The European Free Trade Association: Bon voyage!

Saturday, 9 March 2019 - 11:00 am (CET/MEZ) Berlin | Author/Destination:
Category/Kategorie: Editorial, European Union, General, UNESCO World Heritage

© efta.int

© efta.int

The European Free Trade Association (EFTA) is a regional trade organization and free trade area consisting of four European states: Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Switzerland. The organization operates in parallel with the European Union (EU), and all four member states participate in the European Single Market and are part of the Schengen Area. They are not, however, party to the European Union Customs Union. EFTA was historically one of the two dominant western European trade blocks, but is now much smaller and closely associated with its historical competitor, the European Union. It was established on 3 May 1960 to serve as an alternative trade bloc for those European states that were unable or unwilling to join the then European Economic Community (EEC), which subsequently became the European Union. The Stockholm Convention, to establish the EFTA, was signed on 4 January 1960 in the Swedish capital by seven countries (known as the “outer seven“). Whilst the EFTA is not a customs union and member states have full rights to enter into bilateral third-country trade arrangements, it does have a coordinated trade policy. As a result, its member states have jointly concluded free trade agreements with the EU and a number of other countries. To participate in the EU’s single market, Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway are parties to the Agreement on a European Economic Area (EEA), with compliances regulated by the EFTA Surveillance Authority and the EFTA Court. Switzerland has a set of bilateral agreements with the EU instead.

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Reykjavik © flickr.com - Bjørn Giesenbauer/cc-by-sa-2.0

Reykjavik © flickr.com – Bjørn Giesenbauer/cc-by-sa-2.0

Iceland
Iceland is a Nordic island country in the North Atlantic, with a population of 348,580 and an area of 103,000 km² (40,000 sq mi), making it the most sparsely populated country in Europe. The capital and largest city is Reykjavík. Reykjavík and the surrounding areas in the southwest of the country are home to over two-thirds of the population. Iceland is volcanically and geologically active. The interior consists of a plateau characterised by sand and lava fields, mountains, and glaciers, and many glacial rivers flow to the sea through the lowlands. Iceland is warmed by the Gulf Stream and has a temperate climate, despite a high latitude just outside the Arctic Circle. Its high latitude and marine influence keep summers chilly, with most of the archipelago having a tundra climate.

Icelandic culture is founded upon the nation’s Scandinavian heritage. Most Icelanders are descendants of Norse and Gaelic settlers. Icelandic, a North Germanic language, is descended from Old West Norse and is closely related to Faroese and West Norwegian dialects. The country’s cultural heritage includes traditional Icelandic cuisine, Icelandic literature, and medieval sagas. The country hosts 2 World Heritage sites.

Tourism in Iceland has grown considerably in economic significance in the past 15 years. As of 2016, the tourism industry is estimated to contribute about 10 percent to the Icelandic GDP; the number of foreign visitors exceeded 2,000,000 for the first time in 2017; tourism is responsible for a share of nearly 30 percent of the country’s export revenue. Iceland is well known for its untouched nature, unique atmosphere and as the Land of Fire and Ice. Iceland receives the highest number of tourists during summer (June–August). In 2014, around 42% of visitors arrived in Iceland during its summer months, proportionally a slight decrease compared to the previous two years, the percentage of winter visitors having increased by over 4% in the same period. As of year 2014, Iceland’s largest tourism markets comprises tourists from Central/South Europe, followed by those from other regions: North America, the UK, then the Nordic countries. In terms of visitors from individual countries, the top five for 2014 were the UK, USA, Germany, France and Norway. Canada had the largest percentage increase in visitor numbers in the 2013-2014 period, with an increase of over 60% year on year. The country is organized in the following regions:

  • Southwest Iceland: Home of the capital, Reykjavík and the majority of the island’s population
  • West Fjords: Sparsely populated, rugged geography with dozens of fjords surrounded by steep hills
  • West Iceland: Snæfellsjökull glacier, the islands of Breiðafjörður and more
  • North Iceland: Dramatic lava fields, turbulent waterfalls
  • East Iceland: More fjords and the only international passenger ferry terminal
  • South Iceland: Home to the most popular tourist attractions, including the Golden Circle
  • Interior: Glaciated mountains

The largest cities are:

