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Cycling in Swizerland

Photo: On the Oberaar Panoramastrasse by the Grimselpass.

I use bikes on a daily basis for everything from shopping to multi-day tours bikepacking or bicycle touring. I dabble across the whole spectrum of riding but am not a hardcore roadie, or super-talented downhill rider.

If you want some quick route ideas then see the list of rides I have written up, or the list of my favourite rides at the end of this post.

I also have a separate post for Mountain biking.


The basics

Biking year round is standard all over Switzerland for daily tasks and recreation be it city/road/mountain. The infrastructure is not on a level like in The Netherlands or Copenhagen, but go to any town and you will see bikes everywhere (parents often transport their kids via e-bikes with a trailer).

Legally it is very relaxed, ch.ch has a good breakdown of the key points. I have never seen or heard of anyone getting into trouble.

Infrastructure

There is plenty of support (bike paths and suggested routes are common for getting inside and between towns and cities), but not often what you would call proper infrastructure. Better than some places, not as good as the Netherlands.

More often than not a bike lane is just the side of the road with some yellow paint around it, or it pushes you to the quiet backstreets. This video from Not Just Bikes gives you a good idea of what to expect in the cities.

Cycling outside the big cities is usually much more relaxed but the infrastructure quality is about the same. Following bike routes through the countryside you will find that you are directed down a mix of farm roads, little back roads, shared bike/pedestrian pavements, and sections on the main roads.

The good news is that the Swiss Bike-Path Law introduced January 2023 will vastly improve the cycling network… with a 5 year period to plan and then a completion goal in 2042 (so some patience is required).

Where you can ride

Pretty much anywhere.

One of the best things about Switzerland is how open it is. Generally speaking unless there is a very clear “private – no entry” sign blocking a path, then you can use it. Even if you just explore a small area you will have seemingly endless forest and field paths which you can use.

Riding on footpaths is mostly fine. Appenzell Innerrhoden is the most restrictive canton with bikes only allowed on footpaths in a few defined routes, on the other end of the spectrum Graubünden allows riding on almost every footpath, otherwise for the rest of the country it is usually outright allowed or in grey-zone where so long as you don’t upset or hurt people then it is OK. Legally there is just a very outdated and vague law from 1958 which says that bikes should only be taken down roads that are intended to be used on, but that was long before full-suspension Mountain Bikes and just about every Canton has official MTB routes on rough single-trail.

Signs forbidding vehicles of any kind or entry to any vehicles apply to bikes too, but often have a sub-sign saying that bikes are allowed (and even if they don’t they tend to be ignored by cyclists if it clearly isn’t going to cause any problems or risks). Some of the signed routes even send you down roads which have signs saying no vehicles allowed.

Some paths are marked as pedestrian only or have clear signs saying bikes not allowed: these are generally quite rare and are just on narrow paths that are popular with pedestrians where there would be too much conflict (e.g. lake front paths by towns, or very popular paths in the Alps). Some roads which are intended to be faster also have signs.

If you ride with common sense and treat others with respect then you shouldn’t have any problems. The only time I have had conflict with pedestrians was on the Bernina Pass where the MTB route and hiking path share the same narrow trails and some hikers got frustrated with the number of bikers coming down.

Safety

Respect for cyclists is very generally high. I have never had a problem with traffic (but this might not be the case in bigger city centres during rush hour), it isn’t uncommon for a driver to yield to me when they have right-of-way. It is even the custom that if someone is walking their dog that they will hold it still until you are past them. The respect of course goes both ways: don’t tear through a crowded town centre or other such stupid things.

Families and less experienced riders might be interested in the Switzerland Mobility Skating Routes. There are not many of these, but they are usually on flat paved roads that are away from traffic.

Security

Security is generally as good as it is going to be. A weak combination lock is fine for cheap city bikes (I have outright forgotten to lock mine a number of times). I still take care with my nicer bikes, but compared to bike security in my native UK this is an another world.

