Geography of Switzerland: All The Essential Facts

geography switzerland

Curious about some basic geographical facts about Switzerland? Then you’re in the right place because this detailed guide covers all the essential facts you need to know about the geography of Switzerland!

The European country is famous for its gorgeous nature with countless Alpine lakes, tall mountain peaks, and vast forests. But it’s also known for being one of the richest and most expensive countries in the world, for having multiple national languages, and for a disparity between immensely populated regions and those that are practically deserted. All of that is explained in more detail below, so read on to learn more about some Switzerland geography basics!

Basic Facts

swiss flag
Swiss flag

Before we get into the details of the various Swiss regions, climates, languages, and other details, here’s a quick overview of some of the most basic facts you should know about Switzerland:

  • The official name of Switzerland is the Swiss Confederation.
  • Switzerland is a landlocked country, bordered by five different countries: Germany in the north, Lichtenstein and Austria in the east, France in the west, and Italy in the south.
  • Switzerland belongs to three major European regions: Western Europe, Central Europe, and Southern Europe.
  • Switzerland has no capital city de jure, but Bern is the de facto capital because it is the seat of all the main government buildings.
  • Switzerland was founded on August 1st, 1291, but the country’s independence from the Holy Roman Empire wasn’t formally recognized until 1648.
  • There are four official languages in Switzerland: German, French, Italian, and Romansh.
  • Switzerland has a population of 8,700 million and the largest city is Zurich.
  • Switzerland is not a member of the European Union but it is a member of the United Nations.
  • Switzerland’s policy of armed neutrality has been in place since the 16th century.
  • Switzerland is regarded as one of the world’s least corrupt countries, although its banking sector has the reputation of being the most corrupt in the world.

Geographic Regions in Switzerland

Swiss Alps

Swiss Alps
Swiss Alps

The Swiss Alps make up the largest section of the territory of Switzerland, mostly in the southern part of the country. Approximately 1,060 km2 of the Swiss Alps are glaciers that feed most of the major rivers and lakes in the country.

Switzerland has 48 mountain peaks that are over 4,000 meters tall. The most famous summit in Switzerland is the Matterhorn with its pyramid-shaped peak of 4,478 meters above sea level. But the tallest mountain peak in Switzerland is Monte Rose, with a total height of 4,634 meters.

Central Plateau

Aerial shot of Zurich
Aerial shot of Zurich

The Central Plateau is the most densely populated area of Switzerland, and it’s where the vast majority of the Swiss people reside. This is the part of the country that stretched between the Jura Mountains in the west and the Swiss Alps in the east and south, with a lower elevation above sea level and the most fertile land.

This is the region of the country that boasts rolling hills, lakes, rivers, and the vast majority of Switzerland’s agricultural land. The area of the Central Plateau has been settled since the Neolithic and most of Switzerland’s oldest settlements can be found along the banks of rivers and lakes. Zurich is the largest and most densely populated city in the Central Plateau.

The Jura

The Jura Mountains in the west are a mountain range on the border of France and Switzerland. The mountain range is just a short distance from the Western Alps and is therefore considered a sub-alpine mountain range.

This region borders with the Central Plateau in the west. Although the proper Jura Mountains are largely situated right on the border with France, they do extend into multiple cantons, including Zurich, Bern, Geneva, and others. The Swiss Jura mountains have virtually no historical association with Early Modern Switzerland because they were territorially incorporated into the country quite late in the 19th century.

Rivers & Lakes

Lake Lucerne
Lake Lucerne

Switzerland has some 1,500 lakes and too many rivers to count. It’s estimated that there is a total of around 61,000 km of rivers in the country, and the major rivers in Switzerland are also some major European rivers – the Rhine, Aare, Rhone, and Reuss.

As for the lakes, it’s important to keep in mind that Switzerland shares many of its lakes with the neighboring countries. The largest lakes in Switzerland are Lake Geneva, Lake Constance, Lake Neuchatel, Lake Maggiore, and Lake Lucerne. Neuchatel Lake is the largest lake that is entirely Swiss. Lake Geneva is shared by Switzerland and France, and Lake Constance by Germany and Switzerland.

With so many different bodies of water, it’s not too surprising that Switzerland is known as the water tower of Europe. The country holds approximately 6% of all the freshwater reserves on the continent. More than 80% of drinking water provided to residents of Switzerland comes from the country’s springs and groundwater, and it’s estimated that about ⅓ of that water requires absolutely no treatment before it’s packaged and sold.

