When you come to Switzerland will determine some of the major selling points: how the weather is, what is open in general, how much snow is there, what passes are open, and are there flowers out etc:
For such a small country the answer can be quite complex:
- Switzerland has the north and south sides of the Alps and Jura mountains, large lakes, and valleys pointing in every which way. These then vary from the Italian lakes at 200m, to glaciers at 4000m, to rolling hills going across the German or French border. On a given day the weather can be massively varied across the country, even places only a few km apart can have very different conditions.
- The country is generally split into 3 areas for weather forecasts: West Switzerland, German Switzerland, and the southern side of the Alps. Generally speaking the South side of the Alps (Ticino and the Engadin valley) will have the best sunny weather, followed by West Switzerland (Valais and around Lake Geneva), then the grey north eastern German Switzerland.
- The weather can vary significantly year to year: winters in 2015 and 2016 were so dry it was more like mid-spring than winter in December, spring 2015 was a scorching heatwave and spring 2016 was cold rain for a month, summer 2018 was a heatwave with almost no rain for 2 months. That said you can be fairly sure of the weather (ie: temperature and snow) in January/February and July/August, but gambling on a shoulder season might pay off with beautiful conditions or it might be cold wet and grim. November and March/April are the only times I would say to avoid based on this.
- To give some examples I have included links given as a photo with (place, height, date), with a bigger table of these at the end of the post. These are sourced from my travels and are meant to give a reasonable idea of how it might be at a certain time of year, but they are very much not an absolute promise of how it will be. These are a little biased towards me only bothering to go and take photos when the weather is nice. Plus one day of snow can change the way an area looks for a whole week, and in spring/autumn a sunny vs a cloudy day can really change how the place feels.
- On which point I use height as a reference quite a bit. This is an important factor in the snow level or advance/retreat of the green meadows in summer, but is probably going to rather meaningless to people who are not well acquainted with the country. So here is a very rough outline: the flatland or Swiss Plateau is where you find the main cities at 400-500m (Lucerne, Zürich, Bern); 800-1500m is your best range for pretty flower filled meadows in the spring/summer; alpine villages start from 600m and go up to almost 2000m in places (Grindelwald 1003m, Zermatt 1600m, St Mortiz 1800m); scenics pass range from 1000m to 2500m (Brünig 1000m, Furka 2429m, Umbrail 2500m); 2000m to 3000m is your Alpine hiking and skiing landscape (Kleine Scheidegg2061m); above 3000m it will be rocky/glaciers, there are official marked paths going above 3000m but generally that is your tougher end for the hardcore (with the exception of Gornergrat). A topographic map might help give an idea too.
There are a few weather phenomena or important events to be aware of:
- Fog. From September-February (but at its worst from October to January) temperature inversion results in a sea of fog blanketing the low lying areas of the country. This can mean that places like Lucerne and Zürich spend days in or under the fog (or they might get none, or it might burn off quickly each day). When you are in the fog the day is grey and actually shorter by several hours as the light is swallowed before it reaches you. On the other hand when you get above the fog you get beautiful blue skies, sunshine, and usually amazingly clear views. Check the weather forecast to see how high this fog can be, often you will be above it at just 500m but other times it might be sitting at 1400m or higher.
- Shoulder seasons in spring and autumn see reduced or no service in tourist options (go to Zermatt at the end of October and half the place will be closed down). Check websites for what is open, and pass info. However tourist hotspots (like Zermatt) will always have visitors and some things will be running.
- Snow. You will probably want as much or as little as possible depending on what you want to do. Typically ski resorts will start to open in December and be at their best in January and February before closing around April (planned season dates for each resort are listed online), high road passes will be open in May/June along with hiking routes. Though for hiking routes you might still be facing limited ice fields into the early summer (or beyond) in certain north-facing areas. If you don’t ski then snow in winter might put you off – but there are plenty of other options in the snow, if you don’t mind the higher prices in ski season.
- Föhn (quite literally “hair drier”). Basically this is an event where air is driven up from the south, all the water is dumped on the south side of the alps, and warm dry air blows down onto the north side. During this period it can be t-shirt and shorts weather in some valleys. The air and views are really clear; a mountain 100km away might feel like something you can just reach out and grab. The high pressure relating to this effect has apparently been a reasonable excuse for criminal activity.
I have divided these to how I think best reflects the country rather than by the strict definitions. Though as noted height and location can really vary and change how it is on any given day.
Spring (April – June)
Spring can be the best time to visit for the chocolate box views. Especially in May/June for the picture-perfect views of snowy peaks sitting above bright green valleys filled with wild flowers. Waterfalls will be at their peak flow as they are fed by the melt water, and the cool air will still allow clear views. The flip side is that spring can be very rainy with maybe a 50:50 chance of whether any given day will be sunny perfection or rain (or both in the same day).