There are a few Bike Hotels which go above and beyond for cyclists, but those are not the norm. Proper bike storage in hotels isn’t common. Typically bike storage can be arranged but usually means putting your bike in the garage next to the owner’s car.

E-Bikes

E-bikes are very popular for every sort of use all over the country, and only becoming more popular.

This can really catch you out if you are not used to it. Be aware that the little old lady in the distance who you saw out of the corner of your eye a few seconds ago might suddenly shoot past you at 45kmph. Likewise you will find people on E-mountain bikes all over the landscape these days.

Many tourist areas have seen the benefit of E-bikes and have public charging stations on the national routes or local tours, otherwise if you are eating lunch at a restaurant then you can probably ask nicely if you can plug you battery in to a socket.


Resources

Switzerland mobility

One of the main resources is the Switzerland Mobility website. The routes shown on here are marked out by the red bicycle and mountain bike signs around the country.

  • The routes shown on Swiss Mobility are not the full extent of the signed cycling network. The Switzerland Mobility tends to be focused on longer range touring, whilst many short distance local connections are not mapped out on there (despite also being signed using the same red signposts on the ground). You can see the national routes and local bike paths on openmaps, but that isn’t the easiest to read and you can’t be sure if the path is anything beyond a bit of yellow paint. It is obviously a bit frustrating if the only way to know if there is a nice signed and separated bike lane (rather than a wiggly detour up the side of a hill) is to know the area or deep trawl on Google Streetview.
  • The map shows the road surface of suggested routes: paved (solid line), gravel (dashed), single trail (dots). It is worth reading the description for each segment and checking through the map, as some of these contain some surprisingly rough sections. Also just because the surface is paved does not mean it will be smooth – many paved sections are pothole filled farm roads that are a few years overdue for a resurface.
  • Clicking through to look at a section in more detail. Dangerous sections of road or path will be highlighted here. It is worth reading the text, if only to make sure you don’t miss any points of interest – some sights are just off the path and can be easy to miss.
  • If you have mobile internet then it might be worth getting their App which is very useful when combined with GPS. Route planning and map segment downloads are possible with the 35 CHF a year Plus version – I almost always use this for planning out hiking and cycling routes (but I live here so the fee isn’t much in the grand scheme of things). Sadly as of 2023 the tools offered by the service are very basic with no detailed information on gradients along the route, or even basic filters like only following paved roads, so you might be better off taking that money to services like Komoot instead.

SwissTopo

the Swisstopo App can also show the Cycling + MTB routes and allows you to download as much of the map as you want for offline use free of charge (see this post for more details), in addition to route planning (but I find it much clunkier to use and slower than the Switzerland Mobility service).

Other

  • Englishforum.ch always has a good thread on any topic, like this one for cycling.
  • Swissbiking.blog has feedback and photos from a number of Switzerland Mobility routes.
  • For those with small children see SwissFamilyFun and PackedAgain for more ideas and relevant tips.
  • You can also use the Schwarzwald Tour planner from the neighbouring Black Forest region in Germany to plot routes. This extends over the border and lets you use the Outdoor Active map to plan and download routes in Switzerland for free (it just needs a registration). Not only does this show the main Swiss cycling routes like Switzerland Mobility and SwissTopo, it also shows many of the smaller routes which are not marked on the official Swiss websites. It even has more useful information on path closures and where bikes are not allowed than the Swiss websites. It does however have an odd habit of saying there are little dead-end routes in random bits of forest.
  • You can buy maps (Velokarte) from Hallwag Kümmerly & Frey that have the major cycling and mountain bike routes from Swiss Mobility highlighted (for example). Having these is not essential by any means (especially when you can download the map for free with SwissTopo), but the quality and scale is good and I have a few of these covering areas I spent lots of time in. They also have useful information like gradients and how suitable roads are. They also include red/green dots to warn you of “dangerous” spots, which mostly seems to be anytime the route grudgingly decides that you have to cross a road which might actually have a few cars on it.

