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The Country Today

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The Country Today

Switzerland remains a fascinating mix of traditional and modern, pastoral and cosmopolitan. No other nation has a greater density of museums, a more efficient transportation network, or a citizenry more skilled in welcoming tourists. Its well-educated population enjoys one of the best standards of living in the world, with a strong currency, driven in part by the country’s political stability and international neutrality. Beyond Alpine panoramas, chocolate, and trains that run on time, the country is a scenic, gastronomic and cultural delight.


The Constitution of 1848, revised in 1874 and 1978, set up a modern federal state in place of the former Confederation of Cantons. Each canton had its own coinage, postal services, and customs.

The Communities

Liberty of the individual, liberty of faith and conscience, liberty of the press and of association are recognized by the Constitution, which gives every Swiss citizen over the age of 18 the right to vote and to be elected. Women, at last, obtained the vote in federal elections in 1971 but still do not always have a say in cantonal and community affairs. The whole regime, however, rests upon the principle of the sovereignty of citizens living in 3 000 free communities and forming the basis of the national will.

In all matters the community is competent to decide in the first instance. The canton intervenes only on appeal. So powerful is the citizenry that foreigners must first be admitted to the “corps of citizens” of a given community in order to acquire Swiss nationality.

Cantonal Authority

Each canton has political sovereignty, with its own constitution and legislative body. In each of the 23 cantons (26 including the half-cantons) executive power belongs to the State Council and legislative power to the Grand Council.

The practice of direct democracy survives in a few mountain cantons like Appenzell, Glarus and Unterwalden. Here, each spring, citizens vote by a show of hands on questions affecting the community. These highly ceremonial meetings are called the Landsgemeinden .

The Federal Authorities

Legislative power is exercised by two assemblies, the National Council and the Council of States; executive power by a collegial of seven members called the Federal Council. The two assemblies, when sitting jointly, form the Federal Assembly. The National Council represents the people, with one deputy being elected for more than 30 000 inhabitants (200 members); each canton or half-canton is represented by at least one seat. The Council of States, which represents the cantons, has 46 members: two per canton and one per half-canton, regardless of the size of the population.

This bicameral system, similar to American and parliamentary institutions, protects the interests of the small communities.

Executive power resides with the Federal Council. Its seven members are elected for a four-year term by the Federal Assembly, and each administers a department, or ministry. The annual election of the President—whose official title is President of the Confederation—and of the Vice-President, appears to be a mere formality: The Vice-President invariably succeeds the President and his successor is chosen from a roster drawn up by agreement.

The Sovereign People

Decisions by the Federal Assembly can be taken only after a favorable vote by both chambers. Here again, however, popular sovereignty has a role to play. If, within 90 days after a decision by the Assembly, signatures can be obtained from 50 000 citizens, the entire population is then called upon to decide whether a law should finally be accepted or rejected. This is the right of referendum , which in practice has a conservative influence. Citizens of Vaud, according to tradition, are fond of saying: “The referendum is our right to say No when Berne has said Yes.” During a referendum in December 1992, the Swiss nation answered no to joining the EEE ( Espace Économique Européen ).

The Swiss also have the right to initiate legislation . Thus, 100 000 citizens may demand an amendment of the articles of the Constitution or the adoption of new articles. Therefore, the popular will finds expression at every level of political activity and exercises permanent control over the country’s institutions.

National Service

Although Switzerland is known to be a neutral country, military service plays a prominent part in the life of its citizens. The Swiss Army is a militia without “regular” units. “Active” service begins only at general mobilisation. There is no provision for performing civilian service instead of military service. The Army has a general only in time of war or general mobilization (General Guisan, 1939-1945).

In 2003, voters approved a major military reform, Army XXI , reducing the size of the army by half to 220,000 conscripts and reducing mandatory service to 260 days. Service is required for able-bodied men; for women, it is voluntary.

The Swiss soldier keeps all his equipment at home: Uniform, rifle, ammunition, and gas mask against nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons.

While landlocked Switzerland does not have a navy, military boats patrol Swiss border lakes Lake Geneva, Lake Maggiore and Lake Constance. There is also a Swiss Air Force ,which defended national air space from Allied and Axis incursion in the Second World War.

Electoral Duty

Communal, cantonal and federal elections occur with a frequency that may seem surprising to outsiders.

