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Best of Switzerland

Switzerland is a landlocked European country with a population of nearly 8 million. The land area of Switzerland is 41,285 square kilometers
Switzerland is a landlocked European country with a population of nearly 8 million. The land area of Switzerland is 41,285 square kilometers. The federal republic of Switzerland has 26 cantons (similar to "states"), and Bern is where the federal government is located. The two economic capitals of Switzerland are Zurich and Geneva. The per capita gross domestic product in Switzerland is a very high $67,384, and Zurich and Geneva both rate very highly on quality of life scales. The top three in order, as determined by the Mercer Quality of Living Survey for 2009 are: Vienna, Austria; Zurich, Switzerland; and Geneva, Switzerland.

The countries surrounding Switzerland are (going clockwise), Germany to the north, Austria and Liechtenstein to the east, Italy to the south, and France to the west. Switzerland is not a member of the European Union, and it has not been at war with another country since 1815. The four languages spoken in Switerland are German, Romansh, Italian, and French. The country traces its establishment back to the first of August, 1291. Every year on this date, the Swiss celebrate Swiss National Day.

It is not easy to narrow down the "best" things to see and do in Switzerland, because there are so many. Following is a list of some, but by no means all of the great things to do or see here.

Old City, Bern. The "Old City" section of Bern is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city was founded in the 11th century on a peninsular hill skirted by the Aare River. It is a model of sound urban planning. The structures in the Old City include fountains from the 16th century, and arcades from the 15th century. Berne suffered a major fire in 1405, and afterwards much of the town was reconstructed in sandstone. While much of Berne underwent restoration in the 18th century, it has retained much of its original beauty. Some sites that standout even in this remarkable part of town include Munster Cathedral with the largest bell tower and bell in Europe, the Zytglogge medieval clock tower built 1218 to 1220, and the Untertorbrücke, the oldest bridge still in existence in Bern, dating from 1461.

Canton Ticino. This is the only canton in Switzerland with Italian is the only official language. It surrounds a tiny Italian enclave called Campione d'Italia, and is a seat of banking and financial activity with close ties with Italy. In Ticino there are four Italian daily newspapers, and the Ticino city of Locarno hosts the Locarno International Film Festival. The festival started in 1946 with the main event being the screening in Piazza Grande where more than 8,000 spectators can see the screened film. The top prize of the Locarno International Film Festival is the Golden Leopard.

Old Town/Niederdorf Area (Zurich). This is the place to play at night in Zurich. Niederdorfstrasse is the pedestrian-only epicenter for bars in this part of Zurich. Popular clubs include Corazon, a small-ish bar and cafe that is great for staying a while to watch the people go by. Isebahali is one of the oldest bars in Zurich, and the Bierhalle Wolfe feels like Oktoberfest in Munich with a live band, drinking songs, and giant beer mugs with German food. If you venture to the Limmat Quai by the river, you'll find several hot dance spots, including Forecast, which has Euro-style music, Zuri Smack, a very hip bar, and the 01 Bar, with great music and a lively crowd. The Niederdorf Area is where you'll find students, tourists, and bankers cutting loose on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights.

Cathédrale St-Pierre, Geneva. Dating from 1160, this former cathedral was changed into a Protestant church in 1536. Here you'll see several architectural styles, including Romanesque, Gothic, and Neoclassical. It is located at Place St. Pierre, the highest point in the Old Town section. When the Calvinists took over, they destroyed pretty much everything but the bare architecture and even whitewashed the murals. However, several stained glass windows survived, as well as some 15th century choir stalls that weren't in St. Pierre when the conversion to Protestantism was made, but were relocated from a destroyed chapel. While you can certainly appreciate the pastiche of architectural styles, you can definitely enjoy the stunning panoramic view of the city from the north tower. You have to climb 157 narrow steps in a winding staircase, but the view is quite worth the effort.

Switzerland, surrounded by most of the countries people think of when they think of Western Europe, picks up the best from all of them. Switzerland has amazing history, architecture, and it's got a great nightlife, too. Many travelers touring Europe for the first time will point to Switzerland as their favorite country, and it is little wonder why with all it has to offer.

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