With limestone viaducts, snow-capped peaks, swan-dotted lakes and emerald green valleys, Switzerland has scenery you may never tire of. It is also refreshingly easy for international visitors to hike or bike through the enthralling countryside via affordable and genuinely straightforward train, bus and ferry systems. To get under the skin of rural Switzerland, leave the car behind. Simply rely on the country’s fantastic public transport and your own two feet.
Take a train (bus or ferry) to the trails
Elsewhere in the world, using trains to travel around rural areas is often impractical, as stations are few and far between and schedules are rarely synchronised. But Switzerland's train system is second only to Japan's for its comprehensiveness and frequency of use by locals. Train schedules match up smoothly, meaning that visitors rarely wait to make connections, and the country's buses and ferries also run like clockwork -- as would be expected in a country that famously makes the world’s most precise timepieces.
Public transport in Switzerland is so good that there are nine car-free villages. Jungfrau-Aletsch, for instance, located on a Unesco World Heritage-designated glacier's edge, can be accessed by rail, bus, bike or foot.
In 2008, the non-profit organisation SwitzerlandMobility launched a 19,000km network of hiking, cycling and canoeing routes that are tightly integrated with rail, bus and ferry services, bike rental stations and overnight accommodations. Use the group's website to plot a map-based itinerary, choosing from more than 600 signposted routes, 100 bed-and-breakfasts and 4,000 points of interest. Every listed route is linked to at least one of 24,000 public transport stops, with timetables a click away.
To speed up your planning, SwitzerlandMobility presents dozens of ready-made itineraries that range from daytrips to cross-country hikes. For example, from Zurich, visitors can take an easy day hike to the Albis Pass. Take train Number 302 from Zürich Hauptbahnhof (the main railway station) to Zürich Triemli–Uetliberg, and then follow the yellow signposts on a 14km-trek. The trail passes through the Black Forest, rising 700m in elevation along mountain paths lined with wild garlic, and eventually presents views of the distant Glarner Alps.
The site also advises which routes are best for less athletic people, and which ones will challenge the physically fit. The routes cover most of Switzerland, with a few rarely accessed areas left out. The SwitzerlandMobility website even has a free companion iPhone app to let visitors plot their next moves on the go.
E-bike the Alps
If you are intimidated by the idea of cycling in the Swiss Alps, you may prefer to rent an electric bike, or e-bike, which gives your pedalling a mechanical boost and spares you from breaking a sweat. Switzerland has 400 combined bicycle and e-bike stations along 8,800km of signposted cycle routes. The stations customarily allow cyclists to swap out fresh e-bike batteries as a complimentary service included with the rental rate, which is typically 50 Swiss francs a day. Many inns also provide sockets that can be used to recharge batteries while you break for a meal or stay the night. Book the right e-bike or traditional bike for your size via Rent a Bike, and find a map of e-bike routes with battery-swap points at Veloland.ch under its "Flyer bike" section.
If planning the logistics of bike rentals, lodging and rail transport intimidates you, turn to the tour company SwissTrails, which will organise your whole trip for a fee. Note: traditional pedal-powered bicycles are more widely available as rentals than e-bikes. For spontaneous rentals, reserve a traditional bike through Switzerland Tourism because the kiosks at bicycle rental stations often require credit cards that have microchips embedded in them (which are standard in Europe, but are rarely possessed by Americans).
Hikers and cyclists may also like Fast Baggage, a luggage-forwarding service introduced in 2005 that has since expanded to cover a large swath of Switzerland. Drop off your luggage at any one of 45 train stations before 9 am and the luggage will be available for pick-up at your destination rail station after 6 pm the same day. This service comes in handy when you choose to hike, bike, or canoe a leg of the journey, a task made more difficult with bags involved. The fee is 22 Swiss francs each way, much cheaper than the exorbitant cost of gas to make an equivalent journey in a rental car.
If your ideal itinerary does not take you near those 45 stations, try an alternate luggage-forwarding service from the tour company SwissTrails. It covers even the smallest of rural villages at somewhat higher rates than the Swiss Rail service.
A pass to savings
To save money and time, rail passes allow travellers to hop on and off the trains, buses and ferries that crisscross the country on 13,000 miles of routes. Rail passes can save foreign visitors up to half of the price paid by residents, thanks to tourism-promotion subsidies from the Swiss government.
Among the various Swiss rail passes, hikers and cyclists will generally prefer the Swiss Flexi Pass, ideal when you want unlimited, spontaneous travel on a couple of days during your trip and do not need public transport on other days. A Swiss Flexi Pass sold via booking website Rail Europe for three non-consecutive days of unlimited train travel recently cost 236 Swiss francs for two people, substantially less than renting and fuelling a rental car. Passes are also sold at rail stations.
To plot your car-free itinerary, a good starting point is the English-language version of the website for Swiss Federal Railways. Also helpful is the Bradt Travel Guides’ Switzerland Without a Car, which describes every railway line and what there is to see walking, hiking or cycling near each station.