Switzerland Travel Glossary

Below are some of the most common terms you will encounter while traveling in Switzerland. The goal is to help you avoid any confusion and have a clearer understanding of Switzerland and all the travel related jargon.

Accommodation Terms

Alpenhütte (Alpine Hut): These basic, often remote mountain huts found in the Swiss Alps provide basic accommodation for hikers and climbers. They range from simple shelters to staffed huts with food and beds.

Bauernhof (Farm Stay): Rural accommodation on a working farm. Guests can often participate in farm activities and enjoy fresh, local produce. It’s a popular way to experience the Swiss countryside.

Bed and Breakfast (B&B): Small, family-run establishments offering overnight accommodation and breakfast. Swiss B&Bs are known for their personalized service and homely atmosphere.

Chalet: Originally referring to a type of wooden house with a sloping roof and overhanging eaves, typical in the Alpine region. In tourism, people often rent chalets for a more private, cozy stay or if you have a larger group.

Ferienwohnung (Holiday Apartment): Self-catering apartments available for rent, ideal for families or groups who prefer a more independent and flexible accommodation option.

Gasthaus (Guesthouse): Similar to inns, small, often family-run establishments provide lodging and meals. They are typically more affordable and offer a cozy, local experience.

Hostel: Budget-friendly accommodations offering dormitory-style rooms with shared facilities. They are popular among younger travelers and backpackers.

Jugendherberge (Youth Hostel): Part of the international youth hostel network, these offer affordable, basic accommodation primarily aimed at younger travelers.

Kurhaus (Spa Hotel): Hotels specifically focused on wellness and spa treatments, often located in scenic areas known for their therapeutic properties.

Landgasthof (Country Inn): Typically located in rural areas, offering comfortable lodging with a charming, rustic atmosphere, often combined with a restaurant serving local cuisine.

Motel: Designed for motorists, motels in Switzerland offer convenient roadside accommodation, usually with parking spaces directly outside the rooms.

Pension (Boarding House): A type of guesthouse offering lodging and breakfast, and sometimes other meals. Pensions are generally smaller and less expensive than hotels.

Resort: Large facilities that offer extensive amenities, including dining, entertainment, and recreational activities, often located in scenic areas like the Swiss Alps.

Schlaf im Stroh (Sleep in Straw): A unique Swiss accommodation experience where guests sleep in barns on beds of straw, a fun and rustic option for experiencing rural Switzerland.

Wellness Hotel: Hotels focusing on health and relaxation, offering spas, saunas, and fitness centers, often in scenic locations conducive to relaxation and rejuvenation.

Transport Terms

Autobahn: The high-speed freeway system in Switzerland, similar to motorways or interstates in other countries. They connect major cities and regions and require a vignette (a highway sticker).

Bähnli: A colloquial term in Swiss German for a small train or tram, often referring to the numerous narrow-gauge railways that traverse the scenic landscapes of Switzerland.

Bernina Express: A famous train route from Chur to Tirano, Italy, passing through the scenic Engadin Alps and the Bernina Pass. It’s renowned for its panoramic cars and breathtaking views.

Cable Car (Seilbahn): A common mode of transport in the mountainous regions of Switzerland, providing access to ski resorts, hiking trails, and scenic viewpoints. Swiss cable cars range from large, modern gondolas to smaller, traditional cabins.

Centovalli Railway: Running between Locarno (Switzerland) and Domodossola (Italy), this train journey is known for its “hundred valleys,” with vistas of vineyards, forests, and Italian-style villages.

Cogwheel Railway: A cogwheel railway, also known as a rack railway, is a type of railway that is specially designed to operate on steep gradients. The key feature of a cogwheel railway is its system of one or more toothed rails, or racks, laid between the regular rails. This design allows the trains to ascend and descend steep slopes that would be impossible for conventional rail vehicles to navigate safely. Examples include: Mount Rigi from Vitznau, Mount Pilatus from Alpnachstad, and the Gornergrat Railway in Zermatt.

Dampfschiff: Refers to the traditional steamboats that operate on Swiss lakes, such as Lake Lucerne, Lake Thun, Lake Brienz and Lake Geneva. These boats offer leisurely and scenic ways to explore the beautiful lakeside towns and landscapes.

E-Bike: Electric bikes have become increasingly popular in Switzerland for both locals and tourists. They offer an environmentally friendly and less strenuous way to navigate the hilly terrain and are available for rent in many places.

Fahrplan: The German word for a timetable or schedule, particularly important for navigating Switzerland’s highly efficient public transport system, including trains, buses, and trams.

