Field Guide: Interlaken, Switzerland

Sandwiched between two lakes and dramatic mountain ridges, this Swiss town is perfectly placed for kayaking, SUPing, hiking, skiing and a host of other high-adrenaline adventures.

14th June 2024 | Words and photographs by Emily Woodhouse/Interlaken Tourism

There are a great many towns that claim to be the adventure capital of Europe, but Interlaken is certainly right up there vying for the top spot. As the name suggests, the town is sandwiched between two lakes: Brienz and Thun. It sits at the base of a broad glacial valley, with steep mountain ridges situated to both north and south. Where can this adventure mecca be found? In Bernese Oberland, an area to the west of Switzerland, due south of Bern.

Interlaken is perfectly placed for easy access to pretty much any adventure activity you can name quickly. It’s got water on both sides for kayaking, paddleboarding, canoeing and swimming. The mountain ridges on either side are full of hiking trails, with 4000m peaks to the south – providing quick access for mountaineering or skiing. And the rivers running into and through the valley are venues for more extreme sports like canyoning or whitewater rafting.

How to get there

Interlaken is a very well-connected city. You can get there by car but, honestly, the public transport connections are so good in Switzerland that it would almost be rude to drive. That is, unless you’re just popping over the border. If you are driving, the Swiss national road network connects to all major European cities and Interlaken is well signed from the autobahns.

If you are flying to Switzerland, the closest airport is Geneva (though other options include Basel and Zurich). Geneva airport links directly to the train service – you can connect without actually leaving the building. Download the SBB app to get up-to-date train times and prices. The most common route is to change at Basel and arrive into Interlaken Ost. But as we said, there are fantastic train connections from anywhere within Switzerland, all of which typically run like clockwork, as befits the nation’s reputation.

Interlaken and the River Aare by Emily Woodhouse

When to go

Switzerland’s weather is typical of western Europe. The summer months are June to August when the weather is hot and usually dry. At the end of summer into September, thunderstorms in mountainous areas are not uncommon – although these tend to occur in mid-afternoon. Generally, you can see the showers coming and they are over fairly swiftly. Winter is December through to February, when there is fresh snow in the high mountains. Many people choose to visit Interlaken in the shoulder seasons when the weather is mild, but really you can visit any time of year – it just depends what you want to do.

Kayiking Interlaken

Summer into autumn is a popular time for outdoor adventures like hiking, kayaking and via ferrata because of the warm temperatures and long days. The Greenfield Festival also takes place in Interlaken in mid-June every year, featuring several days of rock music with a line-up of bands from all over the world. Visit or avoid depending on your taste! Swiss National Day is on 1st August and exuberant celebrations take place country-wide. Expect fireworks (at any time – even in the street at 4pm!), plus plenty of folklore and people in traditional dress, not to mentioned yodelling and other traditional performances and pastimes.

During the winter season the temperature in Interlaken is generally below freezing. This makes it difficult to pursue water sports and snow in the mountains makes it far more suited to skiing than hiking. But there are plenty of Christmas markets in the run up to the festive season. ‘Touch the Mountains’ is Interlaken’s big New Year’s festival, followed by the traditional masked procession of Harder-Potschete on 2nd January (when the town is visited by the spirit of the mountain).

What to do

Mountain walking

Switzerland has hiking trails in abundance. Better still, you can access free mapping of the entire country through the Swiss Mobility app. And what’s more, the routes sync up with the local buses and trains, so you don’t even need a car to get to the trailheads. From Interlaken, some of the most popular hikes climb the mountain ridges to the north and south of the valley, known as Hardergrat and Schynige Platte. But it really is a case of ‘choose your own adventure’ when it comes to hiking in Switzerland.


