Tourism: When the mountains became a tourist destination

Winter waterfall © Adelboden Tourism

Switzerland is a relatively new tourist destination. In the past, the only visitors to cross the country were mule drivers, travelling salesmen, pilgrims and a few intrepid naturalists, eager to document the countless natural “curiosities” – mountains, gorges, waterfalls, lakes and glaciers – which this small land mass had to offer. With Europe beset by war, these expeditions would grind to a halt. Switzerland would have to wait until the end of the 17th century for a revival of its nascent tourist industry.

Swiss mountains cast their spell

In the 18th century, followers of the Romantic movement travelled across Europe, distilling their experiences of the exotic cultures they encountered through works of art and literature. For them, travelling was less about the quest for scientific knowledge and more about following their own desires. “The Alps”, a poem by Albrecht von Haller (1708–1777), would profoundly alter how European intellectuals perceived Switzerland. Not long after this poem appeared, Jean-Jacques Rousseau published “La Nouvelle Héloïse” (The New Eloise), an elegy to the untouched beauty of Lake Geneva. Afterwards, thousands flocked to Chillon and Clarens to admire this picturesque landscape for themselves.

The Grand Tour

In the 18th and 19th centuries, it was fashionable for young upper class men, especially from Britain, to embark on a voyage of discovery across Europe after completing their education. Switzerland was, of course, part of the itinerary, in particular the Lake Geneva region, the Bernese Oberland and Central Switzerland. The mountains proved singularly fascinating and the first guesthouses to accommodate these curious young visitors began to appear: Mount Rigi in 1816; Mount Faulhorn, the highest guesthouse in Europe, in 1823; Wengernalp in 1835; Kleine Scheidegg, looking out on to the North Face of the Eiger, in 1838); and the Rothorn (Brienz) in 1840. 

Race to the top

In the early 1800s adventurous mountaineers began to conquer Switzerland’s highest peaks. The summits of the Jungfrau and the Faulhorn were first reached in 1811 and 1812 respectively. Many more followed, including the first ascent and dramatic descent of the Matterhorn in 1865. The 1854–1865 period was considered the “Golden Age of Alpinism”, when chiefly a coterie of well-heeled British gentlemen and members of the aristocracy scaled the dizzying heights of the Swiss Alps. In 1857, they founded the Alpine Club (UK). Six years later, they established the Swiss Alpine Club (SAC), with the aim of exploring rather than simply conquering the Alps, and of building a network of mountain huts where weary mountaineers could spend the night.

Restorative mountain air

In the 19th century, it was discovered that high altitude fresh air had a therapeutic effect on lung disease. In 1841 a health resort was opened in Davos for children suffering from scrofula and tuberculosis. By 1853, the climate in this high valley was thought to be the best treatment a consumptive patient could have. Over time other Swiss alpine villages began to market themselves as health resorts too. The curative regime at these sanatoria involved drinking the spring waters, hydrotherapy, and, of course, inhaling the pure mountain air.

It should also be said that Davos owes some of its fame to “The Magic Mountain”, a book by German author Thomas Mann, based on his experiences of his wife’s stay in one of the village’s sanatoria. 

Advent of mass tourism

In the mid-19th century, there was a veritable tourism revolution. In 1858, the Englishman Thomas Cook organised the first-ever package holiday through Europe. Today, you can take the ViaCook, a route which traces the same train journey undertaken by these trailblazing British travellers. By the end of the century, tourists began flocking to Switzerland in their droves.

The construction of mountain passes and the launch of special coach services made the mountains accessible to a wider public. The invention of the cog railway in the mid-1800s would prove a boon for Swiss tourism. For the first time, trains would be able to climb even the steepest of mountains. The first cog railway in Switzerland, running from Vitznau to Mount Rigi, opened in 1871. By 1888 the train had truly taken over the mountains, with the opening of the Brünig line, linking Alpnachstad in Central Switzerland to Brienz in the Bernese Oberland. More were to follow.

In 1896 work began on the ambitious plan to build a railway line that would travel right to the top of the Jungfrau (altitude: 4158m). In 1912, the highest train station in Europe, the Jungfraujoch (altitude: 3454m) was finally opened. At the same time, the original plans to take the railway line to the actual summit were abandoned.

The latter half of the 19th century saw the arrival not only of trains but also of hotels and guesthouses, which were springing up across the country’s mountain regions to cater for the rising influx of tourists to these areas.


The Belle Époque, which began in the late 19th century, saw the emergence of targeted marketing campaigns aimed at building on the success of existing tourist resorts. Exquisitely crafted posters advertised holidays in places of unrivalled beauty. Appreciating the success of this marketing tool, a few clever minds came up with the idea of souvenir post cards. Since 1900, countless cards have been mailed by visitors, allowing them to share their experiences and the beauty of Switzerland with their friends and family back home.

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