From snow-capped mountains to turquoise glaciers and jewel-like lakes, it’s easy to be seduced by the spectacle that is Switzerland’s dazzling natural scenery. But as the saying goes: beauty is more than skin deep. And this adage certainly holds true for the small but perfectly formed country, where an art scene has formed to rival the major ‘conventional’ cultural capitals of the world, and where, as Switzerland Tourism proudly declares, it’s possible to have ‘breakfast in town, lunch at 3,000m above sea level, and visit an art exhibition in the evening’.

Here, we take a tour of an outstanding group of world-class art museums – collectively known as the Art Museums of Switzerland – that are raising the Alpine country’s cultural cachet.

Basel

Fondation Beyeler, Basel. Photography: Switzerland Tourism / Oliver Baer

Basel is a city passionately devoted to art, culture and architecture, packing some 40 museums and numerous buildings designed by star architects into its relatively compact footprint. One example is the Fondation Beyeler, a Renzo Piano creation whose permanent collection spans Josef Albers and Leonor Antunes to Rachel Whiteread and Jordan Wolfson.

Museum Tinguely, Basel. Photography: Switzerland Tourism / Oliver Baer

Then there’s Mario Botta’s pink-sandstone building for the Museum Tinguely, an interdisciplinary art hub with a comprehensive exhibition programme and which also houses the world’s largest collection of its namesake, Swiss kinetic sculptor Jean Tinguely.

Kunstmuseum Basel. Photography: Switzerland Tourism / Oliver Baer

Elsewhere at the three locations of Kunstmuseum Basel – which famously sparked a protest in the 1960s among Baseler youth who were emphatic on making a pair of Picassos a permanent acquisition – museum-goers can explore art from as early as the 15th century. 

Where to eat
At Zum Wilde Maa, everything from the furnishings to the regional ingredients and wine list is thoughtfully curated. zumwildemaa.ch

Where to stay
The rooms in the stylish hotel Teufelhof have been conceived as habitable works of art. The hotel boasts its own theatre, brewery, and well-stocked wine cellar.  

Geneva & Lake Geneva Region 

Mamco, Geneva. Photography: Switzerland Tourism / Oliver Baer

Scenic from every angle, Lake Geneva’s crescent-shaped shoreline – arcing on the Swiss side from Geneva through Lausanne and Montreaux – has become fertile ground for creatives. Situated in a former physics laboratory in Geneva’s Plainpalais neighbourhood, the Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain (Mamco) offers a consistently thought-provoking view of art from the 1960s onwards.

The new building that houses Photo Elysée and Mudac, Geneva, designed by Aires Mateus. Photography: Matthieu Gafsou

On the north bank of Lake Geneva, meanwhile, the budding Plateforme 10 –  a 25,000 sq m arts district taking shape next to Lausanne’s central station – brings together three institutions: the Musée Cantonal des Beaux-Arts (MCBA), in a concrete monolith designed by Barcelona firm Barozzi Veiga; and the Photo Elysée and Musée Cantonal de Design et d’Arts Appliqués Contemporains (Mudac), both set to open in June 2022 in a new building by Portuguese architects Aires Mateus.

Where to eat
Chef Rafael Rodriguez pulls out all the stops to spoil patrons of the Auberge de l’Abbaye de Montheron, high above Lake Geneva. montheron.ch

Where to stay
In Maison d’Igor, a boutique hotel in Morges, Igor Stravinsky found the calm and inspiration he needed to create his key work The Rite of Spring. maison-igor.ch
Experience contemporary comforts in a superb Art Nouveau setting at the Grand Hôtel du Lac, on the shores of Lake Geneva.

Lugano

Museo d’Arte della Svizzera Italiana (MASI Lugano). ©StudioPagi.CHCH-6900-Lugano

With its palm trees, cobblestone streets and Mediterranean climate, there’s little wonder that Lugano is known as Switzerland’s ‘Little Italy’. The largest city in the Italian-speaking Ticino region is also home to the Museo d’Arte della Svizzera Italiana (MASI Lugano). Established in 2015, it offers a diverse programme over its two locations – the LAC cultural centre and the historic Palazzo Reali – with upcoming exhibitions including a retrospective of 19th-century Swiss photography.

