A Week’s Vacation in Switzerland

I’d been wanting to visit Switzerland for a while but waited to base my trip around seeing a favorite band play at a festival. This meant spending more time in the Lake Lucerne area than I would probably recommend otherwise. Sure, we still enjoyed everything we did there, but the Jungfrau region is much more scenic and deserves more of your time than we gave it. So keep that in mind as we go through the day-to-day breakdown:

Day 1: Lucerne

Our flight arrived in Zürich first thing in the morning, but we skipped Zürich altogether and immediately took the train to Lucerne. The main things we wanted to see in this area were the mountains and lake, but this day was more about exploring the city itself. Highlights included the Lion Monument and Chapel Bridge:

The Chapel Bridge in Lucerne, decorated with many flowers

We also visited the Glacier Garden, since entry is free if you have a Swiss Travel Pass. The museum isn’t very big, but the glacier potholes and other glacier-related exhibits are fun to see. For instance, there’s this beautiful diorama built into the side of a small cabin:

A diorama of a glacier sits outside the window of a cabin

Day 2: Mt. Pilatus

Nearby Mt. Pilatus is probably the main attraction of Lucerne. There is a “golden round trip” you can take to get there, starting with a gondola + cable car up the north side and ending with a cogwheel train down the south side. From there, you can take a ferry back to Lucerne. It’s a fun journey, and the views from every mode of transportation are great. We were there on a cloudy day, though, so visibility at the top was hit or miss. We did the “Flower Trail” hike, and one side of the mountain was a solid cloud while the other side drafted in and out:

Clouds obscure the view of nearby mountains and lakes from Mt. Pilatus

There’s also a toboggan run at the gondola / cable car transfer point, so don’t head up to the top of the mountain before checking it out!

Day 3: Mt. Rigi

We only stayed in Lucerne for one night, then moved to the smaller town of Weggis across the lake for the next two nights. This was purely in service of the music festival, and I would recommend sticking with Lucerne for everyone else. There just aren’t a lot of food and lodging options in Weggis. It did provide easy access to Mt. Rigi, though, which is another popular mountain excursion.

For Mt. Rigi, there is a cogwheel train that will take you to the top, then you can walk back down as far as you like. Most people probably only go down as far as the Rigi Kaltbad station. That’s where the most food options are, as well as a cable car that can take you directly to Weggis. Just make sure you grab a trail map and follow the routes for the “floral trails.” There are two of them, and they offer the best views of the lake:

Looking down at Lake Lucerne from Mt. Rigi

Day 4: Interlaken

Interlaken was our next hotel destination and entry point into the Jungfrau region. It was about a 3-hour journey from Weggis to Interlaken (which, again, can be cut down if you keep your home base in Lucerne). We only wanted to see one thing in Interlaken proper: the Harder Kulm lookout. There’s a funicular that takes you to the top of the mountain, where you can see the two lakes that surround the city:

Looking down at Lake Brienz from the Harder Kulm viewpoint

We intended to ride up and hike down, but the attendant warned us that the hike is steep and strenuous. So we skipped the hike. Instead, I tried the Elfenweg Trail that loops around the top of the mountain. Unfortunately, it, too, was on the strenuous side and didn’t offer any better views than what you get at the main lookout.

Day 5: Lauterbrunnen to Grindelwald

Brace yourselves, this was a jam-packed day. It also highlights the fact that the Jungfrau region really deserves more of your time. We could have slowed down and easily filled an entire week there.

First, we took the train from Interlaken to Lauterbrunnen. Lauterbrunnen was one of the places I was most excited to visit but ended up being somewhat disappointing. By mid-July, many of the 70+ advertised waterfalls had already dried up. It’s still a lovely walk through town and into the nearby fields, though:

A road stretches through farmland with tall mountains in the background

On the city outskirts, there are the Trummelbach Falls that make for an interesting stop. Yes, it’s a bit of a tourist trap, but this series of inner mountain, cascading waterfalls is still a unique experience.

Afterwards, we took the train up to Wengen, a smaller city that overlooks Lauterbrunnen:

Looking down at Lauterbrunnen from the higher city of Wengen

Wengen is certainly beautiful, but it was merely a transfer point on our way to Grindelwald. From Wengen, there is a cable car that takes you to the top of Männlichen, where you can hop on a gondola to go down to Grindelwald. The attendant in Wengen’s tourist office suggested that we hang out in Männlichen for a little while, though, and do the “Royal Walk” hike before departing. I’m glad we talked to her, because the Royal Walk had probably my favorite view of the entire trip:

Viewing the Jungfrau mountains from the Royal Walk

Then it was off to Grindelwald. The main thing we wanted to do in Grindelwald was the First Cliff Walk, but the gondola up to the First summit stops running at 6pm (and we arrived in Grindelwald just after 4pm). So we booked it up the mountain, snapped some pics from the Cliff Walk, and headed back down before the gondola closed.

A metal walkway stretches above the Grindelwald-First summit

I would have liked to spend more time up there, as there are other hikes you can do besides the famous cliffside walkway, but I wasn’t willing to gamble on losing my ride home! In retrospect, we probably should have started the day in Grindelwald and ended in Lauterbrunnen to avoid being so rushed.

