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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Bates

Interlaken: the ideal base in Switzerland for outdoor adventures

Updated: Feb 17

Where do I start? Interlaken is just simply amazing. Located in the Bernese region, the town is the main transport hub and gateway to all the natural wonders like the nearby mountains of the Jungfrau region, the lakes of Thun and Brienz and the Lauterbrunnen valley. When visitors come to this part of the country, Interlaken will always be the first place they will hit up. Either to buy supplies from the shops which cater for all types of tourists, use accommodation here (which is usually cheaper than in the valley and up the mountains) then hop on a train and go exploring, hiking, sightseeing or simply just relax here whilst taking in the breathtaking view of the snow capped peaks of the mountains to the south. The town with 23,000 people (mostly German-Swiss dialect speaking) living here, lies between the two main lakes of the region, Brienz to the east (Brienzersee) and Thun to the west (Thunersee). Hence the name Interlaken (Town connected by two lakes). 

A view of Interlaken from Harder Kulm, Switzerland
A view of Interlaken from Harder Kulm

Olga & I have stayed here a few times and used the town as a base to go exploring in the region or do train rides. Sometimes we have stayed here to compete in the annual Jungfrau marathon which is held in September and runs from the town through to Kleine Scheidegg, over halfway up the Jungfrau mountain. 


So again, the question, where do I start? I think I go with what to do and see in the town and surrounding area. That’s the main reason why visitors come here right? 

A view of Interlaken from Harder Kulm

Interlaken - the town itself


Interlaken as I mentioned earlier is a great place to stay for all travelers. From five star hotels to hostels. As the place is cheaper than accommodation in the mountains itself, this makes Interlaken the ideal destination for backpackers to stay. However, away from accommodation, the town has companies providing services for the adventurous people and can take visitors skydiving, canyoning, paragliding, skiing and hand gliding.


The main street to check up in the town is Höheweg, where one side of the street has the huge park of Höhematte, which is not built on so visitors staying at the Victoria Jungfrau Grand Hotel can have clear views of the Bernese Alps. There are also some nice boutique shops, bars and cafes to enjoy and in the evening, the casino is located here.  

However one of my favourite buildings on the street is the Reformierte Schlosskirche which is a castle-church built in the 12th century. First started out as a monastery (which is one of the oldest buildings in the region since 1133AD) was later converted to a castle-church in the 18th century. One thing to note is the stained glass work on the windows. The building is also amazing to take photos of especially when there are the mountains to the south behind it. My favourite viewpoint is near the Harderbahn.

Reformierte Schlosskirche, Interlaken
Reformierte Schlosskirche, Interlaken

Harder Kulm


The Harder Kulm is the place to get one of the top views in Switzerland and took our breath away. Located at 1,321 meters (4,334ft) above sea level and around 800 meters above the town of Interlaken which lies below it, we would highly recommend visitors to this region to check this out. Easily signposted from the centre of Interlaken, the funicular is located at the eastern end of the town near Interlaken Ost (east) train station. At the bottom of the funicular station is the start of a few hiking routes which go up the mountain and there is also a small wildlife park where the main attraction is to see alpine goats.


The journey up the mountain takes about eight minutes but at the top the views are just mind blowing. Olga and I stood on the viewing platform and took in the extensive views looking over Interlaken and nearby Unterseen plus the lakes of Brienz and Thun whilst  right in front of us was the start of the Lauterbrunnen Valley. On a clear day, the peak of the Jungfrau can be seen. Also at the top is a restaurant to get the perfect rosti in with a beer. Just one tip, the funicular only runs between March and November.

Lake Thun


At the western end of Lake Thun (about thirty minute train journey from Interlaken West train station), is the town of Thun (pronounced Toon in English) and lies on the River Aare which flows out of the lake. The population of 45,000 (Swiss-German dialect speaking) towns makes visitors very welcome here in the bars, cafes, restaurants as well as the places of interest here. I totally love Thun, I just simply love the views from the top of the hill overlooking the town and towards the lake. 


The main place where visitors come and check out is Thun Castle which has stood here since the twelfth century and these days houses the Thun Museum. The castle is still in mint condition as it was never used in battle, no one attacked it and no one has ever raided it (well, someone nearly did raid it but was told to bugger off).


