The Swiss canton of Fribourg is a little off the beaten tourist track. Located between Geneva and Bern, it’s a region many travellers pass through on the way to somewhere else.
It’s well worth spending some time in Fribourg, however. This area has a rich cultural heritage with charming local traditions and customs. The canton is also abundant in nature and has a burgeoning gastronomic scene.
There are various attractive towns and villages in Fribourg. From the home of Gruyère cheese or fine local wines to a range of outdoor pursuits, Fribourg has lots to entertain the international traveller.
This guide will outline the key features of Fribourg canton, including its most attractive towns and villages, where to enjoy the outdoors, the culinary delights not to miss, how to get there and where to stay.
Read on to discover more about this delightful part of Switzerland.
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Where is Fribourg?
Fribourg is located in western Switzerland. It is bordered by the canton of Vaud to the west and south, as well as Lake Neuchâtel. The canton of Bern lies to the east.
The canton of Fribourg is situated on an elevated Swiss plateau. In the west, the land is largely flat, but rises gradually towards the Pre-Alps in the east and south of the canton. The southerly La Gruyère district has the highest peaks, including Vanil Noir at 2,389 metres above sea level.
Fribourg can easily be accessed from Bern or Geneva, as well as other major Swiss towns and cities.
Characteristics of Fribourg
This Swiss canton still practices many traditions reaching far back in time, encompassing art, architecture and agriculture. There are also many gastronomic delights to sample in the canton. As something of a melting pot of German and French culture, Fribourg is characterised by aspects of both.
Fribourg canton’s rich cultural heritage is celebrated with the utmost care and pride by its inhabitants. The medieval settlements – including the capital Fribourg, as well as Estavayer-le-Lac and Gruyères – are picturesque and packed with narrow lanes that are hives of activity.
For those who appreciate architecture, there are numerous forts, castles, churches, monasteries and manor houses to discover.
The Fribourg region is also known for its tradition of poya paintings, the ascent (poya) and descent (désalpe) of its cattle, and seasonal Benichon (Thanksgiving) celebrations.
The La Gruyère region is also characterised by farming and its festivals – both are showcased at Bulle’s Musée Gruérien. Known for its famous Swiss cheese, La Gruyère is also famous for another dairy product – its double cream. There is in fact a festival devoted solely to this, held annually in mid-June.
In fact Fribourg canton is home to many gastronomic delights, including fondue, Gruyère cheese and freshwater fish from the many local lakes. Sweet treats include chocolates and meringues served with double cream.
Fribourg, capital city of the canton of Fribourg
The capital of Fribourg canton is the city of the same name. (It is also known by its German name of Freiburg.) Its Gothic architecture – especially St. Nicholas Cathedral – enchants visitors. Fribourg city also boasts over two hundred entire streets with Gothic façades dating back to the 1600s.
The city also has fourteen bridges and twelve fountains, all of which are worth a visit. There is plenty to see and do here, including the Old Town, the cathedral and its tower, and the funicular railway.
What to see and do in Fribourg
The top attractions and things to do in Fribourg include the following:
Fribourg Old Town features over two hundred original Gothic façades. This makes it one of the biggest remaining medieval settlements in modern Europe. Wandering the narrow lanes is a highlight of any visit.
There are a dozen historic fountains in Fribourg. These feature columns that support important and historic biblical or allegorical figures, such as Jean Tinguely’s Jo Siffert Fountain.
Fourteen bridges also characterise the townscape, and each is unique in design and appearance.
Known locally as the ‘funi’, Fribourg’s funicular forms part of the city’s public transport system. It dates back to 1899, when it first began taking passengers between the centre of town and the lower town.
Listed as a national cultural asset, it is Switzerland’s sole remaining funicular railway powered by water ballast. The ballast drive uses municipal wastewater, so while this is not entirely odourless, the power source certainly never runs dry.
Gothic Cathedral and tower
The Gothic architecture of St. Nicholas Cathedral also attracts many visitors. Its observation tower is 74 metres high and there are 365 steps – one for every day of the year – to the top.
It’s well worth the effort to climb to the top as the views over Fribourg are spectacular.