Day 6: Zermatt and the Matterhorn

The last thing on my list of Switzerland to-dos was the Matterhorn near Zermatt. It takes 2+ hours to get from Interlaken to Zermatt, though, and the Matterhorn is best viewed in the morning. My original plan was to just do things in town the day of our arrival and see the Matterhorn the next day. However, the forecast predicted a storm to roll in, so we immediately jumped on the Gornergrat cogwheel train and headed up to the summit. Alas, by afternoon, a cloud had formed around the Matterhorn peak and simply would not leave for the rest of the day.

Gornergrat was not a wasted trip, though. Yes, the main goal was to see the Matterhorn, but the other nearby glaciers were much more fascinating. I mean, how often do you get to see a glacier producing meltwater right before your very eyes?

A mountain range full of melting glaciers

From the summit, you can hike back down as far as you like and then hop on the train whenever you get tired. We chose to hike down to Riffelsee Lake near the Rotenboden station. If you can get to Riffelsee Lake early enough, the Matterhorn’s reflection would be spectacular to see. Of course, we were not so lucky.

Day 7: Miscellaneous Zermatt

One of the things I wanted to do in town was visit the Matterhorn Museum. I forgot that it’s only open in the afternoon, though, so we had to skip it. Fortunately, the weather ended up being perfect (so much for that storm, eh?), and strolling through town provided lots of great photo ops of the Matterhorn:

Viewing the Matterhorn from the town of Zermatt

We also visited the Gorner Gorge on the south end of town. It felt similar to the Trummelbach Falls in Lauterbrunnen. Not as impressive but slightly more enjoyable for being quieter and more open:

A wooden walkway suspended over a river extends into the canyon

And then… we started the long trip back to the Zürich airport to go home!

A Weekend in Lillehammer, Norway

Lillehammer, most known for hosting the 1994 Winter Olympics, is only a two-hour train ride north of Oslo. That makes it a great option for a day trip, though, of course, the four-hour round trip would be a bit much to take on. It is still possible to see the highlights in that short amount of time, but my wife and I opted to stay overnight just so we wouldn’t feel rushed.

The main thing we wanted to see was Maihaugen, Lillehammer’s open-air folk museum (and supposedly Norway’s biggest). However, if you’ve already seen the folk museum in Oslo, then this one isn’t going to wow you:

The stave church in the Maihaugen open-air museum

That said, the setting in Maihaugen is prettier overall, since the museum grounds are built around a series of ponds and lakes:

Looking across a lake at the Maihaugen open-air museum

The visitor center also shares space with the Olympic Museum, which you might be tempted to do for no other reason than the discount you get when buying multiple museum tickets in Lillehammer. Unfortunately, we thought this museum was fairly disappointing. It only has a few interesting memorabilia on display and can be fully experienced in less than 30 minutes.

The third and final museum we visited (the next day) was the Art Museum. The main collection was kind of bland, but I enjoyed the special exhibits (as of June 2023).

Actually, my favorite thing in Lillehammer wasn’t even any of these museums but rather the Mesna River that runs through town. From Maihaugen, we had hiked to Finna Bridge, which was a very scenic spot with lots of small waterfalls:

A wooden bridge stretching across a small waterfall

After Finna Bridge, you can hike farther up the mountain to Collets Bridge, with more views of waterfalls along the way. We weren’t fully prepared for such a hike, so we bailed halfway to Collets, but I do think it would be fun to visit Lillehammer again and hike the full length of the river, bottom to top.

Seeing Norway’s Fjords from Bergen

Norway has over a thousand fjords, and obviously you’re not going to (nor do you need to) see them all. Bergen is considered a great starting point to experience some of the more popular fjords, though. What I didn’t realize when arranging a stay in Bergen is that, if you’re coming from Oslo, some of these “popular fjords” are back the other way. In retrospect, I should have scheduled a stop somewhere in between instead of taking the train directly from Oslo to Bergen.

That said, if you look up fjord tours, you’ll most likely come across Norway in a Nutshell that focuses on the fjords between Gudvangen and Flåm. Be aware, though, that Norway in a Nutshell isn’t so much a tour as it is a series of train, bus, and boat tickets that they simply book for you. Knowing this, and not really wanting to backtrack on the same train, I opted for an all-day, all-inclusive bus tour instead. Fjordrive departs from Bergen and puts you on the same Gudvangen-to-Flåm ferry, with the added benefit of a stop at a waterfall and scenic overlook:

Looking down at the fjord from the Stegastein viewing platform

We really enjoyed the extra stops that would have otherwise been difficult to do without a rental car. And, of course, the views from the fjord ferry were pretty spectacular:

A small village on the shoreline of the Aurlandsfjord waterway

I also booked a second, shorter fjord tour with Rødne Fjord Cruise. This tour is a 3-hour roundtrip to Mostraumen and back to Bergen. The mountains here weren’t as tall, but the scenery was a little more interesting:

The view from the Mostraumen fjord tour boat

It helps that this is a proper tour and not a commuter ferry, so the boat will occasionally slow down and pull up next to waterfalls. I think I actually enjoyed this trip more than the previous one, though I’m glad we did both.

And don’t forget that Bergen is a city on a fjord, itself. For a great view of said fjord and city, you can take the funicular to the top of Mount Fløyen. This was my favorite activity in Bergen, and maybe the entire trip, because there’s still a lot to do up there after you’ve seen “the view:”

Looking down at Bergen from atop Mount Fløyen

Mount Fløyen has some nice walking trails and a few lakes to explore. Oh, and there are goats up there, too! Lastly, I recommend hiking down the mountain when you’re ready to leave, instead of taking the funicular again.