It’s travel-poster scenes like these that draw people to Switzerland, an idyllic destination tucked right in the heart of Europe. Happily, all this natural beauty is showcased by boats, buses and trains that make up one of the world’s best transportation networks. Indeed, the Swiss Travel System is fast, frequent and as reliable as a Swiss watch. Switzerland’s trains go everywhere, even the remotest places, and provide million-dollar views along the way. The Swiss Travel Pass is the best ticket to travel around Switzerland; one ticket covers the full public transport network with group discounts available. Swiss International Air Lines has daily departures from many U.S. cities.
Aside from stunning panoramas that keep cameras clicking, faith group travel groups find much to do in Switzerland’s cities. They discover places of deep religious significance, art museums and other cultural treasures, fine dining and shopping. The highlights of four urban jewels – Zurich, Lucerne, Geneva and Basel – are discussed in the following pages.
Zurich Airport, situated at the foot of the Alps and perennially voted one of the best in Europe, is an ideal place to start your tour of Switzerland. It’s an easy rail trip from the airport to downtown Zurich, where you can walk the famous Bahnhofstrasse, take an excursion on Lake Zurich, and see the city’s many religious and historical sites.
Reformers began teaching the principles of Martin Luther in Switzerland as early as 1523 when Huldrych Zwingli, the most important Swiss reformer, applied ideas comprehensively to doctrine and practices, also influenced by Dutch Humanism. In 1519, Zwingli was appointed people’s pastor at Zurich’s Grossmünster (Great Cathedral), and in 1520 he secured permission to preach the “true divine scriptures,” with the resulting sermons helping to initiate the important Swiss Reformation of 1522.
While city fathers voted to make Zurich a Protestant town in the 16th century, two top Zurich religious pilgrimage sights, the Grossmünster (1100) and Fraumünster Church (1250), were built long before that time. The latter church is known for its stained-glass windows by Marc Chagall. St. Peter’s Church, another landmark in Reformation history, boasts Europe’s largest clock face. Helferei, the wood-paneled office where reformer Zwingli studied and wrote his sermons that forever altered Switzerland, is also open to the public. An easy walking tour along the narrow, cobbled streets of Zurich’s Old Town, which goes back more than 2,000 years, spotlights residences and businesses that were once home to key figures in the Swiss Reformation. Also see the magnificent rooms in Zurich’s guild houses, built between the 11th and 13th centuries by powerful artisans’ associations.
More than 50 museums and 100 art galleries dot the city. The Kunsthaus Zurich (Museum of Fine Art) boasts a significant collection of paintings, sculptures, photographs and videos from the 15th century up to today, including a large Giacometti exhibition. The Swiss National Museum – housed in an over-100-year-old building reminiscent of a fairytale castle – contains the country’s most comprehensive collection of exhibits relating to Swiss cultural history. Traditional and trendy restaurants and vibrant shopping districts are also among Zurich’s attractions, along with recreational activities at close-by Uetliberg Mountain.
Day trips can be made to the Rhine Falls – Europe’s largest waterfalls, Mount Titlis in central Switzerland, Mount Pilatus and Rigi, and the famous Jungfraujoch in the Bernese Oberland. Also in the countryside, you can visit the Anabaptist Cave at Rapperswil, where Anabaptist believers went into exile in the 16th century.
Lucerne, just about an hour from Zürich by train, abounds with historical and religious significance. The starting point for Switzerland’s beautiful Lake Lucerne Region traces its roots to St. Leodegar Monastery, a small 8th century Benedictine cloister on the Reuss River that eventually developed into a modern-day city. For centuries Lucerne has been a crossroads for people and goods traveling on the Gotthard Pass. Also, through the years pilgrims following St. Jacob’s Way to Santiago have traveled through Lucerne.
Lucerne’s Franciscan Church has been under construction since the 13th century with evidence of its history seen in its various architectural styles. The church’s 13th century portions are built in Gothic style, while Renaissance and Baroque styles follow as the walls rise. The church’s wooden carved pulpit dates from the early 15th century, and flags along its upper walls date from the 17th century, when the church doubled as the city hall.
The Counter Reformation came to Lucerne in the 17th century when Jesuits arrived, influenced by the wealthy Ludwig Pfyffer von Altishofen. On the Reuss River in 1666 they built the elaborate Jesuit Church dedicated to Francis Xavier. Architects from Italy and Austria built what many believe to be the most beautiful Baroque church in Switzerland. Other Lucerne favorites include the wooden Chapel Bridge and octagonal Water Tower, the well-preserved ramparts of the Musegg Wall, the Swiss Museum of Transport and atmospheric Old Town quarter.
