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The Complete Guide to Swiss Culture and Etiquette

May 15, 2024 Last Updated on May 23, 2024

As a guest in another country, it’s important to respect the local customs. Doing so shows courtesy and it helps you to blend in with the locals as much as possible. Hence this complete guide to Swiss culture and etiquette. 

Making any faux pas that would show you up as a tourist – or worse, offend any of the local people going about their daily life – is something most would want to avoid. 

Whether you want to know about how to behave when travelling by train, swimming, hiking, or dining out, what to say when you meet a Swiss person, or what to take to Switzerland with you, this article will steer you through the sometimes tricky topic of local etiquette. 

Following the unspoken rules doesn’t only help you to avoid offence. It can also help your trip to progress as smoothly and seamlessly as possible.

Before heading to Switzerland, this article is therefore essential reading! It will help you know how to behave, depending on where you are and what you get up to. 

Here’s all you should know about Swiss etiquette – before you go. 

🇨🇭 Prefer to listen?  This article is a modified transcript of episode 98 of our podcast.

[This post may contain compensated links. Please see my disclosure policy for more information.]

Swiss Etiquette | Everything you need to know when visiting Switzerland

Interior of the Gornergrat train

‘Rules’ for using public transport

The clean, efficient, and fast Swiss public transport system is very popular with both locals and tourists. So what are the – perhaps unwritten – rules to abide by when travelling by train? In other words, what would the Swiss like you to know before you board one of their rail services?

Here are the top Swiss transport rules to abide by. 

1. Get a ticket before boarding 

As tickets are required before boarding in almost all cases, it’s safe to assume this applies unless advised otherwise.

If you cannot do this online or via the SBB Mobile app, use a ticket machine at the station. They are easy to use and have instructions in English. 

You can also buy a Swiss Travel Pass, and other passes, in advance of travel. 

🇨🇭 Read more: How to choose the best Swiss rail pass for your trip

Quiet zone sign on a Swiss train

2. Follow common etiquette when using Swiss trains

Most of these ‘rules’ are obvious when you apply both common sense and courtesy to others. Examples include:

  • Not playing loud music or having noisy phone conversations
  • Look for designated quiet carriages, where you should speak only quietly
  • Children’s carriages also exist on some Swiss trains, complete with games
  • Avoiding putting your feet up on the seats while wearing shoes
  • Not taking up too much space when carriages are crowded
  • Never disrespect railway staff
  • You can eat and drink on intercity services
  • Many Swiss trains also have really nice restaurants on board, which serve proper meals and alcohol. Check if this applies to your train, if you do want to dine while travelling

There may also be signage issuing specific instructions for travelling on the train.

3. Avoid littering

Leaving packaging and wrappers on trains is regarded as littering in Switzerland. Bins are usually provided in each compartment, so there should be somewhere to put your rubbish.

If not, take it with you. You can then find a bin at the station, or even use one at your hotel.

4. Ask if a seat is free

Instead of assuming, it’s good practice to ask whether or not a seat is free. ‘Isch da no frei’ in German and ‘c’est libre’ in French are the phrases you’ll need.

Asking the person sitting next to the vacant seat, before taking it, is considered polite. 

packing a suitcase

Packing tips

Here’s a couple of pointers for your Switzerland packing list. 

1. Check the weather forecast

Check what the weather should have in store during the season of your visit, and pack accordingly. Layers are always a versatile choice, as they can be adapted to suit the conditions. Lightweight ones are ideal for carrying around, too. 

If you are heading to the mountains in winter, be prepared for the cold weather!

2. Avoid overpacking

There’s no point in overpacking. You risk paying extra luggage charges at the airport, and it only gives you more to carry.

Should there be something you wish you had packed, you can buy anything you haven’t brought with you after arriving in Switzerland. 

Family enjoying a meal at an outdoor restaurant

Restaurant etiquette when dining out

You’re likely to eat out a lot during any holiday or vacation. This is also when you’ll be most likely to interact with the locals. So it’s important to be in the know regarding the following behavioural norms. 

1. Tipping is appreciated but not expected

While not strictly necessary, tips are always appreciated by cafe and restaurant staff in Switzerland. As a general rule of thumb, 10% is about right. 

