Northern Switzerland is often neglected by tourists who flock to the country’s scenic lakes and ski resorts. However, the northern cantons do offer a whole host of terrific urban travel options that really need to be embraced more by visitors. The borders of Switzerland, France and Germany meet in the wonderfully cosmopolitan city of Basel, while tourists can venture further and experience the financial flair of Zurich. Nearby, travellers will stumble across one of the country’s most charming places – Stein am Rhein.
This small town is nestled just off the western shores of Lake Constance in the canton of Schaffhausen. It has a rough population of 3,000 and is divided into two parts by the Rhine River, from where it takes its name. In fact, Stein am Rhein literally means ‘stone on the Rhine’. The town is famous for its well preserved medieval centre and countless spectacular frescoes. The potential of the area was first spotted by the Romans and they started a settlement on the eastern bank of the Rhine which grew steadily.
These days, Stein am Rhein remains quite small in size – its population has doubled since the 17th century, a remarkably slow growth pace in comparison with other Swiss towns and cities. Most of Switzerland’s smaller northern towns have never proven a magnet for mass tourism with Stein am Rhein remaining an exception, luring huge crowds. Up to one million visitors pass through annually, and this may spoil some of its winding laneways and old houses for those seeking peace and quiet. This should be no surprise – Stein am Rhein is quite correctly viewed as the very best preserved medieval town in all of Switzerland.
So before you make your expedition to this enchanting little place, it’s very important to do a little research. Stein am Rhein’s location is really excellent – the town is just 56 km north of Zurich which equates to less than one hour’s drive. It is also easily reachable by train from both Zurich and nearby Schaffhausen, as well as German cities like Konstanz and Freiburg by car.
If you arrive by car, you should park in the public car park at the junction of Chlini Schanz and Undertor. There are usually plenty of spaces but come as early as possible, just to be sure. The charges are relatively expensive like everything else in Switzerland, but thankfully, the machines take both Euros and Swiss Francs. From there, it is a short walk to the town’s main gate. As you pass underneath it, you may well feel like you have been transported back in time. For Stein am Rhein’s ancient street system is remarkably intact. The entire centre has now been pedestrianised and as you stroll down the Understadt (the main street), you will be mesmerised by wonderful half timbered houses on either side.
This street contains a plethora of little shops selling various Swiss souvenirs. These include that most enduring product of Switzerland, the Swiss army knife or delicious chocolate brands like Cailler and Toblerone. The very best thing about Stein am Rhein is its small size. It’s effortless to walk around the town’s open cobble streets or narrow winding lanes. As you stroll further down the Understadt, you will find the Stein am Rhein’s most breathtaking sight – the Rathausplatz.
The central point is a small fountain surrounded on all sides by beautiful multi-coloured housed adorned with amazing frescoes. The centrepiece is the town hall, which was constructed between 1539 and 1542. During the summer, this spectacular half timbered building’s windowsills bloom with red flowers while its blue clocktower blends in with the cloudless sky. The Monastery of St. George is just around the corner from the town hall, directly at the riverfront. This was the very first building in Stein am Rhein and is therefore regarded as a sight of immense cultural and historical significance.
Afterwards, it might be a nice idea to venture back towards the Rathausplatz for a closer look at those incredible frescoes. According to the Washington Times, “the frescoed buildings in Stein am Rhein come with serious obligations to the history of the village. As a condition of proprietorship, a titleholder must agree to maintain the paintings in the same condition as the originals without compensation for the investment”.
The Weisser Adler house (White Eagle) has the oldest and most precious frescoes that date all the way back to 1520. The Vordere Krone house (Fore Crown) is stunning – it features a Renaissance and Baroque interior. The Sonne house (Sun) is the oldest guest house in Stein am Rhein and its frescoes show Diogenes and Alexander the Great. Joshua and Caleb with a giant grape are the subject of the fresco on the Steinerner Trauben (stony grape house), while the Rother Ochsen (Red Ox) house features wall paintings from 1615.
The Lindwurm Museum is also well worth a visit. It costs 3 Swiss Francs and charts the life of a bourgeois family in 1850. The entire interior is a perfect recreation of an upper class residence from that timeframe and the oldest elements of the museum have been traced as far back as 1279. The whole place really feels like a time capsule and offers an incredible glimpse on the life of the bourgeois in 19th century Switzerland. Dominating the landscape above Stein am Rhein is Hohenklingen Castle. It’s quite a hike up to the castle but for those with enough energy, it’s more than worth the effort. On clear days, the views over Stein am Rhein and Lake Constance are stunning. When the weather is especially good, you’ll be able to see all the way to the Alps.
Unfortunately, on the way to Hohenklingen Castle, you are forced to cross the Charregass Bridge. This soulless metal structure is totally out of character with the rest of the town, and merely carries the weight of loud smoke belching tourist busses and cars. From the middle of the bridge, however, the view of the town is also impressive. Ships and tour boats leave the promenade of Stein am Rhein frequently and pass underneath, packed with smiling tourists. The amount of visitors can make the town a busy place during the summer months so make sure you do the bulk of your exploration early in the morning or late in the evening to make the most of a lull in the crowds.
If you want to grab a bite to eat after all that walking, look no further than the Hotel Adler. You can find traditional food like schnitzel, liver and rösti all served with delicious wine variations. The staff are extremely friendly and speak English, making for a welcoming atmosphere. As you wander around Stein am Rhein with a full stomach and a mind absolutely packed with culture, you might have trouble detaching yourself from this fairytale town. As soon as you do, you might wonder why northern Switzerland does not receive more international attention. For it is home to some of the most spectacular sights Europe has to offer. Photographs do not do places like Stein am Rhein justice – you just have to experience them for yourself. Fly into Zurich, Basel or Friedrichshafen and head for the most spectacular town Switzerland has to offer!
Francis Broderick writes for Trenditionist. Visit them for news, views, trends and forecasts in society and media.