GRINDELWALD, Switzerland — On a sparkling September afternoon, I was more than 11,000 feet above sea level at a place called Jungfraujoch – Top of Europe. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site where you’ll find the highest train station in Europe and panoramic views of the Aletsch Glacier, which, at 14 miles, is the longest glacier in the Alps. The glacier may be shrinking, but there’s always snow in this alpine paradise.
After walking through the ice tunnels at the Top of Europe, I stepped outside and felt the brisk wind in my face. My gaze was lost in the details of the craggy mountains, the wind-swept snow, and the valleys below.
“Hey! You’re in our picture,” a woman yelled at me. Her angry tone quickly snapped me back to reality. “We’ve been waiting two hours, and we don’t want you in our pictures.”
While strolling and daydreaming, I inadvertently walked into the frame of a photo or maybe several photos. A long line of daytrippers and hard-core tourists were waiting two hours (!) to take their picture with the Jungfraujoch – Top of Europe flag and the mountains behind them. I suspect it’s an Instagram thing where everyone needs their picture taken in the same place, with the same flag, wearing the same plastic smile. I accidentally walked behind the famous flag, unaware anyone would wait two hours in line for a photo ... of anything. I was at a loss for words, and I retreated into the Sphinx viewing building for fondue and to admire the peaks of the Jungfrau and Mönch mountains.
Jungfraujoch – Top of Europe is the most popular attraction in the area, as it should be. More than a million people went there in 2019. If you’re in Grindelwald, I think it’s a requirement to visit, and as long as you don’t accidentally photobomb anyone, you’ll be fine. But after my visit there, I decided to avoid places where daytrippers and hard-core tourists congregate simply to take pictures of themselves. I just wanted nature and more of those incredible vistas.
I don’t want my experience at the Top of Europe to dissuade anyone from coming to this paradise. The Jungfrau Region of central Switzerland is so gorgeous that when I fell off a bike and was convinced I was going to die (spoiler alert, I didn’t die, nor was I injured), I thought, “Well, if I’m going to buy the farm, this is probably the most beautiful place on the planet to do it.” I’m not one for hyperbole, so when I say it’s one of the most breathtaking places I’ve seen, it’s said with sincerity.
I centered my trip on the town of Grindelwald. It sits in a valley where the Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau mountains create a majestic backdrop. These are the Bernese Alps. Skiing is the top sport, as are ice and mountain climbing. But for anti-social, off-season novices like me, hiking turned out to be my favorite activity. OK, fine, consuming chocolates and raclette was my favorite activity. Then hiking.
To get here, I grabbed the train from Zurich airport (Zürich Flughafen) to Grindelwald, which took about three hours. If you want to add a few additional scenic hours, you can take the train from the airport to Lucerne and then head to Grindelwald. It’s worth the time to see the preternaturally blue lakes and rivers via the rails. Trains run regularly throughout the day, and they’re easy to navigate. Each way is about $100.
I spent the first few days gasping at the view everywhere. Something about snow-capped mountains, verdant hillsides filled with cows and sheep, and intense blue rivers lowers my blood pressure faster than a speedball of Zestril and Norvasc.
To avoid further close encounters with social media-crazed and narcissistic throngs, I reached out to François Bucher of Jungfrau Rides, who offers cycling tours. Using an ebike, I was easily able to pedal the hills and remote roads, both paved and unpaved. Other than an occasional hiker, the only other beings we encountered were cows, and none of them were taking selfies. We started in Grindelwald, went up to the tiny town of Bort for a treat at Alpinehotel Bort, and then to Bussalp for a very late lunch of älplermagronenat (it’s like macaroni and cheese, but better) at Berggasthaus Waldspitz.
It was a leisurely 14-mile ride, and I knew that it wasn’t particularly difficult because I didn’t feel sore the next day. I spent the next few weeks bragging I had biked through the Alps, leaving out the detail that it was an ebike.
Grindelwald is a small town, it’s population is just under 4,000, but because there are more hotel rooms than residents, the dining choices were abundant. The first night was raclette night at my hotel (the Sunstar), so I stuck around for the deliciously gooey meal. There’s nothing more indulgent than melting slices of gruyère on a tiny grill at your table and then pouring the bubbling cheese over small, boiled potatoes.
More options, you say? One night I had pizza with goat cheese, figs, sheep salami, pine nuts, and alpine herbs at the family owned Onkel Tom’s Pizzeria. Another evening I went the indulgent route and had pheasant fillet glazed with almond liqueur and Swiss caviar at the very posh Hotel Glacier. I tried the rösti (like a hash brown, but better) at Restaurant Grund, and cycled to the tiny Ischboden-Hütte outside of town for the views and the cake.
As you may have guessed, Switzerland isn’t a place for bargain hunters. But during the spring and fall, prices are not as steep as winter and summer. You can score rooms at four-star hotels for under $200 a night in the spring and fall. The lower the star count, the lower the cost. Restaurants are also more expensive, but like hotels, there are many cheaper options. Plan accordingly — unless you’ve recently received a large inheritance or have a trust fund.
I ended up saving money by skipping attractions and spending my days hiking. I was blessed with perfect weather, so it made my treks more enjoyable. Even if you’re not particularly athletic, there are several options. One morning I took a gondola to the top of a mountain called Männlichen and strolled the Royal Walk. It’s only 20 minutes from the gondola to a big crown that you step inside for a full 360-degree view. From there I took the Panorama Trail (the name is very accurate). You’re already at about 7,000 feet and you can stick to a loop that gradually descends.
By far my favorite free activity was watching a seasonal alpine cow parade, and yes, it’s as amazing as it sounds. Dairy farmers let their cows graze in the mountains throughout the summer and lead them into the valley in the fall. To mark the occasion, cows are crowned with flowers and adorned with huge clanging bells. It’s like a cow drag show. These bovines strutted through town as if they were dressed for drag bingo.
I watched a German couple taking pictures of the parade, and asked if they’d like a picture with one of the cows. They looked at me as if I had three heads and said, “No thank you, we know what our bodies look like.” I thought back to the woman who yelled at me for accidentally stepping into her photo at Jungfraujoch – Top of Europe and realized that there are, thankfully, still people who want to travel to enjoy experiences rather than fill their TikTok and Instagram accounts.
So I stood alongside the German couple with a wide grin on my face, enjoying the 500-year-old tradition of the cow parade. Even better, there was no one around telling me I was ruining their photos.