I recently scored a travel trifecta — a perfect line-up of three of my favorite things: Switzerland, Christmas markets and train travel. The result was a holiday trip to remember — and one you can replicate on your own.
Switzerland has been my favorite country to visit since I first went there in the summer of 1971 on a Rotary International Graduate Fellowship.
When I headed for Switzerland — in the ancient days before cellphones and the internet — I had a name and address written on a piece of paper for my Rotary contact in the town of Neuchatel, where I would be attending the Universite de Neuchatel. He and his wife are still there, still active in Rotary, and still as welcoming as they were when I first arrived.
I also became friends with another family, this one of cheese- and watch-making heritage, in the peaceful and pastoral Vallee de Joux, along the border with France. I’m not sure whether they adopted me or I adopted them, but they’ve been my Swiss family since 1971.
I’ve kept in touch with them through the years, and have seen the brothers marry, have children and their children have children. My Swiss “mother” is 101 and still sharp as a tack, with a super sense of humor.
On every trip, I make stops in Neuchatel to see my Rotary family and in the Vallee de Joux to see my adopted family.
I’ve been in love with Christmas markets almost as long as I’ve been in love with Switzerland. It was in December of 1971 when I stumbled upon my first Christmas market in Vienna, Austria, as I made the most of the last few days of a student Eurail pass. Cutting class on a Friday, I took off on a crazy weekend trip to Vienna, where I discovered the wonders of the European tradition of Christmas markets.
In the years since, I’ve visited Christmas markets all over Germany, Switzerland and Austria, plus a few in France, Finland, Poland and the Czech Republic. Still on my list — Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Estonia and so many others!
Traveling on the Swiss Travel System is my favorite way to explore Switzerland, whether by train, bus or boat. With a Swiss Travel Pass, you can just hop on and go — it takes the hassle out of planning a trip and gives the traveler the freedom to make last-minute changes to an itinerary and try out a variety of modes of travel.
If you prefer more structure, that is easy to accomplish. A great guide for the best scenic routes that showcase the diversity of Switzerland — which has four different language zones — is the Grand Train Tour, which was introduced in 2015. This suggested route combines eight of the country’s most scenic train rides into one classic itinerary, accessible all year-round.
Visitors can do all or part of the route, starting in the town of their choice and going in the direction they wish, and stopping as often as desired for side trips and excursions. It’s Switzerland in a nutshell. All aboard!
We followed part of the Grand Train Tour on a Christmas Market expedition that started and ended in Zurich and zigzagged around the country in between. Come along with us to a few of the highlights.
Zurich is the gateway city for many travelers, with the country’s main airport and a transportation network that radiates out from the city to every nook and cranny of the country. The city provides a glorious introduction to Swiss Christmas events, beginning right there in the main train station.
The grand hall is transformed into a charming Christkindlmarkt, complete with 150 wooden stalls and a 50-foot Christmas tree sparkling with 7,000 Swarovski crystal ornaments.
But don’t spend all your time or money at the market in the train station — much more awaits outside along the Limmat River or beside Lake Zurich.
The city’s oldest Christmas market is in the heart of the Niederdorf quarter of the Old Town, just minutes away by foot from the main station. The market stalls line the Niederdorfstrasse and spill onto Hirschenplatz and Rosenhof, leading you on a lovely stroll of this eclectic area.
If you follow the Bahnofstrasse from the main station, you will reach Werdmuhleplatz, where you can’t miss the Singing Christmas Tree. Singers lined up in rows on bleachers form the shape of a tree. Choirs from throughout the region vie for a chance to perform as part of this Zurich Christmas tradition. There are market stalls around the tree for shopping or stopping for a mug of mulled wine.
Directly in front of the Opera House, at Sechselautenplatz, is Zurich’s Wienachtsdorf, or Christmas village. With about 100 decorated stalls, an ice-skating rink, a curling sheet and a fondue chalet, the market appeals to visitors of all ages. Many of the booths feature the work of local designers. offering one-of-a-kind pieces of jewelry or artwork.
At the far end of Lake Zurich, in the medieval town of Rapperswil, you’ll find the Christmas market in the heart of the Old Town. With more than 200 stalls, the market is one of the largest in Switzerland. Culinary delights, homemade wares, musical performances and special activities for children all contribute to the ambience. Just getting there can be half the fun, whether you arrive by train, boat or a combination.
One of the most popular tourist destinations in Switzerland, Lucerne doesn’t disappoint at Christmas time — or anytime of the year, for that matter. With its stunning setting on Lake Lucerne and near the base of Mount Pilatus, Lucerne is one of those postcard-perfect scenes. At Christmas, decked out in lights and holiday finery, the city is even more beautiful than usual.
It offers its fair share of Christmas markets to tempt visitors, too. The main market on Franziskanerplatz, the handicraft market on Muhlenplatz, and the Christkindlmarkt in the train station are the key destinations, although smaller markets in the city and nearby towns also have a lot of charm.
Of course, you’ll want to take time to stroll along the famous covered wooden Chapel Bridge, gazing upward at the paintings on the ceiling, and to visit the Lion of Lucerne monument, one of the most moving stone sculptures anywhere. Be sure to schedule a visit to the incredible Swiss Museum of Transport; allow more time than you think you’ll need, because you will need more time than you allow.
