Five ways to immerse yourself in Switzerland’s unique outdoor art scene
Nature, art and culture meet with fervour in Switzerland. From light festivals with a medieval backdrop to sculpture-dotted lake walks, this is a country that takes outdoor art seriously.
Look at Switzerland’s cities, with their beautifully preserved old towns, on-the-pulse galleries, avant-garde architecture and inspiring mountain backdrops, and you can’t help but think the Swiss have got it made. This is a country bursting with raw creative potential and the best way to soak it up is by stepping outside.
To best experience Switzerland's most cultural corners, call upon local expert Cécile Aguillaume, of tailor-made travel consultancy Kōmon Sàrl. Whether it’s wild swimming in the Rhine or enjoying quiet contemplation in Zurich’s Chinese Garden, here are her favourite ways to enjoy the country's artistic outdoor offerings.
1. Bask in Basel's creativity
Sat snug against the French and German borders, the city of Basel is often referred to as the cultural capital of Switzerland. Its historic streets are home to some 40 museums, including the world’s oldest public art collection (housed at the Kunstmuseum Basel, with galleries devoted to Picasso and Paul Klee), the Mario Botta-designed Museum Tinguely and its fabulous kinetic sculptures, and the unmissable, architecture-focused Vitra Design Museum, bearing Frank Gehry’s deconstructivist hallmark.
However, though the city has the highest concentration of museums in the country, its historic and cultural offerings are certainly not all found between four walls. Venture through vineyards on the three-mile Rehberger-Weg and you’ll discover 24 artworks by German sculptor Tobias Rehberger, before arriving at the Renzo Piano-designed Fondation Beyeler, a private-turned-public collection of modern works from Miró to Pollock. Cécile’s best Basel tip? Visit Museum Tinguely before jumping into the Rhine for a wild swim, floating all the way back to the historic centre.
2. Visit Murten’s Light Festival
On the shores of its namesake lake, Murten seems plucked straight from a fairytale, with arcaded lanes, cobbled alleys, medieval walls and a castle that’s a riot of turrets and towers. It’s lovely at any time of year, but never more so than during January’s Light Festival. Over the festival’s 12 days, light installations dazzle in venues around town and by the lakeshore — from patterns dancing across the ramparts to striking stained-glass creations and LED butterflies. Seeing the town twinkle as you glide in by boat from Neuchâtel adds an extra touch of magic, says Cécile. Of an evening, she recommends heading down to the lakefront to see lanterns flickering across the lake like fireflies.
3. Explore Zurich’s Chinese Garden
With its cosmopolitan city streets, creative energy and surrounding snowcapped mountains, Switzerland’s largest city blends art and outdoor effortlessly. And nowhere better exemplifies this than its famed Chinese Garden, according to Cécile. A gentle 15-minute walk along the leafy lakeshores from the Zurich Opera House brings you to this temple garden, gifted to Zurich by its Chinese partner city, Kunming, in 1993. Its pagodas, pond and pavilions feel miles away from the metropolitan buzz of the city centre and its natural beauty is art in its own right. Come in spring and the garden is a mass of cherry blossom and magnolias, while in autumn the surrounding maples turn a dramatic, fiery red.
Upon leaving the garden, Cécile suggests remaining in the Zürichhorn area, where you’ll find Swiss sculptor Jean Tinguely’s madcap kinetic sculpture, Heureka, a frenzy of wheels, pipes and motors, as well as Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier’s colourful cubic pavilion.
4. Walk from Montreux to Château de Chillon
The walk from Montreux (of summer jazz festival fame) to Château de Chillon takes just over half an hour, but you’ll find yourself lingering longer simply to bask in its beauty. As you stroll the shores of Lake Geneva, you’ll pass immaculately tended gardens and belle époque hotels, before reaching a series of sculptures set against a dramatic Alpine backdrop. These sculptures are courtesy of the Montreux Biennial — an open-air sculptural exhibition that will run from August to October 2023.
Cécile’s favourite is the Freddie Mercury statue, a 10ft high tribute to the Queen legend, who recorded six albums at Mountain Studios in Montreux. Venture on and you’ll eventually reach the walk’s crowning jewel, the medieval Château de Chillon. Come at sunset to see its towers glow gold against a sky of soft pastels and you’ll understand why this castle inspired both Turner’s paintbrush and Byron’s poetic pen.
5. Find street art at Exomusée Le Locle
Sat on Switzerland’s western border amid the forests of the Jura Mountains, the UNESCO World Heritage city of Le Locle has long been feted as the birthplace of Swiss watchmaking. However, this picturesque town has recently found an additional identity as a street-art hub, crackling with creative energy — a “mini Glasgow”, as Cécile describes it. The city’s one-of-a-kind Exomusée is a free, giant open-air gallery for graffiti artists — local, up-and-coming and internationally renowned alike — inspired by Le Locle’s fascinating history and geography.
A self-guided trail of the gallery leads visitors past key pieces, such as Finnish artist Jussi TwoSeven’s Le Contrebandier (The Smuggler), which portrays the border town’s smuggling past and the dogs used to dodge customs officers. You’ll also pass Swiss graffiti artist WES 21’s piece Unity is Key — where a cat and mouse are seen through the lens of a surveillance camera — as well as a series of huge butterflies created by French street artist Mantra.
Plan your trip
Several airlines provide flights from UK airports to Swiss cities such as Zurich, Basel and Geneva and the country is also incredibly well connected to the rest of Europe by train. Plan your adventures with Kōmon Sàrl, who offer a range of tailor-made travel experiences and personal guided tours.
For more information, visit komon.swiss
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