The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Culture of Switzerland

The culture of Switzerland is influenced by its neighbours, but over the years a distinctive culture with strong regional differences has developed. Traditionally Switzerland is not considered one of the centres of European culture, but this perception might be deceptive.

A number of culturally active Swiss have chosen to move abroad, probably given the limited opportunities in their homeland. This is particularly true for architects. At the same time, the neutrality of Switzerland has attracted many creative people from all over the world. In war times the tradition of political asylum helped to attract artists, whilst recently low taxes seem predominant. During the rise of fascism in the 1930s and 1940s a number of German, Austrian and Italian writers have sought refuge in Switzerland, such as Thomas Mann, Stefan George and Ignazio Silone.

Strong regionalism in Switzerland makes it difficult to speak of a homogenous Swiss culture. The influence of German, French and Italian culture on their neighbouring parts cannot be denied. The Rhaeto-Romanic culture in the eastern mountains of Switzerland is robust.



Newspapers have a strong regional character, but some are renowned for their thorough coverage of international issues, such as the Neue Zürcher Zeitung of Zürich and the Le Temps of Geneva.

As elsewhere, television plays a great role in modern cultural life in Switzerland. The national broadcasting system offers three networks, one for the main cultural spheres. The networks reflect the distinct areas of the German, French and Italian part of Switzerland. In the German speaking part, television from Germany is popular, as is television from France in the French speaking part and television from Italy in the Italian speaking part. American movies and television series are influential in all the areas. In films, American productions constitute almost the entire programme on offer. The national public broadcaster is SRG SSR idée suisse. Maybe due to the multilingual culture, almost all the movie theatres play movies in their original language with subtitles, and often films on television are broadcast in original and synchronized versions.

Folk Arts

Folk art is kept alive in organizations all over the country. In Switzerland it is mostly expressed in music, dance, poetry, wood carving and embroidery. There are also a great number of regional and local rites demarcating times of the year. Yodelling, despite being stereotypical for Switzerland, is not widely spread and limited to some mountain areas. The same is true for the accordion which is sometimes called Schwiizerörgeli rather than Handorgel in German, implying that it was a Swiss musical instrument.

A Swiss playing an alphorn near a lake
A Swiss playing an alphorn near a lake

The alphorn, sometimes called the alpenhorn, is a trumpet- like musical instrument made of wood. It is thought to have the perfect form for a musical wind instrument. The use of the alphorn is limited to mountainous areas, but like yodelling or the accordion, it has become an epitome of traditional Swiss music.

The melodies of folk music vary between regions. Generally those in pastoral areas are floating and wide- ranging. In the inner and southern Alps, however, the melodies are more songlike but of more limited range. Common and popular themes are about love and the homeland, but patriotic and pastoral as well as hunting themes are also commonplace.

The Alpine folk culture is characterized by very expressive dances. The Schuplattler is one example of such an expressive dance. Its rapid sequence of jumping and hopping make it visually attractive. Small musical ensembles can be found in the more mountainous areas, particularly in the French speaking part of Switzerland.

The most common form of woodcarving is chip carving. Such carving is normally for the decoration of everyday objects, such as milk stools, neckband for bells, wooden spoons or walking sticks. Figure carving is also common, particularly of Nativity figures. In some areas the facades of houses are richly decorated using woodcarving. This is widespread in the Berner Oberland region where Protestant Christianity predominates. In Roman Catholic regions this is far less common.

Embroidery is common on traditional clothing, particularly women's clothing. Embroidery is often limited to prominent points, such as cuffs, hats and scarves. In the past embroidery was a home industry in the northeast and the east of Switzerland. Embroidery is also used for the decoration of fabric. In recent days, embroidery is confined to tourism, as traditional clothes are no longer in use.


There is a strong architectural tradition in Switzerland. The Romanesque style of the 12th century can be found in the cathedrals of Basel, Sion, Chur, Geneva and Lausanne. This style, which is rich in expression, can also be found on many castles and fortresses around the country, many of which preserved in a good condition. The cathedrals of Schaffhausen, Zug and Zürich are of the Gothic style, whilst the churches of Einsiedeln and St. Gallen are of Baroque style.

During the Renaissance, a large number of architectural masters gave their talents to Italy. Most of these came from the southern canton of Ticino. The Prisons near the Doge's Palace in Venice and the Rialto Bridge in Venice were built by Antonio da Ponte . The Bridge of Sighs in Venice was built by Antonio Contino , whilst Domenico Fontana (15431607) designed the entire Lateran Palace in Naples as well as the facade of the St. John Lateran Church and the Royal Palace in the same city. Fontana's nephew Carlo Maderno was an architect to Pope Paul V. San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, the gallery of the Spada Palace and the Filippini monastery were built by Francesco Borromini, whilst Carlo Fontana was responsible for the facade of San Marcello al Corso and the Montecitorio Palace; Baldassare Longhena, from Maroggia, built the church of Santa Maria della Salute, the Rezzonico and the Widmann palaces; all in Venice.

