Interlaken is a fantastic base for seeing the best of central Switzerland’s magnificent scenery while enjoying the comforts of a chic lakeside resort. Tourist attractions are all around it, with boat tours on Lakes Thun and Brienz at either side of the town and thrilling train and funicular rides to the spectacular surrounding mountain peaks. Interlaken is one of the oldest, best known, and most popular summer holiday resorts in Switzerland. The first visitors arrived in the 17th century, and as transport facilities improved with the coming of the railroad, boat services on the lakes, and most recently the expressway, Interlaken became the major tourist center of the Bernese Oberland. Day or night, you’ll find plenty of things to do in and around Interlaken. Along with the almost endless variety of walks, climbs, and outdoor excursions, there are many other sports available for active travelers. On the right bank of the Aare, opposite the Kursaal, is a swimming pool, and visitors will find a golf course in Unterseen, as well as sailing and windsurfing on the lakes, parasailing, horseback riding, and tennis.
The views over Interlaken and both lakes from the Harder are spectacular. Beyond the bridge over the Aare River, next to the Harder Alpine Wildlife Park, the Harder-Kulm funicular climbs at a 64-degree gradient up the Harder to an altitude of 1,322 meters. From the Art Nouveau-style Panorama Restaurant at its top are magnificent views of the Jungfrau area, Interlaken, and the lakes. You can return along forest paths via the Hardermannli lookout pavilion at 1,116 meters and the Hohbühl pavilion, where there is a memorial to the composers Mendelssohn, Wagner, and Weber.
Stop at the Harder Alpine Wildlife Park to see marmots and ibexes. The latter, once a common denizen of the Alps, had become extinct in Switzerland by the early 1900s. This park was created to re-introduce the ibex, and the breeding was so successful that within a few years they were able to begin reintroducing these beautiful creatures into the wild.
An area of 14 hectares in the heart of Interlaken that belonged to the Augustinian convent was acquired in 1860 by a group of 37 hotel owners and private citizens to be left as an open space, a remarkable example of farseeing town planning. Through its length runs the Höheweg, a splendid avenue between the east and west rail stations that affords a magnificent view of the Jungfrau, surrounded by hotels and flower-beds. Alongside it is the Kursaal, with a theater and a café and beautiful gardens with a flower clock, as well as a number of hotels, including the 150-year-old Victoria Jungfrau Hotel, itself a local landmark. Next to the Hotel Interlaken, you’ll find the small Garden of Friendship, the first Japanese garden in Switzerland, a peaceful spot with flowering plants, water, and koi carp.
The park is the preferred landing spot for hang gliders – one of the most popular of the many adventures you can enjoy in Interlaken. For the less adventurous, horse-drawn carriages park along the street in front of the park. In the winter there is an ice-skating rink that’s comfortable for beginners, but with plenty of space for faster skaters.
From Wilderswil, a five-minute walk from the Interlaken Ost railway station, you can take a rack-railroad that has been carrying sightseers up to the Schynige Platte since it opened in 1893. The hour-long ride is a series of ever-changing Alpine panoramas, and at the top, you’ll find one of the finest panoramic views of the Alps, encompassing the Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau peaks as well as Lake Thun. You can enjoy these from a 45-minute panoramic walk along an easy trail, which also leads to an excellent alpine garden with 600 species of flowers and high-altitude plants. If you’re lucky there may be locals playing traditional Swiss Alphorns at the Schynige Platte station.
The Marktgasse runs northwest from the Interlaken post office and across the Spielmatten islands and the river to the little hamlet of Unterseen, at the foot of Mt. Harder. This is one of several villages that form Interlaken, and in this old part of town is the 1471 parish church, with a Late Gothic tower. Here, you’ll find some beautiful wooden chalets of the kind you’d expect to see in tiny mountain villages, not in a busy resort center like Interlaken. Set in green gardens, these may even have farm animals grazing on the lawns. Small restaurants around the pretty Stadthausplatz serve traditional Swiss dishes.
On the west side of Interlaken is Lake Thun, a long, narrow lake surrounded by mountains. The best way to explore the lake is on one of the cruise boats that operate from Interlaken year-round or in the summer on the beautifully restored historic paddle steamer. At the western end of the lake, you can stop in Thun with its medieval Old Town and lakeside castle with a striking keep that overlooks the lake. It was built in 1191 and enlarged in 1492, and today houses a historical museum with 14th-century arms and armor, tapestries, furniture, and prehistoric and Roman artifacts. Other castles and several Romanesque churches are in villages that dot the shore of Lake Thun. Schloss Shadau, easy to spot right on the water, is a smaller replica of Chateau Azay-le-Rideau, on the Loire in France.
