The Grand Tour of Switzerland is a 1,000-mile drive that swings effortlessly from mood-lifting mountains to sleek, modern cities, in a way few other countries could achieve. Waymarked with characteristic Swiss efficiency and with electric vehicles encouraged, this epic road trip corkscrews up and over five high-altitude Alpine passes, skirts 22 aqua-blue lakes and ticks off 13 UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
From Benedictine abbeys and medieval forts to mountain peaks, crashing waterfalls and vertiginous vineyards — there’s a picture-perfect moment on every bend. For the best views, hit the road between April and October, as the mountain passes are only open through the summer months. However, alternatives such as tunnels and car-trains are available all year round for those that prefer their peaks snow-capped.
Whether travelling in winter or summer, dipping in for the day or driving the distance, here are five of the best stops to explore along the route.
Overlooking its piercing blue namesake lake, Switzerland’s financial powerhouse and largest city has both looks and edge. It's also the natural place to start and end the circular route of the Grand Tour. Take in fine arts at the Kunsthaus Zürich, explore avant-garde exhibitions at the Kunsthalle — housed in the revamped Löwenbräu Brewery — and enjoy post-industrial innovation in the Züri-West district. Hugging the banks of the Limmat River, the old town peers up to the Romanesque Grossmünster, well worth a visit to gaze upon Augusto Giacometti’s striking stained-glass windows. In summer, slope off to one of the badis (lidos) on the river or lake for swims and sunset drinks.
Refuel at: Didi’s Frieden, where wine glass chandeliers illuminate seasonal menus that feature the likes of Aargau beef tartare and pike-perch fillet with artichoke ragout.
2. St Moritz
Colossal peaks increasingly line the road ahead on the drive from Zürich to Appenzell and then on to St Moritz. Perched on the shores of a glittering lake, this Alpine resort is the cradle of Swiss winter tourism — skiers have been flocking to the area’s ski slopes for more than 150 years — but the mountain backdrop is just as ripe for outdoor adventure in the warmer months. From glacier hiking at Diavolezza to wing foiling across azure Lake Silvaplana, there's plenty of opportunity to stretch your legs.
Refuel at: the heart-warmingly rustic Restaurant Engiadina, which dishes up old-school Swiss staples like bündner gerstensuppe (barley soup), veal with creamy mushroom sauce and rösti, and gooey fondues.
The 24 bends of Ticino’s famous Tremola road up to the Gotthard Pass will see you ascend almost 1,000ft as you journey on from St Moritz towards the ritzy mountain resort of Zermatt. This car-free village (road-trippers should park in nearby Täsch and catch the mountain railway up) sits in the southwestern corner of the country, where Switzerland smashes into Italy in dramatic Alpine fashion. At 14,691ft high, the striking Matterhorn is the region’s crowning glory, at its best when frosted in fresh snow and kissed by the sunrise. Ski in its shadow or get up close to the ice crevasses of its perfect pyramid on the two-hour Matterhorn Glacier Trail. Alternatively, ride the charming Gornergrat cogwheel railway (celebrating its 125th anniversary this year) or glide over to Cervinia in Italy in the new Matterhorn Alpine Crossing 3S cable-car.
Refuel at: Chez Vrony, a rustic spot in the quaint hilltop hamlet of Findeln, an area known for its slopeside eateries. This is one of the few restaurants in the area still serving organic produce from livestock raised solely on Alpine grass. Sit on the outdoor terrace to soak up views of the Matterhorn as you tuck into dried beef, homemade sausage and various Alpine cheeses.
On Lake Geneva’s northern shore, the picturesque city of Lausanne offers cultural experiences on every corner. Kick off with an amble around its hilly heart, La Cité, where the gothic cathedral soars above the rooftops and views reach across the lake to the French Alps. Then, dip your toe into the latest cultural currents at Plateforme 10, a new arts district that’s been developed on the site of a former railway, with museums of fine arts, photography and design occupying revamped train sheds. If the sun’s out, explore the sculpture-dotted Olympic Park, before heading down to the lakefront to walk, run, cycle, rent a kayak or simply grab a drink at one of the summer pop-up bars.
Refuel at: the lakefront Beau-Rivage Palace. This two-Michelin-starred restaurant, run by Anne-Sophie Pic, wows with regional dishes cooked with flair and finesse. Specialties include pike fresh from Lake Leman, served with green and wax beans flavoured with lavender.
Switzerland’s understated capital blends art and architecture with inspiring results. Its UNESCO-listed old town is a maze of covered arcades and striking sights, from the huge Zytglogge clock tower to the gothic Bern Minster — climb the 344 steps to the viewing deck for far-reaching views across the Aare River to the Alps. The Kunstmuseum delivers a fine arts feast, with Picasso, Monet and Klee originals. Perhaps the greatest highlight is Renzo Piano’s Zentrum Paul Klee, caught like a wave in mid swell, with rotating exhibitions of Klee’s art. When it’s warm, join the locals for a dip in the turquoise Aare River. Pop your clothing into a dry bag and float along the classic route from Camping Eichholz to Marzili’s free lido.
Refuel at: Michelin-starred Wein & Sein, where under atmospheric vaults, chefs produce imaginative riffs on seasonal, ingredient-led flavour combinations like rabbit, tarragon and radish, and strawberry, buttermilk and sorrel.
SWISS offer flights from a number of major UK hubs to Zürich and Geneva. Alternatively, take the Eurostar to Paris, then catch a high-speed TGV to Basel (three hours), Zürich (four hours) or Geneva (three hours). At each base, there are plenty of opportunities to rent a car from operators such as Europcar or Hertz and join the Grand Tour of Switzerland. The route is well signposted in a clockwise direction and broken down into eight stages, with plenty of charging points for e-vehicles. Download the Grand Tour app for planning and digital navigation. For more information, visit myswitzerland.com