Switzerland is a marvelous year-round destination, but for many, autumn is THE season. Summer crowds are gone, ski season is not yet upon us, and over the space of a few weeks, the hillsides go from deep green to vivid shades of yellow, russet and scarlet. Chestnut roasters chase the gelato vendors off their city corners and the aroma of grilled sausages evokes sweater-weather instead of summer cookouts.
Growing up in Texas, I looked forward to the crisp energy of fall after the sultry summer months, and to the homey warmth of stews or a bowl of chili. In Switzerland, the summers are not as long or as sultry, but the invigorating presence of autumn is at least as keen, and the season’s flavors are more pronounced.
September and October are splendid months for travel in Switzerland. City views are filtered through an autumn sun. Vineyards are at the ready for a burst of harvest activity as soon as grape sugars reach their peak. Steep alpine valleys beckon, dreamlike in an early twilight.
For me, the best of Switzerland comes together in the pairing of harvest celebrations and unforgettable vistas. Here are some of my favorite ways to mark the change of season in Switzerland–not surprisingly, they all involve food!
Autumn fairs–for cows and people
La désalpe, or Alpabzug as it’s called in German, is the name given to the return of Swiss cows from high pastures to their valley homes. The weather may turn dreary, but the occasion is a happy one, and a perfect time to join the locals for food, wine and music.
The Swiss celebrate harvests of all sorts: from truffles to walnuts to chestnuts and pumpkins. All are on offer at festivals across Switzerland (and in neighboring Italy, France, Germany and Austria as well). From mid-September until the autumn fairs close in November, there are plenty of opportunities to try local foods with a taste of autumn. Cantonal programs, such as The Valais of the Senses, introduce local specialties and the Foire de Valais in Martigny has been showcasing food, wine and agriculture (and cow fights in the Roman amphitheater) for more than half a century. Severy in French-speaking Switzerland salutes the walnut, and “Castagnatas” (chestnut festivals) are held throughout Ticino in October. The Chestnut Festival in Ascona is one of the most popular, and a personal favorite.
Choose your grape
Every part of Switzerland has a wine region, and celebrates the harvest with tastings, vineyard walks and regional menus in local restaurants. There are days or weekends centered around wine, with food on the side–and events pairing wine and food in equal measure. Also on offer in many places: all manner of artistic and musical programs, from Alphorn concerts to sculpture classes.
Ascona’s Chestnut Festival is a great time to experience Ticino’s great Merlot (have you tried white Merlot?). Or if your tastes tend to Pinot Noir, check out the various Trottenfeste–autumn festivals in the wine-growing areas around Schaffhausen.
Go “Wild” on restaurant menus
Game is on menus all over the country in autumn. Chase down your inner hunter-gatherer with rabbit, venison and boar, or partridge and quail. Yummy sides include fresh chanterelles, poached apples and pears, caramelized chestnuts and often, fresh spaetzle. Alternatively, chow down on risotto in Ticino, and cheesy raclette and fondue just about everywhere.
Chästelets (cheese festivals) are the time for farmers to divide the cheese from the past year, and for consumers to place orders for next season. For visitors, the festivals are a great way to breath mountain air, taste cheese and see local farmers ring in the season with their giant cow bells. Best of all are the mountains themselves, offering a last glimpse of summer before the chill of winter sets in.
If you go
- Before you travel, check the dates and times for seasonal events on MySwitzerland.com. Looking for a sunny place to experience your personal Swiss autumn next weekend, and want to find the event with the best weather? Ask Heidi, Swiss Tourism’s online advisor, for advice.
- Stay in a Swiss Historic Hotel and double your enjoyment of a stunning season across diverse mountain (and lowland) landscapes (we have enjoyed our stays at several of these atmospheric hotels). The kitchens at hotels as diverse as Villa Carona in Ticino, or Waldhaus SIls and Ritterhaus Chasa de Capol in Graubünden, or Gasthof HIrschen in Eglisau feature seasonal menus and serve stunning local wines.
- Don’t forget your camera! Spectacular color comes to the lower reaches of Swiss mountains, in a season spanning several weeks. Cows and cowherds wear picturesque clothing. Festivals are decorated with seasonal bunting and showcase local traditions, from stone-throwing to chestnut-tossing to just watching the sun set against spectacular vistas.
Do you know Switzerland in autumn? If not, have I tempted you to time your next visit for an autumn sampler?