Hardergrat Trail

The Hardergrat Trail runs along the ridge to the north of Interlaken. It runs between the Harder Kulm, directly overlooking Interlaken, and the Brienzer Rothorn station. Harder Kulm can be easily accessed via the funicular from Interlaken or it’s possible to hike steeply up to the summit. This is no simple hike: it’s a 24km outing with 3,000m of ascent, much of it on a knife-edge ridge overlooking the thousand metre drop to Interlaken valley. Now, ‘knife-edge’ is a description somewhat overused in hiking route descriptions, but in this case it really is accurate: imagine a shark’s fin. It is a committing walk with no escape route (so if you change your mind halfway, there’s no real alternative but to simply turn around and hike back) with some scrambly and technical sections – but if you are well prepared, the thrills and views are very rewarding.

Our advice? Pick a dry day without much wind. Take a daysack, carry plenty of water (there is none on the ridge), have a fantastic time – and make sure you don’t miss the last train! Alternatively, you can do the route in the opposite direction, called Brienzergrat, which has only 1,400m ascent. But then you do have to do 3,000m of descent, so pick your poison!

Striations in distance peaks from Schynige Platte by Emily Woodhouse

Schynige Platte Panorama Trail

The Panorama Trail circuits the edge of Schynige Platte, a mountain plateau to the south of Interlaken. To reach the plateau, you need to take the train to Wilderswil where you change onto the Schynige Platte cog-wheel railway. Riding in the wood-panelled carriages makes for a great outing in itself as you chug slowly up through pine forest towards the mountains. As you arrive at the final station, wide views out to the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau appear suddenly in the distance as you pop out of the trees. Sit on the right-hand side for the best views!

From the Schynige Platte station, the route is signposted around the edge of the plateau. There are striking views from both sides of the plateau: either out into the high alps or down to the panorama of Interlaken and its two lakes below. This is an undulating Swiss mountain trail with some infrastructure such as a playpark, gardens and a restaurant around the station – but it quickly escapes into nature the further you hike.

Dizzying heights on the Murren Via Ferrata by Emily Woodhouse

Via ferrata

As if walking along airy mountain ridgelines wasn’t enough, there is a good selection of via ferrata in the area of Interlaken too. For the uninitiated, via ferrata lies somewhere between walking, scrambling and full-on climbing. The routes are equipped with metal rungs, ladders and wires (hence the literal translation of via ferrata, iron way) that you clip into as you travel. This does require a climbing helmet, a via ferrata set and climbing harness to complete safely. Gloves to protect your hands and approach shoes or at least grippy trainers are a good idea too.

The most famous via ferrata route in the area is Mürren, which starts at the eponymous village above Lauterbrunnen valley. It’s very simple to reach from Interlaken, just a short train journey, then two cable car stops (all covered by a Swiss Pass if you have one). The route itself is free to use and maintained by the local community, but if you’d prefer a guide then a few companies offer trips. To access the via ferrata, go through the wooden door at the end of the road behind the outdoor shop. Just make sure you find the start of the next cables as they zigzag down through the woods.

Mürren is fairly unique for a via ferrata, as it is entirely downhill. The route traverses the edge of the cliff until you are finally required to face it: a series of metal rungs and safety wire lead you out over the drop and along with nothing else below you until the valley bottom some 1,000m away. If you’re not scared of heights, the view is incredible. Then a fun series of ladders and cable bridges take you down and down with 4,000m mountains peeking out above the valley on your left. Finally you’ll pop out of an overgrown path into the back of the Gimmelwald cable car station. This is not a route you can do in both directions (imagine the traffic jam), so hop onto the next cable car down to Lauterbrunnen and then board a bus back into Interlaken.

Kayaking on Lake Brienze by Hightide Kayak School

Kayaking on Lake Brienz

Interlaken is, obviously, well known for its eponymous lakes. What most people don’t know is that the lakes are actually two different colours. Lake Brienz (to the east) is a striking blue-green turquoise, thanks to glacial particles that travel down river from the high alps. There is a kayaking school and boat hire on the corner of Lake Brienz that can take you out for a beginners’ paddle or let you explore on your own. If you get the chance, you can kayak across the lake to Ringgenberg, where the castle is watched over by a diligent local cat. Even better: time your kayak for sunset so you’re leaving your dinner picnic as the sun is starting to set, and paddle back to Interlaken as the golden rays light up the surface of the lake.