  • Reykjavík (REYG-ya-veeg) — The capital of Iceland and is the largest city
  • Akureyri (Ahk-oo-rey-rih) — Capital of the North and the largest town outside the Southwest
  • Egilsstaðir (AY-yill-stath-ihr) — Main town in the East, has some of the best weather Iceland has to offer
  • Hafnarfjörður (HAP-nar-FYERTH-er) — Cozy town on the outskirts of the capital region
  • Höfn (HEP’n) — Main town on the southeastern coast
  • Húsavík (HOOS-ah-veek) — One of the world’s most reliable whale watching sites during the summer
  • Ísafjörður (EES-ah-FYERTH-er) — Largest town of the Westfjords of Iceland
  • Selfoss (SEL-fos) — South Iceland’s largest town, hub of the main agricultural region
  • Stykkishólmur (STICK-is-hole-mur) — Main town on the Snæfellsnes peninsula, gateway to the islands of Breiðafjörður

It’s a shame most visitors don’t stray far from the capital as some of the most memorable sights in Iceland are farther afield. There are many excursions offered by tour companies, readily available from any of the main centres such as Reykjavík and Akureyri. They will fly you around and take you out to the glaciers and to the big volcanoes for a reasonable price. However, the cheapest option is to drive around with a rented car since none of these sites have entry fees.

  • Þingvellir National Park (pronounced “THING-vet-lihr”) – National Park and a UNESCO World Heritage site. 30 to 50 kilometres (19 to 31 mi) east of Reykjavík. Interesting for a number of reasons: it is the original site of the longest running parliament in the world (the name literally means ‘parliamentary fields’), and it’s where the North-American and European continental shelf plates are being torn apart.
  • Vatnajökull National Park (VAT-nah-yer-CUDDLE) – Iceland’s newest national park was founded in 2008 and includes the former Skaftafell and Jokulsargljufur National Parks. Vatnajökull National Park is Europe’s largest national park at 12,000 square kilometres (4,600 sq mi), covering about 12% of the surface of Iceland. The park is home to Iceland’s highest mountain, Hvannadalshnúkur, largest glacier, Vatnajökull, and Europe’s largest waterfall in terms of volume discharge, Dettifoss.
  • Snæfellsjökull National Park (SNY-fetls-yer-CUDDLE) – Located on the tip of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula in western Iceland, this park is home to the ice-covered volcanic crater that was the setting for Jules Verne‘s book Journey to the Center of the Earth.
  • Blue Lagoon – (Icelandic: Bláa Lónið) (BLAU-ah LONE-eeth) Famous outdoor pool and health centre. The spa is in Grindavík on the Reykjanes Peninsula, south-western Iceland. It is situated approximately 13 km (8 mi) from the Keflavík International Airport and 39 km (24 mi) from Reykjavík. This geothermal spa in the middle of a lava field with its milky blue water is quite surreal.
  • Mývatn (MEE-fatn) – A lake region near Akureyri in the North of Iceland, Mývatn has an unearthly appearance owing to special types of volcanic craters throughout the lake. There are plenty of activities in this area: Smajfall (desert where sulphuric steam comes out of the ground) and Dimmuborgir (aka the Black City and the Gates of Hell).
  • Gullfoss – The Golden Falls. On the edge of the inhospitable Interior of Iceland about 100 km east of Reykjavík, the river Hvítá plunges down a double cascade to create what many people believe is the most beautiful waterfall in Iceland
  • Geysir – Geothermal hot spot located 10 km west of Gullfoss. Geysir itself (from which the English word “geyser” derives) is no longer reliably active, but fortunately Strokkur next door goes off every five to ten minutes.
  • Jökulsárlón (the Jökulsár Lagoon) – The majestic glacial lagoon in southeast Iceland located near Höfn on Route 1. Breiðamerkurjökull glacier retreated very quickly from 1920 to 1965 leaving this breathtaking lagoon, which is up to 190 m deep. Ice breaks off from the glacier keeping the lagoon stocked with icebergs all year round. The James Bond film Die Another Day was filmed here in 2002.
  • Landmannalaugar – A region of outstanding natural beauty reachable by bus (or 4×4) from Reykjavík. Situated in the Interior, it gives a taste of the uninhabited highlands at Iceland’s core.
  • Þórsmörk (Thor’s Mark) – Tucked away between three glaciers, Þórsmörk is an incredibly beautiful and relatively isolated area. Icelanders enjoy camping there in the summer. There are many hiking trails all over the area, which provide breathtaking views of the surrounding glaciers and lava formations. It is accessible only by truck or bus: it is a good idea to inquire about trips to Þórsmörk at a tourist information center.

