As avid travelers, my husband, Ken, and I generally prefer discovering new places to returning to ones we have previously visited. But when it comes to the Bernese Oberland region of Switzerland, we can’t resist the urge to go back. Since our first trip here in 2012, we have done that three times – always in the summer.
For gorgeous mountain scenery and tranquility, few spots rival the two carless villages that we have used as our base: Mürren and Wengen, on either side of the verdant Lauterbrunnen Valley. Those who drive to Lauterbrunnen must leave their vehicles in the covered carpark and travel the rest of the way by train, gondola, or a combination of the two. On a clear day, from Mürren, one has a spot-on view of the three most famous Swiss alpine peaks – the Eiger, the Mönch and the Jungfrau. Wengen is a more bustling village, with a wider range of restaurants and services.
From either spot, the hiking is spectacular; as we explained to a couple of well-traveled friends who accompanied us on our most recent, late August, trip. Together, via Airbnb, we rented a renovated Victorian chalet about five minutes from the Innerwengen ski lift, with five balconies and panoramic views of the Jungfrau. The advantage of that location in winter is being able to ski right to the door. In summer, we could awaken to a symphony of cowbells and rushing waterfalls, and still walk to the village in 20 minutes. To travel back and forth from the train station with our luggage, we took a taxi; though Wengen is a carless village, two cab companies and mini workmen’s trucks are permitted to operate there.
Part of the fun this year was introducing our friends to what we consider to be one of the most beautiful places on earth. That was true even the first time we visited when it rained during at least half of our ten-day vacation. Though the weather obscured the views, it did not dampen our appreciation for the Bernese Oberland’s natural beauty. We walked through fields of buttercups, red campion flowers and daisies; saw many varieties of bellflowers hanging their heavy heads; and admired the globeflowers that glistened in the dappled light. One evening, in the lounge of our hotel in Mürren, I overheard another guest, who I assumed was a botany enthusiast, raving about a rare orchid he had spotted near a stream. “It’s the first time in many years I’ve seen one of them here,” he said to his companions, all of whom looked to be well into their 80s. This region seemed to have fans of all ages.
Among the attractions are the wide variety of outdoor activities, some of which are surprisingly accessible. Whether you’re ultra-fit or merely in reasonably good shape, they include: mountain biking, paragliding, running, hiking (both easy and challenging) in warmer weather; and cross-country and downhill skiing in winter. Children, who may not appreciate the vistas, can enjoy the numerous alpine playgrounds while their grown-ups take in the views.
Initially, Kim Hawley’s “Guide to the Bernese Oberland Region of Switzerland” was our bible. Hawley and her husband, Tom, entrepreneurs from northern California, have been to the region almost 20 times. Her publication, which she updates after each visit, fills a pressing need, with a wealth of detailed and user-friendly information. Though the Bernese Oberland is too small a geographic area to merit such granular treatment in traditional guidebooks, all this background – about everything from hiking trails to food shopping – has helped enormously to optimize our various stays.
While planning our first trip, Ken connected with Hawley through a traveler’s message board. We met her and Tom on our last visit, and she has graciously made her guidebook available as a downloadable PDF to readers of this blog.
By now we have our own list of favorite hikes, most of which involve taking some mode of transportation to the highest point on the trail and descending on foot. On our first day in Wengen, we like to get our mountain legs by going up on the Männlichen gondola and hiking to Kleine Scheidegg (pronounced KLY-nah SHY-dek). This also helps us get accustomed to the frequent altitude changes one experiences (for example, Wengen 4,180 feet; Männlichen 7,687 feet; Kleine Scheidegg 6,762 feet) in the course of a day. Our friends, who are Fitbit enthusiasts, noted how quickly they reached their daily goal of 10,000 steps, or about five miles.
