I spent two weeks in Lausanne over Christmas house sitting for a cranky old cat named Kira. When I booked the house sit (Trusted Housesitters), I had fantasies of a perfect Swiss Christmas holiday. In my imagination, I walk through the quaint Christmas markets in the snow, drink delicious hot chocolate, and meet a handsome Swiss banker who speaks perfect English. Together we discover the best of Lausanne and the two weeks fly by like a Danielle Steele romance novel. I had high expectations of Lausanne, partly due to a Rick Steeves travel show where he raved about the city. Sadly, the city lacked the charm of my vivid imagination and the handsome stranger never appeared. The best part of my two-week stint in Switzerland was the day trips from Lausanne, exploring Lake Geneva. On the rare days when the sun made an appearance, it was magical!
In all honesty (which is what blogs are all about!), Switzerland is probably my least favorite country in Europe. Once I visit all the countries in Europe, I can say that for sure. Why? I just didn’t connect with the place at all. Maybe it was a bad time of year (December). Maybe I’m not wealthy enough to splurge on a place like Switzerland. Or quite possibly I’ve been spoiled by living in Nice so it takes more to really WOW me. If this had been my first visit to Europe and I hadn’t recently experienced the history of Budapest or stunning Paris, I may have felt differently. So, opinions are all my own and should be absorbed with a large grain of salt! I did manage to find some magic through the Swiss fog and am attempting to highlight the positive!
First, a few Swiss travel tips (things Rick Steeves maybe could have mentioned)
- Switzerland is unbelievably EXPENSIVE! Prepare to overspend or eat ramen noodles for dinner.
- You’ll need an electric adapter, even if coming from other parts of Europe. The Post Office sells them.
- Lausanne weather in December is unpredictable. Not cold enough to snow but just right for a thick fog to envelope Lake Geneva.
- The Lausanne Christmas market is not really quaint. The city really isn’t very quaint either, at least in the winter.
- Swiss people seem insulated and disinterested in foreigners. Not unfriendly, just closed off.
- Lausanne’s beauty lies along Lake Geneva or in Old Town. The area in between is quite bland.
- Chocolate, cheese, and wine are cheap. That was my diet for two weeks, along with ramen noodles.
Mildly Interesting Tidbits of Swiss Trivia (provided by Factretriever.com)
The Swiss eat more chocolate than any other nation in the world, 11.3 kg per year.
Switzerland has more than 1,500 lakes, and one is never more than 10 miles (16 km) from a lake within the country’s borders.
Switzerland is one of the few nations in the world where assisted suicide is legal.
In 2007, Switzerland accidentally invaded its neighbor Liechtenstein.
A Swiss Yodelling Festival is held every three years and attracts around 10,000 yodellers, flag-throwers, and alphorn players.
The Swiss have the second longest life expectancy in the world after Japan.
Switzerland has four official languages, French, German, Italian, and Romansch. (Lausanne is French-speaking.)
Switzerland does not have a president as chief of state. Instead, it is governed by a seven-member council, and council members rotate in one-year terms as federal president.
The Best of Lausanne – a Quick Tour Before Taking Day Trips from Lausanne
The Port area along Lake Geneva is a wonderful, relaxing place to spend some time enjoying the beauty of the lake and the French Alps in the distance. The centerpiece of this area is the elegant and historic Chateau d’Ouchy, a medieval castle that was converted into an elegant hotel back in the late 1800s. This is the quaint Swiss chalet of my fantasies! When I win the lottery, I’ll book a suite and sip champagne while admiring the view. (Check rates here on Hotels Combined!)
Boats depart from the main dock in the marina, allowing you to explore Swiss lakeside villages or even the French city of Evian directly across the lake. The walking trail runs east to the medieval villages of Pully and Lutry and west to Morges. One of my favorite things about Lausanne – the walking trails along the lake! It’s a great area to explore, even on a cold December day!
Lausanne Old Town
Lausanne is built on the side of a hill and the walk from the Port to Old Town will help you burn off the chocolate and fondue calories. Place Saint Francois is located on the edge of Old Town and the cobblestone streets run uphill from there to the Cathedral. The city has rivers and gullies running through it, so in order to make it a bit more navigable, they’ve built pedestrian walkways crisscrossing the city.
Since Old Town is really old, there really was no street planning and it evolved over the centuries into a maze of narrow, cobblestone streets. I got very lost and relied heavily on Google maps for navigation.