Glacier Express: A famous scenic train route that travels between Zermatt and St. Moritz or Davos. The Glacier Express is known for its panoramic windows and slow speed, allowing passengers to savor the stunning Alpine landscapes.

Gondola (Seilbahn or Gondelbahn in Swiss German): In the context of Swiss transportation, a gondola refers to a type of cable car that is commonly used to transport people in mountainous areas of Switzerland.

Haltestelle: The German term for a bus or tram stop in Switzerland. These are key points for navigating the public transportation system in Swiss cities and towns.

Funicular (Standseilbahn): A type of cable railway used for steep slopes, common in Switzerland’s mountainous regions. Examples include the Fribourg funicular and the Gelmerbahn.

GoldenPass Line: A scenic train route that offers spectacular views of the Swiss Alps, connecting Montreux, Gstaad, and Lucerne through a series of panoramic trains.

Gotthard Panorama Express: Combining a train and boat journey, this route travels from Lucerne to Flüelen by boat and then by train through the historic Gotthard tunnel to Ticino, showcasing diverse Swiss landscapes.

InterCity: A category of express train services in Switzerland that connects major cities like Zurich, Geneva, Basel, and Bern. They are known for their speed and comfort.

Jungfraubahn: A renowned cogwheel railway that leads to Jungfraujoch, the “Top of Europe.” It’s one of the most popular tourist attractions in Switzerland, offering breathtaking views of the Aletsch Glacier and the Bernese Alps.

Kabelseilbahn: Another term for a cable car or aerial tramway, particularly smaller ones used for specific point-to-point transportation in mountainous areas.

Luzern-Interlaken Express: Part of the GoldenPass Line, this train connects Lucerne and Interlaken, passing through the Brunig Pass and offering views of crystal-clear lakes and mountain landscapes.

Mont Blanc Express: Travelling between Martigny (Switzerland) and Chamonix (France), this train offers stunning views of the Mont Blanc massif and the Trient Valley.

Mountain Railways: Switzerland boasts several mountain railways, like the Gornergrat Bahn and the Pilatus Railway, which provide access to some of the country’s most stunning mountainous areas.

Navigazione: In the Italian-speaking regions of Switzerland, this term refers to boat or ferry services, particularly on lakes like Lake Lugano and Lake Maggiore.

ÖV (öffentlicher Verkehr): Stands for ‘public transport’ in German. In Switzerland, the ÖV is known for its punctuality, efficiency, and extensive network, including trains, buses, and boats.

PostAuto: The Swiss postal bus service, recognizable by its yellow buses. It serves areas not accessible by train and is known for connecting remote villages and regions.

Rhaetian Railway (Rhätische Bahn): A network of railways in the canton of Graubünden, known for serving picturesque mountainous areas and UNESCO World Heritage sites.

RegioExpress: Regional train services that connect smaller towns and cities in Switzerland. They are slower than InterCity trains but stop at more stations.

S-Bahn: A network of suburban train services in and around Swiss cities like Zurich, Geneva, and Basel. These trains are essential for daily commuting and urban travel.

TGV Lyria: High-speed train service connecting major Swiss cities with Paris, France, offering fast and comfortable cross-border travel.

Trolleybus: Electric buses that operate in several Swiss cities, including Lucerne and Geneva. They are a quiet and environmentally friendly mode of urban transportation.

U-Bahn: Although not prevalent in Switzerland, the term refers to underground metro systems. The closest equivalent in Switzerland would be the underground sections of the Zurich S-Bahn.

Velo: The Swiss term for bicycle. Biking is a popular means of transport in cities and for leisurely exploring the countryside, with extensive cycling routes available.

Voralpen Express: A scenic train route connecting central and eastern Switzerland, passing through the picturesque regions of Toggenburg and Appenzellerland.

Wanderweg: Signifying hiking trails, these are well-marked paths found throughout Switzerland, offering a vast network for exploring the country’s natural beauty on foot.

Xtrafahrten: Special or extra journeys, often referring to additional train or bus services provided during peak travel times or for special events.

Zug: The German word for train. Trains are the backbone of Swiss transportation and are known for their punctuality, frequency, and extensive network covering the entire country.

ZVV (Zürcher Verkehrsverbund): The public transport network in the canton of Zurich, encompassing trams, buses, trains, and boats, providing comprehensive and coordinated travel options in the Zurich area.

Culinary Terms

Älplermagronen: A gratin-style dish featuring potatoes, macaroni, cheese, cream, and onions, traditionally served with stewed apple on the side.

