First, an admission – I usually avoid galleries and museums when I travel. I’m much more interested in exploring hidden alleyways, hiking up mountains, or enjoying a great meal somewhere. And indeed, that’s what I pictured myself doing on my recent visit to Switzerland. But it turns out that this landlocked country of towering mountains, deep ravines, glaciers and Alpine lakes is also home to some seriously good galleries that move well beyond a painting hanging on a white wall.
From examining the world’s greatest humanitarian achievements to detailing the history of watchmaking – this is Switzerland, after all – there’s plenty to keep you entertained when the winter chill sends you scampering from the streets. Here, a handful of favourites.
This charming town on the north shore of Lake Geneva is arguably one of the prettiest in the country. When I visit, cherry blossoms and tulips are in bloom, adding a kaleidoscope of colour to waterside gardens along the town’s vast promenade, all the more alluring thanks to a dramatic backdrop of the Alps. It’s easy to see why Charlie Chaplin fell in love with the area and decided to call it home when he was banned from America in 1952; he spent the last 25 years of his life here.
Surrounded by centuries-old trees and expansive parkland, the manor house he and his family (Chaplin had eight children) lived in high on a hill overlooking the lake has been transformed into Chaplin’s World by Grevin (chaplinsworld.com), a surprisingly insightful shrine to the actor and political activist. The project was 16 years in the planning, and in addition to the grand house it includes a purpose-built gallery showcasing more than 15,000 photos and 35 cinematic productions tracing Chaplin’s humble beginnings in London and his meteoric rise to become one of the biggest names in the film industry at only 26.
The interactive space also features 30 wax figures of Chaplin, his wife Oona, and artists moved by his work, including Michael Jackson (it’s said that Chaplin inspired the moonwalk), Woody Allen and Federico Fellini.
The drive from Vevey to Lausanne is one that I won’t forget in a hurry – lake views aside, the hills en route are lined with one of the largest vineyards in the world. The daringly constructed Lavaux Vineyard Terraces extend more than 30km along the northern shore of Lake Geneva, with the 11th century vines declared a Unesco World Heritage Site. The city of Lausanne is equally breathtaking, its undulating hills laced with winding streets that resemble bobsled runs and are decked out in textbook Belle Époque architecture.
It’s home to the International Olympic Committee HQ, and the rather spectacular Olympic Museum (olympic.org). When I arrive, a quartet of Brazilian athletes is drawing a crowd: they’ve arrived with the Olympic Flame, and light a huge cauldron out the front of the museum. There’s a temporary exhibit showcasing the culture and customs of Rio, host to the 2016 Games in August, as well as a fascinating permanent exhibition covering three vast floors and exploring the history of the event (including the first Olympic flag and torches from every edition of the Games since 1936), notable Olympians, and the Olympic Village – a number of interactive displays test your endurance and knowledge throughout.
Nearby, the Musée de l’Elysée (elysee.ch) is dedicated entirely to photography, with a collection of more than 100,000 pieces spanning artists from colour pioneer Gabriel Lippmann to contemporary photographer Jeff Wall. Given that we’re still in Chaplin territory, it comes as no surprise that the gallery is also a showcase for 10,000 images of the actor, taken throughout his entire career.
There’s no lake, but Basel’s water views come courtesy of the caramel-coloured Rhine, which threads its way through the historic city in the northwest of the country. The self proclaimed cultural capital of Switzerland, Basel is an intriguing assemblage of heritage buildings and cutting-edge museums and galleries: the eye-catching 500-year-old town hall, with its red façade and internal frescoes, sits beside more modern creations designed by the likes of Frank Gehry, Tadao Ando and locals Herzog & de Meuron, among others.
Christ & Gantenbein is another local architectural firm, whose recent claim to fame is the new building of the applauded Kunstmuseum (kunstmuseumbasel.ch) – the original building across the street dates to the 1930s. Between the two spaces, and the vault-like gallery linking them under the road, you’ll find the largest and one of the most significant public art collections in the country. The original museum now houses art from the 15th century to 1950, while the new wing – inaugurated in April this year – is dedicated to more modern art, including pieces from notable Swiss artists including Jean Tinguely and Ferdinand Holder. The current Sculpture on the Move 1946-2016 exhibition (until September 18) is perfectly at home in the dramatic space, which unites metal, marble, stone, scratched plaster and brick in many shades of grey.
Known both as the “smallest of big cities” and the “city of peace”, Geneva is surprisingly green for such an important international hub – in fact, some 20 per cent of the city is parkland. Its historic heart, old alleyways and quirky neighbourhoods are best explored on foot, so you can take in the oh-so-cool boutiques and designer stores, artisan chocolate shops, homewares stores and excellent restaurants.
Home to the European headquarters of the United Nations Organisation (UNO), Switzerland’s second-largest city is also the base for about 20 international organisations and is the seat of the International Red Cross Committee, which is behind the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum (redcrossmuseum.ch). One of the most humbling galleries I’ve visited, the museum’s permanent exhibition, The Humanitarian Adventure, revolves around three topics: defending human dignity, restoring family links and reducing natural risks. Each is explored in its own space, crafted by a trio of award-winning architects from Brazil, Burkina Faso and Japan. And each area ends with a “ Chamber of Witnesses”, where life-size holograms of people caught up in the humanitarian experience – a child soldier, economic migrant, prosecutor, survivor of genocide, jailed journalist, head of an orphanage – tell their harrowing stories.
While I have to admit that much of my visit to the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (also known as CERN, home.cern) went well over my head, what I did retain was fascinating. A working research facility and the world’s biggest physics laboratory, the organisation has an on-site exhibition space set in The Globe of Science and Innovation. Here, you can learn about the “universe of particles” in an exhibition that takes you on a journey deep into the world of particles and back to the Big Bang. You can also book in to tour the site – which is somewhat akin to a small city – and discover the experiments being conducted on the premises using some of the most high-tech equipment and most advanced theories on the planet.
Much easier to comprehend, but perhaps just as complex in many ways, is the breathtaking exhibition of watches at the Patek Philippe Museum (patekmuseum.com). The display includes some of the first pieces created by the Swiss brand, founded in 1839, and covers everything from pocket and wristwatches and grand clocks to musical automata and portrait miniatures from the 16th to the 19th century. You’ll be overwhelmed by the intricate nature of some of the creations, which come studded with gems and jewels and decorated with detailed paintings.
One of Geneva’s newest galleries, the MEG (Ethnographic Museum of Geneva, ville-ge.ch/meg) has won design awards for both its building and permanent exhibition. The Archives of Human Diversity is an extraordinary collection of more than 1000 objects that spotlight hundreds of cultures and civilisations over several centuries (the gallery owns more than 80,000 objects in total, including nearly 16,000 hours of music). There are also temporary shows, such as Amazonia: The Shaman and the Thought of the Forest (until January 8, 2017), which is a curation of 6000 pieces that highlight the history and plight of the indigenous people of the Amazon.