Sometimes, the family road trip is a whole lot more peaceful in theory than in reality... more >>
Switzerland Travel TipsA Swiss Summer
Money can’t buy you happiness. But money – plus a beautiful lake? That’ll get you pretty close.
Zurich has become synonymous with finance and banking. But it’s Lake Zurich – glinting placidly in the background, no matter where you go – that defines the region.
Most visitors, though, only see a fraction of the 25-mile-long lake, usually from an outdoor bar, contemplating it over a Swiss beer. We did that too – but then we set off to explore the entire perimeter, by ferry, train, and e-bike. And what we discovered is a waterfront region filled with historical villages and outdoor activities that’s ideal for families. We also discovered plenty more places to sample the local beer.
Go Jump in a Lake
“Not only do we swim in it – but we drink from it.” You’ll hear that from locals throughout the area. And it’s true: You can jump in anywhere – and the lake water, once purified, keeps the region well-hydrated. Perhaps the greatest appeal for kids are the swimming holes – “badi” in Swiss. Often built onto platforms that extend over the lake, the swimming holes are a Swiss summer tradition, and outfitted with a sunbathing area, changing facilities, and sometimes a casual restaurant and other amenities.
Take your pick: The swimming holes range from Zurich’s Art Nouveau Frauenbadi, which turns into an open-air bar when the sun goes down, to quiet, tree-shaded nooks that dot the shoreline, from around Rapperswil-Jona and beyond.
And once you’ve dried off, the next adventure is just a short trek or ferry-ride away. In fact, that’s the other great appeal for families: Exploring Lake Zurich is as much about the journey as the destination. Ferries and old-fashioned paddle steamers regularly crisscross the lake. On the ferries, kids can roam freely, checking out the views from two decks, and refueling over Swiss sausages and ice cream at the on-board café. As for riding the rails: Swiss trains – astonishingly punctual and so clean that they all seem to have “new-car smell” – cover the entire lake region. Pick up a Swiss Pass, which offers unlimited access on the rail network. Or, explore the lake under your own steam: Hike the impressive Lake Zurich Trail,which rings the lake. You can do the whole trail in 10 days – or choose among 10 different starting points for day treks.
Stop and Smell the Roses
If Heidi skipped down from the Alps, you’d imagine her hanging out here. Rapperswil-Jona looks out of a Swiss storybook, with a cobblestoned main square, a 13th century castle brooding on the hill and sweet-smelling rose gardens, after which Rapperswil gets its nickname – City of Roses. And then there’s the lake: It’s hard to get closer to it than this. Rapperswil is perched on the upper end of Lake Zurich, and has a breezy harbor filled with boats, a boardwalk lined with outdoor restaurants, and the famous Die Holzbrücke, the longest wooden bridge in Europe.
But the real reason that Heidi might decide to relocate here is because the circus is in town. The esteemed Circus Knie, originally founded in 1803 and currently Switzerland’s largest, is headquartered here. You can tour the colorful circus museum and pay a visit to Knie Kinderzoo, the children’s zoo, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year with special events. Zoos tend to be generic, soulless affairs. Not this one. Here, kids are encouraged to interact with the animals, from monkeys and squawking birds to camels and elephants. Forget Angry Birds; this is the real thing. And a summertime bonus: Rapperswil is hosting its annual Blues ‘n’ Jazz Festival (June 29–July 1).
Dining out in Switzerland is a treat for little mouths: How can you go wrong with cheese and chocolate? On Swiss menus, look for gooey fondue; the local specialty of Zürcher Geschnetzeltes, tender veal folded with cream and mushrooms; and the kids’ favorite of spätzle, tiny, eggy dumplings. Ask for an outdoor table at Boulevard, which has a dual appeal: Kids will be entertained by the street scene and views of the harbor, while parents can soak up the romance, stealing nuzzles under the stars. Or, head into Rapperswil’s historic center to the handsome, newly redesigned Quellenhof restaurant. Top off the day with a tangy gelato from Dieci, near the lake.
Sleep with the Swiss
Watch the sun dip into the lake from the stylish Hotel Schwanen. If you’re looking for plenty of family romping space, go for the spacious turmsuite (tower suite). Best Western in the U.S. evokes images of forlorn motel rooms in dated shades of brown; not in Switzerland. Here, they’re often historical and boutique hotels, like the central Hotel Speer, which has impeccable rooms, lovely balconies, and a tree-shaded outdoor restaurant.
Pedal into the Middle Ages
In medieval times, foot-blistered pilgrims used to make the trek to Einsiedeln, just south of Lake Zurich, aided by little more than crude maps and perhaps a jug of mead. These days, the path to godliness is a lot easier, with GPS, fast trains and other critical modern conveniences like Nutella crepes and bottled beer. There may be no better Lake Zurich town to introduce the kids to local history than Einsiedeln, which is one of Europe’s most important pilgrimage sites on the ancient Way of St. James. The baroque Benedictine abbey rises grandly over town; peer inside to see its most important resident, the Black Madonna, as well as a splendid ancient library.
Afterwards, do as the Swiss, and discover the Einsiedeln countryside by e-bike, which may be the best invention for outdoor fun since the portable cooler. Electric bikes, equipped with a small motor, are all the buzz in Switzerland – and ideal for a family with varying skill levels. Then, pop in to the inviting Goldapfel, a 19th century gingerbread museum and shop, which bakes the traditional pilgrim’s biscuit, schafböcke.
At trip’s end, board a sleek train back to Zurich, admiring the frosted Alps rising over the peaceful lake, while a rich piece of dark Lindt chocolate dissolves on your tongue. It’s said that life in Switzerland operates as flawlessly as its famous watches. Not really – it’s even better.