Appenzeller Cheese: A hard cheese produced in the Appenzell region, known for its nutty and spicy flavor, made from cow’s milk and aged for different durations to achieve varying degrees of sharpness.

Basler Leckerli: A traditional Swiss sweet treat originating from Basel. Basler Leckerli are small, spiced biscotti or gingerbread cookies made with honey, almonds, candied peel, and Kirsch.

Biberli: A traditional Swiss confection, Biberli is a small, gingerbread-like pastry made from honey dough filled with a layer of marzipan or almond paste. It’s characterized by its soft, slightly chewy texture and rich, spiced flavor, often featuring notes of cinnamon and cloves.

Birchermüesli: A traditional Swiss breakfast dish originally developed by Dr. Maximilian Bircher-Brenner. It’s a mix of oats, lemon juice, condensed milk, grated apples, and nuts, often served with additional fruits.

Bratwurst (St Galler Bratwurst or OLMA Bratwurst): Comes from St. Gallen and gets its name from the Swiss Agricultural and Food Fair St. Gall called OLMA. It is considered the nation’s favourite sausage for barbecuing or frying. True connoisseurs know that this sausage is best eaten without mustard because this allows the full aroma of the meat to unfold.  Although honestly, you will almost always be served it with mustard outside of St Gallen.

Bündnerfleisch: A specialty air-dried beef from canton Graubünden. It is made by curing beef with a mixture of herbs and spices and then letting it air-dry for several months in the alpine air. If you like dried meat, it is a must try while in Switzerland.

Capuns: A traditional dish from the canton of Graubünden that consist of spätzle-like dough or pieces of dried bread, mixed with pieces of cured meat (such as bacon or ham), and rolled inside chard or sometimes lettuce leaves. The rolls are then simmered in a savory broth or sauce, often flavored with herbs and sometimes with cheese.

Cervelat: Often referred to as the national sausage of Switzerland, this smoked sausage is made from a mix of beef, bacon, and pork rind and is commonly grilled or served in salads.

Dinkelbrot (Spelt Bread): A popular type of bread in Switzerland, made from spelt flour. It is known for its nutty flavor and is considered a healthier alternative to traditional wheat bread.

Emmental Cheese: A medium-hard Swiss cheese with characteristic large holes. It’s known for its creamy, slightly nutty taste and is often used in dishes like Fondue and Raclette.

Fondue: Perhaps the most famous Swiss dish, fondue consists of melted cheese served in a communal pot (caquelon), into which diners dip bread using long-stemmed forks. It’s typically made with cheeses like Gruyère and Emmental.

Gipfeli (Croissant): The Swiss version of the croissant, typically less buttery than its French counterpart, and often enjoyed for breakfast or as a snack, sometimes filled with chocolate or nuts.

Hobelkäse: A type of hard Swiss cheese, usually aged for several years, and served in thin slices. It’s often enjoyed with a glass of wine or used in salads and appetizers.

Igel (Hedgehog Bread): A unique Swiss bread resembling a hedgehog, made by cutting the dough in a way that creates ‘spikes’ when baked. It’s often served as part of a traditional Swiss breakfast.

Johannisberg: A white wine from the Valais region, made from the Sylvaner grape. It’s known for its crisp and fruity flavor, making it a popular choice for pairing with Swiss cuisine.

Käseschnitte: A traditional Swiss dish, similar to the French Croque Monsieur. It consists of a slice of bread topped with ham, cheese, and a creamy sauce, then grilled until bubbly and golden.

Läckerli: A hard, spiced biscuit from Basel, made with honey, almonds, candied peel, and Kirsch. These biscuits are particularly popular during Christmas time.

Marroni: Sweet chestnuts that are a popular treat in the autumn and winter months. Marroni can be found roasted and sold as street food, offering a warm, nutritious snack on cold days. Look for stands with “Heisse Marroni”.

Bircher Müesli: A Swiss-origin breakfast dish based on raw rolled oats and other ingredients like fruits, nuts, and milk or yogurt. It’s a healthy and popular breakfast choice worldwide.

Nusstorte (Nut Cake): A traditional Swiss cake, particularly popular in the Engadin Valley, made with a shortcrust pastry filled with a caramelized nut filling, usually walnuts.

Öpfelchüechli (Apple Fritters): A traditional Swiss dessert, these are apple slices dipped in batter, deep-fried, and often served with powdered sugar or applesauce.

Papet Vaudois: A traditional dish from the canton of Vaud, made with leeks and potatoes, usually served with saucisson, a type of Swiss sausage.

