Produced by SilverKris for Switzerland Tourism
The Swiss all but invented the winter holiday. Embracing the country’s snow-fuzzed ski resorts and snow globe villages is so ingrained in the local culture, it’s practically a human right.
But as joyous as these mountain escapes are, a great precursor to a winter-sports getaway is a city break in some of Switzerland’s most switched-on cities. By switched-on, we mean not just packed with arts, culture and gastronomy, but also festooned with flickering lights, faux candles and festive sparkle. The spirit of Christmas runs deep in Switzerland and particularly so in the following cities, where seasonal pomp runs amok.
Zurich at Christmas is star-spangled and carnival-like. Here, the festive markets keep getting bigger and better, and the historic core fills out with half-timbered stalls and evergreen trees.
In particular, the Christkindlimarkt at the Main Train Station, located underneath the tinsel-wrapped arches of the main ticket hall, is a one-stop shop for that special Swiss Christmas feeling. Micro-chalets sell handmade toys, wooden puppets, glühwein (mulled wine) and gingerbread cookies as if it were still the 19th-century, and a showpiece tree sparkles with 7,000 dazzling Swarovski crystals. One of Europe’s largest indoor markets, the Christkindlimarkt brims with some 140-odd stands, but never fails to deliver what locals really want at this time of year: melted cheese raclette, scraped onto pickles and potatoes.
While Switzerland’s largest city always looks glorious from the lakeside, winter brings a special yuletide magic. A stroll to Lake Zurich reveals Wienachtsdorf, the city’s Christmas village. Here the draw is a cluster of 100 stalls, spread like a stretched nativity scene beside the spectacular Opera House. This being 21st-century Switzerland, there are no barn animals or manger, only plenty of delicious wine and gift-wrapped jewellery.
Zurich always rewards exploring, but especially so if you seek out the city’s oldest Christmas market. You’ll find it hidden away in the twisted alleys and cobblestone squares of the Niederdorf quarter of the Old Town.
Looking for a heady dose of world-class Swiss food and wine? Head to the Olympic city of Lausanne, where more than 20,000 litres of Swiss mulled wine and 1.2 tonnes of cheese are consumed by visitors each December. Which is to say, despite the snow-tinged nip in the air, this is a very sociable affair, centred around different markets and attractions, collectively known as Bô Noël, but all with their own essence.
On Place St-François, locals shop in a hangar-sized market while caroling along with festive concerts. At Bô Caveau, beneath the arches of Grand-Pont, the region’s winegrowers offer copious samples that might see you wobbling back to your hotel.
Tradition seeps in at Place Pépinet, where local designers marry medieval customs with muted luxury, while the Lausanne Lumières festival channels the spirit of a modern art gallery. Expect light sculptures from both up-and-coming and well-established artists. Here, for those who want a bit more than tradition, tourism chiefs have mapped out the perfect Christmas itinerary.
Consider the giant fir tree at La Palud, treasure hunts and igloos in which you can enjoy cheese, charcuterie and – surprisingly – iced platters of oysters. Then, the pièce de résistance is the Bô Quartier du Flon, where a giant geodesic snow globe shelters the Esplanade fountain and a union of bauble-lit restaurant terraces.
Yuletide markets in Lake Geneva’s resort town are almost an art form. Expect a spectrum of offerings, themed for different ages, families and seasonal shoppers.
You’ll get the idea when exploring the 150 bauble-lit chalet stalls at Hunter’s Place, which extends for more than a kilometre along Lake Geneva’s frigid shoreline on Quai Edouard-Jaccoud. No matter your taste, there are scores of local specialities and thousands of gift ideas.
Whatever the weather, the romance of the holiday season bursts to life, thanks to covered walkways and frontier-style Logger’s Cabin, the city’s post-work meeting place at the train station. Locals mix things up with pizza and so-called “logger’s tea” here, but the vibe quickly gets restored thanks to advent concerts and carols.
Families, meanwhile, stick to another of Montreux’s highlights — Santa & His Flying Sleigh, a mind-tricking spectacle which sees the man in the red suit somehow transport himself over the lakeside promenade in a whoosh of bells and reindeer brays. This is often the warm-up for a ride on the Santa Train, and it’s only fitting that kids can glide along the tracks in a cogwheel carriage to visit Father Christmas in his grotto at Rochers-de-Naye. Switzerland, after all, is a country of astonishing train rides.
Add the giant ferris wheel and the elf workshop-themed square for the little ones and you might feel like you’ve slipped into a children’s story. Away from the city centre, medieval Chillon Castle has the same air — this year, expect an ice pathway that concertinas through an evergreen forest twinkling with lights.
For more amazing itineraries this winter season, visit MySwitzerland.com/winter