Unsurprisingly for a country with such a rich and fascinating history, Switzerland is home to a whole host of historical sites - taking in everything from the prehistoric era, through antiquity and medieval times, right up to the modern age. On this page, we look at some of the most important Swiss historical sites, landmarks and monuments, and delve a little into their significance.
Landmarks & Historic sites in Switzerland
A historic site is an official location where a piece of social, cultural, political or military history is preserved; usually, it is maintained so that members of the public can visit and learn more about their cultural heritage.
This not only includes grand structures like castles and palaces, but also abbeys and churches, houses, monuments, bridges, and even natural phenomena like forests, lakes, mountains or areas of wilderness.
UNESCO Heritage Sites in Switzerland
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has designated 12 sites in Switzerland as having cultural and natural heritage of “outstanding value to humanity”, and thus given them legal protection by placing them on its list of World Heritage Sites.
This includes nine cultural sites and three natural sites, from the Benedictine Convent of St. John of Müstair and the Lavaux Vineyard Terraces to the historic Rhaetian Railway and the Jungfrau summit of the Alps, home to Europe’s largest glacier.
However, don’t let that fool you into thinking that there are only 12 sites worth visiting in the whole of Switzerland. It may be a relatively small country, but it’s still home to more than its fair share of awe-inspiring and thought-provoking sights and attractions.
Best Swiss historical sites
Here’s a brief overview of some of the best historical sites in Switzerland worth visiting.
Historical sites in Canton Zurich
One of the most prominent sights on the Zurich skyline, this famous medieval church has a myth-shrouded history dating all the way back to the time of Charlemagne. According to legend, the Frankish king came across the graves of the city’s patron saints Felix and Regula and had the first incarnation of the Grossmünster built on the spot. This church was also the starting point for the Swiss-German Reformation under Ulrich Zwingli. You can climb one of the front two towers for spectacular views of the city.
Zurich even has its own mountain, sort of. To catch the city in its best light, head over to the Uetliberg lookout, just a short ride on a train and then a 10-minute walk away. Despite not being the highest mountain, the views over Zurich, the lake, and the Alps are simply breathtaking.
Rheinfall (Zurich / Schaffhausen)
A little outside the city of Zurich, on the border with Canton Schaffhausen, you will find the Rhinefall. Spanning a distance of 150 metres, it is the largest waterfall in central Europe. They are at their best in the summer, when the mountain snow melts and the falls swell to their greatest width and depth. You can get a great view from one of the many boat trips offered on the Rhine River, or from the viewing platforms on both sides of the river.
Historical sites in Canton Geneva
Heading to the city of Geneva? Make sure to tick these sights off your bucket list.
St. Pierre Cathedral
With an impressive 85-year history dating all the way back to the 12th century, Geneva’s St. Pierre Cathedral is famous for being one of the places where theologian John Calvin used to preach. Visitors can climb the cathedral towers for great views, or visit the archaeological remains of two previous cathedrals that were built on the same site in the 11th and 4th centuries.
Palais des Nations
Dating from 1929, the Palais des Nations (Palace of Nations) in Geneva has been European headquarters of the United Nations (UN) since 1966. Prior to this, it was home to the League of Nations, the international organisation that preceded the UN. Nowadays you can go on guided and thematic tours of the building, where high-level meetings are held to this day.
Historical sites in Canton Basel
The city of Basel is also home to a high concentration of cultural and historical attractions.
The focal point of Basel’s old town, the bright red Rathaus (town hall) is hard to miss. This 500-year-old building is still the seat of the government and is famous for its colourful facades and wall paintings. In front of the town hall you will find a daily market selling local trinkets, flowers and food specialities.
The two sides of Basel are joined by a total of six bridges over the Rhine, which makes a sharp turn in the city before heading north along the French-German border. The most famous bridge has to be the Mittlere Brücke, which opened in 1226 and is now a symbol of the city.
Historical sites in Canton Vaud
If you’re in Vaud, make sure to take in these historical sites.
Formerly known as Aventicum, the small town of Avenches is a fantastically well-preserved slice of Roman history in Switzerland. Once the capital of the Roman province of Helvetia, Avenches used to be a bustling commercial centre, home to 20.000 people at its height. Nowadays it still boasts a well-preserved amphitheatre, the ruins of an old temple complex, a Roman bathhouse, Roman fortifications, and a museum.
