A Tour Guide to Switzerland for the “Traveler-on-Wheels”

by Aimee Hofmann

I was ecstatic when asked to share my travel experiences to the beautiful country of Switzerland. Then I thought to myself, “Where do I begin?” Switzerland is so much more than the home of gourmet cheeses and decadent chocolates, or the heavenly views of white Alps, charming chalets and dewy green meadows. 

Specifically, the city of Bern, the country’s capital, (a.k.a. the “Capital of Happiness” that recently topped the World Happiness index) has such a significant meaning to me. Not only is Bern my husband Daniel’s hometown, it is where my life went through a huge turning point and changed forever. The year of 2000, I decided to quit my job, leave my apartment in NYC, move to Bern to be with the love of my life and get married.  Daniel and I spent our first adventurous year together in this magical city. Since we have moved back to the States, we have been visiting Switzerland 1-2 times per year for the last 14 years; 9 years disabled, in a wheelchair, and 5 years as a mom. Over the years, I feel like I’ve experienced this city from different perspectives at various points in my life.  
The city of Bern
If you’ve had your eye on Switzerland and have been pondering the idea of visiting this Utopian land of low crime rate and little pollution, hopefully my guide can steer you in the right direction, especially if you’re a “traveler-on-wheels.”   

My personal favorite time to visit Switzerland is the warmer months (May-September).  Prices for flights and hotels, however, do tend to skyrocket during the summer and end-of-year holiday time, if not booked far in advance. My family usually flies Swiss Air, which is what I recommend for best service.  We always call the airline ahead of time to let them know we are traveling with a wheelchair. After a lot of following-up on our end, Swiss Air has been responsive in accommodating special seat requests to cater specific needs, i.e., near the aisle (for easy transferring), near the window (for privacy), near the exit or near the bathroom. The flight is usually a 7.5-hour red-eye from JFK airport, N.Y. that arrives in either the city of Geneva or Zurich. The return flight to the East Coast is longer, about 8.5 hours, because we are traveling against the wind. Our city of choice for landing is always Zurich, one the country’s largest, most Cosmopolitan cities. One can have the option of spending a day or two sightseeing Zurich’s architectural landmarks, shopping in brand/designer stores or dining at one of the city’s trendy restaurants.
Europe, in general, does not have the same disability laws/regulations as the U.S. You’ll therefore find that a lot of public transportation stations and buildings have maintained their original architecture, making accessibility more limited than in the States. My advice is to have an able-bodied companion accompany you while traveling to Europe. If you travel with kids, like we do, it's helpful to even have two able-bodied companions--one to assist you and another to help your children throughout the trip. I’ve been lucky to have both my parents travel with us most of the time. In the last few years, we reserved a car rental, which we picked up at the airport as soon as we landed. Since converted vans with ramps were hard to find in Europe, we always made sure that our rented car had enough space in the trunk for the wheelchair. So far, we’ve rented a Volkswagen Sharan and a Renault estate wagon, both of which were low enough for me to transfer easily and had roomy trunks. 
Miss Emilee, enjoying outdoor dining in Bern

It is about a two-hour drive from Zurich airport to the city of Bern. Fortunately, my family always has the luxury of staying at relatives’ and friends’ homes each time we visit. For others, it will take some research to find accessible hotels since they are more limited than in the States. There are websites that provide accessible accommodation info such as rollihotel.ch. Holiday Inn, Best Western, Hotel Savoy or Hotel Waldhorn (waldhorn.ch) are listed as accessible hotels in Bern. Of course, you should always call the hotel ahead of time and ask if the room dimensions are compatible with your wheelchair. If the hotel does not already provide bathroom equipment (commodes and shower chairs/benches), you can rent them from local medical equipment shops. I always rent a bathroom commode for about 80 francs/week (currently 1 Swiss franc is ~ 1 US dollar) from a mom/pop shop called Hilfsmittel (www.hilfsmittel-belp.ch). The shop is located in Belp, about a 10-minute drive from Bern. You can call to reserve the equipment and set a time/date for a pickup. Since not everyone speaks English in Switzerland, hopefully the hotel manager can help you with renting/obtaining equipment. 
Once you arrive in Bern, just strolling (or “rolling”) down the streets of this historic town can be quite an amazing sightseeing tour, especially if you’re art/architecture-savvy. Incredibly, the city was founded in the 12th century and almost all the buildings have maintained their original Medieval architectural form. Most of the sidewalks that are built under arcades have smooth surface, but some are cobblestone, which can be tricky for wheelchairs. If you're not a “rugged” pusher like myself or don’t have a power chair, you may need a boost to get around. Although, I’m happy to report that the curbs are mostly smooth, unlike NYC’s (where I’m from) damaged/cracked, bumpy streets. 

