ALL SEASONS in Switzerland is a good season, but this three-day itinerary, focusing on the vibrant cities and the rail connections between them, is optimal for the long days of spring and summer. You can line up with Art Basel, one of the country’s most famous cultural exports which runs from June 16-19, or you can dodge this weekend’s extras and still get heavy doses of innovative art and of rich cuisine. An initial investment within three days Switzerland Travel Pass, starting at approximately $245 per person, covers unlimited intercity travel by train, most public transit systems, water taxis, and admission to over 500 museums.
Day 1: Zurich to Bern to Basel
Zurich Airport welcomes you with international-style concrete terminals connected by a bouncy tram playing the sounds of yodelers and mooing cows. From there, you have just over an hour to reach Bern, the Swiss capital, on board the SBB intercity express train. Once in Bern, put your bag in one of the lockers at the station and stroll through the medieval center (about 10 minutes away), built on a hill overlooking a bend in the Aare. Wide pedestrian streets framed by sandstone archways lead to the gold-flecked face of the Zytglogge clock tower, where mechanical puppets come to life every hour, as they have for centuries. Down the street, down in the cavernous Kornhauskeller for an early breakfast. Frescoed vaulted ceilings soar above plates of Bernese pork and cheese.
Basel, wedged between France and Germany an hour north of Bern, also features an old town with a Gothic cathedral overlooking a river, but our focus here is more contemporary. Take tram no. 8 from the station to Hotel Krafft Basel, the elegantly furnished occupant of an 1800s building (from around $260 a night).
Drop off your bag and then hop back on train no. 8 for a 20-minute journey over the German border to the Weil am Rhein terminus. There, you’ll find a sidewalk dotted with revolving showcases of miniature furniture, leading you like bread crumbs to the sprawling campus of the Vitra Design Museum. With buildings by star architects like Zaha Hadid and Tadao Ando, this working factory also offers guided tours. The highlight is the minimalist Schaudepot red brick. Designed by local heroes Herzog & de Meuron, it houses and displays a collection of furniture masterpieces from over a century of design. The gift shop at Schaudepot, as well as the exhibit hall on the north side of campus, will pinch your wallet.
Leaving the grounds, follow artist Tobias Rehberger’s 24 sculptures through rolling meadows on a 45-minute walk (get the map at 24Stops.info). The walk leads to Beyeler Foundation, a contemporary art center located in a building designed by Renzo Piano and surrounded by fields and ponds. Back in the center of Basel (via tram no. 6), walk about 10 minutes to Bundesbahn, a train-themed restaurant behind the central station, for a traditional spaetzl or schnitzel. Then have a nightcap a few blocks away Labor 8a bar housed in a former machine factory part of a booming creative district.
Day 2: Basel to Zurich
Back on the intercity train, a one-hour morning ride takes you back to Zurich. Take a taxi to Grand Dolder, a luxury hilltop chalet that opened in 1899 and gained modern, curvy wings during a 2008 renovation. Check in and leave your bag but resist the urge to park on the terrace, overlooking the city and Lake Zurich, you’ll have time for that later (from around $800 a night). For now, take another taxi back down the hill for lunch in the bustling food hall built under the renovated railway arches at I am Viadukt. A few blocks away, the Löwenbräukunst is a former brewery turned cutting-edge arts center, featuring exhibition spaces from local powerhouse Hauser & Wirth
Take the tram 20 minutes southeast to the next stop on the route, the Kunsthaus Zurich, now the largest art museum in Switzerland after the opening in October 2021 of a new wing by David Chipperfield. Expensive-looking rooms of concrete, wood and brass display Impressionist masterpieces and explore their controversial history: Emil Bührle assembled the collection with the wealth he earned as an arms dealer Nazi. Monets’ 20-foot-long water lilies in the Kunsthaus aren’t the only ones tossing a pictorial float. Walk 10 minutes up the road to Zurich’s waterfront, where in warm weather locals dive straight from bathhouse pavilions like those at Seebad Utoquai and Strandbad Tiefenbrunnen. The water is usually as clear and calm as a swimming pool, but few pools can boast these views, with the spiers of Zurich to the north and the crystal-clear Alps to the south.
Stroll through the park by Lake Zürichhorn, past Le Corbusier’s modernist flag, on the way to take tram no. 2 or no. 4 which glides from the green streets of the upscale Seefeld district to the tangled alleys of the old city center. Try to reach Lindenhof hilltop park late in the hour for a panoramic view set to the chiming of dozens of church bells. After stopping at the Dolder Grand for refreshments and an al fresco aperitif, head to Kronenhalle, about 2 miles. A nearly century-old institution, the dining room is packed with dark wood paneled walls, white tablecloths, waiters in white jackets, and hearty, meaty dishes.
Day 3: Zurich to Lucerne to Lugano
In the morning, on the way to the station, dive into the flagship chocolate factory of Confiserie Sprüngli for mini macaroons with intense flavors called Luxemburgerli. Then stop at Fabrikat to shop for heritage homewares from traditional European makers before boarding a 50-minute train to Lucerne. Once you arrive, you will embark on the Gotthard Panorama Express, a half-day trip from the center of Swiss-German territory to the Italian-speaking south. The first leg is aboard a graceful steamboat and the second by glass-domed train (the train company handles the transfer of your luggage from start to finish).
Before you go, give yourself the morning to stroll along Lucerne’s mirror lake, criss-crossing the 14th-century wooden bridge before peeking into the whitewashed and gloriously gilded Jesuit church – religious flair rare in a predominantly Reformation austerity country.
In the harbor you begin your boat trip, passing gentle mountains and the towns that climb them from the shore. Have lunch on board at the full-service restaurant. The train leg winds through green valleys and mountainside villages until you arrive in Lugano in the late afternoon. Check in the Hotel Splendide Royal, located along the tree-lined promenade by the lake (from around $480 per night). Then walk 10 minutes south to board the funicular to the top of Mount San Salvatore at sunset to watch the whole place bask in the golden hour.
This area is used to serving home-style dinners in rustic “cave” restaurants, and tonight you’ll go to Salute Cave, but instead of sitting in a cave, you’ll be on its windy terrace. Back at the hotel, fall asleep amid the grandeur of the Belle Époque. At midnight, your tank pass expires, which is just as well. Lugano is too beautiful to simply pass through. Chances are you want to linger.
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