posted by Roma Venkateswaran
This summer, I conducted research at the University of Basel. Switzerland’s incredible train system allowed me to travel all over the country in my spare time. I was lucky enough to visit Zurich, Geneva, Bern, Lucerne, Lugano, Lausanne, Zermatt, Interlaken, and Iseltwald. Before going to a new city, I would always look up the top things to see wherever I was visiting. I noticed that a pattern emerged of the four essentials to do when visiting any Swiss city. These four things don’t just apply to Switzerland, though, but to any study abroad experience.
1. Visit the Old City. Knowing about the history of the place you are in, or metaphorically “visiting the old city,” will make your experience that much richer. In Switzerland, the altstadt (old city) is often home to shopping and food along with beautiful architecture, often dating back to the Middle Ages. Being able to differentiate between varied architectural styles or important periods of history will help you better appreciate what you’re seeing. If you are going to Austria, learn a bit about the Habsburgs. If you’re going to Tokyo, watch a YouTube video about the history of Japan. I’m not saying you need to go study your AP Euro or AP World notes, but even just doing a walking tour with a historical lens is beneficial (if you’re in Europe, I recommend SANDERMANs). A stroll through the historical events that shaped where you plan to go will help you understand your time there much more fully.
2. Visit your cathedral. This is a big to-do in many European cities, and there is often more than one church that is significant and worth a visit. But I’m not saying you have to go to daily mass. When studying abroad, make sure you continue to practice the rituals that are important to you, whether religious or not. Are you a gym rat? Find some place you can get your exercise in. Do you love to read? Don’t forget to bring some books along with you and make time to read them. It’s easy to get overwhelmed in an unfamiliar place, but visiting your “cathedral” can help you feel grounded. For me, talking to my family and friends is really important, so I made sure to stay in touch through a weekly update that includes my journal. (You can read more about my tips for journaling abroad here.)
3. Hike on a mountain. It feels like every Swiss city has a pre-Alpine or Alpine mountain nearby. Most of them have a train going up to a high point with hiking trails and gorgeous views at the top. This summer, I decided that one of my least favorite things to do was to walk uphill. But Switzerland is so beautiful that every hike was well worth it. When studying abroad, it’s easy to stay in your comfort zone. Just going between your school and living space and only talking to other people in your program, especially if they’re American, can be a rut that you get stuck in. After all, you’re already living abroad, maybe communicating in a different language, isn’t that enough? But it’s important to hike that mountain. Do things that challenge you. Talk to the person sitting across from you on the train. Visit that place in the city you’ve been hearing about. Push yourself to speak in the local language. It may be daunting, but you’ll be proud of yourself for facing the challenge. And there’s always help available! Take a train to the top or bring a hiking buddy with you. Challenging yourself doesn’t mean you have to do it alone.
4. Take a dip in the lake or river. Most Swiss cities have a beautiful lake or river to relax next to. When studying abroad, take time to relax. You are doing incredible things and you might want to do it all, but take a moment to appreciate where you are and how you’re feeling. Even if you don’t want to swim (I barely can), just appreciating the view or dipping your feet in the water can be a good way to re-center. Obviously, not everywhere you go will have beautiful lakes and rivers, but find ways that you can unwind. Take that weekend off. Sleep in that one day. Don’t burn yourself out because it will just make it harder to enjoy what comes next. At the end of a long day of exploring a city, I loved to get some ice cream and sit on a bench with a view of the lake and just take in the scenery.