Switzerland is a popular destination in winter, with its ‘antique’ charm complemented by Christmas markets. Amy Moore travelled to the snow-clad country courtesy of the Switzerland Travel Centre, to see what it has to offer groups
Montreux is located within the Lake Geneva region and offers a wealth of opportunities for excursions. The city oozes quality and culture, and is home to the world-famous Montreux Jazz Festival, which celebrates its 50th anniversary on July 1-16, 2016.
Lead singer of legendary rock band Queen, Freddie Mercury had a close affiliation with Montreux. The band bought Mountain Recording Studio in the town, and Mercury recorded his last album here. A statue of the singer can be found on the waterfront (www.montreuxriviera.com).
Take your group on a wine tasting tour amidst the vineyards of Lavaux, which has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site (www.lavaux.com).
Santa Claus House
From Montreux catch the Rochers-De-Naye cogwheel train, which departs from Montreux station to ascend the mountain for views of the Alps and Lake Geneva below.
The Rochers-De-Naye mountains stand 2,042-metres above sea level, and at the top sits the Santa Claus House. A special Santa Claus Train departs hourly from Montreux station and takes approximately one hour to reach the summit.
Opening five days a week in November and December, the Santa Claus House celebrates its 13th year in 2016.
Here, visitors can participate in various festive activities including face painting and treasure hunts, and can even have their photographs taken with Santa Claus himself, with a colourful certificate to take away.
Bookings must be made in advance. You’ll find details at www.goldenpass.ch. (The attraction is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.)
On your return journey from Rochers-De-Naye, disembark at Caux free of charge to enjoy further festive activities (www.caux.ch).
Golden Pass Panoramic
One of the most picturesque railway lines in Switzerland, the Golden Pass operates two scenic services, the Golden Pass Panoramic and the Golden Pass Classic.
Departing twice daily from Montreux station, the Golden Pass Panoramic transports passengers to Zweisimmen, passing the picturesque Rochers-De-Naye mountains.
The Golden Pass Classic carriages are similar to the Panoramic, but boast a beautiful Belle Epoque design, which is comparable to the Orient Express.
Hot and cold refreshments and snacks are served onboard the Golden Pass Panoramic, with a cold dish served aboard the Golden Pass Classic (must be reserved).
Additional scenic rail journeys include themed day excursions The Chocolate Train and The Cheese Train. For more information or to book, visit www.goldenpass.ch.
A city where three countries meet, Basel makes an ideal stop-off point for your onward journey. Combining the cultures of Switzerland, France and Germany, Basel is an old town that is home to an abundance of museums and architectural masterpieces, such as the City Hall with its colourful red façade.
Basel City Hall remains the seat of the Basel government and its parliament. The River Rhine runs through the city and from Basel Cathedral, where groups can enjoy magnificent views, it’s worth taking a ferry to the other side of the river.
A wonderful Christmas Market is held annually in Basel, and visitors and locals alike sip on traditional “Gluhwein” (mulled wine).
There are nearly 40 museums to explore, with some open art exhibitions including the mesmerising Tinguely Fountain. Designed by Swiss artist Jean Tinguely, the fountain is an artistic water feature in summer, freezing to create unique ice sculptures in winter.
To make the most of the city, GTW recommends groups embark on a guided walking tour. For more information or to book, visit www.basel.com.
Combine your visit to Basel with a trip to Europa-Park, the largest theme park in Germany, which is located an hour away from the city (www.europapark.de).
Zurich at Christmas
During the festive period, the mainline railway station in Zurich is transformed into Europe’s largest indoor Christmas market, home to a 15-metre tall Christmas tree decorated with over 7,000 Swarovski crystals.
Additionally, Zurich’s famous shopping street boasts magical Christmas illuminations comprising almost 12,000 crystals containing white, red and blue LED lights.
A short walk will take you to the Singing Christmas Tree that sees adults and children alike climb a podium to sing Christmas carols in English. It’s definitely worth a visit. For more information visit www.zuerich.com/christmas.
Catch a train from Vitznau to Einsiedeln for a Christmas market, which has the beautiful baroque Benedictine Monastery as its backdrop.
The Benedictine Monastery was the place of worship for the first hermit, Meinrad, who was assassinated in 861AD. Inside the Monastery is the unmissable Lady Chapel, housing the magnificent “Madonna” made out of black marble. She is one of the famous black Madonna’s of Europe. She turned black over time due to dust and soot from candles, oil lamps and incense, and was later fully painted black in 1803. It’s worth going along on a Saturday evening around 1730hrs to witness evening mass.
In the meantime, pop into the Library that is home to around 1,200 manuscripts, 1,100 incunabula, as well as 230,000 printed volumes from the 16th and 20th centuries.
Einsiedeln is also home to the Goldapfel Gingerbread Museum that contains a neat, free-to-enter exhibition and produces a decorative pilgrim pastry to purchase (www.einsiedelm-tourismus.ch).
Founded in 1178, Lucerne is a quaint town full of history and culture. A two-hour guided walking tour of the city would be the best way for groups to take in its spectacular lakeside setting with mountainous views, making sure to include a stroll across the historic 14th century Chapel Bridge.
The Chapel Bridge was initially constructed as part of the city’s fortifications, and saw painted triangular panels depicting the city’s history added in the 17th century. Close by, is the octagonal Water Tower that was built in 1300 and stretches more than 34-metres in height. Today it functions as an archive, treasury, prison and torture chamber.
A short stroll around Lake Lucerne from here will take you to the Needle Dam that manually regulates the water level. A little further outside the city centre, be sure not to miss the iconic Lion Monument, which is carved out of rock and commemorates the heroism of Swiss soldiers who died attempting to protect the Tuileries in Paris.
Lucerne boasts excellent transport connections by air, rail, car and ferry (www.luzern.com).
