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“Where in the world can you swim through a city center? In Switzerland you can do that — at least in the summer. In cities such as Zurich, Basel, Bern, Geneva and Lucerne … visitors can window shop while floating down a river,” said Urs Eberhard, Switzerland Tourism’s executive vice president of markets and MICE, at this year’s Swiss Travel Mart.
At the time, Eberhard was refrencing the country’s promotional theme, “Get Natural.” While the theme might seem far from unique in the ever-expanding world of green tourism, what I found during my visit to Bern and Lucerne really did surprise me.
The Old City of BernIn Bern, it’s not unusual to see people slip into their swimsuits and take a dip in the Aare River while on their lunch breaks. The Swiss call this “urban swimming” and, on a beautiful summer day, visitors can see hundreds of people on the lawns below the parliament building incorporating a quick dip into their day.
Bern’s Old City is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was founded in the 12th century. In 2010, Bern ranked among the world’s top 10 cities for the best quality of life due to its fairytale buildings, 15th-century arcades and elaborate 16th-century drinking fountains. The majority of the medieval town was restored in the 18th century but has retained much of its original character.
Even if you don’t speak a word of German, you won’t have any trouble figuring out that bern means bear. Images of bears can be found everywhere in the city, from flags to chocolate bars. According to local legend, Berchtold V, Duke of Zahringen, and the founder of Bern, vowed to name the city after the first animal he saw while hunting — this turned out to be a bear. In honor of the city’s mascot, a bear pit with live bears was erected in the middle of the town during the 16th century. These days, it has been humanely modernized, and visitors can gawk at adorable, furry bear cubs in their new, hillside habitat.
A common entrance point to the city is the train station, known as Rail City. Visitors emerge from underneath a hyper-modern glass pergola to step into the heart of the medieval town. Wandering down the busy streets, people pass the ornate Prison Tower, open-air markets and the impressive Parliament Building. For visitors curious about the judicial goings-on of Switzerland’s capital, tours are offered but should be booked in advance.
Another must-see is the Zytglogge, or clock tower, one of Bern’s many landmarks. If timed right, clients will be treated to a mechanical ballet of gilded figures, astrological bodies and barnyard animals. Afterward, visitors can explore the charming shops along the arcade or check out one of the unique bars that are located in converted cellars along the thoroughfare.
Another interesting stop is Einstein’s Apartment, also known as Einsteinhaus. While the noted physicist only spent two years at this residence, Einsteinhaus is where his children and the Theory of Relativity were born. Visitors can wander through the apartment and learn about the private life of one of the most prolific intellectuals in human history. Travelers can also visit the Einstein Museum at the Historical Museum of Bern, which is a short bus ride across the river.
For an inexpensive tour around the city, visitors can take the number 12 bus. Its route winds through the scenic streets of the city with a short sprint out to the eye-catching modern Zentrum Paul Klee Museum before heading back to town.
LucerneThe picturesque town of Lucerne is perched on the banks of Lake Lucerne with the Swiss Alps rising in the background. This centrally located city makes it a great base for day tripping since many other Swiss destinations are just a short train ride away.
In the middle of town, the city’s iconic Chapel Bridge spans the Reuss River. Constructed in the 14th century, the bridge has survived the test of time as well as a major fire in 1993. Following the fire, the bridge was restored allowing pedestrians to stroll underneath and view the unique 17th-century triangular paintings on the roof, which depict the city’s history.
Visitors to Lucerne should definitely take the opportunity to see the city from the water. Clients can take a public ship or board one of the city’s historic paddle boats to view of the Alps from the water. Each of the boats stop at important local destinations as well as the bases of several mountain cable cars in the area, such as those in Rigi, Pilatus, Burgenstock and Klewenalp.
The Swiss Museum of Transport is a modern must-see attraction. The museum houses exhibits featuring trains, ships, cars and planes. The car exhibit, for example, boasts interactive installations that allow visitors to experience a simulated frontal-collision car crash at 8 mph in a VW Golf with a safety cage. The experience will drive home the importance of wearing a seatbelt. The rail section features the Gotthard tunnel show, which brings to life the struggle of the workers who built the historic tunnel in 1875. As you ride the service train to the tunnel’s workface, you will hear the stories of the men and women who helped build this important project, linking Europe’s north and south.
After a busy day of sightseeing, visitors can dress up and head to the Montana Art Deco Hotel to relax with cocktails or a decedent meal while taking in its million-dollar view of Lucern. The hotel is perched above the lake and is home to the elegant Scala Restaurant. For a special treat, diners can order a la carte or off the tasting menu. This new Swiss restaurant boasts such delights as filet of gilthead with smoked tomato polenta, spinach and artichokes with tarragon foam and veal roast beef from central Switzerland with fresh goat cheese pumpernickel candy and rocket salad with pear mustard vinaigrette.
After visiting these two cities, visitors will have experienced Switzerland’s unblemished natural beauty while also gaining an appreciation for the Swiss’ pride in good design, making Switzerland not only a pristine eco-destination, but a destination exhibiting precision at its finest.
Renaissance Zurich Tower Hotel: This brand-new, four-star deluxe hotel offers 300 guestrooms, 35 Junior Suites, 11 Executive Suites, a Grand Suite and a Presidential Suite. The property is ideal for the Zurich business traveler. Spacious rooms have elegant dark oak floors and urban furniture while the specially constructed panoramic windows allow visitors to enjoy views of Zurich from above.
