4 breathtaking walks in the Bernese Oberland, Switzerland

Last summer we spent a week in the spectacular Bernese Oberland in Switzerland.  There’s a lot to love about this mountainous region, but it’s also a funny one.  The towns are neat and pretty and very Swiss, but they’re not all packed with character.  It’s an area that’s been welcoming tourists for well over a century, but in places feels a little like its heyday has been and gone.  There seems to be few people visiting to walk, camp and discover it’s wild wonders, yet many arriving to tick off photo opportunities and railway stations.

You could look at this and wonder, is this really somewhere to come and explore the mountains?  The answer is an emphatic yes. It doesn’t matter if the majority don’t fancy treading the mountain trails – you can adventure without crowds and enjoy the peacefulness of the alpine pastures.  It doesn’t matter if camping isn’t the most popular choice here – you can enjoy great campsites, in stunning locations, without steep prices and often without having to book ahead.  There’s an awful lot of reasons to give this region a chance.

Exploring Staubbach falls, a spectacular waterfall in Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland

For me, exploring the walking trails of this alpine region were the highlight of our trip.  And to be fair, one of the main reasons for coming here in the first place.  Nothing makes this spectacular landscape feel more alive than the crunch of stone underfoot, the heady scent of pollen from pasture flowers, the gentle lolling sound of bells around grazing cow’s necks and the feel of sun on your back.  Travelling slowly on foot gives you a chance to take it all in, spot the details and soak up the grandeur of it all – from the granite coloured peaks to the tiny alpine flowers peppering the meadows.

You can read my itinerary for a perfect 7 days in the Bernese Oberland here, but today I’d like to share my four favourite walks from our trip – and share the much-underrated side to this popular part of Switzerland.

A note on walking

This post tells the story of some our hikes – but isn’t intended as a guide or map to help you reach these locations.  If you’re planning on walking in this area, seek advice from the helpful folk at Interlaken Tourism who can point you in the direction of recognised routes.  You’ll also find many well-signposted paths with distances estimated in hours rather than kilometres that will help you plan your own adventures.  We’re experienced road and trail runners who were tackling challenging paths in good weather, it might not be possible to replicate these routes on your visit.

Hiking trails in the Bernese Oberland, Switzerland

1: Schynige Platte from Interlaken

There are dozens of routes that can be tackled from Interlaken, but this one is special thanks to the panoramic views over some of the iconic peaks and villages of the Bernese Oberland. At 2,076m, the climb to the top is not to be underestimated but is well worth it for the views over the Eiger, Monch and Jungfraujoch, and the valleys below.

From Interlaken we took a relatively gentle walk to Wilderswil, a small village 2km out from the town at the foot of the mountain. It’s a surprisingly pretty little village with considerably more charm than Interlaken itself, and an old centre dotted with ornamental chalets and a fantastic covered bridge. Wilderswil is worth a visit in it’s own right, but if you’re planning to tackle the mountain, it’s best to get started in plenty of time.

Wilderswil near Interlaken in the Bernese Oberland, Switzerland

A small path leads up into woodland from behind the church, and very quickly begins to steepen. At first, it weaves in and out of lush woodland and lowland pasture grazed by goats, ponies and the odd llama. Soon enough, you leave the meadows behind and the real climb begins under the cool dark trees. The woodland is ancient and impressive, but nothing compared to what you’ll find further up beyond the treeline. Occasionally, the mountain railway will cross your path as you head steadily up.

When we tackled this route the day began wet and overcast, but after an hour or two of climbing, as the trail headed upwards at a considerable rate, the sun began to break through the trees and cast dappled light across our path. We could tell that the forest was thinning, and before long the path ahead rose out of the tree line and into high alpine meadow.

While not an accurate half-way mark, the journey up is broken by the delightful discovery of the small railway station at Breitlauenen. The station is nestled between a dairy farm and a smattering of chalets, high in a meadow. It’s the most wonderfully idyllic spot, with breathtaking views down over both lakes Brienz and Thun, and the gentle low-pitched ring of cow bells from cattle grazing all around. The station master spends much of her time chasing chickens and sleepy cats from the line whenever a bell rings and a distant rumble warns of an impending train.

View over Interlaken and Lake Thun on a hike to Schynige Platte in the Bernese Oberland

From here, the climbing is less steep but you pass in turn through woodland, meadow and along rocky paths that increasingly test your courage as you encounter a few vertiginous drops to the side of the path. You move more slowly, but the views more than make up for it. All of a sudden you round a corner and find yourself at the station and the summit. You’re now looking down on the Grindelwald valley and the mighty Eiger at it’s head.  It’s a nice spot to stop at and simply take it all in. There are alpine gardens to meander around near the station and a cafe if you’re in need of something cold and refreshing.

