Interlaken – a serene getaway in the heart of the Swiss Alps

Tiny, cozy and peaceful, with very unusual trees on the promenades, joined by little beautiful bridges, some of which are wooden and covered, and Swiss traditional wooden chalets, decorated with flowers, this scenic little town, squished among majestic and sometimes imposing Alpine mountains, divided by turquoise waters of the river Aare and spread on the shores of equally scenic Lakes Thun and Brienz, which is one of the most beautiful and exotically colored lakes in Switzerland, is rightfully a touristic mecca, attracting thousands upon thousands of visitors by nature alone.

And what an incredible nature is here! Lush, gorgeous, breathtaking, Alpine and so serene! So blue, turquoise, azure and green, all vivid and alive, clear and vast that it makes you want to spread your wings and fly, and simply dissolve in this beauty. And you can! That’s why this is one of the most favored paragliding spots in Europe. In fact, paragliding and splendid views are not the only things that Interlaken can boast of.

Let’s find out everything about this scenic Swiss Alpine town and its neighborhood and discover what lures so many people there!

First of all, take a look at these short and interesting facts that will allow you to get an idea what kind of town Interlaken is!

View of Interlaken, Aare River, Lake Thun, Lake Brienz
Aerial view of Interlaken, Lakes Thun and Brienz, Aare River
  1. The name of the town means between (Inter) lakes (Laken).
  2. Interlaken is not just a town, situated in the canton of Bern, it’s an absolutely unique place surrounded all at the same time by the Bernese Alps, the Emmental Alps, Lake Thun (Thunersee), Lake Brienz (Brienzersee), and the Swiss river Aare whose source and mouth are located within the territory of Switzerland.

    Hotel Interlaken in Interlaken
    Hotel Interlaken
  3. Interlaken is an outstanding and excellent tourist resort in the Berner (Bernese) Oberland region. Tourism has been developing here for several centuries and had started in about  1800. Such famous people as Goethe, Felix Mendelssohn, Lord Byron, Leo Tolstoy, Mark Twain, and Thomas Cook stayed here.
  4. Bödeli is the name of the plain where Interlaken is situated. It’s a blossoming valley amid Lake Brienz (Brienzersee) to the east and Lake Thun (Thunersee) to the west connected by the river Aare (Aar). Enclosed by the Alps, Interlaken is not actually in the mountains.
  5. The elevation of the town is 566 m above the sea level. The area of Interlaken municipality is 4.3 km2.
  6. The population of Interlaken on 2016 runs at 5,673 people based on the data of Swiss Federal Statistic office. Despite the small population, the town has two train stations: Interlaken Ost (the main station), and Interlaken West (the smallest one) which are connected by the main promenade street – Höheweg.
  7. Interlaken is a mainly German-speaking town with its local Alemannic Swiss German dialect. Surprisingly Portuguese is the second most common language, and Italian is the third. Lots of the city residents know English.
  8. Moreover, more than a fourth of the whole population is comprised of resident foreign nationals.
  9. The first mention of Interlaken dates back to 1133 when Interlaken Monastery was built.
  10. There is another Interlaken, a small village, in the US state of New York.
The main street Höheweg in Interlaken
Höheweg Street in Interlaken

What does ‘Interlaken’ mean?

Interlaken Meadow and view of Victoria Jungfrau Hotel
Meadow in Interlaken

The town’s present name can be literary translated as between lakes’ from German. But originally Interlaken was the name of the Catholic convent of the Augustinian Canons in the Canton of Bern, a monastery founded in 1130 that received great privileges from the Emperor Conrad III and was located between Lake Thun and Lake Brienz; hence Inter lacus (lakes), then Interlachen (ancient documents give the name Interlappen, due to Inter lapides).

How, when and why the town’s official name was changed to Interlaken?

View of Interlaken in 1821
Interlaken in 1821

However, till the 19th century, the town had been known as Aarmühle meaning ‘a mill on the Aare’. The name Aarmühle was given to the town by the Interlaken Monastery and had been used till 1891 when it was formally changed to Interlaken. Furthermore, by 1891 the name Interlaken had already been utilized for postal address, in some maps and books.

