To those who think that the subject of Swiss cuisine can be summed up in one word — fondue — I say not so fast. In a country with four official languages (French, German, Italian, and Romansh) culinary traditions reflect a complex national identity.
Put your fondue prejudice aside in Zürich by cruising the food hall of the tony Globus department store. There’s perch from nearby lakes, organic produce, dozens of sausages, bündnerfleisch (dried beef), and more varieties of cheese than you can possibly imagine.
My favorite spot for breakfast is within the belle epoque splendor of Café Felix, where an omelet with schinken (ham) and Swiss cheese is a pricey delicacy. Wander into Schober for the city’s best hot chocolate. Lunch is as simple as a local weisswurst from a vendor along Lake Zürich.
The city’s newest food site is Markthalle at Im Viadukt, a food hall beneath a railroad viaduct in Zürich West. The oldest is the elegant Kronenhalle, where the menu is nearly as seductive as the original works by Matisse and Picasso on the walls. I prefer the more egalitarian Hiltl, a vibrant spot that opened in 1898 and claims to be Europe’s oldest vegetarian restaurant. (Go for the creative curries.)
From Zürich, take a train to Bern, the capital whose gastronomic claim to fame is classic Emmentaler rösti: cheese melted atop potatoes. Sounds simple enough, but at Restaurant Brasserie Anker Bern, there are more than 20 varieties of rösti, incorporating staples such as ham and eggs and outliers such as bananas and anchovies.
If you have pockets as deep as Lake Geneva, try the Anne-Sophie Pic at the Beau-Rivage Palace, the essence of modern culinary art. Or duck into the casual Café du Grütli in the old city for some of the best fondue in the country, made with Gruyère and Vacherin Fribourgeois cheeses and perfectly paired with a local white wine such as St. Saphorin, a prestigious appellation.
“Switzerland has preserved one of the best larders in Europe,” says Alexander Lobrano, a Paris-based food writer for the New York Times. “One of the Old World’s most delicious under-the-radar gastronomic destinations is the littoral of Lake Geneva, where you can eat everything from addictively good Malakoffs — cheese beignets — in simple, friendly taverns to some of the world’s finest haute cuisine.”
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Italy is just a few miles away from lakeside Lugano, a fact evident in the sweets — panettone and orange-flavored amaretti — at the venerable Grand Café Al Porto pastry shop, which dates from 1803. Pop into Läderach for chocolates, and slurp a scoop of nocciola (hazelnut) gelato at La Gelateria.
Europe’s most exuberantly scenic country is tied together by more than just train tracks. Food, art, a passion for the outdoors, and a pleasure in the details aren’t mere ideas here. They’re Swiss bliss.
Swiss rail aficionado Everett Potter is a regular contributor to National Geographic Traveler and other publications. Catch up with him on his personal website, where he publishes his weekly “Travel Report,” and on Twitter @EverettPotter.