A long weekend in SWITZERLAND: Gimmelwald, Bern, and Zurich

July

The Swiss Alps are stunningly beautiful and, thanks to Switzerland's efficient train system, and dramatic aerial cableways, shockingly accessible for a long weekend getaway.

Duration: 4 Days

We were singing ‘the hills are alive’ one hour into our journey to the Swiss Alps, and felt transported a million miles away from daily life by the afternoon. The air is crisp and clear, the grass is green, the people are friendly, and Swiss efficiency ensures you can spend the time you have where it matters; hiking, lingering over beer and cheese in the afternoon, or taking in an early evening thunder and lightning storm, with a rainbow at the end (yes, that all happened in two days). We felt like we were on holiday for a week, but only spent 4 days in the Alps, with time for a night in Bern and an afternoon in Zurich as well. And it felt like a relaxing, unstressful holiday! Of course with more time, you could add longer hikes, mountain biking, or do one of the popular tandem paraglides from the mountain top to the valley floor.

  • Sight Seeing 90% 90%
  • Food 50% 50%
  • Ease of Transportation 95% 95%
  • Activities 95% 95%

Gimmelwald is a perfect, sleepy, pedestrian village perched high above the Lauterbrunnen Valley, just 30 minutes from Interlaken. With cows, a handful of barns, open fields of green grass, and a few charming bed and breakfast options, it doesn’t feel touristy at all. (When you say you’re going to Gimmelwald, most people will give you a blank stare and ask ‘do you mean Grindelwald?’)  Full credit goes to Rick Steves for turning us on to this quiet and beautiful little town, which provided rest, relaxation, and an opportunity to connect with nature in an unreal setting. It also has some of the best hiking trails and climbing routes for serious outdoor enthusiasts. We stayed at the charming Hotel Mittaghorn in a reasonably priced room with windows on two sides and a deck where we could sit and marvel at our view of the mountains. (This is where we were treated to a dramatic summer thunder and lightning storm over the peaks). This classic Swiss chalet is old school in the best way, and seems to have a real following among the serious hikers and climbers who return year after year. The hotel’s materials describe a ‘mountain hut for physically fit, robust sleepers,’ although we found it to be perfectly comfortable, even if you aren’t a serious outdoor person. There is a pleasant, easy incline walk of about 45 minutes up to the larger town of Mürren where you can get lunch, or shop for Alpine gear, but you can just as easily take the tram up and down if you don’t feel like walking.

The Schilthorn aerial cable car is one of the most spectacular ways to experience the Bernese Alps. You’ll already have to take a cable car from the valley floor at Stechelberg to Gimmelwald, and you can hop on the short connection between Gimmelwald and Mürren (although it’s worth noting that you must have a paid ticket for every portion of your journey on the cable car). We did the pleasant hike up to Mürren, then took the cable car from Mürren  further up to Allmendhubel for lunch at the one restaurant there with an enormous, sunny outdoor patio. There are people drinking big steins of beer, children running around on the ‘flower park playground‘ and it’s a pretty idyllic scene. Schilthorn is the highest point the cable car takes you, and offers unparalleled views of Jungfrau, Mönch, and Eiger (the three highest mountain peaks in the area). It’s also the site of the rotating restaurant with panoramic views called Piz Gloria, which featured in the James Bond movie ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’ (this explains the incessant James Bond theme music whenever you ride the cable cars). Word of warning: views can be unparalleled, but there are many, many days where the visibility is poor at this altitude. You should check the live-cams online, and consult with your hotel as they are attuned to the weather for the area. If visibility is poor, it’s not worth the price of the ascent, or the price of a meal at Piz Gloria, where the food is very mediocre, and you’re just paying for the views. We ended up skipping this due to visibility issues, and were overwhelmed with beauty and dramatic peaks all day every day in Gimmelwald, Mürren, and Allmendhubel, so you won’t miss out if you can’t make it to the Schilthorn.

A final note on food: With such dramatic natural beauty, and so much to explore hiking, climbing, and gliding, food is a bit beside the point in this region. That’s a nice way of saying, it’s nothing to write home about, and it’s also expensive. You’ll eat a lot of cheese, some beer, some bratwurst, and you might run into trouble if you try to stray from this. There is a grocery store in Mürren that I hightly recommend stocking up at. Enjoy a terrace beer (and maybe lunch) in the day if you want to have a meal out, but stick to grocery store provisions for the most part to avoid the double whammy of sticker shock and disappointing food.

Hotel Pension Gimmelwald has a lovely outdoor terrace for lunch. We had beer, soup, and a cheese plate that perfectly fit the bill after our hiking and travelling. (Beer, soup, and cheese might lose their lustre by the end of your visit though as they are the three primary offerings on every menu).  In the evenings, they serve a set menu for €30 but I wouldn’t recommend it. Much better to come in the day for lunch on the terrace, and plan to picnic from groceries for dinner, or try something in Mürren.

Panoramic Restaurant Allmendhubel again come for the lovely views, a beer outside in the sun, and resign yourself to more cheese or schnitzel. The food is mediocre and heavy, but beside the point, and it’s still worth the trip up here for lunch.

Café LIV in Mürren serves the best cappuccinos in the area, and has a nice selection of freshly baked pastries. We made this a daily staple, even after the hearty breakfast included with our room at Hotel Mittaghorn.

Bern and Zurich

The journey from Gimmelwald back to Zurich (where we flew in and out of) conveniently passes through Bern and Zurich, so we decided to stop off in Bern for an afternoon, spend the night, and then head for Zurich for the day, before our evening flight departure. You can cover a surprising amount of ground in this amount of time, and amazingly, we didn’t feel rushed in either place. Of course you could spend more days if you have them, but for a long weekend getaway, this was perfect. 

Bern boasts a well-preserved medieval town, (a Unesco World Heritage Site), encircled by the beautiful Aare river. In the summer, it’s packed with recreational boating, tubing, and tanning, all along its banks. We stayed at a convenient, spacious, and reasonably priced Airbnb walking distance from the train station so we could drop our bags easily. (It also has a kebab shop just below the entrance, and after the limited food offerings in the Alps, we had never been so grateful for a cheap but tasty kebab). We walked all around the medieval center, and along the river, and the one thing we made sure to check out was the Einstein Museum. Located in his former residence in Bern, it’s filled with fascinating personal photos and possessions, as well as context around Einstein’s development of the theory of relativity during his time living here. For a nice guide to 24 hours in Bern, read here. We hit most of this with the exception of lunch at the Restaurant Rosengarten which looks lovely. 

Zurich train station is a busy, but extremely well organized hub. And we were able to quickly drop our luggage in their on-site storage lockers, before heading out for a quick day in the city. We walked first to the police station to see the famous Giacometti Hall, one of the most beautiful and unusual examples of form and function. A repurposed municipal building that serves as an active police station boasts stunning vaulted ceilings with paintings by Augusto Giacometti, who completed the commission in 1925. The glowing effect of the light his paintings create must be experienced in person, and makes for a quick stop on a day’s itinerary. From here, crossed the river to walk down Niederdorfstrasse (the heart of the old town) where we strolled, window shopped, and got excellent espressos and pastries from Café Henrici. We then walked along the water down to the final bridge that opens up onto Lake Zurich. In summer, the lake is filled with boats and floatations of every variety, some of these videos give a sense of just the idyllic, summer camp feel that takes over the city in the warm months. We had a beer and sat outside on the river at Bauschänzli Biergarten & Grill, where a band was playing live music. It was the perfect place to relax in the sun for a few final hours in Switzerland, before heading back to catch the train to the airport. 

 

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