There are many fascinating countries in the world worth visiting. Switzerland is definitely one of those places to add to your list. A country smacked in the middle of Europe, that is very different from its neighbours. Seemingly like many others, yet absolutely unique. So, if you have Swiss travel on your mind, here are 10 fun facts about Switzerland before you go.
I must admit that I was once obsessed with Switzerland. It was one of those places that spoke to me and it was so different from my own home in Toronto. Stunning landscapes, an abundance of culture and history, and chocolate lovers’ dream. Switzerland has a lot to offer to visitors. I researched it so much that I had enough facts about Switzerland to convince me that it would be an amazing place to live.
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Before we get into facts about Switzerland, let’s look at the country’s name. Switzerland, officially the Swiss Confederation, is the country’s name in English. In German, it’s “die Schweiz,” “Suisse” in French, “Svizzera” in Italian and “Svizra” in Romansch.
If you are wondering why the Swiss shortcode is CH, you are not alone. In Latin, Switzerland is known as Confoederatio Helvetican (Confederation Helvetica), hence the CH abbreviation. Helvetica comes from “Helvetier,” the name of people who lived in what became Switzerland.
10 Fun facts about Switzerland
So, what makes Switzerland so different from its European neighbours? Well, it’s a combination of history, laws and geography. All the stunning mountains, lakes and picturesque towns that are an iconic element of Swiss travel, are also what makes this country unique. Let’s take a look.
Switzerland has perpetual neutrality
Switzerland is famous for being a neutral country. Meaning, not taking sides or getting involved in wars. While there are many other neutral countries, this makes the list of fun facts about Switzerland, because it’s the oldest neutral country. The country’s perpetual neutrality was officially recognized at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. However, Swiss neutrality goes back to 1515.
After the loss to the French in 1515, the Swiss decided to focus on self-preservation, abandoning expansion policies and avoiding future conflict. All was going well until the French invaded again in 1798. Switzerland became a satellite of Napoleon Bonaparte’s empire, which didn’t’ sit well with the Swiss.
After Napoleon’s defeat and the ongoing tensions between European powers, Swiss neutrality provided a valuable buffer zone between France and Austria. Hence the Congress of Vienna and official neutral status recognition. Switzerland maintained its neutral stance during both World Wars, although with some criticism for trading with the Nazis.
Switzerland marches to the beat of its own drum
While Switzerland might seem like many other European nations, it isn’t. One of the less known facts about Switzerland is the country’s membership status. The Swiss are not part of the European Union (EU) nor the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The country uses its own currency (the Swiss franc) while maintaining a bilateral treaty with the EU.
Switzerland has joined the United Nations (UN) in 2002 and has an active role in humanitarian initiatives across the world. Officially, “the Swiss Armed Forces are involved in peace support operations within the framework of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the United Nations (UN) and the European Union (EU).”
Despite being officially neutral, Switzerland maintains an active army. All males between 18 and 34 must complete military service. For women, it’s voluntary. The Swiss also have an elaborate network of defensive systems and have enough bunkers to house the whole population in case of a nuclear war. And this leads right into another one of fun facts about Switzerland.
Swiss guards are the pope’s official army
If you have ever been to Rome, chances are that you made a stop at the Vatican. The Swiss guards stationed there are hard to miss. Dressed in iconic yellow, red and blue uniforms that more resemble a Renaissance jester, these solders are highly trained. Comprised of 135 guards, this is the world’s smallest army.
So, how exactly did that happen? In the past, the Swiss were highly skilled and sought-after mercenaries. They fought for whoever paid the highest fee as the country’s economy couldn’t guarantee property to everyone. Banking on that military prowess, Pope Julius II established the Pontifical Swiss Guard in 1505. Their job is to protect the pope and safeguard the Vatican. Today, the Swiss Guard is one of the oldest military units still in operation.
There are strict rules for those that want to join the Swiss Guard. You must be a single Swiss male, Catholic and between the ages of 19 and 30. In addition, there is a minimum height requirement of 5’8” (174 cm). Mandatory military training in Switzerland goes without saying.