Climate

Lake Ritom in Winter

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Just like everything else in Switzerland, the climate is multifaceted and differs from one area to another. That’s because the relief of Switzerland is quite diverse, so naturally, the areas that are predominantly mountainous have a colder climate than those that are flat and on a lower elevation above sea level.

The overall climate in Switzerland is temperate, but the local climates in the regions throughout the country range from sub-Mediterannean in the south to almost glacial at the country’s tallest summits. Switzerland has everything from warm lakes with beaches in the south to glaciers and perpetually snow-capped peaks in the north, as well as many meadows, forests, and mild temperature regions in between.

Population

Switzerland has a population of approximately 8.700 million people. Approximately 85% of the population lives in urban centers, with Zurich being the largest city in terms of population. Geneva and Bern are the second and third largest cities in Switzerland by population.

The average population density in Switzerland is 215.2/km2. However, the regional population density varies quite a bit; Zurich has a population density of nearly 927/km2, while Graubuden, Switzerland’s largest canton by area size, has a population density of only 28/km2. That’s because Graubunden canton is largely in the Alps, and most of it is sparsely populated.

It’s important to note that the population of Switzerland is varied, with many people who speak multiple languages, have multiple cultural identities, and have moved from abroad. This is evident not just in the four national languages of Switzerland, but also in the cuisine, the presence of many different religious buildings in small areas, and in many other ways throughout the country.

Government

Bern Parliament
Bern Parliament

The government of Switzerland is quite complex and divided. The territory of the country is divided into 26 self-governing cantons, but there is a main government that operates on the federal level. Similarly to other countries, Switzerland also has three main branches of government that operate on a federal level: the bicameral parliament is the legislative branch, the Federal Council is the executive branch, and the Federal Court is the judicial branch.

The Swiss Parliament is bicameral because it is divided into two houses. There’s the Council of States, which has a total of 46 representatives chosen from the Swiss cantons. Each canton gets two representatives, and each half-canton gets one representative in the council.

The other house of the Swiss Parliament is the National Council, with a total of 200 members. The members are elected according to a PR electoral system, which is supposed to proportionally reflect the population of each of the cantons. A Federal Assembly is when both houses of the parliament join a session together.

Those are just the basics you need to know about the structure of the government in Switzerland. I could go on for days about all the little details and intricacies of the Swiss government system, but then I couldn’t tell you about all the other, much more interesting facts about this country!

Economics

Swiss Bank
Swiss Bank

Switzerland is one of the wealthiest and most expensive countries in the world, with a nominal GDP of $841.69 billion. It’s the 20th country in the world by nominal GDP, but it’s also the only country in the top 20 to have a population of (significantly) less than 10 million residents.

The country has a very prosperous and stable economy, and manufacturing is the country’s most important economic sector. The service sector, and the banking sector in particular, is the country’s second-largest industry.

The lax tax laws are one of the main reasons why the country attracts so many rich people. In fact, many pro athletes, especially in the world of motorsport, eventually move to Switzerland precisely because of the very low tax rates. The Federal income tax rate in Switzerland ranges from 1% to a maximum of 11.5%, and it is proportional to the earnings of the individual.

Language

language map of switzerland
Language map of Switzerland

Switzerland has four national languages: German, French, Italian, and Romansch. The four languages are official on the national level of the country and they all have the same official status, but it’s a bit different in practice.

Swiss-German is most widespread in Switzerland, with approximately 63% of the population speaking it as their first language. German is the most common language in central Switzerland, most importantly in the cantons of Zurich and Bern.

French is the second most common language in the country. It’s the first language of approximately 23% of Swiss residents, and it’s most dominant in Geneva and its surroundings close to the border with France.

Italian is the third most spoken language in Switzerland with approximately 8% native speakers. It’s most common in southern Switzerland, in the regions that border Italy.

Romansch is the least common language in Switzerland with only 0.5% native speakers. However, despite such a low percentage of native speakers, Romansh officially has equal status to the other three languages, and most government-issued documents are translated into Romansh as well.

Written by Ashley Faulkes
As a twenty-year resident of Switzerland, I am passionate about exploring every nook and cranny of this beautiful country, I spend my days deep in the great Swiss outdoors, and love to share these experiences and insights with fellow travel enthusiasts.

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