One memory we always have is walking down the cobble path from the castle towards the town, passing many beautiful houses with flowers in their baskets. Part of the path has a wooden cover also which gives the place a more medieval feel to the place. I think I remember that more than the castle when I strolled around and it was a very enjoyable (but short) walk. One other noticeable building is in the main square and that is the Rathaus (Town Hall). I love the architecture of this building, the arches on ground level and the clock at the top. Simply sums up Swiss architecture for me.



To the east of Thun on the northern side of Lake Thun is the beautiful castle of Oberhofen which lies on the lake shore. Like Thun Castle, rarely saw a battle and was used more as a residential palace in the later years. Dating back to the thirteenth century, the castle has rarely changed since being built but when it went into private ownership in the nineteenth century, the castle was slightly rebuilt in a Romantic style which visitors can see today. A park was added also and I have to admit, this was stunning. Olga & I loved seeing the beautiful colourful flowers with views of the lake in the background in the summer but our favourite view of the castle is from the west by the lake shore as seen in my photo below.   

Unterseen


I always say that Unterseen is a suburb of Interlaken. It practically is, however, Unterseen is it’s own town. This historic town means ‘Lower Lake’ which is basically right as the town is located on the flat area of the eastern shoreline of Lake Thun and north shoreline of the River Aare. However the current of the River Aare comes from the east from Lake Brienz, which means as the river is flowing westwards, the town is of course slightly lower this side of Interlaken than the eastern side. Hope I have explained that well. There are a few accommodation places located here and ideal if using Interlaken West train station a lot. What I love about this place is walking across the bridge from Interlaken and seeing the small square as well as taking in the walks by the river.  

Unterseen, near Interlaken

Lauterbrunnen Valley


To the south of Interlaken is the Lauterbrunnen Valley. Most visitors usually catch the train from Interlaken Ost and head south. There are a few stations where the train stops at but the main places are Wengen, Grindelwald (see below) and Lauterbrunnen. I love Lauterbrunnen as a place to walk around with mountain peaks on both sides of the valley overlooking the village, however the top sight to see has to be the waterfall. There is a staircase which runs alongside the waterfall and eventually goes behind. The sound of the crashing water from below is truly mesmerising. This is the main waterfall but there are another seventy-one waterfalls to explore in the valley. 


Grindelwald and First


From Interlaken Ost, there are trains which take visitors to Grindelwald which is located 1,034 meters (3,392 ft) above sea level. I truly love this alpine town, great food, bars, and good for shopping especially when it comes to hiking needs. This is another town like Interlaken which is an excellent base for hiking. There are just so many trails from here. Staying here would save the train journey from Interlaken and get visitors on the trails as soon as possible. One of my favourite places to check out also is doing the ride on the cable car to First where there are also more great hiking trails and an excellent restaurant at the station.  


Aare Gorge 


Whilst exploring the town of Meiringen in the Bernese Oberland region, I managed to come across the Aare Gorge (Aareschlucht in German). The gorge is a section of the River Aare that carves through a limestone ridge and just had to be explored. Catching the train from Meiringen and watching the world go by (for a short time), Olga & I got off at Aareschlucht Ost (Aare Gorge east station) as less visitors get off here (as the train does stop off at Aareschlucht West station and most tourists get off there before the train goes through the mountain before arriving at the east station, 1.6km further along). The east train station is located inside a mountain so when the train comes to a halt, passengers have to wait for a huge steel door to open to walk through to get out of the mountain.


The view once outside, one word, mind-blowing. Walking across the bridge which goes over the Aare, looking right, we got our first view of the river going through the gorge. The fast flowing blue-creamy water rushes through this beautiful landscape, making a heck of noise in the process. To the left I could tell we were in a valley with mountains overlooking. Impressive and beautifully stunning is probably the best way to describe this scene.


It was a short walk up the hillside and along a road to the eastern entrance of the gorge (all signposted) where there is a small ticket office, gift shop, toilets and cafe area. Once all that is done, it’s time to hit the gorge. Walking along wooden walkways on the southern side of the river, it was amazing just walking through this gorge, seeing the water flow by. It took 10,000 years for this gorge to be created via the result of glaciation (which started from the Ice Age) where the water from the melting glaciers eroded a narrow and deep chasm through the limestone. Now (the present day), all this glaciation has seen a one mile (1.6km) gorge with cliffs up to fifty meters height (165ft) on either side. 


