Geography of Switzerland
Switzerland is a small, landlocked country in the heart of Europe. It has a strategic location at the crossroads of central Europe with many easily traversable passes (“Pass Strasse”, short term “Pass”).
- Area: 41285 km² (approx. 10’201’746 acres or 15’940 square miles)
- Boundary: 1858 km (1150 miles)
- Germany: 346 km (215 miles)
- France: 572 km (355 miles)
- Italy: 734 km (456 miles)
- Austria: 165 km (103 miles)
- Liechtenstein: 41 km (25 miles)
- Largest extension north – south: 220 km (137 miles)
- Largest extension west – east: 348 km (216 miles)
- Most northern dimension: Oberbargen (N 47° 48′ 35″)
- Most eastern dimension: Piz Chavalatsch (E 10° 29′ 36″)
- Most southern dimension: Chiasso (N 45° 49′ 08″)
- Most western dimension: Chancy (E 5° 57′ 24″)
- Highest elevation: Mount Monte Rosa (“Dufourspitze”), 4634 m.a.s (15200 feet)
- Lowest elevation: Lake Maggiore (“Lago Maggiore”), 193 m.a.s (633 feet)
- Time Zone: Central Europe (GMT +1 hour)
Switzerland is divided in three major geographical areas:
- Alps (“Alpen”): 60%
- Middle land (“Mitte land”): 30%
- Jura: 10%
Switzerland is located in the Central European Time zone (CET), also known as Middle European Time zone (MET). It is one hour ahead of Greenwich Time (GMT+1).
Daylight saving time (one hour ahead of the standard time) starts in early spring and ends in late fall. Begin and end are synchronized with the countries of the European Union (EU).
Switzerland hosts about 20% of the Alps. Approximately 100 peaks are close to or higher than 4000 meters (13125 feet) above sea level. Many mountain areas are developed, there are trains, cog railways, aerial cable cars and other means of transportation. Swiss mountains are famous for climbing, skiing, snowboarding, biking, hiking and other recreational activities.
Some of the most famous mountains:
|Monte Rosa (“Dufourspitze”)||VS & Italy||4634 m||N 45° 56.214′||E 7° 52.007′|
|Dom (Mischabel)||VS||4545 m||N 46° 05.633′||E 7° 51.532′|
|Weisshorn||VS||4506 m||N 46° 06.076′||E 7° 42.963′|
|Matterhorn||VS & Italy||4478 m||N 45° 58.586′||E 7° 39.516′|
|Dent-Blanche||VS||4357 m||N 46° 02.058′||E 7° 36.719′|
|Grand-Combin||VS||4314 m||N 45° 56.256′||E 7° 17.953′|
|Finsteraarhorn||BE & VS||4274 m||N 46° 32.238′||E 8° 07.572′|
|Breithorn (Zermatt)||VS & Italy||4164 m||N 45° 56.451′||E 7° 44.880′|
|Jungfrau||BE & VS||4158 m||N 46° 32.207′||E 7° 57.753′|
|Mönch||BE & VS||4107 m||N 46° 33.510′||E 7° 59.838′|
|Schreckhorn||BE||4078 m||N 46° 35.393′||E 8° 07.089′|
|Piz Bernina||GR||4049 m||N 46° 22.941′||E 9° 54.485′|
|Eiger||BE||3970 m||N 46° 34.652′||E 8° 00.324′|
|Glarner Tödi||GL & GR||3574 m||N 46° 48.631′||E 8° 55.314′|
|Piz Corvatsch||GR||3451 m||N 46° 24.501′||E 9° 48.964′|
|Titlis||BE & OW||3238 m||N 46° 46.325′||E 8° 26.265′|
|Gornergrat||VS||3135 m||N 45° 58.993′||E 7° 47.094′|
|Chasseral||BE||1607 m||N 47° 07.980′||E 7° 03.562′|
|Lägern||AG & ZH||866 m||N 47° 28.914′||E 8° 23.625′|
Switzerland is famous for its alpine passes. Ever since people move around, these passes are important pathways between the northern and the southern part of Europe. Before you hit the road, check the local road conditions online.