How has it become one of the most famous Swiss resorts?

Nowadays Interlaken is truly considered to be one of the most eminent resorts in Europe. Hotel Interlaken, the oldest hotel in the town, was mentioned in 1491 when the hotel operated as a monastery hostel. In 1690 some tourists had already made their way to snow covered slops of Jungfrau summit. Later in about 1800, Interlaken gained popularity among landscape artists such as Franz Niklaus König.

Stone in honour of Unspunnenfest in Interlaken
Unspunnenfest stone

Unspunnenfest, a popular Swiss festival, led to a real breakthrough in the development of Interlaken tourism. The festival was officially held for the first time in the town in 1805, then again in 1808. Now the festival is held once every twelve years near the ruins of Unspunnen Castle. In 1803 only three guest-houses could receive visitors, but in 1830 a dozen of establishments already had this permission.

Two steamship routes began to operate on Lake Thun and Lake Brienz in 1835 and 1839 respectively. Opened in 1859, a health spa resort Kursaal included reading areas, places for conversations, games, dining, music, and balls. Starting from 1865, when the most luxurious Victoria-Jungfrau Grand Hotel opened, more and more tourists flocked to Interlaken. From the start, the hotel has been offering a high-quality service to its customers. Such innovations as telephone, electric light, and hydraulic lift were already available in the hotel in the early years after its opening. The Victoria-Jungfrau hotel has accommodated many artists, writers, and members of royal families. The year 1874 was marked by the opening of Interlaken East (Ost) railway station. By 1888 several railways and water transport connections between Interlaken and Lucerne had already been functioning. And a few short years following people were able to use a rail line between Lauterbrunnen and Grindelwald. It may be said that the period between 1872 and 1912 was a prosperous period for Interlaken’s hotels as new mountain railways were built, bringing more and more guests to the town.

Train bridge in Interlaken
Train in Interlaken

How to get to Interlaken?

By plane:

If you travel from abroad, your most obvious way of traveling would be by plane. First, you have to arrive at one of the international airports in Zurich or Basel or at airports of Geneva and Bern, then take a necessary train and after short travel you’re in Interlaken.

By train:

Interlaken Ost Station
Interlaken Ost

Interlaken is a major railway transportation hub. Trains from Zurich, Geneva, Basel, Bern, and Lucerne arrive frequently. Thus, the best and the most convenient way to get to Interlaken is by train.

Two railway stations function in the town: Interlaken Ost (East) and Interlaken West (which is in the close proximity to the city center). Direct trains from Basel, Bern, Spiez, Thun arrive at both stations. Furthermore, it’s not a problem to get to many Swiss cities via connections at Bern. A train ride from Interlaken to Bern takes 50 min.

Be aware that the trains in the direction of Lucerne, Lauterbrunnen, and Grindelwald make a stop only at Ost (East) Station while all others stop at both Ost (East) Station and West stations. 

To get to canton Valais or Italian cities you should change trains in Spiez. As to international services, you can get to Paris changing a local line to TGV intercity in Basel, while ICE company provides direct trains from Interlaken to Berlin and Frankfurt. The connection in Zurich allows access to Austrian cities (Innsbruck, Salzburg, Vienna). So, if you’re from some other European country and are afraid of flying, it won’t be a problem to get to Interlaken by train.

By car:

Another way to get there is by your vehicle. You can rent one in special offices upon arrival or pre-book any model you liked in advance. The route is quite easy, following the Autoroute A8 (former N8) you will get to Interlaken. Remember, driving in Switzerland requires purchasing a toll sticker (vignette), an annual fee for using autobahns. It costs CHF 40.00. The breathtaking views and the ability to make as many photo-stops as you wish are the obvious perks of traveling by car. 

By bus:

In addition to the previous means of transportation, you may enjoy a bus ride. For instance, Bus2alps travel company provides both private bus transfers from Florence, Rome, Prague, Barcelona, and seasonal travel packages from these cites to Interlaken.