A boat ride on Lake Lucerne, which has the most extensive inland navigation system in Europe, is simply a must. Hikers enjoy the new Waldstätter Trail around Lake Lucerne for its places of religious and historical importance.
A short distance from Lucerne is the birthplace of St. Nicholas, Brother Klaus. A path leads from Flüeli to the nearby Ranft Gorge where the 15th century farmer and town counselor secluded himself after sacrificing his career and family for a life of fasting and contemplation. St. Nicholas was instrumental in arbitrating important treaties and political disputes and became Switzerland’s patron saint.
Lucerne is the jumping-off point for trips to numerous lakeside communities and attractions, such as 6,995-foot-high Mount Pilatus and the world’s steepest cogwheel railway, where you can get a 360-degree view of Switzerland. Nearby Mount Rigi offers breathtaking views of the Swiss Alps, 13 lakes, and views as far away as Germany and France.
Geneva, the second-largest city in Switzerland, is a modern, bustling place featuring spectacular views of Mont Blanc and offering a number of key religious highlights.
John Calvin, the Protestant reformer second in importance only to Martin Luther, led the Reformation from Geneva for decades. Through the years Geneva became a model of the ideal Protestant city, and reformers from all over Europe came here to study and learn from Calvin and his colleagues.
The Reformation is commemorated in the Reformation Monument at the Parc des Bastions. Built into Geneva’s old city walls, it depicts the main protagonists of the Reformation – Calvin, William Farel, Theodor de Beze and John Knox – in giant statues and bas-reliefs.
The International Museum of the Reformation showcases the history of Geneva and the Reformation. Through artifacts, art, documents and audio-visual technology the museum recounts the movement that spread from Geneva in the 16th century to become one of the great currents of Christianity.
The Cathedral of St. Peter is best known as the church where Calvin gave his inspiring sermons during the mid-16th century. The imposing Romanesque-Gothic church with Neoclassical facade dominates the center of this city. Those who climb the 157 steps of the north tower are rewarded with fine views of the city and Lake Geneva, the largest lake in Western Europe.
Scottish reformer John Knox preached at the Auditoire de Calvin between 1556 and 1559, and Calvin founded a Christian academy there in 1559. The Auditoire, a 13th century Gothic chapel built over a 5th century church, is located next door to the Geneva Cathedral.
Geneva also embraces other places of worship, including a Russian Orthodox church, an Anglican church, two mosques and two synagogues. It is also the headquarters of global organizations like the United Nations, Red Cross and Red Crescent, and the World Council of Churches.
Other city highlights include the quayside of Lake Geneva, numerous old alleyways and many smart boutiques.
Basel may sport a modern architectural face but has a history dating back more than 2,000 years. Nestled in the heart of Europe where Switzerland, France and Germany meet, the city of 175,000 is home to Switzerland’s oldest university, founded in 1460, and has a beautiful Old Town featuring cobblestone streets and historic landmarks. The richly-decorated red sandstone town hall and the late Romanesque-Gothic Münster Cathedral, where the Romans built a military outpost in 30 B.C., are two of the many city attractions.
Known throughout the world for its quality of life, Basel was heavily involved in the Reformation movement in the 1520s when the city council renounced its obligations to the Bishop, and many of the Catholic church’s practices were abolished. An influx of Protestant religious refugees from other countries gave the city an economic boost, especially in the silk trade and eventually silk ribbon weaving, which for centuries was the city’s most important industry.
Basel’s importance to the Reformation also stems from printing and paper manufacturing. Key reformist texts were printed in Basel, as were writings that prepared the way for the Reformation, such as the edition of the Greek New Testament in a new Latin translation prepared by Erasmus of Rotterdam. Erasmus, one of Europe’s most famous and influential scholars, died in Basel in 1536 and is buried in the Basel Münster. Calvin’s famous Institutes of the Christian Religion was printed in Basel in 1536.
Many historic churches are part of the Basel landscape, and nearly 40 museums give the Canton of Basel the highest density of museums in the country. Internationally known museums such as the Kunstmuseum Basel (Museum of Art), the museum devoted to the sculptor Jean Tinguely, the Fondation Beyeler (20th century masterpieces) and Museum of Cultures attract many visitors, as do galleries and theaters.
Basel features a wide range of classical and contemporary productions on the stages of the Schauspielhaus (Playhouse), while the city’s botanical gardens, parks and the banks of the Rhine are perfect places to relax and linger. Basel has also become an important architectural mecca, with numerous avant-garde construction developments.