LOCATION: Switzerland

POPULATION: About 7 million

LANGUAGE: Schwyzerdütsch (Swiss-German dialect); French; Italian; Romansh; English

RELIGION: Protestantism; Roman Catholicism


Switzerland is located at the crossroads of Europe. Although a small country, it is the meeting point for three of Europe's major cultures—German, French and Italian. It is a country known for its stability, multiculturalism, and prosperity.

Archeological evidence shows that the area that is now Switzerland was inhabited as early as 40,000 BC . The development of modern Switzerland can be traced back to a confederation (loose political grouping) of several Alpine valley communities and states in the Middle Ages. These original communities were called cantons, and today Switzerland's twenty-six provinces are called by the same name. Swiss history is unique in Europe since the Swiss never had a monarchy. Instead, the different members of the confederation governed political affairs. In today's political system, many powers are still left in the hands of the cantons.

Switzerland's present boundaries were fixed in 1815 at the Congress of Vienna. Switzerland was neutral (refused to take sides) in World War I (1914–1918) and World War II (1939–1945). Its neutral stance has also kept it from joining the United Nations.

The Swiss live in a democracy where the average citizen often has greater influence than in other countries. A unique example of direct democracy found in parts of Switzerland is the Landsgemeinde (People's Assembly). Citizens gather under the open sky on a Sunday in spring to pass laws and elect officials by a show of hands.


Switzerland is one of Europe's smallest countries in terms of both territory and population. It is roughly equal in size to the combined area of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. Although it is a place of contrasts—of plains, lakes, rivers and mountains—approximately 70 percent of the country is covered by mountains.

Switzerland's three natural geographic regions are the Jura Mountains in the northwest, the Alps in the south, and the central plateau, or Mittelland. This central plateau contains all of the larger towns and most major cities.

The most famous of the Swiss Alps is the Matterhorn, rising 14,692 feet (4,478 meters) above sea level. Two of Europe's principal rivers, the Rhine and the Rhone, have their sources in the Swiss Alps.

Switzerland's population of almost 7 million people is very diverse. It is composed of four major ethnic groups: German, French, Italian, and Romansh.


Switzerland has four national languages. Speakers of Schwyzerdütsch (the German dialects spoken in Switzerland), account for about two-thirds of all Swiss. Another 18 percent speak French, about 10 percent—mostly in the Ticino region—speak Italian, and roughly 1 percent speak Romansh, a dialect spoken mostly in the Grison region. The remainder of the population consists of foreign workers who speak the languages of their homelands. Most native Swiss are bior multi-lingual, and many speak English.


The national hero of Swiss legend is William Tell, supposed to have lived in the early 1300s. He was forced to shoot an apple off his son's head as punishment for disobeying the imperial governor Gessler. Tell later escaped from his captors to slay the tyrant. This legend inspired popular ballads during the fifteenth century. It has also been made famous by the overture to Italian composer Gioacchino Rossini's (1792–1868) opera Guillaume Tell (1829), which English-speaking audiences are familiar with as the William Tell overture.

The Rütli Schwur (Rutli Oath) is another powerful symbol in Swiss folklore. This oath refers to an agreement made in the Rutli meadow between several Swiss valley communities in the Middle Ages. Together they created an alliance for common protection and defense. Although historians question whether or not this event actually took place, for many it symbolizes Swiss freedom and democracy. During World War II when Switzerland was surrounded by Nazi Germany, the Swiss army commander, General Guisan, gathered his officers on the Rutli meadow as a symbol of Swiss determination to fight for their freedom.


Switzerland is evenly divided between Protestants and Roman Catholics (48 percent versus 49 percent). The mostly German-speaking cantons, or provinces, are divided nearly equally between the two religious affiliations. Catholicism is the major religion of the French-speaking cantons and the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino. Throughout Switzerland there are both Protestant and Catholic youth organizations, labor unions, and women's associations. In addition, the Swiss political parties have been shaped by the religious differences of the past.