Construction of the cathedral began in 1283 and it is Fribourg’s key landmark. On the main door there is a Last Judgement Bas relief. The structure also boasts breathtaking glass windows and historic organs.
Attractive towns and villages in Fribourg
Other than Fribourg city, the canton’s most appealing villages and towns include Murten, Vully, Bulle, Charmey, Estavayer-le-Lac and Gruyères.
Murten overlooks the lake of the same name and is the capital of Fribourg’s Lake District.
Dating back to the Middle Ages, the Old Town’s walls form part of the town’s ancient fortification. The combination of towers, narrow staircases, dungeons and secret rooms really bring history to life here.
Another draw for history fans is the Murten Museum.
A stroll through the lanes of Murten’s Old Town is a must, where visitors can see historic fountains and original town houses. From the castle, Mount Vully’s vineyards can be seen, as well as the lake.
The wines from Mt. Vully can be sampled in Old Town or lakeside taverns – perfect to wash down a dish of fresh local fish.
Vully is directly across the lake from Murten and is known as the area’s riviera. It can be reached via boat from Murten.
Spectacular views over the lakes, vineyards and Bernese Alps can also be enjoyed from Mont Vully, even though it is just 653 metres high.
The mountain’s lower slopes are home to various grape-growing villages, and the first vines were established by the Romans around 2,000 years ago.
Vully’s vineyards occupy 1% of Switzerland’s cultivated area in Switzerland, and the excellent wines produced can be sampled locally.
Around 40 species of vegetable are also grown in Grosses Moos nearby – widely regarded as the country’s key vegetable-growing area.
Due to these factors – and the local fish – Vully is known as a gourmet’s paradise. There are also scenic walking, hiking and cycling trails and a vineyard path.
As the name suggests, Charmey is a charming Swiss mountain village, offering visitors the chance to sample the authentic lifestyle of Fribourg’s region. Travellers can also partake in a variety of outdoor pastimes.
A tradition not to be missed is the Désalpe festival, which takes place annually on the last Saturday in September. This is when the local farmers bring their cattle down from the Alpine pastures on which they graze in summer.
For those who wish to relax at any time of year, the ‘Bains de la Gruyère’ (thermal waters) offer complete indulgence, with uninterrupted views over the surrounding mountains.
Adrenaline fans, meanwhile, should head for the local zip line which runs between Vounetse station – 1,627 metres above sea level – to the Rapido Sky adventure park 400 metres below. There are 11 zip lines, where visitors can ride up to 200 metres against a Pre-Alps backdrop.
Fans of adventure can also enjoy hiking, mountain biking and skiing.
Close to Charmey is La Valsainte, a Carthusian monastery dating back to 1294. Around 80% of the monastery was destroyed by the end of the French invasion, so the monks began to reconstruct it in 1863. The monks still inhabit the Carthusian monastery today.
The Musée de Charmey showcases local art, history, and traditions – as well as an intriguing insight into life as a monk.
Bulle lies at the foot of the Pre-Alps and is the canton’s second biggest town. Despite Bulle’s modern commercial centre, the La Gruyère region has a century-old tradition of cattle fairs, now based at ‘Espace Gruyère’ – the Congress and Events Centre in Bulle.
During late autumn, the ‘Salon Suisse des Goûts et Terroirs’ is a national food festival uniting almost 300 producers of Swiss specialities. These include artisans from Fribourg canton.
A traditional weekly market is held in Bulle each Thursday morning, all year round in the market square. This lively gathering offers arts and crafts as well as authentic delicacies.
Bulle’s centre is overlooked by its 14th century fortified castle. The Musée Gruérien is located here and is the ideal place to discover the culture and history of an area so rich in tradition.
Bulle offers the visitor a lively calendar of cultural events and a fascinating culinary heritage. Visitors can also take a trip on the fondue train or a self-guided historic walking tour.
Estavayer-le-Lac is a small medieval town on Lake Neuchâtel’s south bank. Its ancient centre is characterised by narrow lanes, where visitors and locals love to stroll. The lake’s shoreline is also a popular place to spend time.
Swimmers adore the sandy coves and beaches. Estavayer-le-Lac has attracted keen wakeboarders for a long time. The town has an 800 metre cable car, transporting skiers across the water.