The Swiss cycling network

With routes criss-crossing the country that you join and leave as you like it is easy to get about without much worry. These routes are generally well signed do a good job of keeping you away from busy roads. They are however usually more focused on scenic/safe touring than efficiency.

  • These are only suggestions. You are free to follow them or take other routes as you like. Serious road-bikers will mostly want to avoid them due to the mixed surface and inefficient routing, and families with little kids will probably want to look for ways to shorten them and avoid sections on the road. I use the cycling routes as a basis in areas I don’t know, and then either mix them up with diversions I learn from experience or sometimes study the route and plan some diversions based on what seems reasonable or interesting.
  • Stages are generally quite short. Most of the stages are around 40km or less in length. For some people this will be a relaxed enjoyable day, others will want to do multiple stages per day on some routes. The longest I can find is Route 4 Stage 4 (77km) and the shortest is Route 15 Stage 10 (5km).
  • The routes are designed to keep you away from cars as much as possible. Sometimes the routes feel like a work of genius taking you along scenic and well thought out routes you would never have found otherwise, other times they take you into a disorientating labyrinth like path through suburbs and industrial areas in what seems to be an obsession with avoiding any road that might have more than a few cars on it.
    – An example of this is Herbetswil on Route 54, where after riding down the same road already for 20km the signed route decides that rather than just carry on for the last bit on the main road it is going to use the space in the newly widened valley to shove you off to one side. The main road isn’t any more of a hazard than it has been for the last 20km (if anything it is much safer with more visibility and room for bikes, and crossing the lanes to make the detour is riskier).
Bike network diverions
Route 54 taking a detour through Herbetswil.
  • There are some questionable sections. There isn’t always enough space to avoid the roads. The absolute worst bit of official bike path that I have done so far is the section from Interlaken to Leissigen where the bike path is the hard shoulder on a busy road with fast traffic (granted there isn’t much space to work with, but it still seems like a crazy choice). Likewise navigating through central Lausanne was a confusing mix of changing lanes and being put on and off the pavement.
  • The low-car routes which you are sent down can be somewhat more strenuous than the roads they are avoiding. Simply through constant stop/starts on winding suburban streets rather than efficient cruising, or with long and/or steep diversions. For example Rhone Route stage 2 takes you through the Obergoms which only has a single normal road going up the valley, the bike route takes a series of scenic and quiet farm/forest roads, however this adds in a number of little climbs (one of which must have been 20%).
  • The routes are on a mix of road surfaces. Most of the time the surface is paved (and that isn’t always smooth on farm roads), but it will often use gravel roads too, and there are a few sections in the Jura where it is more like single trail.
  • Signage is generally good. However I still tend to use a GPS to be aware of what is coming up – sometimes you get very little warning of sudden turning, and it is much better to admire the scenery than constantly be watching for signs. It is also not unknown for signs to be swallowed by bushes or hidden behind a tractor.
Switzerland Bike Network Sign
Signage for cycling, mountain biking, and skating routes.
Bike sign golf warning
The bike routes keep you away from roads but sometimes present other dangers.

Tour Planning

  • There are frequent shops and restaurants, you won’t have to carry days worth of supplies.
  • There are fountains with free drinkable water all over the country (however some areas have a ‘not drinking water’ sign on every fountain, and many are turned off over winter).
  • There are companies that offer multi-day bike rental and luggage transfers for very relaxed touring, but I can’t speak for their quality.

