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The Grand Tour of Switzerland is a driving itinerary developed to “explore the highlights of Switzerland with a beautifully scenic route.” It’s well done, an excellent way to explore the country. This note includes specific recommendations to get the most out of the adventure. I’ve followed the general instructions (9 days, no more than 5 hours of driving per day, travel in the recommended travel period when the passes are open – April to October roughly) with notes for add-on activities.

The Grand Tour can be travelled in both directions, but Switzerland Tourism recommends you make the journey clockwise.

The official stats

  • Highlights: 46 top attractions, 13 of which UNESCO World Heritage Sites and two biospheres
  • Lakes: 22 lakes larger than 0.5 square kilometers along the route
  • Length:
    • Core route: 1643 km (1021 miles)
    • Initial stretch Basel – Neuchâtel: 165 km
    • Initial stretch Geneva – Saint-George: 53 km
    • Initial stretch Chiasso – Bellinzona: 109 km

 Grand Tour Map [PDF]


Day 1: Zurich

The official route assumes starting in Zurich – a great choice! Wander through the old town, consider swimming in the lake, see the famous stained glass in the Fraumunster and Grossmunster churches.

Food Options

  • ***Didi’s Frieden, Stampfenbachstrasse 32: excellent, one of the best wine lists in Zurich. Near the city center.
  • **Gasthaus Rathauskeller: excellent, in the old town. Classic Swiss standards and a nice rotating menu of elegantly plated seasonal options.
  • Kronenhall: Fancy/historic option in the city center.

Hotels

All of these lean more on the affordable side; if budget allows there are many more high end options.

  • **25hours Hotel Zurich West: This funky, 125-room budget hotel, by local designer Alfredo Häberli, is in the Zurich-West district. It is filled with contemporary art and has an innovative restaurant, Neni. Rooms range from bunk beds to suites and there’s free Wi-Fi, a sauna and bikes. 25hours-hotels.com
  • **Scheuble Hotel: https://www.scheuble.ch/en/hotel: we liked this. Clean, friendly, very central, reasonable prices.
  • **Hotel Seehof: in a quieter part of town but still accessible. Nice beds, clean, good breakfast.

Day 2: Zurich to Appenzell

Covers Stage 1 : Zurich to Appenzell Official Route

The official route takes about 2:30 hours – I’d recommend a shorter 1:40 minute route with more time for sightseeing. Skip Schaffhausen and make your way due east from Zurich to St. Gallen, with an optional stop at **Castle Kyburg along the way.

You’ll be in St. Gallen before lunch – just in time for the wonderful Abbey district! Leave time for lunch, and 2-3 hours to tour the library and church complex.

Continue on to adorable Appenzell, your stop for the night. There are two choices for lodging – a famous hostel, or a classic hotel. You may be able to do an early dinner at the hostel if you time it right and return back to the village for sleeping. 

Option 1: ***Aescher-Wildkirchli: The hostel of Instagram fame – Loved it! Amazing setting, fun getting there, good dinner, entertaining company. Be sure to hike down (not up) – it’s a steep vertical climb, takes about an hour, lovely scenery. Why you wouldn’t choose this: shared bathrooms, dorm-style sleeping (including shared beds; big platform sleeping areas).

Option 2: ***Romantik Hotel Säntis: This is super Swiss and right on the main square. It’s cute – ask for a room on a higher floor. Pretty loud, food isn’t great, decor is very on point for 1970s Swiss Style. You’ll likely be woken at 6 as the local farmers walk their cows through the central square to the surrounding pasture (a plus in our book). Reserve dinner at the excellent ***Café-Hotel Appenzell (book well in advance).

Variations

If you do decide Schaffhausen is key, do also add on nearby ***Rheinau Monastery Church.


Day 3: Appenzell to Chur

Covers Stage 2 : Appenzell to St. Moritz, and parts of Stage 3: St. Moritz to Bellinzona

Recommended Route: about 4 hours.

Make this a driving day, covering several of Switzerland’s most dramatic passes through Graubunden, wrapping for the night in charming Chur. Stretch your legs in cute Klosters if you need a break (skip Davos). From Klosters, the ***Fluela Pass is stunning, very steep, above tree line.Leave time for shopping the high-end boutiques of St. Moritz before returning on the busy, scenic, and well graded **Julier Pass.

