Zurich is one of the top destinations for tourists headed to Switzerland, and as we pointed out, a lot of that has to do with what a great home base it is for exploring the Swiss countryside. This week, we’ll take you on a ride out of town for a few easy day trips, starting with St. Gallen near the borders of Germany and Austria.
Trip 1: Hiking to an Afternoon Swim in St. Gallen
St. Gallen is 50 miles from Zurich, accessible by a train ride of just over an hour from the airport or main train station. The fare is approximately $40 one-way and trains run consistently throughout the day. You can purchase tickets at the station or in advance online.
Go to the Library (Seriously)
If you would have bet this writer two years ago that I’d ever write about a library, you could have won quite a bit of money. Popping into the Cathedral Abbey of Saint Gall is an absolute must when visiting St. Gallen.
Hike Up the Hill and Take a Dip
Because St. Gallen sits in a small valley, it doesn’t take much effort to get a bird’s eye view. The southern side of the valley has several staircases and walkways that lead to its summit, and you should definitely set out for a stroll and wander the rural hillsides. Just over the southern crest of the valley is a group of local watering holes/bath houses called “Drei Weieren,” or “three ponds,” a popular place for a swim or an afternoon in the sun (or ice skating during the winter). It is free to enjoy and totally a local hangout, so be sure to schedule some time to take it in during your visit.
Bratwursts are one of the traditional foods to eat in Switzerland, and St. Gallen has it’s own special type, the Olma Bratwurst. A mixture of pork and veal, it is a white wurst that is grilled to have a crispy brown crust (as compared to other white wursts that are boiled). Look for it at various stands in and around the old town of St. Gallen for 6.50 CHF, or $7.25.
Breathe in the Fairy Tale
Winters are long in Switzerland, but the summer months bring beautiful blue skies and temperatures in the 70s. The scenery you will see is nothing short of what you would expect from a fairy tale: Rolling hills, green pastures, a couple cows, a village tucked into a valley. Old Town St. Gallen also offers that story book feel, with large squares, pastel colors, and symmetric architecture.
Trip 2: The Majestic PreAlps Await in Appenzell
Appenzell can be reached in just under two hours by train from Zurich, usually with one train change required. Tickets are about $40 one way and can be purchased at the station or online.
Despite being only 11 miles south of St. Gallen, you will notice a stark change in the landscape as you enter the Appenzell area and emerge from the valley into the front range, or the PreAlps. If you look off in the distance from the center of town, the view will be of rolling hills and endless dairy farms producing milk and Swiss cheese. Enjoy as you walk through town and take in the Swiss mountain architecture. It’s very pleasant from a distance as you pop in and out of shops, but as you’ll learn, people mostly come to Appenzell to experience the outdoors, so be sure to bring your walking shoes.
Hike and Have Lunch in the Prealps
While the rural feel and rolling hills dominate most of the scenery in town, Appenzell rests at the base of the Prealps, meaning that larger, rocky peaks are also present on the outskirts to the south. Just outside of Appenzell is a small summit village called Ebenalp (about a ten minute train ride, runs constantly). When you arrive at the the Wasserauen train station, you can either begin a hike at one of the trails or take a cable car to the summit. Here, you’ll find a great spot to catch an incredibly scenic lunch and a launching point for a bunch of short walks and scenic views.
Indulge in Some Swiss Cheesecake
When in town, you’ll find Appenzell is filled with many local specialties. Given all the dairy farms, cheese is obviously a big deal. Definitely visit the cheese shop for a tasting, but be sure to also try the local specialty, Appenzeller Cheesecake. Don’t think dessert – think a cross between pizza and Focaccia bread with a “hard-cheese” flavor. You can find it at bakeries and restaurants in town, and its salty nature goes well with a glass of white wine or beer.
Speaking of beer, pop into the Appenzell Brewery to sample its Vollmond Bier, which is brewed along with the appearance of the full moon – a token of the town’s old-school appreciation of the moon’s relationship to farming cycles. Keep your eye on the labels as you drink, as they are all drawn by a local artist and great pieces of art in themselves.
The last thing you need to try is the local biber. It’s essentially a gingerbread cookie, made it different shapes and styles by the town’s bakeries. Grab a few to enjoy on your train ride back to Zurich.
Trip 3: A Touch of Upstate New York in Rapperswil
Rapperswil can be reached in 40 minutes by train from Zurich. Tickets are about $18 one way and can be purchased at the station or online.
Lake Zurich is the central figure in Rapperswil, delightfully surrounded by mountain peaks and hillsides of rural farms and vineyards. One of the best ways to take in the scenery is to get out on the water. Jump on the ferry that runs every hour out to the islands in the lake, and step off on Ufenau Island for lunch in a casual beer-garden setting and views of the hillsides. On the return ferry ride, stand near the front for a sweeping view of Old Town Rapperswil (shown in the last photo of this post).
When the weather is nice during the summer, a big part of the local culture is not just about getting out on the lake, but about getting in it. On the north side of Old Town is a swim center called See-Badanstalt, free to enter and a great way to spend an afternoon. Lounge on the top deck, swim out to a floating dock, or do your best belly flop off one of the diving boards.
Rapperswil is an extremely romantic town given the scenery, which, to us, is reminiscent of Upstate New York. You’ll want to spend some time strolling around to see if you agree. Enjoy the slow place of the early morning with a walk on the boardwalk that crosses the lake, and poke around the public parks near the waterfront and the ferry station. Climb up the stairs into Old Town, past the old houses and small gardens to the top of the hill, where you’ll get the best views of the lake and the hillsides. Called the “Town of Roses,” keep your eye out for bushes and gardens all over town, especially near the Capuchin Monastery, and put your nose in one when you can.
Swiss food is present in town, but the dominate culinary scene in Rapperswil is Italian Mediterranean. Along the waterfront near the ferry stop, you’ll find a row of restaurants with plenty of outdoor and elevated seating, such as San Marco, great for an afternoon drink overlooking the lake or a full dinner during the sunset. Ask for wines produced locally in the area to accompany your meal.