Where to eat
Enjoy local culinary specialities such as Luganighe sausage with polenta at the rustic grotto of La Tinèra, in the heart of the city. tineralugano.business.site

Where to stay
The Gabbani family run not only a charming delicatessen in the heart of the old town, but also an ultra-modern boutique hotel a stone’s throw away. gabbani.com

Bern 

Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern. Photography: Switzerland Tourism / Oliver Baer

The de facto capital of Switzerland, Bern has several cultural claims to fame – among them, it is the site of the first building ever to be wrapped entirely by Christo, while the historic old town with its romantic arcades was deservedly made Switzerland’s first Unesco World Heritage site. And on the city edge in the Berner countryside, visitors can find the most extensive collection of work by Swiss-born German artist Paul Klee, whose fluid style is reflected in the undulating Renzo Piano-designed steel structure of Zentrum Paul Klee.

Where to eat
Promising a cosy atmosphere and boho-style interiors, Provisorium 46 is a gastronomy concept with inclusivity at its heart: it’s staffed by young people with and without disabilities.

Where to stay
The Hotel Innere Enge has its very own jazz room – is there a better way to end your day in Bern?

Zurich

Museum für Gestaltung Zürich, Ausstellungsstrasse. Photography: Switzerland Tourism / Oliver Baer

Zurich is Switzerland’s other capital city – of design that is. Divided over two sites (Ausstellungsstrasse and Toni-Areal) as well as the Pavillon Le Corbusier, the Museum für Gestaltung Zürich boasts a half million-strong collection focusing on the history of design, architecture and visual communication.

Kunsthaus Zürich. Photography: Switzerland Tourism / Oliver Baer

The Kunsthaus Zürich, meanwhile, not only houses one of the largest art collections in Switzerland – with works spanning from the 13th century to the present day – but it is also now the largest art museum in the country courtesy of a recently opened extension by David Chipperfield Architects.

Fotomuseum Winterthur. Photography: Switzerland Tourism / Oliver Baer

Elsewhere, a short train ride from Zurich’s city centre to Winterthur, the Fotozentrum keeps the world in focus by way of two independent institutions: the Fotostiftung Schweiz (exploring a broad range of artistic and cultural forms of photography) and the Fotomuseum Winterthur (dedicated to the acquisition and preservation of photographic works).  

Where to eat
Zurich’s Kronenhalle is an institution beyond compare, where artists, actors, authors and musicians used to gather (and occasionally used to pay with artworks). The walls at this century-old restaurant are today adorned with works by Chagall, Matisse, Miró and Picasso, as well as letters from Dürrenmatt and Joyce.

Where to stay
The owner of five-star hotel The Dolder Grand has made part of his extensive private art collection open to the public in the hotel. Meanwhile, arty furniture and design-led interiors await guests at the Hotel Greulich in Zurich’s hip Langstrasse district.

Swiss museums on the map

Illustrator: Nina Fuga

Getting to Switzerland 

Swiss International Air Lines (Swiss) connects Switzerland to more than 100 destinations in over 50 countries worldwide. The airline – which runs one of the most carbon-efficient aircraft fleets in Europe – is part of the Lufthansa Group and a member of the Star Alliance.

Transport

Another of Switzerland’s crown jewels is its flawlessly integrated rail and public transport network – the most tightly knit in the world and providing sustainable travel options year-round. Travelling from city to city is a seamless experience with the Swiss Travel Pass (available for three, four, six, eight or 15 days). The all-in-one ticket offers non-residents the utmost flexibility and includes unlimited travel across Switzerland by public transport, including train, bus and boat.

Accommodation 

From Alpine chalets to luxury resorts, country inns to grand European hotels, Switzerland’s accommodation offerings are as diverse as its scenery. Looking for a boutique hotel by the lake with a solarium, or a retreat in the mountains with a Roman-Irish bath? Finding the perfect place to stay is simply a click away. §

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