Also known as the Ford de Pré-Giroud, this 20th-century artillery fort was once part of Switzerland’s border fortifications and was of enormous strategic importance. It was built into the surrounding rock as a network of underground tunnels. After being decommissioned in the 1980s, it now runs as a museum.
Bex Salt Mines
200 to 60 million years ago, what is today the Rhône Valley was once a shallow sea. The deposits of salt left behind by this sea were discovered in the 15th century and are still mined to this day. At Bex, you can visit the active salt mines and learn how this industry brought wealth and power to the region.
Historical sites in Canton Bern
Parliament Building (Bundeshaus)
One of the most unique things about Switzerland is its system of government, and so you’d be remiss to not visit the place where the magic happens. The Parliament Building (Bundeshaus) is, as the name suggests, the seat of the Swiss government and parliament. Built by Hans Wilhelm Auer, it was inaugurated in 1902. If you want to find out more about the unusual workings of Swiss politics, you can take part in one of the free guided tours that are put on when the parliament is not in session.
Albert Einstein lived in the city of Bern between the years of 1903 and 1905, and it was in this apartment on Kramgasse that he developed his theory of relativity, which would forever revolutionise our understanding of space and time. Nowadays, the apartment has been restored to look as it might have in Einstein’s time and documents the physicist’s time in Bern.
Gelmerbahn (Gelmer Funicular)
One of the steepest cable railways in the world, the Gelmerbahn funicular reaches a terrifying gradient of 106 percent in some places. It was originally built to facilitate the construction of the Gelmersee reservoir and was not opened to the public until 2001. Nowadays it is a huge tourist attraction - although, since it’s propelled by a winch, it’s not technically a funicular.
Historical sites in Canton Lucerne
These historical sites in the city of Lucerne are all well worth a visit.
Lion of Lucerne
The Lion Monument, commonly known as the Lion of Lucerne, is a rock relief that commemorates the hundreds of Swiss Guards who were massacred during the French Revolution while trying to protect Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and their children. The monument, which features a dying lion sprawled over a spear and shield, was described by Mark Twain as “the most mournful and moving piece of stone in the world.”
Chapel Bridge (Kapellbrücke)
One of the most famous landmarks in the city of Lucerne is Chapel Bridge, a covered wooden footbridge that takes its name from the nearby St. Peter’s Chapel. Built in 1333 to provide a crossing from the old town to the new, the bridge is unique for containing some interior paintings dating from the 17th century, although two-thirds of them were destroyed in a fire in 1993. Having since been restored, the Kapelbrücke is now the oldest wooden covered bridge in Europe and the oldest surviving truss bridge in the world.
Historical sites in other Swiss Cantons
These other historical sites in cantons across Switzerland are also ones to tick off your list.
Monte San Giorgio (Ticino)
Also known as “Fossil Mountain” this wooded mountain in the Canton of Ticino is home to the best fossil record of marine life dating back 230 million years to the Triassic Period.
Augusta Raurica (Basel-Landschaft)
Another remarkable reminder of Switzerland’s former status as a Roman colony, Augusta Raurica is an archeological site and open-air museum that dates back some 2.000 years. It is said to be the best-preserved Roman town north of the Alps and was once home to as many as 20.000 people. Finds at the site include a silver treasure trove, a Roman domestic animal park, and an amphitheatre.
St. Moritz’s Leaning Tower (Graubunden)
Move over, Leaning Tower of Pisa, St. Moritz’s vertically-challenged monument has actually got a sharper incline! Dating back to the 12th century, this landmark was once part of the old Church of St. Mauritius, which was destroyed in the 19th century, leaving the tower wobbling out on its own.
Stein am Rhein (Schaffhausen)
A little further up the river from the Rhine Falls, where it joins Lake Constance, is Stein am Rhein. This small, chocolate box, historical town is famous for its well-preserved old town, full of painted facades and half-timbered houses. Originally a small fishing village, Stein and Rhein is home to little more than 3.000 people and surrounded on all sides by gorgeous countryside.