On Interlaken’s east side is Lake Brienz, a narrow body of water that’s really an enlargement of the valley of the River Aare. Lying between the limestone ridge of the Brienzer Grat and the Faulhorn mountains, it is seven meters higher than Lake Thun, on Interlaken’s west side. Like Lake Thun, it is best seen from one of the five boats that connect Interlaken to towns around its wooded shores. The most atmospheric of these boats is the restored steamer the Lötschberg, built in 1914; other boats offer special dining cruises with Swiss food specialties. Like Lake Thun, Brienz is popular with boaters of all sorts and you can rent kayaks, row boats, and pedalos to explore the lakes on your own.
Touristik-Museum (Museum of Tourism)
The history of tourism in the Jungfrau Region is shown here in three floors of exhibits that cover everything from early transport and hotels to travel clothing and skiing. Housed in a lovely restored 17th-century timbered house, the museum includes models of early postal coaches, rack railway locomotives, bicycles and lake steamers, as well as actual historical carriages and vehicles. Exhibits also use historic photos and art to show how tiny, often remote villages were able to develop and thrive by attracting tourists to experience their landscapes, folk traditions, geological wonders, and even local flora and fauna. Many of the exhibits are labeled in English.
From the town of Beatenberg, a short bus ride from Interlaken, you can reach one of the most spectacular viewpoints in the Bernese Oberland (which has plenty of them to offer). A cable car takes you up to a halfway station, where a funicular continues up the Niederhorn to a restaurant and view across Lake Thun and the Alps. Along with its scenery, the Niederhorn is known especially for its nature and wildlife. It’s home to ibex, marmots, mountain goats, golden eagles, deer, and even the rare cuckoo. Weekly wildlife tours guided by a local wild animal specialist include visiting wild ibex colonies. You can rent unique stand-up scooter-type bicycles for the descent, and the Niederhorn is a favorite place for hang gliding, as well.
St. Beatus Cave and Waterfalls
More than one kilometer of walkways lead through the chambers and passageways of these hillside caves, where legend holds that a dragon took shelter when hunted by the monk, Beatus, whose hermitage was nearby. But the geology is no legend, and you can tour these underground caverns to see mirror lakes, underground waterfalls, stalactites, and stalagmites accompanied by a guide or at your own speed using a descriptive app. The entire area is quite beautiful, with a series of waterfalls cascading down the cliffs. You can get here by bus from Interlaken (it’s about a 10-minute walk from the bus stop) or by boat from Interlaken West station, but it’s quite a steep climb from the lake to the caves.
Interlaken Monastery and Castle
Interlaken’s former Augustinian monastery dates to the 12th century. You can see the 14th-century bell tower along with a Gothic cloister and remains of a chapel dating from 1452. Notice especially the variety of window designs in the castle church. Before the property was turned over to the state in the 16th century during the Protestant Reformation, the monastery was an important hostel for pilgrims headed to the former hermitage of Saint Beatus, believed to have been in the caves above Lake Thun. These caves were a stop for pilgrims on the Way of St. James, known in Switzerland as the Jakobsweg, leading to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
An easy walk of about 1.5 kilometers from Wilderswil train station, and only about three kilometers from central Interlaken, is the romantic ruin of Unspunnen Castle. Its history is recorded back to the early 1200s, and although its builder is unknown, it was the center of a baronial fief in the 13th and 14th centuries. Along with the nearby Rothenfluh, Unspunnen guarded the medieval Lütschinenbrücke bridge at Gsteig. Some sources hold that these ruins inspired Lord Byron to write his poem Manfred, and it is true that much of it was written during his travels through the Bernese Alps in September of 1816. You can walk on to Rothenfluh Castle, which was built into the side of a cliff. There is very little left of it, but signboards explaining its history are in English.
To reach Giessbach Falls, take the Lake Brienz boat to the Giessbach See landing-stage and either climb about 20 minutes or take the oldest funicular railway in Europe. The Giessbach tumbles down the beautifully wooded hillside to the lake from a height of 500 meters, in a series of 14 falls over successive rock ridges. The best view is from the terrace in front of the historic Grand Hotel Giessbach, about 100 meters above the lake. There are footpaths up both banks to the highest of the three bridges, where the stream emerges from a narrow gorge and plunges into a rock basin 60 meters deep.
The lakeside town of Brienz is the center of the Oberland craft of woodcarving, examples of which you can see in shops and studios and on houses with beautifully carved friezes on the facades. Above the town rises the 2,350-meter Brienzer Rothorn, reached in about an hour via Switzerland’s oldest steam rack railway, the Brienz-Rothorn Railway. From the top are views of the Appenzell, Uri, Engelberg, Berne, and Valais Alps extending from Säntis to the Diablerets. Wear hiking boots, and you can take a four-hour hike to the Brünig Pass, returning to Brienz by the Brünigbahn. Built in 1888, this is the smallest rack-and-pinion railroad of the Swiss network.