One of the best things about living in France is that you can travel mere hours and arrive in another landscape, another culture, another language, another world. It’s a nice change from living in the U.S., where I could take a train for 2 hours and arrive in… Philadelphia. Philly cheesesteaks aside, I’ll take Europe every time. We’ve got a long list of places to visit, and not nearly enough time or money to hit them all, but I’ll share our experiences and recommendations along the way. First up was a family Switzerland vacation in Basel and Interlaken.
In late October, we left from Gare de Lyon on the TGV and arrived in Basel, Switzerland in just 3 hours. Basel is in the northern part of Switzerland and right on the border of both France and Germany. We rented a car upon arrival and drove an hour and half south to the town of Oberhofen am Thunersee, near Interlaken. I was thrilled to find this town thanks to the excellent recommendations of Jenny from Dinner a Love Story. Our AirBnB had a magnificent view of the lake and the town below it.
Restaurants in Oberhofen am Thunersee
Restaurant Schloss Oberhöfen: This is an upscale restaurant in the gorgeous castle in Oberhofen, right on the water. In the summer, there are tables overlooking the lake, which must be a fantastic place to eat a meal. Though we ate inside (see late October, cold), our dinner was quite delicious. I could not get enough of the charcuterie platter offered as an appetizer: paper thin slices of prosciutto with fresh mozzarella, parmesan, grilled courgettes, tomatoes, and skinny breadsticks. Our main courses were very good as well—we tried both the wild boar and the local pike-perch. The girls really enjoyed homemade pasta on the kids menu. Lovely local beer and wine. Highly recommend.
Rebleuten: This was a much more casual and traditional Swiss restaurant (though not inexpensive!). Family-run, with only one copy of the menu in English. Friendly service though, and the food really was quite good. We tried the rostis with cheese and egg, and also with bratwurst. Definitely an authentically Swiss experience, though not for the lactose-intolerant!
Pier 17: We tried several times to go to this restaurant, as it was highly recommended in Jenny’s blog post. Unfortunately, it must have been closed for the season. Worth a try though if you are visiting Switzerland in the summer!
Things to do in Interlaken Switzerland
The beauty of the mountains and lakes are really the draw in this area of Switzerland. The drive from Oberhofen to Interlaken is gorgeous, with views of the lake and lake houses along the way. We particularly enjoyed marvelling at the tunnels carved out of the mountainside. Once in Interlaken, we parked at the train station and walked to the nearby funicular. It leaves every 30 minutes and goes up to the top of Harder Kulm. Beautiful views on the way up the mountain, and then on the path that leads you out to the point on Harder Kulm. It’s a fairly easy walk of less than a 1/2 mile. No problem for kids, though maybe not great for anyone with who needs assistance to walk (path isn’t paved).
Harder Kulm Panorama Restaurant is at the end of the path, where we stopped for lunch. Fairly pricey (you’re really paying for the location), but we quite enjoyed the cheese fondue with bacon and onions. Good options for kids too, and the patio would be a gorgeous place to eat in good weather.
Next, we drove to Stechelberg and took the gondola up to Murren, a cute car-free town better explored during nice weather.
You can take the gondola up further to Schlithorn, a summit in the Bernese Alps. Famous for a scene filmed there in the James Bond movie On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the summit is spectacular. That said, the views can be affected by weather. Luckily, video screens show you the view from Schlithorn, so you can see whether to make the trip up or not.
Hotel Recommendation in Basel
We drove back to Basel after first passing through the very cute town of Thun. We picked up some local cheese at Käsekeller Thun and stopped to watch some surfers enjoying the waves kicked up by one of the local river dams.
In Basel, we returned our rental car and checked in at the Steinenschanze Hotel. We loved our stay in this hotel. It is centrally located, with a 5-minute walk to one of the main squares in Basel and main tram lines. The staff was incredibly warm and friendly at every interaction. The hotel is somewhat small, and we booked a cozy 1-bedroom room at the top floor.
Our bedroom had a double/queen-sized bed, which was a little smaller than what Chuck and I prefer, but definitely shareable. The living room, with a separate door, had a similarly-sized pull out couch which the girls shared. It had been thoughtfully already made up for them when we arrived. We also had a small balcony and bathroom. The room came with an empty carafe for water which could be filled at the station on each floor—the water in Switzerland really is deliciously clean and fresh.
The hotel has a lovely basement where breakfast is served in the mornings. In the evenings, the hotel offers a complimentary glass of wine and beer. In nice weather, eating outside on the pretty patio would be lovely. Breakfast is on the pricey side, but I enjoyed the relatively inexpensive bircher muesli bar with lots of toppings. (If you haven’t had bircher muesli before, it’s a bit like oatmeal soaked in yogurt—but more delicious than that sounds!)