Iceland is a stunningly beautiful place if you enjoy strange and desolate landscapes. Because it is so close to the Arctic Circle, the amount of daylight varies dramatically by season. The sun sets briefly each night in June, but it doesn’t get fully dark before it comes back up again. In the March and September equinoxes, days and nights are of about equal length, as elsewhere in the world. If you go in December, it’s almost 20 hours of darkness. Summer is definitely the best time to go, and even then the tourist traffic is still mild. The midnight sun is a beautiful sight and one definitely not to be missed. It is easy to lose track of time when the sun is still high in the sky at 11PM. Early or late winter, however, can be surprisingly good times to visit. In late January, daylight is from about 10AM to 4PM, prices are lower than in the high season, and the snow-blanketed landscape is eerily beautiful. Some sites are, however, inaccessible in the winter.

Read more VisitIceland.com, InspiredByIceland.com, LonelyPlanet.com – Iceland, Wikitravel Iceland, Wikivoyage Iceland and Wikipedia Iceland.




Vaduz Castle © Michael Gredenberg/cc-by-sa-3.0

Vaduz Castle © Michael Gredenberg/cc-by-sa-3.0

Liechtenstein
The Principality of Liechtenstein is a tiny, alpine, German-speaking country with 38,000 inhabitants landlocked by Switzerland and Austria. The principality enjoys a very high standard of living and is home to some incredibly beautiful mountain scenery. The principality’s capital, Vaduz, is a major centre of commerce and international banking. It has never been declared a city and thus is technically still a village.

What is now the Principality of Liechtenstein was for a long time the minor holdings of a powerful noble family from elsewhere. It was part of the Holy Roman Empire and later became part of the German Confederation. In 1866 Liechtenstein changed its alignment from the now dissolved German Confederation to Austria Hungary until the end of World War I, when the economic devastation and the breakdown of the dual monarchy caused by that conflict forced Liechtenstein to conclude a customs and monetary union with Switzerland. Since World War II (in which Liechtenstein remained neutral), the country’s reputation as a “tax haven” has spurred outstanding economic growth. The Liechtensteinian flag is – by pure accident of history – identical to that of Haiti except for the emblems placed on both. During the 1936 Olympics, which were apparently the first time the two flags were displayed close to each other, this was discovered as Haitian civil flags at the time omitted the coat of arms and Liechtenstein added the crown as a symbol of its monarchy and to distinguish it from the civil flag of Haiti, should the two ever be displayed alongside each other. Shortcomings in banking regulatory oversight have resulted in concerns about the use of the financial institutions for money laundering and tax evasion. However, the days of bringing suitcases of money into banks for deposit (without questions asked) are over. Liechtensteiners are also very proud of the fact that their nation has never been involved in a battle or military confrontation with an enemy state. They see their flag as a banner of peace. For a European country, the aristocratic element in the constitution is rather strong and the prince/regent has a lot of powers both in theory and in reality (unlike say the British monarch). However, unlike almost all monarchies in the world there is a provision in the constitution that the prince has to resign and the monarchy has to be abandoned if a majority of the people so desire.

Despite its small size and limited natural resources, Liechtenstein has developed into a prosperous, highly industrialized, free-enterprise economy with a vital financial service sector and living standards on a par with the urban areas of its large European neighbours. The Liechtenstein economy is widely diversified with a large number of small businesses. Low business taxes – the maximum tax rate is 20% – and easy incorporation rules have induced a large number of holding or so-called letter box companies to establish nominal offices in Liechtenstein, providing 30% of state revenues. Perhaps the most notable company from Liechtenstein is Hilti, not a bank, but a manufacturer of power tools (though they aren’t made in Liechtenstein any longer). Liechtenstein is the world’s leading producer of false teeth. Liechtenstein participates in a customs union with Switzerland and uses Swiss francs as its national currency interchangeably with the Liechtenstein frank. It imports more than 90% of its energy requirements. Liechtenstein has been, since May 1995, a member of the European Economic Area, an organization serving as a bridge between the EFTA and the EU. The government is working to harmonize its economic policies with those of an integrated Europe. Liechtenstein has one of the highest personal income rates (GDP per capita) in the world, with the base rate of income tax standing at just 1.2%.