There is also the Alphasurf Water Sports Centre, where sailing, water skiing, stand-up paddleboarding, canoeing and windsurfing can be enjoyed.Visitors can also relax by the lake, perhaps while enjoying a fondue at the waterfront Restaurant La Dérive.
Estavayer-le-Lac is also situated in the Grande Cariçaie’s centre. This 3,000 hectare nature reserve offers 50 kilometres of cycling and hiking trails through the wetlands.
A member of the Most Beautiful Villages of Switzerland, Gruyères is world famous for its Swiss cheese. It is also known all over Switzerland for double cream.
The town also has appealing traffic-free streets, with abundant photo opportunities at every turn. It really is a picture-perfect medieval village with an alpine flair.
At Gruyères Castle travellers can be taken on a trip through time via a multimedia show. Exploring the 13th century fortress and viewing the exhibitions are also must do activities. There are superb Alpine panoramas from the Castle terrace.
There are many culinary highlights in Gruyères (read on for more info) which can be enjoyed at a range of traditional restaurants, the Fondue Academy, La Maison du Gruyère, the Chocolaterie de Gruyères and the Maison Cailler nearby.
Best places to enjoy the outdoors in Fribourg
A variety of outdoor activities are popular in the canton of Fribourg. These include hiking, walking, biking and skiing as well as water sports.
Many of the area’s outdoor pursuits are centred on the lakes. Estavayer-le-Lac, for instance, has an impressive water sports centre, while Vully offers a circular cycle route around the lake. In fact the Vully region is famous for its outstanding cycle networks.
Thrill seekers can head to Charmey, where the zip line is hugely popular. There are also hiking, biking and walking trails that are easily accessed from various towns and villages in the region.
Moleson and the Three Lakes areas are also very popular with outdoor enthusiasts.
Not far from Gruyères is the Mount Moléson recreation area, named after the village of Moléson-sur-Gruyères that overlooks Gruyères and the plain of ‘Les Marches’. The countryside close to Lake Gruyère offers ideal conditions for hiking and mountain biking tours.
For skiers, the family-friendly area of La Chia is just five minutes’ from Bulle and features snowshoeing trails as well as ski slopes. The Moléson mountain offers incredible views of the Pre-Alps and is popular in winter for its black ski slope, lengthy snowshoeing trails and a sizeable sledge run.
During summer, outdoor enthusiasts descend on the area for hiking, trail running and mountain biking. There is a national cycle route leading towards Les Paccots. Other activities available in the area include a summer toboggan run and outdoor go-karts.
The Three Lakes route comprises three hiking stages between Lakes Neuchâtel and Murten. It is very popular with nature lovers, and the local fauna tend to be most active soon after sunrise.
La Sauge Nature Conservation Centre and a series of wooden bridges allow visitors to get up fairly close to the local wildlife. There are also sandy swimming beaches to enjoy.
Culinary specialties of Fribourg
Sampling culinary specialities and fine wines are a highlight of any visit to the canton of Fribourg. These include the famous Gruyère cheese, wines from Vully, Swiss fondue, fine chocolates, Vully tart, Nidelkuchen and meringues with double cream, all of which you can read more about below.
Gruyères Cheese – including fondue
Also known as ‘moitié-moitie’, a speciality of the Gruyère region is fondue. This is usually made from melted Gruyère and Vacherin Fribourgeois AOP cheeses plus white wine, and is meant for sharing with friends.
Fondue can be sampled all over the canton, in lakeside eateries and alpine cafes, as well as the quaint taverns typically found in the Old Town areas of each town.
Meringues with double cream
Another sweet treat from Fribourg is meringues served with double cream from Gruyères. The ultra light texture of the meringue contrasts beautifully with the soft, palate-pleasing texture of the luxurious local cream.
This dish is enjoyed as part of the traditional Benichon (Thanksgiving) meal which is enjoyed at the annual Désalpe festival but is on the menu at most local restaurants year round.
Just moments from Gruyères is Broc, home to the Maison Cailler chocolate factory and shop which is a must for fans of chocolate. Tours of the factory show how Swiss chocolate is made and conclude with tastings of a variety of chocolates.
