Swiss Architecture (History & Famous Buildings)

swiss architecture

When you think of Switzerland, what comes to mind? I’m guessing mountains, lakes, rivers, valleys, glaciers, skiing, chocolate, and cheese. But, what about architecture?

It is hard not to get caught up in the stunning scenery and landscapes Switzerland has to offer, it is why I go there every year. Eventually, though, you start noticing the hidden gems of Swiss architecture that lie all over the country.

Between the old religious buildings, medieval castles, amazingly well-preserved old towns such as Bern (which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site), and modern Swiss architecture, there is a lot to take in.

Join me as I run through a little bit of the history of Switzerland’s architecture and give you an insight into some of the most amazing architectural buildings Switzerland has to offer.

History

Silvaplana
Silvaplana

It goes without saying that Switzerland is a unique country and it is this uniqueness that has given rise to the different architectural design styles you can find in the country today.

Historically, Switzerland’s location meant that a lot of different cultures had to pass through it in order to trade. The trade routes date back to the Romans as well as the Germans, Italians, and French, a lot of whom still call Switzerland home today (not the Romans obviously).

Combine these architectural influences with 200 years of peace and you end up with an immaculately preserved collection of architectural wonders.

Switzerland is home to Romanesque, Renaissance, Baroque, and Gothic architecture as well as modern and post-modern Swiss architecture.

It is beautifully divided up too as the Italians influenced the south, the French the west, the Germans the north and east, and there are little slices of Roman architecture dotted all over the country too.

As you can see, Switzerland is about as architecturally diverse as a country could be, and here are the best buildings you should see when you visit.

Famous Swiss Architectural Buildings

Bâtiment des Forces Motrices – Geneva

Bâtiment des Forces Motrices
Bâtiment des Forces Motrices – Image courtesy of Wikimedia

The Bâtiment des Forces Motrices lies in the heart of Geneva where the River Rhone leaves Lac Leman. It is a stunning example of how industrial engineering crosses over with architectural style.

It was constructed in the late 1800s and was completed in 1892. The building is huge and was constructed as a hydropower plant which supplied all of Geneva with water and power. While being incredibly functional, the building is stunning.

Its presence on the Rhone can be felt from afar and the stunning neo-classical façade is incredibly eye-catching, as are the statues of Ceres, Mercury, and Neptune.

The Bâtiment des Forces Motrices ceased to produce power in 1963 and stopped providing the city with water in 1988. It was then made a historical monument and is today a Fine Arts Center.

Chillon Castle – Montreux

Chillon Castle Switzerland
Chillon Castle Switzerland

Chillon Castle is perhaps one of the most beautiful buildings in all of Switzerland. The castle dates back more than 1000 years and its location, perched on the edge of Lake Geneva with the alps in the background, could not be more delightful.

This medieval castle features towers, vaults, and halls, and was first used as a defensive castle, which was never ever captured in conflict. It was then used as a prison where they created cells by carving into the rocks.

Today, it hosts exhibitions and cultural events and is one of the most popular attractions in Switzerland with more than 330,000 foreign visitors every year.

A visit to this castle is a must, as between the location, architecture, and exhibitions, it is a cultural experience of note!

Santa Maria Degli Angeli Chapel – Rivera

Santa Maria Degli Angeli Chapel
Santa Maria Degli Angeli Chapel

The Santa Maria Degli Angeli Chapel is located on Monte Tamaro in southern Switzerland in the Italian-speaking Ticino region and is one of the best examples of modern architecture showcasing contemporary times.

Like many modern Swiss buildings, such as the thermal baths in Baden, this one is the creation of Mario Botta. Construction of the chapel took place between 1992 and 1996, making it a rather new building. Its location, in the middle of the mountains at 1500 meters above sea level, meant that the building materials used were the red/purple rocks of the mountains.

The building features a labyrinth style as its construction and design is all about reconnecting with nature. The space is designed to be meditative and the views are never ending in all directions across the mountain peaks and lakes of the region.

Kapellbrücke – Lucerne

chapel bridge
Chapel Bridge, Lucerne

Kapellbrücke, also known as the Chapel Bridge in English, connects one side of Lucerne to the other as it crosses the stunning Reuss River as it leaves Lake Lucerne.

The Chapel Bridge might just be the most famous architectural site in Switzerland, one of the most important historic covered bridges in Europe, and perhaps the world.

The Chapel Bridge was built way back in 1333 and is the oldest covered wooden bridge in Europe. The bridge roof was then decorated with stunning paintings in the 17th century by Swiss artist Renward Cysat that describe the history of Lucerne.

