I love my son and I love my husband, but sometimes a gal needs to get away and into nature. For me, hiking with a toddler is often more of a wrangling event than an exhilarating escape into nature. My boys were kind enough to give me a weekend away to hike for hours upon uninterrupted hours in the pristine Swiss countryside with a girlfriend of mine. She had been talking up her favorite Swiss town of Lauterbrunnen for quite a while which is where we landed for two nights in September. Even though we went sans kids, this is a VERY family friendly and kid-centric place.
Less than a four-hour drive from Stuttgart is the town of Lauterbrunnen in the Jungfrau region. It was the majestic mountain getaway I had been longing for. The town is located in a large valley surrounded by dramatic mountains with waterfalls cascading down from nearly every viewpoint. The valley is glowingly green and the rivers and surrounding lakes have an almost unreal aqua tint to them. It’s postcard-perfect Switzerland at its best.
I haven’t gone into Switzerland that much due to how expensive it is and as a protest to my husband’s $300 ticket from a couple of years ago. We were “blitzed” on our way back from the Rheinfall and several weeks later received a lovely letter advising us of this fine for going a whopping 5 miles over the speed limit. My advice to you when visiting this gorgeous (yet outrageously expensive) country is:
- Pack a cooler, pack meals. We are accustomed to cheaper German prices, so Switzerland prices come as a shock. The average meal costs between 25-50 Francs (Francs are fairly equal to the USD) and a beer/wine costs about 6-8 Francs. There are plenty of beautiful places to set up a picnic, so pack up and avoid draining your wallet on food.
- Get the vignette early in the year, and be aware there is only one duration option: annual. They expire at the end of the calendar year. If you plan accordingly, you may be able to squeeze several trips in on one vignette.
- OBEY THE SPEED LIMIT. Tickets are ridiculously expensive.
1st Day Hike: Grütschalp – Mürren – Gimmelwald – Lauterbrunnen
After we checked into our hotel in Lauterbrunnen, we loaded up our backpacks and walked the few blocks to the cable car which goes up to Grütschalp. We happened to run into a friend of mine on the car who I know from Germany. We were pregnant together and now she was roughing it at a local campground with her husband and two little ones who were each happily passed out in their backpack carriers. I wasn’t expecting to run into anyone we knew in a small Swiss village, but it was nice to chat and discover what a family friendly place this is, too. It’s especially refreshing to see other Americans enjoying some time away from the hustle and bustle of big-city travel.
Once at the top of the mountain, we exited the cable car into a car-free, wildflower-filled, snow-capped landscape. There is an option to take a small train towards our 1st destination town of Mürren, which is what our toddler-toting friends chose. Since I was child-free on this trip, my traveling partner and I opted for the hour-long hike into the village. You can access numerous trails along this route and decide your day from here. Hiking and bike trails are very well-marked and there are cable cars linking the villages in the mountains and valleys together.
The hike was exactly what I was hoping for with sweeping landscapes of mountains, shaded forests, bright green hillsides, cows, sheep, goats, herders, and only the sounds of our conversation alongside cowbells and waterfalls. We also walked on aromatic paths lined with wild berry bushes and groves of fruit trees…and aromatic paths of cows. Phew!
We made it to Mürren for a quick walk-through to admire the architecture, picture perfect gardens, and flower boxes overflowing with bright, colorful blooms. The weather was perfect so we decided to keep hiking through to the town of Gimmelwald following the yellow marked signs downhill.
Along the way we passed a small barn selling their dairy products for very affordable prices, especially for Switzerland. We purchased local cheese, wild berry yogurt (only 1 Franc!), and homemade caramel fudge. There were small spoons to enjoy the yogurt and an honesty jar for payment. I highly, highly recommend stopping and buying at these mountain shacks! I don’t know if it was the atmosphere that made every bite taste so heavenly, or simply the pure, natural, unprocessed flavor shining through, but it was excellent. Milk and cream were also available, but there’s only so much dairy you can hoof around with (haha).
After a little more trekking we decided it was time for a break and a glass(es) of wine…good thing I was packing. One thing I’ve always appreciated since being out here is the way Europeans set up their benches in the prettiest of places. I’ve noticed them alongside hiking and bike trails and sure enough, one welcoming little bench was sitting off the trail facing the spectacular alpine skyline right above the small village of Gimmelwald. We took advantage of this spot to unpack our wine, snacks, and newly purchased cheese to make a picnic dinner with the amazing view. Shortly after we sat down, a barn cat made her way up to us and joined us on the bench. We probably sat there for at least an hour talking, playing with the cat, smiling at the few passersby we saw, and finishing off a discount bottle of red. Oh the joys of a mom’s weekend away. I really should do this more often.
When we got into Gimmelwald we noticed a cliff-side biergarten and a few small shops. We decided to keep the party going and enjoy a beer with the fantastic view above a hostel. For those who want an even more remote place to stay, rest assured, there are hostels, rooms for rent, and B&Bs tucked away up here. The only way to get to Gimmelwald is by hiking or cable car, which provides a really peaceful environment.
To end our day, we took the Stechelberg (Schilthornbahn) down from here to the Lauterbrunnen valley and walked a little under three miles at sunset to a local bar, the Horner Pub, which is across the street from our hotel. The walk through the valley is flat, surrounded by giant waterfalls, a clear aqua-tinted bubbling river, and panoramas that keep your neck craning upwards to see. This place is grandiose, magical…you get it.
