Switzerland is expensive. That's old news.
Wherever you go and whatever you buy, you'll find yourself spending a lot more than you would anywhere else. Unless you're travelling in Bermuda or Norway.
But for a budget traveller, our high prices can be a real turn-off. Which is a shame because Switzerland is a fantastic place to visit.
I mean, would you say no to this?
Yeah, me neither. So let's not get caught up in this downward spiral and focus on some positives instead, shall we? Because if you think about it, even this annoying aspect comes with its plus side.
It makes anything free seem like an absolute steal.
Think about it...
Finding a free museum in Switzerland is a heaps more exciting than in one of those super budget-friendly countries like Poland or Croatia. And the best game plan to protect your budget is to hunt down as many free activities as possible.
Which is exactly what this post is going to help you with. Are you ready to find out what they are?
(Spoiler alert. Some of the following 25 suggestions are probably not what you expected. Free biscuits, anyone?)
1.1 Go cookie-crazy at the Kambly factory store
If you like free biscuits and beautiful landscapes, the Kambly factory store in the idyllic village of Trubschachen will feel like Christmas and Easter all at once. With up to 100 types of delicious biscuits to freely devour, this place will keep you busy for a while.
Or sick. Depending on how far you take it. And I have yet to meet someone who didn't take it too far.
For an in-depth rundown of the Kambly store adventure, visit this article.
1.2 Refill your water bottle
Switzerland is also known as "the water castle of Europe", which makes buying bottled water completely redundant. Drinking water is all over the place and opportunities to refill your bottle are endless.
Zurich alone has 1.200 public fountains and Lucerne even created a water guide to help you find your closest refilling station. Unless you see a sign telling you otherwise ("kein Trinkwasser", "eau non potable" or "aqua non potabile"), you're good to go.
Opinions on drinking from mountain streams are divided, though. I personally avoid it whenever I can...
1.3 Say cheese
Oh boy, Swiss cheese. Don't get me started...
Nothing I've ever tasted abroad came even close to what we have here. Swiss cheese is just the best. I occasionally get called a cheese snob for saying that during my travels, but I'll take it. 🙂
The coolest part about having 450 different types of cheese is visiting one of the many cheese dairies.
Here's a list of places that let you enter for free. Mind you, some of them charge a little extra for the tasting at the end or to see a special section of their dairy. But for a general impression of the Swiss cheese-making procedure, you don't have to pay for the following vendors:
Oh, and if you happen to turn into a cheese snob after your trip to Switzerland, please let me know. One can never have too many allies...
2.1 Use free public transport
Public transport in Switzerland isn't cheap. But luckily, several Swiss cities offer free use of public transport to their visitors.
Upon check-in at your accommodation in Bern, Basel, Lucerne, Lausanne, Montreux, Geneva and the whole Canton of Ticino, you receive a ticket that lets you use local transport for free during the time of your stay.
More and more cities seem to be adopting this concept, so check with your accommodation if they offer some sort of a tourist card upon arrival.
2.2 Grab a free bike
In some cities, you can borrow free bikes through a platform called Schweizrollt. All you need to do is leave a deposit and/or some sort of identification and off you go.
The cities currently participating in Schweizrollt are Zurich, Geneva, La Chaux-de-Fonds, Le Locle, Neuchâtel and the Canton of Valais. You can also grab a free bike in St. Gallen by heading to the train station and following the signs to the "Velostation".
3.1 Tag along on a free walking tour
The concept of free walking tours has become hugely popular over the past couple of years. You can find them anywhere from La Paz to Paris and Tokyo all the way down to Sydney.
It's an idea that has taken off globally and still continues to grow. And here's how this works.
A highly motivated, talkative and usually local guide takes you around a city for a couple of hours. This makes for tons of local knowledge, random facts and interesting stories.
Since those tours operate on tips alone, you basically join for free and decide at the end how much it was worth to you.
If you felt like it sucked, you can just sneak off. But they almost always go above and beyond to entertain and inform you so leaving a decent tip is kind of a no-brainer.
As of May 2019, free walking tours exist in thirteen Swiss cities. To find one that suits your taste and schedule, head over to the official Freewalk website.
3.2 Peek around our churches
Switzerland has a wide array of impressive churches and cathedrals to show off. To my knowledge, they're all free to enter. (If you happen to find one that takes an entrance fee, I'd like to apologise in advance.)
Certain churches, like for example St. Ursus Cathedral in Solothurn, Grossmünster in Zurich, Laurenzenkirche in St. Gallen or Basler Münster in Basel, give you the opportunity to climb the tower for a small fee.
