More than a Postcard:
Working in Davos, Switzerland
I have been lucky to have opportunities to travel abroad on my own time and for school, but many of my more recent travel experiences have happened because of the occasional travel I did in my previous job. Through work, I have visited places that otherwise wouldn’t have been at the top of my personal travel list or even feasible in my current circumstances. One destination that fell into both of these buckets is actually a place I was sent to twice and one that gave me some of my most unique and once-in-a-lifetime experiences: Davos, Switzerland.
I never thought much about Switzerland as a travel destination—I never thought much about it at all—but I was excited to visit and going through work was the perfect introduction. I also discovered, between my first and second trip, that if you go back far enough (way back to the 1500s), many of my ancestors were born in Zurich, Switzerland, which gave me a special connection to the small, landlocked country.
Before my first visit, a few traits came to mind when thinking about what Switzerland is known for: efficiency, snow, mountains, cheese, chocolate, and neutrality in most world affairs as well as Swiss bank accounts and their appeal for the world’s richest. My visit didn’t dispel any of these preconceived notions, but traveling to the country, meeting the people, and experiencing the culture gave me a new-found appreciation for Switzerland and a destination I would love to return to, one day, on my own time.
Davos, Switzerland, is a small ski village in the Swiss Alps, in the canton of Graubünden. It is a very popular ski resort with many well-known downhill and cross-country ski areas. You may have heard of it because of the World Economic Forum. It was for this event that I was sent to Davos, Switzerland, for more than two weeks in January 2016 and January 2017.
As I mentioned in my previous article about a work trip to Los Angeles, the nature of my role was to prepare for the Vice President’s visit. So, much of my time was filled with work—here, I was responsible for the hotels, an insanely heavy order under the conditions that came with the World Economic Forum. But, as in Los Angeles, I took full advantage of any downtime I had in the days leading up to the actual visit to explore and fully experience my destination.
Luckily, my visits began before the World Economic Forum started taking over the small town. The main center of Davos has only two primary street—the main street which has the majority of the restaurants, shops, and hotels lining its entire length and a secondary street that runs parallel to it—with short perpendicular streets connecting them. Life pretty much exists solely on the main street.
When the World Economic Forum comes to town, the organization takes over everything. It buys out hotels to rations out the rooms to visiting delegations; takes over and clears out shops, banks, and restaurants to set up office, meeting, and event spaces; and shuts down much of the main street surrounding the main event center to both pedestrian and vehicle traffic without proper credentials. There are a few restaurants that stay open (and don’t gouge their prices) but, really, Davos is not somewhere you want to visit during this time. Even the locals and skiers clear out—renting their homes and apartments to the visiting delegates and their staff.
What to Do in Davos
Knowing this, I appreciated having time to experience the idyllic and peaceful village before it became unrecognizable. If you ever find yourself in Davos, there’s so much to do and experience. And not all of these activities have to break the bank:
Exploring Davos and Klosters: Davos is usually discussed with its neighbor, Klosters. A 30-minute train ride through the mountains, I stayed in this—even smaller—village at the Hotel Alpina Klosters during my second visit. Whichever town you’re staying in, make sure your hotel gives you the free Davos-Klosters Card (it’s an automatic, mandatory charge for all guests but hotels don’t always give you the card without prompting). This card has many benefits, including free train travel between the towns and free bus travel within Davos as well as many other discounts and benefits.
You can use the card and the wonderfully, efficient public transportation to travel between and within the towns and just explore. Even in the cold of January and the snow of winter, I actually enjoyed bundling up, putting on my boots, and walking the streets of both towns. Covered in snow, Davos and Klosters look like winter wonderlands with their traditional buildings and rustic charm. It was refreshing and stress-relieving to take a stroll, window shop, pop into stores or cafés, and just be. This—aside from eating—was one of the things I enjoyed the most.
Skiing: I have actually never been skiing in my life, but if I was a skier, then this is one of the places I’d want to visit. Some members of my group took a few hours when they could to experience the mountains and trails, and loved it. Downhill skiing trails available in both Davos and Klosters are connected to the same ski circuit. Davos is one of the highest-altitude ski towns in Europe, and with numerous downhill and cross-country trails. It’s a beautiful place to enjoy this popular winter activity.
