The small Alpine country of Switzerland is the quintessential winter holiday getaway—how could it not be? At the heart of the Alps, Switzerland has had time to perfect the art of winter. It's more than a season; it's a bonafide lifestyle replete with everything you'd expect: cozy chalets overlooking mountain peaks, hot chocolate by the fireplace and, of course, winter sports galore. The lowland cities transform into genuine winter wonderlands twinkling with street lights and Christmas markets emanating the smell of mulled wine, roasted nuts and pop-up fondue bars. Meanwhile, the Alpine towns and villages provide some of the best skiing, snowboarding and other winter activities in the world—all set amongst the inimitable and awe-inspiring snowy peaks that Switzerland is famous for.
The flurry of festivals and sporting events during the winter months include everything from Snow Polo—yes, horses on snow—to hot air balloons, an electronic music festival on the slopes and a 72-hour whirlwind Carnival, all of which are connected by the impressive Swiss transportation network (picturesque train rides included).
This guide will introduce you to the best things to do in Switzerland in winter—ski resorts, outdoor activities, festivals, sporting events and more—all of which Journy can help you discover with customized trip planning to ensure you live out your postcard-perfect wintertime dream-come-true.
Ski Towns And Villages
With over 60% of the country covered in contours, it's no surprise the Swiss have perfected winter sports into an art form. There are an inexhaustible number of ski resorts, from the more famous ones like Zermatt and St. Moritz to lesser known locations like the ultra-hip Laax and family (and budget)-friendly Saas Fee.
The name St. Moritz immediately conjures images of a jet-setting lifestyle of glitz and glamor. And while that still remains true to an extent, the town (which sits not too far away from Italy's border) has taken on a more relaxed demeanor, allowing anyone who visits to enjoy the glamorous Alpine surroundings.
The runs of St. Moritz are amongst the best in Switzerland (one of the reasons Audi has their ‘Free Fall’ men’s downhill race here). Skiing and snowboarding are the main attractions, and while the après-ski scene is not as strong as other resorts, there is the Dracula Club: a main attraction for international party-goers (don't be surprised if you see some people take trays from the restaurant and sled down the bob run afterwards). One of the more unique spots in St. Moritz is the Stübli Bar at the Hotel Schweizerhof. This small pub is where you'll find ski teachers and other locals mingling amongst live music. The Annual Gourmet Festival is also a highlight and takes place at the end of February (more on that below).
Originally famous during Victorian era for its crisp air and sunshine, Davos is best known today for hosting the World Economic Forum—in addition to being a top skiing (and après ski party) destination. The expansive Jazzhütte restaurant at the top of the mountain offers stunning views, which are made that much better when enjoyed from a jacuzzi. Closer to the village you'll find Bolgen Plaza, another big après-ski local spot where people congregate for music and schnapps. With a resort size of over 300 km and specific areas perfect for snowboarders, free skiers and beginners, Davos has a winning combination of runs, sights and revelry.
Zermatt is known for its views of the Matterhorn mountain (of Toblerone fame), but also for its amazing runs and beautiful village. The views of the Matterhorn are best in winter, as is the fondue. Check out Chez Vrony for amazing views and even better fondue, walk around the charming car-free village of Zermatt at leisure and enjoy the world-class après-ski scene. The Christmas market in Zermatt is also among the most famous in Switzerland and only adds to its magical allure.
Perhaps one of Switzerland's best kept secrets, Gstaad (pronounced shtad) is the epicenter of the international jet-setting crowd, and its atmosphere most closely resembles what people think of when they imagine the glamor of wintertime in Switzerland. At first glance, it may look like a normal Swiss mountain village, but a closer inspection will reveal streets lined with top designer stores, art galleries and restaurants all under the watchful gaze of the Gstaad Palace Hotel. The Palace, as it's known, is home to the Fromagerie (world-class fondue) and GreenGo (world-class clubbing). While dancing on a platform over an indoor pool that looks out onto the snow-covered gardens is certainly an unforgettable experience, so too is the skiing. The runs of Gstaad connect to nearby resorts, giving you over 300 km of trails—although we wouldn't blame you if you opted to spend the day wandering the well-heeled streets of the town or perching yourself indoors at the 1,800 square meter spa of the Palace instead.
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A snowboarding and free ski mecca, Laax and neighboring Flims make up one of the largest ski areas in Switzerland. It's here where you'll also find the largest halfpipe in Europe (home of the Laax Open), one of the largest indoor freestyle spaces (in case the weather isn't cooperating) and some of the best terrain parks on the continent. The Riders Palace and Rock Resort are where the crowds hang out to après-ski. Lake Caumasee is beautiful in winter and summer alike, as is the Vorab Glacier, which is good for skiing or biking depending on the season.