Don't miss this if you're after postcard and Instagram-worthy views of the city and its surroundings.
3.3 Take a good look at the city model in Zurich
If you're into architecture and city planning, you're going to love the city model in Zurich. This wooden replica of Switzerland's biggest city shows over 50.000 existing buildings as well as the city's major planned projects.
You can find the city model in the basement of the Department of City Planning, which is situated at Lindenhofstrasse 19 in Zurich.
By the way, it's not uncommon to burst into a meeting here as this room also serves as a conference room. But as long as you keep your voice down and don't interrupt any important discussions, you can still take a look at the model.
3.4 Join a free tour of the Swiss Parliament Building
Understanding the Swiss political system can be as difficult as nailing jelly to a tree.
I could drift off into open waters here and start explaining our direct democracy and how our Head of State consists of seven people instead of just one person.
But I won't.
Instead, if you're interested in all those political questions and our Parliament Building, you can join one of their free Parliament tours. To reserve your spot, use this booking form.
3.5 Visit a free museum
With over 1.100 museums scattered across the country, anyone should be able to find something to their taste here.
And the best part is that roughly a third of our museums are free.
Not the big ones like Technorama in Winterthur or the Museum of Communication in Bern. But CERN in Geneva and the Nature Museum in Solothurn, for instance, are free to enter.
Unfortunately, I couldn't find a conclusive list in English, but I did find something helpful in German.
It's a list of all the Swiss museums. If you visit this website, scroll down to "5. Alle Schweizer Museen" and sort them by price, the free ones will appear at the top.
By the way, if you're travelling with a Swiss Travel Pass, you automatically own the Swiss Museum Pass as well. This gives you free entrance to all the places listed here. (Spoiler alert: Certain chocolate factories also count as museums and are included in this pass)
Find the perfect itinerary
for your trip to Switzerland...
3.6 Slow down
Travelling can be exhausting when you power through a ridiculously crammed itinerary.
And while it may seem reasonable to tick off as many places as possible, this can cause us (yes, this happens to me, too) to miss what's right in front of us. All the free stuff that's almost too obvious to notice.
So next time you find yourself racing from museum to monument to must-do activity, spending way too much money in the process, slow down.
Take a couple of hours getting lost in a city. Stroll through its little alleyways, check out its churches and shops or find a cosy spot by the lake or river.
3.7 Party at a free festival
Free festivals, parties and markets take place all year round.
Be that a street food festival, a local party like "Märetfescht" in Solothurn or "em Beppi si Jazz" in Basel, a buskers festival, the yearly madness during carnival, one of the countless fun fairs, open-air festivals or concerts or whatever else your heart desires.
The best place to find out what's happening in your area is the Swiss Events app. It maintains an up-to-date list with everything that's going on in Switzerland.
3.8 Explore our mighty castles
Castles might not be the main attraction you were expecting to find in Switzerland, right?
But you'd be surprised at how many awesome castles we have. Like for instance Chateau de Chillon by Lake Geneva, Gruyères Castle in the Canton of Fribourg or Lenzburg Castle in the Canton of Aargau. Just to name a few.
Unfortunately, most of them aren't free to enter. But since castles are just as impressive from the outside as they are from the inside, you can still enjoy them for free without going in.
To find the most beautiful ones, visit the Swiss castle website.
PS: If you're travelling with a Swiss Travel Pass, several castles are included in your free Swiss Museum Pass.
4.1 Take a stroll through our botanical gardens
Botanical gardens are nearly as abundant in Switzerland as museums.
Almost every city and every university offering a plant-related study programme has a publicly available garden with indigenous and foreign plants.
To find a botanical garden in your area, use the search form on the the official Swiss Tourism website.
4.2 Stand in the mist of Europe's largest waterfall
The Rhine Falls near Schaffhausen are one spectacular force of nature.
During summer, around 600.000 litres of water plummet down this 150 metres wide (492 feet) and 23 metres tall (75 feet) waterfall.
Access from the northern shore is free while viewing Europe's largest waterfall from the south costs 5 CHF. This fee includes the viewing platforms as well as the entrance to Laufen Castle, which also serves as a Youth Hostel, right above the Rhine Falls.
4.3 Wander through the Lavaux vineyards
The Lavaux vineyards are the perfect place for wine and/or nature lovers.
Stretching all the way from Lausanne to Montreux, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of my favourite spots in western Switzerland. And completely free to access if you don't stop for a glass of wine along the way.
