As the boat surges forwards, cutting a swathe through the water, a welcome breeze laps at the edges of the giant Swiss flag dangling from the flagpole. This is Swiss bliss. It would be hard to find a more inherently relaxing couple of hours in Switzerland than sitting in a Belle Époque paddle-steamer, surrounded by polished wood and brass, which is in turn surrounded by sparkling water and mountains. Slow travel at its best.
It might seem odd to recommend seeing Switzerland by boat, given that it is a landlocked country over 200km from the nearest coastline. But Switzerland has a trump card in the form of exquisitely beautiful lakes, which are of course best explored from the water; it really is a case of the boat reaching places that a train or car simply cannot.
There can be few more elegant ways to travel than in a gleaming white steamboat, its two large red paddle-wheels slicing their way through the water, its wooden decks shimmering in the sun. It feels like the setting for an Agatha Christie novel and you half expect Maggie Smith to appear, parasol in hand.
And even if you're not into engines, be sure to admire the hundred-year old technology of a paddlesteamer in action: go inside on the lower deck to watch the heavy pistons pumping back and forth, the huge red paddle-wheels spraying water in every direction, the cloying aroma of hot oil, and the slight lurching motion as the boat finds its rhythm.
© Lake Thun in Winter
With that in mind, here are the lakes with the best options for a steamboat ride. The views are equally wonderful whatever the boat (and every lake has modern ones as well) but nothing beats that long blast of the horn and loud hiss of steam as you set off across the clear water.
Lakes Thun & Brienz
They may not be the biggest Swiss lakes but together are a perfect combination: Lake Thun and Lake Brienz, which sit either side of Interlaken, hence that town's name. These two are possibly best explored individually to make the most of what they have, though the timetables are designed so that you can sail across both in one day, and take a train for the return journey. Each lake has its own paddle-steamer.
© Lake Thun and the Niesen
Lake Thun is the larger of the two and has plenty to see along its shores, making it more than just a pretty boat ride. From Thun itself, with its medieval centre, to the castles at Oberhofen and Spiez or the caves at Beatushöhlen there are temptations at almost every stop. Either hop on and off, or simply sit back and enjoy the unforgettable views of the peaks of the Bernese Oberland – Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau. Truly lake and mountain scenery at its finest.
© Sunset on Lake Thun
Smaller but much deeper than its neighbour, Lake Brienz possibly counts as the Oberland's (half)-hidden gem. It is certainly much quieter than Lake Thun so is a good choice for escaping the summertime crowds. Here the mountains are closer to the water, which itself is a fascinating opaque green colour thanks to all the glacial deposits flooding in as the snow melts. Brienz itself is renowned for its traditional woodcarving and the last mountain steam-train in Switzerland, which puffs its way up to the top of Brienzer Rothorn.
“You will not see a more beautiful lake in your life.” That was Thomas Cook’s opinion in 1873, and he was right, both then and now. The crooked cruciform shape of Lake Lucerne means that the rugged shoreline is never far away; as if the mountains are reaching down to dip their toes into the clear water.
This actually is Switzerland’s second largest lake but you can’t really tell, simply because its true size is disguised by all the kinks and fingers, bulges and bottlenecks that make up its weird shape. From out on the water it feels rather small, especially further south where the cliffs and hills get steeper and higher so that there’s barely any room for habitation.
Paddlesteamer on Lake Lucerne, source: Christian Perret, swiss-image.ch
The lake sits at the centre of the country, both geographically and historically, and is known locally as Vierwaldstättersee, which is why most English speakers stick to the simpler Lake Lucerne - much easier on the tongue. One stop at the southern end of the lake is Rütli meadow, the legendary birthplace of Switzerland, so if you do want to get off anywhere, that’s the place to do it.
A trip on one of the five historic paddle-steamers progresses at a stately, almost languid, pace, zig-zagging to stop at villages on both shores, so that it takes 5.5 hours to sail round the whole lake, from Lucerne to Flüelen and back. It is worth every minute.
Tips for travellers
Boat rides are typically included in Swiss travel passes or can be combined with trains in one ticket. Boat tickets are available at the dock or on board.
Paddle-steamer services usually only run from Easter to October and are marked on all online and printed timetables, so do check before you go
The boats are very popular in summer, so be sure to get to the dock early if you want to get a seat outside
Upgrading to First Class is possible on board even for a single journey and can be worth the little extra when it's very busy. Upstairs in the posh seats is usually quieter and less crowded
Every paddle-steamer has a restaurant so you can treat yourself to a meal while you watch the scenery slip by. Or simply bring a picnic!
Bring a hat and sunscreen as when you're on the water, you don't notice how strong the sun is when sitting on deck
All the trips recommended here can be combined with a train ride for the return journey if you don't have enough time to sail back.