At the bar we met some of the (brave? crazy? both?) BASE (base, antenna, span, earth) jumpers this area is known for. Conversations were flowing as were the drinks, but I managed to learn a lot about this fairly unregulated and extremely dangerous sport. Ethics, safety, and common sense play a huge role in BASE jumping and the community is tight-knit and loyal. For those who aren’t entirely sure what it entails, I came across this video on youtube which takes place where we were in Lauterbrunnen. I met a few guys who shared their stories with me, one in particular named Fredo from France. He only started BASE jumping the past year with his first jumps being in Spain with the risk of being hit by a train at the landing. The landing is key from what I learned.
These guys are a special breed and it was fascinating getting to know how this sky-diver turned BASE jumper described his experiences. He described BASE jumping as the more “eco-friendly” version of sky diving and that he connects more with the planet and nature when making these jumps since weather, geography, and timing all play a role. I can understand and appreciate that, but holy hell, it’s out of my league. He described the feeling as that of freedom, but that his entire being is involved which requires precision of not only the body, but of the mind and soul. It’s interesting to talk so openly about these extremely dangerous situations they put themselves in since BASE jumping has a fairly high annual death count. This is quite prevalent with the photos of those lost framed and hanging in the bar.
We also befriended the baker and fire chief of the town (I must say, an excellently planned dual-career choice), partook in some European fusion line-dancing, and boo’ed about the fact there was no “Wagon Wheel” on the jukebox. I mean, come on, who doesn’t crave that song after a few cold ones? Apparently, not the Swiss.
2nd Day Hike: From First down to Grindelwald…Unintentional
Not surprisingly, we were a little slow getting up the second day. Having no idea what we wanted to do and with the probability of rain high, we walked to the train station to ask them, “what should we do?”. The nice fellow behind the glass had a few good ideas, but the prices and times weren’t working with us this late in the day (it was after 12pm). We opted for the cheapest option which was a train ride for 19 Francs round-trip to the town of Grindelwald where we saw advertisements for First Flyer (zip line), Mountain Carts to rent, and more of those breathtaking Swiss views.
Once in town, we headed over to the gondola taking us to Grindelwald First which is the highest and last of the three stops on the gondola, as well as the starting point for many hikes. We purchased a one-way gondola ride (29 Francs) assuming we would take the zip line or rental bikes down from there. That didn’t happen. We hiked back down the entire mountain due to wait times, prices, and cold weather.
There are three options to make it down from each of the gondola stations:
- Hike/walk (free!)
- Purchase tickets for the gondola (prices vary based on the stop)
- Purchase tickets for one of the activities, or all three with an Adventure Card; First Flyer, Mountain Cart, Trottibike Scooter
Also at the top of First is the 45 minute hike to the idyllic Lake Bachalp with it’s clear water beautiful setting. We decided not to do this due to the weather and time constraints and instead take the First Cliff Walk which is a 40-metre long one-rope suspension bridge hanging over some extremely high gaps in the mountain. I’m not too scared of heights, but this was enough to make my heart pound and my voice shake as we nervously laughed through it. It’s not very long and the views and satisfaction of walking the path is worth it. Bonus = it’s free!
The hike down the rest of the mountain was steep and precarious at times, but filled with good conversation, more Swiss cows, and excellent scenery. There is a paved route you can follow, but we ended up off-trail a few times.
As we scrambled to make it down the final stretch, the rain decided to make its debut and added an additional level of difficulty. I’m glad it held off until our last hour and by the time we made it down, we definitely felt we earned a nice, long dinner. The entire hike downhill took us about three hours.
We ended up having a really amazing dinner at the Bistro Memory. I had a vegetarian version of the Rösti which is a traditional dish of boiled potatoes shredded, pan-fried, formed into a patty and topped with fresh veggies and swiss cheese. My mouth is watering as I type, it was fantastic. My friend had fondue which was equally delicious and we paired it all with local beers. The service was very friendly, the food was fresh and tasty, and the vegetarian options on the menu were plenty including a veggie burger and salad bar.
That evening we took the train home, relaxed at our hotel, and hit up the Horner Bar one last time. Our departure the next morning was cold and rainy, but we still managed a drive through the Lauterbrunnen valley to take some last-minute pictures of the beautiful surroundings.
I would recommend visiting here solo, or with family and friends as there are so many things to do in the region. It’s worth noting that some of the really cool things do cost a LOT of money. For example, to make it to the 007 experience and the “Top of Europe”, expect to pay 180 Swiss Francs. Be sure to check out the Jungfrau website and make notes of the trains and cable cars cost. Even when packing a cooler and bringing your own drinks, Switzerland can suck your wallet dry. That being said, a relaxing weekend doing nothing but enjoying the views, plentiful playgrounds, and hiking the scenery can cost you next to nothing.
Helpful Links and Additional Info
In Lauterbrunnen, we stayed at the Hotel Staubbach right in the center of town with amazing views outside of every window. Worth-mentioning perks:
- A well stocked and tasty breakfast buffet of scrambled eggs, boiled eggs, local cheese, fresh fruit, bread, juices, coffee, musli, yogurt, etc…included in price.
- A “picnic room” with tables, small kitchenette for cooking/re-heating your own meals, and a corkscrew (whoop!) which we used to pop a couple of bottles of wine and chat up a young American couple on vacation.
- Clean rooms, friendly staff, great location! Simple and practical.