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Switzerland: Small but Diverse

From the verdant Rhine Valley to icy glaciers: Switzerland is a small, but very diverse country — not only geographically. Find out more about its major regions, people, history, and cantons in our expat guide.
Sunrise over the Matterhorn — this is what comes to mind for most people when they think of Switzerland. But the country is far more multi-faceted than that.

At a Glance:

  • Though the Swiss Alps are the most famous (and largest) of Switzerland’s geographical regions, the Jura mountain range and the Central Swiss Plateau make up another 40% of the country.
  • By early 2016, the Swiss population had grown to over 8.3 million inhabitants. Most residents live in towns or cities, and one in four is a foreign national.
  • The cantons have always played a huge role in Swiss history, and they continue to enjoy considerable political autonomy today.


With a territory that covers less than 42,000 km², Switzerland is one of the smaller countries in Europe. For foreign visitors, it might conjure up images of Alpine glaciers and fancy ski resorts. However, despite its size, Switzerland is far more diverse than the postcard clichés might suggest.

While the Alps do cover the majority of the country, they are only one of three major geographic regions. In administrative terms, Switzerland is even divided into 26 different parts — the cantons, all of which have a considerable degree of political autonomy and take great pride in their local history.

Moreover, Switzerland’s economic success has been attracting — and is partly due to — a large foreign population; one in four Swiss residents was born abroad.

Jurassic World: The Northern Mountain Range

The northernmost of Switzerland’s geographic regions is the Jura mountain range, which makes up about 10% of its total surface area. Stretching along the France-Switzerland border, it is shaped like a crescent moon and opens towards the southeast. The Swiss Jura consists of characteristic "fold mountains", with peaks up to 1,680 m high, plenty of valleys, and deep gorges, often covered in forests.

Although there is a canton called Jura, you shouldn’t confuse it with the entire region. The Jura mountains include another seven to eight cantons, and account for a significant part of Romandy, the French-speaking parts of western Switzerland.  

However, due to their geographical features and cool, humid climate, the Jura mountains themselves have never been that densely populated: major cities are mostly located on their margins, such as Basel to the north or Geneva to the south. (Strictly speaking, the latter belongs to the neighboring region, the Swiss Plateau.)

Today, the Jura’s more remote rural areas are suffering from a population decrease. However, even though it isn’t as popular among tourists as the Swiss Alps, it is a paradise for those interested in hiking, cross-country skiing, and mountain biking.

The Central Plateau: The Heart of Switzerland

Also called Mittelland or plateau suisse, the Central Plateau is the hilly region squeezed in between the Jura mountains to the north and the Swiss Alps to the south, between Lake Geneva in the southwest and Lake Constance in the northeast. Only 500 m above sea level on average, it has always been home to the majority of Switzerland’s population.

Today, the Central Plateau is the most densely populated region in the entire country. Although it covers less than a third of the territory, it houses more than two-thirds of all residents. Nearly all towns with a population of over 50,000 (and all major expat destinations) are located there — except for Basel and Lugano. The Central Plateau also features Switzerland’s most important locations for business and industry, such as mechanical and electrical engineering, food production, or finance and insurance.

When packing your suitcase, be prepared for a continental-temperate climate with plenty of fog in winter, the occasional cold, dry winds from the northeast (Bisen), and more rainfall the closer you move to the Alps. Near Lake Geneva, however, the weather tends to be slightly warmer than the rest of the region.

Where exactly you are planning on moving may, however, influence more than just your wardrobe. The language boundary between French-speaking Romandy and the German-speaking parts of Switzerland runs across the plateau, with Francophone cities like Geneva, Lausanne, and Neuchâtel in the west, bilingual Berne and Fribourg in the middle, and German-speaking Lucerne, Zug, and Zurich in the east.

On Top of Europe: The Swiss Alps

South of the Central Swiss Plateau, the hills of the Mittelland gradually turn into the rising Prealps, with an elevation of up to 2,500 m and beyond. Though the Swiss Alps account for just 13% of the European mountain range, they actually cover 60% of Switzerland’s surface area. Only neighboring Austria has a larger percentage (65%) of its territory in the mountains.

One in four residents of Switzerland lives in the Alps, and in 5 out of 26 cantons, at least 25% of the respective area is located above 2,000 m — that is in Glarus, Graubünden, Ticino, Uri, and Valais. The latter is also home to Switzerland’s most famous peaks, such as the Matterhorn (4,478 m), or the Jungfrau (4,158 m), part of the Jungfrau-Aletsch protected area, the Alps’ first UNESCO World Heritage Site.

For most expats, the Swiss Alps will mainly be of interest as an attractive destination for daytrips and vacations: jobs for international staff are usually in the heavily urbanized central region — unless you are looking for employment in the tourism industry. If you have professional experience in this sector and are passionate about mountaineering or winter sports, it might be your dream come true.

Last but not least, the Alpine cantons of Ticino and (southern) Graubünden make up the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland. Due to its Mediterranean climate, picturesque Ticino is a popular destination among tourists from all over the world; but expats shouldn’t forget that Lugano, its most populous city, is also one of the three centers of Switzerland’s financial sector, right after Zurich and Geneva.

To find out more about the different areas you could call home, take a look at our article on the best places to live in Switzerland

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