The Gothic Cathedral
Head uphill through Old Town and most roads eventually lead to the Gothic Cathedral at the top. The city view from the top is worth the walk and the Cathedral itself is also quite interesting. For an even better view, climb the 225 steps to the top of the belfry. The cathedral has been around since 1235 and, continuously since 1405, another interesting piece of history comes to life. Every night between 10 pm and 2 am “The Lookout”, a role currently played by Renato Hausler, shouts out the hour. The original purpose was to look out for the city and warn people in case of fire. These days it’s more of a tourist attraction which may be interesting if you’re a night owl.
Lausanne is the headquarters of the International Olympic Committee and the Olympic museum is located along the Lake Geneva shoreline very near the marina. The museum covers all things Olympics, from the history of the Olympic games to profiles of the more famous Olympic athletes to Olympic training and nutrition.
It’s a wonderful way to spend a cold, foggy winter afternoon and get motivated to become your best self! Check their website for ticket information and opening hours.
Day Trips from Lausanne
The Village of Vevey
As you head east from Lausanne, Lake Geneva narrows and the mountain views get even more stunning with French Alps seeming so close you can reach out and touch them! Vevey is my favorite Swiss village along Lake Geneva and I’d highly recommend using it as a base for exploring the area. It’s a smaller village and has the Swiss charm I found lacking in Lausanne.
One of Vevey’s claims to fame is Charlie Chaplin. He spent the last 25 years of his life in this area and was buried in Vevey. There’s a Charlie Chaplin statue along the shoreline, giving him an eternal view of the lake. His former estate has been turned into a museum called Chaplin’s World and dives deeper into the world of this legend.
Check their website for public transportation options as well as ticket prices.
Another claim to Vevey fame is the headquarters of Nestle, where the company was founded over 150 years ago. Tours of their facility are available but not highly recommended (it’s just a big, glass building). Another more interesting foodie museum, the Alimentarium, is located by the large fork sticking out of Lake Geneva. The museum, part of the Nestle foundation “is devoted to food and nutrition and takes visitors on an interactive journey through the world of food, challenging the brain and testing all of the senses.”
Check their website for information on current exhibitions and to purchase tickets.
Cully Jazz Festival
Although this area of Switzerland is quite famous for the Montreux Jazz Festival, the area between Vevey and Lausanne has their own jazz festival every April. The festival is held in the UNESCO vineyards overlooking Lake Geneva and features some of the biggest names in jazz. Performances are free and are held in the vineyard’s wine cellars.
Check their website for details on the 2019 dates and artists.
If you’re thirsty and curious about the regional wines, jump on the train from Vevey station and head into the hills to explore the terraced hillsides covered in vineyards. The regional train from Vevey to Puidoux-Chexbres runs right through the vineyards. Get off at Chexbres Village and follow the hiking trails through the vineyards, or take the “Lavaux Panoramic” tourist train departing from Chexbres for a rolling vineyard tour.
Enjoy the wine, it’s quite delicious and surprisingly affordable, and soak in the spectacular views of Lake Geneva below! (Vineyard train information right here.)
Looking for Hotels in Vevey? Compare prices here on Hotels Combined!
My day in Montreux was magical and was the highlight of my stay along the Swiss Riviera. Montreux is located near the eastern end of Lake Geneva where the mountains reflecting off the water allow for unbelievable views and stunning photos! Restaurants and cafes line the Lake Geneva walking trail through Montreux. They serve expensive food, cheap wine, and breathtaking views of the French Alps just across the lake.
Montreux Jazz Festival
The Montreux Jazz Festival takes place annually in early July along the Lake Geneva shoreline and has made Montreux famous. It was originally held in the Montreux Casino but that venue burned down during a Frank Zappa performance and inspired the 70s classic rock song “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple. While it began as a pure jazz festival, in the early 70s the festival expanded to include rock, blues, and soul. The 2019 line up includes Elton John as part of his “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” farewell tour.
In the words of Queen legend Freddy Mercury, “Let’s face it darlings – we’re the most preposterous band that ever lived“. This preposterous band’s connection to Montreux goes a long way back and their story is told in the current Hollywood hit “Bohemian Rhapsody”.