It is possible to complete the climb and make it back down within a day, but for us an impending storm was closing in. The scurrying clouds and dark skies looked incredibly dramatic from this mountaintop viewpoint, but we needed to take the safe option this high up, so descended quickly to Breitlauenen just as rain started to fall, and sheltered in the wonderful quaint waiting room of the station until a train came along to take us back down to valley floor.

2: Lauterbrunnen – Stechelberg – Gimmelwald – Mürren – Lauterbrunnen, a circular route

This walk is a good way to get a feel for the magical valley of Lauterbrunnen.

Starting just outside Lauterbrunnen, we steadily meandered our way along the flat valley floor and through lush green fields in the direction of Stechelberg, at the head of valley. A quieter access road runs parallel to the main road (that mostly serves the Trummelbach Falls and gondola lift at Stechelberg), and you’ll find it largely empty aside from a few other walkers and the odd farmer. This alone is a beautiful walk, with some of the highest and most spectacular waterfalls in the whole valley as you approach to the small hamlet at Stechelberg. Between the crescendo of falling water and the roar of the river there’s quite a dramatic atmosphere.

Hiking in the Lauterbrunnen valley, Switzerland

Once in Stechelberg you have the choice of taking the gondola (cable car) up the mountain (services run throughout the year) or taking the old path up through the forest. We opted for the latter and began to scramble up the winding rocky path alongside a crashing waterfall. The path widens out after a short but steep climb and heads steadily uphill. After a couple of kilometres, the path emerges from the trees and chalet roofs start to pop up through the pasture. You’ve reached the edge of Gimmelwald (where you can also jump out at the mid-station of the gondola).

Waterfalls in the Lauterbrunnen valley, Switzerland

Gimmelwald is one of the most unspoilt alpine villages in the Bernese Oberland, in part because it’s one of the least accessible – it’s car-free, and mostly little farms and a cheery hostel. The village is perched on the edge of a hanging valley facing the imposing Breithorn mountain – which can be seen the length and breadth of the Lauterbrunnen valley. It’s a peaceful spot, with just other hikers and few goats for company.

Many of the farmhouses here sell produce from their front doors, so we indulged in fresh milk and the local Alpkäse cheese – thick and creamy and delicious beyond belief after our climb.

From Gimmelwald a paved road leads gently uphill without much of a view to hint at what’s beyond. What lies ahead is the picturesque and affluent ski resort of Mürren – a paradise of immaculately-presented Swiss chalets with balconies laden with cherry-red geraniums in August, cosy restaurants peddling hearty cuisine and jaw-dropping views across to Wengen (on the opposite side of the valley). We stopped and spent a little time exploring, and enjoying the welcoming atmosphere and an Alpkäse sandwich or two.

The pretty village of Gimmelwald, high up in the Lauterbrunnen valley, Switzerland

You can return back down to the valley by mountain train or on foot from Mürren. The little train brings visitors and their luggage up the mountain from the main station in Lauterbrunnen and takes a scenic route winding through woodland. We took the forest road down on foot – a considerably longer walk than our route up but the road was much gentler as it wove between pastures and dense forest. As you head back down into the village below, views open up towards Wengen, high on the opposite side of the valley and also towards the far end of lake Thun, glistening in the distance.

The last part of the descent back down into Lauterbrunnen is steeper, but the sound of cow bells and the spire of the village church in the distance guides you into town. Put your feet up and enjoy a well-earned coffee and slice of cake at Airtime, a vibrant little cafe at the heart of this pretty but quiet village.

3: Kleine Scheidegg and Männlichen via Wengen

Truth be told, we weren’t blessed with good weather on our trip to the Bernese Oberland, in spite of it being summer. But the day that we tackled this route the sun finally came out, blazing all day long and leading, inevitably, to moderate sunburn and excessive photographing of alpine pasture. I just can’t help myself sometimes.

This route was probably the one I enjoyed most during our week here, as it climbs out of the Lauterbrunnen valley and into the Grindelwald valley, tucked away behind high peaks. It brings you unbelievably close to the Jungfraujoch and Monch – craggy rock faces topped with snow fill the horizon whilst you stroll short-sleeved through warm, flower-filled meadows.

Looking down the Lauterbrunnen valley near Interlaken in Switzerland as the morning sun comes up

As with the previous routes, there’s the option to take the mountain railway almost all the way to the top here, with stations at Wengen and Kleine Scheidegg, so you can adapt the route to suit your fitness and enthusiasm.

