Exploring Switzerland in 4 languages

The Alpine restaurant Aescher-Wildkirchli in the rock face

The Alpine restaurant Aescher-Wildkirchli in the rock face of the Ebenalp, Canton Appenzell-Innerrhoden. (Credit: Handout)

Much is written about Switzerland's four official languages -- French, Swiss German, Romansh and Italian -- but few American travelers know who speaks what where. It's no wonder, since three of the country's 26 cantons are officially bilingual (one is trilingual). Trying to book a budget hotel on the phone can sometimes require the language savvy of a senior UN official, but in person you'll find that some level of English is spoken in even the most remote mountaintop corners. The following is an introduction to the wee Alpine country's four linguistic regions, each with two suggested hotels (one budget, one luxury), a restaurant and an attraction.

1. SWISS GERMAN

Grüezi and welcome to the 19 cantons that make up the Swiss-German speaking side of der Schweiz. If you could visit only one linguistic region, the Swiss-German- speaking side should be it. It is the Alpine Switzerland of postcards and home to the country's biggest city, Zurich, and capital, Bern -- not to mention tried-and-true destinations like Lucerne, Interlaken and Basel. Appenzell's barn-studded rolling hills, and proliferation of cows and dairy farms are reminiscent of Vermont. It remains an underrated destination favored by Swiss travelers and home to the 8,205-foot high Säntis Mountain, which offers views of six countries on clear days.

STAY Luxury properties are rare here, but the Hotel Hof Weissbad (hofweissbad.ch; rooms from $290) is Appenzell's premier hotel spa, with its very own rustic kasseri (Alpine cheese hut), where you can taste and learn about Swiss cheese-making. Adventurous travelers should opt for a night atop Ebenalp's fantastic Bergasthaus Aescher, (aescher-ai.ch; beds from $45, no hot showers, includes breakfast), which is only reachable by foot (20 minutes from the cable car) and built directly into the cliff in the early 1800s.

EAT Appenzell is famed all over the world for its beer and Appenzeller cheese. Dozens of affordable restaurants and cafes are scattered throughout town, but the Schaukaserei in Stein plates up the region's best cheese dishes, like Käserahmsuppe (cheese soup) and Käsekuchen (cheese pie). Don't miss the adjacent shop stocked with local butter, milk, meat and cheese, and the cheese museum (with iPads in English). (schaukaeserei.ch; $10)

SEE Ebenalp is home to a system of trails and caves called the Wildkirchli. Once atop the mountain, an easy 30-minute hike leads you to three high-perched caves once home to cave bears, then Paleolithic Neanderthals, and finally hermits who lived in them until the mid 19th century.

2. FRENCH

Bonjour! The French-speaking part of Switzerland (also called the Romandie) encompasses more than 40 4,000-meter peaks, including the iconic Matterhorn. It's renowned for skiing, hiking and outdoor sports, as well as excellent wine and food (fondue originated here). The Romandie also is the home of the Swiss Riviera, gloriously stretching along castle-lined Lac Léman from Geneva to Montreux, including businessy Vevey and cool, arty Lausanne. Neuchâtel and Verbier also are well-known Francophone destinations.

STAY The Alpina Gstaad (thealpinagstaad.ch; rooms from $750) opened in December 2012 and is especially beloved by the Swiss French. Rooms feature cozy Bernese Alps decor and 18th century painted farmhouse cupboards. For a decidedly more low-key French experience, book a room at the cozy wine bar/inn Le Bourg 7, tucked away in the Lavaux wine terraces. (lebourg7.com; rooms from $160, including breakfast)

EAT Budget it's not, but the splurge is worth it when local Swiss meats ($35-$60) are grilled fireside and bottles of Swiss wine ($30-$150) are uncorked in a rustic dining room in Cully's L'Auberge du Raisin in the region of Lavaux. (Place de l'Hôtel-de-Ville 1; aubergeduraisin.ch)

SEE The vineyards in the Valais are much higher and more dramatic than the Lavaux. The tasting room at Martigny's Gerald Besse Winery and Vineyard is an ideal spot to sample a few Swiss wines, most notably the syrah and heida. (besse.ch)

3. ITALIAN

Buongiorno! Ticino is Switzerland's Italian-speaking canton -- the southernmost and least known to American visitors. Its rustic, rocky landscape is dotted with lakes, rivers, vineyards and picturesque stone churches where the food and people become noticeably Italian. Expect hand gestures, gelaterias and old women sweeping streets. Ticino's biggest city, Bellinzona, is home to three UNESCO-inscribed castles, while its other two major cities, Lugano and Locarno, are known for their lakes and festivals (jazz and film, respectively).

STAY The ancient Roman town of Ascona, where the modern Hotel Eden Roc overlooks the waters of Lago Maggiore, has a full spa and pool (edenroc.ch, rooms from $312). Decidedly less expensive is the simple and clean Froda guesthouse (rooms from $70; ristorantefroda.ch) high up a terminal road in the mountain town of Gerra, just across the street (and within earshot) of the cascading Verzasca River.

SEE The turquoise Verzasca River is one of the most beautiful in Switzerland, and the Sentierone (old mule traders' trail) runs alongside it for a few miles from Contra/Gordola up to Sonogno, where mossy, verdant waterfalls await your discovery. (myswitzerland.com)

4. ROMANSH

Allegra! Graubünden is Switzerland's largest and most illustrious canton, home to chic St. Moritz, stately Davos (host to the annual World Economic Forum), and privileged Klosters (where British royals have skied). Romansh is spoken here, but only in pockets. Graubünden also is home to the 149-year-old Rhätische Railway, which courses over 196 stone bridges and through 55 tunnels. If that weren't enough, it's also home to Switzerland's first and biggest Swiss National Park (nationalpark.ch) in the lower Engadine Valley, where Romansh is widely spoken.

STAY Luxury Hotels can run upward of $1,000 a night in St. Moritz, but mod Design Hotel member Nira Alpina (designhotels.com; rooms from $220) opened in 2011 and is just 3 miles from glitzy St. Moritz with ski-in/ski-out services, and 70 rooms with excellent views of Lake Silvaplana. More old-world, the Relais & Chateaux Schlosshotel Chaste in Tarasp is a former farm gone five stars. It sits under the majestic Tarasp Castle and has been run by the Pazeller family for more than 500 years. (schlosshoteltarasp.ch; rooms from $150)

EAT Indulge in beef tartare with Cognac, $37, and smoky Engadiner sausage, $23, on the terrace of Berghotel Muottas Murgal (muottasmuragl.ch), also great for people-watching.

SEE Graubünden also is known for its excellent thermal mineral baths. Don't miss Bogn Engiadina Scuol's indoor and outdoor baths, fed by four of the 20-odd thermal springs discovered by Swiss chemist Paracelsus in the 15th century. (engadinbadscuol.ch; $27)

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