is one of Europe's most visited countries, but one of its least understood. Pass through for a day or two, as most people do, and you'll get the quaint stereotype of Switzerland that the locals deem suitable for public consumption - the Alpine idyll of cheese and chocolate, Heidi and the Matterhorn. Stay longer though and another Switzerland will emerge, the one which the Swiss inhabit, and one which can be an infinitely more rewarding place to explore. Sights are breathtaking, transport links are excellent, costs are no higher than in Britain or Germany, and the locals are unfailingly courteous. Almost everyone speaks some English along with at least one of the official Swiss languages (German, French, Italian, or, in the southeast, Romansh).
Notoriously placid these days, Switzerland nonetheless spent the first five hundred years of its existence rent by conflict, and fought a civil war as recently as 1847. The Swiss Confederation (abbreviated in Latin to "
") dates back to 1291, when Alpine peasants formed an alliance to defend themselves against the Hapsburgs. By the early 1500s, the Confederation had grown into a military superpower feared throughout Europe. It was only with the Reformation that the Swiss began to earn their reputation for neutrality, a reputation which served them well right through into the boom years after World War II. In the 1990s, the country's image was tainted, as exposés uncovered Swiss banks' dubious wartime collusion with the Nazis. Public soul-searching in the aftermath of the scandal is heralding Switzerland's first tentative steps towards ending its dogged isolation and joining the EU and the UN.
where to go
, Switzerland invented tourism: the country's breathtaking scenery has drawn travellers since the early 1800s. The most visited Alpine area is the central
, which has the highest concentration of picturesque peaks and mountainside villages, although the loftiest Alps are further south, where the small but crowded resort of
provides access to the country's most distinctive mountain, the Toblerone-peaked
. In the southeastern corner of the country, wild, thickly forested mountain slopes provide the setting for the world-famous resorts of
. Of the northern German-speaking cities,
has a wealth of sightseeing and nightlife possibilities and provides easy access to the tiny independent principality of
overlooking the Rhine.
and especially the capital
are quieter, each with an attractive historic core, while
is in an appealing setting close to lakes and mountains. In the French-speaking west, the cities lining the northern shore of Lake Geneva
make up the heart of
. South of the Alps, sunny, Italian-speaking
can seem a world apart from the rest of the country, particularly the palm-fringed lakeside resorts of
, with their Mediterranean, riviera atmosphere.