While lakes and mountains are well-known features of Switzerland’s landscape, rivers are also an important part of the country’s geography. The vast network of lakes and waterways across the nation has earned Switzerland the nickname of “the water tower of Europe."
Map of Swiss rivers
Most of Switzerland’s rivers are small tributaries that run into the larger rivers, draining out into the sea. The waterways of Switzerland drain out in four different directions, flowing into the North Sea, the Mediterranean Sea, the Adriatic Sea and the Black Sea.
Many of these waterways flow into the country’s largest and most famous lakes, including Lake Constance (Bodensee), Lake Geneva (Lac Léman) and Lake Maggiore (Lago Maggiore). Together with the rivers, these bodies of water make up the majority of the country’s surface water supplies.
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List of Swiss rivers
There are many rivers in Switzerland that are important to the European water network, whether they are large and well-known waterways, or smaller tributaries.
The main rivers that flow through Switzerland are some of the most well-known in Europe, including:
- River Rhine
- River Rhône
- River Po
- River Danube
- River Adige
Tributary rivers in Switzerland
There are also well-known rivers that are tributaries of the main five. These include:
- River Aare (Rhine tributary)
- Thur River (Rhine tributary)
- River Ticino (Po tributary)
- River Inn (Danube tributary)
- River Doubs (Rhône tributary)
Swiss rivers entirely in Switzerland
Since Switzerland is a relatively small country in terms of land, there are not many rivers that begin and end entirely in Swiss territory. Those that do tend to be tributaries of the country's larger rivers.
One of the most well-known tributaries that is contained entirely within Switzerland is the River Birs, which flows from the Jura mountains in Col de Pierre Pertuis, into the Rhine river between Basel and Birsfelden.
Another well-known tributary that starts and ends in Switzerland is the River Aare, which is the longest stream to begin and end entirely in Switzerland. It is a tributary to the High Rhine and runs through more than 40 hydroelectric power stations, generating a substantial amount of Switzerland's electricity.
Swiss Alps rivers
One of the reasons why Switzerland has so many beautiful rivers and lakes is due to meltwater from glaciers in the mountains. Many waterways have their sources in the Swiss Alps, such as the River Linth (running through the Glarus Alps), the Reuss (creating the Gotthard Pass) and the River Emme in the Bernese Alps.
Though these are especially beautiful as they run through the mountains, they are also particularly susceptible to climate change, as glacial melt due to warm weather, or heavy rainfall in the mountains, can create flooding.
Longest Swiss rivers
While there are not many long rivers entirely in Switzerland, some of the rivers that pass through the country are actually some of the longest in Europe.
The River Rhine, arguably the most well-known river in Switzerland, has a total length of around 1.230 kilometres from end to end. The Rhine has its source in the Swiss canton of Graubunden and drains out into the North Sea. It is the second-longest river in Central and Western Europe after the Danube, and covers 375 kilometres of Switzerland’s territory, making it the longest river in Switzerland.
The Rhine has many tributaries in Switzerland, including the Aare, Thur, Birs, Orbe and Saane rivers. The Rhine flows through the Swiss city of Basel, as well as the smaller towns of Chur, Kreuzlingen and Schaffhausen. After leaving Switzerland, the Rhine flows through France, Germany, Liechtenstein and the Netherlands. After Schaffhausen, the stream flows over the most powerful waterfall in Europe at Rheinfall.
The River Rhône is also one of the longest rivers in Switzerland, stretching 264 kilometres across the country and flowing into Lake Geneva. The Rhône is the second-largest waterway in Switzerland that is not a tributary, and flows into the Mediterranean Sea.
The source of the Rhône lies in the Swiss Alps, at the Rhône Glacier and from there runs through several major European cities including Geneva and Lyon.
Other famous Swiss rivers
While Switzerland’s longest rivers are certainly well-known, the country is also home to several other important European waterways: the River Po, the River Danube and the River Adige.
The River Po, while being almost entirely contained in Italy, has its basin in the Swiss canton of Ticino, near the Italian border. The Po has 141 tributaries and is drained into the Adriatic Sea. The River Po does not run directly through Switzerland, but one of its most important tributaries, the Ticino, has its source in the Swiss Alps.
Even though it is not one of the country’s most well-known waterways, it is an important feature of the country’s overall hydrology. The River Po runs through several cantons, including Ticino, Graubunden and Valais, which cover around 9 percent of the country’s land overall.
Central and Eastern Europe’s largest river, the River Danube does not directly travel through Switzerland, but again has a key tributary in the country. The Inn, which starts in the Engadine region of the Swiss Alps, flows from Switzerland through to Germany and Austria.
The Inn's presence in the Engadine valley is special, since it is the only Swiss waterway to be drained into the Black Sea, thanks to the Danube.
The River Adige, much like the River Po, is a key river in Italy, with an important tributary right here in Switzerland. The River Rom, which rises through the Livigno Alps in Graubunden, stretches 24,7 kilometres across Switzerland, before flowing into the River Adige.
The Adige river drains into the Adriatic Sea, passing through the Italian city of Verona and Lake Garda on the way.
Hydropower in Switzerland
Rivers are an important supplier of energy in Switzerland, with more than 650 hydropower plants operating across the country that provide around 57 percent of the country’s power.
In the early 1970s, hydropower accounted for almost 90 percent of Switzerland’s energy production, but more recently the country has chosen to diversify its supply, using thermal and nuclear power too.