In cantons like Berne and Zürich, which are very much attached to strict control of their budgets, it is a common joke that voting is as frequent as Jass , the Swiss game of poker. As a result, many elections, which are usually scheduled on a Sunday, have low turn-outs (35-50% participation); with cantonal voting, attendance can be as low as 30%.

The Swiss Cantons


F : French , G : German , I : Italian , P : Protestant , RC : Roman Catholic .


Inner-Rhoden (Al):

172sq km/66sq mi

population 15 300 ( G-RC ).

Ausser-Rhoden (AR):

243sq km/94sq mi

population 52 509 ( G-P ).

The bear, which represents the Abbey of Sankt Gallen, adorns the shield of the canton.

Aargau (Argovia)

1 404sq km/542sq mi

population 574 813 ( G-P ).

The name means “the country of the Aare” and the river is represented by wavy lines. The three stars represent the three districts which together form the canton.

Basel (Bâle, Basel)

Basel District (BL):

482sq km/165sq mi

population 267 166 ( G-P ).

Basel Town (BS):

52sq km/20sq mi

population 184 822 ( G-P ).

Coat of arms include a bishop’s crosier (red for Basel District, black for Basel Town).

Bern (Berne)

6 050sq km/2 659sq mi

population 958 897 ( G-P ).


1 670sq km/645sq mi

population 258 252 ( F-RC ).

The shield of Fribourg is black and white, the colors of the dukes of Zähringen.

Genève (Geneva, Genf)

282sq km/109sq mi

population 433 235( F-P ).


684sq km/2 654sq mi

population 38 084 ( G-P ).

Its coat of arms represents St Fridolin, the patron saint of the district.

Graubünden (Grisons)

7 106sq km/2 744sq mi

population 187 920 ( G-P ).

The modern history of the Graubünden, known as the Grisons in English and Rhaetia in ancient times, begins with the alliance of the three Leagues in the 14C and 15C.

The Gray League (shield half sable, half argent, black and white), from which the Grisons gets its name, ruled the upper Rhine Basin.

The banner of the Ten Jurisdictions League (a cross of gold and blue quartering) flew in the Prättigau, the district of Davos and Arosa.


837sq km/323sq mi

population 69 292 ( F-RC ).

The canton was formed 24 September 1978 by popular vote ratifying a Federal decree of 9 March 1978. Its three districts, Delémont (the capital), Porrentruy and Les Franches Montagnes were formerly part of the canton of Berne.

Lucerne (Lucerne)

1 492sq km/576sq mi

population 359 110 ( G-RC ).


797sq km/308sq mi

population 168 912 ( F-P ).

The present coat of arms dates from the proclamation (1848) of the Republic of Neuchâtel. The white cross on a red background commemorates its adhesion to the Confederation.

Sankt Gallen

2 014sq km/778sq mi

population 461 810 ( G-RC ).

The fascine on the shield recalls the union of the various districts which were joined in 1803, when the canton was formed.


298sq km/115sq mi

population 73 866 ( G-P ).


908sq km/350sq mi

population 138 832 ( G-RC ).

The shield of Schwyz used to be plain red. Later, it was charged with a white cross and became the emblem of the entire Swiss Confederation.


791sq km/305sq mi

population 248 613 ( G-RC ).


2 811sq km/1 085sq mi

population 324 851 ( I-RC ).


1 013sq km/391sq mi

population 235 764 ( GP ).

The two lions pictured on the coat of arms were borrowed from the arms of the counts of Kyburg.


Nidwalden (NW) :

276sq km/107sq mi

population 40 012 ( G-RC ).

Obwalden (OW) ;

491sq km/190sq mi

population 33 755 ( G-RC ).

The arms bear the keys of St Peter: Those of Nidwalden are on a red ground; those of Obwalden on a red and white ground.


1 076sq km/415sq mi

population 34 948 ( G-RC ).

Valais (Wallis)

5 226sq km/2 018sq mi

population 294 608 ( F-RC ).

The shield is red and white to commemorate the episcopal banner of Sion. It bears 13 stars representing the 13 dizains (districts) of the canton.

Vaud (Waadt)

3 219sq km/1 243sq mi

population 662 145 ( F-P ).

The green flag was adopted when the Lemanic Republic was founded in 1798. The white flag with the motto “Liberté et Patrie”, or “Freedom and Homeland”, was adopted when Vaud joined the Confederation in 1803.


239sq km/92sq mi

population 107 171 ( G-RC ).

Zürich (Zürich)

1 729sq km/667sq mi

population 1 284 052 ( G-P ).


