Come December, cities across Europe transform into winter wonderlands, with twinkling lights, open-air ice rinks, and festive Christmas markets…but none can match the beauty and Yuletide spirit of Switzerland. With it’s Hallmark-card ready landscape of snow-capped mountains and wooden chalets tucked in thick fir forests, Switzerland effortlessly creates a timeless holiday atmosphere where holiday traditions and Alpine majesty manage to overshadow the creeping commercialism that has overtaken the season elsewhere.
(Photo by Kecko via Flickr)
If you’re dreaming of a white Christmas, consider spending your winter holidays in Switzerland, where the country spends much of the month of December decked out and ready to celebrate. From a ski break to a rail trip through some of the most breathtaking scenery in the country, Switzerland is the perfect destination for an unforgettable Christmas and New Year’s with family and loved ones.
Here are some ideas to inspire you for a Swiss Christmas:
One of the most unique and picturesque holiday traditions in Switzerland are the pretty Christmas markets that take over the main squares of cities and towns across the country in the weeks leading up to the 25th. These outdoor markets host dozens of wee wooden huts selling crafts, gourmet treats, artisan clothing, and, of course, Christmas trees and decorations.
(Photo by Jorge Franganillo via Flickr)
One of the most famous Christmas markets is held in French-speaking Montreux, where the annual marché de noël has market stalls lining the Lake Geneva shoreline, and, holding court in a grotto on Rochers-de-Naye 6,500 feet above sea level, Santa Claus (there is a special cogwheel Santa train for those who need a word). Santa’s sleigh flies over the market and the fairy-tale Chillon Castle holds family-friendly activities and story time, making this an especially magical experience for children.
(Photo by Luca Florio via Flickr)
Basel hosts Switzerland’s largest Christmas market, with over 180 wooden huts in the heart of the city’s historic center. With the towering tree decorated by the landmark Johann Wanner Christmas and home décor shop and a beautiful light show along the historic streets, the town is transformed into a true winter wonderland, considered one of Switzerland’s prettiest Christmas destinations.
Switzerland is not known for its bargain shopping, but with Christmas markets come opportunities to shop for local and artisan crafts and food, one-of-a-kind holiday decorations, classic souvenirs, wooden toys, and other seasonal treasures at prices that are a little less intimidating.
(Photo by Kecko via Flickr)
For food, search out stands by independent chocolatiers for boxes and bars of Switzerland’s famous chocolate to give as gifts or take home as souvenirs. Towering above them is always one of Johann Wanner’s famously decorated Christmas trees. Each Christmas market offers the city’s specialty, so in Basel you can sample läckerli, a spiced cookie made with nuts, candied citrus peel, and kirsch; in Zürich, try the intricate tirggel cookies, flavored with honey, ginger, aniseed, and coriander. Be sure to wash down your local sweets with a steaming mug of glühwein (mulled wine), a seasonal staple ladled from fragrantly bubbling pots in any market. Though you can’t bring cheese back to the US with you, you can bring a genuine Swiss fondue set or raclette maker for a fun food-themed memento.
(Photo by Angelika Spanke via Flickr)
Holiday-themed souvenirs are also big sellers at the Christmas markets, from ornaments to toys. In Basel, a stop in the historic Johann Wanner Christmas House shop is a must for exquisite ornaments and other seasonal home décor. Otherwise, wooden clocks, music boxes, toys, and other kitchen and home decorations are sold at most markets, and don’t forget to bring home traditional clunky cowbell, the quintessential Swiss souvenir.
Skiing for the holidays
If your ideal Christmas holiday is an active one, a ski break in Switzerland is the perfet option. There is plenty of snow for skiing, snowboarding, sledding, or hiking in the Swiss Alps for most of the winter, and snowfall is more reliable at Swiss alpine resorts due to their high altitude than in the Italian Dolomites.
(Photo by Kecko via Flickr)
Ski bunnies are have an ample choice of resorts with more-or-less guaranteed snow over the Christmas season, including St. Moritz, Zermatt, and Davos/Klosters…all of which offer great skiing and elegant après-ski activities, too.
Switzerland’s resorts don’t only cater to those who are planning to spend their day on the runs, however. There are plenty of winter activities for non-skiers of all ages, including horse-drawn sleigh rides and, of course, Christmas markets. In Zermatt, the Christmas service at St. Peter’s Church and the annual Christmas market are two highlights; Gstaad hosts a Santa Claus parade with the town children from the historic Posthotel Rössli to the town church.
Christmas in the city
If the mountains aren’t for you, opt to celebrate Christmas and New Year’s in one of Switzerland’s bustling cities that offer their fair share of Christmas cheer, with or without snow.
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Locarno, Geneva, Lucerne, Zurich and Lausanne are all excellent options, with lovely Christmas markets, picturesque historic centers, and pretty vistas. In Lucerne, walk over the covered Chapel Footbridge festooned with fairy lights and then take the cable car up Mount Pilatus for a view over the shimmering city and lake. The cosmopolitan city of Zürich sets up half a dozen Christmas markets during December, including the Christkindlimarkt, Europe’s largest indoor Christmas market at the main railway station that centers around a 50-foot tree decorated with 7,000 sparkling Swarovski crystals. Locarno builds a lovely outdoor ice rink that takes up its Piazza Grande for yuletide skating, a fun holiday activity for kids and adults.
A Village Christmas
Tiny Swiss villages seem made just for Christmas, with their twinkling fairy lights, snow dusted rooftops, and rustic decorations.
Their smaller size doesn’t mean Swiss villages celebrate Christmas any less spectacularly than their larger neighbors and it’s often here that you’ll really feel touched by the Christmas spirit.
(Photo by Karsten Seiferlin via Flickr)
In charming St. Gallen, over 700 illuminated stars sparkle above the squares and streets, and a giant Christmas tree stands in front of the Abbey of St. Gallen, one of the most beautiful historic landmarks in all of Switzerland. Grindelwald, Bern, Wengen, and Interlaken also transform into pretty Christmas villages, many offering smaller versions of the seasonal markets, skating rinks, and decorations. In many villages in central Switzerland, people take to the streets on Christmas Day wearing trychlers (giant cow bells) and masks and bang on drums to honor the tradition of scaring away evil spirits with the noise before New Year’s.