Freddy Mercury discovered Montreux while attending the Jazz Festival and fell in love with the city. He settled into an apartment overlooking Lake Geneva and opened Mountain Studio where Queen recorded their last albums. The studio is located in the rebuilt Montreux Casino right along Lake Geneva and is now a museum to this amazing band.
“Queen: The Studio Experience” is open daily 10:30 am to 10:00 pm and admission is free. I recommend seeing “Bohemian Rhapsody” before visiting the museum to fully appreciate it.
During my walk along the lake from Chillon Castle to Montreux, I stopped to rest on a random park bench with an amazing view. Shockingly, this was Freddy Mercury’s bench and there was a small tribute to him next to the bench. I sat there for a while, enjoying the view while listening to Bohemian Rhapsody. It gave me chills.
Despite the generally crappy weather during my December Swiss visit, the weather on my day at Chillon Castle was absolute perfection! The day began with a thin layer of clouds but by early afternoon, the clouds parted and their wispy reflections bounced off the mirror of Lake Geneva.
Chillon Castle is one of the most visited tourist sites in Switzerland for good reason – it’s really interesting! This castle has been occupied since the Bronze Age and written records date back to the year 1005. During its long history, the castle has been used as a residence, a fortress, an arsenal, and a prison. English poet Lord Byron made the prison famous with his poem “The Prisoner of Chillon”. Today, there’s a plaque hanging on a rock wall inside the dungeon where Byron carved his name into the stone pillar.
The castle has 46 rooms that have been recreated and really give a sense of what life was like back when the Count of Savoy’s family used this as a summer home. Detailed maps allow you to do a self-guided tour. However, I’d highly recommend getting an audio guide since the written guide map is sometimes difficult to read inside the dark castle.
I spent over 2 hours inside the castle and when I walked outside, the high cloud layer had turned into white puffy streaks in the blue sky. I spent the next few hours trying to capture the beauty of Lake Geneva in photos as I walked the pathway back to Montreux.
Getting to Chillon Castle:
Bus: Bus 201 departs from very near the Montreux train station and stops at Chillon Castle. Follow the signs from the train station.
Walk: Exit Montreux train station and walk 2 blocks to Lake Geneva. Turn left and follow the pathway along the lake for a beautiful 40-minute walk to Chillon Castle.
Looking for a hotel in Montreux? Compare Montreux hotel prices on Hotels Combined.
Geneva is a city that really surprised me. While I expected a cold, sterile, boring city full of banks, I found plenty of interesting sites to explore while waiting for my evening flight. Located on the western tip of Lake Geneva, it’s a city filled with water as the Rhone River collides with Lake Geneva here.
St. Pierre Cathedral
Sitting on the top of a hill in the Old Town area, the St. Pierre Cathedral is worth a visit. The building dates back to the 12th century and was the site of the Protestant Reformation. John Calvin called this church home back in 1541 and his favorite chair (aptly called “John Calvin’s Chair) is on display inside the cathedral.
Old Town Geneva
I spent a few hours exploring the steep, cobblestone streets of Geneva’s Old Town. The narrow streets wind around the hilltop where the cathedral is located and tourist information signs scattered throughout allow for an easy self-guided walking tour of the Old Town area.
On a cold Swiss winter day, fresh bread dipped in hot, melted cheese will warm your soul. Switzerland is famous for producing excellent cheese and, combined with locally produced wine, plus a dash of garlic, Swiss fondue has a reputation for being amazing! Sadly, it’s an amazing culinary experience better shared with others so I skipped it – this time!
Fondue is not cheap (nothing in Switzerland is). A friend of mine visited Geneva recently and recommended La Buvette located in the popular La Buvette des Bains area for a reasonably priced fondue experience if you’re searching for an authentic Swiss fondue fix!
After spending a cold, January day wandering around Geneva, I took the convenient 8-minute train ride to Geneva airport for my flight. As my Swiss Air flight lifted off the runway and Switzerland faded into the distance, my heart felt lighter. In that moment I knew deep inside my soul that I had absolutely no connection to this place.
I also felt lighter because I was heading home to Nice!
Getting Around Lake Geneva
Train – Swiss trains are the quickest way to explore the Lake Geneva shoreline. It’s often cheaper to purchase tickets online rather than at the station. Check prices and schedules details here.
Boat – Lake Geneva has convenient ferry service to most major tourist cities as well as France. Check here for schedules and tickets.
Stunning Switzerland photos are now available for purchase on my new Pixels.com site. Check it out!