Switzerland's continuing close ties with the Catholic Church can still be seen today in the Swiss Guards at the Vatican. They once protected the Pope but now serve as an honor guard with their colorful uniforms and shiny helmets.


Switzerland's legal holidays are New Year's Day (January 1), Good Friday and Easter Monday (in March or April), Ascension Day and Whitmonday (in April or May), Bundesfeier (which resembles the American Fourth of July and occurs on August 1), and Christmas (December 25). The German-speaking Swiss mark the seasons and many religious days with festivals, which vary with each canton (province) and commune (city or town). Altogether, over one hundred different festivals—pagan, Christian, and patriotic—are celebrated in Switzerland. The most famous celebration is Basel's Fastnacht, or carnival. Marking the final days before Lent, it is similar to the Mardi Gras festivities held in New Orleans. For three days, masked and costumed merrymakers parade through streets filled with decorative floats while the strains of pipe-and-drum bands are heard.


In Switzerland many rites of passage are similar to those found in the United States. These include religious rituals such as baptism and first communion and family events such as births, deaths, and marriages.

For men, one of the most important aspects of life in Switzerland is military service. All male citizens serve compulsory periods of military duty between the ages of twenty and fifty. They keep all of their equipment, including weapon and ammunition, at home. Swiss military duty may be considered a rite of passage because serving in the army is seen as a sign of true citizenship. However, women are not required to perform military service, and many women criticize their exclusion from the army.


The Swiss are known for their tolerance, politeness, and independence. Relationships among the Swiss reflect the country's diversity of languages, religions, and regions. A number of stereotypes exist between the various regions. An example of this is the Röstigraben—the ongoing tension between the French-and German-speaking parts of Switzerland. The German-speaking Swiss see themselves as hard working and efficient. They see their French-speaking countrymen as easy-going and friendly. However, the French-speaking Swiss tend to see the German speakers as arrogant, pushy, and too serious.

A handshake is the normal greeting between men and women unless one is very familiar with the person. In this case, a triple kiss on each cheek is appropriate. This consists of first one kiss on one cheek, then one on the next cheek, and finally back to the first cheek. Two men greet each other by shaking hands. It is customary to greet and say good-bye to a person using their name. The Swiss use formal forms of address both in German ( Sie rather than du ) and in French ( vous rather than tu ). Formal speech is used in less intimate situations, such as in business settings.


The Swiss enjoy an impressive standard of living. Those living in the Alpine or forest regions have traditionally lived in wooden houses with shingled or tiled roofs and carved gables. Corners and roofs have often been reinforced with stone. Kitchens have been encased in stone or masonry to prevent fires. Today, fewer houses of this type are constructed. Even in remote rural areas, newer houses are commonly of brick or block. However, mountain chalets (country houses) built by city-dwellers as vacation homes often imitate the older rural styles. In general, most Swiss live in apartments rather than owning their own houses.


Most Swiss women today prefer to have no more than one or two children, and an increasing number of people choose to remain single. Women who marry do so at a later age than their mothers did and also have their children later. In general, the German-speaking Swiss tend to marry among themselves.

The status of Swiss women is below that of women in most other European countries. They have only had suffrage (the right to vote) since 1971. By law, a woman has traditionally needed her husband's permission to get a job, open a bank account, or run for political office. Although Swiss women gained their political equality late, they have been catching up quickly. Today they fill 15 percent of all elected posts, a figure slightly above the European average.


Western-style clothing is the norm. However, traditional costumes can still be seen at local festivities and parades. Many display the Swiss art of fine embroidery. Herdsmen in the Gruyère region wear a short blue jacket of cloth or canvas called a bredzon with sleeves gathered at the shoulders. On special occasions, women in this region wear silk aprons, long-sleeved jackets, and straw hats with ribbons hanging from the brim. Other traditional women's costumes include gold lace caps in St. Gallen and dresses with silver ornaments in Unterwalden. Traditional male dress common to many Alpine areas are the leather shorts called lederhosen , often worn with sturdy leather boots.

