Switzerland has more to meet the eye than scenic lakes and mountainscapes. Beneath the exterior of this small central European country are secret bunkers and military fortifications hidden underground and in hollowed-out mountains.
True to Switzerland’s neutrality, the country hasn’t been engaged in military conflict for over 150 years. But an estimated 20,000 military bunkers and 300,000 private and public fallout shelters still exist. After the Cold War ended, the Swiss government began declassifying them one by one to save on maintenance costs. Today, many of them are haunting tourist attractions.
Let’s take a look at some of the most popular bunkers in Switzerland
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History of Bunkers in Switzerland
Adolf Hitler promised to respect Switzerland’s neutrality, but he made the same promise to Poland — a promise that was broken. In 1939, after seeing Poland fall into the hands of the German dictator, the Swiss government ramped up its defense strategies and expanded its existing fortifications.
The borders were lined with explosives, and for extra security against power-hungry Axis countries, the Swiss built hundreds of bunkers strategically located to allow the armed forces to quickly destroy vital passages in case of an attack. By World War II, a clear message had been sent to the Nazis; the invasion of Switzerland would come at a high cost.
After the end of the war, the Swiss continued digging underground fortresses in response to the cold war and the threat of nuclear destruction from the Soviet Union. Fallout shelters were built in existing homes and public buildings such as schools and hospitals. Accessibility became a federal policy regulated by each canton to ensure the protection of every Swiss citizen.
Conflicts would come and go, but by the 21st century, the Swiss no longer felt the need to continue the expense of maintaining these bunkers. The alpine bunkers were abandoned and acquired by private companies and owners who turned them into museums, hotels, and other tourist attractions.
Types of Swiss Bunkers
Swiss bunkers vary in the way they were built. Some military bunkers were disguised as civilian houses with painted-on windows and machine gun turrets on the bottom alcove. Others looked like rustic cabins in the woods with cannon barrels hidden underneath the wooden shells.
Underground fallout shelters were cleverly camouflaged in the tall grasses of open fields. Some military shelters had rows of bunk beds and were protected by armored gas-lock doors. Civilian shelters large enough for up to 400 people were built with lounge and dining areas.
Military bunkers inside mountains had surveillance cameras above the entrance. Other bunkers have doors that were once secret and blend into the rocky setting.
Switzerland Bunker Law
The threat of the Cold War led the Swiss government to pass legislation requiring nuclear fallout shelters in 1963. Switzerland became the first country to have a bunker to shelter everyone in the country from a nuclear blast.
Notable Swiss Bunkers
Sasso da Pigna
Sasso da Pigna is a Swiss military bunker built on the Gotthard Pass in Airolo in the canton of Ticino. Built in 1943, it was abolished as a military facility in 1998 and opened as a museum in 2012. On display in the Sasso San Gottardo museum are multimedia exhibits about the Gotthard Pass and a rare group of crystals found in the region that weigh 1.5 tons.
The former bunker museum is open for tours from June to mid-October. Ticket prices range between CHF 20 and CHF 55. Free parking is available.
Fortress Saint Maurice
Fortress Saint Maurice is a historic fortress built between the First and Second World Wars. It’s
comprised of three forts—Cindet, Dailly, and Scex. Revealed in the galleries of the forts are military works once classified as “top secret.”
The historic fortress will transport visitors from 1911 to 1995 which was the peak period of Switzerland’s fortifications. Visitors will learn what life was like for the fortresses’ garrisons.
The entrance fee is CHF 12 and CHF 6 for children under 16. Credit and debit cards aren’t accepted, so take cash. It’s chilly inside, and poorly lit. Dress warmly and carry a flashlight.
Fort de Chillon
Once a réduit of the Swiss Armed Forces, Fort de Chillon in Veytaux directly on Lake Geneva is now an interactive museum with dramatic scenography. It was built in 1941, occupied until 1995, declassified in 2001, and opened to the public in 2020.
Using augmented and virtual reality, visitors learn what life was like inside for soldiers during that time. Ticket prices are 25 CHF for adults and CHF 17 for children ages 6-17. Its open Monday through Sunday from 10 am to 5 pm.
Fort de Champex
A military secret until 1999, Fort de Champex once protected Val d’Entremont and the Val Ferret entrance from invasions to the south. The fortress sits at an altitude of 1450 meters and was once the command post for interconnected regional fortress and formed a defense that was virtually impenetrable.
Now open as a museum to the public, the fort is a prime example of Swiss warfare. The fort has a varying schedule and is open on select days. Visitors can register online at the Tourist Office of Champex or at the Tourist Office of Grand St-Bernard in Orsières.
This 20th-century Swiss fortification is located near the Swiss-German border and was built between 1937 and 1939. Overlooking the Rhine River, the fort winds around the town of Full-Reuenthal. The fake exterior looks like a big boulder. Inside, the tunnel is the length of three football fields.
The fort is armed with 75mm guns and two machine gun blocks within two artillery blocks. It was built as part of the Swiss Border Line of defenses for the purpose of preventing the Germans from crossing the river at a nearby hydroelectric plant.
The Reuenthal Bunker was declassified in 1988 and is now a museum that is open on the weekends.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is it mandatory to have a bunker in Switzerland?
Switzerland’s “shelters for all” policy was enacted in 1963. At the height of the Cold War, it was a requirement that every person had a spot in a bunker. Bunkers had to be built underneath homes or the owner had to pay local governments for a place in a public shelter. Today, shelters are only required for buildings with 38 or more rooms.
Why does Switzerland have so many bunkers?
The high number of bunkers in Switzerland is partly because of the building of fallout shelters during the Cold War and partly due to lobbying parliamentarians for the cement industry calling for their mandatory construction.
How much does a bunker in Switzerland cost?
The cost of a bunker in a private home is around CHF 10,000. Residents can opt to pay CHF 1,500 for a place in a public shelter.
Header image courtesy of Wikimedia