One of Switzerland’s main forms of public transportation is the “tram” which runs along the streets on tracks, suspended from cable lines. However, only certain stops/lines have wheelchair lifts. Once again, it will take research to find out which lines have accessible lifts. The good news is that all the trains, trams and buses operate precisely on schedule to the minute (also unlike NYC). Extreme precision is a well-known trait of the Swiss culture and its people (I should know, being married to one)!

Ultimately, I really recommend “rolling” directly on the streets, rather than taking the tram everywhere, to really take in the city’s culture. Look out for the city’s landmarks such as the Zytglogge (Bernese German for "Time Bell"), an elaborate Medieval clock tower with a moving puppet. You’ll also see the impressive 15th century Gothic cathedral, the Münster and Bern’s 15th-century town hall.

Thanks to 6 kilometers (4 miles) of arcades, the old town boasts one of the longest covered shopping promenades in Europe. Lucky for me, the shopping area (my favorite area) happens to be the flattest part of the city. Built within the Medieval arcades, you’ll find brand stores such as Mango (my favorite clothing store), H&M, Benetton, Globus/Lobus (department) and Swiss brands such as Tally-Weijl and Vogele shoes. Maybe you’ll want to splurge on your first Swiss watch at Bucherer or Kurz (fine watch and jewelry stores). For more eye candy, literally speaking, there are a number of patisseries and chocolatier shops that feature intricate food art in their window displays. It won’t be long before you’re inside devouring your first Swiss chocolate!

Be assured to know there are a number of Apotheken (apothecaries) in town, should any minor medical issues arise. The Swiss are huge advocates of homeopathic treatment, which are widely practiced by most of their physicians. The Apotheken carry countless remedies that are purely made of natural ingredients. During one of my visits, I suspected a UTI coming on. The pharmacist at the Apotheke handed me a pack of homeopathic pills to clean the bladder, as the Swiss would only turn to antibiotics as a very last resort. Although my condition wasn’t severe, to my surprise, the pills actually worked!

Hopefully, if you manage to stay healthy throughout the trip, there are a ton of fun activities, especially if you are traveling with kids. My 5-year old daughter, Emilee, always gets a kick out of visiting the Bear Pit (Bärengraben), which currently houses live bears. 
The bear, the symbolic animal of Bern 
The bear has been a symbol of the city since the 12th century. It is said the city was named after the Bär (bear), hence the name “Bern.” Emilee also loves Tierpark Dahlholzli (Bern’s children zoo) and the Rosengarten (Rose Garden), complete with a playground. 
During one of our trips, my family and I took a relaxing stroll around the beautiful garden. Afterwards, we had dinner at the Rosengarten’s restaurant, which had an amazing, panoramic view of the whole medieval town.

If all these activities make you hungry, there are a number of wheelchair/stroller/ kid-friendly restaurants in Bern. For the best pizza in town, try Grissino’s, our all-time favorite, and also Daniel’s go-to meeting place with his buddies. They specialize in thin crust pizza and have a menu featuring a huge array of toppings. The chef surprised Emilee once with a custom made pizza shaped as Mickey Mouse. You can imagine how thrilled she was! There are a few steps to get into Grissino’s, however the advantage of visiting Switzerland during the warmer months is that you can enjoy dining outside and not have to worry about stairs. Almost all the restaurants in Bern have outdoor dining areas. You won’t find a soul eating indoors during the warmer seasons. 
At Rosengarten’s restaurant, overlooking Bern

Our favorite date-night spot is Metzgerstubli. The cozy, quaint venue serves only in-season ingredients fresh from the local farms to your table. The owner knows Daniel by name and always gives us super, personalized service. Metzgerstubli has a small outdoor dining area, but it’s much comfier to sit inside the wooden, rustic decor. The doorway is kind of narrow, but I’m able to squeeze in with my 23.5” wide chair. They have two floors, so make sure you reserve a table downstairs.  
View of Bern from Rosengarten's