Not only is it super peaceful to get lost in those little pathways winding through the vineyards, the spectacular views over Lake Geneva and into the Swiss and French Alps are also unparallelled.
The easiest way to reach the vineyards is by local train from either Montreux or Lausanne. Get off in Epesses, Villette or anywhere else along the way and make your way uphill. Or follow the directions on this website.
4.4 Dip your toes - pretty much anywhere
As you know from earlier, Switzerland is the water castle of Europe. With roughly 1.500 lakes scattered across the country, you're never too far from an opportunity to go for a swim.
Cute little ponds, freezing cold mountain lakes, refreshing rivers and our bigger lakes attract water lovers all year round for all sorts of activities.
Unless you see a sign telling you otherwise, you're good to hop in. Just be careful when you go for a swim in a river. Those currents don't always do what you expect them to.
By the way, my favourite mountain lakes are Seealpsee in the Alpstein mountain range, Oeschinensee in the Canton of Bern and Riffelsee right in front of the Matterhorn in Zermatt.
4.5 Hike until your feet fall off
With the Alps making up a whopping two-thirds of Switzerland's land mass, your hiking opportunities over here are endless.
If you summed up all the official hiking trails across Switzerland, you'd end up with roughly 65.000 kilometres (40.400 miles) worth of trails. Put into perspective, that's one and a half times the world's circumference.
Or 18.5 times the Appalachian Trail. As you can see, hiking is a free activity that can technically keep you busy for years. 🙂
4.6 Walk across the world's longest pedestrian suspension bridge
An incredibly head spinning adventure is hiking across the world’s longest pedestrian suspension bridge near Zermatt.
This masterpiece of a bridge opened in 2017 and stretches 494 metres (1.620 feet) across the valley. The circular track leading across the bridge starts and finishes in Randa, which can be reached in 15 minutes by train from Zermatt.
4.7 Visit the Swiss National Park
Most national parks in the world make you pay to enter. But guess what. The Swiss don't.
Founded in 1914, the Swiss National Park in the Canton of Grisons is the oldest national park in the Alps. It offers 80 kilometres (50 miles) of hiking trails that take you through breathtaking landscapes.
The park is also home to various native animals such as marmots, ibex, deer, chamois, jackdaws and many more.
Getting to the main entrance in Zernez is a bit of a mission but not really a problem with the Swiss public transport system.
4.8 Go stargazing
In case you've never seen the Milky Way galaxy before, or you just like stars in general, you're in luck. Find a remote spot with little light pollution, look up and wait for those shooting stars to roll in.
Another option is to bring your tent and spend the night outside. Like I mentioned in this post, wild camping is legal in Switzerland. Or at least not illegal...
5.1 Spend some quality time with the bears
Figuratively speaking, of course.
If you happen to visit Switzerland's capital, make sure you stop by the bear park, which lies at the lower end of the old town of Bern. Unless you're there during hibernation time, you'll be able to observe Björk, Finn, Ursina and Berna go about their daily bear's lives.
5.2 Hang out at a free wildlife park
Several wildlife parks across Switzerland are free to enter and make for a great afternoon trip. Here's a collection of beautiful parks that also teach you a fact or two about the Swiss wildlife.
5.3 Stop by the retired horses of Le Roselet
Tucked away in a village called Les Breuleux in the Canton of Jura, the horse foundation Le Roselet runs a nursing station for retired horses.
Close to 60 elderly horses, ponies and donkeys have found their retirement home here and can be visited all year round.
If heading all the way to Les Breuleux to check out some horses seems a bit out of scale for you, you can always combine the visit with a hike in the Jura mountain range. Trails can be found and planned through Schweizmobil.
5.4 Observe the storks in Switzerland's largest stork station
The stork station in Altreu was brought to life in 1950 when storks in Switzerland were almost extinct. Max Bloesch, a commited sports teacher, worked on bringing the storks back to Switzerland and eventually, his endeavours paid off.
Today, over 40 breeding pairs enjoy their summers soaring through the air, strutting across the fields and clattering on the rooftops in Altreu.
If you're in the Solothurn area, don't miss out on a couple of relaxing hours in this charming spot next to the River Aare.
Zip that wallet
And this completes our hunt for free things to do in Switzerland. As you can see, there's plenty of stuff to do around here that doesn't require you to open your wallet.
I'm sure this list isn't conclusive so if you happen to bump into any additional free activities you'd like to share, please let us know in the comments below.