For some great castle touring head to the Lake Thun area in central Switzerland, just south of Bern. In the town of Thun itself, you'll find the 12th-century Schloss Thun on the hill. It contains a good historical museum and there are fine views from the turrets of the Romanesque tower. One of the best castles around the lake is the 13th-century Schloss Oberhofen, which was once held by the Habsburgs, and has a good collection of grand furniture, portraits and weapons, and even boasts a Turkish smoking room. The gardens were landscaped in the 19th century and are a fine place for a stroll. Schloss Hunegg at nearby Hilterfingen was built in the 1860s and renovated in 1900. It's a fascinating mix of neo-Renaissance and art nouveau styles and has a funky split-level bathroom complete with a nickel-plated bathtub. If you're a castle buff, you can squeeze in a visit to all three fortifications in a day-trip by boat.
Château de Chillon
Chillon Castle receives more visitors than any other historical building in Switzerland. Occupying a stunning position right on Lake Geneva, the fortress caught the public imagination when Lord Byron wrote about the fate of Bonivard, a follower of the Reformation who was chained to the fifth pillar in the dungeons for four years in the 16th century. Byron etched his own name on the third pillar. The castle, still in excellent condition, dates from the 11th century and has been much modified and enlarged since then. It's worth spending an afternoon viewing the tower, courtyards, dungeons and numerous rooms containing weapons, utensils, frescos and tupperware. The castle is located within walking distance of Montreux, the centrepiece of the Swiss Riviera.
Comfortably encamped on the shore of Lake Geneva, this spic-and-span city belongs to the international community as much as it belongs to the Swiss: over 200 international organisations are headquartered here; one in three residents are non-Swiss; and just about every global problem from nuclear proliferation to ethnic cleansing has done a star turn at Geneva's famously neutral negotiating tables. The global affairs it tries to make sense of may be murky, distressing and dangerous, but the city itself is pristine, efficient and safe. Some punters have gone as far as to complain about sterility, but then some people wouldn't recognise a good thing if it waved a dozen flags and shouted in their ear.The city enjoys a fine location, and strolls around the lake and boating excursions are hugely enjoyable. The cable car up Mont Salève offers the complete picturesque panorama. The Rhône River runs through the city with the old part of town lying on the south side. The centre of town is dominated by the partially Romanesque, partially Gothic Cathedral St Pierre. John Calvin preached here from 1536 to 1564 and the body of the church matches the austerity of his teachings. The nearby Place du Bourg-de-Four is the oldest square in Geneva. It was once a Roman forum, evolved into a medieval marketplace, and is now destined for a future as the loci of touristy shops.Fortunately, there's plenty of culture to combat the kitsch. The Museum of Art & History has a vast and varied collection including paintings, sculpture, weapons and archaeology. The compact Petit Palais has an excellent and focussed collection of modern art. The International Red Cross & Red Crescent Museum offers a vivid multimedia trawl through atrocities perpetuated by humanity in recent history. Other museums include the catchy Museum of Old Musical Instruments, the Horology Museum and the Voltaire Museum.Geneva has decent nightlife, but it ain't cheap. The presence of so many diplomats, international administrators and bankers also means that prices for food and accommodation can be high. A handful of hostels and budget hotels can be found on both sides of the river. Inexpensive restaurants are concentrated in the vicinity of the university, and north and west of Gare de Cornavin.
If you're looking for jaw-dropping scenery, the Jungfrau region south of Interlaken has it in spades. The towering 4000m triplets - the Jungfrau, Mönch and Eiger - dominate the area, and there are plenty of cable cars, funiculars, cog-wheel railways and hiking trails offering panoramic vantage points for those not suffering landscape vertigo. Grindelwald is the most established skiing and hiking centre in the region; watch out for the yodelling festival held here in July.