Starting in Lauterbrunnen, we tackled the first path of the day, steeply, up through the trees to Wengen. It’s not a long walk but it was one of the most strenuous. Eventually you’ll be rewarded by the arrival of Wengen on the horizon, with it’s panoramic views and cheerful atmosphere. Like Mürren, Wengen is a ski resort with a long heritage. It hosts one of the most prestigious events in the World Cup series, and has a younger and more vibrant feel than it’s neighbour on the other side of the valley. You’ll find more chocolate-box chalets and grazing cattle here, but also a lively main street with cafes, bars and shops.

After you’ve explored Wengen, it’s time to head higher for the serious views. A forest road takes you up and away from the resort centre, heading towards Kleine Scheidegg at the col which sits between the Lauterbrunnen and Grindelwald valleys. The climbing isn’t too hard here, and before you realise it you’ve risen out of the trees and are facing towards the snow-capped Jungfraujoch in all it’s glory. Kleine Scheidegg is a couple of kilometres from Wengen, sitting atop a little lake with a railway station and cluster of hotels and restaurants. It’s a real little community and meeting point for hikers coming up from both Wengen and Grindelwald, and well as tourists exploring on their return from the Jungfraujoch.

Alpine cattle at Mannlichen, above the resort of Wengen in Switzerland

But if you stop here and head home, you’ll have missed the chance to experience one more stunning views over the valleys – from Männlichen. A winding but largely flat path heads from the station in the direction of this peak that sits directly above Wengen. From here you can see not only see where you’ve come up from in Wengen and the valley, but also look down over lake Thun. The Männlichen gondola makes for an exciting descent back into town after a long day on your feet.

4: Grindelwald to First and Bachalpsee

The last hike of our trip to the Bernese Oberland was from the luscious Grindelwald valley up to First. It gives you a chance to view the magnificent Eiger and it’s glaciers as you climb higher, and there are hidden treats in the form of high alpine lakes and glaciated landscapes to capture your imagination.

Walking from Grindelwald to First allows you to discover fantastic views of the majestic Eiger

A trail rises up from centre of town at first on quiet road, and then on path and forest road, roughly following the route the gondola takes to First. The gondola crosses over the path high above your heads in places, whilst you weave between pasture and deep green woodland. About midway, you reach the little hamlet of Bort, where the path suddenly widens and emerges into a bowl with a deep blue lake crowned by a couple of mountain restaurants. You’re edging closer to the Eiger here, and the trail breaks out of the trees for the remainder of the route.

The last part of the climb is hard work with tired legs, as ours were after a week of hiking. But the views were breathtaking, and stone water troughs spouting little cascades of cold, fresh spring water meant that we could refill our bottles in an attempt to keep cool. As you approach the summit the mountainside gently rolls away to your right, with curious shapes and hummocks in the landscape a legacy of glaciers working their magic over thousands of years. This is the most peaceful part of the walk, as most visitors choose to take the gondola all the way to the top from Grindelwald.

Mountain goats at Grindelwald-First in the Bernese Oberland, Switzerland

Reaching the peak at First in itself is impressive – views open up across the whole of the Grindelwald valley with the Eiger to your left, Kleine Scheidegg with the pass over to Wengen and the Lauterbrunnen valley ahead, and Schynige Platte to your right. Into the bargain, you’ll find a skywalk to explore, letting you circle the cliff faces below the lift station with nothing but glass under your feet. But the real reason for coming is to see Bachalpsee, a gentle walk of a couple of kilometres from the summit.

I could describe how beautiful Bachalpsee is, the peaks all around are reflected in deep turquoise waters, but I think the pictures go someway to doing it justice.

Bachalpsee, high up in the mountains of the Bernese Oberland at Grindelwald-First

Whilst most walkers choose to head back to the lift station at First from here, or onwards to Schynige Platte, we chose to take a combination of footpath and forest road back down into Grindelwald. The path down from Bachalpsee to meet the forest road was one of the most glorious areas of pasture I’ve ever explored. Little streams trickle down from the lake, babbling amongst the stone and meadow flowers, whilst cattle and goats graze quietly, obvious to the majesty of their home. Once you hit the forest road it’s a steady, easy to follow route that soon plunges back down into woodland and dense forest in places. It eventually brings you out just above the centre of Grindelwald, where you can meander back into town.

We were exhausted.  After a week of walking almost all day, every day, we felt we’d packed in as much as we absolutely could.  But there’s still room for more – a week felt more like an appetiser for the region.  It might not be any time soon but I’ve no doubt we’ll be back, ready to spread our wings a little wider and discover some more peaks.