Quark: A fresh dairy product similar to cottage cheese or fromage frais. It’s used in various sweet and savory Swiss dishes, like cheesecakes and dips.

Rösti: A Swiss potato dish, similar to hash browns, made by frying or baking grated potatoes until crisp and golden. It’s a common accompaniment to various dishes, particularly in the German-speaking part of Switzerland.

Sbrinz: A hard, aged Swiss cheese similar to Parmesan, known for its rich flavor and granular texture. It’s often used grated over dishes or eaten in small pieces.

Urner Zigerbrötli: A traditional dish from the canton of Uri, consisting of bread rolls filled with a mixture of Ziger cheese, butter, and herbs.

Vacherin Mont-d’Or: A seasonal soft cheese typically produced in the Jura region between September and April. It’s known for its creamy texture and rich flavor, often baked and served as a fondue.

Wurstsalat: A Swiss salad made from sliced cervelat sausage, cheese, pickles, onions, and dressed with a vinaigrette. It’s a popular summer dish, often served with bread.

Zuger Kirschtorte: This is a renowned Swiss dessert originating in Zug. The Zuger Kirschtorte is a layered cake, known for its delicate blend of nut-meringue, sponge cake, and a rich buttercream filling, all infused with Kirschwasser (a clear cherry brandy).

Zürcher Geschnetzeltes: A traditional dish from Zurich consisting of sliced veal in a creamy mushroom sauce, typically served with Rösti. It’s a staple of Zurich’s culinary scene.

Cultural Terms

Älplerchilbi: A traditional Alpine festival celebrating the descent of cattle from the mountains in autumn. It includes folk music, dancing, and showcasing of local traditions.

Alphorn: A traditional Swiss musical instrument resembling a long wooden horn used in the Alpine regions. It symbolizes Swiss culture and is often played at cultural events and festivals. You can often see them at the top of the Schynige Platte in the Jungfrau Region in summer.

Basel Carnival (Fasnacht): A unique cultural event in Basel, known as the largest carnival in Switzerland. It features elaborate costumes, parades, and music, starting on the Monday after Ash Wednesday and lasting for three days.

Eidgenossenschaft: Refers to the Swiss Confederation, highlighting Switzerland’s historical development as a confederacy of states. This term is deeply rooted in Swiss historical and cultural identity.

Folklore: Swiss folklore encompasses a rich tapestry of traditions, legends, and myths, especially related to the Alpine regions. It includes tales of mythical creatures like dwarfs and spirits, and legendary heroes like William Tell.

Heidi: A fictional character from the 1880 novel by Johanna Spyri, representing an idealized view of Swiss rural life and nature. Heidi has become a cultural icon in Switzerland and globally.

Kuhreihen: A traditional Swiss melody played by herdsmen on the Alphorn. It is often associated with the pastoral and Alpine aspects of Swiss culture.

Ländler: A traditional style of Swiss music and dance. It’s a folk dance in 3/4 time, and it is thought to be one of the precursors to the waltz.

Swiss National Day (Nationale Feiertag): Celebrated on August 1st, this day commemorates the founding of the Swiss Confederacy in 1291. It is marked by fireworks, parades, and public speeches across Switzerland.

Ostern (Easter): A significant holiday in Switzerland, celebrated with various traditions, including egg decorating, Easter markets, and traditional foods like the Easter Cuchaule, a saffron bread.

Rütli Oath: A legendary oath taken by the founding fathers of Switzerland in 1291 at the Rütli Meadow. This oath is a key element in Swiss historical narratives.

Schwingen: A traditional Swiss form of wrestling, considered the national sport. It’s especially popular in rural areas and is a highlight of many folk festivals.

Tellspiele: Plays about William Tell, the legendary Swiss hero who symbolized the struggle for independence and freedom. These plays are a staple of Swiss cultural events, particularly in the town of Altdorf.

Urnäscher Bloch: A unique tradition from the Appenzell region involving a decorated tree trunk, paraded through the village of Urnäsch. It’s part of the New Year’s celebrations and symbolizes renewal.

Volksmusik (Folk Music): Swiss folk music reflects various regional influences and is characterized by instruments like the Alphorn, accordion, and zither. It’s an integral part of Swiss cultural heritage.

Weihnachten (Christmas): Celebrated with distinct Swiss traditions, such as advent calendars, Christmas markets, and specific regional customs like the Klausjagen festival in Küssnacht, where St. Nicholas is accompanied by a procession with large, illuminated bishop’s hats.

