The north face of the Eiger, a massive triangle of cracked rock rising 6,000 vertical-feet—in the truest sense of the word vertical— is probably the most impressive wall in the Alps. The ice-sheathed Mönch and Jungfrau, just a bit higher than the Eiger at 13,475 and 13,642-feet respectively, flank out on the ridge to the right marking the starting point for the most glaciated area in Europe. Add countless other jagged peaks and valleys to the view, in every direction, and you have the Jungfrau region—a natural wonder of ice and rock.
Of course this region of the Bernese Oberland, in central Switzerland, is more than just dramatic mountains—the human touch of villages, railways, and cable cars delicately weaved into the landscape inspire as much awe as the mountains themselves. The villages of Lauterbrunnen and Wengen offer ideal starting points for mountain adventures as well as a full lineup of alpine events for visiting spectators. Nearby, Mürren is more remote, but views are spectacular.
The Early Days
The first evidence of humans in the Jungfrau region came in the 12th century, when an Augustinian monastery, home to over 1,000 monks, was founded in Interlaken. In the next century, groups from the Upper Valais in southwest Switzerland founded several villages on the west side of the Lauterbrunnen Valley, including Lauterbrunnen, Mürren and Gimmewald. Wengen was settled around that time by emigrants from the Aare Valley.
Until the turn of the 18th century, these villages survived off dairy farming and mining (iron, lead, and zinc), but saw many hardships: bloody religious conflicts (the Reformation), disease (the Plague), and natural disasters (in 1776 the village of Ammersten was wiped out by an avalanche and never rebuilt.)
Then came tourism, now the region’s lifeblood. In the early 19th century, mountaineering became popular, and in 1811 the first climbers reached the summit of the Jungfrau. Ensuing years saw the publication of not only guidebooks to the area, but poems and other works of art that inspired many to visit. Hotels began to sprout and the 1890’s saw the construction of the Bernese Oberland Railway, from Interlaken to Lauterbrunnen, as well as the Wengernalp and Mürren railways.
In 1912, the Jungfraujoch railway station was completed—still a marvel to human ingenuity. This is a good place to begin your tour of the area. The railway takes passengers straight through the north face of the Eiger, offering glimpses of the world below through windows thousands of feet high. The final destination, the highest rail station in Europe, is perched on the saddle between Mönch and Jungfrau. Once there, you can fight for space on the observation deck, or venture out onto the glacier for a short walk or hike. There are several well-marked paths, but be sure to dress appropriately (don’t forget sunglasses, as the glare from the snow can be intense) and know what you’re getting into; the altitude makes it tough to breathe once you start moving. Swiss Pass holders ride free as far as Wengen and get a 50% discount from there to the top. Otherwise it’s CHF 157 roundtrip from Lauterbrunnen.
Down at lower altitudes, where dairy cows graze and wildflowers bloom, there are countless activities to keep you busy for days. In the summer, the most popular time to visit, you can hike on any number of well-marked trails. Easy paths are marked with yellow signs, and more demanding mountain hikes—requiring sturdy boots, foul-weather gear, and experience—are marked with red and white signs. Trail maps can be picked up at tourist offices in the villages. If you’re feeling adventurous, there’s no shortage of more extreme activities. Walk down any street in Interlaken, Wengen, or Lauterbrunnen and you’ll come across scores of outfits that offer paragliding, skydiving, and other adventurous activities.
Winter in the Jungfrau
In winter, skiing has been the main attraction since the first ski-funicular was built in 1912. Between the interconnected pistes (ski trails) of Grindelwald, Wengen, and Mürren there’s plenty of terrain for skiers of all abilities. If you prefer to spectate, each January Wengen hosts the oldest and most revered downhill race on the World Cup circuit. The impressive Lauberhorn downhill course twists, turns, and plummets 3,360 vertical-feet over nearly three miles. The finishing gate is at the Allmed train station, but the best place to watch the race is at Wengernalp, where you can see about one-third of the course, including two big jumps and a few high speed corners.
