The Grand Tour of Switzerland: What you need to know
When driving in Switzerland, you may have noticed some brown boxes on motorways and road signs informing you about the “Grand Tour of Switzerland.” But what is the Grand Tour, what route does the Grand Tour take and what is the history of the Grand Tour of Switzerland?
What is the Grand Tour of Switzerland?
The Grand Tour of Switzerland is a road trip created by Switzerland Tourism in 2015. The 1.643-kilometre route is designed to showcase all of the country’s top tourism highlights, from historical sites and museums to natural wonders like lakes, mountains and rivers.
650 road signs, or the Grand Tour GPS maps, will guide you to 46 top attractions, 22 lakes, five alpine passes and 13 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, completed in eight different stages. You will know you are at a Grand Tour location when you see the large hollow red shields installed at the sight - perfect for a confirmatory picture!
How long does the Grand Tour of Switzerland take to complete?
Each stage will take roughly five hours of driving to complete, which means you will need at least eight days to finish the core route. However, if you want to take your time and see all the sights, it is best to plan a longer journey or a shorter route. The stages can be done individually or as one Grand Tour and can be started and finished wherever you like.
Alongside the route itself, Switzerland Tourism offers a wide range of car rental, hotel and experience packages to make the journey all the more special. What’s more, you are free to mix and match locations as you please and use your own car if you already call Switzerland home.
Route of the Grand Tour of Switzerland
Of course, to describe the route of the Grand Tour in detail is to describe the majority of what there is to see in Switzerland. So, for a brief introduction, here’s what each stage has to offer:
Stage one: Zurich to Appenzell
Stage one starts in Zurich - home to many great museums, parks and cultural events. From there, the tour takes you northwards through the wine region of Canton Zurich, before arriving at the Rhine Falls - the largest waterfall in Europe.
From the nearby city of Schaffhausen, the route then travels eastwards through the beautiful Swiss village of Stein am Rhein, before depositing you on the banks of Lake Constance. This also gives you an excellent opportunity to visit Konstanz itself as it is a stunning German city only metres away from the Swiss border.
The route then takes you along Lake Constance and through the stunning scenery of Thurgau, arriving in the cathedral city of St. Gallen soon after. From there, you will get an excellent opportunity to visit Appenzell - arguably the most beautiful and traditionally Swiss location the country has to offer.
Stage two: Appenzell to St. Moritz
Stage two will be your first venture into the Swiss Alps. Starting in the stunning hills of Appenzell, the route moves south to the canton of Graubünden, which is home to some of the most spectacular mountains in Switzerland.
From Chur, the route twists and turns through the Alps, passing the Swiss National Park and giving visitors the chance to scale some famous mountains, visit monasteries and take in the majestic landscape. The stage ends at the glamorous ski resort of St. Moritz.
Stage three: St. Moritz to Lugano
Stage three goes from the highest point of the journey (1.822 metres above sea level in St. Moritz) to the lowest (270 metres in Lugano). From the twists and turns of the Engadin valley, the stage will cross into the Italian part of the country.
From the Rhaetian Railway and Viamala Gorge to the Parc Ela and Fortress of Bellinzona, there is plenty to see along the way. After a drive through the mountains, the route takes you along the San Bernadino pass to the city of Lugano and the gateway to Italy.
Stage four: Lugano to Zermatt
After coming down through the San Bernadino, stage four will take you up the twists and turns of the Gotthard pass. From there, the Aletsch and Rhône Glaciers, Lake Cadagno and Andermatt are just a stone's throw away. The route will also take you through the Furka Pass, on the road made famous by the James Bond film Goldfinger.
Perhaps the most memorable part of the stage is its destination: Zermatt. While you can’t drive to the famous ski resort, you can take a stunning mountain railway to see the town and the Matterhorn - perhaps the most famous mountain in Switzerland.
Stage five: Zermatt to Lausanne
The fifth stage of the Grand Tour takes you through the mountains to Canton Vaud. On the route between Zermatt and Lausanne, travellers can take in the picturesque Vaudois mountains before arriving on the shores of Lake Geneva.
From there, you can sample some delectable Swiss wine in the Lavaux wine region and visit one of Switzerland’s finest castles: Castle Chillon. Once the muse of famous poets like Lord Byron and home to global stars like Charlie Chaplin, the region is now a tourism hotspot with pretty towns and great views.
Stage six: Lausanne to Neuchâtel via Geneva
Stage five will take you northwest from Lausanne into the fields and the mountains of the Jura. If you fancy going to Geneva, you can make a two-hour-long detour along the lake to visit the westernmost city in Switzerland.
If you are taking the traditional route, from Lausanne, you will rise over the foothills of Jura, arriving at the lakeside in Yverdon-les-Bains. The tour will then take you along Lake Neuchâtel to the old town of the same name, where you can visit the imposing castle and gothic church.
Stage seven: Neuchâtel to Bern
The penultimate stage of the Grand Tour will take drivers through some of the oldest parts of Switzerland, specifically the imposing old towns of Murten and Fribourg. In travelling south from Neuchâtel, the route will also allow you to visit the Gruyère region where you can stop to sample some delicious Swiss cheese.
Turning east, the route then crosses through the mountains to arrive at the old city of Thun - seen by many as the transport hub for ski resorts in the Bernese Oberland. The stage is complete when you arrive in the de-facto capital of Switzerland, Bern.
Stage eight: Bern to Zurich
The home stretch of the Grand Tour has you going up the very spine of Switzerland, moving northeast from Bern through the hills to the lakes of Aargau and the city of Lucerne. From there, you have the opportunity to visit the mountains of Pilatus and Rigi as you tour around the Vierwaldstättersee.
From there, you move north through Canton Schwyz to Lake Zurich. Finally, the route takes you up the famous Gold Coast to right back where you started in the city of Zurich.
History of the Grand Tour in Switzerland
Despite only existing since 2015, the idea of a “Grand Tour of Switzerland” is a custom dating back to 17th century. Back then, upper-class European men would go on a raucous journey across Europe in what was a precursor to the “gap year” students take today.
While the usual destination of these tours was Italy, many Grand Tours involved visiting or transiting through the Swiss mountains. From Paris, many tourers would visit Geneva and Lausanne on their way through the St Bernard Pass, a custom that is now replicated in the modern Grand Tour.
Visit the best of Switzerland with the Grand Tour
In the Grand Tour, Switzerland Tourism has provided a way to see the best of the alpine nation in a road trip to remember. For more information, check out the official website.