Switzerland enjoys one of the highest standards of living in the world. Its economic success relies on a thriving services sector, a highly skilled and motivated workforce, strong currency and stable political situation. Swiss industry, known to be both traditional and innovative, is efficient, but depends heavily on exporting its goods. A mountainous country where only 10% of the land is arable, it is also highly dependent on the import of raw materials to meet the needs of its population. Even so, the overall mentality remains protectionist; while foreigners account for some 25% of the workforce, immigration is subject to strict regulation.

Swiss voters decided in 1992 not to join the European Community (now the European Union), but in 1995, Switzerland became a member of the International Trade Organization (ITO). The country remains a “haven of peace ” and a refuge for many foreigners. Geneva is the seat of many international organizations, including GATT and specialized agencies of the United Nations, including the High Commission for Refugees.

World Finance

Zürich is the country’s economic capital, where most banks have their headquarters. Swiss neutrality has done much to attract foreign capital, thanks to a strong, steady currency and bank confidentiality (recently being made more flexible to combat money laundering): 40% of the world’s personal savings are concentrated in Switzerland. Moreover, foreign investments, in particular from the United States, have increased considerably since the liberalization of the Swiss economy.

The banking system also supports important insurance and shipping industries; vasts amounts of international financial trade passes through Switzerland. Life insurance is a prosperous sector, and it is said that Swiss citizens enjoy the best and most comprehensive insurance in the world. Rentenanstalt/Swiss Life, Winterthur and Zürich dominate.


Agriculture enjoys a privileged status. Strongly protected, heavily subsidized by the state, and closely integrated into rural life and the Swiss landscape, it is simultaneously an integral part of Swiss culture and a major tourist attraction. Livestock farming accounts for 75% of the agricultural production.

Since the Swiss farming industry can grow only enough to satisfy 60% of the country’s needs, everything grown is consumed in the home country; the remainder is imported.

Cereals, heavily subsidized by the government, remain expensive, although the use of chemical fertilizers has increased yield. Such farming methods, thought to damage the environment, are not well accepted by the population. Organic farming is very much en vogue ,but is still too costly to be applied on a large scale.

Half the cheese made in Switzerland (25% of dairy production) is exported. The country is famous world wide for its Gruyère (from the Gruyères region) and Emmental (from the Lemme area).

Forestry has been carefully regulated since 1993. Forests cover about one-third of the land and contribute to the prevention of natural disasters such as avalanches and landslides. For these reasons, deforestation is strictly forbidden.

Industry and Trade

Swiss industry is characterized by extremely high standards of quality—an attitude which has earned it a worldwide reputation of excellence. The most prosperous sectors are those of machinery (machine tools, farming and printing equipment) and electromechanics, representing 45% of Swiss exports. Zürich, Baden, and Winterthur are the major industrial centres.

The chemical and pharmaceutical industries , largely concentrated in the Basel area, are flourishing; research and development are extremely active. Swiss pharmaceutical groups are among the world’s most powerful: Roche and Novartis (resulting from the merger of Ciba and Sandoz), two of the world’s largest, are headquartered here; others have major offices here.

Watchmaking has c alsoome to symbolize Switzerland. Renowned as the “international custodian of time,” Switzerland boasts artisans that specialize in luxury timepieces, producing high-quality products that utilize classic hand-crafting and modern techniques. Swiss clocks and watches are universally appreciated and the “Made in Switzerland” label enjoys worldwide esteem; indeed 95% of the national production is exported.

The food-processing industry is booming. Swiss chocolate enjoys an excellent reputation abroad; just over half the annual production is exported. The rest is consumed by the Swiss, whose sweet teeth consume an estimated 107 bars per person per year. The desig­nation “Swiss chocolate” is carefully controlled; it must be made entirely in Switzerland out of cocoa beans, cocoa paste, cocoa butter, sugar, and sometimes milk. Swiss chocolate pioneers include François-Louis Cailler, Philippe Suchard, Rodolphe Sprungli, Rudolf Lindt and Henri Nestlé.

The Swiss textile industry has had the same problems as other nations with comparably high labor costs against the onslaught of low-cost Asian products. Many silk factories have shut down, but the manufacture of synthetic fabric has expanded.

Protecting the Environment

Preserving nature is equally important to private firms, public authorities and the population. The Swiss show great awareness of ecological issues and are careful to recycle their rubbish individually.


Services are the backbone of the Swiss economy: They employ 70% of the working population and account for 70% of the GDP. The national currency attracts many foreign investments.