The fans are almost more entertaining than the race. The hill opposite the course is packed top to bottom with thousands of screaming, chanting, drunken ski hooligans. Faces are painted. National flags are waving. Cowbells are chiming. And the rich aroma of cheese fondue drifts freely through the air, emanating from the portable fondue cookers lugged up the mountain by the truest Swiss fans. Then there’s the awards ceremony in Wengen center, where there is a stage, Jumbotron screen, and enough beer and food vendors to feed an army. (Incidentally, the Swiss Army is on hand throughout the weekend, equipped with skis and shovels, serving not only as crowd control but also ski course maintenance.) The party continues long into the night. National songs and chants are belted throughout the crowded, car-free streets at regular intervals, and costumed marching bands roam the town. The festivities last three days, with the slalom and combined (one run downhill, one run slalom) races drawing slightly less attention.
Another great spectator event is the Jungfrau Marathon. Each September 4,000 runners labor over 26.2 miles, gaining 5,000 feet in elevation from the starting point in Interlaken to the finish line at Kleine Scheidegg.
Your Jungfrau Region Headquarters
Lauterbrunnen, easily accessible by car or train, is a great place to base your stay. The long, narrow Lauterbrunnen valley, with 72 waterfalls and sheer walls rising thousands of feet straight up, rivals any scenery in the world. The village is the starting point for trains and cable cars to many of the higher mountain villages and offers great hikes. A short walk from the center of town brings you behind the impressive, 1,000-foot Staubbach waterfall, offering a view of the valley through a fine, sparkling mist.
Wengen and Mürren are also great options, with no cars and unrivaled alpine perches above the valley. Wherever you are, you won’t have much use for a car—most of the attractions are accessible only by cable cars or trains.
Jungfrau Region Hotels
Among Lauterbrunnen, Wengen, and Mürren, there are hotel options for all tastes and budgets.
Hotel Staubbach, Lauterbrunnen
According to its current owners, Craig and Corinne Rochin-Müller, the Staubbach is the first structure in Lauterbrunnen to be built as a hotel, in 1891. Being first out of the gate, the founders were able to snag what is arguably the best site in town, with an unrivaled view of the Staubbach Waterfall and down the length of the valley. The Rochin-Müllers, who bought the hotel eight years ago after it had been closed for a few years, have restored much of the original Victorian style. They’ve sanded and refinished the wide, creaky hallway pine planks that add a lived-in charm to the place, and most common spaces have been decorated with ornate rugs and matching upholstered furniture. The breakfast room has huge windows that catch the sublime view. A large TV lounge (no TV’s in the rooms) and a self-service coffee-and-tea room provide the guests with ample opportunity to mingle and share travel stories. There are framed pictures from the early days of tourism in the valley, high ceilings, chess tables, and a relaxed atmosphere that encourages conversation. The friendly staff takes the time to know the hotel’s guests.
Room 20 is outfitted with a pair of twin beds (pushed together) with a large, light wood headboard. There’s not much space in the room but a balcony overlooking the valley makes up for that. Rooms 24 and 23 are connected, with a shared bathroom in 24 and a sink in 23. They are south-facing, missing out on the waterfall, but with an impressive mountain view nonetheless. Most of the rooms have private baths, although there are public bathrooms on each floor as well. There are cozy budget rooms in the attic and an elevator to help out with heavy luggage or tired legs.
Price Category: Moderate
Hotel Silberhorn, Lauterbrunnen
Owned and run by the von Allmen family for over 100 years, the Silberhorn has an easy, understated elegance. The large Swiss chalet-style building which sits above the cable car station on the western slope of Lauterbrunnen village, just a few minutes walk from the train station, has been expanded several times. A long glass-enclosed dining room was recently tacked to the front of the hotel. Here, wicker chairs with pale green cushions create a comfortable perch to sip a beverage and look over the valley. The main dining room, an earlier addition to the building, also has a stunning view through large picture windows. High wood-paneled ceilings add to the room’s bright, open feel. The reception area and lounge have comfy brown leather couches and impressive paintings of the surrounding peaks. The public restaurant is enclosed by wood walls and furnishings and has an open fireplace and ceramic tile floor.