Paintings inside the Chapel Bridge, Lucerne
Paintings inside the Chapel Bridge, Lucerne

There were 158 paintings, but in a fire in 1993, 110 were burned along with a part of the bridge. But, it was excellently restored by Swiss architects and artists within 6 months.

A stroll across this bridge is not to be missed, and if you stay in Lucerne, you will probably cross it more than twice a day while exploring the city.

Grossmünster – Zurich

Grossmunster in Zurich
Grossmunster in Zurich

Grossmünster, sitting prominently on the banks of the Limmat River in Zurich, is one of the city’s most famous landmarks.

The Grossmünster is a Romanesque cathedral that dates back to the 12th century. Construction of the building began in 1100 but wasn’t completed until 1220, taking more than 100 years to build.

This cathedral started out as a catholic place of worship with a lavish interior which was then removed during the Protestant Reformation and it became where the famous reformer Huldrych Zwingli preached.

A stained glass window in Grossmunster

The Grossmünster has been restored many times over the centuries. Be sure to take in the neo-Gothic towers, the stained glass windows, and the bronze doors.

You should also climb the 187 steps of one of the towers to see incredible views across the city and the surrounding landscape.

Lausanne Cathedral – Lausanne

Lausanne Cathedral
Lausanne Cathedral

Lausanne Cathedral, also known as the Cathedral of Notre Dame of Lausanne, is one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture in Switzerland.

Dating back to the 13th century, it took more than 50 years to build and was based on the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.

This is not an architectural site you can miss if you are in the Lake Geneva area. The stunning Gothic towers, decorated facades, and magical interior are mind-blowing. Some of its best features include the huge Rose window and the painted portals.

It is no wonder that this is one of the most visited Swiss Heritage Sites in Lausanne. It has been under restoration since the 19th century, and the restorations are still going, which says something about this masterpiece.

St. Pierre Cathedral – Geneva

St. Pierre Cathedral - Geneva
St. Pierre Cathedral – Geneva

The St. Pierre Cathedral is one of the most iconic landmarks in the city of Geneva and one of the most important historical churches in Switzerland.

It was built in the 12th century on a hill in the center of Geneva and features a stunning Gothic style. The news from this church is magnificent as they stretch across the city, the lake, and into the alps.

The building started out as a Catholic church but became protestant in the reformation. Inside you will find the old wooden church of John Calvin, one of the reformation’s leaders.

When visiting, be sure to see the amazing stained glass windows, the wooden church, and the magical views.

The Monte Rosa Hut

The Monte Rosa Hut
The Monte Rosa Hut – image via Wikimedia

The Monte Rosa Hut is a stunning example of modern architecture in Switzerland. It is an astounding building sitting at the base of Monte Rosa some 2500 meters above sea level. It is close to Zermatt and can be hiked to for a great overnight adventure from nearby Zermatt.

This unique mountain hut features a full aluminum facade which is designed to reflect both the landscape and its stunning surroundings. It has views of some of the most iconic peaks in the alps, including the Matterhorn and some glaciers too, which are reflected on its exterior.

Constructing this modern masterpiece was a challenge of note, and you might be surprised to hear that the building creates its own electricity and recycles its own water, so it’s made for off-the-grid living.

The Prime Tower

Prime Tower and Hard bücke from the Freitag store
Prime Tower and Hardbücke from the Freitag store

The Prime Tower in the industrial area o Zurich West is perhaps the most modern of all the famous Swiss buildings on this list. Towering a mammoth 126 meters over the smaller surrounding area, the Prime Tower was designed by Gigon/Guyer. It has since been surpassed as Switzerland’s tallest building by the Roche tower in Basel, which is over 50 meters higher.

Along with its two companion buildings, Cubus and Diagonal, the Prime Tower is mostly home to high-paying corporate customers. However, at the top is both a bar and restaurant offering breathtaking views over Zurich.

Swiss Architecture – FAQ

What is Swiss Chalet Architecture?

Swiss Chalet
Swiss Chalet

If you have seen a Swiss chalet, then you will have an idea of Swiss Chalet Architecture. It is, in essence, all about the use of wood to create a connection between the buildings and the surrounding nature.

But, there are some original design features that are Swiss Chalet. This includes wide and large roofs that project outward, wooden facades covered in decorations, as well as wooden balconies and carved ornaments.

It is an incredibly popular architectural style that has spread all across Europe, North America, and the world!

What are houses in Switzerland made of?

Historically, houses in Switzerland were made with materials that were plentiful in the region. For example, houses in the Jura mountains were built from stones from the mountains. But, areas with forests, such as northern Switzerland, used wood as it was easily accessible.

Modern buildings today combine poured concrete with serious insulation to ensure the houses last and stay warm through the winter.


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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