Sledding (AKA Tobogganing): This is another activity that I missed out on but some of my co-workers thoroughly enjoyed. Whether you’re not a skier or want a break from the slopes, sledding can be an active and fun way to experience the mountains, weather, and views. Davos has eight areas for sledding (called sledges). According to their tourism website, Davos Klosters is the “cradle of international tobogganing,” and so you can imagine that they like to live up to their name. And if my co-workers were any indication, you won’t be disappointed. I’d encourage you to check out one sledge on the Schatzalp, where you can go sledding at night!
Funicular and Cable Cars: You don’t have ski or sled to head up the mountains and take in your surroundings. In Davos, you can take the funicular at Schatzalp—a railway cable car that travels up and down the mountain on a track. Once at the top, the views are breathtaking and you can take a walk around and then grab some food at the restaurant up there. Even in the middle of winter, my group decided to sit outside in the refreshing weather with some soup and hot chocolate, just taking it all in. We had a similar experience in Klosters. There, you can take the aerial cable car at Parsenn Klosters to the restaurant at the top for lunch with a beautiful view. The food at these restaurants aren’t bad but they aren’t the best; however, this is not the point of the experience. Instead, this is about journeying up the mountains and immersing yourself in your surroundings.
One note on the above: You don’t have to visit Davos and Klosters in winter to have a wonderful experience; there are year-round activities to make any visit worth it, but since I have only been able to visit in winter, my experiences and recommendations focus on what I know.
Where to Eat in Davos
Food in Davos did not disappoint. Cheese, chocolate, meat, and bread are central to the local diet. And despite the expensive surroundings, there are some low-budget restaurants with wonderful food that we frequented for a quick breakfast or a lunch and for dinner at the end of the long workday:
KaffeeKlatsch: With locations in Davos and its neighbor, Klosters, this warm and homey café is perfect for breakfast, lunch, or an afternoon snack. You have your pick of coffee (and other beverages), homemade pastries, healthy and fresh salad and sandwiches, and a variety of other dishes. My favorite item on the menu is the waffle. They have a variety of toppings you can choose from including cinnamon, powdered sugar, lemon and sugar, chocolate and more.
Café Weber: Located in Davos, this bakery, café, and confectioner was another favorite for breakfast, lunch, and an early dinner. This is also a good place to get some sweets and chocolates. My favorites included the chocolate croissant and the Rösti Pfanne. Rösti is a local dish featuring hash brown-style potatoes baked to perfection with various options for toppings. The Rösti Pfanne included ham, cheese, and an egg. Whatever toppings you get, rösti is a dish you don’t want to miss out on when visiting Switzerland.
Palüda Pizzeria: This is a casual and lively place to go for dinner, featuring wonderful pizza, pasta, wine, and beer. Located in Davos Dorf, this option is a much more affordable choice and stays open much later than some of the other restaurants in this part of Davos. We ate here several times and everything I had was great! There’s something for everyone here. A few of things to keep in mind if you go here:
- Make a reservation! It’s always crowded, and they will expect that you called ahead.
- If you’re visiting in winter, you need to go to the coat room upon arrival to take off your coat and outerwear. The servers will get testy with you if you don’t.
- You may have figured this out from the above but the service here isn’t the best. The waitress we had each time we visited during both trip was sometimes rude and harried. Just take it as it comes, know what you want to eat and drink, and once you order, enjoy yourself!
For a special or more unique meal, there are a few options that members of my group and I decided to experience. A couple of these are more expensive, high-end meals which are not usually a go-to when I travel, but as they say, when in Rome (or in this case, Davos)…
Restaurant Teufi: This restaurant is up on the mountain, farther away from the main streets of Davos. You take the bus, drive up, or do what we did and take a sleigh-ride up the mountain. Despite it being the middle of winter and the ride taking about an hour, they cover you with a very heavy blanket, and the cold was barely noticeable. The view and the experience also help to distract you. Once up the mountain, Restaurant Teufi is small, rustic, and family-owned. It really feels as though you are getting a delicious home-cooked meal. Meat and cheese fondues, as well as traditional Swiss dishes, are on the menu for this restaurant.