The friendly, professional staff apologizes for the size of single rooms that are actually comparable to double rooms in many hotels. Room 10 is one such, with light wood paneling on the walls and ceiling, a small desk, wooden wardrobe, and wall mirror. Double rooms are especially inviting, each with a leather chair, couch, small table, and balcony. Every year, the owners renovate a few more rooms in a handsome décor that matches the common spaces.
Price Category: Moderate
Hotel Oberland, Lauterbrunnen
After working in Lauterbrunnen hotels for over 20 years, Mark Nolan, an affable Aussie, along with his Swiss wife, Ursula, who grew up in the area, bought the Oberland seven years ago. Mark, who can often be found working the front desk, is happy to suggest hikes and activities, or chat about the rich history of the area or the building, which is located in the center of town. The front desk and lounge area is spacious, with comfortable couches and a large fish tank. The guest dining room is bright, with white tablecloths, high ceilings, and plenty of windows. Room 21, a double, has a balcony with chairs looking over the eastern slope of the valley. A small TV is mounted in a corner, near the ceiling, and a framed print of the Jungfrau hangs above the bed. The tasteful furniture is light wood and typically Swiss.
Price Category: Inexpensive/Moderate
Hotel Bahnhof, Lauterbrunnen
Owned by Walter von Allmen, this budget hotel has a convenient location but not much charm. The attached restaurant serves as reception, and other than that there’s no common space aside from the hallways, which are happily filled with spider plants and other greenery.
Overall, the hotel is sparsely decorated but clean, giving it a new, somewhat sterile feeling. The location, as one might guess, is directly across from the train station, making for easy transport of luggage and little chance of missed trains. Room 203 is a double with metal twin bed frames that seem to come straight out of a hospital. There’s a gray carpet, a 12-inch TV with cable, and one window offering a view that follows the cable car line up the west wall of the valley towards Winteregg and Mürren. Other rooms have a little more character, with wooden headboards and exposed rafters.
Contact: Hotel Bahnhof, CH-3822 Lauterbrunnen, tel. +41/33/855 1723, fax 1847
Price Category: Inexpensive/Moderate
Hotel Jungfrau, Wenger
The chill in the air might not just be from the high altitude, but also from the frosty personality of the hotel manager. That aside, the rest of the staff is friendly and the Jungfrau’s location is unbeatable—it stands alone at the Wengernalp train station between Wengen and Kleine Scheidegg. Each of the 23 double rooms has a fine view of the surrounding Alps. There are open fireplaces in the lounge and restaurant, creating a warm, snug feeling throughout. Access to the sauna is free for all guests. For the upscale traveler this is a wonderfully remote, luxury location accessed only via rail from Lauterbrunnen (leave your car in the station parking lot). Fortunately, the restaurant is excellent, because the daily rates include dinner.
Contact: Hotel Jungfrau, CH-3823 Wengernalp, tel. +41/33.855 1622, fax 3069
Price Category: Expensive
Alpenruhe Kulm, Wengen
Gemütlichkeit first reviewed this modest, three-star property in 1993, and we’ve checked up on it periodically ever since. Located a short walk from the village center, it remains under the stern but capable generalship of its redoubtable owner, Frau Marion Prevost. The Alpenruhe is a model of efficiency, and the somewhat plain guest and public rooms are immaculately maintained. In all, there are 45 beds in 27 rooms, all with bath/WC or shower/WC, telephone, radio, TV and balcony with mountain and valley views.
Price Category: Moderate
Hotel Alpenruh, Mürren
Our Mürren recommendation, the 26-room Alpenruh (not to be confused with the Wengen hotel of similar name), is built against the hillside next to the cable car station. It offers fantastic views, bright and airy rooms, and a cozy atmosphere. Mountain view rooms have terraces.
Price Category: Moderate/Expensive
The Jungfrau region is not known for its fine cuisine, but Swiss standards such as wurst, Rösti, and fondue are top-flight.
