Photo: the surprisingly attractive wooden bridge and old town of Olten.
My first visit to Switzerland was to Geneva and CERN when I was studying physics in 6th form. This was a few days mostly spent hanging around in central Geneva.
My second visit was when I was studying physics at uni, again this was for CERN and was almost entirely spent on the CERN campus.
The first time I actually saw anything beyond Geneva was the day I moved here after finishing my PhD (nothing to do with physics and especially not particle physics). I landed in Basel and then took the bus/trains to Solothurn. This involves a change at Olten which from the point of view of the station is rather unremarkable, but as the train track curls out of the station towards Oensingen it crosses over the Aare and you get a view of a covered wooden bridge spanning the river a bit further downstream leading to the old town with the forested Jura as a backdrop. Seeing this early in the afternoon on a sunny day in June my first reaction was “oh wow!”.
So I always find it odd that most Swiss will use it as an example of the ugliest place, or a shithole to suggest people visit as a joke. The whole ‘Olten’ joke has turned into a meme, with
Where does the joke come from?
I presume this reputation is because Olten is the crossroads of the Swiss train network. So most people are going to be familiar with it, but only as the station where they have to get off and change. Unless they take the line towards Oensingen rather than the other 4 main directions (which link to bigger cities) all they will see is modern buildings and industry including the site of the “chocolate rain” news story (an event for which many news outlets went with stock photos of tiny alpine villages).
Arguably towns like Grenchen, Pratteln, Spreitenbach, Sierre etc are much uglier and without any redeeming features. But hardly anybody is going to even notice them as their train passes through.
Is it that bad?
There isn’t anything wrong with Olten, but there just isn’t anything good about it compared to the rest of Switzerland. The old town is nice enough but nothing special. That said plenty of cities would kill for the old town and river, and an influencer could find at least a few days worth of Instagram fodder in the old town of Olten.
I am not for a minute suggesting anyone go out of their way to visit Olten (though if like once happened to me you find your train into Germany is delayed by over an hour then it is worth a walk around). Like most people in Switzerland 99% of the time I have spent there has simply been walking between platforms in the station.
In theory Olten should be on the most in-demand places in the country: It is 30 minutes away from Basel, Bern, Zürich and Luzern, it has direct trains into the Alps and even to Milan and Hamburg/Berlin. Yet somehow it doesn’t manage to do much more than just exist.
It does have a Lindt factory shop, and any town that puts in a statue to cat that lived there can’t be all bad.