A local's guide to Switzerland's cultural and culinary highlights
Planning a trip to Switzerland, but don’t know where to begin? Cécile Aguillaume, certified World Heritage guide in the historic vineyard region of Lavaux, talks us through her favourite locations to visit across the country, from Lucerne to Montreux.
What brought you to Switzerland and what does the country mean to you?
I grew up in Paris, but my mother came from Neuchâtel in Switzerland, so the town had a pull on me from an early age when we used to come here on holiday. It’s the place of happy childhood memories. Back then it was like arriving in a fairytale land — from the first glimpse of Neuchâtel Castle from the train to days spent swimming in Lake Neuchâtel in summer and sledging in winter. After Paris, the space and clean air was like a tonic, and it sparked my love of nature.
What inspired you to pursue a career in travel?
I used to work in the watchmaking industry, but what I loved most about the job was providing guided tours of the factory. I always longed to spend more time outdoors. I did a stint as a conventional city tour guide, but it wasn’t for me. I wanted to go deeper, share stories, move away from the one-size-fits-all-approach and home in on what people wanted in a fresh way, so in 2019 I decided to freelance as a tailor made tour guide, just before the pandemic struck.
I like to share my passions but also embrace those of others. Some people’s idea of fun might be ticking off 10 museums, but others just want to hang out at a cafe, explore natural landscapes or spend half an hour looking at a painting in a gallery. In many ways, I’m more like a friend or a long-lost relative than a tour guide. It’s all very personal and intuitive.
How do your tours avoid the Swiss cliches and crowds? What kind of alternative city tours can you arrange?
A city is much more than the sum of its sights; it’s entirely possible to visit a tourist hotspot like Lucerne, for example, without ever setting foot on its famous wooden bridge or seeing the lion monument. Instead, you could head up to Chateau Gütsch for a forest walk, visit the Jardin des Glaciers for an insight into the Alps, stroll the city walls or ride up to Mount Rigi for its lake and mountain views.
Neuchâtel is obviously another favourite of mine. It has a pinch of Italian dolce vita about it, with its cafes, lakeshore, gorgeous historic centre and Saturday farmers’ market. Even if it’s overcast, the yellow-stone buildings always radiate warmth.
In Zurich, I’ll often head off the beaten path to the former haunts of the avant-garde dada artists, say, or to the little-known Chinese Garden by the lake, which has a totally different vibe to the city centre, with families out playing and people swimming and sunbathing. Walking here, you pass sights you might otherwise overlook, such as the brightly coloured Pavilion Le Corbusier and a sculpture by Jean Tinguely.
I never follow a script; if it’s rainy, I might suggest a walk through the medieval arcades of Bern, last-minute, instead. Everything is flexible.
You’re a certified World Heritage guide in Lavaux. What does this UNESCO-listed wine region mean to you?
Lavaux is extremely close to cities like Geneva and Lausanne, yet it feels worlds apart. There are amazing views over the lake, rare wines (the majority are so small-batch they never leave Switzerland), and the region even has ‘three suns’ — one in the sky, the reflection on the lake, and the heat radiating from the dry-stone walls. It’s particularly lovely during the autumn harvest when the views of the Alps are crystal-clear, everything is changing colour and there’s the scent of crushed grapes in the air. I can put together bespoke itineraries leading through the vineyards, stop for wine tastings at local caves or, sometimes, I’ll just pack a bottle in my backpack to share al fresco.
What tips would you give to first-timers to Switzerland?
Invest in a Swiss Travel Pass, as Switzerland is compact and getting around by public transport is a breeze, especially on the country’s scenic trains.
I also recommend heading to the French-, Italian- and Romansh-speaking regions of the country. Where else in the world can you enjoy a fondue in the snowy mountains and then a perfect gelato on a piazza? In my opinion, it’s this diversity that gives Switzerland its distinctive character and cultural edge.
When you’re not working, what do you like to go in the local area and why?
La Tourne, at Les Rochers de Tablettes, near Neuchâtel, is a fabulous starting point for walking trails — be it summer hikes, cross-country skiing or snowshoeing in winter. And when fog blankets the valley, the Alps seem remarkably close.
I also swim year-round in Lake Neuchâtel, even in winter when the water is a chilly 5C. It’s my form of meditation. Last Sunday, the lake was as still as a mirror. I swam just before dusk, gazing up at the Alps and listening to the seagulls as the sun was setting behind me and the moon was rising in front. It was magical.
Three of Cécile’s favourite places to visit in Switzerland
The castle-topped town, and surrounding region of Gruyères, is both charming and largely undiscovered by tourists. The region is famous for its cheese (Gruyère), chocolate and my all-time favourite dessert: meringue with thick Gruyères cream and raspberries. It’s a gloriously off-the-radar region for outdoor activities, with forests, fields and mountains all around.
Most people head to the busy lakeshore, but the Old Town of Montreux is more relaxed and a joy to explore on foot, with its narrow, cobbled alleyways twisting up steep slopes, past pastel-painted, shuttered houses, cafes and tea rooms. Lots of famous actors and artists are buried in the cemetery, which is Switzerland’s answer to Père Lachaise in Paris.
3. La Vue des Alpes
Just 15 minutes north of Neuchâtel, La Vue des Alpes is a high mountain pass in the Jura Mountains with the most incredible view of the Alps. It ranges all the way from Mont Blanc to the peaks of the Bernese Alps and Valais and is a great starting point for cross-country skiing, walking and snowshoeing trails — many of which are suitable for families.
For more information on Cécile’s range of tailor made experiences in Switzerland, visit komon.swiss
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