Swiss waiting staff do earn a decent living wage, though, so don’t feel obliged to tip.

Tipping a very small amount isn’t ideal unless you’re paying in cash and simply want to round up the bill. 

2. You usually have to pay for water

In many Swiss establishments, water isn’t necessarily free. Venues may charge for tap water, and free refills are uncommon.

Ice in drinks is also less common than in countries such as the US, though it may be available upon request. If you’re unsure about water or ice, just ask the waiting staff.

So how about drinking from your own water bottle while visiting a Swiss cafe or restaurant? If in doubt, don’t. There may also be signs saying that only food and drinks bought on the premises can be consumed. 

Sometimes, exceptions may apply, such as in remote locations when hiking. Also, if you are buying a meal and other drinks, establishments may be happy for you to drink your own water but it is best to ask first.

A slice of cake, a glass of water and a cup of coffee on a table

3. Know your coffee

If you’re a coffee fan, then there’s a few things to know about ordering it in Switzerland:

  • Coffee tends to be served with dessert, or at the end of a meal
  • This coffee to round off a meal with is quite a social occasion, and might last for 20 minutes or more – or much longer
  • German speakers tend to order milky coffee
  • French speakers often drink black coffee
  • An espresso is strong black coffee. This is often preferred in Italian-speaking Ticino, plus some French-speaking areas 
  • Kaffé crème is coffee with served foamed milk or cream, and is usually preferred in German-speaking parts
  • Other options include cappuccino – an espresso topped with foamed milk and served in a wide cup
  • A latte macchiato contains even more warm milk than a cappuccino, and is served in a tall glass rather than a mug
Panorama hiking trail from Mannlichen to Kleine Scheidegg

Greeting the Swiss

When you’re out and about – whether that’s in town or on the trails – here’s how to greet a Swiss person:

1. Greet in shops and rural areas

In places where there are fewer people – such as small villages, rural areas, or on hiking trails – it’s polite to greet people.

If you’re not sure, be guided by whether or not they make eye contact with you. You can also nod in acknowledgment, rather than saying something, if that makes you feel more comfortable. 

It’s common practice to greet people when hiking, or in shops. If staff wear a name tag, feel free to use it.

When in German-speaking parts of Switzerland, you can say ‘grüezi,’ while in French-speaking areas, ‘bonjour’ is more appropriate. 

2. Use last names

When speaking to another adult, it’s usual to address someone by Mr, Mrs or Miss, plus their last name, unless you’re instructed otherwise. This may be more formal than you’re used to.

On a staff name badge in a shop, for example, the tag may say M. Muller, for example, and you might address that person as Mr Muller. Using the first name of someone you don’t know can be seen as unfriendly, or even rude, to the Swiss. 

There is even a word for the formality of using the proper pronouns and surnames, and so on. It’s known as Seetzen.

3. Shake hands

If you’re introduced to someone new, shaking hands is the usual thing to do. After that initial meeting, you can carry on with handshakes when greeting one another. 

You could use three air kisses instead, if that feels appropriate after meeting a couple of times or more. The latter tends to be common practice in the cities, and among friends.

4. Be on time

If you have an appointment, do your level best to be on time. Punctuality is important to the Swiss – just think of all those Swiss watches! When you will be late, call or message the person to let them know. Even if it’s only 10 or 20 minutes.

5. Toasts

If an occasion calls for a toast, raise your glass while making eye contact, and saying ‘Prost’ (German) or ‘Santé’ (French). Eye contact is very important!

Two alcoholic drinks on a table overlooking the Lake Thun at Spiez in Switzerland

6. Before eating…

…it’s good practice to say ‘En guete’ or ‘Bon appetit’. This is simply a way of wishing everyone at the table a good meal.

7. Conversation starters

If you’re stuck for conversation topics, try any of the following:

  • Travel: As the Swiss tend to travel a lot within the country and beyond, they should have a lot to say about this one.
  • Leisure activities and sports: Switzerland is a sporty, outdoorsy sort of nation, where lots of people cycle, hike and so on. 
  • Food: Inquire about Swiss food. You could ask what the person likes to eat, and/or recommends.
  • Cultural differences and events: These are always interesting topics for discussion!
  • Work: You can always talk to someone about what you, and they, do for a living. 
  • Current events: Things that are going on locally, in the world, can also make good conversation topics. But as always, it’s wise to steer clear of politics or religion, which can be contentious.  