Also, there are several local companies (such as mysterytours) that operate airport and city transfers, offer excursions and sightseeing tours.  

One of the benefits you get staying in an Interlaken hotel is that you receive a card which allows you to use public transport for free in the city and some neighboring areas.

How to move about?

Aare River embankment in Interlaken
Aare River embankment

The best way to get around this small city is by walking or by bike. Taxi services are also available from the hotels and train stations. Also, as previously mentioned, public buses around Interlaken and some nearby cities are totally free for use with the hotel guest card.

Where to stay?

View of Victoria Jungfrau Hotel
Victoria Jungfrau Hotel

Finding a suitable place to stay in is not a problem in Interlaken. Being a small village, Interlaken can boast a great deal of accommodation of different category from hostels to luxurious spa hotels, the majority of which are situated on the central street Höheweg. The streеt stretches from the Interlaken East train station to the West station and offers a good deal of souvenir shops, boutiques, restaurants, and hotels, some of which have a stunning mountain view. Also, an exceptional view of the Jungfrau peak opens from the meadow in the middle of the street. Some tourists prefer to stay in a near-by municipality Unterseen rather than in Interlaken. Unterseen is not as touristic as Interlaken, that’s why accommodation is a little cheaper there. It takes only 5 minutes to walk from Unterseen to the Interlaken West station.

Hotel Metropole on Höheweg in Interlaken
Hotel Metropole

Some of the best hotels are Metropole, a four-star hotel that is a member of Swiss Quality Hotels International; Hotel Goldey, rather expensive but offers tremendous service in a wonderful location; Stella and, of course, 5-stars Victoria Jungfrau Grand Hotel & Spa and Lindner Grand Hotel Beau Rivage with amazing service, SPA and views.

The best budget place to stay according to Hostelworld is Rugenpark B&B, which is a five-minute walk from the city center. Besides you can stay in one of the camping sites, available in summer and winter. It’s a pretty economical, but not as comfortable as staying in a hotel. However, you’ll be closer to nature and still supplied with all the necessities. For example, Alpenblick 2, located two kilometers from the center of Interlaken on Lake Thun offers rooms at very low prices; TCS camping Interlaken, located on the river Aare near Interlaken OST, has double and four – bed houses from 10 to 28 CHF and the hostel River Lodge offers double and quadruple rooms for a nice cost too. Altogether there are more than a dozen campsites and hostels in and in vicinity of Interlaken.

If you are traveling with a family or a big group of people, it’s really a good idea to stay in holiday houses or Swiss chalets.

Hotel Central Continental in Interlaken
Hotel Central Continental

But don’t forget that Interlaken is one of the most popular spots in whole Switzerland, so even though the majority of tourists tend to come for a short one-day visit, it’s pretty hard to find a beautiful place to stay, if not pre-booked. 

Where to eat and have a drink?

Street in Unterseen, Interlaken

That won’t pose a problem either, seeing as though most of the restaurants are in the hotels of Interlaken, in the city there are a lot of places that deserve attention. There are many establishments offering national cuisine: fans of Indian cuisine can take a look at Spice India Restaurant; if you like Mexican food you can go to El Azteca with all the best Mexican beers and top-notch Mexican cuisine, prepared by the owner – a gentleman who migrated from Mexico around 1984. The restaurant “Little Thai” is a good choice if you plan to taste delicious Thai food at a reasonable price. It’s better to book a table in advance as the restaurant is always in demand. Take away is available there too, which is especially convenient if you haven’t reserved a table or just want to eat at peace wherever you are staying or even better outdoors if it’s summer. For traditional Swiss cuisine, visit the restaurant Bebbis, immensely famous for fondue and raclette; and taste the famous chocolate fondue in the oldest restaurant in the city Schuh. Offering a great view of Interlaken from their terrace, this place is also very popular for its chocolate show, choices of desserts and patisseries plus tea and coffee to go with them. 

