When is the Best Time to Visit Switzerland?
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 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 (a warm wind or Chinook for North Americans) blows through the valleys the climate changes 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 Canton 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, Bettmeralp and Riederalp in the Canton Valais.
The sunniest and driest regions are the Canton Valais and the Engadin in the Canton Graubünden with more sunny hours per year than the rest of Switzerland.
The rainiest areas are around Lucerne, St. Gallen and not for nothing are the meadows of the Canton Appenzell lush and Irish-like green. Then again, even if the Canton Tessin is known as "our Sonnenstube" (sun-lounge), the heftiest storms are to be experienced around Lago Maggiore. The foggiest area is on the central plateau - especially around Lucerne in winter, the Mittelland, and 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, the weather is as varied as our small country.
Spring - 21 March to 20 June
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 frequent the pistes and prices tend to go up again.
The ski resorts pretty much shut down after Easter and hotels reopen again in late spring for the summer season; funiculars and cable cars/aerial cableways close and stop running until end of May/beginning of June when the hiking season starts.
The weather gets a tad warmer around mid April to early May and the narcissi fields bloom and a wide range of flowers appear on meadows. 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, early June.
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.
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Summer - 21 June to 20 September
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 it is 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. 2018 was so dry that wells started to dry up.
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Autumn - 21 September to 20 December
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.
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 turning colours over 1000 m (3281 ft) 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.
The grape harvest early to mid-October brings 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.
But it's also the time when mist and fog start to creep in around lakes and on the central plateau, especially around Lucerne as well as around Lake Constance and the Mittelland, the Swiss Plateau.
Funiculars and cable ways start to close their operation around October 20/25 - 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 (Engelberg) 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 gondola only (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.
Of course, you always can go shopping in our beautiful towns and cities, visit museums and Christmas markets, enjoy plays or get pampered in a wellness resort.
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Winter - 21 December to 20 March
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.