As a result of its small size, Liechtenstein has been strongly affected by external cultural influences, most notably those originating in the southern German-speaking areas of Europe, including Austria, Baden-Wurttemberg, Bavaria, Switzerland, and specifically Tirol and Vorarlberg. The “Historical Society of the Principality of Liechtenstein” plays a role in preserving the culture and history of the country. The largest museum is the Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein, an international museum of modern and contemporary art with an important international art collection. The building by the Swiss architects Morger, Degelo, and Kerez is a landmark in Vaduz. It was completed in November 2000 and forms a “black box” of tinted concrete and black basalt stone. The museum collection is also the national art collection of Liechtenstein. The other important museum is the Liechtenstein National Museum (Liechtensteinisches Landesmuseum) showing permanent exhibition on the cultural and natural history of Liechtenstein as well as special exhibitions. There is also a stamp museum, ski museum, and a 500-year-old Rural Lifestyle Museum. The Liechtenstein State Library is the library that has legal deposit for all books published in the country. The most famous historical sites are Vaduz Castle, Gutenberg Castle, the Red House and the ruins of Schellenberg (Castles in Liechtenstein). The Private Art Collection of the Prince of Liechtenstein, one of the world’s leading private art collections, is shown at the Liechtenstein Museum in Vienna. On the country’s national holiday all subjects are invited to the castle of the head of state. A significant portion of the population attends the national celebration at the castle where speeches are made and complimentary beer is served. Music and theatre are an important part of the culture. There are numerous music organizations such as the Liechtenstein Musical Company, the annual Guitar Days, and the International Josef Gabriel Rheinberger Society, which play in two main theatres.

As an alpine country, the main sporting opportunity for Liechtensteiners to excel is in winter sports such as downhill skiing: the country’s single ski area is Malbun. Hanni Wenzel won two gold medals and one silver medal in the 1980 Winter Olympics (she won bronze in 1976), her brother Andreas won one silver medal in 1980 and one bronze medal in 1984 in the giant slalom event, and her daughter Tina Weirather won a bronze medal in 2018 in the Super-G. With ten medals overall (all in alpine skiing), Liechtenstein has won more Olympic medals per capita than any other nation. It is the smallest nation to win a medal in any Olympics, Winter or Summer, and the only nation to win a medal in the Winter Games but not in the Summer Games. Other notable skiers from Liechtenstein are Marco Büchel, Willi Frommelt, Paul Frommelt and Ursula Konzett. Liechtenstein is also the home country of Stephanie Vogt, a professional women’s tennis player.

Read more on Liechtenstein, Liechtenstein Tourism, LonelyPlanet.com – Liechtenstein, Wikitravel Liechtenstein, Wikivoyage Liechtenstein and Wikipedia Liechtenstein.






Oslo - Aker Brygge with City Hall © flickr.com - dalbera/cc-by-2.0

Oslo – Aker Brygge with City Hall © flickr.com – dalbera/cc-by-2.0

Norway
Norway is the westernmost, northernmost — and surprisingly also the easternmost — of the three Scandinavian countries. Norway is known for the complex and deep fjords along its west coast, as well as the midnight sun and Northern Lights. Mainland Norway stretches from the North Sea near Denmark and Scotland to borders with northern Finland and the northwestern tip of Russia, and has a long border with Sweden to the east. Norway also includes the Svalbard islands in the Arctic.

The Norwegian farm culture continues to play a role in contemporary Norwegian culture. In the 19th century, it inspired a strong romantic nationalistic movement, which is still visible in the Norwegian language and media. Norwegian culture blossomed with nationalist efforts to achieve an independent identity in the areas of literature, art and music. This continues today in the performing arts and as a result of government support for exhibitions, cultural projects and artwork (Cinema of Norway, Music of Norway, Norwegian literature, Architecture of Norway, Norwegian art und Norwegian cuisine). The country hosts 8 World Heritage sites.

The overall impression of Norway is a country with ample space and unusually rugged landscape. While famous for the great fjords along the Atlantic, also the interior has great valleys, wide forests and fjord-like lakes. Norway is one of the most mountainous countries in Europe. Water in all varieties is perhaps what characterizes Norway most: The endless coastline, the great fjords, countless waterfalls, crystal rivers, lovely lakes and numerous glaciers. Although the great outdoors is Norway’s number 1 attraction, there are also many interesting and lively cities like Oslo and Bergen. Man-made attractions include Norway’s cultural heritage as well as modern structures and architecture – often found in cities but also in terms of impressive engineering in remote corners.

The petty Viking kingdoms of Norway (Nordic history) were unified in 872 AD by Harald Fairhair. In the following period, Norwegians settled in many places, such as Iceland, the Faroe Islands and parts of Scotland and Ireland, where they founded Dublin and Waterford. In the beginning of the 14th century, Norway and Sweden were unified as the Norwegian king was also elected king of Sweden. At the end of the century, the two countries and Denmark were unified in the so-called Kalmar Union. Sweden broke out of the union in 1521. Norway remained in union with Denmark until the Napoleonic Wars of 1814. Only a few months after Norway declared of independence, Sweden invaded Norway and enforced a personal union, though Norway had a great deal of independence. The union with Sweden lasted until 1905, which is considered the beginning of modern Norway. Norway have later rejected membership in the European Union, arguing that “we just left a union”. From 1940 until 1945, Norway was occupied by German forces during World War 2. In the 1960s, oil was found in the North Sea. Oil drilling has brought Norway prosperity, but contrary to many other oil-exporting countries, Norway invests its profits in a very egalitarian and collectivist way creating an affluent, harmonious society taking advantage of excellent infrastructure and pioneering environmentally friendly technologies in everyday lives. Repeatedly ranked as a country with one of the world’s highest standards of living, Norway has attracted migrants from many places all over the world, which add to today’s colourful and inclusive society. All this does not come cheap, and consumer prices are among the highest in the world. The country is organized in the following regions:

