“It was beautiful to see the vast expanse of these purple and misty waters broken by the craggy islets near to its slant beached margin.” – Percy Bysshe Shelley, in a letter written by Lake Geneva in 1816
When planning your visit to Switzerland, you’ll want to see famous mountains, take a train ride through vertiginous Alpine landscapes and perhaps stay in a couple of elegant Swiss cities. The many lakes of Switzerland, you might think, are only background to the main show.
But what if you slowed down and decided to make the Swiss lakes your main attraction? We’ve taken that bet and listed some of Switzerland’s most beautiful lakes.
Lake Geneva is large, crescent-shaped and forms the border between French-speaking Switzerland and neighbouring France. There are many ways of discovering its pleasures. You can stay in its lakeside towns and villages and ride on one of multiple ferries that criss-crosses the water.
You can drive along the old Swiss road from Geneva to Montreux, cradled between the Lavaux heritage vineyards, the Lake and the snowy Alps beyond. And as the sun sets on the lake, coating it in sheets of gold, you can sip fine Dezaley wine on a shoreside terrace in Lutry and let yourself be bathed in the beauty of the Léman.
From Lake Geneva, it’s a short journey to the Land of the Three Lakes, a mystical-sounding area straight out of a fantasy novel, which in reality contains many more than three lakes.
The small cities of Neuchâtel, Bienne and Morat and their lakes are nestled on the flanks of the Jura mountains. It’s possible to visit them all in a day, but you’ll enjoy it more if you give yourself two or three days. This is a region of pristine nature, but also rich in history going back to mediaeval times and beyond, full of castles and the echoes of old battles.
All three have extensive lakeside promenades, restaurants, parks, and refreshments kiosks. You can experience short or long cruises on all three lakes, and a short train journey will take you from one to the other.
Interlaken – ‘Between the Lakes’ – is one of the most famous tourist destinations in the English-speaking world. But few know the names of the two lakes that inspired that label. Lakes Brienz and Thun lie side-by-side in the Bernese Oberland, in the south of the canton of Berne. The one a clear turquoise green, the other a deep blue, the two lakes spread out like the wings of a glider in this highland region.
It’s a holiday destination – there are many beaches, campsites and hotels along both lakes, as well as hidden creeks and day trips to hike the hills or discover outdoor museums. A favourite spot? Try the ancient grandeur of the Grand Hotel Giessbach, on lake Brienz, above the Giessbach waterfall, and which you reach by boat and funicular.
This oddly-shaped lake is the heart of Switzerland, not only geographically, but also historically. It was on a lakeside meadow, the Rütli, that the Swiss Confederation was born in 1291, when representatives of the three founding cantons – Uri, Schwyz and Unterwald, met to swear allegiance to each other.
Other regions soon joined the new club, including the fourth of this lake’s cantons, Lucerne. If you like mediaeval towns, have a stroll around Lucerne and across its wooden bridge. If you prefer rustic villages, you will find many along or overlooking the winding shores of the lake.
Lake Zürich, named for Switzerland’s largest city stretches its banana shape across three cantons: Zürich, St Gallen and Schwytz. The Goldküste (Gold Coast), on the northern shore of the lake between Zollikon and Feldmeilen, will give you a glimpse of how the wealthy of Zürich live and relax (the coast is named for its sunny aspect, rather than its wealth!).
Further east, Rapperswil will enchant you with its mediaeval town centre and the Knie circus park, and across the lake bridge in Pfäffikon, the huge water park Aquamare. You can stroll across using the wooden footbridge from Rapperswil to Hurden, the rebuilt ancient pilgrims’ bridge on the Compostela road. If you want to discover more of the lake, try one of the traditional paddle boats!
The Lake of Constance, in the Rhine valley, creates a natural border between Switzerland, Germany and Austria, and is divided into three bodies of water. Its shores link the cantons of St Gallen, Thurgau and Schaffhausen, the German states of Bavaria and Baden-Württenberg and the Austrian state of Vorarlberg.
It makes a delightful transition into Switzerland if you are discovering the three countries by road, and a good passage from Switzerland into the Black Forest of Germany, a famous destination. It offers walks, cruises, hikes on the hillside shores, and at least one well-known cultural festival, the Bregenzer Festspiele, a performing arts festival just the other side of the border in Austria.
Geographically, Lake Lugano belongs to the Italian lakes and lies between Lake Maggiore and Lake Como. The hook-shaped Lake Lugano divides its waters between Switzerland and Italy, though most of it lies in the Swiss canton of Ticino. Wooded mountains overhang the lake and slope down into shoreside parks and historical towns and villages, such as Renaissance Morcote.
Between two branches of the lake, Monte San Giorgio, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is famous for its fossils of the Triassic period (the pre-Jurassic geological era). In common with other lakes, there are hotels and campsites along most shores.
Lake Cauma is a little different from the other lakes listed, being an Alpine lake at 1000 m. near the resort of Flims, in the canton of Grisons.
You can’t drive up to its crystalline turquoise waters, but you can hike, bike, or shorten your trip with the free funicular, followed by a 15-minute walk. It’s an ideal picnic destination on a hot summer day, with bathing, lazing in pedalos and all kinds of messing about in boats. A small restaurant serves lunches if you don’t want to carry your own.
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