Yodeling (Jodeln): A form of singing that involves rapid alternation between the chest register and the head register. It is a traditional form of music in the Swiss Alps and has been a part of Swiss culture for centuries.

Zibelemärit (Onion Market): A traditional folk festival held in Bern on the fourth Monday of November. It features onion-themed products, crafts, and food, attracting thousands of visitors.

Geographical Terms

Aletsch Glacier: The largest glacier in the Alps, located in the Bernese Alps of Switzerland, stretching over 23 km and part of the Jungfrau-Aletsch UNESCO World Heritage site. This glacier offers stunning views and is a significant indicator of climate change impacts.

Appenzell: A northeastern Swiss region is known for its rural landscapes, traditional culture, and Appenzeller cheese. It is famous for its picturesque villages, rolling hills, and hiking trails, offering a glimpse into traditional Swiss life. It is also the location of one of Eastern Swizterland’s most iconic mountains – Säntis.

Bernese Oberland: A region in the canton of Bern, famous for its breathtaking Alpine landscapes. It includes destinations like Interlaken, Grindelwald, and the Lauterbrunnen Valley, each with unique attractions such as the Eiger Trail and Trümmelbach Falls.

Chur: Recognized as the oldest city in Switzerland, Chur is known for its well-preserved old town with buildings dating back to the Middle Ages. It’s also a gateway to the Swiss Alps, making it a starting point for many Alpine adventures.

Davos: This high-altitude town is known for hosting the World Economic Forum and its expansive ski resorts and stunning Lake Davos, offering year-round activities.

Engadin Valley: A high Alpine valley in eastern Switzerland, notable for its beautiful lakes, the upscale resort village of St. Moritz, and is a top destination for skiing, hiking, and luxury tourism.

Fribourg: A medieval city that uniquely blends French and German influences, Fribourg is celebrated for its cultural heritage, ancient architecture, and being home to one of Switzerland’s oldest universities.

Geneva: Situated at the southern tip of Lake Geneva, this global city is a hub for diplomacy and hosts numerous international organizations, including the United Nations. Geneva is also renowned for its Red Cross Museum and the Jet d’Eau, one of the city’s most famous landmarks.

Interlaken: Nestled between Lake Thun and Lake Brienz, Interlaken is famed for its adventure sports offerings, such as paragliding, skydiving, and a base for exploring the Jungfrau region.

Jungfrau Region: Centered around the peaks of Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau, this region is a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts, offering skiing, hiking, and scenic train journeys like the Jungfrau Railway to Jungfraujoch.

Kandersteg: Known for its traditional Swiss atmosphere, Kandersteg is a gateway to the pristine Oeschinen Lake and offers numerous hiking and cross-country skiing opportunities.

Lake Geneva: Shared between Switzerland and France, this large lake is bordered by cities like Geneva, Lausanne, and Montreux, each offering unique cultural and scenic experiences.

Lake Lucerne: This central Swiss lake is surrounded by mountains and picturesque towns such as Lucerne, Weggis, and Vitznau. The lake is a hub for boat tours near landmarks like the Chapel Bridge and the Lion Monument in Lucerne.

Lauterbrunnen Valley: Famous for its 72 waterfalls, cliffs, and the natural beauty of the Swiss Alps, Lauterbrunnen is a haven for nature lovers and hikers in the heart of the Jungfrau Region.

Matterhorn: One of the most iconic and recognizable mountains in the world, the Matterhorn on the Swiss-Italian border is a mecca for mountaineers and offers stunning views from Zermatt.

Pilatus: Overlooking the city of Lucerne, Mount Pilatus offers panoramic views of the Swiss Alps and is accessible by the world’s steepest cogwheel railway, making it a popular tourist attraction.

Rhine Falls: Located near Schaffhausen, these are Europe’s largest waterfalls. They provide a breathtaking spectacle of nature and are a popular destination for boat trips and viewing platforms.

St. Moritz: A luxury alpine resort town in the Engadin Valley, St. Moritz is famous for its winter sports facilities, hosting two Winter Olympics, and its glamorous social scene.

Thun: A historic city near Bern, Thun is known for its imposing castle with a museum showcasing regional history, and its scenic location by Lake Thun, making it a picturesque destination.

Verbier: A village in the Swiss Alps renowned for its ski resort and lively après-ski scene, Verbier attracts skiing enthusiasts from around the world with its extensive slopes and vibrant nightlife.

Wengen: A charming car-free village in the Bernese Oberland, Wengen is popular for skiing and hosts the annual Lauberhorn ski race, one of the longest downhill races in the world.