In April the Flatland will start come to life, and the green will creep up the mountains as the snow recedes, the flowers will start popping out through the snow at 2000m or so by the end of April. And by May you will have perfect flowery meadows in the valleys. (Val de Joux, 1000m, May 05), (Seealpsee, 1142m, May 25th) (Corcelles, 730m, 28th May), (The Upper Goms around Glurginen, 1300m, 5th June).
The down side is that you can get quite a grim phase in March/April where the trees are bare, the grass is brown still, and the remaining patches of snow make the scene even sadder.
Spring in the flatland is somewhat ahead of spring in the ski resorts. You might be walking through green meadows whilst above you the highest ski resorts will keep going until May (or technically all year around in a few spot like Zermatt). (Wengen, 1275m, 25th May)
High road passes will be closed until mid to late May (current conditions or expected opening can be found online), and hiking certain routes above 2000m may not be possible until June or even into July. Remaining snow can cause a problem for hiking, especially if your route passes along a narrow north facing section. (North side of Säntis, 25th May)
The air is still clear so the views can be fantastic.
Days are at their longest in June, so you have plenty of light to work with.
Summer (July – August)
This is high summer anyway. Summer itself will count a bit of June and September too (and ‘summer season’ for tourism runs into October).
During this period all passes are open, tourist numbers are high all over the country, and cable cars and boats run at maximum service.
Summer is also swimming and grill time. The Swiss will be swimming in just about every body of water they can find, and setting up a BBQ whenever they can.
Heat haze can reduce the view. Whereas I can stand on my local mountain in the Jura and see an impressive alpine panorama stretching from Bavaria to Mont Blonc in the winter, I would be lucky to see even the closest mountain in Switzerland at midday on a warm August day.
As the summer goes on the vivid green turns to brown and the number and intensity of the wildflowers increasingly drops off. You will still find flowers in August, but it will be nothing compared to how it was in June. Generally it will be turning increasingly brown by the time you get to September.
In the higher areas you might see the odd bit of fresh snow in August, but mostly likely you won’t see it start to advance down from the mountain tops until September. This means that if you head up to a spot on a glacier (Titis or Jungfrau for example) you may find the ice/snow is rather dirty and sad looking from a long period with many visitors and no fresh snow.
Early autumn can be the most beautiful time of year: in September through to October you have beautiful colourful/golden trees and crisp blue skies with clear views. But as you get into November this leans more towards grim as everything is dead, the proper snow has not yet come, and fog dominates the Flatland.
Carrying on from the end of summer the mountains look increasingly brown and sad.
As tourist numbers drop off the tourism industry goes into quiet mode and as with spring a number of places will be closed or on reduced service as they wait for snow and the winter season.
As mentioned in the introduction section, temperature inversion leads to fog. The amount varies by year but in general:
- It is possible from early October.
- It is beautiful from above. But not so much from within, you might find that if you go to Luzern that you are lucky to see across the river.
- It can stay all day long. For weeks at a time.
Snow will start to powder the mountain tops in September. Though when it will go from the odd light dusting to serious snow is hard to say. You might find heavy snow in October, or none until January. It is unlikely that the early snow will get in the way of your hiking before November if you stay below 2500m. I have hiked in Zermatt at the end of October with just a dusting of snow (Zermatt,21st October).
Winter (December – March)
The real cold weather starts to kick in and winter-sports season takes over in the mountains. Though in the Flatland this won’t be that cold and you are more likely to see rain than snow. There will only be a week or two where the whole country is white from snow (if that).
Snow should be coming down now in the mountains. But this can be less (or at least later) than you expect. The time frame for Ski season varies by resort, it generally starts in early December but January to February is the peak time. However in recent years the snow has been so late I wouldn’t plan a ski holiday until after New Years ((Madone (TI), 2039m, 31st December), (Niederhorn (BE), 1950m, 17th December)). Once you hit March it will start to quiet down and lower resorts will close as the snow level retreats up, most of the major resorts will run through until April, with one or two able to make it into early May. As you go later into season you will find it is white above but dry grass in the village below (or at least exposed grass on the sunny side).
A less attractive prospect (depending on if you are in or above it) is the thick fog which can carry on in the Flatland through January and beyond ((Röti (SO), 1400m, 14th January), (Niederhorn (BE), 1950m, 17th December) ) though the worst of it should be over by early February.
Whilst the mountains are in peak season and busy with skiers the Flatland will be rather quiet. The aforementioned fog doesn’t help. However if you are around in February you might see one of the most surreal events in Switzerland: Fasnacht (Swiss carnival). You might see a bit of this in the ski resorts, but the cities are where the real event is.
I also put all the reference photos into a table. I will likely keep updating this as I think of any more representative photos that I have.
Again, this is meant to give an idea of what it might be like. It is not a guarantee.
|Example of fog
|On the way to Bussalp (Grindelwald)
|First flowers at the peak
|Vallée de Joux
|The Upper Goms around Glurginen
|Mountain Trail (Mürren)
|Höhbalmen meadow (Zermatt)
|Mürren seen from Wengenalp
|Cima dell Uomo
|Harder Kulm (Interlaken)
|Very dry winter
|Very dry winter
|Very dry winter