For hikers, mountain climbers and winter sports enthusiasts, the Swiss mountains, with their gleaming lakes and bustling ski resorts, have held a worldwide appeal over the years. Well over half of Switzerland is mountainous, which is why it is one of the countries most strongly associated with the majestic snow-capped landscapes and high altitudes.
How are mountains defined?
Mountains can be defined as elevated areas of the earth’s crust, often with steep sides and exposed bedrock. Some mountains in the world are isolated summits, but in Switzerland, all the peaks occur in mountain ranges, the most famous mountain range in the country being the Swiss Alps.
Landscapes of Switzerland
There are three distinct landscapes in Switzerland: the Swiss Plateau or Mittelland, the Swiss Jura Mountains and the Swiss Alps. The Swiss Plateau is a relatively flat and densely populated area featuring most Swiss cities: nestled between the two main mountain ranges in Switzerland: the Jura and the Alps.
Not only are the Alps the largest and highest mountain range in Europe, they are also the most densely populated. They stretch across numerous European countries like Switzerland, Liechtenstein, France, Germany, Austria, Italy, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania, and Slovenia.
Only around 14 percent of the Alps lie in Switzerland, yet the arguably most scenic and iconic alpine peaks are in Switzerland, meaning that the country tends to be the one most closely associated with the Alpine landscape. After all, the Swiss Alps account for roughly 65 percent of the total Swiss landmass, making it the most mountainous country in Europe.
Subranges of the Swiss Alps
The Swiss Alps are so huge that they can be divided into subranges. The major subranges are:
- The Pennine Alps, on the border between Switzerland and Italy, centred around Zermatt.
- The Bernese Alps, north of the Pennine Alps, in which the Jungfrau region is situated.
- The Bernina Range that surrounds the famous ski resort of St. Moritz in the southeast.
Famous summits in the Alps
The Swiss-based International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation define Alpine summits as independent of any connecting ridge, and peaks with a height difference of 30 metres between the summit and the ridgeline. In the entire European Alps, 82 summits are more than 4.000 metres above sea level – all of which are in or near Switzerland. Exactly 48 of those impressively high summits are situated in Switzerland itself, while the remaining 34 high peaks are within 20km of the Swiss border.
Famous summits include Monta Rosa (also known as Dufourspitze) (4.634 metres), Dom (4.545 metres) the Matterhorn (4.478 metres) and Jungfrau (4.158 metres). The highest peak in all the Alps, Mont Blanc (4807m), lies on the French-Italian border, but some of its lower flanks extend into Switzerland.
The Jura Mountains are a mountain range along the French-Swiss border. Structurally, the Jura consists of a sequence of geologic folds. The highest peak in the Jura range is Le Crêt de la Neige at 1.720 metres (5,643 feet). The Jura Mountain range lends its name to the Swiss canton of Jura.
The Jurassic Period in prehistoric geological time scales is also named after the Jura Mountain range because it was where this prehistoric era was first studied. The particular shape and texture of the rocks with their limestone folds were caused by erosion during the Jurassic period, 150 million years ago.
The cities of La Chaux-de-Fonds and Le Locle, at very high altitudes in the Jura, are UNESCO World Heritage Sites famous for watchmaking. Watchmaking gained prominence there as the Jura region became more and more industrialised.
The Swiss Plateau lies between the Alps and the Jura. The cantons that lie entirely in the Swiss Plateau are Geneva, Zurich and Thurgau. Large proportions of each of the cantons of Lucerne, Aargau, Solothurn, Bern, Fribourg and Vaud are situated in the Swiss Plateau. On the other hand, Neuchatel, Zug, Schwyz, St. Gallen and Schaffhausen are only minimally located in the Swiss Plateau.
The Swiss plateau extends beyond the Swiss border, into France in the southwest where the Alps and Jura meet, and near Lake Constance, the plateau continues into the Austrian and German pre-Alps. There’s a clear border between the Swiss Plateau and the Swiss Jura, due to the ridge-like character of the Jura Mountains. However, the border between the Swiss Plateau and the Swiss Alps is less distinct, thanks to the undulating lowlands.
Glaciers in Switzerland
Of all the glaciers in the Alps, 44 percent are located in Switzerland. The Greater Aletsch Glacier, in the Swiss canton of Valais, is the largest and longest glacier in the Alps, measuring 900 metres in length. Other notable glaciers are the Fiescher and Aar Glaciers. The Jungfrau Region, where these glaciers are situated, became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001.
Mountain tourism in Switzerland
There are many renowned hiking and mountaineering trails in the Swiss Alps that attract both summer and winter tourists, and are a great excursion for expats and their families.
Tourism in the Swiss Alps emerged in the early 19th century, with British hikers leading tourist expeditions into the Alps for the first time, as part of the "Grand Tour" of Europe. In the intervening years, an elaborate public transport network was set up to enable easy access to small towns and villages that were previously hard to reach. Switzerland is now famous for its high-quality trains, cable cars and funicular railways. The Klein Matterhorn is the highest peak to be served by cable car in all of Europe.
Did you know that the world’s longest set of steps and one of the longest funicular railway lines lie side-by-side in Switzerland? According to Guinness World Records, the Niesen stairway consists of 11.674 steps, on a 3,4km route. The staircase ranges from an altitude of 700 metres at the bottom to 2632 metres at the top! Alongside it is the Niesenbahn funicular railway.
Both lead to the Niesen mountain in the Bernese Alps, which stands at 2.362 metres, often called the “Swiss Pyramid” due to its shape. Technically, the steps are only a service route for employees of the funicular, but the public is allowed to use the steps once a year for the “Niesenlauf” endurance run.
Winter tourism in the Swiss Alps
Winter tourism in the Alps began with tour groups visiting snowy St. Moritz for the first time in 1865. Ever since then, Switzerland is a go-to destination for those who like skiing and snowboarding.
Here are the most-visited towns and villages for winter tourism, like skiing and snowboarding:
Winter sports in Canton Graubunden
- St. Moritz
Winter sports in Canton Bern
Winter sports in Canton Vaud
Winter sports in Canton Valais
- Val d'Anniviers
- Les Crosets
- Les Portes du Soleil
Car-free villages in the Swiss Alps
There are many car-free villages in the alps which are frequently visited for both summer and winter tourism.
Car-free villages in Canton Valais
Car-free villages in Canton Bern
Events and festivals in the Swiss mountains
The mountains attract not only tourists that enjoy mountaineering and winter sports, but also attendees of events and festivals. There are plenty of festivals at high altitudes, such as Zermatt Music Festival and Academy and St. Moritz Gourment Festival as well as traditional mountain village festivals like Desalpe de Charmey. Sporting events and festivals are as numerous as they are varied, such as the Matterhorn Eagle Cup golfing tournament, Bernina Gran Turismo and the Audi FIS Ski World Cup.