The walk itself takes around forty minutes but I am pretty sure we were there longer as we kept stopping either to take photos or just taking in the surroundings. The Aare Gorge is truly a magical place to visit and would highly recommend it to anyone. Also to mention that visitors who come here also visit the nearby Reichenbach Falls. This waterfall is the famous setting where author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used as the setting of the murder of Sherlock Holmes by Professor Moriarty. 

A magical journey on the Jungfraubahn


One of the most scenic railways in Europe is located in Central Switzerland, the Jungfraubahn (Jungfrau Railway) which is also known as the ‘Top of Europe’. Don’t be shocked about the high prices which have to be paid to go for a ride to the highest train station in Europe; this train ride is for those who love outstanding views of valleys, mountain peaks and beautiful villages. Olga and I have done this journey twice and we can totally say that every penny spent on this journey is worth it.


The railway was completed in the early 1930’s (when the first plans were made for the railway in the 1860s) and there are two railway routes visitors can take to get to the summit of the Jungfrau (and two ways of getting back down of course). I would recommend riding up the mountain on one of the lines and coming back down the other. I will explain more.


The main starting point is Interlaken Ost (the east station) where there is a tourist information centre and a ticket office which sells the tickets for the line (as well as mainline services to the rest of the country and Europe). A few kilometres south of Interlaken the line splits at Zweilütschinen and depending which part of the train visitors boarded at Interlaken, one half goes to Grindelwald and the other via Lauterbrunnen and Wengen. Both trains still go to the final destination of Jungfraujoch.

Top of Europe, the Jungfrau - a great day out from Interlaken

Both routes are a must and if visitors have plenty of time or a few days in the area, Lauterbrunnen is a great place to check out the waterfall and for a walk through the valley, Grindelwald for hiking routes to other parts of the mountain range plus fantastic restaurants to eat out and Wengen for even more walking trails towards the Eiger mountain range.


Inside the rail carriages, the seating is very comfortable but there is a lack of legroom.  The windows can be opened from the top to slide the cameras through to capture the magical landscapes. Inside the tunnels where the views are non-existent then televisions are displayed at the end of each carriage giving updates and latest news from the Jungfrau area. 


Both lines meet up at Kleine Scheidegg where the train takes the final 9km journey through the Eiger and Monch mountains via a long tunnel. Inside the tunnel are two stations which have windows built into the mountainside for views which are unbelievable (and also the windows can be pushed out by rescue teams if climbers are in trouble on that side of the mountain). Trundling up the tracks (which are 3ft 3’ gauge and run on an electrified line), the train finally pulls into Jungfraujoch.


From the station (located at 3,454m – 11,332ft), visitors can explore gift shops, restaurants, exhibitions, the ice palace, see the Sphinx Observatory and take views at the viewing platforms. Also there is a hiking trail over the range which takes in one of Europe’s largest glaciers, the Aletsch. I would advise visitors to take proper clothing as it is very cold up there and the air is thin. In the summer suntan lotion is recommended because despite the cold, the sun rays are pretty strong.


The views from up here are totally amazing. After a few minutes of acclimating to the cold temperatures and the short lightheaded spell we encountered, We were out on the viewing platforms just taking in the breathtaking views. From here views across Switzerland and into nearby Italy, France and Germany were to be had. Surrounding us were also the peaks of the Eiger, Jungfrau and Mönch mountains where in the past, the world’s best mountaineers tried to conquer, to which some lost their lives. Now it takes over two hours from Interlaken to get to the summit and take in these amazing views.


What we love about this place is that the ‘Top of Europe’ is always open as it is always winter at the summit. The railway lines are always clear and somehow the train still runs to time. We came here in the summer and autumn on our two visits (within the space of a year) and the temperature is the same, bloody cold whilst the sun is always out (because we were above the cloudline). After walking around outside for about an hour, we just had to have some soup and bread in the cafe here with a warm cup of tea before heading back down.   