In the mountains

  • In general it is best to avoid passes at the weekends if possible. Thanks to the various tunnels most of the heavy/serious traffic is kept off the pass roads, but they are still popular with locals and tourists. Avoiding the big passes at weekends and during the holidays will help reduce the traffic you have to put up with. There are however some exceptions where public cars are actually banned at the weekend (e.g. the Weissenstein pass on Sundays, or the Pragel pass where the eastern side is closed to cars at the weekend) and some passes where public traffic is always banned so they are effectively car free (e.g. the Grosse Scheidegg).
  • High passes might not be open until late into Spring. Many high pass roads might only open in May (or even June in cold years). You can check the historic opening dates of each pass on alpen-paesse.ch for a rough idea of what to expect.
  • I would advise always having lights which you can easily turn on (even at midday in high summer). Tunnels on the pass roads can be very long and nightmarishly loud as it is without worrying about being visible to the motorbikes roaring up behind you, and tunnels on quiet roads in smaller side valleys can be almost pitch black.

Avoiding the mountains/climbs

This might seem counter-intuitive but you can tour Switzerland without worrying about gaining too many meters of height with your legs.

  • Follow the rivers. Many river routes only have a few meters of height gain. Stage 5 of the Aare route between Biel and Solothurn for example has 100m of height difference over 30km.
  • Use public transport. The public transport network allows you to go over or under a number of passes with ease. If you are in Oberwald and don’t fancy the Furkapass (or the weather is closing in) then you can take the train to Realp instead. You can also start high and roll down, for example take your bike to the Oberalppass (2044m) on the train, and then glide 50km down to Flüelen (435m) with the route being almost entirely downhill or flat.
  • Use an E-bike. It is common to see them everywhere (even on the highest passes) and they have been promoted locally since the early 2000s.

Taking a bike on public transport

The SBB has guidelines on how to take bikes on trains and there are also maps showing which lines you can take bikes on and where you can rent bikes – PDF warning.

This was already popular pre-Covid, but since the Covid bike boom it has been highly in demand and is often far beyond what is a fairly limited capacity on most trains/buses. I highly recommend travelling with a bike on trains at quieter times or using the SBB’s bike shipping service. Hopefully this will be improved in the future, but the intercity trains are going to be a problem until the stock is eventually replaced.

Self loading

Simply take the bike onto the train with you. You will need a ticket for your bike in addition to yourself. There are three options:

  • Bike Day Pass (14 CHF) which allows you to take the bike as far as you like.
  • Half-Fare / Child ticket. For short trips, e.g. just a 30 minute ride on a regional train, which would cost less than 14 CHF you can simply buy a reduced fare ticket for your bike.
  • Annual Bike Pass (240 CHF) which will save you money after your 18th day pass, but that is way beyond the usage that most people would need.

Both day passes and reduced fare tickets can be bought quickly through the ticket machines or on your phone with the SBB app. You can easily add a bike when buying the ticket through the app and this will automatically set itself as a Bike Day Pass if the ticket cost would be above 14 CHF otherwise.

By train

  • Some routes require a 2 CHF bike reservation in addition to the ticket. Check the terms of any train you catch (look for a symbol showing a bike inside a box in the train information). This is especially the case for inter-city trains from March-October. The bike reservation can be bought on the app and you will get a specific train and place number.
  • You can avoid paying at all if you take the front wheel off of your bike and put it all in a bike-bag. At this point the bike counts as luggage.
  • The bike storage section varies by train type. There will be a bike symbol on the relevant door (though in more open regional trains you can squeeze on in other sections) and it is mostly simply a case of rolling on. The worst are the crampt IC5 inter-city trains along the southern feet of the Jura where the bike section often gets abused as a general dumping space for prams or luggage (in fairness there isn’t really anywhere else to put them) and carrying an E-bike up the stairs will be a serious challenge for many people. In my experience it is only the Rhaetian Railway in Graubünden which actually has whole cars and ample space dedicated to bikes.
  • This can be quite a frustrating experience and sometimes feel like a game of chance. Among other problems I have encountered are: luggage piled up in the bike area, bikes stored in an IC train without reservation, the door of the wagon with my reserved spot being broken (thankfully it was early in the day and the other end of the train had space when I dashed down there). Even if it does all work, the hooks in the tight Intercity trains are not suitable for MTB tires.
Graubünden train bike storage
So much space on the trains in Graubünden, if only the rest of the country was this good…

