Switzerland might look tiny on paper, but with most of its land gobbled up by the Alps, this little European nation packs in a lot of vertical.
Wherever you go, you’re in for one hell of a drive: roads unfurl along the shores of great lakes and glaciers, mountain passes corkscrew up to fairy-tale medieval castles and on the high roads, every glorious bend makes you want to screech to a halt and yodel in delight.
Neatly wrapping it all up is the big one: the 1600km (994-mile) Grand Tour of Switzerland, an epic, efficiently signposted lap of the country that links 12 Unesco World Heritage sites and shows off the Alpine nation from its most flattering angles.
Short on time? Don’t worry – we’ve picked the 7 best road trips in Switzerland to give you a head start.
1. Furka Pass
Best road trip for glaciers and mountain peaks
Obergoms–Andermatt; 35km (22 miles)
The wows never leave your lips and the Alps never leave your rear-view mirror on this astonishingly steep, snaking, stop-the-car-and-grab-the-camera drive from the remote valley of the Goms in Valais to mountain-encrusted Andermatt in Uri.
If you feel like Bond behind the wheel, it’s no coincidence: this road starred in the car chase scene in the 1964 movie Goldfinger and brings out the 007 in everyone. Swerving precariously around switchbacks, it tops out at the 2429m (7969ft) Furka Pass, where you can peer across the lunar rockscape of a wind-battered plateau and park to see the deeply crevassed Rhône Glacier and its ice grotto, before the long, sweeping descent to Andermatt.
Planning tip: Drive the Furka Pass west to east for full-on, hairpin-riddled drama and views of austere peaks and glaciers that will draw constant gasps. The road goes with the snow, opening roughly from June to October, but check conditions before heading out.
2. The countryside between Appenzell and St Moritz
Best road trip for rural Switzerland
Appenzell–St Moritz; 200km (124 miles)
Switzerland’s rural, folksy heart beats loudest in the Appenzell region, snuggling up to Liechtenstein in the country’s northeast. It’s a terrifically unsung region for a road trip, with rolling dairy country giving way to lavishly frescoed towns. A week? Doable. Two weeks? Now you’re talking…
The route passes Säntis mountain (at the summit of which you can see six countries), the seven wavy limestone peaks of the Churfirsten range and the pretty medieval hamlet of Werdenberg before crossing little-but-lovely Liechtenstein, with an essential stop-off at its castle-topped capital, Vaduz.
The mountains soar ever higher as you cruise south to vine-rimmed Maienfeld – setting of the beloved Swiss children’s book Heidi – and the gorge-spanning Salginatobel Bridge, a feat of engineering described as a work of art.
3. Southern Switzerland's peaks
Best road trip for mountain scenery
Lugano–Zermatt; 264km (164 miles)
The Alps are your constant companion on this ravishing drive through the high mountains of southern Switzerland, which takes in both the Gotthard and Furka passes. You'll want to allow at least a week to do it justice.
Begin at the route’s end in lakeside Lugano, which shoulders up to Italy and delivers a shot of dolce vita in its cafe-rimmed piazzas and palm-fringed parks. From here, the road cruises north to Locarno – another looker, with its botanical gardens and palazzo-filled Renaissance Old Town – and Unesco World Heritage Bellinzona, with its trio of hilltop medieval fortresses.
The language switches from Italian to German as you power north into the Alps proper and Airolo at the foot of the Gotthard Pass. This drive is simply too good to rush, so factor in time for a break in Andermatt, where big wilderness, high-elevation hikes and sensational Alpine scenery await.
Just west of here, the heart-quickening, hairpin-bend-riddled Furka Pass leads you up and over into the glacier-encrusted mountains of Valais. The final stretch of the trip encompasses Bettmeralp, the epic Aletsch Glacier and Brig, with its whimsical Stockalper Palace, building to a crescendo in Zermatt, where the mighty fang of Matterhorn holds you in its thrall.
4. Gotthard Pass
Best road trip for gorges and canyons
Andermatt–Airolo; 26.5km (16.5 miles)
Sure, you could take the tunnel (one of the world’s longest) through the St-Gotthard Massif, but where’s the fun in that?