If you want to save some money on meals or want to cook something yourself for a picnic or just a meal in one of the hostels, you can buy the ingredients at Coop or Migros, or better yet ALDI, a German discount supermarket chain, which is very cheap and is a perfect place to buy a couple of drinks and snacks for a hiking trip. 

If you’re looking for some fine spot spend time in the evening or at night, you won’t be disappointed either.  In the evening you can hang out in a famous American chain Hooters Bar & Restaurant that is crowded with tourists. Go off the main road, and you will stumble upon a lot of places with local or oriental cuisine. Despite the small size, Interlaken offers a vast choice of nightlife pastimes. Balmers Club in Balmers hostel, the Funny Farm, Hangover are the most popular nightclubs there.

Shopping in Interlaken

Kreuzgasse, street in Interlaken
Kreuzgasse, Interlaken

Quite unexpectedly, but Interlaken has the highest concentration of souvenir shops in whole Switzerland. The majority of such shops are located along the main shopping venue – the Höheweg, some are scattered throughout the town. In addition to exquisite souvenirs you’ll be able to find beautiful clothing, jewelry, Swiss watches and lots of chocolate there. 

Also, you will find lots of items with Swiss flag logo from bags, T-Shirts, wallets on out to pens, cups, keychains, etc. Woodcarving products are quite popular here. An authentic Swiss Cuckoo Clock, made of linden wood, would cost you a penny (the price for the smallest item starts from 50 CHF). If you really want to have one, make sure that it is the real Swiss cuckoo clock (for example Lötscher company is proud of making “the only genuine Swiss cuckoo clocks in the world”). Besides, you can see a lot of wood toys and figures in Interlaken souvenir shops. Most of the products are made in the village Brienz, where woodcarving is one of the leading economic activities. Brienz is within a 30-min train ride from Interlaken Ost Station.

Furthermore, there is a great variety of Swiss Army Knives here. You could purchase one, for example in Swiss Knife Center on Höheweg 125 where you will find not only Swiss pocket knives but also a vast choice of kitchen and other knives. You can even make an engraving on the knife for free in most of the mentioned shops. It certainly would make a very handy, useful and beautiful present.

Paper-cutting pictures (called Scherenschnitt” or “Schärischnitt”), embroidered napkins, schnapps liqueur are also popular things to be taken along from Interlaken.

Some useful tips if you want to go to Interlaken

Bridge between Interlaken and Unterseen
The bridge between Interlaken and Unterseen

Take into account these little tips!

  • If you have the technical means, it’s better to download the app SBB Mobile before a trip to Switzerland. With it, you will be able to get information about the timetable of Swiss trains, to know when and at what platform the train arrives, where to change trains, how much time it takes to get from one station to another, how much it costs and much more useful information. This way it is more convenient to plan your route in Switzerland.
  • Besides, the tickets are not limited to some certain time. They are valid for ten days, and during these days you can go to any station along the route in one go, or spend all day in one city, and then go to another. Considering the fact that trains here run every hour or half an hour or even more often, you’ll hardly find another country that makes your journey as comfortable and enjoyable as Switzerland.
  • When coming to Interlaken and neighboring towns and villages during the off-season, be aware that some of the museums and attractions, frustratingly including even natural ones like mountain passes or waterfalls, may be closed. So don’t forget to check what places are open for the visit before your trip, so not to be disappointed later.

    The Unterseen Stadthausplatz (town hall square), Interlaken
    Unterseen Stadthausplatz
  • In Interlaken there are several establishments combining an Internet café and a laundry. First of all, the Internet has become such an important part of our lives that it’s hard even to imagine being out of the loop for a couple of days, let alone weeks while on vacation. Besides, it’s very convenient, especially if mountaineering is a part of your vacation program, to be able to wash your stuff, because good weather or not, there will be some dirty clothes. If your hotel doesn’t include it, you can take care of them in local laundries while also checking your e-mail and catching up with your friends, family or getting an update on the latest news. Moreover, these spots are also bike and scooter rental offices, so you can rent one to broaden your possibilities of sightseeing.