Arosa is one of the few resorts that has retained its "small mountain village" spirit—but likely not for much longer. A new cable car opened a few years ago connecting it to nearby Lenzerheide (where Roger Federer has a house in the hamlet of Valbella) and upping the total length of runs to over 220 km and the total lifts to 42.
Arosa can be a bit of an adventure to reach, at least by car. The road from the bottom of the Mountain in Chur to Arosa has 361 curves, but it's well worth the journey for some legitimate Swiss village vibes. This lovely village also plays host to Gay Ski Week (more on that below).
Leysin is best known today for its skiing scene and collection of schools (from primary and secondary to college and university). The resort also connects to Les Mosses-La Lécherette ski resorts, giving them a total of 100 km of runs—not to mention an Olympic-size half-pipe. The town itself is quaint and full of affordable accommodations and fantastic restaurants—the 100 year-old plus Fromagerie being the star. Here you can have traditional fondue ‘Moitié-Moitié’ as well as fondue ‘Aux Tomates’ and 'chinois' (oil and meat). Don't miss the chocolate fondue for desert.
Set in the middle of “The Pearl of the Alps” (for the 13 peaks over 4000 meters overlooking it), this pleasant town (pronounced sauce fay) is great for families due to the number of activities and level of runs. This is one of the best resorts if you're new to skiing or an intermediate, but its altitude and high abundance of powder also makes it suitable for higher levels. Outside of skiing, you'll find the world's highest revolving restaurant, an Ice Pavillion set into a glacier and Hannig, a whole mountain (with lifts) dedicated to non-skiing/snowboarding activities like tobogganing, snowshoeing and parapenting. There's also a leisure center with a pool, slide, spa, sauna, steam rooms and more.
Elegant and vibrant yet peaceful, the cities of Switzerland are perhaps even more charming in winter than all the other seasons combined. The snow-covered roofs only add more dazzle to the wide avenues and winding cobblestoned streets draped in holiday lights that lead you to lakeside Christmas markets bustling with cheer. Fondue leaves the confines of fromageries and traditional restaurants, spilling out onto the streets at pop-up bars and markets teeming with artisanal presents and bites.
While Basel’s own Christmas market is impressive and worth a visit, it's its Carnival that really makes it stand out come wintertime. Beginning at 4am, the self described “72 Hours of Madness” begins in darkness with all the city lights shut off. The city then comes alive in a parade of lights and colors with hand painted lanterns, drums and piccolo players. The festivities continue for the next 72 hours of revelry, which includes events such as the display of lanterns at the plaza (Laternenausstellung), the 12,000-person strong Cortège and a children's parade.
Winter may be one of the best times to visit Zürich, with its many Christmas markets (the one at the main station is the largest indoor Christmas market in Europe), charming old town and holiday lights. You could spend an entire day wandering from the Old Town to the lakeside opera house exploring Christmas markets teeming with trinkets and holiday cheer—but they're not the only attraction. Aside from the city’s many museums like the Kunsthaus and the FIFA World Football Museum, you can explore and eat your way through the trendy Viaduct District, sit at a heated outdoor beer garden (Frau Gerolds Garten), catch a show at the floating Salon Theater Herzbaracke and have a hot chocolate at the touristy yet charming Schober Cafe.
Quieter than its German-speaking counterpart, winter in Geneva is somewhat less subdued—with the majority of the action taking place in the surrounding mountains—but still holds its own unique winter traditions that differ from the rest of the country. One of these is L’Escalade, which commemorates the city’s victory against the invading Duke of Savoy in December 1602. The city celebrates with battle re-enactments, parades, cannons, and, of course, food and drink. Many of the city’s residents of all ages show up in traditional costumes amidst the city lights and scent of (free!) mulled wine permeating the air.
On the opposite end of Lac Leman (Lake Geneva in English) from the city of Geneva is the beautiful town of Montreux—of Jazz festival fame. This already graceful town becomes even more enchanting by the appearance of the Montreux Marché de Noël Christmas Market by the lake. While this is the most famous market in the French-speaking region of the country, we don't suggest you stop there. Le CouCou in the village of Caux—set just above the city—is a chalet where you can enjoy some fondue with stunning views over Montreux and Lake Geneva. And as always, you can't leave Montreux without taking pictures of the statue dedicated to its most famous resident: Freddy Mercury.
Winter Activities Besides Skiing/Snowboarding
If you’re not inclined to strap your feet to a pair of planks, there are great alternatives on and off the slopes. If you don't ski, go up the mountains for the hot drinks and sunshine. Take the ski lifts up to one of the many bars and viewing platforms and enjoy classics like mulled wine and hot toddies as well as traditional Swiss "runway coffees." With almost 20 variations of the drink, you’ll have ample options to find your favorite.
To get the downhill rush of skiing and snowboarding without the lessons and ski equipment, try sledding on gentler slopes (although we do still suggest snow pants and helmets!). Don't miss the longest sled run in Europe, Big Pintenfritz, which is 15 km long and runs from Faulhorn to Grindelwald.
