We all know Switzerland for its snow-capped peaks and alpine lakes but the best wonders are still well-kept secrets. UNESCO heritage Terrasses de Lavaux is one of them. The steeply terraced vineyards of Lavaux in the Vaud canton not only provide some of the best wine in Switzerland but also offer panoramic views like no other.
Switzerland and Wine
While cheese and chocolates are the famous Swiss trademarks around the world, not many people know that Swiss love their wine! Switzerland ranks in the top 10 per capita consumption of wine. Not only do they consume nearly all the wine they produce, but they import twice that amount to match up the wine demands.
Wine is an important part of all meals. All the major dishes pair up nicely with wine, be it fondue, raclette, or rösti. The evening time apéro, is specially designed around wine and cheese.
Fun fact: Around the 150s BC, people in Valais, the biggest wine-producing canton in Switzerland, buried their dead with wine. As we know from the Greek tombs in the middle ages, the dead were buried with things they might need in the world after death or things they loved. Warriors were buried with their weapons, scholars with their books. A ceramic wine bottle was found near Valais, in a tomb of a lady of the 2nd century BC. An inscription on the bottle indicates that it contained wine. This not only indicates that wine was a drink at the time but also important enough to be buried with.
What is so special about Terrasses de Lavaux
Lavaux consist of 830 hectares of terraced vineyards that stretch for about 30 km along the south-facing northern shores of Lake Léman.
Lavaux vineyards are not as old as their counterparts in Valais but the terraces can still be traced back to the 11th century when Benedictine and Cistercian monasteries controlled the area. Vaud, home to the Lavaux vineyards may not be the biggest wine-producing region, it is the most charming one. Lush green vine terraces that carpet the steep slopes above Lake Léman, also known as Lake Geneva makes for a beautiful swiss treat in itself.
Fun fact: During the ice ages, Lavaux – just like most of the southwestern part of Switzerland – was covered by the Rhone glacier. With the decline of the glacier, the steep slopes of the vineyards were formed. These slopes are now typical of Lavaux, especially the Dézaley vineyards, whose slope may reach 100%! In the 12th century, the bishops of Lausanne and the Cistercian monks turned these slopes into a recognized wine region.
Lavaux consists of fossil-rich sandstone. Dézaley is known for its fine Chasselas wines and is one of only two vineyards in the region to be classed with the superior ‘Grand Cru’ label. Chasselas is a very old native Swiss grape variety that originated on the shores of Lake Geneva. It is still the most dominant grape of the Vaud region, where it makes up 61 percent of the total grape production. It’s also grown widely in the other Swiss wine regions including in the Valais where it is known as Fendant. Fendant is my favorite white wine from Switzerland. It pairs really well with cheese fondue.
The grapes in the Lavaux get heat from ‘three suns’ – the sun, the heat emitted by the walled terraces, and the light reflected off the lake.
Fun Fact: Due to the steep gradient of the vineyards of Lavaux and other regions, grapes need to be harvested by hand rather than a machine. Sometimes, Helicopters or small monorail wagons collect large quantities of picked grapes from many terraced vineyards. Can you imagine helicopters being used to carry grapes around? Talk about style and luxury!
The vineyards of Lavaux are protected from development under strict cantonal laws. The vineyards of Lavaux can not be treated with synthetic pesticides anymore. Since July 2007, Lavaux is one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Lavaux, in all its might, is a living cultural landscape, where people live and work.
What to expect at the Lavaux vineyard hike
There are many possible hikes through the vineyards of Lavaux. The classic one is called Terrasses de Lavaux that goes from Saint-Saphorin to Lutry.
Start location: St-Saphorin
Altitude (meter above sea level): 520 m
Ascent: 440 m
Descent: 420 m
Distance: 11 km
Duration: 3 h 15 min
Physical requirements: Easy to Medium
The swiss wine trail goes through the small villages of Lutry, Villette, Cully, Calamin, Epesses, Dezaley, St. Saphorin, Chardonne, and Riex in the Swiss Riviera. The trail itself is well paved. While it is primarily running through the vineyards, every once in a while, the tracks will lead you through the pretty villages in between. You will find the most stunning views during this hike. These lush green vineyards plunging all the way into Lake Geneva create a beautiful amalgamation of the greens and blues.
The picturesque villages have traditional Swiss houses. Most of the wine-growers have their own winery and organize multiple wine tasting events.
Since the train stations are quite nearby, if you are not up to walking the complete trail, you can just cut it short in between. In fact, you can start the hike in any of the villages on the trail like Lutry, Villette, Cully, Calamin, Epesses, Dezaley, St. Saphorin, Riex.
Fun fact: Did you know that Dalai Lama owns the world’s smallest vineyard? And it is in Switzerland! The vineyard of Saillon in the Valais canton is the smallest vineyard in the world. It’s owned by the Dalai Lama after it was bequeathed to him in 1999 and produces a few thousand bottles of wine that are sold to benefit underprivileged children.
How to reach Terrasses de Lavaux
The closest cities to Lavaux vineyards are Lausanne and Montreaux.
Take the regional train from Lausanne/Montreaux to St. Saphorin: Regional trains connect the two train stations, running every few minutes. Check the schedule and buy the tickets at the official SBB website.