TIPS:


1) Allow a full day to do the rail journey and at least three hours at the top (five if you plan to walk to the tea hut on the other side of the ridge and have a quick cup of tea).


2) Make sure you have plenty of memory for your camera. If you are like us, you will be taking thousands of photos. The views are out of this world.


3) If you are late for the train, the train won’t wait. Swiss railway operators are very punctual and run a very reliable service.


4) If you are the type of person who loves buying gifts and loves eating a lot, then take plenty of extra money. It can be expensive, but the goods are great in quality.


5) Take the proper clothing as conditions can change at the summit.


6) Enjoy yourself! Anyone who comes back down from the Jungfrau and says it wasn’t a great experience needs shooting.

Other things to do and see is the railway line of Schynige Platte, which is one of the highest railway lines in the country and goes up the nearby Schwarzhorn mountain. Another funicular ride to the west of the town is the Heimwehfluhbahn. The two minute journey takes visitors to the top of Heimwehfluh Hill (it's more of a hill compared to the mountains in the area but is still quite tall at 680 meters - 2230ft above sea level). At the top there is a restaurant, model railway, bobsleigh run, children’s playground and an observation tower. A boat trip on the two lakes must be had, the most popular being Lake Brienz, the amount of times we have gone past this lake and seen tour boats with passengers on them in the summer months is quite overwhelming. A top place to see in the Lauterbrunnen Valley is the Schilthorn mountain where there is a cable car which whisks visitors to the top. A lot of movie fans will know this place from the James Bond movie ‘On Her Majesty's Secret Service’.

Interlaken, Switzerland
A view looking south from Interlaken

There we go guys. I hope this will make you think about doing a stay in Interlaken and checking out all that nature! From hiking to going on trains, to doing boat rides, walking around medieval towns and doing a bit of shopping, or sampling the Swiss Fondue or Rosti’s, I can’t highly recommend Interlaken and the surrounding region enough. It is truly amazing.



Have you been to Interlaken before? Have I missed anything? Is there anything else you can recommend to my readers here? Please leave a comment below.

Jungfrau region of Switzerland

Information


How to get to Interlaken: The railway line goes from Bern to Interlaken and also to Zurich via Luzern. There is also a railway line which heads south through the Lauterbrunnen valley and towards the summit of the Jungfrau. Nearest airports would be Geneva (which is also easy to get to Interlaken by train with a change in Bern) and Zurich. Interlaken has an autobahn bypassing the town and anywhere in Switzerland is reachable by car. 


Accommodation: There are a lot of accommodation options and a lot of websites which can do some great deals. My first point of call is always Booking.com and can offer a range of hostels, hotels, campsites, apartments, guesthouses, bed and breakfasts and they can also be booked up on my website (just go to the right hand side of the screen). After that I always have a look through AirBnb for great deals on apartments and other lodgings especially when traveling as a family.


Currency: Switzerland uses the Swiss Franc. Currency can be exchanged at the airports and train stations (for a huge fee) so I would recommend either going to a currency exchange place downtown, to a bank (if they have good rates) or if you got a good bank account with fantastic exchange rates, then use an ATM machine (may incur a small fee but I always do this option as I got good bank accounts).


Language: It’s Switzerland, so that means the locals speak Swiss! Wrong! Switzerland has four official languages, German, French, Italian, and Romansh. Interlaken is in the region which is German-speaking. However, a lot of people learn American-English for business dealings, so speaking in American or English is not a problem for the locals.


Watch out for: keep an eye on your bank account, Switzerland is one of the most expensive countries in the world. Dress and take clothes for all weathers. Remember to drink wine with a fondue!

Danik and Olga in Interlaken, Switzerland

Flying into this area? Then I would recommend using Skyscanner to find flights as that is my first point of call. Then if necessary use the airlines directly to find a good deal. I sometimes use Momondo as well to compare prices before booking.


Travel insurance: Need insurance? Safety Wing offers coverage for a lot of adventure activities as well as emergency medical, lost luggage, trip cancellation and so forth. I never travel without travel insurance. I highly recommend them for those who need travel insurance.


Need a visa for Switzerland? Always check if you need a visa when coming to Switzerland, especially for those who come from outside Europe.


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