SUP on Lake Thun

SUP on Lake Thun

The Canoeing Train on Lake Thun can be done by canoe (obviously) or by stand-up paddleboard (SUP). Navigating the smooth, bright blue waters are a pretty relaxing adventure as it goes. The trail – unmarked as it’s on the water – passes around the left bank of Lake Thun, from Gwatt to Leissigen. Spiez Bay is very lovely and Spiez itself has a castle and vineyard to visit. There are several stations along the way where you can rent paddleboards for the trail. Or simply hire it out for an afternoon and just float or paddle about as you please.

Paraglider landing in Hohenmatte with Jungfrau behind by Interlaken Tourismus_Jost von Allmen


Other adventures

Many people associate Interlaken with paragliding and there is a strong tourist trade in tandem flights. In dry weather the skies above the town are filled with brightly coloured silks cruising down into the central green. Another popular tourist site for adrenaline junkies is the canyon swing. Rig into the system, then launch yourself off a 90m high platform into the gorge of the Lütschine river… a long enough drop to feel weightlessness before the rope catches you.

For high mountain adventures that don’t involve jumping off a cliff, Interlaken is not very far from Grindelwald and the famous (or perhaps notorious) Eiger. Far more people take the Eiger Express to the highest railway station in Europe (Jungfraujoch, at 3,463 m) than tackle its demanding north face.

In the water department, both canyoning and whitewater rafting make for great organised days out. There are several local guiding companies in Interlaken who will organise transport as well. These are particularly fun in a big group of friends, but it is possible to join an open group as a solo traveller.

Whitewater Rafting

Where to stay

There are many, many options of places to stay in Interlaken. After all, the town has been hosting visitors as a destination since the 1800s. At the high end of the market, the Victoria Jungfrau Hotel sits at the top of luxury accommodation in Interlaken, with a huge spa and beautiful architecture.

At the other end of the scale, backpackers and those who prefer to spend their money on adventures rather than accommodation can stay in Interlaken’s Youth Hostel. It’s near Interlaken Ost station and offers hearty, canteen-style food too.

For a mid-range option, Essential by Dorint is one of the newest hotels in Interlaken with a very modern look and feel.

There’s also the adults-only Carlton Europe, a rustic family-run hotel with a quirky character. Ideal if you’d rather take a break from other people’s children!

Looking down the street in Interlaken

Where to eat and drink

For Michelin star dining, The Alpenblick to the south of Interlaken is the place to go. The Stöckli family have been welcoming guests from all over the world for over 60 years. The restaurant has 16 GaultMillau points and a Michelin star, with much of the food created from home grown fruit, vegetables and herbs – and from their own alpine herd of cows. Choose from the gourmet menu or Swiss Bistro.

For rustic, traditional Swiss food, look no further than the cosy Restaurant Taverne in the northern section of town, next to the Aare river. Part of the Hotel Interlaken, the building has stood since the 14th century and can date its hospitality back to 1491. Of course, it has been renovated a few times since then, but maintains a rustic style in both its decor and menu, including lots of options for fondue.

For a more atmospheric meal, the Hotel & Restaurant Luegibruggli sits at the summit of the nearby mountain with views out to Interlaken’s two lakes. Don’t worry, there is road access – you don’t have to hike back down to Interlaken centre after a full meal. From the open terrace above the eastern end of Lake Thun, you can choose from a varied menu for lunch or dinner.

Emily Woodhouse is a freelance adventure travel and outdoor writer. She has written for several leading outdoor magazines and websites, as well as national newspapers. A qualified Mountain Leader, she works with DofE groups, expeditions and the Dartmoor Ten Tors challenge. She has been a member of her local Search and Rescue Team since 2017.

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