The Alps, straddling Austria, Germany, and Switzerland, have no shortage of places that are likely already on your bucket list—the iconic Matterhorn, the legendary Black Forest, and the picture-perfect village of Hallstatt. There are many other sights that, even if not as well known, should be on your must-see list: the Philosopher’s Path in Heidelberg, the Chapel Bridge in Lucerne, and the jaw-dropping castle at Kufstein. Perhaps the first step in planning a bucket-list itinerary to the Alps, however, is acceptance. You won’t be able to see it all, and you’re going to have to make some hard subjective choices among many alluring options. The good news, however, is that you pretty much can’t go wrong wherever you choose to travel.
The itinerary here starts in the old university town of Heidelberg, packed with intellectual history and culture, and ends in the Austrian lakeside town of Hallstatt, part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site with its long history as a salt mining center that stretches back to the days of the Celts and Romans.
In between, you’ll pamper yourself with Black Forest spa treatments, discover the wonderfully walkable city of Lucerne, and admire the towering peaks around Zermatt. After visiting Innsbruck, the nearby Kufstein fortress town beckons. By the end of your trip, you are sure to have fallen under the spell of one of Europe’s most magical regions.
The old stone bridge that crosses the Neckar River, the hillside ruins of a Renaissance castle, and the pedestrians-only Old Town are some of the iconic sites of the university city of Heidelberg. It is here that the giants of German Romanticism lived and lectured, and reshaped the culture of Europe in the process.
On the right bank of the Neckar, where the town meets the hills, the Heidelberg Suites’ historic luxury villa exudes a Florentine flavor in its design. If you want to opt instead for one of Germany’s classic grand hotels, the refined Europäischer Hof has been family run for generations and is located a short walk from the Old Town.
Before you embark on exploring Heidelberg, get a meal at the French-inflected restaurant Simplicissimus, now owned and run by the luxury Hotel Zum Ritter St. Georg, with its elegant interior and a courtyard for al fresco dining on summer days. Down by the river in a former grain mill, the Gasthaus zu Herrenmühle has a rustic ambiance though the dishes that emerge from the kitchen will satisfy even the most discriminating gourmet.
You’ll no doubt feel wiser after simply strolling the Philosophenweg, the hillside garden path where scholars once held forth as they also wandered along the same route. It is here that luminaries such as the poet Hölderlin once pondered what to write next. Between the town and the nearby Rhine, the summer Schwetzingen Palace and its Baroque gardens are like a mini Versailles.
Tip: What the Mozartkugel is to Salzburg, the Students’ Kiss is to Heidelberg. Make sure to order one at the famous Café Knösel.
The Swiss village of Zermatt just might be the granddaddy of all alpine settings, and for that we can thank the iconic, nearly 15,000-foot-high Matterhorn and its pyramid-perfect northeast face that looms over town. It helps that the old town looks much as it did when it became a sensation following the first ascent of the summit, in 1865, by British climbers, while electric vehicles help keep the air pristine today.
The name alone reveals the vibe at the family-run Romantik Hotel Julen, a prototypical wood and balconied chalet house. Perched high above town, the Omnia Mountain Lodge is a modern take on a traditional hotel and covers all moods with fireplaces for snugness and terraces to take in the wide-open vistas.
Restaurant 1818 is only a few years old even if the building it is located in has been around for two centuries. Here you can dine on traditional Swiss fare such as charcoal grilled meats. The Cervo Mountain Boutique Resort is a modern chalet-style hotel where CERVO Puro serves hearty dishes perfect for refueling either during or after a day of hiking, biking, or sightseeing.
As far as hikes in this part of the Alps, the Gorner Gorge is a short, easy trek along wooden paths, with stunning waterfalls offering a satisfying payoff. With the Matterhorn ever in view, the Five Lakes Hike can include an optional dip in the chilly moraine lake waters.
Tip: A flock of cute, and Instagrammable, Valais Blacknose sheep greet visitors to the Julen family farm at the edge of town.
Lucerne holds a central place in Swiss history as a crossroad of cultures and trade. And its lakeside setting at one tip of the long, windy glacial lake of the same name, along with views of both the Rigi and Pilatus massifs, make it a show-stopping locale. Spanning the Reuss River, the reconstructed Kapellbrücke, or Chapel Bridge, is a covered wooden footbridge that is the city’s most famous landmark.
Check into your hotel before heading out to explore the town. The grand Art Deco Hotel Montana Luzern recalls the heyday of luxury travel at the beginning of the 20th century. Whether you choose a lake or mountain view room, you can’t go wrong. Some ten miles away in the lakeside village of Beckenried, the intimate Boutique Hotel Schlüssel has only a dozen rooms in a house built in the early 1700s.
A Zunfthaus is an old guildhall, and in the Zunfthausrestaurant Pfistern facing the Chapel Bridge you dine below old wooden beams on traditional dishes. In the city’s Horw district, the Seehotel Sternen is a modestly sized hotel, but squeezes in several dining venues, including a terrace with lake views.
Sitting atop architect Jean Nouvel’s 1996 culture and exhibition center, the Culture and Convention Center Lucerne (KKL) is an art museum with a strong emphasis on historic Swiss landscape painting. Afterwards you can see some of the scenes that inspired the painters when you board a Lake Lucerne paddle steamer. A cruise to the opposite end of the lake and the small town of Flüelen, where the popular Gotthard Panorama Express starts, takes about three hours.