By bus

  • Buses going up to mountain passes or villages often have a bike rack (or even trailer) on the back, or you might be able to put bikes in the luggage storage area under the bus. Spots are very limited and reservation is often mandatory from May-October, typically buses require that you make a bike reservation by 4pm on the previous day. Check the details on the SBB website/app for any given connection.
  • In a pinch you can use a city bus if it isn’t busy. This has saved me a 10km walk a few times when I got a flat without having a spare or repair kit to hand.

Shipping your bike

 If you have time to plan ahead then you can use the SBB’s bike shipping service to have your bike sent ahead and ready to pick up from 9am 2 days later (as in the day after tomorrow) at another station for 20 CHF (30 CHF for E-bikes). This doesn’t work for every station and bus stop, but most of the country is covered.

Simply go to the counter with your bike (or have it close to hand) and ask to have it shipped.

I have done this a number of times and not had any problems, it is much easier and more relaxed than trying to worry about there being space for the bike, and it saves the hassle of having to make multiple connections and dash through busy stations with a bike. 


Mountain Biking

See my dedicated page on Mountain Biking.

Mountain biking is not as developed as you might expect in most of Switzerland given the obvious endowment of mountains and established tourism. Maybe the success of the latter with other activities has reduced the need to focus on mountain biking. However, it has been increasing in popularity since the mid 2010s, and with reduced snow in recent years it is very likely that more and more ski resorts will look to MTB tourism in the summer.

Keschhütte Mountain bike
By the Keschhütte on the route from Davos to Bergün.
Bachalpsee bike
Bachalpsee bike by Grindelwald.

Events

  • Slow Up. A series of events around the country where a section of road is closed to traffic for the day and cyclists are free to go around at their own speed. Usually a very festive atmosphere with lots of food/drink stands. Free, simply turn up and join in.
  • Ride the Alps (Climb the Giants). A series of events where an Alpine pass road is blocked to traffic and cyclists can enjoy it in peace for a few hours. Some might require a registration and a small fee (20 CHF).
  • Alpenbrevet.
  • Cycle Week. The national bike event taking place in Zürich in May.
  • Dead ends with cake. You have to be a bit nuts to go for this, but I love the idea.
  • The Tour de Suisse comes around in Mid-June each year. If you are planning to do a tour at the same time you should check that your route and accommodation plans aren’t going to be stopped by an overlap with the tour.

Getting a bike

Renting

  • Schweiz Rollt offers free rental in certain cities/areas (Geneva, Valais, Zürich, La-Chaux-de-Fonds, Le Locle, and Neuchâtel) from May to October for a limited time period (and then often very cheap afterwards). ID required.
  • You can rent bikes at train stations via the SBB.  An advantage being that you can return it to another station for a 10CHF charge.
  • Otherwise rental will often be offered by other stores, especially in tourist areas. If you are staying in a tourist area/resort you might get a discount on local bike rental with your visitor card.

Buying

  • A number of stations have a bike service station that provides cheap bike repairs and often sell cheap second hand bikes.
  • For 2nd hand bikes you can keep an eye out for bike markets, or possibly more useful are the online market places Ricardo.ch and Velomarkt.ch.

Some of my favourite routes

Possibly my favourite region is the Emmental/Entlebuch. Endless quiet roads in lonely valleys filled with giant farmhouses and alpine views. The trick is planning a route which sticks on the ridges to avoid horrific amounts of climbing.

I will aim to update this over time, but these will do for a start, and routes I have written up can be found here.

Climbs

Not in the Alps, but the passes on the south side of the Weissenstein and the north side of the Balmberg are two of the steepest and nastiest walls in the country.

Gravel/touring

Mountain bike