Skip the motorway and drive the final stretch to Chur through Lenzerheide and Churwalden – which has the world’s longest Toboggan Run. Because, well, why not (and it’s a lovely valley). 

Chur itself is a cute, walkable old town ( the oldest town in Switzerland), with good restaurants and darling historical hotels. Stay at **Zunfthaus zur Rebleuten, which has an excellent location, small rooms as you’d expect for a historic building.

Top Sites

  • **Domschatzmuseum Chur: small but notable. There’s the normal (and rather fine) collection of church reliquaries and the like. Below ground, there’s a remarkable, and historically important, series of paintings. The cycle of death images from 1543 consist of 25 painted picture fields on a half-timbered wall, based on the woodcut series with the Images of Death by Hans Holbein the Younger – the first large-format copies of those small prints known. Apart from the two depictions of death from around 1520 to 1530 in the charnel house in Leuk (also worth a visit!), this is the oldest surviving cycle in the tradition of death dances in Switzerland.
  • The adjacent Chur Cathedral, otherwise known as the **Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary, is impressive and exuberantly decorated, very unusual for Switzerland. 

Restaurant Options

  • **Zunfthaus zur Rebleuten: in the recommended hotel, famous for its Cordon Bleu
  • **La Meridiana: Don’t be distracted by the appearance – there’s a roof garden on the 5th floor! Great views of the city, Italian food.
  • **Veltiner Weinstube in the Hotel Stern is classic Swiss, wooden walls and traditionally dressed staff. It’s cozy and charming.

Variations

The route misses misses two famous spots, which you could add on as extensions (1 day per):

Val Sinestra, Valposchiavo


Day 4: Chur to Lugano Isola Bella

Covers Stage 3: St. Moritz to Bellinzona and Stage 4:

Driving time: about two hours, or three if you go over the pass rather than through the tunnel.

Going off script here, why visit Lugano when you can go to Lago Maggiore? I owe Lugano another visit, but for now I’ll recommend what we know is worth it – the Isola Bella islands.

The drive from Chur includes several notable stops:

  • ***Kirche St Martin, in Zillis. Romanesque frescos: beautiful, quite different from the rest of the churches we’ve seen, illustrated ceiling with wooden carved scenes from the bible, with mythical beasts around the edges. Important source for dating the spread of Christianity in Switzerland.
  • ***Viamala Schlucht: Excellent! Short hike down into a gorge, very scenic. Go early to skip the crowds.
  • ***San Bernardino Pass (closed in winter).  It’s worth it, not a fast run at all, but it’s an engineering marvel and fun to drive. There’s a tunnel underneath, so you can zip back north easily.

Coming out of the pass, you’ll find the lovely background of the Castelgrande, Castello Montebello and Castello Sasso Corbaro protecting the city of the Bellinzona – a well-preserved example of late-medieval defensive structures located at a key strategic point on the Alpine pass. Each castle is worth a visit by its own right, but together with their defensive walls they offer a fascinatingly beautiful step back in time. A great place to stop for lunch – two hours is plenty. We ate at **Il Fermento in the old town, which is a brewery with vaguely Italian food. Quite good.

Now on to Lago Maggiore – we stayed in Stresa, which is incredibly touristy but the best option for island access. ***Grand Hotel Iles Borromees was wonderful in classic grand hotel style (Hemingway stayed here, and Winston Churchill had his honeymoon here),

If you’re very motivated and plan in advance, ***Isola Brissago is definitely the winner of the Maggiore islands. A perfect romantic getaway, with a hotel & a great restaurant, and after the ferries stop in the early evening you have the entire island to yourself.

Either way, spend your afternoon cruising the Isola Bella Cluster. It’s worth considering getting a private taxi if visiting the Isola Bella area as a group. Ferries work but you’re a bit captive to the schedules and the wait can be very long.

  • ***Isola Madre: enchanting sub-tropical gardens, and exotic birds! Birds were the best part. Much less crowded than Isola Bella. We ate on the island at ***La Piratera, not bad, friendly and good food with a nice outdoor patio.
  • *Isola Superiore: the island with restaurants. I’m sure there are good options but we couldn’t wait to leave the chaos.
  • **Isola Bella: dramatic and overwhelming crowds. Worth it once.

VARIATIONS

If you have extra time, do try Lugano, and potentially nearby Gondria, which gets rave reviews.

Another gorgeous overnight (especially for hikers) is nearby Valle Maggia.