12 • FOOD

Swiss cuisine combines the culinary traditions of Germany, France, and Italy. It varies by region. Throughout the land, however, cheese is king. The Swiss have been making cheese for at least 2,000 years. The hole-filled Emmentaler, which is popularly called "Swiss cheese," is only one of hundreds of varieties produced in Switzerland. The country's most typical national dish is fondue, melted Emmentaler or Gruyère cheese in which pieces of bread are dipped, using long forks. A recipe follows.

Also popular is another melted-cheese dish called raclette . A quarter or half a wheel of cheese (a big, round slab) is melted in front of an open fire. Pieces of it are scraped off onto the diners' plates with a special knife. The cheese is traditionally eaten with potatoes, pickled onions or other vegetables, and dark bread.

A popular dish in German-speaking regions is rösti , hash-browned potatoes mixed with herbs, bacon, or cheese. Typical dishes in the Italian-speaking Ticino region are a potato pasta called gnocchi ; risotto , a rice dish; and polenta , which is made from cornmeal. French specialties such as steaks, organ meats, and wine-flavored meat stews are prevalent in French-speaking parts of the country. Besides cheese, the other principal food for which the Swiss are known is chocolate.


Education at all levels is the responsibility of the cantons, or provinces. Thus Switzerland actually has twenty-six different educational systems. They have varying types of schools, curricula, length of study, and teachers' salaries. However, all require either eight or nine years of schooling beginning at age six or seven. In secondary school those students entering an academic track take a course of instruction to prepare them for university study. Students in a vocational program continue to take classes while also entering into an apprenticeship. Afterward students receive certification in a specific trade and are ready to enter the work force. Post-secondary education is offered at nine universities and two federal institutes of technology at Zurich and Lausanne.


Cheese Fondue


  • 1 clove garlic
  • 2 cups white wine or white grape juice
  • ¾ pound Swiss cheese, cut into small cubes
  • ¾ Gruyere cheese, cut into small cubes
  • 4 Tablespoons flour
  • 4 Tablespoons kirsch (cherry liqueur)
  • Crusty French bread and apple slices
  1. Cut the clove of garlic in half. Rub the inside of an electric fondue pot with the cut side of the garlic clove.
  2. Heat the fondue pot to medium-high, and pour in the wine or white grape juice. Heat the liquid until it begins to bubble.
  3. Place the cubes of cheese in a large plastic bag with the flour. Seal the bag and shake well to coat the cheese with the flour.
  4. Add the cheese, a few cubes at a time, to the simmering liquid. Stir constantly in a figure-eight pattern until all the cheese is melted. Don't rush this process or the cheese will become stringy.
  5. Add kirsch and stir until blended.
  6. Cut the bread into bite-size cubes.

To serve, spear cubes of bread and apple slices, one at a time, with long-handled forks. Dip into melted cheese and enjoy!

Adapted from Recipes from Around the World. Howard County, Md.: Foreign-Born Information and Referral Network, 1993, p. 8.)


Switzerland's cultural achievements have been wide-ranging and significant. Swiss who have made significant achievements in the arts during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries include playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt, novelists Gottfried Keller and Max Frisch, sculptor Alberto Giacometti, architect Le Corbusier, and painter Paul Klee. Also well known are psychologist Carl Jung and child psychologist Jean Piaget.

Switzerland has also made a unique contribution to world culture by providing a neutral refuge for leading intellectuals fleeing their own countries for political or other reasons. Distinguished emigrés (emigrants) welcomed by the Swiss include authors Thomas Mann, James Joyce, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, film star Charlie Chaplin, scientist Albert Einstein, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, and musician Richard Wagner.