P.S. Don’t forget that you can find out more about what we got up to on our alpine adventure in The perfect 7 days in the Bernese Oberland, Switzerland.

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With huge thanks to my ever-patient other half for his photographs featuring yours truely.

4 breathtaking walks in the Bernese Oberland, Switzerland

A perfect 7 days in the Bernese Oberland, Switzerland

There are few places ever I’ve wanted to explore more than the Bernese Oberland.  I remember being mesmerised as a small child by photos of the Lauterbrunnen valley, as my Dad projected his old slides onto our living room wall.  And as I slowly started to explore more and more of the Alps, a yearning remained – to visit this mythical region of Switzerland that I’d heard so much about, but could only imagine.

Whilst the name Bernese Oberland (or Berner Oberland to Swiss-German speakers) might not ring any bells, the extraordinary peaks and valleys of this area might be more familiar.  From the imposing Eiger to the majestic Jungfrau, the magical Lauterbrunnen valley to the picture-perfect alpine resorts of Wengen and Mürren, breathtaking lakes Thun and Brienz to the cultural melting pot of Interlaken – it’s a bounteous region of rugged cliff faces, snow-capped mountain tops, sparking blue lakes and flower-filled meadows.

You could spend a lifetime exploring these mountains, but you’ve got to start somewhere.  So I bit the bullet, booked some flights last summer and set out to explore some of Switzerland’s grandest summits and most enchanting valleys.  It didn’t disappoint.  Whilst you can’t possibly pack in all the wonderful places to visit here into one week, I want to share my recommendation for a perfect seven days in the bewitching Bernese Oberland.  Enjoy!

Itinerary

Day 1
Arrive in Interlaken and explore the town. Stay in Interlaken.
Day 2
Visit Schynige Platte for an overview of the Bernese Oberland. Stay in Interlaken
Day 3
Head to Harder Külm and travel to Lauterbrunnen. Stay in Lauterbrunnen
Day 4
Explore the Lauterbrunnen valley, Gimmelwald and Mürren. Stay in Lauterbrunnen
Day 5
Visit Wengen and Kleine Scheidegg. Stay in Grindelwald
Day 6
Discover alpine lakes at Bachalpsee. Stay in Grindelwald
Day 7
Depart Grindelwald via the lakeside town of Thun

Stunning Bachalpsee, a high alpine lake above Grindelwald in the Bernese Oberland

How to get to the Bernese Oberland

Any of Switzerland’s major international airports make a good starting point. Geneva and Zurich are a few hours by road and rail, and Bern is even closer. If you’re travelling by road from elsewhere in Europe, as you might expect the motorway network is fast and efficient, with Interlaken well-signposted a good 100km or more out.

How did we do it? We flew to Geneva with from London Gatwick with Easyjet, ready to pick up our next mode of transport.

How to travel in the Bernese Oberland

Despite its wild mountains and deep lakes, the Bernese Oberland is surprisingly easy to travel in. The Swiss know a thing or two about transport planning. Travelling by road or rail is your best option, and both are thankfully easy here.

For drivers, Interlaken is only 45 minutes by motorway from Bern, and once you’re off the motorway each of the valleys are well served by well-signposted A roads.  The mountain resorts of Mürren and Wengen are both car free – it makes a lot of sense once you see their mountainside locations. However, the long stay car park in Lauterbrunnen can take of your car for a few days whilst you make the most of the multitude of other ways to reach these pretty towns.

On the other hand, Switzerland is a rail traveller’s dream. The mountains and valleys of the Bernese Oberland are interlaced with railway lines served by frequent and punctual services. There are regular services to Interlaken from major Swiss cities, including Bern and Zurich, and international connections too. You can reach almost every mountain town and sizeable village in this region by train – but I’d recommend booking in advance wherever possible to save on what can be pricey tickets.

How did we do it? We rolled our transport and accommodation into one with the help of the lovely people at Blacksheep campervans. We hit the road in our own little VW Caravelle for the week and took advantage of being able to park up in our campsites.

Blacksheep campervan at Camping Eigernordwand in Grindelwald, Switzerland
You’ll have to excuse the grey photo, we were sort of in the middle of a stormcloud!

Where to stay in the Bernese Oberland

There’s three main options when it comes to accommodation in this part of the world; upmarket hotels, homely hostels and campsites.

If hotel travel is your thing you’ll find Interlaken, Mürren and Wengen packed full of places to stay – from alpine style chalets in the mountain resorts to palatial-looking establishments encircling the common at the centre of Interlaken. Most are independent businesses with the exception of one of two in Interlaken, giving you a chance to experience something a little different.  You’ll also find a couple of large hostels in Interlaken with mostly dorm accommodation, and a smattering up in the mountains. Try the Swiss Youth Hostel Association to find out more.