This winter, the hotel is offering the Ski Deluxe package through April 15, 2012. The package includes accommodations in an executive suite, limousine transfers from the airport and a helicopter flight to and from the Swiss Alps. Rates start at approximately $6,300 per person. Use promotional code “SKI” when booking. www.marriott.com/hotels
Hotel Schweizerhof: Previously closed due to extensive renovation works, the prestigious Hotel Schweizerhof in the heart of Switzerland’s capital, Bern, has reopened its doors. The hotel now offers more than 100 tastefully designed rooms and suites with luxurious bathrooms. The lobby’s new lounge and bar are even more inviting, and the restaurant, Jack’s Brasserie, has also undergone minor renovations, but without losing any of its French charm.
The hotel’s Weekend Offer package is available on Friday, Saturday or Sunday nights and features a welcome refreshment, one night in any room category, breakfast at either Jack Brasserie or in the room, soft drinks and beer from the minibar, free Internet access and more. Rates start at approximately $550 per night. www.schweizerhof-bern.ch
Children Stay Free: Fall is a great time for family travels and even more so when your children stay for free. The Swiss Tourism Board is offering a variety of packages where all children under the age of 12 stay at a variety of hotels for free. http://www.myswitzerland.com/en/service-updates/offers.html?nodeId=30727
Free Ski Pass: Davos Klosters has a new offer for the upcoming winter season. During its Free Ski Pass campaign, visitors receive a free ski pass from the Davos Klosters Mountain Trains for each hotel night in the pre-season. The offer is valid in Davos Klosters from Nov. 26 to Dec. 19. It gives skiers and snowboarders access to several runs in the two winter sports areas of Jakobshorn and Parsenn.www.davos.ch
Samichlaus Schwimmen (Christmas swimming): On Dec. 4, winter swimming enthusiasts will be taking the plunge into the Limmat River and covering the 364-foot-long stretch of water from the Pier 7 restaurant at Schifflande to the women’s open-air bathing area at the Stadtquai. The cold water temperatures make this event particularly exciting. www.zurich.ch
Clau-Wau, Santa Claus World Championship: Santas from around the world head to Engadine during the winter to crown the best in their industry on ClauWau, the Santa Claus World Championship, Nov. 25-26. Difficult tests require skill, knowledge, creativity and humor from the contestants, who compete to earn the title World Champion of Santa Clauses. www.clau-wau.ch
Fondue Carriage in San Jon: Fondue enthusiasts have an even more interesting way to enjoy the Swiss national cheese dish. While traveling through the picturesque village of Scuol in a heated, horse-drawn carriage that is especially equipped for serving fondue, guests can relish cheese fondue accompanied by a fine glass of wine and the rhythmic clatter of the horses’ hooves. www.scuol.ch
New and Noteworthy
Frutt Lodge & Spa: Frutt Lodge & Spa, located in Bernese Oberland, is scheduled to open in December. The four-star hotel is one of the jewels of the region, offering 61 comfortable rooms and suites, two restaurants, a refined lobby, a cozy bar, executive conferencing, banqueting facilities and spa facilities. www.fruttlodge.ch
The Year of Water: Switzerland is celebrating the “Year of Water” in 2012, and what better way to get into the vibe than with a thermal spa? In Zurich, the four-star B2 boutique hotel and thermal spa opened this year in the former location of the reputed Hurlimann Brewery. The public thermal spa is spread over three buildings with a total floor space of 4,900 square feet. The thermal water, which originates from Zurich’s Aqui Springs, offers guests an ideal temperature of between 35 and 41 degrees. The hotel portion of the property features 55 guestrooms. www.thermalbad-zuerich.ch
Opening of Vitra House: This year, the Vitra House opened in Weil on the Rhine River. Built by some of Basel’s leading architects, Herzog & de Meuron, it is the new home of the Vitra Home Collection. Several saddle-roof houses have been stacked up to form a fascinating building complex. A total of 12 steel concrete elements merge into one to form the structure. The interior has furniture arrangements with a variety of designs that must be seen to be believed. www.basel.ch
10/21The Nahmad Collection: For the first time ever, 100 major pieces from the one-of-a-kind private collection of the Nahmad family are on show in an exclusive exhibition at the Kunsthaus Zurich. The collection includes works by proponents of late Impressionism. Oct. 21– Jan. 15. www.kunsthaus.ch
11/4Lucerne Blues Festival: The organizers of the Lucerne Blues Festival put together a high quality event, which is one of the world’s leading blues festivals and was awarded the Keeping the Blues Alive Award by the American Blues Foundation in February 2007. Nov. 4–13. www.bluesfestival.ch
11/8Charles Vogele Fashion Days: The Charles Vogele Fashion Days Zurich will turn the Swiss metropolis into one of the hot spots to see this fall’s fashions. For four days, shows from national and international designers will be presented. Nov. 8-12. www.charlesvoegele-fashiondays.com
11/13International Marathon:Each year, the streets of the Piano di Magadino and the lakeside of Lago Maggiore in Ticino attract approximately 1,700 runners from Switzerland and abroad. The event features both the full 26.2-mile distance, and a half-marathon. Nov. 13. www.maratona-ticino.ch
12/21Lichterschwimmen (floating candles) on the Limmat River: Experience pure Swiss winter magic and tradition when nearly 1,000 small, floating candles are launched from the Stadthausquai on an atmospheric journey down the Limmat River. Dec. 22. www.zurich.ch
Swiss Museum of Transportwww.verkehrshaus.ch/en/