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The best time to visit Switzerland really depends on what you want to do, see and experience.
Although we have four distinct seasons, weather varies extremely and depends pretty much on the altitude. We have very low and very high elevations, mountain ranges, deep valleys and plateaus where winds can be strong; therefore we experience a multitude of micro-climates.
We often experience unusual weather patterns: snowfall during late spring and early fall, a cold snap in June, even in summer, heat waves or frosty nights in July and August, thick fog below 1000 m to 1200 m (3.281/3.937 ft) above sea level between early October and early spring. And when the mild but strong Föhn wind blows through the valleys the climate chances in an instant; snow melts like chocolate in the sun and people complain about headaches.
We have places with snow year-round - to name just a few: the Jungfraujoch in the Bernese Oberland, Mt. Titlis near Lucerne, Diavolezza in the Engadin, Zermatt and Saas Fee in the Valais and Glacier 3000 in the Vaudois Alps (Les Diablerets). The Aletsch glacier can be viewed from the Jungfraufoch as well as from Eggishorn above Fiesch in the Canton Valais.
The sunniest and driest regions are the Canton Valais and Canton Graubünden with more sunny hours per year than the rest of Switzerland. The rainiest area is around St. Gallen and not for nothing are the meadows of the Canton Appenzell lush and Irish-like green. The foggiest area is on the central plateau (especially around Lucerne in winter), the Mittelland, along the Rhine and Lake Constance. The Bernese Oberland and the Swiss Riviera are somewhere in-between.
And then, the forecast is often not reliable as well. Apparently it's hard to foretell anything in the Alps. You can check it in the morning for the next day and when you check again at night, the forecast may has changed.
So you see, our country might be small but the weather is as varied as the activities and sightseeing options.
Spring is when nature awakens - deciduous trees get their greenery, meadows display a wide range of flowers, cherry and apple trees start to bloom, fields fill up with narcissi, flowering magnolia trees in the south display their exuberant beauty and bear garlic finds its way through the ground cover of dead leaves - a welcome addition to many dishes. And fog disappears.
Spring starts earliest in the southern part of Switzerland. Forsythias, camellia and magnolia trees are already in full bloom in March, especially around Lago Maggiore and Lake Lugano in the Canton Ticino.
In the rest of Switzerland, March is still on the cool side and usually snow fall is frequent, even in the lowlands. Although the lower the altitude the faster the snow will melt again.
Alpine regions and ski resorts are still mostly covered with snow - March is an excellent time for skiing: the sun is warmer, the slopes are still in perfect condition and the crowd has disappeared.
The ski season ends on Easter weekend. About two weeks before Easter, school holidays start all over Europe and more people frequenting the pistes and prices tend to go up again.
The ski resorts pretty much shut down after Easter and only very view hotels stay open, funiculars and cable cars close until mid/end of May when the hiking season starts.
The weather gets a tad warmer around mid April to early May and the narcissi fields and a wide range of flowers appear on meadows in the lowlands. The wind is quite strong in western Switzerland, especially around Lake Geneva as well as in the Mittelland.
May weather is a fickle thing. It could be summer with temperatures in the mid-20s but it could easily be the opposite with cold days and frosty nights, even in the lowlands. It can rain, hail, or be hot - you never know. And as higher up you go, the cooler it gets. May is still too early for high alpine hiking since snow patches still cover the ground. Funiculars and gondolas may not be open until end of May.
The hiking season starts officially in June and the high tourist season at the end of the month. The weather is usually better than in May, quite balmy and with less precipitation. High Alpine meadows fill up with flowers.
This is the peak tourist season with July and August being the most crowded months, especially on the well-trodden tourist paths around Lake Lucerne, the Bernese Oberland and Jungfrau Region, the Swiss Riviera and parts of the Canton Valais with Zermatt topping the list.
You will have to make hotel and apartment arrangements early if you want to find convenient accommodation and avoid paying an arm and a leg. Of course, you always can find a hotel room in smaller villages a little outside of the tourist centers. However, keep in mind that this will add up travel time for sightseeing. If you drive a car that wouldn't be a problem but if you use public transport - even though excellent - it adds time to your schedule and it might not be convenient if you have lots of luggage.
Summer brings plenty of sunshine but ironically it's also the rainiest season, especially along the north side of the Alps.
Then again, summer weather is as unpredictable as during the rest of the year…
Even though 2015 started out cool and wet - way below average - the weather in June, July and August was almost as hot as in 2003 - the hottest year since one started measuring temperatures 150 years ago. Jackets vanished for months; people lingered in street cafes late into the night and impromptu beach bars popped up around lakes and on river banks. Whereas July and August in 2014 brought on the rainiest summer season experienced for decades.
September and the first three weeks in October are great months for outdoor activities. Rain is less frequent and though you might experience the first snowfall in the Alps, usually the white stuff is gone within a couple of days. The hiking trails are less busy, the nights are crisp but the days are sunny and balmy. It's my favorite time to spend outdoors in the mountains.
But it's also the time when mist and fog starts to creep in around lakes and on the central plateau, especially around Lucerne as well as around Lake Constance and the Mittleland.
The grape harvest early to mid-October brings harvest festivals abound. One place you always can taste wine and learn about the cultivation of grapes is the Vinorama in the Lavaux vineyards on Lake Geneva.
Indian summer is a great time to experience the change of colours - from green to golden to shades of reds. Autumn colours start to appear sooner at higher altitudes than at lower levels. You will see trees and bushes start to turn colour over 1000 m (3281 ft) starting at the beginning of October. Then again, this also will depend on the temperatures. Usually, larches are at their best in the mountains from late October to beginning of November.