Then there’s my favourite option, camping.  Whilst there are plenty of reasons why you might not be keen to camp in the mountains, the joys of camping here outshine any downsides by a country mile. The locations and views are breathtaking, the sense of peace immense and the joy of waking to the sound of tumbling waterfalls just beyond your pitch is immeasurable. It’s also by far and away the easiest and best-value accommodation you’ll find in Switzerland.

Isn’t Switzerland expensive?

In a word, yes. But it really depends what you want to do. We love to walk and trail run, and had our own transport. Couple this with camping and it can be a surprisingly budget-friendly trip, with campsites costing between €20-€40 per night for two people (depending on whether you have a tent or campervan). The major expenses you’ll find here are a train travel, cable car travel, hotel accommodation and eating out.

If you’re happy to seek circular walking routes, where you’re not reliant on public transport, exploring these alpine peaks and passes can be free. And given that the area isn’t renowned for great eating out, opt to self-cater if possible and take advantage of the two large supermarkets in Interlaken (Migros and Lidl) to stock up on the basics. There’s also a good supermarket and better value-for-money eating out to be found in Grindelwald.

What to do in the Bernese Oberland

Day 1: Interlaken

You’ll want to begin your adventures in Interlaken, the centrepoint of the region. This funny little town is one of the oldest resorts in the world and a transportation hub set in the lowland plains that stretch between Lake Thun and Lake Brienz. There’s plenty to stroll and see – the centre may be packed with hotels, shops and lost-looking tourists but there are pretty squares to be found in Unterseen, peaceful paths down by the river and enticing views up into the Lauterbrunnen valley. Think of it as a gateway to an alpine wonderland. Make yourself comfortable on day one, get settled in and get ready for exploring on day two.

River Aare in Interlaken, Switzerland

Day 2: Schynige Platte

To give yourself a real feel for the area, spend your first full day on a journey to Schynige Platte, one of the impressive peaks that stand sentinel at the entrance to the Lauterbrunnen valley. From the top of Schynige Platte you can look down not only on the town of Interlaken, nestled between lakes Brienz and Thun, but also the Lauterbrunnen and Grindelwald valleys, with the mighty Eiger and snowcapped Jungfrau as a larger than life backdrop.

Schynige Platte can be reached on foot in a day if you’re confident tackling some steeper climbs and tricky paths near the top. Alternatively, take the quaint mountain railway from Wilderswil. Snaking up the mountain, it first passes through fields and then forest until it breaks through the trees at the intermediary station of Breitlauenen. The station alone worth is stopping at, the charming old building and waiting room haven’t been renovated in living memory.  The most joyous experience here though is to watch the lovely station master at work, whose main priority appears to be ushering free-range chickens and sunbathing cats off the line whenever the bell rings to warn of an approaching train. The train crawls around rocky outcrops on the final few kilometres of the line until it breathlessly takes one last turn towards the station at the peak and the magnificent view to be found here.

View from Breitlauenen on the climb to Schynige Platte overlooking Interlaken, Switzerland

P.S. You can read more about hiking the route to Schynige Platte in 4 breathtaking walks in the Bernese Oberland.

Day 3: Harder Külm and Lauterbrunnen

If you spent yesterday walking, you’re going to want to give your legs a bit of a rest before tackling higher mountains during the rest of the week. Today is the perfect day to take in Interlaken from a different angle.

Harder Külm is a smaller peak on the opposite side of the plain to Schnige Platte. There are lots of trails to explore on foot– all gentler than the yesterday’s climb – or you can take the old-fashioned funicular all the way from the centre of Interlaken to the viewing platform and café at the top.

Viewpoint at Harder Kulm above Interlaken, Switzerland
As you can see, the weather wasn’t exactly sensational when we arrived at the viewpoint. Thankfully, it quickly started to clear

View from Harder Kulm above the Swiss town of Interlaken

Head to Lauterbrunnen in the afternoon and find your bearings in this little village of timbered chalets surrounded by alpine pasture. The valley of a thousand waterfalls is beyond spectacular, with cascades at every turn and steep cliff faces stretching high up from the meadows below. Stroll to the Staubbach falls on the edge of the village, where a short but steep path will take you underneath the waterfall itself, and if you’ve got time book a tour of the legendary Trummelbach falls – hidden within the walls of the valley itself.

Day 4: Lauterbrunnen, Gimmelwald and Mürren

Whilst the rock faces and steep sides of the Lauterbrunnen valley look impregnable from below, there are little paths and mountain railways that wind up to the hidden villages perched up on the high alpine pasture.

