbusier has been recognised by UNESCO for the influence it had on modern architecture the world over. Comprising of 17 sites, this transnational series is over seven countries, namely India, Japan, Argentina, Germany, Brussels and Switzerland. Two of these sites are in Switzerland: Villa ‘Le Lac’ in Corseux on the shore of Lake Geneva and the Clarté building in Geneva. Le Corbusier’s works are a testimonial to modern architecture and showed a clear departure from looks of the past. While he was completing his studies for these later works, Le Corbusier designed a number of buildings in La Chaux De Fonds.
Geneva is a stop on many of our itineraries. Explore these significant buildings in the architectural world on our Taste of Geneva package or let us tailor-make a trip to suit your taste.
Tectonic Arena Sardona
Another one of the natural sites listed as World Heritage, the Tectonic Arena of Sardona is home to the Glarus Overthrust – a strange phenomenon where an older rock strata, about 250 million years old, has edged its way over rock 150 million years its junior. This is a result of the European and African Continents colliding. Even for those of us who don’t have a keen interest in geology, the result is dramatically beautiful as the jagged Glarus Alps are glaciated and 3,000m above, with narrow river valleys below.
Although visible for kilometres around, Glarus Alps are not that frequented. To organise your own exploration, contact us today to tailor-make your experience.