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From coffee to street crossings Twelve things that might surprise you while visiting Switzerland

A person takes a smartphone photo of his coffee

Coffee in a real cup - an image worth sharing with friends


If you count yourself among the growing number of Americans visiting Switzerland – more than 900,000 of you are expected this year - best come prepared.

During a recent trip to New England, I came to the realisation that there are indeed still many cultural differences between the US (Canada too) and Switzerland. The Swiss may patronise Starbucks, have a Netflix and Amazon account and walk around with their eyes glued to smartphone screens, but the small day-to-day things are decidedly different, as is the case in much of continental Europe.

That must be what you are looking forward to, right? You may convince yourself it’s the Alpine scenery - and see it you will - but deep down, you want to return home and tell stories about the strange customs and habits of the Swiss.

While you’re here, these things will take some getting used to.

Coffee to stay: Cafés serve up coffee in real, non-disposable cups. Not everything is ‘to go’ in Switzerland.

Gif coffee

A barista serves a coffee in a cafe


Cultural acclimatisation: Air conditioning rarely exists. Step outside your hotel door. If it’s cold, wear a jacket. If it’s warm, leave it behind. No need to pack a sweater to insulate yourself from deep freeze A/C in restaurants and shops. You won't even be served ice in your drinks.

Awesome! (or not): Don’t be put off if your hotel director or tour guide, or any other person paid to show you a good time, doesn’t shower you with superlatives to make you feel that you are God’s gift to Switzerland. The words “awesome” and “you” will not be used in the same sentence.

The Americans are coming!

The number of US visitors to Switzerland has been growing steadily by about 5% a year over the past few years and is forecast to top one million annually by 2019.

As a member of the growing community of Americans visiting Switzerland, you’ll have a better chance of running into a fellow countryman on holiday than a Brit or French citizen. In fact, Americans have leapfrogged into third placeexternal link among tourist groups in Switzerland, behind only the Swiss holidaying at home and neighbouring Germans.

But more and more Germans have been staying away. Last year, 5.5% fewer Germans came to Switzerland than in 2015, which also saw a big drop of 10.8% compared to 2014. However, Germans still account for 10% of all nights spent in Swiss accommodation, compared to 5% for Americans.

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Cash for coffee: People pay for their coffee – and a lot of other things - with cash. A cashier won’t blink if you use a CHF100 note to buy an espresso. The Swiss colour of money is yellow, red, green and blue, in that order. Make it a game for your kids to learn the different denominations. Yellow is 10, red is 20…

Common colours: Traffic light colours are the same as in North America, but you won’t see many. All the more reason to see Swiss cities by foot. No waiting at cross walks every 100 yards or so.

Danger!: You’ll be crossing the street at your own risk, although crosswalks are clearly marked in yellow and drivers must stop for you by law. You won’t see any signs on mountain paths or lakeshores warning of the inherent risks of falling into the airy or watery depths below. Enter Switzerland at your own peril!

Coffee cups: Coffee is served in one size, but in three different kinds of cups. In relation to the US or Canada, an espresso is small, a coffee is, well, small, and a cappuccino is the same size but with frothy milk.

Their way or the highway: If you rent a car, you’ll soon discover highways are at most two lanes in each direction. The left lane is for passing, not sightseeing. Linger too long and you’ll soon get an up-close, rear-view mirror view of just how many BMWs and Porsches the Swiss drive.

Dale Bechtel is a member of the Editorial Board


Coffee to go?: All rental vehicles are equipped with coffee holders in the middle console. Now try to find a pit stop that serves coffee to go! But if you choose to ride trains instead of driving, you’ll find railway stations full of take-out places that do serve coffee in paper cups – and in different sizes!

Rail-cohol: If coffee's not your thing, buy a couple of beers to go, and drink them openly on the train - in real bottles, or giant half-litre cans. You can also drink them on the street or in front of the train station to the tune of your own portable sound system, a favourite pastime among Swiss youth.

Can I drink the water?: Yes, even if restaurant staff try to give you a different impression and encourage you to buy bottled fizzy water. Tap water is never served unless you ask for it, and sometimes it'll be added to the bill.

Coffee culture: Coffee is served in Swiss restaurants, but only at the end of a meal, in real cups, and small sizes. Do not order a milky coffee concoction at this juncture. That's so American.

Not surprisingly, many of the differences mentioned above also left an impression on our readers on Facebook. There were other aspects of Swiss culture that stood out too.

FB comments

Facebook comments

Don't hog the left passing lane(s): stuck to the right unless you are passing another vehicle.

Sunday shopping is virtually non-existent.

Don't expect Canadian hospitality. The Swiss seem to respect privacy and may come off as quite cold to the average North American.

Asking for the check & being ok with sitting still and enjoying the meal as an event rather than a pit stop.

Drink refills do not exist.

Coffees are more expensive but very tasty and come with a small piece of chocolate.

Seriously when is Europe going to get some ice?? I don't know why this is so engrained in us (Americans) but we love our ice-cold drinks.

Narrow streets and no potholes.

No traffic lights but roundabouts; lots of zebras with lots of pedestrians; aggressive driving in major cities (if you are Canadian); no visible police; very rare panhandling; young people (16 yo) drinking alcohol in public spaces.

How unfriendly German Swiss have become in the last decade.

Restaurants don't serve tap water for free, if you want water, you get bottled water.

Speed cameras are everywhere, and will issue tickets for going a kilometer above the speed limit.

No one packs your groceries at the store, so be prepared to do so yourself, bring your own bag or be prepared to buy one at the check stand.

You have to sell your firstborn to get more than 2 ice cubes in your drink, shops have limited hours.

It's o.k. to share a table with strangers.

I felt incredibly safe no matter the time of night walking.

Yodeling in the train from the arrival gate to the RR station. Majority of people speaking some funny language, are mostly nicely dressed, and there's no trash to be seen anywhere.

Be prepared to sit down and savor a meal in a restaurant served on a warm plate with real silverware and glassware. Don't look for take-out or drive-thrus.

Something's that could be a negative surprise, the charge for use of some public toilets.

Americans are terrible about not having cash.

No air conditioning in a lot of places and no ice in the glass of water. And my Swiss compatriots complain exactly about the opposite.

Don't expect people to be impressed that you're American. Especially now.

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