The idyllic village of Gimmelwald sits high in a valley near Murren, Switzerand

This side of the valley can be explored on foot or by a combination of cable car and railway with a little walking in between. From Stechelberg, a few kilometres walk from Lauterbrunnen, you can follow a steep walking route or take a speedy cable car to the idyllic village of Gimmelwald. All picture-postcard Swiss chalets, luscious gardens and alpine cattle, Gimmelwald is alpine charm personified. Meandering a little further uphill takes you into the larger resort town of Mürren, where you can explore pretty streets, take a breather in one of the many welcoming cafes and restaurants and enjoy fantastic views of Wengen and the Jungfrau across the valley.

You can return to Lauterbrunnen by mountain railway – the same way skiers and visitors to Mürren’s many hotels arrive – or take a long but gentle route on foot back down into the valley through woodlands and pasture.

P.S. It’s possible to walk this route – there’s more in my guide to 4 breathtaking walks in the Bernese Oberland.

Day 5: Wengen and Kleine Scheidegg

Having seen Wengen in this distance yesterday, today is a chance to properly explore it. Wengen is the home of world-class skiing and a pretty smart town to boot. A steep walk of a couple of kilometres will take you from Lauterbrunnen to the centre of town, or take a quick train ride if you prefer.

From here, you’re approaching the awe-inspiring triumvirate of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau mountains. A train will take you all the way from Wengen to the snow-capped peak of the Jungfrau, or you can opt for some more spectacular hiking. We chose the latter and followed the lush, green route of the infamous Lauberhorn piste to Kleine Scheidegg, a railway mid-station at the cusp of the Lauterbrunnen and Grindelwald valleys, to take in the unbelievable views.

Breathtaking views from Kleine Scheidegg above Murren in the Bernese Oberland

P.S. Find out more about beautiful walks from Kleine Scheidegg in 4 breathtaking walks in the Bernese Oberland.

Day 6: Grindelwald

A full day in Grindelwald is a chance to pack in one last peak – ironically named First. There’s a cable car from the resort centre to this mountain top, with unrivalled views of the Eiger. It’s another dream hike if you’ve any life left in your feet, with more steep paths twisting their way through pasture and deciduous woodlands.

A short and relatively flat walk will take from First to Bachalpsee, a hidden gem at the top of Europe. A crystal-clear, azure blue glacial lake is nestled in the folds of the mountain, and will take your breath away. Watch the water trickle down in little rivulets into the flower drenched meadows below, and pick your way along rocky paths to some of the high alpine farmhouses tucked away from view.

Bachalpsee at Grindelwald-First in the Bernese Oberland

P.S. You might have guessed it … but there are some fantastic hikes to and from First too – check out 4 breathtaking walks in the Bernese Oberland for more spectacular scenery.

Day 7: Thun and goodbyes

It’s time to say goodbye, and promise you’ll be back. Make the most of a morning in Grindelwald if you can with a short stroll closer to town. If you’re heading back towards one of Switzerland’s transport hubs opt for a stop in the pretty lakeside town of Thun if you can. With colourful buildings packed in the medieval centre and traditional Swiss covered bridges galore, it’s a way to experience a different side to the Swiss landscape and culture.


The practical bit

We flew to Geneva from London Gatwick with Easyjet at the end of July 2016.  We hired a VW Caravelle campervan for the week from the lovely folks at Blacksheep Annecy (actually located in the charming little French town of La-Roche-sur-Foron, about half an hour from Geneva airport).  From here we drove to Interlaken to begin our adventure.

Three wonderful little campsites were our home for the course of the week;

Camping Jungfrau, Unterseen, just outside Interlaken – www.jungfrau-camp.ch

Easy to find, generous sized pitches (for a new van driver!), a lovely view and wandering distance from the centre of Interlaken, Camping Jungfrau made a good base for our first few days.

Camping Breithorn, Sandbach, about 3km from Lauterbrunnen – www.campingbreithorn.ch

Set alongside the running river in the Lauterbrunnen valley, this old-fashioned campsite had everything we needed, with a generous side of river rapids and crashing waterfalls within arms reach.

Camping Eigernordwand, Grund, Grindelwald – www.eigernordwand.ch

Highly recommended to us by friends, this didn’t disappoint. Incredible views of the Eiger plus no need to book – they’ll always make room for you.