Traveling west to the French part of Switzerland, head directly to Montreux for one of the most beautiful Christmas markets in Europe. Situated along the shore of Lac Leman, or Lake Geneva, the views from the market are eye popping.
To the south, the snow-covered tips of the Alps and the imposing Mont Blanc are massive, and to the north, the rolling hills of the Jura Mountains. And at sunset — oh my! An aerial Santa and his sleigh and reindeer fly across the sky with the glowing orange orb setting behind them. Have your cameras ready.
This is the 23rd year for Montreux Noel, as the market is called. Instead of having stalls along the streets of the town, all the stalls have been moved to the promenade along the lake. The normally peaceful quays become a bustling village of decorated wooden stalls, chalet restaurants, assorted bars and cafes, children’s activities, elaborate light displays, and more.
In addition to the main market in Montreux, there are several related attractions. The historic Rochers-de-Naye mountain train becomes the train of Pere Noel (Father Christmas) and transports visitors to Pere Noel’s house and workshop. Kids love the activities and meeting with Santa, while the adults are transfixed by the view across the lake to Mont Blanc.
Just past Montreux along the lakeshore is the picturesque Chateau de Chillon, of Lord Byron’s famous poem, “The Prisoner of Chillon.” You can walk to this medieval fortress via the promenade, or hop on a city bus for the short trip to the castle. Once there, you can tour the historic structure and visit the Medieval Christmas Market within the castle walls.
Also situated on the lovely Lac Leman, Lausanne is a university town and the seat of the International Olympic Committee. It is also home to Bo Noel, a vibrant and contemporary collection of Christmas markets and other seasonal activities that are giving Lausanne its own claim to fame during the holiday season. While rival Montreux is only about 30 minutes away, the two cities take different approaches to the holiday festivities.
Lausanne offers a whirlwind of activities for Bo Noel, including seven different themed markets, a children’s village, a giant Christmas tree, ice-skating rink, gastronomic evenings, and a New Year’s Eve celebration.
Perhaps Basel got the inspiration for its acclaimed Christmas markets from its French neighbor, Strasbourg, which has some of the most stunning markets in all of Europe. Whatever the reason, Basel knows how to celebrate Christmas in style. The city on the Rhine River bustles with large and small markets, each with its own theme and ambience.
The main market with more than 180 stalls extends between Barfusserplatz and Munsterplatz in the heart of the Old Town, with a giant Christmas tree on the Munsterplatz. Be sure to check at the Munster (cathedral) for concerts — we were able to sit in on two.
Children will enjoy the fairy-tale forest, where they can make candles, decorate gingerbread, ride the kiddie train and more. Adults might opt to meet for a mulled wine at the Christmas pyramid, a wooden structure more than 40 feet tall.
Don’t miss the chance to write an Advent message in the Basel Wish Book, which is available to both locals and visitors in the inner courtyard of the Town Hall.
Other special activities include the Advent Calendar in the windows of Theater Basel, with one window scene opening each day; and nighttime visits to the tower of the cathedral for a bird’s-eye view of the city’s Christmas lights.
There are dozens more markets, large and small, in the Graubunden, where Romansch is the official language, and in the Ticino, where Italian is spoken, as well as in the German and French areas we have mentioned. It’s a matter of how much time you have and what attractions you want to see in the various areas. In my biased opinion, you can’t go wrong wherever you travel in beautiful Switzerland.
Fuel for the Fun
Whichever town you visit, be sure to partake of the many culinary delights. Each town is likely to have its own bakery specialties, or perhaps its own special liqueur or brew.
Most will have a roasted chestnut vendor. They all will offer the classic Swiss cheese dishes — fondue and raclette. Be sure to sample each, either as a snack-size serving from a stall or a sit-down meal in one of the chalet-style eateries specially constructed just for the market season.
If you’re lucky enough to find a place serving baked Vacherin Mont d’Or, be sure to try it. This soft cheese is only produced and sold during the cold winter months, and it is a Swiss specialty. Although Vacherin is traditionally eaten cold or at room temperature, it is increasingly popular to bake the Vacherin in the pine box in which it is packaged. The hot, melted cheese is a sort of instant fondue, and can be eaten with bread, potatoes and gherkins, just as fondue is.
New this year (or, new to me) is a treat called “hot fondue.” It is a small baguette of bread with a hole punched in the center and filled with melted Gruyere. It tastes good (How could melted Gruyere not taste good?), but I found it quite messy to eat, and the dripping hot cheese kept burning my hand. I think I’ll stick with regular fondue.
In preparation for your trip, here is how to say Merry Christmas in the four Swiss languages: Joyeux Noel (French), Frohi Wiehnachte (Swiss German), Buon Natale (Italian), and Bellas Festas da Nadal (Romansch).
Before You Go . . .
For information and travel tips about the Grand Train Tour of Switzerland, details about the Swiss Travel Pass and other ticket options, visit www.SwissTravelSystem.com. You can preview the Grand Train Tour interactively online by scrolling through the itinerary at www.grandtraintour.swisstravelsystem.com.
Switzerland is home to 11 UNESCO World Heritage sites, any of which can be combined with the Grand Train Tour. For more information, go to www.u-d-s.ch.
For general information about Switzerland, including seasonal attractions such as Christmas markets, visit www.MySwitzerland.com.