Mount Rigi Peninsula
A popular day trip destination, Mount Rigi has Europe’s first mountain railway (established in 1871) that circles the mountain, departing from Vitznau and operating daily every 30 to 60 minutes.
Mount Rigi overlooks Lake Lucerne and is particularly popular with ski groups, as it has three different ski runs located at 1,603-metres and a Gratalp ski slope at approximately 1,433-metres at Rigi Kaltbad. Additionally, an aerial cable car connects to the Vitznau cogwheel railway from here.
At 1,800-metres, Hotel Rigi Kulm, established in 1816, was the second hotel to have been built in Switzerland. Hiking and walking is a popular pastime on Mount Rigi, with a choice of various trails.
The Classic Rigi Round Trip is a half-day tour that includes ferry travel across Lake Lucerne, a scenic journey aboard the cogwheel railway, the chance to enjoy pretty panoramic views at Rigi Kulm, concluding with a final descent to the resort town of Weggis in the aerial cable car (www.rigi.ch/home-en).
Grand Hotel Suisse Majestic, Montreux
With an entrance located opposite Montreux main station, the Grand Hotel Suisse Majestic is a convenient stop off point for groups wishing to explore the city.
The hotel was originally constructed in 1870 and was renovated in 2010, featuring breathtaking balcony views overlooking Lake Geneva. The Grand Hotel Suisse Majestic is a luxury four-star hotel which looks especially nice at Christmas time, with illuminated wreaths wrapped around pillars that reflect off the sparkling white marble floor in reception.
The pretty “panoramic” restaurant overlooks the lake, serving a hearty breakfast that is worth waking up for.
When it comes to the bedrooms, you pay a small additional fee to enjoy your own lakeside view, with the bed placed parallel to the mountains. Photographs don’t do the view justice as low clouds shroud the snow-capped mountains in the distance.
Outside, groups can browse the Christmas market by the lake and warm up with some authentic Swiss-style cheese fondue in a wooden pop-up hut.
Direct access to Lake Geneva is available during the summer via the hotel’s grand staircase. A complimentary ticket for use on public transport around the city is included in your stay.
For more information or to book visit www.suisse-majestic.com.
GAIA Hotel, Basel
Formerly Hotel St Gotthard Basel, the GAIA Hotel is a recently rebranded, family-run business that prides itself on serving organic food and drink.
The word ‘GAIA’ internationally translates as the ‘Greek Goddess of the Earth,’ and guests are able to admire the modern artwork on display, including a prominent wooden throne-like chair in reception.
Upon arrival, a light lunch was served in the breakfast room before our group was given an informative tour of the premises. The four-star hotel GAIA Hotel has a 86 rooms and offers a range of different styles of accommodation, including a gorgeous suite set across two floors and an ‘awesome’ apartment-style room suitable for longer stays, complete with cooking facilities and a walk-in wardrobe.
It is not possible to book half-board at the Gaia Hotel as dinner is not served here. Instead, a nice alternative would be Restaurant Lowenzorn, which has its own small brewery, where they create their own beer.
The Gaia Hotel is conveniently located opposite Basel main station and tram station, and a complimentary transport ticket included in your stay. There is a frequent 15-minute bus service to Basel Airport – shared with France – and Zurich Airport is 90-minutes away by bus.
For more information or to book visit www.st-gotthard.ch.
Hotel Glockenhof, Zurich
Owned by Best Western, groups can expect a high standard hospitality at the Hotel Glockenhof. It is just a short 10-minute walk from Zurich main railway station, and is close to Zurich’s famous shopping street and the banks of Lake Zurich.
Hotel Glockenhof is beautifully lit during the festive period. It has 91 rooms differing in size and style. My room had a spacious single bed and panoramic window. A Nespresso coffee machine can be used at your leisure, with alternative tea making facilities available.
For a bite to eat, pop into Hiltl – the first vegetarian restaurant in the world – that serves around 500 dishes buffet-style or à la carte, and also doubles as a nightclub (www.hiltl.ch).
Once checked into Hotel Glockenhof, you will be issued with a prepaid Zurich Card, which allows second-class travel across the city, and free access or reduced admission to most of the city’s museums.
The Zurich Card costs 24 Francs for 24 hours or 48 Francs for 72 hours. Before using, the Zurich Card must be validated at an automatic ticket machine. Find out more online at www.zuerichcard.com.
For more information on Hotel Glockenhof or to book visit www.glockenhof.ch.
Hotel Schweizerhof, Lucerne
Hotel Schweizerhof boasts an idyllic location in close proximity to landmarks including the Lucerne Arts Museum, Saint Peters Church and the Lion Monument. Coach parking is also available nearby.
The five-star establishment was decorated for the festive season with multicolour windows with lit-up stars which reflected off Lake Lucerne. A cute Christmas market is also held within the hotel during the festive period.
Built in 1845, and family-run since 1861, visitors to the hotel can enjoy pretty panoramic views of the lake and the famous Swiss Alps. Upon entry, the first thing you’ll notice is a grand staircase. This, and the rickety lift which has a seat you can ride on, add to the hotel’s overall character and charm.
Each of the 101 rooms is individually themed. Room 031, for example, is dedicated to Austrian pianist (and former guest) Alfred Brendel. CDs and a Brendel signature sit within a display case underneath the flat-screen TV. On the writing desk a perfect-bound book details each of the room themes. This is available to purchase at the hotel reception.
Hotel Schweizerhof offers a convenient luggage collection/delivery service from the station. For more information visit www.schweizerhofluzernhotel.com.
#FOR MORE INFORMATION OR TO ORGANISE YOUR GROUP TRIP CONTACT THE SWITZERLAND TRAVEL CENTRE – www.stc.co.uk.