Picturesque chalets, beautiful landscapes, and a tradition of hospitality have made Switzerland an ideal holiday destination for generations. Switzerland also benefits from its reputation as one of the safest destinations in Europe.

After metalworking and pharmaceuticals, tourism is the country’s main industry, attracting an international clientele. German tourists account for the highest number of visitors, followed by the British and the Dutch. Destinations such as Zermatt and Grindelwald also attract Japanese and American visitors.

Where winter and summer seasons were once distinct, increasing tourism has created a year-round season as visitors take advantage of discounts and offers in non-peak times, especially for wellness retreats at Swiss spas and resorts.

Switzerland is renowned for the excellence of its hotel industry, with some establishments over 100 years old.

Many multinational companies are headquartered or have subsidiaries here, boosting business-related tourism. International organizations, such as the United Nations in Geneva, and the International Olympic Committee in Lausanne, also perform this role.

Food and Wine

Swiss Specialties

Swiss cuisine combines the culinary traditions of France, Germany, and Italy.

Cheese dishes – The great hard cheeses, Gruyère and Emmental, which carry the fame of the Swiss dairy industry abroad, are the basis of fondue , which is a national institution among the French Swiss. Every canton, especially Vaud, Neuchâtel and Fribourg, claims the perfect mix of Gruyère, Emmental, Vacherin, and other ingredients.

Raclette , a Valais specialty, is prepared by toasting one side of a slice of Valais cheese (the soft cheese of Bagnes or Conches – Goms) at a fire. The melted cheese is scraped directly onto the plate with a knife or a wooden blade. Raclette is eaten with gherkins and bread or potatoes cooked in their jackets.

Beef, pork and fish – The most original Swiss specialty is the dried meat of the Grisons, Bünd-nerfleisch . This is raw beef smoked and air-dried, served in thin slices. The most frequent meat dishes are fillet of veal (Schnitzel) and pork chop. A popular Zürich dish is minced veal or calf’s liver with cream (geschnetzeltes Kalbsfleisch) and Leberspiessli (calf’s liver cooked on a spit, with bacon). There is an extraordinary variety of Wurst (sausage). Gnagi (knuckle of pork, much enjoyed in Berne for an afternoon snack), Klöpfer (saveloy) at Basel, Schüblig (long pork sausage) at Sankt Gallen, Kalbsbratwurst (veal sausage) at Zürich, Salsiz (small salamis) in the Engadine. The national dish of German Switzerland is Rösti :Potatoes boiled, diced, fried and finally baked with fried onion rings and bacon bits).

The French Swiss prefer smoked sausages with a stronger taste ( boutefas in Payerne, longeole in Geneva). The monumental Berner Platte (Bernese dish) combines bacon, sausages, ham, sometimes boiled beef, pickled cabbage ( Sauerkraut ) and potatoes.

Swiss rivers and lakes produce a wide variety of fish such as trout, pike, dace, tench, carp, and perch (a specialty from Lake Geneva). All are seasoned according to local tradition.

Sweets and desserts – Fresh cream is used in many sweets and desserts, such as meringues and Schaffhauserzungen (baked biscuits with fresh cream). The kirschtorte of Zug and the Leckerli of Basel—spiced bread with honey and almonds—are also enjoyed. Swiss chocolate, of time-honored reputation, is used to make delicious cakes and sweets.

Swiss Wines

Switzerland’s vineyards produce only 36% of the wine consumed nationally. Vaud’s best-known white-wine vintages are Lavaux, Dézaley, Aigle, and Yvorne.

Fendant is the best known of the Valais wines. Dôle, the most popular red wine of Valais, is a fragrant, fruity blend of Pinot and Gamay grapes.

The Geneva canton produces white wines for fish dishes: Perlan; Aligoté; Pinot Gris. Gewürztraminer and Sylvaner are well suited to desserts. Oeil de Perdrix, the rosé version of Pinot Noir, is best served chilled.

Although Cortaillod is a heavy red wine, most wines from Neuchâtel, such as Auvernier, Boudry, and Colombier, are lighter whites drawn from a noble vine, the Chasselas, grown in chalky soil.

Ticino vines yield highly alcoholic wines, such as Mezzana and Nostrano, which are pleasant with dessert.

The red, white and rosé wines (Süssdruck) from the eastern region and the Alpine Valley of the Rhine are most appreciated for their light and subtle quality.

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