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Explore the stunning Bernese Oberland in Switzerland with our 7 day itinerary

Skiing the Milky Way: The sun-drenched pistes of the French-Italian border

The Milky Way – or Via Lattea as it’s known in Italy – hugs the French-Italian alpine border, taking in the resorts of Montgenevre, Sestriere and Sauze d’Oulx in one easily navigable ski area.  Not only is it perfect for more experienced skiers and boarders looking for a huge number and diversity of pistes, some of the prettier villages that dot the Milky Way offer beginner and family friendly slopes set in a stunning landscape.

Confession: I’ve fallen a bit in love with the Milky Way.

I’ve just returned from my second trip within a year, and keep finding reasons to recommend it.  Basing ourselves at opposite ends of the Via Lattea on each visit, we’ve explored the vast majority of this surprisingly budget-friendly ski area.  But I’m still looking for excuses to return.

So, if you’re a lover of mountains, snowsports, perfect pistes and plenty of cheese, read on for my guide to making the most of the Milky Way;

The resorts

The Via Lattea comprises seven resorts, six in Italy and one in France.  But don’t let the border worry you – you can ski and board back and forth between the two countries to your heart’s content, with several routes to choose from.

Starting on the French border – Montgenevre

This purpose-built French resort delivers everything you’d expect and more.  It’s situated high up meaning that good snow conditions are almost guaranteed for most of the winter.  The large ESF-run ski school is great for beginners and improvers, there’s a good selection of restaurants and cafes (it is France after all) as well as a smattering of useful shops, plus it’s easy to access the piste from anywhere in town.

Montgenevre is a fabulous location for mixed ability groups.  You’ve got a huge range of pistes on your doorstep, from pretty tree-lined green runs that everyone can enjoy to challenging reds and blacks that’ll get the blood pumping and help you explore every inch of the mountain.  And at the end of the day, you can warm up on the way home with a vin chaud at one of the many bars along the main street.

Looking down over the French resort of Montgenevre

 The best bits: The pistes up at Les Gondrans are a dream.  They’re varied and easy to access from four lifts, making it perfect for those who want to spend some time finding their ski legs, practising their technique or having some fun.  There’s something for everyone here – and Cafe Les Anges is ready and waiting once the hot chocolates are a’calling.

 Be aware: If you’re hoping to explore the whole Milky Way, it can take a long time to get across from Montgenevre.  You’re best off taking a bus – or heading to nearby Serre Chevalier (separate lift pass required) if you’re after some variety.

Claviere

This traditional little village sits on the Italian border just 3km from Montgenevre, with easy ski links between the two.  Smaller than its French neighbour, it’s a great spot for families and those who want the pistes to themselves.  We based ourselves here at the Grande Albergo Hotel Claviere, a budget friendly hotel that was great for groups.

Claviere is quiet, but well-served with a small Italian supermarket, bakery, the recommendable Gallo’s bar and a couple of delightful pizzerias and restaurants both in town and on the piste at La Coche.

The small ski resort of Claviere in Piedmonte, Italy

The best bits: Claviere is well located for exploring the whole of the Via Lattea and we could get across to Sansicario, Sestriere and Sauze d’Oulx from here if we moved fast enough.  This makes it a good strategic base for more experienced skiers.

Be aware: It’s not a party town, so if you’re hoping to hit the après or aperitivos you’re better off considering Sauze d’Oulx or Montgenevre.

Sansicario and Cesana

A venue for the 2006 Torino Winter Olympics, Sansicario is largely purpose-built and one of the smaller towns on the Milky Way.  It’s close to the valley town of Cesana, a functional hub in the centre of the ski area that’s home to more locals than tourists.

What Sansicario lacks in size it more than makes up for in enjoyable piste, with sweeping reds and blacks that are the perfect playground for boarders and experienced skiers.  Sauze d’Oulx and Sestriere are only a few lifts and pistes away if you want cover as much snow as possible.

Views of the Monti della Luna from Sansicario on the Milky Way

The best bits: Sansicario is a sun trap on a clear day, so slap on some suncream and head over to make the most of the open upper pistes and cafe terraces (because when in Italy, have your fill of Italian hot chocolate. It’d be rude not to).

Be aware: The lower slopes were in relatively poor condition this winter (2017), so I wouldn’t recommend as a ski-in/ski-out location – you’ll be spending a lot of time carrying boards and skis if you base yourself here.

Sestriere and Pragelato

Synonymous with world-class skiing, Sestriere – and nearby Pragelato – sit in a bowl towards the southern edge of the Via Lattea.  This upmarket resort might not be the prettiest you’ve ever visited but it’s heritage as a host of world cup skiing tells you everything you need to know.  You’ll find spectacular, challenging pistes right on your doorstep as well as mountain restaurants galore.  A gondola offers a speedy link to Sauze and Sansicario, giving you the opportunity to ski a massive area each day.

