Which Way, Weary Traveler?


In Switzerland, Road Signs May Not Help You Find Your Way


road sign


Road signs should be helpful and, in my mind, logical. One has to consider that a driver only has a split second to read a road sign before making a decision about which way to turn. In Switzerland, however, all roads lead to . . . where exactly? Well, according to the road signs, they do lead to larger towns, but they do not lead to smaller villages inbetween. The general rule in Switzerland is: if you don’t already know where you’re going, you’re not going to get there. Mind you, this comes from a Swiss person with an above-average talent for directions and years of experience driving on Swiss roads.

First of all, there are the different colors of the signs. The “Autobahn” signs are green, as are the signs for the “Autostrasse”, a miniature version of the Autobahn with or without a center divider. The signs for other major roads and destinations are blue, and the signs for backroads, smaller villages, or local attractions, such as wanderwegstadiums or train stations, are white. Hiking signs, which are easily the most prolific in some areas, are yellow. Directional bike trail signs are red, but the bike lanes themselves are marked in blue. At times, this leads to a colorful, but confusing overabundance of signage. We call it a “Schilderwald”—a forest of signs. And as the saying goes in English, sometimes you can’t see the forest for the trees. So let’s say you are trying to get from the small town of Pfäffikon to the village of Saland in what is called the “Zürcher Oberland”. You must know ahead of time that you are really going in the direction of Turbenthal, a town that is about five kilometers past Saland because you won’t find any mention of Saland in Pfäffikon, even though Saland is less than seven kilometers from Pfäffikon and on a major road. If your destination is an even more remote village, you may not find its name on a sign ANYWHERE until you literally pass the entrance sign to the village! In the old days, most Swiss people made sure to carry a detailed road map in the car with them. Nowadays, they prefer a “Navi”—Swiss-German for GPS–that tells them where to go.

Another idiosyncrasy of Swiss road signs is the fact that distances to various cities are usually listed with thautoe farthest town on the top and the closest on the bottom. So if, for instance, you are driving on the Autobahn from Zurich to St. Gallen, the distance to St. Gallen will be listed on the bottom, whereas the distance to Munich, which is obviously much farther and not even in Switzerland, will be listed at the top. Therefore, it is imperative to read Swiss distance signs from bottom to top.

In defense of the Swiss road designers, I must point out that Switzerland has an incredibly dense network of roads, and it is therefore impossible to have signs for everything. The “Schilderwald” would be even more overwhelming. Also remember that roads and streets in Switzerland were not drawn up on a map, in nice straight east-west or north-south orientations, but grew organically over time, often around considerable natural obstacles, such as high mountains, lakes, or rivers. Logic, therefore, has no place in the Swiss driving experience. The best advice for anyone driving in Switzerland is the old Boy Scout motto: Be prepared! Once you can accept that, you will be able to enjoy even a backroad jaunt in the Swiss countryside. Or you may be lucky enough to run into the ultimate road sign–simultaneously the most useful and most useless road sign ever created:

Alle Richtungen--All Directions!!
Alle Richtungen–All Directions!!


If you have time to prepare your trip in advance, go to http://map.search.ch, which is great fun to play around with as it gives you maps and directions, as well as aerial pictures, in great detail. It even shows you on an aerial map where the bus stops are and if you move your mouse over the icon, it will give you the bus schedule as well. How cool is that?



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