Our hotel reservation came with the very useful Basel Card. The Basel Card gives the user free transportation in Basel on the easy and ubiquitous tram lines as well as discounts on some museum fees.
Restaurant Recommendations in Basel
Viertel-Kreis: Great restaurant with a hip atmosphere and friendly staff. Local ingredients featured throughout the menu and on the wine and beer list. We enjoyed a delicious arancini appetizer followed by salmon and an award-winning chicken cordon bleu. Highly recommend, though more for a date-night dinner than for the whole family.
Markthalle: We stopped for lunch at the wonderful Markthalle, an upscale food court with lots of different vendors selling all kinds of food from different corners of the world. There is even beer and wine available by the glass. I greatly enjoyed a vegan eggplant Israeli dish, while Chuck had a deliciously spicy dish from North Africa. With sushi for Piper and pasta for Ruby, this place was a hit with all of us. Perfect for a family of picky eaters. And, there’s a long twisty slide going from the top to the bottom floor. This entertained even our 13-year-old and 10-year-old children for 20 minutes. Highly recommend, especially for families.
Restaurant Bundesbahn: This was a more casual authentic Swiss restaurant with train-themed decor including a train running along a track overhead. I had a very nice beet salad while Chuck had a delicious pumpkin soup to start. Main courses were a venison spaetzli and chicken in a dijon cream sauce. Hearty, filling, and very tasty. Recommend.
Things to do in Basel Switzerland
Basel is a great little city to explore. The public transportation is quite extensive and easy to navigate, though we did take a few ubers from time to time. We enjoyed exploring the city squares like the Barfüsserplatz near our hotel and the Marktplatz with the stunning bright red Basler Rathaus (Basel Town Hall). The Marktplatz also features a daily farmers’ market with produce and other foods from around Switzerland.
We also enjoyed visiting the St. Alban Tor, one of the remaining old gates of the city of Basel dating from 1400, and the automated metal oddity of the Tinguely Fountain. We also enjoyed tasting chocolates from several chocolate shops in Basel including:
- Amazing bark chocolate and a lovely tea room at Confiserie Schiesser
- Confiserie Brandli
- Try the local specialty of Lackerli, similar to gingerbread at Confiserie Bachmann
- Delicious gourmet macarons at Confiserie Sprungli
All of these are worth a stop, especially if, like me, you want to create your own chocolate tour of Basel.
Museum Recommendation for Basel
Besides chocolate, our favorite experience in Basel was visiting the Basel Paper Mill Museum.
I give this my highest recommendation for a family-friendly museum. The museum features 4 floors covering different themes from how paper is made, to the development of writing, to print-making, to typesetting, and book-binding. Many sections have hands-on demonstrations. Kids can make a piece of paper, use quill and ink and sealing wax to create a note, and practice type-setting their name. My girls enjoyed all of these, but absolutely loved a small workshop on the very top floor where they could dye paper using glue and different colored inks. Many of the staff manning the demo stations spoke English, and the exhibits were visual and easy to understand. Very manageable too, as we made it through the entire museum without the kids complaining about being there too long. 🙂
When is the best time to visit Switzerland?
We travelled to Switzerland in late October, and besides one-half of a nice day, we had chilly rainy weather the entire time. The normally azur lakes and rivers were not as bright, and our plans to do a lot of hiking were thrown out the window. That said, at least there were no crowds and no traffic almost anywhere we went. Many of the main sites are sure to be packed on a warm summer’s day. Overall, if you are planning to visit Switzerland in the hopes of exploring cities and mountains on foot, I’d recommend traveling late spring or early fall. You can avoid summer crowds but still hope for some nice days of weather. Of course, if you are planning to come for snow and skiing, you’ll want to choose January-March, timing depending on that year’s snow.
Is Switzerland expensive to visit?
While we found our AirBnB and hotel room in Basel to be reasonably priced, I thought the food was quite expensive everywhere we went. The free Basel Card for free transport in Basel and discounted museums helps!
Is English widely spoken in Switzerland?
Yes, we did find people who spoke English throughout our time in Switzerland. However, I was surprised at how few city signs had an English translation. Many restaurants did not have English translations on their menus. Many websites for restaurants and tourist attractions were not translated into English. German seemed by far the most common language in the areas of Switzerland that we were in.
Is Switzerland in the E.U.? What currency is used in Switzerland?
No, Switzerland is not in the E.U.. While it maintains several trade and economic agreements with the European Union, Switzerland withdrew its application for EU membership in 2016. As a result, euros are not accepted as currency. Instead, the currency is the Swiss Franc. Our French bank card worked just fine in withdrawing Swiss Francs from the ATMs in Switzerland.
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