Some of the most important passes:
|Name||From||To||Max. Elevation||Length||Max. grade||Open|
|Umbrail||Sta. Maria, Münstertal (GR)||Bormio (Italy)||2501 m||33 km||12%||Jun – Oct|
|Nufenen||Ulrichen (VS)||Airolo (TI)||2478 m||36 km||11%||Jun – Oct|
|Grosser St. Bernhard|
|Martini (VS)||Aosta (italy)||2469 m|
|11%||May – Oct|
|Furka||Gletsch (VS)||Hospental (UR)||2431 m||28 km||11%||May – Oct|
|Flüela||Davos Dorf (GR)||Susch (GR)||2383 m||26 km||12%||Apr – Nov|
|Bernina||Pontresina (GR)||Poschiavo (GR)||2323 m||33 km||12%||all year|
|Albula||Bergün (GR)||La Punt-Chamues-ch (GR)||2312 m||23 km||12%||Jun – Oct|
|Julier||Tiefencastel (GR)||Silvaplana (GR)||2284 m||43 km||13%||all year|
|Susten||Innertkirchen (BE)||Wassen (UR)||2224 m||46 km||9%||May – Nov|
|Grimsel||Innertkirchen (BE)||Gletsch (VS)||2165 m||33 km||11%||May – Oct|
|Ofenpass||Zernez (GR)||Sta. Maria, Münstertal (GR)||2149 m||36 km||12%||all year|
|Splügen||Splügen (GR)||Chiavenna (Italy)||2113 m||39 km||13%||May – Oct|
|Andermatt (UR)||Airolo (TI)||2108 m|
|11%||May – Nov|
|Hinterrhein (GR)||Soazza (GR)||2065 m|
|12%||Jun – Oct|
|Oberalp||Andermatt (UR)||Disentis (GR)||2044 m||32 km||10%||May – Oct|
|Simplon||Brig (VS)||Iselle (Italy)||2005 m||46 km||10%||all year|
|Klausenpass||Altdorf (UR)||Linthal (GL)||1948 m||47 km||10%||May – Oct|
|Lukmanier||Disentis (GR)||Acquarossa (TI)||1916 m||48 km||10%||Apr – Oct¹|
|Maloja||Chiavenna (Italy)||Silvaplana (GR)||1815 m||43 km||11%||all year|
|Col de la Croix||Villars-sur-Ollon (VD)||Les Diableres (VD)||1780 m||18 km||12%||May – Nov|
|Lenzerheide||Chur (GR)||Tiefencastel (GR)||1549 m||28 km||11%||all year|
|Col du Pillon||Aigle (VD)||Gstaad (BE)||1546 m||42 km||11%||all year|
Switzerland hosts many lakes, from the large Lake Geneva to hundreds of tiny little lakes in the mountains. There are also many dammed-up lakes, mainly to drive water turbines of power plants.
The largest lakes:
of the surface
|Lac Léman (Lake Geneva)||GE, VD, VS & France||584 km²||372 m||310 m|
|Bodensee||SG, TG, Austria & Germany||539 km²||396 m||252 m|
|Neuenburgersee||BE, FR, NE & VD||218 km²||429 m||153 m|
|Lago Maggiore||TI & Italy||212 km²||193 m||372 m|
|Vierwaldstätter See||LU, NW, OW, SZ & UR||114 km²||434 m||214 m|
|Zürichsee||SG, SZ & ZH||88 km²||406 m||143 m|
|Luganersee||TI & Italy||49 km²||270 m||288 m|
|Thunersee||BE||48 km²||558 m||215 m|
|Bielersee||BE, NE||40 km²||429 m||74 m|
|Zugersee||LU, SZ & ZG||38 km²||414 m||97 m|
|Brienzersee||BE||30 km²||564 m||260 m|
|Walensee||GL & SG||24 km²||419 m||144 m|
|Murtensee||FR & VD||23 km²||429 m||45 m|
The rivers of Switzerland lead to three different seas: The Rhein with its tributaries Aare and Thur drains 67.7% of the water into the North Sea. The Rhone and the Ticino (a tributary to the river Po in Italy) drain 18% into the Mediterranean Sea. The Inn (a tributary to the river Donau in Germany/Austria) drains 4.4% into the Black Sea.