  • East Norway (Akershus, Buskerud, Hedmark, Oppland, Oslo, Østfold, Telemark, Vestfold): Østlandet, actually southeast, the region surrounding the capital Oslo, the most densely populated area in Norway with the majority of people living here.
  • Trøndelag: Middle Norway, mostly known as Trøndelag, with the ancient city of Trondheim.
  • Northern Norway (Finnmark, Troms, Nordland): Great fjords, the midnight sun and the ancient Sami culture – 50% of Norway’s area and 10% of its people.
  • Agder: Also called Sørlandet or South Norway, with the gentle coastline.
  • West Norway (Møre og Romsdal, Sogn og Fjordane, Hordaland, Rogaland): Vestlandet, with the famous fjords and Bergen.
  • Svalbard: An archipelago in the Barents Sea north of Norway, famous for its harsh climate, coal mines and satellite installations. Except for northeasternmost European Russia this is the only part of Europe where polar bears live.
  • Jan Mayen: A desolate, mountainous and volcanic island in the Arctic Ocean, partially covered in glaciers with some moss and grass. Military area, admittance only with special permission. Not accessible during winter months.

The largest cities are:

  • Oslo – the capital and largest city of Norway, with museums of national importance, a beautiful setting and lively nightlife and cultural scene.
  • Bergen – Once the capital of Norway, old Hanseatic trading centre with a rich culture and dramatic scenery, Norway’s second largest city. Wonderfully cute wooden buildings, a magnificent mountain setting, varied nightlife and lots of atmosphere. This is your gateway to the western fjords. The city has been dubbed “the rainiest city in Europe” with an average of 250 days of rainfall a year. Bring an umbrella.
  • Bodø – The gateway to the magnificent Lofoten islands. And the place of Saltstraumen, the worlds strongest maelstrom.
  • Drammen – Once known as industrial and grimy, but refurbishment has made Drammen an enjoyable side trip from Oslo.
  • Fredrikstad – A magnificent old town stands out from the rest of the rather nondescript city. Brilliant as a day trip from Oslo.
  • Kristiansand – The jolly capital of the South. Best known for the family attraction Kristiansand zoo and amusement park and as Norway’s “cool riviera”.
  • Stavanger – The fourth largest city, and the third largest urban area. Commercially important due to the oil business. The wooden, cobbled central area is one of the most charming places in Norway. Home to one of Norway’s medieval churches, you can also visit Iron Age homes, stone age caves, and sites where the Viking kings used to meet at Ullandhaugtårnet. Stavanger is where Erik the Red was born.
  • Tromsø – A magnificent, modern cathedral and absolutely no polar bears roaming the streets.
  • Trondheim – Famous for its stunning cathedral (Nidarosdomen). Wonderful riverside wharfs, wooden buildings and the best student nightlife in Norway give beautiful, leafy Trondheim its charm.

Other destinations of interest are:

  • Atlanterhavsveien – The Atlantic Ocean Road is a spectacular road with bridges along islands and skerries on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean.
  • Hardangervidda – Norway’s largest national park on a large highland plateau.
  • Jostedalsbreen – The largest glacier on the European mainland.
  • Jotunheimen – A majestic landscape and home of Norway’s highest mountains.
  • Lofoten – Experience the midnight sun in this traditional fishing district in the northern province with islands and mountains.
  • Nordkapp – This cliff is the northernmost point of continental Europe, overlooking the Barents ocean.
  • Sognefjorden – Glaciers, mountains and picturesque settlements are but a few of the sights on the Sognefjord. Flåm and Nærøyfjorden (also a UNESCO World Heritage site) are parts of the mighty Sognefjorden system.

Read more on Government of Norway, Norway Tourism, LonelyPlanet.com – Norway, Wikitravel Norway, Wikivoyage Norway and Wikipedia Norway.