Restaurant Oberland, Lauterbrunnen
The cozy Oberland has just seven solid wooden tables, but a lot of history. If you’re lucky enough to land at the round Stammtisch (regulars’ table) in the corner, you’ll be eating where, in the restaurant’s early days (nearly 120 years ago), Swiss politicians, down from the capital at Bern, gathered to discuss policy and make secretive deals. The menu is dominated by many versions of Rösti and other Swiss fare. Oberland’s Rösti is a combination of potatoes, cheese, onions, a fried egg, and several juicy bacon strips. Prices are reasonable, anywhere from CHF 15-35 for main dishes. Walls are decorated with old trophies and plaques, and a small outdoor stone terrace with tables and wire chairs looks over the Staubbach waterfall.
Contact: Hotel Oberland, 3822 Lauterbrunnen, CH, tel. +41/033 855
Price Category: Moderate
Restaurant Bernerhof, Wengen
The salad bar is as good as you’ll find in Switzerland, with lots of colorful options. Highlighting the rest of the menu are sizzling Hot Stone plates for grilling beef, pork, and veal at the table. There are also several Rösti options, and a fantastic fondue. Prices are in the CHF 25-36 range.
The décor is somewhat less-than-inspiring, with an eclectic mix of baby carriages, plants, and bizarre wall hangings. The staff is accommodating, and the service generally good but it can be slow when it comes time to get your bill.
Rating: Quality 14/20, Value 12/20
Ristorante Da Sina, Wengen
One of the few places in the region to forgo the standard Swiss-German fare, this Italian restaurant and pub, tucked on a side street in Wengen, offers a bountiful selection of pasta and brick-oven pizza. Although the chef might throw a few extra toppings on your pie without warning, the quality does not disappoint. The pasta with clam sauce is delicious, with perfectly balanced flavors in the creamy sauce. The large patio is perfect for warm sunny days—although there are better views in town—and the interior is pleasant. Decorative pottery adorns the walls, and red and white checked tablecloths create a classic, quaint feeling. Prices are standard for Italian food in the area, with main dishes in the CHF 15-30 range.
Contact: Ristorante Da Sina, 3823 Wengen, tel. +41/33/855 3172
Rating: Quality 15/20, Value 12/20
Restaurant Alpstübli, Wengen
Perched on the slopes of Wengernalp, the restaurant of the upscale Hotel Jungfrau not only serves up delicious food but offers a splendid view of its namesake mountain. Inside, a large copper stove is the centerpiece to an intimate dining room. Antique furniture and exposed wood beams add to the homey feel. In winter, alfresco dining is facilitated by benches equipped with sheepskin blankets at the outdoor tables.
The menu is—naturally—Swiss-German. Prices are above average but the food is better than average, too—fine dining, in fact. The hearty soup with sausage, bacon, and toasted bread squares is the perfect way to cap a long day on the slopes. If you’re looking to converse in German with the staff, you might be disappointed: most of them are Swedes who prefer to speak to you in English.
Contact: Hotel Jungfrau, 3823 Wengernalp, CH, tel. +41/33/855 1622, fax 3069
Rating: Quality 16/20, Value 16/20
Divided by a wooden, decorative half-wall, this restaurant has one menu but two distinct personalities. One side has the feel of a diner, with Formica tabletops, paper place mats (with a map of the surrounding lift networks and ski pistes), and large glass sugar dispensers at each table. The wood paneling on the walls is plastered with plaques and trophies and little baskets with bags of chips and other snacks for sale are scattered throughout. The restaurant’s other half is outfitted with flower-patterned tablecloths and has white painted walls covered with old black and white photos.
The menu consists mainly of typical Swiss-German dishes, from sausages to the obligatory fondue. A plate of spaghetti Bolognese-style was a little rich and salty, but not disastrously so. A selection of omelets makes the Bahnhof a good choice for a hearty breakfast.
The clientèle provides for some local color, as railway workers often stop in for a cup of coffee. Prices are reasonable (entrées from CHF 15) and pretty standard for the kind of food served.
Rating: Quality 8/20, Value 10/20