After serving the popes for over 500 years, the service has encountered some challenges recruiting new guards. And no, it’s not the uniform. The pool of qualified recruits is simply smaller due to lower birth rates over the years. Also, there are many other alternatives back home so being a guard is not as attractive as it was before. While the guards receive room and board, their monthly salary of €1,500 is not as attractive as what they can make in Switzerland.
Switzerland has four official languages
Switzerland has four official languages. They are German, French, Italian and Romansh. To make things even more fun, there are different dialects, depending on where you live. Today, many Swiss also speak English, which might be a bit easier to travel there if you are overwhelmed by all the languages.
Switzerland is made up of 25 administrative blocks called cantons that work together. In the past, these cantons operated as sovereign states with individual customs and languages. Each influenced by the countries closest to them. The cantons can choose their official languages.
Italian is spoken towards the border with Italy whereas French is spoken in the west, close to the French border. German is spoken in the central and eastern parts of the country, reflecting the surrounding German-speaking neighbours. You’ll find Romansh spoken mainly in the Canton of Graubünden, in the southwest of the country. How is that for interesting facts about Switzerland?
Swiss political system and laws
One of the many interesting facts about Switzerland is the country’s political system. There is a seven-member executive council that serves as a collective head of state. The council then selects one person to serve as president (referred to as “first among equals”) for a one-year term.
Switzerland is a direct democracy, which means citizens over 18 can vote on how the country is run. Anyone can challenge any Swiss law, by collecting 100,000 signatures within 18 months of the law being passed. Once there are enough signatures, the law goes out for a national vote. The citizens then decide whether it is passed or not.
The Swiss also have unique laws about pet ownership and the most stringent animal welfare laws in the world. It is illegal to have only one social pet. This includes pets like fish, birds, guinea pigs or dogs. You are required to pay taxes for your dogs, based on the size and weight, and report if your dog dies. This alone makes me love Switzerland even more.
High quality of life
The Swiss enjoy a high quality of life even though Switzerland is one of the most expensive countries in the world. While things are priced higher than in other countries, Swiss workers also earn higher salaries than their counterparts. They also have a higher level of job security and low unemployment rates.
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With that in mind, it’s not a surprise that the life expectancy here is 83.4 years. That is the second-highest in the world, behind Japan. Switzerland is also one of the happiest countries in the world.
Swiss banking system
The popularity of Swiss banking is probably the least surprising of all the facts about Switzerland. If you have watched any spy films over the years, you’ll know that all the bad guys love to hide their money in Swiss banks.
There are even rumours of vaults stashed with Nazi gold and many other valuables from people who wanted to protect their wealth. Many of these accounts are said to have never been claimed as the owners have perished. As the Swiss bankers can’t reveal the account holder’s identity, nobody knows about them.
Swiss banking offers stability and low risk due to Switzerland’s neutrality and a strong economy. The banks also offer a high level of privacy. It’s not surprising then that it would appeal to many, especially those with deep pockets, to have Swiss bank accounts.
The banking laws in Switzerland have changed over the years. This includes protecting client privacy and tax evasion. So, while hiding your loot in a Swiss bank appeals to you, make sure your money hasn’t been obtained from crime.
Switzerland leads the world in innovation
The Swiss have always been very inventive, making Switzerland the most innovative country in the world. It’s not surprising then to see Swiss inventions on the list of fun facts about Switzerland. In addition to those mentioned below, Swiss inventions include Absinth, Velcro, cellophane, the potato peeler, LSD, muesli, edible chocolate gold and milk chocolate.
Today, Switzerland continues to lead the world in innovation. It has been ranked on top of the World Intellectual Property Organization’s (WIPO) index since 2011.
Swiss army knife
The Swiss army knife was the invention of Karl Elsener in 1891. After Karl found out that the army used knives made in Germany, he decided to create a versatile version that could be manufactured in Switzerland. The rest is history.