Funiculars and cable ways start to close their operation end of October - some just for a few days for maintenance but most close until the ski season starts around mid-November. The same applies to hotels in ski resorts or pronounced tourist areas. Some sightseeing options close during winter, for example the Open Air Museum Ballenberg near Brienz.
Of course, the Jungfraujoch (Jungfrau Region) and Mount Titlis (Enbelberg) are accessible 365 days a year; the Schilthornbahn (Mürren), and the Firstbahn (Grindelwald) close only for a few days of maintenance as does the Gornergratbahn and the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise (Zermatt). Mount Pilatus (Lucerne) will be accessible by funicular but not by gondola (Golden roundtrip only possible between May and October). Some of them close entirely for winter, for example Rothornbahn, Harder-Kulm funicular and Schynige Platte. These are just a very few examples so please check operating hours for mountain transportation before you visit.
November until mid-December is usually a bit drab since rainfall can be quite intense, daylight gets considerably shorter and the weather grows colder. "Frau Holle" may not have started making her bed by sprinkling the slopes with snowflakes. Trees are leafless and larches lose their beautiful and intense yellow-orange fall needles, flowers are gone from the windowsills, the gardens and the meadows.
Fog appears on the central plateau and around lake areas such as Lake Geneva, Lake Thun and Lake Brienz. Lake Lucerne and Lake Constance. Fog can be persistent though generally goes partially away in the afternoons. It does not happen every day but it can. Even if there's fog in the lowlands, usually it's sunny and brilliant above 1000m - 1200m (3280 to 3938 ft).
Then again, the last two years (2014/15) we experienced exceptionally beautiful and warm weather. So you see, there's never a guarantee for anything.
Of course, you always can go shopping, visit museums and Christmas markets, enjoy plays or get pampered in a wellness resort.
Starting at an altitude of 1200m - 1500m (3937 - 4921 ft), precipitation during winter usually occurs as snowfall, and these areas are usually covered by a solid layer of snow until end of March - mid April. Most Alpine passes are closed for transport.
It's chilly no matter where you will be staying.
While the high Alpine area is covered in snow, lower altitudes may not experience snow until mid-January. In the most southern parts of Switzerland (Ticino), on the central plateau (around Lucerne), the Mittelland (Solothurn) and the greater Geneva and Basel areas you might only experience snow on a few occasions during winter.
Usually there's low fog on the plain topping out at about 1000m (3280 ft) above sea level. Sometimes breaking up by lunchtime and sometimes not. It's damp in the lowlands and the cold feels colder than the same temperature in the Alpine areas, where the weather usually is sunnier and drier.
It seems though that winter starts later and later - White Christmas did not always happen lately - especially below 1000m (3280 ft.) If you would like to experience Christmas in the snow, then visit ski resorts on very high elevations to be sure to get your fill of that beautiful fluffy whiteness.
The winter climate is unpredictable as well. Ski areas are subject to changing weather and road conditions. Resorts can't always open the ski season as planned. If you are into winter sports and are looking for guaranteed snow, mid-January to mid-March is the best time to visit Switzerland. You don't have to be a skier to enjoy the splendid alpine vistas. Sledding, skating, snowshoeing, winter hiking on groomed trails, wellness in one of the thermal baths and many more winter activities will keep non-skiers entertained as well.
From Christmas to the beginning of January is a very busy time in the ski resorts (less so in cities) and hotel prices peak. Like during the summer months, make reservations early because returning visitors scoop up hotels and apartments as far as a year in advance. Also, most hotels in ski resorts want bookings of 7 nights over Christmas until at least the first week in January and during February (Saturday to Saturday).
So, as you see, weather in Switzerland is somewhat temperamental and ranges from Arctic to Mediterranean. We do have a saying: "There's no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong choice of clothes."
While it's approximately 27 Celsius (80.6 F) in Lugano in July, it will be about minus 4 Celsius (24.8) on the Jungfraujoch. Here's a list I compiled with historical average temperatures in Switzerland.
Despite the unpredictability, Switzerland can be enjoyed pretty much year-round. Just plan your trip according to your interests and take whatever the weather delivers since nobody can control it.
If you want to know the best time to visit Switzerland without having to rub shoulders with hordes of tourists and still enjoy nice weather for outdoor activities and sightseeing, then I'd say June and September to mid-October are your best bets.
Usually, June already brings warm summer weather and September to mid-October has less precipitation than July and August. The latter two months are still fabulous for hiking, and mountain transport usually doesn't close before end of October. Later in October you experience the change of colours.
Skiing is best from mid-January to mid-March, though February is generally the coldest months as well as the most crowded on the slopes because of the school holidays observed throughout Europe. In fact, I love the month of March best for skiing - less crowd, sunny days but still excellent prepared slopes.
Do also check out the Festivals. There might be one or two that could interest you while you are visiting.
Airfare is most expensive during the peak tourist season, but goes up as early as April. Prices for accommodation in typical ski resorts are highest during peak ski season though hotels in cities and towns don't tend to fluctuate too much since they don't rely solely on tourists. You might get a better deal for guided tours outside the high tourist season but prices for trains, buses and boats stay the same year-round, except for the occasional promotion of Swiss Travel Passes. But they are never announced far ahead. You might get lucky or you might not. Sometimes mountain transportation offers a lower price a few days before closing, but don't rely on that.
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