7 things I wish I had known before visiting the Swiss Alps

At the Jungfraujoch – Top of Europe, a blizzard raged and the wind was so biting that my poor gloveless hands turned to ice. I had packed a thick jacket for this trip to the Jungfrau region of Switzerland, but didn’t have anything else suitable for winter, like a hat or gloves.

It was summer after all.

I was on a hosted adventure to live the summer in the Swiss Alps near the town of Grindelwald in central Switzerland, so I didn’t think I would need anything other than a coat for the cold nights.

Yet, even as the sun shone warmly in the valley, I was shivering and freezing in summer, but in winter, a storm raging on top of the Jungfrau, one of the two main 4000 feet of the Bernese Alpe. Furious snow blocked most of the view of the Aletsch Glacier at 11,332 feet above sea level.

Not being prepared for a variety of weather conditions was one of the few mistakes I made on my first visit to the Jungfrau region. I’m generally adept at researching places before visiting, but I still missed a few tips that would have made my life a little easier while visiting Switzerland.

Here are 7 things I wish I had known before visiting the Swiss Alps.

The weather in Switzerland can be temperamental, so pack layers and all-weather clothing.

Photo credit: Heide Brandes

1. Bring layers

The weather in the bucolic valleys of Switzerland varies greatly from the weather at the tops of the mountains and peaks in this region. Because the Swiss Alps straddle the climate of northern Europe and the warmer climate of southern Europe, the weather can be both cool and hot. In fact, you might enjoy the sun in one valley while the rain falls on the other side of the mountain.

When in doubt, it’s better to have that extra jacket and pair of gloves and not need them, than to need them and not have them. Bringing heavy winter clothes with shorts and tank tops can mean extra luggage, but don’t underestimate the diversity of weather in Switzerland at any time of the year.

Pro Tip: For every 328 feet of elevation gain, the temperature can drop about 1.8 degrees. So if you climb to the top of Jungfraujoch, for example, you are 3 km above sea level, where the mountain peaks are cool in summer and sometimes covered in thick layers of snow.

Walk in the sky of the Swiss Alps on the top of the mountain

Switzerland sits at one of the highest altitudes in the world, so altitude sickness could become a problem if you’re not prepared.

Photo credit: Heide Brandes

2. Prepare for altitude sickness

The altitude, again, can cause a bit of misery for visitors to Switzerland if they are not prepared for the altitude. Switzerland sits at an average elevation of 4,429 feet above sea level, making it one of the highest countries in the world. The highest mountain peak in Switzerland – Dufourspitze – is 15,203 feet.

If you are not used to high altitudes, altitude sickness can be quite unpleasant. According to a study entitled “Prevalence of acute mountain sickness in the Swiss Alps”, acute mountain sickness is “not a rare disease at medium altitude”. It can cause “severe headaches, vomiting, dizziness, tachypnea and pronounced chest rattles”.

One of the ways to fight this disease is to ask your doctor for a prescription called acetazolamide or Diamox. It is the common prescription to prevent acute mountain sickness, high altitude pulmonary edema and high altitude cerebral edema.

You can also get over-the-counter medications for altitude sickness, but in my personal experience they don’t work as well.

Pro Tip: If you are at high altitude, treat any headaches, dizziness, or vomiting as altitude sickness. Immediately descend to a lower altitude and make sure you are always well hydrated. If you plan on climbing or climbing these high peaks, spend a day or two in one of the nearby towns to slowly acclimatize.

Swiss meat slider

The Swiss love rich food, and so do you. Just be prepared with stomach meds to combat anything beyond indulgence.

Photo credit: Heide Brandes

3. Belly problems are common

One of the best things about Switzerland is the food and drink. The Swiss are masters in the art of chocolate, cheese-making and wine, so prepare to be tempted by many delicious, rich and dairy-rich foods.

While traveling on planes, trains, and automobiles usually makes me “slow down” the digestive process – if you know what I mean – tempting rich foods made me even more constipated than usual. Other people may have the opposite problem, depending on their body type.

So if you’re planning on indulging in all the rich, melted cheese dishes, mouth-watering chocolate, and hearty sausages, be sure to pack your over-the-counter belly meds for either issue.

4. Switzerland is expensive

You may have already heard that Switzerland is expensive. In fact, Zurich and Geneva are often included in lists touting the most expensive cities in the world.

Yes, some things are much more expensive in Switzerland, such as groceries, clothes, shoe purchases, dining out or drinks. Indeed, unless you eat fast food, finding a meal for less than 20 CHF ($20.51) is difficult.

Public transport, sightseeing excursions and medical expenses also cost significantly more than other destinations.

That being said, if you have the ability to stock up on light groceries to cover breakfast and lunch, you can indulge in the affordable food that the restaurants serve here. Just be aware of the expenses you might face and budget accordingly.

Swiss railway lines

If you travel a lot in Switzerland, a Swiss Travel Pass will save you a lot of money.

Photo credit: Heide Brandes

5. Invest in a rail pass

Switzerland is home to some of the best public transport in the world, and if you want to see all that this beautiful country has to offer, traveling by train, cable car and funicular is the way to go. As stated above, Switzerland can be a bit pricey, so buying individual train and gondola tickets can really add up after a while and a rail pass can save you a ton of money.

The Swiss Travel Rail pass from Rail Europe gives you access to panoramic trains such as the Glacier Express, the Bernina Express, the Luzern–Interlaken Express, the GoldenPass Panoramic and the Gotthard Panorama Express. Although a much better option than buying individual tickets, you can expect to pay a lot for the Swiss Travel Pass, so be prepared for sticker shock.

This rail pass also allows access to public transport in more than 90 Swiss cities. It even offers senior passes. The Swiss Travel Pass is sold for 3, 4, 8 and 15 days and allows free entry to more than 480 museums and exhibitions.

6. Buy your alcohol in stores

Like many other things in Switzerland, going out to drink and buy wine in restaurants is expensive. Avoid drinking in bars and restaurants and simply buy your wine and beer at the grocery store to drink at your hotel or rental.

Keep in mind that alcohol hits the body much faster and harder at altitude, making you a cheap drunk in the mountains.

7. Get a universal adapter

If you are traveling in Europe and Switzerland, get the right adapter to charge your electronic devices. While most of Europe uses the Schuko plug (type F), Switzerland is different and uses type J plugs, which are smaller.

Instead of buying both, you can buy a universal travel adapter. Just make sure a type J plug is included.

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