Yes, we are talking about the same Helvetica font you have probably used on your computer. In 1957, renowned Swiss typeface designer, Max Miedinger, developed the font named after the same Helvetier people that gave Switzerland its Latin name.
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Considering Switzerland’s role as a peacekeeper, it’s not a surprise that the Red Cross was founded in Geneva in 1863. The organization has been helping out in countries during natural disasters and war ever since. There is even a Red Cross museum in Geneva that you can visit to learn more about the organization.
In 1936, Swiss inventor Dr. Hans Laube came up with a technology that was used to inject scents into movie theatres. The basic idea was that the machine would inject smells into the theatre to enhance the audience’s experience. While the idea has promise, the technicalities caused issues and it was eventually forgotten.
Swiss travel: stunning natural landscapes
The country’s natural beauty makes the list of facts about Switzerland for a reason. It’s spectacular and has made the country famous worldwide. A true outdoor paradise for those that love to ski, hike and enjoy nature. The best part for outdoor lovers is that you can enjoy the outdoors all year round. It’s a great reason to add Swiss travel to your list.
About 60 per cent of Switzerland is made up of mountains. There are over 208 of them that are over 3,000 metres (9,843 feet) high and 28 over 4,000 metres (13,123 feet). There are also over 7,000 lakes, including Lake Geneva, one of the largest lakes in Europe. There are dozens of wrecks on the bottom of the lake, including steamboats and railway cars from the 18th century. Whether there is any Nazi loot in them is another mystery many would like to explore.
Swiss specialties and exports
When it comes to all things Swiss, watches, chocolate and cheese most likely come to mind. All those things also contribute to the many facts about Switzerland you might not know about.
You don’t have to be a watch aficionado to recognize the names Rolex, Omega, Tag Heuer and Piaget. These Swiss watch brands are famous around the world and known for their quality. They are synonymous with luxury and come with a hefty price tag. But that wasn’t always the case.
The Swiss were not the first ones to invent portable watches. It was the Germans. During the 16th century, John Calvin brought religious reforms to Geneva. Some of these included a ban on jewellery, but not watches. Goldsmiths and enamellers turned their skills to watchmaking. This eventually led to the Swiss standard of watches we know today.
Swiss chocolate is renowned by chocolate lovers everywhere. Brands like Lindt, Callier and Toblerone are sold around the world making Switzerland famous for chocolate production. The Swiss take their chocolate seriously. Not only do they produce the largest quantities of chocolate, but they also consume more chocolate per capita than anywhere else in the world. Switzerland is a chocolate lover’s dream.
Switzerland is also a cheese lover’s paradise. Did you know that there are over 450 varieties of Swiss cheese? You can add that to your list of facts about Switzerland to blow people away. You might recognize some of the names like Gruyere, Alter Schweizer, Appenzeller and Emmentaler. Just think of all the other ones that we haven’t heard of! Cheese themed trip, anyone?
With all that cheese, it’s no wonder that cheese fondue is a thing here. Like many other dishes in various countries, the fondue wasn’t a fancy dish. Melting cheese and using it to soften dried bread was a practical dish for peasants. It’s worth noting that the fondue is a cold-weather dish so you will get funny looks if you start ordering it during summer.
Further thoughts on facts about Switzerland
I hope you enjoyed these fun facts about Switzerland. I really enjoyed writing this post as it reminded me why I wanted to live that so many years ago. It is a unique country with a fascinating history, spectacular landscapes and complicated past. It stands out among its European neighbours and takes its role very seriously.
The Swiss have paved their path, sticking to their beliefs even in the face of conflict. Sometimes those decisions have proved problematic and resulted in criticism. That didn’t change the way Switzerland operates. It also probably won’t change in the future. Will the Swiss Guards continue to guard the popes for another five centuries? Will we ever get an answer about all the gold and money stashed in Swiss vaults? Only time will tell.
There are numerous other facts about Switzerland that I could have added to this list. But I think it’s more fun to discover them by visiting this spectacular country and finding out for yourself. After all, your Swiss travel adventure awaits. What will you discover?