Swiss Bliss: Hiking the Via Alpina in Switzerland

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Good friends, clear skies and a meandering mountain trail make for an idyllic summer alpine adventure.

It was a trip measured in kilometres hiked (96), kilograms of Alpkäse cheese consumed (11) and selfies taken (400, give or take). A couple of summers ago, San Francisco photographer Jake Stangel and four friends convened in Zurich, curing their jet lag on the sunny banks of the city’s Limmat River. Two days later, they boarded a train to Meiringen at the base of the snow‑capped Swiss Alps – where the real adventure began. The group embarked on a six‑day sojourn along part of the Via Alpina, a network of five well‑marked mountain trails spanning eight countries from Slovenia to Monaco. The Swiss stretch includes 20 stages of a trail that climbs steadily through steep passes before descending into remote alpine villages that welcome trekkers with cold beer and warm plates of rösti, just as they have for centuries.

May 30, 2022

The Rotstockhütte, about 2,039 metres above sea level at the foot of the Schilthorn (a summit renowned for its aerial cable car and revolving restaurant, which famously served as a villain’s headquarters in the Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), is just one of many alpine huts that dot the route: part restaurant, part hostel, part beer hall. “We sat out on the patio with beers because the weather was perfect and the sun was shining,” Stangel says.

Related: Things to do in Zurich (If You Like Being Extremely Relaxed)

Along the banks of the Limmat you can bike, swim or just plonk yourself down on a towel and take it all in. The Flussbad Oberer Letten is a 400‑metre‑long swimming channel with beach volleyball, a boules pitch and proximity to plenty of lively restaurants and cafés. “We built our time in Zurich around the river,” Stangel says. “There’s an exuberance in the air, and you can just sit and listen to the cacophony of languages and bask in the cultural beauty of it all.” 

“We arrived in Wengen after hiking all day and encountered all these stylish people with selfie sticks – I loved the contrast between us,” says Stangel. Wengen and its breathtaking surrounds serve as the backdrop for engagement photos for couples from around the world: The car‑free community perched improbably halfway up the Eiger has long been romanticized as the quintessential mountain town – early‑19th‑century tourists included Mary Shelley and Felix Mendelssohn. 

“Heute Ruhetag” on the signboard outside Restaurant Kaltenbrunnen in Schattenhalb translates roughly as “Today is rest day,” and had it not been so early on the first day of their hike when Stangel and his friends passed by, they would most certainly have stopped in. “I was enraptured by the colour palette of this scene and loved the font and design of the sign,” Stangel says. The menu is typical of the fare they encountered along the trail: rösti, beer and homemade fruitcake.

On the Limmat in Zurich you can wander a little way upstream along the boardwalk, then plunge off a bridge and let the current carry you back to where you left your towel behind, warming in the sun. (In summer, the water stays a comfortable 20°C.) “We could hear reggae music playing in the background and see people sipping coffee at cafés on the water – no one was moving very quickly,” says Stangel. “Everyone was just out enjoying life.” 

The sturdy stone Blüemlisalphütte with its candy‑cane shutters appears to have sprouted from the rocky outcrop on which it sits (the booking site recommends that you be “sure of step” for the ascent). It was the midway point on the group’s last day from Griesalp to Kandersteg. By then they’d taken to chanting “Ich habe Aprikosenkuchen in der Küche!” (I have apricot fruitcake in the kitchen!) whenever they neared an alpine hut in anticipation of the fresh pastries they’d find there.

You can hike to this scenic village in the summer; in winter, you can ski here. The one thing you can’t do is arrive by car. At an elevation of 1,661 metres, Mürren is the highest village in the Bern canton that is inhabited all year round (by roughly 450 people). Its cozy wooden chalets, proximity to spectacular waterfalls and unparalleled views of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau mountains make it the ideal spot to soak up all things Swiss. 

Travelling with a group can be as much of an adventure as negotiating a steep alpine ascent – Stangel and his friends had never done a hiking trip together before, but it was drama‑free. “It was cool that we ended up being in sync with how we spent our time,” he says. “The hiking was just the right degree of difficulty for all of us, and in Zurich, we were content to just lie in a row with a book, rotating from stomach to back to ensure we got even tans.”

At a shop in Wengen, Stangel spotted a carousel of postcards he felt sure would have appealed to Swedish photographer Lars Tunbjörk, who died in 2015 and was widely celebrated for the way he captured the small absurdities of modern life. “I often take shots as a homage to him,” Stangel says. “I loved the dated designs of the postcards with their 20 different views of the Alps – one was crooked and reminded me of Tunbjörk’s compositions, which were often slightly off‑kilter.”

Related: A 5‑Day Trek Across the Alps’ World‑Famous Haute Route

When researching hikes, Stangel wanted to find one challenging enough to foster a sense of accomplishment at the end of each day, but not so demanding that he’d have to worry about falling off a cliff or running out of water – and he found that on the Via Alpina. “You feel part of a long hiking tradition where everything you see has been a part of the landscape for centuries,” he says. “It really is one of the most perfect, picturesque versions of the Alps.”