By passenger boat
From Lausanne Ouchy/Montreaux to Rivaz – St. Saphorin
Lavaux vineyards extend all the way into the lake. To get a beautiful view of the vineyards and the small villages in the Swiss Riviera, I highly recommend using one of the boats in lake Geneva. You can get the boats from Lausanne Ouchy, Montreaux, or any other Swiss Riviera terminal to Rivaz – St.Saphorin. Check the schedules and tickets at the official SBB website.
If you don’t want to actually hike/walk around the vineyards but still want to enjoy the views and wine tasting, I will recommend the panoramic Lauvaux express.
Guided tours of Lavaux wine region
This four-hour tour will take you around the wine region of Lavaux in a convertible, panoramic bus. A sampling of some world-renowned wines from these picturesque vineyards is included. In addition, the tour includes hotel pickup and drop-off, onboard beverages, wine tasting, and some local finger food to go with it.
From Lausanne: Swiss Riviera Tour
This day trip from Lausanne gives you the best of the Swiss Riviera in one day. You can enjoy a glass of local wine in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Lavaux. A visit to the 11th century Castle Chillon is followed by some exploration time in Montreux. Some additional options like a visit to Chaplin’s museum and a lake cruise are also available.
From Geneva: Riviera Cruise, Chaplin’s World, Montreux & Lavaux
This day trip from Geneva will take you to the vineyards and other beauties of Swiss riviera. It includes a visit to the famous Chaplin museum in Vevey and some time to explore the elite town of Montreux. You can even add the optional cruise in Lake Geneva.
Sunday walking tour of Lavaux
This guided tour leaves from the boat terminal in Cully. After crossing the village, the tour continues along the vineyard footpaths and discover the villages of Riex and Epesses. A complimentary glass of Chasselas, a famous grape variety grown mainly in Lavaux, is offered to you at the “Les 11 Terres” vinotheque located at the center of the village of Epesses. On this tour, you will learn a lot about the history, the vineyards, and the work of the winegrowers in Lavaux.
Every Sunday from June to October guided tour starts at 10.00 am starts at Cully pier (Place d’Armes). You will pay 20 Swiss Francs for wine tasting and get a complimentary wine glass as a souvenir. The tour is conducted in French and/or English.
There are multiple other guided tours available.
Assist a winemaker
Take your wine obsession a level higher and assist a winemaker for half a day. If you want to be more involved in the process, you can assist a winemaker for a few hours and enjoy the authentic viticulture experience. This might include working in the vineyard or the cellar (depending on the season), visiting the estate, wine tasting with a snack, and a bottle of wine to take home as a souvenir. If interested, book at least one week in advance.
Fun fact: Swiss believe that you have to look the person in the eye when you clink glasses! Otherwise, you will have bad sex for seven long years. You don’t want to risk that, do you?
Best time to go
In early summer, there are multiple open cellars days in different wine regions in Switzerland. During these delightful days, a wine tasting ticket will give you a free tasting glass and you can wander from wine cellar to wine cellar, sampling as much wine as you like.
I would recommend spring or summer, especially if you want to have a local wine tasting. We went there in Autumn which was also amazing due to the beautiful colors. I don’t think much wine tasting is offered after that.
There is a once in a generation wine festival in Vevey, La fete des Vignerons. The roots of the festival go to the middle ages. This month-long celebration pays homage to the viticultural traditions of an entire region with a spectacular show and coronation of the vineyard hands. Sadly, the last edition was in 2019, so you might have to wait a few years for the next one.
Good to know
Book your wine tasting session in advance. We didn’t check out for wine tasting sessions beforehand because we just wanted to have a nice picnic on the trail. But if you want to have some wine tasting at the local places, book it in advance.
Check the information center about the routes and weather conditions. Depending on the season and weather conditions, some routes may be blocked or interrupted.
Please stay on the marked footpaths and trails on the hiking route. The vines are all private property.
The vines require careful maintenance throughout the year. Be respectful and don’t pluck/touch or harm them in any way.
Want to have a picnic in the vineyards? There are dedicated areas/benches for this purpose. Pick up any waste you produce and put it in the next bin or take it away with you.
There might be some instructions from winegrowers. They will most probably in french, so please bring your phone with google translate.
Only winegrower’s vehicles are permitted to drive on the vineyard roads.
There is an app available with fun facts and relevant information if you want to follow through the walk.
Where to stay
Since we lived in Lausanne, we never stayed there at any hotel but I have researched some of the most recommended hotels for you:
Ibis Lausanne center: In the city center, walking distance to the main train station, lots of restaurants around. One of the good budget options in Lausanne.
Hotel Royal Savoy: Highly rated, historical and luxury hotel, pool, close to lake Geneva, great service.
Lausanne Palace: One of the best hotels in Lausanne, views over lake Geneva and alps, charming and luxurious, highly rated.
If you would like to stay in Montreux instead, these are some best-reviewed hotels:
Tralala Hotel Montreux: Mid-range hotel, charming, offers mountain and city views, just 10 minutes walk from the center and the train station.
Grand Hotel Suisse Majestic: Elegant hotel with killer views, magnificent breakfast buffet, friendly and helpful staff.
Fairmont Le Montreux Palace: Five-star hotel with excellent views, directly at the lake, often reviewed as the best hotel on the Swiss Riviera.
Map of the Terrasses de Lavaux hike
I have reconstructed our hiking path on the map below.
A day in these beautiful vineyards is a quintessential Swiss experience that you should not miss. More than physical activity, it is a cultural activity that brings together lots of historical and traditional aspects of the Swiss lifestyle. I highly recommend this hike!