A trip to the renowned Villars Chocolate shop in the canton’s capital city of Fribourg is also well worth your time.
Nidelkuchen hails from Lake Murten. The term ‘Nidel’ refers to cream, so these are Swiss cream cakes.
The best place to try this local specialty is the Aebersold bakery, where the Murtner Nidelkuchen has been produced for three generations.
This baking family know just how to perfect this creamy, caramel-flavoured treat consisting of five distinct layers of cream and yeast dough.
Vully Tart and Vully wines
Vully has over 150 hectares of vineyards and is known for Chasselas and Pinot Noir in particular. The region also produces Gamaret, Pinot Gris, Merlot, Chardonnay, Traminer (Gewürztraminer) and Freiburger (Freisamer).
If you’d like to try the local drop, at least one wine cellar is open in Vully on Sundays from April to October for tastings. There is also a vineyard path which is suitable for hiking at any time of year.
The Vully Tart is synonymous with Vully’s wine production. The winemakers consider the tart and local wine to be the perfect combination. The tart comes in both savoury (made with bacon or almonds) or sweet (baked with caramelised sugar) versions.
The Guillaume bakery in Sugiez specialises in Vully Tart, or it can also be purchased in various places around town.
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How to get to Fribourg
The city of Fribourg can be reached by car, bus or train.The trip from Bern takes around 25 minutes by rail, half an hour by car, or 40 minutes by bus.
It’s a little further from Geneva, taking about 90 minutes by car or 1 hour and 20 minutes by train. The distance from Zurich is very similar – just slightly longer at 1 hour hour and 40 minutes by road or 1 hour and 25 minutes via rail.
Fribourg to Bern: 0h:25 by train/0h:40 by car
Fribourg to Geneva: 1h:20 by train/1h:30 by car
Fribourg to Zurich: 1h:25 by train/1h:40 by car
Fribourg to Lucerne: 1h: 30 by train/1h:30 by car
Fribourg to Basel: 1h:35 by train/1h:35 by car
Where to stay in Fribourg canton
Fribourg: Hotel Alpa
The Alpa is a 3-star hotel in central Fribourg, just 400 metres from the train station and close to the A12 motorway. It is also near the Old Town and university. Hotel Alpha offers guests free WiFi, a parking garage and a restaurant. All rooms have cable TV.
Murten: Adler Boutique Hotel
The Adler Boutique Hotel has a very central location in Murten’s Old Town, less than 200 metres from the lake pier. It occupies an historic building dating back to the late 14th century. Each room at this boutique property is unique and has free WiFi and cable TV.
Charmey: Hotel Cailler
Hotel Cailler is linked to the Gruyère Spa via an underground passage. The latter has a sauna and Turkish bath plus various pools and wellness facilities. The hotel itself offers guests fine cuisine and a range of country-style rooms and suites. There are two restaurants serving Swiss and international dishes.
Neuchâtel: Hotel Palafitte
This five star property has superb views over Lake Neuchâtel and the Alps. Its spacious pavilions, which are built on stilts right over the lake, offer luxuries like spa baths, Nespresso machines, air-conditioning and free WiFi. There is direct lake access for guests, and the restaurant serves refined local and Swiss dishes.
Gruyères: Hotel de Ville Gruyères
The chalet-style Hotel de Ville offers guests panoramic views, as well as a charming location in the medieval quarter of Gruyères. A range of recently renovated rooms have original wooden features and offer free WiFi. There is a fine dining restaurant on site.
The canton of Fribourg is often described as a ‘mini Switzerland’. With charming, small boutique towns, crystal clear lakes and picturesque alpine landscapes, Fribourg ticks the all the boxes on most visitors’ Swiss wish lists.
Proud of its strong traditions and customs, gastronomic delights, and natural wonders, Fribourg Region may be less well known to international visitors but it is no less worthy of a visit.
With so many things to do in Fribourg and the surrounding area, and so many delicious meals to enjoy, you’ll be left wondering why the canton is off the regular tourist trail.
Listen to our podcast episode about the canton of Fribourg. Click the green arrow below to listen.