Boasting snow-tipped mountains, glassy Alpine lakes, lush valleys dotted with picturesque villages and thriving cities, Switzerland may be a small country but it offers a large wealth of historic sites for you to visit. Among these notable locations are Vindonissa, the Palais des Nations and Chateau de Chillon, each telling part of Switzerland’s history of Roman invaders, medieval counts, humanitarianism and more.
To help you decide where to start, we’ve picked out the 10 best historic sites in Switzerland for you to explore.
What are the 10 Best Historic Sites in Switzerland?
Grossmunster (Great Minster) is a famous medieval church in Zurich with a history dating to Charlemagne. Indeed, it is said that the Frankish king built the first incarnation of Grossmunster on the site where he discovered the graves of the city’s patrons, Felix and Regula.
It was here in Grossmunster in the 16th century that Huldrych Zwingli and Heinrich Bullinger started the Swiss-German Reformation.
Visitors should also take the 187 stairs from the nave up to the tower vantage point, from where you have panoramic views over the Zurich rooftops and lake as well as majestic Alpine summits on the horizon.
Chateau de Chillon – also known as Castle Chillon – is a picturesque fort which uses both Lake Geneva and a moat created between a small island and the mainland for defence. First mentioned between 1160 or 1005 AD, it is along the shoreline of Lake Geneva near Veytaux, Switzerland.
Through the centuries it has been home to the Counts of Savoy as well as Lord Byron.
Historically, Chillon has attracted romantic writers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Gustave Flaubert, and Lord Byron. Today, Chillon is amongst the most visited castles in Switzerland and Europe, with 42 rooms and an accompanying audio guide making it a hugely worthwhile visit.
St. Peter’s Cathedral is a famed cathedral in Geneva dating back to the 12th century. Visitors who tour the cathedral can still see some traces of the site’s onetime grandeur in its stained glass windows as well as in the 15th century Chapel of the Maccabees, which has been restored. There is also the opportunity to climb the cathedral towers for great views.
In addition to the current incarnation of St. Peter’s Cathedral, there are the archaeological remains of two earlier churches, once dating to the 11th century, the other to the 4th, both visible next to it today.
The Palais des Nations (Palace of Nations) is the home of the United Nations office in Geneva, Switzerland. A hugely busy building, it hosted more than 10,000 intergovernmental meetings in 2012 alone.
Now at a length of some 600 metres, the grand Palais des Nations is where one finds several important elements of the UN, including its Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights and Human Rights Council.
The facility is an outstanding testimony to 20th century architecture. Situated in the beautiful Ariana park, it is a popular tourist site both for its historical and political significance and for its scenery.
Fort Vallorbe, also known as Fortress Vallorbe and the Pre-Giroud Military Fort, was a World War Two artillery fort which had great strategic importance defending the Col de Jougne Pass as well as the Swiss-French border. Above ground, all that is seen of Fort Vallorbe are 3 buildings – underneath is another story.
Construction of Fort Vallorbe began in 1937 and was completed in 1941. Hewn out of the surrounding rock, Fort Vallorbe was built into a network of underground tunnels including accommodation, a hospital and munitions storage, all with air filtration. These self-sufficient bunkers accommodated up to 200 men by 1945.
The Reformation Monument (Monument de la Reformation) in Geneva is a tribute to the Protestant Reformation in Switzerland which occurred in the 16th century. It was in 1909, on the 400th anniversary of the birth of Jean Calvin, that construction of the Reformation Monument began, with its location adjacent to the city’s historic defensive walls.
Mainly comprised of a 100 metre wall – hence it is also known as the Reformation Wall (Murs des Reformateurs) – the Reformation Monument also celebrates the movement’s four main leaders in the form of five metre high statues of each of Jean Calvin, Theodore de Beze, Guillaume Farel and John Knox, together with smaller memorials to other figures involved and depictions of the events of the Reformation.
The inscription of “Post Tenebras Lux” is the Latin motto of the Reformation, meaning “After the darkness, light.”
Peterskirche in Zurich (St. Peter’s Church) is a medieval church famed for having Europe’s largest clock face. Whilst a church has stood on the site of Peterskirche in Zurich since the 9th century, the church itself has undergone several transformations and mostly dates from the 13th century.
Amongst its claims to fame, Peterskirche became the burial site of the first mayor of Zurich, Rudolf Brun, in 1360. The church is also revered for its mix of architectural styles, including Baroque, Gothic and Romanesque.
Gruyeres Castle (Château de Gruyeres) is a picturesque medieval castle which was the seat of nobility for centuries.
Indeed, built in the 13th century, Gruyeres Castle was called home by some nineteen of the counts of Gruyeres, a tradition only ended in the 16th century upon the bankruptcy of the last of these counts – Michel. At this point, Gruyeres Castle along with the rest of the Count’s lands were distributed between his creditors, these being the towns of Berne and Fribourg.
As a result, from 1555 Gruyeres Castle was used as the seat of the Fribourg bailiffs and later the prefects, all up to 1848. For around a century after that, Gruyeres Castle was the summer home of the Balland and Bovy families, finally becoming a museum in the 20th century.
Visitors to Gruyeres Castle can tour its museum, learning about its history and enjoying its pretty architecture. There are also temporary exhibitions on site.
Einsiedeln Abbey (Kloster Einsiedeln) is a picturesque Baroque style Benedictine monastery with an illustrious history dating to the 9th century AD.
Founded in 835 AD by a monk called Meinrad, Einsiedeln Abbey flourished into a cultural hub and a popular pilgrimage site. Its chapel is even said to have been consecrated by Christ himself in 948 AD.
Einsiedeln Abbey still stands in its magnificence at the intersection of the main road beside a large town square. Open all day, be sure to visit the Chapel of Grace, designed in the Neo-classical style which contains the venerated Black Madonna statue and the reliquary of Saint Meinrad.
Vindonissa is the site of a former Roman legionary camp which includes the ruins of an amphitheatre and an aqueduct. First developed under Emperor Tiberius, various remains and excavations now survive in the modern-day town of Windisch, Switzerland, and are listed as a heritage site of national significance.
Today, an interesting ‘Legionnaire Trail’ audioguide walk for visitors of all ages and interests follows daily life as a legionnaire through the ruins and sights of the Vindonissa camp.