If it’s Alpine highs you’re after, the old road over the 2108m (6196ft) Gotthard Pass enthralls. Buckle up, roll down the window and prepare for a feast of wild, lonely, bleakly beautiful mountain scenery on this serpentine road linking the Italian-speaking Swiss region of Ticino to the German-speaking region of Uri. If the curvy road seems a challenge today, just think of the poor souls that once made the arduous journey on foot and with pack animals.
In a former customs house at the top of the pass, the seasonal Museo Nazionale San Gottardo gives insight into the history and culture of the pass, but it’s the heart-quickening views you’ll remember most.
Even the Romans shied away from the Gotthard, and it wasn’t until the Devil’s Bridge was built in the 1300s that the pass became properly accessible. The bridge straddles the Schöllenen Gorge, where walls of sheer granite plunge to the raging Reuss River far below.
On the south side of the Gotthard Pass, the cobblestone Tremola is a tour de force of 37 switchbacks that send you pinballing down to Airolo.
Planning tip: The road is weather dependent – it's usually open from June to October.
5. Julier Pass
Best road trip for getting off the beaten track
Chur–St Moritz; 157km (98 miles)
Scenery like this should come with a drumroll. Unfurling through the otherworldly gray, jagged, moraine-streaked Alps of Graubünden, the 2284m (7494ft) Julier Pass is the icing on the cake of a lovely, long, winding drive that connects the Alpine city of Chur to St Moritz in the Engadine Valley.
Little-trafficked and thrillingly wild, the pass has been used since Roman times, and remains of a Roman temple are still visible. The road dives deep into the heart of the Albula Alps, ticking off pristine mountain landscapes like Parc Ela, Switzerland’s biggest nature park, where you might be tempted to temporarily swap the open road for a hiking trail or two.
Unspooling like a ribbon, the Julier Pass frequently tops polls of Switzerland’s most beautiful drives and for good reason: its remote, far-away-from-everywhere feel adds to its appeal tenfold.
Planning tip: While the drive is technically open year-round, take care with snow and ice. You’ll need winter tires and snow chains in the cold months.
6. Western Switzerland
Best road trip for lakes and forests
Geneva–Neuchâtel; 190km (118 miles)
The Alps get a lot of love, but sidling up to France in Switzerland’s not-so-wild west, the deliciously off-the-radar Jura region has its own quiet, unexpected beauty, with lakes and vineyards rolling to châteaux and pine forest-cloaked hills.
Begin with a powerful hit of culture in worldly Geneva, reclining gracefully on the shores of its croissant-shaped lake. From here, the route tiptoes off the beaten track north into the Jura Vaudois Nature Park for hikes with lake views and tastings of Gruyère cheese at rural Alpine huts.
Devote at least a couple of days to the second half of the drive, as you cruise north to serene Lac de Joux, with its watchmaking heritage, and Vallorbe, where Switzerland’s most astounding limestone caves reveal a wonderland of subterranean rivers, waterfalls and rock formations.
Near Lac de Neuchâtel, you’ll find the lushly rolling Val-de-Travers, birthplace of the “green fairy” (absinthe) and the great crescent-moon canyon of Creux du Van. The drive ends with a metaphorical bang at Neuchâtel, topped off by a turreted fantasy of a medieval castle.
7. Switzerland's top cities
Best road trip for nature among urban Switzerland
Zürich–Bern; 315km (196 miles)
Bookended by Switzerland’s de facto capital and the country's largest city (commonly mistaken for the capital), this sensationally varied road trip leaps joyously from the urban to the outdoors, winging you from culture-crammed cities to great abbeys, medieval castles, lakes and mountains of myth.
Bidding Zürich’s big-hitting museums and cool waterfront bars a reluctant adieu, the drive swings south along the shores of Lake Zürich, with tantalizing views of the Alps on cloudless days. Stop off at ludicrously pretty towns, such as vine-ribbed, castle-topped Rapperswil, before heading south to Einsiedeln and its whopping Benedictine abbey.
Lucerne hits the cultural sweet spot, with its perfect-looking Old Town and galleries. Detour to fjord-like, exquisitely turquoise Lake Uri for a taste of the country’s geographical and spiritual heartland. Squeeze in dairy tours and meadow strolls in mellow Emmental as you ease your way southwest to Bern, city of Einstein, elegant arcades and wild swims in the Aare River.
Planning tip: Aim for at least a week behind the wheel – preferably more.