by Albert Rodriguez -
SGN A&E Writer
Within minutes of checking into my hotel in Zurich, I was eating a boxed lunch on a bench with the locals and soaking up the sun on a warm autumn day. It was peaceful and this all seemed familiar, even though it was my first visit to this small but mighty European country. Bordered by France, Germany, Austria, and Italy, your finger might slide over Switzerland on a map because of its miniscule size, yet it's one of the wealthiest nations on the planet and one of the most visually appealing. In an upcoming feature, I'll take you to a restaurant 3,100 feet above ground with unobstructed views of Matterhorn and on a nature hike that ascends to a mountain village surely cut and pasted from a postcard - look for the article in our March 4 travel issue. Visit www.myswitzerland.com or search 'Visit Gay Switzerland' on Facebook if interested in going anytime soon. Here are five tips in advance of your Swiss adventure.
1) Getting to Switzerland
Assuming your arrival city is Zurich and knowing Seattle has no non-stop flights to Switzerland, you'll need an international connection in Paris (Air France), Frankfurt (Lufhansa Airlines), London (British Airways, Delta Airlines), or Reykjavik (Iceland Air). Should you choose a domestic connection, New York-JFK (Delta, American Airlines), Atlanta (Delta), and Newark (United/Continental Airlines) provide the most popular routes to-from there. Swiss International, the nation's principal airline, flies out of San Francisco and Los Angeles on the West Coast.
2) Currency and language
Don't make the mistake of exchanging U.S. dollars for Euros, as you'll need Swiss Francs instead, and they trade about even to American money. Beware: it's pricey over there - I paid $4 for bottled water at a Starbucks and $8.60 for a cappuccino and blueberry muffin at a no-frills café. I suggest exchanging a minimal amount of cash at the airport before take-off, just to have on-hand, and then use credit cards or ATMs once you arrive. German is most commonly spoken throughout Switzerland with several dialects pertaining to different regions of the country, and if you happen to be visiting Lugano, be prepared to bust out some Italian. English is widely spoken, especially in the urban areas like Zurich, Lausanne, Basel, and Lucerne. Signage is a potential problem, as so much of it is written in German, though you shouldn't have too much of a hassle in the city sectors. If you need backup, invest in a German-English dictionary.
3) Domestic travel
Swiss Pass, provided by Rail Europe (www.raileurope.com), allows visitors to travel within Switzerland by train on a package plan - prices depend on dates of travel and cabin class. I traveled first-class and the compartments were clean as a whistle with seating for one or two, or lounge-style booths for groups. Attendants will come through with snacks and beverages, although these are not included with the ticket price. If the word 'flughafen' appears on a train, know that it's headed to the airport. Traveling by rail is the most convenient, inexpensive method of seeing as much of Switzerland on your trip. Swiss Pass also includes a museum pass that permits you into over 400 museums around the country at no additional cost, and it also covered my rail transfers between the airport and downtown Zurich. Switzerland has a terrific ferry system, too, so if you happen to be in Lucerne or Lausanne, definitely spend an afternoon visiting lakeside villages and boutique hotels along the water.
4) Gay culture and lifestyle
Feel very safe being who you are in Switzerland. The Gay lifestyle is widely accepted, and though the country has yet to legalize same-sex marriage, registered partnerships have been recognized for several years. Zurich has a vibrant Gay nightlife - I know this firsthand, as there was a raging dance club in the lobby of my hotel frequented by non-hetero men, not to mention the popular Cranberry Bar a few blocks away. Don't expect Gay districts or rows of bars to bounce in and out of - no Swiss city is large enough to boast an entire Gay-borhood - but your hotel concierge should be able to point out a few known Gay bars and/or bookstores in the vicinity, and I'll mention some of these in my upcoming travel piece on Switzerland. The Zurich Pride Festival is set for June 17-19, 2011, and is celebrated by all types. Switzerland is one of the safest countries I've traveled in, and not once during my eight-day trip did I encounter any form of disrespect or harassment.
Sushi was the first thing I ate when I arrived in Zurich, and later in my journey I dined at a restaurant offering fajitas and paella. Food choices in Switzerland are all over the place, though if desiring something unique to the country try roesti (grated potatoes, similar to hash browns and served usually with chicken and creamy gravy) or hornli (pasta with a minced meat or veal ragout, sometimes with apple compote). If you must have fondue, at least get a recommendation from a trustworthy local because restaurants often include it on their menus to attract tourists and offer a mediocre version of it. For breakfast, most hotels provide guests with muesli, a cross between oatmeal and granola that could include fresh fruit, cottage cheese, or whole nuts. Traditional Swiss food is heavy on meat, starch, dairy, and sweets - save room for irresistible pastries and chocolate - so those nature hikes will come in handy.
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