Grindelwald & Lauterbrunnen: Majestic Swiss Villages
Grindelwald and Lauterbrunnen–and really, all of the villages scattered around the alpine valleys of Switzerland’s Bernese Oberland in the Interlaken district–are some of the most picturesque places I’ve ever visited. From the Swiss alps towering above the villages, to the rolling green hills, to the cascading waterfalls, and even the chalet architecture, everywhere you look is a photo-worthy scene.
The phrase “postcard perfect” gets tossed around too much, but in the case of Grindelwald and Lauterbrunnen, it’s an understatement, if anything. When looking around, you get the sense that it’s almost a little too perfect, as if you’ve stepped into a meticulously staged film set and some weird Pleasantville sorta thing is going on. (I looked into this pretty diligently, and my investigations revealed these are, in fact, totally real places.)
For being relatively small villages, a lot has been written about Lauterbrunnen and Grindelwald. Lauterbrunnen, in particular, routinely makes lists of the world’s prettiest places or must-visit locales, and it’s highly regarded by a lot of travel experts. Neither are even remotely hidden gems; if anything, they receive a disproportionate amount of coverage given their points of interest and actual attractions. Nonetheless, visitors like me feel compelled to share their experiences from these Swiss villages. While I’ll gush over their beauty, I hope to bring something new to the table with some tips for saving money while visiting Grindelwald and Lauterbrunnen, among other things…
My first tip would be to stay outside of Lauterbrunnen and Grindelwald. This is true regardless of whether you have a rental car or are using the Swiss Rail Pass. Both are high-demand villages in Switzerland, with many people wanting to stay in their “city centers.” This can mean inflated hotel prices as compared to other areas in the Interlaken region.
What I’d instead recommend if you don’t have a car is looking for areas in the region that are within walking distance of a station. If you have a car, pretty much anywhere is fair game. This is what we did, and for our stay, it was significantly cheaper being outside of the main villages.
Driving through Switzerland is a joy in itself, and we found this to work incredibly well. I know this might seem like a common sense suggestion, but when we were researching Switzerland, we were torn over this. Many areas are difficult or impossible to access via car (nearby Wengen is one such car-free place), so it’s better to stay in the heart of the specific villages. We did not find this to be the case with Lauterbrunnen. Or, if it somehow was, I guess we just didn’t know what we were missing.
Another option is Airbnb. This is not what we did, but I’d definitely do it next time. Perusing Airbnb for Lauterbrunnen now, I see prices that are all over the place. You can pay ~$40/night for what looks like a glorified tent, $1,000/night for somewhere super-swanky, and everywhere in between.
For me, the appeals of Airbnb in Switzerland are twofold: saving money on the accommodations and having a kitchen to prepare meals. The reason I’d want a kitchen is because restaurants–even McDonald’s–are so expensive in Switzerland. By contrast, groceries are not. Normally, cooking is the last thing I want to do when traveling, but I’d make an exception if that’d enable me to stretch my travel budget in Switzerland.
When looking now, I see solid ‘entire house’ options with kitchens for ~$100/night, which I consider a good price. We’ve had some fun experiences staying at unique Airbnb locations throughout Europe and really cannot recommend it highly enough. You can use our sign-up link for a $40 credit your first time using Airbnb. If you don’t stay at an Airbnb, at least opt for a hotel with breakfast included–eating a large (included) breakfast and skipping lunch can also be a big savings.
The other half of the ‘saving money on food’ equation is finding the grocery stores in Grindelwald, Lauterbrunnen, and Interlaken. Fortunately, there are several Coop superstores in the region (click here for their store locater). “Discovering” the huge Coop in Grindelwald was an “aha” moment for us in Switzerland.
This isn’t to say you should avoid all restaurants in the Interlaken area. We didn’t eat at enough of them to have a definitive take. Local specialties such as veal, venison, and fondue are intriguing, but everything we did have was fairly underwhelming.
I’d be willing to try another restaurant in Switzerland, but honestly, I’d be a hard sell. If our limited experience is any indication (and maybe it is not), Switzerland does not seem to be one of Europe’s preeminent foodie places. Perhaps I’m just unreasonably frugal, but I’d rather allocate that money towards more time in Switzerland, other experiences, or even using the interesting transportation systems in Switzerland.
Whether you should do the Swiss Rail Pass or rent a car is another tough question and one that’s beyond the scope of this post. We went back and forth on this, but ultimately opted for a rental car. It really depends upon your specific circumstances. Just be mindful of the fact that while the various rail passes generally cover multiple forms of transportation, they rarely include full fare on the lifts and gondolas. They do get you a substantial discount, though.
Speaking of these mountain lifts, you’re going to want to do at least one in the Jungfrau Region. The most alluring of these is Jungfrau, the “Top of Europe,” itself.
For many people, this is bucket list material. Due to cost, it was not for us (we did Grindelwald-First and hiked to Bachalpsee Lake instead).
The tip here would be to consult hiking sites and see what you can do by foot rather than by lift. There are a ton of options for hiking, and the best way to get a feel for the options is probably via Walking in the Bernese Oberland.
There are also a number of blogs and online resources, but some of the most popular of these are more oriented on selling rail passes, so it’s good to start with a particular hike in mind when Googling, and work from there.
I suspect fear of missing out drives many visitors to this region to go nuts buying gondola tickets. Those costs can add up really quickly, making a visit to the Bernese Oberland very expensive.
Taking the lift or gondola is definitely an experience worth having, so I don’t recommend avoiding it in the name of frugality. There is something special about the Swiss gondola/cable car experience, and it’s worth closing your eyes and just swiping the credit card on that one.