The sleigh ride is part of the restaurant’s services, so when you make a reservation be sure to ask if this option is available. They’ll pick you up at your hotel and you’ll take the sleigh up the mountain, and when you’re done with your meal, they’ll drive you back down to the drop off point. While this was a wonderful experience and I would absolutely recommend it, keep in mind that you and your clothes/coat/etc. will smell like a horse for the foreseeable future.
Hotel Walserhof: The restaurant at the Hotel Walserhof in Klosters is a Michelin-starred restaurant with a focus on Swiss cuisine in a fine-dining atmosphere. The restaurant uses local ingredients to create traditional-style dishes and has an extensive wine menu. This is one meal you are not going to get out of without being willing to pay quite a bit. This is a multi-course, pre-fixe menu plus whichever wine you choose to drink. Our entire group decided to set aside a night for this experience. And the experience begins as soon as you arrive, where we were greeted with complimentary champagne while we waited for our reservation. The food is gourmet and innovative as well as interestingly served—my first course came out on a log.
Gentiana Bistro: You can’t go to Switzerland without sampling an important part of the local cuisine: fondue. Gentiana Bistro, with its cheese statue out front, fits the bill with a variety of cheese and meat fondue options as well as other menu items that make for a fulfilling Swiss dinner. My coworkers and I got both the Fondue Chinoise—a beef and veal fondue—and the Fondue Gentiana—the classic cheese fondue. I would recommend both and don’t let the prices scare you. If you are splitting with the group, it makes for a reasonable night out.
Day Trips and Once-in-a-Lifetime Experiences
Between meetings and planning and prepping for the big visit, we were able to take a day or two and explore beyond the town we were working in. Davos is centrally-located enough that there are many day trip options and exciting adventures that can take you to other parts of the country and even to other countries:
Bernina Express to Italy: I’ve talked about this adventure before, and two years later, I would still highly recommend it. This day trip takes you along a cross-border route that is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for Switzerland and Italy. You can pick up the train in Filisur by taking another from Davos for free with your Davos Klosters card. From there, you’ll take the Bernina Express with its panoramic-viewing cars on a four-hour journey through the Swiss Alps—with a couple of stops where you can get out for 15 or so minutes to take in the scenery—all the way down to Tirano, Italy.
You don’t have a lot of time before the Bernina Express turns around and you have to head back. But you have about two hours to grab an Italian meal and some wine, walk around the old city, see the beautiful buildings and basilica, and then find one of the bakeries for some pastries to enjoy on your train ride back to Davos. Keep in mind that you will need to have Euros in Italy (you’ll use Swiss Francs in Switzerland). Not having some ready to go hinders making purchases at small shops and street stalls. I had to get more pastries at the bakery than originally intended, in order to use my credit card (although, this was hardly a bad thing).
Liechtenstein and Austria: Like the Bernina Express to Italy, it’s actually really easy, and relatively quick, to travel to Liechtenstein and Austria. Liechtenstein is a small principality nestled between Switzerland and Austria. It’s so small that it only takes about 30 minutes to get from one end of Liechtenstein to the other. Transportation for this day trip is a little less straightforward—there are no trains in Liechtenstein and so you will have to transfer to a bus just before the border—but it’s worth the effort to figure it out.
My recommendation would be to take the train and then bus to the capital city of Liechtenstein, Vaduz. I absolutely loved this little town. The town square looked like something out of Shrek with gold brick sidewalks and traditional-style buildings. The borders are open in Europe, so you don’t have to stop and go through customs or get your passport checked, but if you’re like me, you love accumulating those stamps. Luckily, we’re not alone and Vaduz knows that. Stop in at the Liechtenstein Center (which also serves as the tourism office) and get your passport stamped with a ceremonial Liechtenstein stamp for a nominal fee.