We pointed out that even the trail markers do not measure distances, though. Rather, they indicate the level of difficulty and estimate how long it will take to complete the hike. For example, the marker “1Std 30Min” means one hour (“stunde”) and 30 minutes. But, as Hawley notes, “Posted times are for experienced walkers/hikers and do not include time for food, rest, taking pictures, or just gawking in general (which you will do a lot).”
To be realistic, we double the time on the trail markers. And when fatigue sets in, we avail ourselves of what Hawley calls “bail out” points, where one can end a hike and take a train. (These spots are marked with a train icon on the signpost.) For example, one might (and we have) step off the trail down from Männlichen by following the signs to the Alpiglen railway station; have a beer at the Bärghuus Alpiglen, adjacent to the station; and go by train up to Kleine Scheidegg.
Traveling to Mürren, situated on the opposite side of the Lauterbrunnen Valley from Wengen, took us about an hour and involved taking four different conveyances, starting with a train down to Lauterbrunnen. Accessible to travelers via a cable car that connects to a quaint, single-car electric train, on a clear day Mürren is the ideal starting point for breathtaking hikes. The village is also served by cable cars that can take you to spectacular views and hikes up the Allmendhubel or Schilthorn. The latter was the backdrop for the 1969 James Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
The former leads to our favorite hikes in the region, both of which begin at Allmendhubel’s trailhead, where there is an extensive and highly inventive playground. To get from the lift to the trails, one must maneuver past the cows, who seem accustomed to visitors but might hold forth (as it were) in the middle of a photo op.
From there, the Mountain View trail offers head-on views of the Eiger, the Mönch and the Jungfrau almost all the way back to Mürren. There’s a chance to bail at the Winteregg Restaurant, where, for the price of a beer, adults can appreciate the same view from a seated position while children frolic in another fabulous alpine playground – this one attached to the restaurant.
Before making the investment of time and 21.40 Swiss francs ($22.20 at current exchange rates) apiece on this day trip, we have learned to check the weather report and online live cams, and also to look out the window. On our first sojourn in the region, we rode up to Allmendhubel on a foggy day and had trouble finding the trail markers. Hawley told us she typically schedules two-week visits to Wengen, to allow for the capricious mountain weather systems.
On foggy days, when the peaks are covered, we like to go down to the glacier-formed Lauterbrunnen Valley (2,631 feet), where it is often clear when it’s socked in higher up, and visit some of the more than 70 waterfalls. They include the 974-foot Staubbach Falls, which inspired Goethe and Byron, and the Trümmelbach Falls, which may be even more fascinating to 21st-century observers. These are 10 glacier waterfalls inside a mountain, including runoff from the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau. Visitors can observe close up the roaring water running through the mountain – a reminder of both our own smallness and the force of nature. The only glacier waterfalls in Europe inside a mountain and still accessible, they are a UNESCO world heritage site.
Knowing how fickle the weather can be, we consulted the long-range forecast and suggested that our friends plan to visit the Jungfraujoch – the third-highest peak in the Swiss Alps and Europe’s highest railway station – on what promised to be the clearest day of our one-week visit. From the summit, on a cloudless day, one can see all the way to Italy.
This was one experience in the region that we didn’t feel compelled to repeat. Though the views are magnificent, it’s haute theme park up there, with travelers woozy from the altitude (11,371 feet) contemplating the purchase of tacky souvenirs they may never look at again. Plus the ride there is expensive – 91 Swiss francs ($94.39) for a round-trip ticket on the train from Wengen to Kleine Sheidegg, which connects with a cog railroad for another 40-minute ride. But if ever there was a place for a souvenir “you-are-there photo,” this is it. Ken and I have one of the two of us, taken on July 4, 2012; during a heat wave back home, we were bundled up and standing in the snow.