The best bits: The central location and wide variety of accommodation and eating options.   As with Montgenevre, you’ll also find the elevation here (2,000m) means that Sestriere is pretty snowsure throughout the season.

Be aware:  Sestriere isn’t a great recommendation for budget travellers – base yourself in Sauze d’Oulx instead and head across early in the morning.

Sauze d’Oulx

Sauze has a bit of a split personality – part traditional Italian alpine village, part party town.  Whichever side you’re most interested in, it’ll be outshone by the meandering tree-lined pistes that make Sauze a joy to visit in its own right.

It’s one of the larger resorts on the Milky Way, meaning you’ll find a good variety of accommodation and eating options on and off the slopes.  It also offers the best value for money I’ve come across in this area for both – especially when it comes to enjoying food up on the mountain.

Pistes in Sauze d'Oulx, Piedmonte, Italy

The best bits: Take a little time to stroll around the old town without your boots on – the narrow cobbled streets, overhanging eaves of hundred year old chalets and arched stone doorways make you feel more like a visitor to an Italian village on the plains than a ski resort.  There are some great budget eats too – try the fantastic Famelica Pizzeria in the old town for the best takeaway you’ve ever eaten (bonus points for enjoying it out in the snow), and the cafe at the top of Col Basset offers fantastic paninis made fresh in front of you for a little over €5.

Be aware:  As with Sansicario, the lower pistes can struggle with snow cover if conditions are warm.  Unseasonable weather in 2016, when we based ourselves in Sauze, required some serious efforts from the piste-bashers and snow cannons to keep the returns into town open.

Lift passes

Depending on where you base yourself, and how much of the Milky Way you intend to explore, there are several options when it comes to lift passes.

The international pass covers you for all resorts on both the Italian and French sides of the border. Given the size of the ski area and the amount of time taken to get from one end of the Milky Way, this represents good value for money only if you’re a very experienced (and ambitious) snowsports enthusiast, or if you’ve got your own transport to move from one resort to the other.

For most skiers or boarders, the Via Lattea or Montiluna Montgenevre passes are a better fit.

The Via Lattea pass gives you full access to all Italian resorts, and one day in Montgenevre (if you go for the 6 day pass).

Alternatively, if your base is in Montgenevre or Claviere, you can opt for the Montiluna Montgenevre pass that allows you to explore these two resorts to your heart’s content, and spend one day in six in the other Italian resorts.

The Via Lattea and Montiluna Montgenevre passes offer great value for money as they cover substantial areas.  Take the opportunity to make the most of a day’s skiing elsewhere in the area by taking a coach transfer – usually easy to arrange through your reps in resort – to Montgenevre, Sauze or Sestriere (this should get you there for lift opening, and return once the pistes have closed).  It is possible to take lifts all the way across, but expect to need a little bit of patience and ability to shuffle in ski boots if you go for this option.

You can find out more about lift passes on the Via Lattea website.

Skis on the Via Lattea. Italy

The practical bit

The Milky Way is just over an hours drive from Turin airport, making coach transfers and fly-drive options a breeze.  Sauze d’Oulx is closest to the fast motorway links, with Montgenevre and Sestriere taking a little longer to reach.

If you’re travelling from the UK you’ll find a wide range of tour operators offering good value packages to this area – we’ve travelled here most recently with Crystal and Neilson.

You’re spoilt for choice when it comes to accommodation with hotels, catered chalets and apartments in abundance, although pick your resort carefully if you plan to self-cater and shop in town.  Some of the Italian resorts including Sauze d’Oulx have a real lack of any good food shopping, however Montgenevre and Claviere have much greater choice.

We opted for the Neilson Hotel Edelweiss in Sauze d’Oulx in 2016, which gave us easy access to the Jouvenceaux lift to get onto the mountain, generous food and stylish rooms.  For contrast, we headed to the opposite end of the resort in 2017, staying at the Grande Hotel Albergo Claviere in the centre of the village.  This hotel is run by Crystal and pitches itself as family-friendly, but it’s a good choice for all budget travellers.  It’s got fantastic ski links, a friendly bar and a plentiful – if not gourmet – menu.

Is it worth it?

Absolutely. There’s something for everyone here, and with another eight weeks left of this ski season there’s still time to book a quick getaway. The Milky Way has been blessed with great snow conditions so far in 2017, and coupled with it’s sunny slopes it should be perfect this coming Easter.

And don’t forget, if you’re looking for some more Alpine inspiration, try  Winter wonderlands: Where to ski in Europe this season for my favourite European resorts you’ve not yet heard of.

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Skiing the Milky Way: The sun-drenched pistes of the French-Italian border