Planning a trip to Switzerland?

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Carolyn and Jurgen hiking at Gornergrat

Etiquette rules when hiking and swimming

If you’ll be spending a lot of time outdoors when in Switzerland, there are also certain rules of etiquette worth following. 

1. Leave everything as you found it

Don’t leave any litter, make a mess, or take anything away.

2. Avoid picking flowers

Many species of flora – such as the famous Swiss edelweiss – are protected. Even other plants, including fungi, have protected status. So taking nothing but pictures is the best policy!

Cows grazing at Mannlichen in Switzerland

3. Leave livestock alone

Don’t forget that creatures like cows and goats are wild animals. They’re generally safe when found in tourist areas or close to trails, but don’t touch them or try to take a selfie with one.

Remember that horns can hurt, or even cause harm!

4. Don’t use farmer’s fields

Agricultural fields are for crops or livestock. They’re not for walking through, or picnicking in. Stay on paths instead, or stick to the edge of the field if this is the only route through.

If you must picnic in a field, also stay at the edge, rather than sitting on the grass or crops. 

5. Swimming in rivers

River swimming is pretty popular in Switzerland during summer, particularly in places like Basel and Bern. Do give it a try if you want to, as it’s good fun. 

But only dive in if you’re a strong swimmer. Currents can be more powerful than you might think. Keep in mind that getting in and out of the river can also be tricky. 

The Aare in Bern is a very popular swimming spot. Or you could take a dip in a lake instead, where there are fewer currents.

The water is a little cold for some, however. The temperature is typically around 18°C to 20°C (64°F to 68°F). 

6. Hiking signs

With more than 60,000 kilometres of trails, Switzerland is a popular place to hike. When on the trails, you might spot colour-coded signage. Here’s what these mean:

  • Yellow. Pedestrian routes. These are the most common, and are easy and safe for most people to follow. Proper hiking footwear is advised.
  • Red and white routes. More challenging routes. These trails are suitable if you’re in good shape, and are wearing appropriate, sturdy footwear. They are often longer, so do take plenty of water and some snacks with you. 
  • Blue and white routes. Technical trails. These require specialist equipment, and are not suitable for tackling alone. Taking these on is best in the company of an experienced guide.  
Hiking trail signs near Lauterbrunnen in Switzerland

Other useful etiquette tips to know

Speaking English

English is widely spoken in Switzerland, but standards will vary. People from larger cities will often have a higher level of English.

Those aged under 50 who live in a big city, for instance, are more likely to be fluent than older people living in rural areas. 

Regional variations also exist. For example, anyone living close to a French-speaking region might prioritise French over English, as they can speak this with the people who live in neighbouring areas. 

Speaking French, German or Italian

Learning just a few words of German, French or Italian – depending on where you’re going – can be very much appreciated.

You don’t need to be proficient, as it’s more about making the effort such as a few words of greeting, and perhaps asking for food and drinks. 

As people are likely to speak good English, they may respond in English. Don’t be offended if they do, as it doesn’t mean they don’t appreciate the effort you’re making. 

Queueing

Queueing isn’t such a thing in Switzerland as it can be in other European countries like the UK. This means there’s not always an orderly queue, but more of a disorganised mess!

In fact, people often jostle one another unintentionally. If this happens, it’s best to be light-hearted. Smile, make eye contact, be friendly, and maybe apologise as if you’re responsible. 

People in town of Zermatt

Swiss etiquette | Final thoughts

Whether you’re travelling around Switzerland by train, want to know how much to tip at a restaurant, or are wondering what the hiking signs mean, I hope this guide has been helpful. 

As with anywhere on earth, a lot of the rules of etiquette come down to common sense. Being informed before you go, as well as treating others and the environment with respect, can go such a long way when in Switzerland. 

If you can follow simple rules – such as don’t be late without letting someone know, be prepared to pay for water, avoid picnicking in a farmer’s field, address strangers by their surnames, and don’t leave litter on the train – all should be well!

🇨🇭 Our guide to Planning a trip to Switzerland has lots more great tips to help with your Swiss vacation planning.


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