The major rivers:
|Drain area||Source||Ends in or leaves Switzerland in|
|Rhein||375 km||27963 km²||Oberalp (Vorderrhein) &|
San Bernardino (Hinterrhein)
|Leaves in Basel|
|Aare||295 km||17779 km²||Grimsel||Flows into Rhein near Koblenz, AG|
|Rhone||264 km||6947 km²||Grimsel||Leaves in Geneva|
|Inn||104 km||1792 km²||Maloja||Leaves in Vinadi (Engadin), GR|
|Thur||125 km||1724 km²||Toggenburg||Flows into Rhein near Ellikon, ZH|
|Ticino||91 km||1616 km²||Nufenen||Flows into Lago Maggiore, TI and leaves the lake in Italy|
There are more than 3000 km² of glaciers and firn in Switzerland. Most of the glaciers are decreasing.
The largest glaciers:
|Aletschgletscher||VS||118 km²||23.6 km|
|Gornergletscher||VS||64 km²||14.5 km|
|Fiescher Gletscher||VS||39 km²||14.7 km|
|Unteraargletscher||BE||36 km²||13.9 km|
|Unterer Grindelwaldgletscher||BE||27 km²||9.4 km|
|Corbassièregletscher||VS||23 km²||10.9 km|
|Oberaletschgletscher||VS||23 km²||10.4 km|
|Otemmagletscher||VS||22 km²||10.3 km|
|Rhonegletscher||VS||21 km²||9.1 km|
From a climate point of view, Switzerland is located in a transition zone. In the west, there is a strong influence of the Atlantic ocean. Winds bring a lot of moisture into Switzerland and cause rainfall. In the east, there is an almost continental climate, with lower temperatures and less precipitation. On the other hand, the alps – which run from east to west – act as a climatic divide. South of the alps, there is an almost Mediterranean climate, with significantly higher temperatures but also a lot of precipitation.
Generally speaking, spring is wet and cool, April is well known for fast and often changing weather conditions. Summer is supposed to be warm and dry with maximum temperature up to 35°C (95°F). The temperature depends primarily on the elevation, the zero line (0°C or 32°F) may raise as high as 4000 meters above sea level (13125 feet).
Fall is usually dry, but cool. The temperature will drop significantly in September or October, with the zero line around 2000 meter above sea level (6560 feet). Winter is supposed to be cold and dry. The temperature may drop below 0°C everywhere in Switzerland, especially at night. In the alps, they usually get a lot of snow, but even at lower elevations, there is a good chance that they will get a foot of snow every now and then.
The map below shows the major highways in Switzerland and their names plus some major cities.
In Switzerland, names of towns are used for navigation on the roads, rather than highway numbers. Signs show the names of the major cities, road numbers are rarely seen. Signs on or for highways use white letters on green background. Signs for major roads use white letters on blue background, signs for local roads use black letters on white background.
Highways in Switzerland are often congested, particularly in summertime. Weekends are especially bad. The most busy highway is the highway A1 between Zürich and Bern, but also the Gotthard tunnel between Göschenen and Airolo is often very crowded. Cars may build up for as long as 20 km and it needs a lot of patience to get to the other side of the Alps. An alternative is to use the San Bernardino pass but congestions are there very likely too.
In order to use the highways in Switzerland, a toll has to be paid. But there are no toll booth, instead a special sticker – known as “Autobahn Vignette” – is required. The sticker is valid for one calendar year (actually from beginning of December of the previous year until end of January of the following year = 14 months), there is nothing like a one day or one week pass. It costs CHF 40.00 and is available at customs at the borders and at all gas stations and post offices throughout the country. The sticker must be fixed to the windshield on cars and trucks, there are particular rules for where it has to be placed on motorbikes and trailers.
The best choice is the avoid cars at all and use public transportation instead. Trains and busses are available everywhere and on the larger lakes, taking a boat may be a very enjoyable alternative. The “Schweizerische Bundesbahnen” (SBB) – the Swiss Federal Railroad – has a nice website with an on-line time table where you can also purchase tickets and print them on your own printer.
There is an interactive map of Switzerland available at map.search.ch.