Interlaken is an unusual confluence of college-age backpackers, international tourists, avid nature lovers and extreme sports enthusiasts. Strolling around the town’s grassy quadrangle, it is not unusual to see American frat boys, veiled Muslim women and Korean photographers, all gathered to take in the beauty of the Jungfrau peak of the Berner-Oberlander region, while sipping a beer at Hooters. Due to the town’s central location and diverse amenities, Interlaken is well-known globally as a tourist hotspot. English-speaking travelers should have no trouble navigating the town, given that there is signage and menus written in languages from French to Korean. On the downside, the town does have quite a few tourist trap restaurants and probably more souvenir shops per capita than any other town I have seen. The best meal I had in Interlaken was at the Cafe de Paris, just a block north of the main drag, with reasonably priced entrees (~20 CHF) and excellent food. The beer of choice here is Rugenbräu, which unfortunately reminds me a lot of Bud Light. For better alternatives, I recommend Buddy’s Pub, which also has Feldschlösschen Hopfenperle and Dunkle Perle on tap.
Interlaken is situated between two lakes (hence the name), at a relatively low elevation of 567 m. So, you will not see a lot of the Alps directly from Interlaken, but it is convenient to take trains further up, to the Lauterbrunnen or Grindelwald valleys. You could pick a smaller town higher up as a base, however there will be far more limited options at night in terms of restaurants and nightlife.
We stayed at the hostel Balmer’s Herberge, which is a unique experience on its own. As the largest hostel in town, it offers plenty of opportunities to meet other travelers, 2 for 1 happy hour specials, decent burgers and fries at the outdoor biergarten, and a bar and nightclub in the basement (the line for the Wed night Beach Party was Vegas-worthy). But by far the most valuable facet of Balmer’s is their outdoor activities concierge desk, where you can get information on hiking, biking, canyoning, skydiving, hang gliding, parasailing, and all the other activities in the region. The itineraries that were suggested for us were spot-on, appropriately challenging and accompanied with beautiful views.
On the other hand, since Balmer’s is packed with young backpackers, many of whom aspire to get drunk and have as much promiscuous sex as possible, the atmosphere can sometimes veer towards a combination of frat house and circus. For an entertaining time, I suggest people-watching by the front entrance area of the common room, and chatting with the night receptionist about the things he’s seen while on the job. Luckily, our roommates (a mix of Koreans, Canadians and Germans) weren’t here to party, and were reasonably considerate given the cramped spaces. On the last night, Balmer’s computer system crashed, and they placed three guys in our previously all-female room. The Korean girl who had to sleep in a bunk adjacent to the Finnish guy (who slept wearing only briefs) was Not Happy. On the plus side, I managed to parlay her distress into getting some money refunded.
For a more classically Swiss experience, I recommend wandering over to Unterseen, just a short walk northwest of Interlaken. On that evening, we stumbled upon a delightful concert in the Unterseen town square with traditional Swiss alpine horn players accompanied by a flag twirler, the Unterseen Yodeling Choir, and a polka band. The evening ended with a parade of cowbell players, who circled the square, rattling their bells in synchrony, then marched into a neighboring restaurant for dinner.
In addition, be sure to attend a performance of William Tell at the Tellspiele open-air theater. According to legend, in 1307, the tyrannical Austrian bailiff Gessler raised a pole and put his hat on top, ordering villagers to bow down to it. Expert marksman William Tell refused to do so, and was forced to either shoot an arrow at an apple on top of his son’s head, or be executed himself. Tell’s defiance eventually sparked a rebellion which led to Switzerland’s independence.
The play is entirely in German, but you can buy a program with scene by scene summaries in 4 languages for CHF 5. Despite being in a foreign language, I had a great time watching the live animals and 200+ local actors on stage, as they sang, danced and performed the tale of Switzerland’s national hero. The energy of the performers is palpable, and the play takes place in all weather (seating is covered), so this is an excellent activity if it is raining out. Tickets range from CHF 32-54 and are well-worth the price.