Lucerne is ideally situated in the historic and scenic heart of what many believe to be the 'true' Switzerland - picture mountains, lakes, cowbells, alpine villages and meadows full of edelweiss. The charming town straddles the Reuss River on the western edge of Lake Lucerne and makes an excellent base for excursions.On the north bank of the Reuss, the picturesque old-town centre offers 15th-century buildings with painted facades, towers, a 17th-century Renaissance town hall and a couple of postcard-perfect covered bridges. North-east of the city centre is the poignant Lion Monument, which was carved out of natural rock in 1820 and is dedicated to the Swiss soldiers who died in the French Revolution. Next to it is the fascinating Gletschergarten (Glacier Garden) where giant glacial potholes prove that 20 million years ago Lucerne was a subtropical palm beach. The Transport Museum contains trains, planes and automobiles and includes the Swissorama, a 20-minute, 360° film that whizzes you around the sights of Switzerland as if you were travelling by air, sea, road and foot. If you need some fresh air and exercise to work off all those yummy chocolates you've been scoffing, pedalboats, row boats and kayaks can be hired on the Reuss River and on Lake Lucerne. If you need some fresh vegies to combat the calories, there are oh-so-picturesque fruit and vegetable markets along the river quays.
This swanky skiing and mountaineering resort bathes in the reflected glory of one of the most famous peaks in the Alps, the 4478m Matterhorn. Skiers come here to enjoy virtually year-round skiing and there are 230km of runs in the area, catering mainly to intermediate and experienced skiers. The more sedentary come simply to enjoy the awe-inspiring views. For some magical vistas of the Matterhorn and surrounding peaks, take the popular cog-wheel railway to Gornergrat. It's easy to get around Zermatt on foot (the town is car-free) and it's well worth exploring the Hinter Dorf area, which is crammed with traditional tumble-down wooden Valais homes. A walk in the cemetery is a sobering experience for would-be mountaineers. The names of those who attempted the Matterhorn and Mt Rosa and did not live to tell the tale are inscribed on stone monuments.
Switzerland's most populous city is reputed to be the intellectual and cultural capital of the nation. It's most famous burst of creativity came in 1916 when the Dada art movement emerged from the Cabaret Voltaire - strangely enough at exactly the same time those playful dudes Lenin and Trotsky were also in residence. Today the city is more famous for its pinstriped gnomes and art galleries, and for the way it manages to balance finance and aesthetics better than anyone but Sothebys. The city is situated some 400m above sea level, straddling the Limmat River as it leaves the northern end of Lake Zürich. The pedestrian streets of the old town contain most of the major sights, including winding alleyways, 16th- and 17th-century houses, guildhalls and courtyards, and rather a lot of fountains (1030 if you're taking notes). The elegant Bahnhofstrasse was built on the site of the city walls, which were torn down 150 years ago. Underfoot are bank vaults crammed with gold and silver and other booty - unfortunately these are not open to the public (we can't figure out why). For the clock-watchers, the 13th-century tower of St Peter's Church has the largest clock face in Europe. The Fraumünster Church nearby is noted for the distinctive stained-glass windows in the choir, which were created by Marc Chagall in 1970 at the ripe old age of 83. The Museum of Fine Arts has a large permanent collection ranging from 15th-century religious art to the 'modern' art of Monet, Manet and Man Ray. The Swiss National Museum, housed in a pseudo-castle north of the city centre, provides the ultimate rundown on the life and times of the Swiss nation and, just in case you forgot you were in Switzerland, has an interesting section on book-inscribing in the Middle Ages. When the culture vulture in you can't take any more, there are pleasant pathways along the shores of Lake Zürich that pass picnic, sunbathing and swimming spots.Hostels are located on the perimeter of the city centre and there are a few budget hotels on the east bank of Limmat River. Accommodation can be a problem during the summer months, so book ahead if possible. Nightlife is centred on the streets around Niederdorfstrasse. This is also a red-light district. Don't be alarmed if you stumble bleary-eyed out of a club on Sunday morning to be met by devout parishioners parading through the sin-sodden streets singing hymns to anyone who will listen.
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