Bern - The Zytglogge clock tower and the city's medival covered shopping promenades © Dmitry A. Mottl/cc-by-sa-4.0

Bern – The Zytglogge clock tower and the city’s medival covered shopping promenades © Dmitry A. Mottl/cc-by-sa-4.0

Switzerland
Switzerland is a sovereign state in Europe. It consists of 26 cantons, and the city of Bern is the seat of the federal authorities. The federal republic is situated in western, central and southern Europe, and is bordered by Italy to the south, France to the west, Germany to the north, and Austria and Liechtenstein to the east. Switzerland is a landlocked country geographically divided between the Alps, the Swiss Plateau and the Jura, spanning a total area of 41,285 km² (15,940 sq mi) (land area 39,997 km² (15,443 sq mi)). While the Alps occupy the greater part of the territory, the Swiss population of approximately eight million people is concentrated mostly on the plateau, where the largest cities are to be found: among them are the two global cities and economic centres Zürich and Geneva. Spanning the intersection of Germanic and Romance Europe, Switzerland comprises four main linguistic and cultural regions: German, French, Italian and Romansh. Although the majority of the population are German speaking, Swiss national identity is rooted in a common historical background, shared values such as federalism and direct democracy, and Alpine symbolism. Switzerland can be a glorious whirlwind trip whether you’ve packed your hiking boots, snowboard, or just a good book and a pair of sunglasses.

Three of Europe’s major languages are official in Switzerland. Swiss culture is characterised by diversity, which is reflected in a wide range of traditional customs. A region may be in some ways strongly culturally connected to the neighbouring country that shares its language, the country itself being rooted in western European culture. The linguistically isolated Romansh culture in Graubünden in eastern Switzerland constitutes an exception, it survives only in the upper valleys of the Rhine and the Inn and strives to maintain its rare linguistic tradition. Switzerland is home to many notable contributors to literature, art, architecture, music and sciences. In addition the country attracted a number of creative persons during time of unrest or war in Europe. Some 1000 museums are distributed through the country; the number has more than tripled since 1950. Among the most important cultural performances held annually are the Paléo Festival, Lucerne Festival, the Montreux Jazz Festival, the Locarno International Film Festival and the Art Basel. Alpine symbolism has played an essential role in shaping the history of the country and the Swiss national identity. Nowadays some concentrated mountain areas have a strong highly energetic ski resort culture in winter, and a hiking or Mountain biking culture in summer. Other areas throughout the year have a recreational culture that caters to tourism, yet the quieter seasons are spring and autumn when there are fewer visitors. A traditional farmer and herder culture also predominates in many areas and small farms are omnipresent outside the cities. Folk art is kept alive in organisations all over the country. In Switzerland it is mostly expressed in music, dance, poetry, wood carving and embroidery. The alphorn, a trumpet-like musical instrument made of wood, has become alongside yodeling and the accordion an epitome of traditional Swiss music (Swiss folklore, Alpine culture, Media of Switzerland, Sport in Switzerland, Swiss cuisine, Swiss literature, Castles and fortresses in Switzerland, Swiss Alps, Winter sports in Switzerland and Tourism in Switzerland). The country hosts 12 World Heritage sites. Politically, Switzerland is divided into 26 cantons, but the traveler will find the following regions more useful:

  • Western Switzerland: From the northern shores of Lac Léman (Lake Geneva) and the Alps to the Jura.
  • Berne Region: The core region of traditional Bernese influence.
  • Bernese Highlands: The majestic Bernese Alps.
  • Central Switzerland: The birthplace of the Swiss Confederation and the legends of Wilhelm Tell.
  • Northwestern Switzerland: Culture, arts and home of the Swiss pharmaceutical industry; neighbouring Germany and France.
  • Zürich: The country’s largest city with a sprawling metropolitan area.
  • Eastern Switzerland: Between the Alps and Lake Constance, Abbey of St Gall, and home to many scenic dairy farms on rolling hills in Appenzell.
  • Valais: Switzerland’s highest peaks and Europe’s largest glaciers.
  • Graubünden: Officially trilingual, the region is very mountainous, lightly populated and home to many great tourist destinations and includes the ancient Romansh minority language and culture (in English also known as The Grisons).