If you have a constant desire for a scenic view, take full advantage to dine near the city’s Aare, Bern’s sparkling, emerald river. The river is lined with accessible trails on either side where you can stroll (or “roll") along and take-in the calming effect of its rushing waters. During my last visit this past August, Daniel, my father-in-law and I dined at a restaurant called Fähribeizli (Ferry Restaurant) right on the Aare. If you happen to be on the opposite side of the river, you can take the ferryboat across to reach the restaurant. Since it was too hard to transfer onto a ferryboat from the wheelchair, we just drove and parked right at the restaurant. Fähribeizli has modern décor with both outdoor and indoor seating. They serve both local Swiss and Italian cuisine, however that night we all agreed that people-watching was more entertaining than the food. Dozens of random divers, swimmers and rafters floated down the Aare, some holding glasses of wine (yes, the Swiss don’t miss any opp to enjoy their wine)! Most of the river passerby waved to us and called out “A-Guete,” (Swiss-German meaning Bon-Appetit)! To wish one “A-guete” or “Prost” (Cheers), is a must in Switzerland before anyone dares to begin to eat or drink.  
AFähribeizli restaurant by the Aare 
There are a number of other excellent restaurants by Bern’s Aare such as the Schwellenmatteli Terrase Restaurant. Terrase, serving Mediterranean cuisine, has a huge accessible outdoor seating area which is built right over the gorgeous Aare. Terrase is a wonderful spectacle of modern architecture meeting beautiful nature. 

If you happen to be a daredevil (and I know there are a lot of serious daredevil-on-wheels out there), you can attempt to jump into the river. Daniel grew up swimming in the Aare, so randomly jumping in the river is just the norm for all Swiss locals, old and young. Every few feet along the river trails, there are stations where you can deposit your clothing and enter. Depending on how much mobility you have, you’ll need help getting down a few steps and some rocks. It’s a pretty bold move to swim in the Aare with a disability. Even if you’re a confident swimmer like myself, I suggest using a life jacket and going with a companion who is also a good swimmer. The current is so strong, it can dangerously carry you away. Brace yourself! The water is freezing since it flows from the Alps! So make sure you plan to swim in the Aare on a super hot day. 

Of course you can’t visit Switzerland without taking day trips to see the vast Alps that are capped with shimmering, white snow all year round. Escape the bustling city to experience the most breathtaking views that you’ll ever see in your life. One of the most famous mountains is the Jungfrau (alt. 3,454m). It is reachable by a cog railway, taking approximately an hour and a half from Lauterbrunnen Railway Station, which has wheelchair lifts. It is quite astonishing because the rail line, built in 1910, is partially built inside a tunnel that is carved into the solid rock of the mountain. Once at Jungfraujoch, there are a number of things to do, ranging from taking in the magnificent view across the ice shelf, dog sleigh rides, and touring inside the glacier’s “Ice Palace.”
Another famous mountain is the Schilthorn (alt. 2,970m). It uses a network of four separate cable cars to reach the top.  Each cable station, from the bottom to the top is accessible. The Schilthorn has an open air viewing deck, a revolving restaurant and a movie/slide show of the region. On the viewing deck, you are at eye level with the Eiger, Monche and Jungfrau peaks. It is such a surreal experience to be so close to the Alps!   
Scenic drive around Lake Thun
Some of the smaller, lesser-known mountains can be just as magnificent. This past August, Daniel and I took a day trip to the town of Merligen, which is about an hour car ride from Bern. We parked at the railway station of Niederhorn mountain (alt.1,950m), which is surrounded by Lake Thun. There was a wheelchair lift to get on the tram that took us halfway up the mountain.  Then we transferred into an accessible cable car to reach the highest point. When we finally reached the top, the view was absolutely breathtaking! From afar, we saw Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau lined up along the horizon. Amidst green mountainous terrain, the beautiful aqua Lake of Thun glistened in the center. At the Niederhorn’s mountain-top restaurant, we enjoyed a leisurely lunch and sipped wine, overlooking the spectacular view. Afterwards, Daniel was able to push me up some steep trails, even further, to reach the very tippy-top of the mountain. We took in the moment, acted like “tourists” and snapped a gazillion photos.