The percentage of Swiss people engaged in agriculture has declined sharply since the nineteenth century. Today fewer than 6 percent of the Swiss are farmers. Almost a third of Switzerland's labor force is employed in the machinery, electronics, and metal industries. The chemical, pharmaceutical, and textile industries are also major employers. One traditional type of labor for which the Swiss are famous is watchmaking. Today Switzerland produces over seventy million watches and watch parts annually. More than half the work force is employed in service jobs. Tourism and banking are among the most important employers.

There are relatively few labor strikes in Switzerland due to special agreements called "industrial peace treaties." Employers and employees agree to cooperate with each other, and strikes and lockouts are forbidden.

Many young Swiss spend a period of apprenticeship outside the country before entering the labor force. A unique Swiss practice is the Welschlandjahr . Young Swiss from the German-speaking region spend time in the French-speaking area in order to learn French and become familiar with the way of life there.


Both summer and winter sports are extremely popular among the Swiss. The country's Alpine peaks provide a setting for skiing, bobsledding, tobogganing, mountain walking, and climbing. After skiing, ice skating is Switzerland's favorite winter sport. Summer activities include tennis, hiking, golf, cycling, fishing, and a variety of water sports. Two especially popular sports are handball and soccer.

Traditional Swiss sports are still enjoyed at festivals. These include the baseball-like Hornussen, or farmer's tennis, and stone-putting (Steinstossen), where the object is to throw a stone weighing 184 pounds (80 kilograms) as far as possible. In Swiss wrestling (Schwingen), each wrestler wears a pair of canvas-like shorts over his pants and tries to throw his opponent to the ground by grabbing hold of these shorts.


Relaxing after hours is important to the Swiss, who have one of the longest work days in Europe (usually 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM ). Much of their recreation is family oriented, and they often entertain at home rather than going out. A favorite leisure-time activity is simply reading the newspaper, either at home or at a cafe. A card game called Jass is extremely popular. It is played with thirty-six cards according to rules that vary from region to region. Concerts and the theater are also enjoyed by many Swiss. The youth scene is dominated by dancing and parties, with a subculture centered around techno music.

At their many festivals, the Swiss still enjoy traditional activities, including dancing and yodeling. Each region of Switzerland has its own festivals and special events.


Switzerland's traditional decorative arts include weaving, embroidery, dressmaking (Frauentracht), wood carving, and painting. A unique form of Swiss folk art is Senntumsmalerei, or herd-painting. It originated among Alpine dairy farmers who carved and painted farm implements as far back as the early eighteenth century. There are several typical forms of Senntumsmalerei. Fahreimebödeli are wooden pails with decorated bases. Sennenstreifen are long boards or strips of paper picturing cattle drives to the high Alpine pastures. Wächterbild are large-scale paintings of cow herders traditionally found on window shutters.


The influx of foreign, or "guest," workers (Gastarbeiter) from southern Europe and north Africa since World War II has produced a fear of Übezfremdung (over-foreignization). Anti-immigrant feeling subjects Ausländers (foreigners) to discrimination and social isolation.

The problems of youth are another area of concern, especially drug abuse. Switzerland has the highest instance of drug abuse and AIDS in Europe. Approximately 20 percent of youth between the ages fifteen and twenty-four have used hard drugs.

Another major challenge facing the Swiss is the debate over greater cooperation and unity with the other countries of Europe, an issue known as "European integration." Fears over European integration have raised concern about the preservation of Switzerland's neutrality and democratic institutions.


Bouvier, N., G. Craig, and L. Gossman. Geneva, Zurich, Basel: History, Culture & National Identity. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994.

Hilowitz, Janet. Switzerland in Perspective. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1990.

Levy, Patricia. Switzerland. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1994.

Recipes from Around the World. Howard County, Md.: Foreign-Born Information and Referral Network, 1993.


Embassy of Switzerland, Washington, D.C. [Online] Available , 1998.

Switzerland Tourism North America. [Online] Available , 1998.

World Travel Guide. Switzerland. [Online] Available , 1998.

User Contributions:

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