The Swiss Alps stretch through the regions of the eastern part of Lake Geneva, Valais, Bernese Highlands, the southern part of Central Switzerland, almost the entirety of Ticino except for the most southern part, the southern part of Northeastern Switzerland, and Graubünden. The largest cities are:

  • Berne (Bern) — as close as this highly developed nation gets to having a capital with an amazingly well preserved old-town, with arcades along almost every street; great restaurants and bars abound.
  • Basel — the traveller’s gateway to the German Rhineland and Black Forest and French Alsace with an exceptional medieval centre on a bend of the Rhine river.
  • Geneva (Genève) — this centre of arts and culture is an international city home to around 200 governmental and non-governmental organisations, birth place of the World-Wide-Web at CERN and the Red Cross organisation (ICRC).
  • Interlaken — the outdoor and action sports capital of Switzerland; anything from skydiving, bungee jumping, hiking, white-water rafting, to canyoning.
  • Lausanne — scenery, dining, dancing, boating and the Swiss wine-country are the draws.
  • Lucerne (Luzern) — main city of the central region with direct water links to all of the sites of early Swiss history.
  • Lugano — a gorgeous old-town, a pretty lake; much Italianatà combined with Swiss seriousness.
  • St. Gallen — main city of north-eastern Switzerland, renowned for its Abbey of St. Gall, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it also functions as the gate to the very special Appenzell region.
  • Zurich (Zürich) — Switzerland’s largest city and a major centre of banking with a thriving nightlife.

Other destinations of interest are:

  • Davos — large ski resort where the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum takes place.
  • Grindelwald — the classic resort at the foot of the Eiger.
  • Lavaux — A region of terraced vineyards on the shore of Lake Geneva and a UNESCO cultural heritage site.
  • St. Moritz — glitzy ski resort in the Engadine valley in south-eastern Switzerland.
  • Jungfrau-Aletsch — A protected area around the largest glaciated area in the Alps. This high alpine park offers stunning views and is also a UNESCO natural heritage site.
  • Zermatt — famous mountain resort at the base of the mighty Matterhorn.

Switzerland showcases three of Europe’s most distinct cultures. To the northeast is the clean and correct, 8-to-5-working, more stiff Swiss-German-speaking Switzerland; to the southwest you find the wine drinking and laissez-faire style known from the French; in the southeast, south of the Alps, the sun warms cappuccino-sippers loitering in Italian-style piazzas; and in the center: classic Swiss alphorns and mountain landscapes. Binding it all together is a distinct Swiss mentality. Switzerland is sometimes called a “nation of choosing” as the Swiss are one nation not because of ethnicity or language, but because they want to be a nation and want to be distinct from the Germans, Italians and French around them. Even though conflict sometimes arises between the different groups, the common Swiss identity is usually stronger than the dividing factors.

While most of the cantons, save for the small Romansch-speaking regions, use languages in common with neighbouring countries, the language spoken there is not necessarily just the same as across the national border. In particular, Swiss German is very different from any of the variations of German spoken in Germany or Austria, with its own peculiar pronunciation and vocabulary. Even fluent speakers of standard German (Hochdeutsch) may have a hard time understanding even the regular Swiss-German spoken on the street or in mass media. Fortunately for visitors, most German-speaking Swiss are perfectly capable of speaking Hochdeutsch, English, and at least one other national language (e.g. French). Even in its written form, Swiss standard German differs notably from its German and Austrian counterparts, though most differences are minor and the one you are most likely to notice is the fact that Switzerland doesn’t use the letter “ß”, replacing it with “ss”, which however doesn’t affect pronunciation. Swiss French and Swiss Italian differ only lexically from their counterparts spoken in other countries. Romansch is, however, only spoken in remote alpine communities, where most people speak at least one other Swiss language just as well.

Read more on Government of Switzerland, Switzerland Tourism, LonelyPlanet.com – Switzerland, Wikitravel Switzerland, Wikivoyage Switzerland and Wikipedia Switzerland.






Overview of the “Bon voyage!” series:



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The National Library of China in Beijing

The National Library of China in Beijing

[caption id="attachment_161952" align="aligncenter" width="590"] © flickr.com - Shanghai.Dennis/cc-by-sa-2.0[/caption][responsivevoice_button voice="UK English Female" buttontext="Listen to this Post"]The National Library of China or NLC in Beijing is the national library of the People's Republic of China. With a collection of over 33,78 million items, it is one of the largest libraries in Asia and one of the largest in the world. It holds the largest collections of Chinese literature and historical documents in the world. The forerunner of the National Library of China, the Imperial ...

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Croatia: A new family member for the European Union

Croatia: A new family member for the European Union

[caption id="attachment_7150" align="aligncenter" width="590"] Split © DIREKTOR[/caption][responsivevoice_button voice="UK English Female" buttontext="Listen to this Post"]Croatia is a unitary democratic parliamentary republic in Europe at the crossroads of Central Europe, the Balkans, and the Mediterranean. Its capital and largest city is Zagreb. The country is divided into 20 counties and the city of Zagreb. Croatia covers 56,594 square kilometres (21,851 square miles) and has diverse, mostly continental and Mediterranean climates. Croatia's Adriatic Sea coast contains more than a thousand ...