A somewhat safer option, these massive slides allow people of all ages to enjoy a fun winter activity. But be warned, they can also go really fast! The tobogganing park in Leysin is a prime example, though there are many more scattered throughout the Swiss Alps.
In Switzerland you can skate three km through the woods and on frozen lakes atop mountains. But then again, even if you do decide to skate at a purpose-built rink, the Swiss surroundings will make you feel as if you're in a holiday TV special.
If there's anything better than an action-packed day of adventure, it's soothing your joints in the waters of a thermal Swiss Bath. There are several of these dotting the country, with some of them in or near ski areas. If your ski town of choice doesn't have thermal waters, then plan to stop on the way back after some winter activities to recover properly.
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Florence, Rome, & Venice
Snowmobiles, Cross-Country Skiing And More
The Titlis Adventure Park has amalgamated almost every winter activity in one place. You can cross-country ski, snowshoe, go on winter walks, ice skate in an igloo and even get in some avalanche training. Plus, it's one of the few places in the country where you can rent snowmobiles (they're banned elsewhere due to noise and pollution).
Of all the things to do in Switzerland in winter, eating may be our favorite. During the colder months, the cuisine skews comforting and hearty. Indulge in quintessential Swiss foods like fondue, Raclette and Croûte (a Croque Madame cooked in a white wine sauce). Other commonly found winter foods include schnitzel (breaded and fried meat), rosti (fritter-type potato dish), spaetzle (egg-based pasta), crepes and bratwurst (sausage).
Winter Festivals And Sporting Events
World Snow Festival
January 20 - 25, 2020
One of the most unique and breathtaking events of the season, the World Snow Festival in Grindelwald brings international artists together to create sculptures out of massive blocks of snow and are tallied by judges based on topicality, originality and skill, as well as the public's impression.
January 24 - 25, 2020
The famous Polo on Snow competition in St. Moritz is exactly what it sounds like: extremely dangerous to play, but a remarkable experience to watch. Only the world's top polo players dare go to the next level of this already exhilarating sport.
February 2, 9, 16, 2020
In the same vein as Polo on Ice, White Turf brings international horse racing to frozen Lake St. Moritz as well as its most famous segment, Skikjöring, a one-of-a-kind-race where riders on skis are pulled by championship horses in a feat of strength, skill and courage that earns the winner the title “King of the Engadine.” The Festival also brings together a tented village full of food, live music, shopping and celebrity guests.
St. Moritz Gourmet Festival
January 21 - February 8, 2020
An event that grows in stature every year, this weeklong festival brings together a comprehensive program of food and wine complete with kitchen parties and a limo-driven gourmet safari through five chef’s tables in St. Moritz, a city whose culinary prospects have blossomed with the recent influx of younger, innovative chefs.
International Hot Air Balloon Festival in Chateau d’Oex
January 25 - February 2, 2020
One of the most famous hot air balloon festivals in the world, the event takes place over nine days, the highlight of which is the night-glow show in the evening of the seventh night. The sight of hundreds of hot air balloons in the air amidst a snowy valley creates a dreamlike sequence that perfectly marries nature's wonder to human ingenuity and artistry.
Interlaken Classics Music Festival
Specific dates not yet announced but expected between March and April 2020.
With this year focusing on talented young musicians, the festival also brings together some of the world's top soloist and leading international orchestras.
International Film Festival and Forum on Human Rights
March 6 - 15, 2020
Set at the same time as the UN Human Rights Council's main session, the film festival brings attention to human rights issues and violations through media and provides a platform for discussion and debate.
January 13, 2020
Because one New Year's Eve celebration isn't enough, the residents of the Appenzell region celebrate the start of the year again on January 13, which is when the Gregorian calendar commences. With this festival's pagan roots, people dress up as “the Beautiful, the Ugly and woodland creatures.”
Polaris Music Festival in Verbier
November 29 - December 2, 2019
This electronic music festival on the slopes brings in world-class DJs—perfect for electronic music and ski lovers.
March 2 - 5, 2020
The largest Carnival in Switzerland complete with three days of costumes, shows and revelry.
Other events to note:
Ski Festival Zermatt
November 25 - December 1, 2020
Curling Tournament “Perle der Alpen”
December 6 - 8, 2020
Winter Youth Olympic Games
January 9 - 20, 2020
Sledge Dog Race
January 11 - 12, 2020
Chasing Stars Photography Workshop
January 16, 2020
15th Arosa Gay Ski Week
January 18 - 25, 2020
International Inferno Races (The Biggest International Amateur Ski Race)
January 22 - 25, 2020
Winter Golf Cup
January 30 - February 2, 2020
Whitestyle Open (Competition for freestyle skiers and snowboarders)
February 28 - March 1, 2020