D.A. Gillard rebuilt the Kremlin in Moscow at a later period, and his son Domenico Gilardi was in charge of the rebuilding of Moscow's State University. Domenico Trezzini built many places in St. Petersburg by the orders of Peter the Great. Le Corbusier (Charles-Edouard Jeanneret) was probably the most creative Swiss architectural export in the 20th century. He was the driving force behind the International school of architecture that heavily influenced almost every trend in buildings throughout the entire Western hemisphere in the recent past.

Distinctive architecture of high quality can be found around Switzerland. It is often considered as particularly innovative modern architecture. Mario Botta is a famous architect who influenced modern architecture. The architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron from Basel in the north of Switzerland have enjoyed fame in recent years, such as through the building of Tate Modern in London.

Visual arts

In the 16th century Protestantism had a strong influence on visual arts in Switzerland. There was almost no influence from Italian or French Renaissance. Only in modern times Swiss artists began to emerge internationally. Alberto Giacometti is said to have derived much of his inspiration from the Etruscans, but became internationally known. Jean Tinguely fascinated people from all over the world with complex moving sculptures constructed entirely from scrap materials. Paul Klee is sometimes regarded as Switzerland's most original and impressive painter.

The Dada movement originated in Switzerland during the 1910's.

Despite the relatively small number of internationally famous artists, there are considerable art collections in renowned museums around Switzerland. These are not only found in the cities of Zürich, Basel and Geneva but also in smaller towns such as Schaffhausen, Martigny and Winterthur. The museums in the smaller towns pride themselves for their contribution to the arts, which exceed what is commonly found in provincial areas.

Graphic arts flourish in Switzerland, as does creative photography. Examples of this can be found on calendars, magazines and outdoor billboard advertisements.


In the field of literature Switzerland produced a number of very well known writers. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was from Switzerland, as was the critic and historian Jacob Burckhardt. The house of Germaine de Staël in Coppet was a centre of European literary life during the 18th century. Other writers include Gottfried Keller, Conrad Ferdinand Meyer, Jeremias Gotthelf and Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz. Hermann Hesse and Carl Spitteler both won a Nobel Prize for their works.

In the 20th century the plays of Friedrich Dürrenmatt and Max Frisch impressed readers beyond the borders of Switzerland. There are a great number of regional dialects, especially in the German language. Even though standard German is commonly used for writing, there is a living dialect literature in many areas.

For children's culture there is the cartoon character Globi.


Switzerland is not commonly considered a leading musical nation. However, in the 20th century it produced a number of composers, such as Arthur Honegger, Othmar Schoeck and Frank Martin, all of whom have gained international renown. In Lucerne an annual festival of international music takes place. Other places have similar festivals, ranging from country and western to pop and jazz. The Montreux Jazz Festival is particularly well known.

See: Music of Switzerland for more.


There has been a long tradition of Swiss scientists ever since Paracelsus (real name Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim). Paracelsus introduced the field of chemistry into medicine in the 16th century. The Bernoulli family from Basel is known for their significant contributions to mathematics over a time span of three generations. Leonhard Euler is another innovative mathematician. Horace-Bénédict de Saussure was a naturalist and pioneer in Alpine studies. The Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich has produced a great number of Nobel Prize winners. Ferdinand de Saussure was an important contributor to the field of linguistics.


The close proximity to the mountains in all areas in Switzerland has greatly influenced the leisure of Swiss people. The growth of ski and mountaineering resorts in the Swiss mountains have caused the Swiss to become very sports conscious. Apart from skiing and mountaineering, Swiss- style wrestling (Schwingen) is still popular in rural areas. Sunday- morning shooting sessions and Hornussen are two other traditional Swiss sports. Hornussen is a kind of Alpine baseball. Tennis, golf, ice hockey, football (soccer), basketball, handball, gliding, paragliding, sailing, swimming, volleyball, floorball, mountain biking and hiking in the forests and mountains are all popular pass times. Fishing is commonplace in the many lakes and rivers, but often a licence is necessary. Many mountain lakes freeze over during winter and are used for curling, horse and dog racing, particularly around St. Moritz.

See also

Last updated: 08-29-2005 11:04:26
Last updated: 09-03-2005 18:37:12