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Pillnitz Palace and Park on the Elbe

Pillnitz Palace and Park on the Elbe

[caption id="attachment_159867" align="aligncenter" width="590"] Pillnitz Castle - Hillside Palais (Bergpalais) © Martin Röll[/caption][responsivevoice_button voice="UK English Female" buttontext="Listen to this Post"]Pillnitz is a city quarter in the east of Dresden, Germany. The best known sight of this quarter is the Japanese-styled chateau. The quarter is situated in the east of Dresden, a rather long way from the inner city. It can be reached by bus, ship, walking along the river or by bicycle. The park around the castle was founded in 1539 by building the castle church. In 1693 Elector...

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Theme Week Bangladesh - Dhaka

Theme Week Bangladesh - Dhaka

[caption id="attachment_201048" align="aligncenter" width="590"] Rose Garden Palace © Bazaan/cc-by-sa-3.0[/caption][responsivevoice_button voice="UK English Female" buttontext="Listen to this Post"]Dhaka is the capital and largest city of Bangladesh. It is one of the largest and most densely populated cities in the world, with a population of 18.89 million people in the Greater Dhaka Area. Dhaka is the economic, political and cultural center of Bangladesh. It is one of the major cities of South Asia, the largest city in Eastern South Asia and among the Bay of Bengal countries; and one of the ...

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The Cloisters in Upper Manhattan

The Cloisters in Upper Manhattan

[caption id="attachment_165651" align="aligncenter" width="590"] The Cloisters © flickr.com - Brian Clift/cc-by-2.0[/caption][responsivevoice_button voice="UK English Female" buttontext="Listen to this Post"]The Cloisters is a museum in Upper Manhattan, New York City specializing in European medieval architecture, sculpture and decorative arts. Its early collection was built by the American sculptor, art dealer and collector George Grey Barnard, and acquired by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. in 1925. Rockefeller extended the collection and in 1931 purchased land at Washington Heights and contracted...

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The port city of Aalborg

The port city of Aalborg

[caption id="attachment_152743" align="aligncenter" width="590"] Nytorv Square © Tomasz Sienicki[/caption][responsivevoice_button voice="UK English Female" buttontext="Listen to this Post"]Aalborg is a Danish industrial and university city in North Jutland. The city of Aalborg has a population of 102,312 (124,921 including Nørresundby) making it the fourth largest city in Denmark in terms of population. The municipality of Aalborg has a population of 197,426 (2010) making it the third most populous municipality in the country after Copenhagen and Århus. The earliest settlements date back to...

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Sassnitz on the island of Rügen

Sassnitz on the island of Rügen

[caption id="attachment_160896" align="aligncenter" width="590"] Old Town © Tacachie/cc-by-sa-3.0[/caption][responsivevoice_button voice="UK English Female" buttontext="Listen to this Post"]Sassnitz is a town on the Jasmund peninsula, Rügen Island, in the Federal State of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. The population as of 2012 was 9,500. It is a well-known seaside resort and port town, and is a gateway to the nearby Jasmund National Park with its unique chalk cliffs. Sassnitz is the home of Rügen's only zoo, the Sassnitz Wildlife Park. The decommissioned British submarine HMS Otus was pur...

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Eton and Eton College

Eton and Eton College

[caption id="attachment_153780" align="aligncenter" width="590"] Eton College © Herry Lawford[/caption][responsivevoice_button voice="UK English Female" buttontext="Listen to this Post"]Eton is a town and civil parish in Berkshire, England, lying on the opposite bank of the River Thames to Windsor and connected to it by Windsor Bridge. It has a population of 5,000. Eton was transferred from Buckinghamshire to Berkshire in 1974. Since 1998 it has been part of the unitary authority of Windsor and Maidenhead. Neither Windsor nor Eton is desperately large and walking is a good way around ...

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© Imre Solt/cc-by-sa-3.0
Jumeirah Beach Residence in Dubai

Jumeirah Beach Residence (also known as JBR) is a 1.7 kilometres (1.1mi) long, 2 square kilometres (0.77 sq mi) gross...

© Maurice07/cc-by-sa-3.0
Istanbul Cevahir Shopping and Entertainment Centre

Istanbul Cevahir Shopping and Entertainment Centre, also known as Şişli Kültür ve Ticaret Merkezi (Şişli Culture and Trade Centre) is...

© flickr.com - Paul Arps/cc-by-2.0
Mercado da Ribeira in Lisbon

The Mercado da Ribeira is a market hall on Avenida 24 de Julho of the Portuguese capital of Lisbon, where...

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