Once you get your ceremonial stamp, you can visit the Liechtenstein National Museum, postage museum, or art museum and still have time to walk up to the Vaduz Castle. It’s a bit of a hike up a steep hill but well worth it to overlook the town and see the outside of this medieval castle, where the Prince and his family live. One cool fact I learned while in Vaduz is that once a year the entire city is invited to the castle for a ball. It really does seem like something out of a fairytale!
Once you’re ready to continue on, pick up the bus where you were dropped off up to Austria. It’s only about 20 minutes before you find yourself in the historic section of the medieval city of Feldkirch. Walk around the old buildings and shops and then grab a nice dinner or drink before making the return trip via bus and train to Davos.
St. Moritz and Bobsledding: St. Moritz is a popular resort destination for the very wealthy and many of the shops are luxury brands you’d find along 5th Avenue or Rodeo Drive. But this is a really interesting city to visit, especially for the unique activities that await you. The train ride takes about an hour-and-a-half, journeying along a partial Bernina Express route. And once you’re there, you can walk around the town and view the interesting architecture and beautiful views (the stunning scenery is endless in this country, if you haven’t figured that out already).
But the fancy shops and the expensive taste is not the reason my group took this day trip. The Winter Olympic Games have been held in St. Moritz on two occasions, in 1928 and 1948, so there is no shortage of winter (and summer) activities in which to partake. Maps around the city point you in the direction of different Olympic sports venues, and it would be a fun day to walk around and see all of these locations. We were there for a related reason: to actually go bobsledding. The Olympia Bob Run of St. Moritz-Celerina is the oldest and only naturally-refrigerated bobsleigh track in the world, and on select weekends, it is opened to the public to come and take a ride.
It was the most unique and immersive experience I had while in Switzerland. My co-worker and I got ready and climbed into the four-person bobsled with 1994 Olympic silver medalist from Switzerland Reto Götschi in the front piloting our sleigh and his son (and potential future Olympian), Jann Götschi, as the brakeman and pusher in the back. We then made the more-than-a-minute long journey down the track with speeds up to 83 mph. This is absolutely my number one recommendation for anyone visiting this area. And afterward, don’t forget to get your complimentary glass of champagne to celebrate your Olympic run!
Helo through the Alps: One amazing experience I had, that I never thought I would, came at the end of my second visit to Davos. I would be traveling home with the Vice President this time around. There were two options to get us back to Zurich for the flight home—drive three hours down the snow-covered mountains or take a 40-minute helicopter ride—and it was dependent on weather. I was hoping for the drive back to be completely honest. I had never ridden in a helicopter and I have a fear of flying. The fear intensifies the smaller the tube I’m flying in.
Luckily for me, the weather ended up being perfect for flying, and the Vice President and his staff hopped on Marine Two and several other Swiss military helicopters for the journey back. I was in a Swiss military helicopter and was pretty much freaking out until we actually got in the air. It was incredible and such a smooth flight that I forgot why I was scared at all. The views were absolutely stunning and it made this a once-in-a-lifetime experience; how often can someone say they took a helicopter ride through the Swiss Alps?
Now, you may never get the chance to ride in a military helicopter as part of the Vice President’s travel party but there are options if you want to helicopter through the Swiss Alps. Beware, this is a very expensive excursion (even more so if you charter a helo from Zurich). The average traveler would not be able to make this experience happen (I know I wouldn’t if I had been on my own), but if you happen to get the opportunity or if you want to check out some of the options, you can find sightseeing helicopter flights through the Swiss Alps from St. Moritz.
When I go somewhere new, there are two things I try to purchase as souvenirs: a piece of local street art and local pottery—a vase or a bowl or something that’s representative of the culture (for example, I brought back a small, decorative tajine from Morocco). But honestly, I didn’t come back with much of anything tangible from Switzerland; these types of items weren’t really part of the local culture. I brought back incredible Swiss chocolate and an obligatory refrigerator magnet. I found cool wooden postcards to send to friends and family. But otherwise, for this trip, my souvenirs came in the form of experiences that I will remember the rest of my life.