In terms of photography tips, while the Bernese Oberland is a treasure trove of picture perfect settings, it can be frustratingly difficult to photograph for something that is so gorgeous to the naked eye. If you’re like me, you probably favor shooting at sunrise, sunset, and the golden hour. I got really lucky with the sunset conditions for some of these photos, but what you don’t see are the several sunsets during our time in Switzerland that were completely flat.
Unfortunately, given the location of these villages in valleys surrounded by mountains, the effective sunrise time is often far later than official sunrise, and sunset is earlier than official sunset. Unless you get a stunning sky, these can be lost causes in terms of photography. Instead, aim for late morning and early evening for even, diffused light.
There’s also nothing wrong with just shooting middle-of-the-day blue skies and puffy clouds. These areas are so beautiful that they don’t really need “ideal” conditions to make them photogenic.
Beyond that, my suggestion is to just wander and explore. Generally speaking, Switzerland is not the place you go with a list of points of interest that you want to check off. If you have that mentality, you might end up buying a lot of tickets for things…that you don’t really need. Rather, Switzerland–and Lauterbrunnen, in particular–is more about the journey, and there’s so much you can enjoy by simply being out, walking the meandering paths, seeing, and absorbing. If that’s not your pace, perhaps this is not the place for you?
Overall, Lauterbrunnen and Grindelwald are incredible places. There are not enough superlatives to do them justice. Truly, all of the praise that is heaped upon the villages of the Bernese Oberland is deserved. The usual caveat that follows all of that praise within a few sentences is “…but they’re really expensive.” That’s definitely true to a degree, but the good thing is that so much of what makes these places special is completely free. Embrace that picture perfect scenery, and focus on what you can do enjoy without spending any money.
If you’re planning a visit to Switzerland and want to know what we did, check out my other Switzerland posts for ideas. I also highly recommend Rick Steves’ Switzerland to help better develop an efficient plan while there.
Have you visited Interlaken-Lauterbrunnen-Grindelwald (or wherever else in the Bernese Oberland that I’m overlooking)? Any suggestions to add for things to do or ways to approach this region? Any tips for saving money on a trip to Switzerland? Do you agree or disagree with my assessment that Lauterbrunnen is best experienced as a place to hike and explore? Any questions? Hearing from readers is interesting and helpful to others, so please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below!
Tom- Have you ever been to Zermatt? That was Walt’s inspiration for Mineral King. I would like to see it, someday.
Reading this really took me back Tom. My brother and I spent about 3 weeks in Europe 10 years ago and our week in Switzerland mostly based out of Lauterbrunnen was a highlight. You were dead on with the co-OP. Made many a good, fresh sandwiches for lunch from our visits. We stayed at the valley hostel and it was plenty for our needs. Spending our money on the Jungfrau, a day trip to Lucerne and canyoning was higher on our list of needs.
If you even want to revisit Switzerland, I’ve been in Geneva for six months (on my way to a PhD) and have lots of tips that make it very doable on a budget (as an intern I make a whopping $0/hour).
Funny that you mention this, because I have had a half-completed post in my drafts folder on this topic for over a year. I had several ideas based on things we did, but felt like I didn’t have quite enough for a full post.
So, YES, I’d absolutely love to hear more tips for doing Switzerland on a budget!
Also did not have a good experience with Swiss food. We had a “saving grace” experience after walking out of a terrible weird hybrid fondue/Chinese restaurant (don’t ask) and stumbled upon a makeshift food tent hosted by a German branch of the Lions Club. To this day we still rave about their bratwurst, potato salad, and of course the GIGANTIC raclette-style cheese machine. They literally scraped off oozing hot cheese from a yard-long raclette onto a baguette and it is without a doubt one of the best things I’ve ever eaten. Totally random happenstance that they were in Interlaken for the two days we visited and the best food I’ve ever had in Europe. Prost!
“…weird hybrid fondue/Chinese restaurant (don’t ask)…”
Um, sorry, but I’m definitely asking. You cannot tease a gem like that and not tell the story!
These are absolutely lovely pictures. I got to visit the region once – we went skiing for a day at Grindelwald,but it’s much prettier in the summer.
My experience with Swissfood was pretty good, actually (aside from price). I mostly ate in the Basel area the 2 times I was there, but it was pretty good. The best pizza I’ve had in my life was from one of those trips. It was technically in Germany, but only 1-200 meters across the border.
Great review! The Berner Oberland is a beautiful place, and being out in it is the whole point. Taking the train through the Eiger to the Jungfraujoch is remarkable, even if it is usuriously expensive. If you are a skier, it’s cheaper to take the early workers train. But you need to really know what you are doing, or hire a mountain guide.
It is also lovely to ride the train from Lauterbrunnen up to Kleine Scheidegg. The view of the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau north faces is stunning. Be sure to watch Clint Eastwood in the Eiger Sanction before arriving! The cliff top town of Murren is a car-free village, and the rotating restaurant at the top of the ski hill was built for a James Bond film (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service). Rick Sylvester also parachuted off these cliffs for the opening scene.
I’m kind of with you: Swiss food is not that interesting. The hot cheese is remarkable, but you can’t eat that every day. Nevertheless, you should definitely do at least one fondue or raclette dinner. Try to find raclette where the restaurant just brings the cheese and toaster to your table: the places that insist on making you ask for another plate every time are irritating, and you never get as much cheese as you want, even if you are a light eater.
Another housing option that is surprisingly affordable in Alpine ski towns is apartment rental. You can book a condo for a few days much cheaper than a hotel. Just wander into any real estate office in the town and ask about it. Checking in at the tourist office to find a room for shorter stays usually let’s you stay within your hotel budget. You may have to walk a bit further for the cheaper places.
We didn’t make it up to Murren, but that’s definitely on the list for next time. I think we’ll purchase a rail pass and try to leverage that more to do things we haven’t done. Thanks for your tips–some great ideas here! 🙂