Unless you are a hardy, high-altitude hiker, you should expect to spend time commuting to your activities, and build this into your budget. Tickets are breathtakingly expensive. It helps to buy a Swiss Half Fare Card for 120 Swiss francs ($124.47) per person; while this sounds like a hefty upfront cost, you quickly recoup the initial outlay. For example, the ride up Männlichen, which takes less than ten minutes, costs 6 Swiss francs ($6.22) with a half-price card. And the ride back to Wengen, after that beer in Alpiglen, at full price, would have set us back 38 francs, or $39.41, per person. This particular route required a train change in Kleine Scheidegg, because, though a crow could fly directly between the two points, we landlubbers needed to go up one side of the mountain, and then back down the other.
The half-fare card, which is valid for 30 days, also entitles you to half-price passage on most other rail, bus and gondola travel within Switzerland, such as from the airports in Zurich, Geneva or Basel/Mulhouse to the Bernese Oberland.
While the scenery never disappoints, we have found the food in this region, like transportation, ridiculously pricey, which is only partly attributable to the strength of the Swiss franc against the dollar and the euro. Example: It costs $28 for a meatless plate of pasta in a nondescript restaurant. Fortunately, we have found ways to stay nourished in Switzerland without breaking the bank.
During our first two trips there, when we stayed at the Hotel Eiger in Mürren, we made breakfast the big meal of the day since a generous buffet representing all five food groups was included in the room rate. Instead of loading carbs, I filled up on high-protein, pricier items like deli meats, smoked salmon and eggs; and availed myself of whatever fruits, vegetables and beverages were part of the deal.
On subsequent trips, we have rented apartments (in addition to Airbnb, we have done this through Alpine Holiday Services and Interhome), prepared most of our own meals and focused on regional foods. Our most recent rental, like many village homes, had an extensive vegetable garden, which, at the owner’s invitation, helped supply us with salad. By making our own three-cheese fondue and raclette (like many apartments, ours was equipped with both a fondue pot and a raclette grill), we fed four of us for the price of one serving at a restaurant. And that included the bread, potatoes, gherkins and pickled onions we bought at the Coop supermarket to go with it.
In fact, regional cheeses were one of the few reasonably priced food items in Wengen. And though they are sold in the supermarket, we became regulars at Chäs Gruebi, the local cheesemonger. For fondue, we used their homemade mix of grated cheese, which consists of equal parts young gruyere, aged gruyere and Fribourgeois Vacherin. You just tell them how many people you want to serve (the recommended portion, which we found to be extremely generous, is 200 grams per person). We followed the recipe on their package, omitting the glass of Kirsch (cherry liquor), which runs about $25 for a one-liter bottle.
Another crowd-pleaser was rösti. This regional specialty starts with fried grated potatoes that are reminiscent of hashbrowns. Though it is often eaten plain, local restaurants get creative with their toppings. Among those we saw on menus included: rösti topped with bacon, egg and cheese; another with mushrooms, onions and ham; and a fresh tomato, pesto and cheese combo. With prices running more than $20 for the fancier send-ups, we preferred to make our own. The fry-and-serve packaged version by Hero (4.30 francs, or $4.46, at the Coop supermarket) was as good as many we tasted.
On our most recent one-week trip, when we prepared all our meals except for one dinner at a local restaurant, the total food costs were roughly $75 per person, including soda and beer. (Drinkable wines in Switzerland were outside our budget.) If you hate to cook on vacation, see Hawley’s restaurant recommendations, but brace yourself for sticker shock. Either way, you can save money on chocolate by eating the Coop house brand of milch lait extra (extra milk chocolate), which is scrumptious and one of the few bargains in Switzerland (1.95 Swiss francs, or $2.02, for 100 grams). Given the number of calories you’ll be burning with all your outdoor activities, there’s not much need for restraint.
Deborah L. Jacobs, a lawyer and journalist, is the author of Four Seasons in a Day: Travel, Transitions and Letting Go of the Place We Call Home and Estate Planning Smarts: A Practical, User-Friendly, Action-Oriented Guide. Follow her on Twitter at @djworking and join her on Facebook here. You can subscribe to future blog posts by using the sign-up box on her website’s homepage.