Niederhorn mountain

After our sightseeing session, we took time to unwind at the Hotel Beatus Spa (www.beatus.ch), also located in Merligen, about a 5-minute drive from Niederhorn mountain. Beatus is a full service spa with an indoor pool and an outdoor solbad (warm, salt bath). Daniel and I were able to spend a relaxing, romantic afternoon together in the solbad, sans kids! We savored every moment because we don’t get this opportunity often. Also, Daniel thought it would be a good way for me to get off my “butt” since I couldn’t do my regular physical therapy routine while on vacation. 
Hotel Beatus Spa
The warm therapeutic bath is a great way to relieve muscle tension from sitting in a wheelchair for long periods. In addition, the Swiss believe that the salt can be very healing for skin problems such as eczema or pressure sores. 
Since the solbad has a few steps leading into the water, you can hop onto the floor and scoot down the steps on your rear (if you’re a pro at transferring), or you can get carried in like I did ;). Once we were in, Daniel and I slowly waded through the bath, stopping at different “massage stations,” where strong water jets shoot out at different points to your body. There’s no need to be a great swimmer here. The bath has benches throughout where you can sit to enjoy the water jets and bubbles that stimulate circulation. We soaked in the sun and took in the beautiful view of Lake Thun and the Alps in the background.
Daniel and Aimee on top of Niederhorn mountain
To round off our amazing day, we took a 30-minute scenic drive on the other side of Lake Thun, to a town called Spiez. We had a perfect dinner right by the lake at Seegarten Marina restaurant (www.seegarten-marina.ch). They had a huge outdoor accessible seating area and served Mediterranean cuisine, i.e., seafood and pizza. We both enjoyed a dish of fried Eglifilet fish, a popular lake fish in Switzerland. Paired with a nice, cool glass of wine, it hit the spot!        
If you don’t want to travel too far away from Bern, you can visit its local mountain, Gurten (alt. 858m). This mountain is especially close to my heart because I have so many personal memories on this mountain. It is the mountain where my husband and I got engaged, overlooking the Old Town of Bern! We also had a dinner celebration with both our families at Gurten’s restaurant after we signed our marriage licenses. Since then, we have taken our children to Gurten a number of times. The Gurtenbahn (Gurten train) is accessible and takes you directly to the top of the mountain within minutes. Emilee enjoys sitting in the front car so she can watch the view of the city below getting smaller as we rise higher. 

View from Seegarten restaurant
Once on top, Gurten has a huge playground that was whimsically deigned by Swiss artists. It consists of slides, a mini railway with a choo-choo train and a bumper car driving area. My 1-year old son, Christopher, had a blast at the Gurten playground and it was absolutely impossible to get him off the bumper cars! 
The family enjoys Gurten playground

Aimee and Emilee on their way
up to Gurten mountain

Every summer, usually in July, Gurten has a huge four-day music festival (www.gurtenfestival.ch) featuring both American and European musicians. To name a few, Al Green, Bob Dylan, Joss Stone, Alanis Morisette, Lenny Kratvitz, Scissor Sisters, Norah Jones and Bad Religion have all performed at the Gurtenfest. Daniel and I attended the festival one year and we saw David Grey, James Blunt and Billy Idol perform. It's quite an experience to hear live music in the open air at night. You can feel the electric energy generating from the performers and the sea of people. I recommend going on the first day of the festival, since the party can get pretty wild and more crowded during the latter days. There are plenty of food and booze stations where you can grab some grub and pop a squat on the massive field.  There are also many bathroom stations set up, but only some are accessible. Although Gurten’s trails are wide, it can get pretty hilly, so you may need a boost in some areas.
Gurten music festival

The things to do and places to see in Switzerland are endless. Aside from all the “touristy” activities and sites, the times that I valued the most are the ones spent with my family. I look forward to creating more memories with them in Switzerland and, hopefully, other countries as well. Although it may take a lot more legwork and creativity for a “traveler-on-wheels,” I won’t let my disability stop me from seeing the rest of the world, or experiencing life for that matter!  And I hope it won’t stop others either.

Aimee Hofmann lives with her husband and two children in Tuckahoe, Westchester New York. If you have any questions, email Aimee at aimeehofmann@hotmail.com.

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