As you plan your travel to Switzerland, think about how you’ll pay for those special unexpected moments. Credit cards are best for major purchases, but you’ll need to plan for some small day-to-day items and incidentals. In other words—carry some cash. Despite all the big banks, there are many transactions in Switzerland that are largely a cash-based, and Swiss Francs—paper money and coins —are still preferred and in some cases essential.
To feel like a local, become familiar with Swiss currency—often referred to as CHF—and familiarize yourself with Swiss coins. Swiss coinage ranges from 5 centimes (a tiny 5 cent piece) to 5 francs (a large heavy coin). Luckily, no pennies. Some of the coins are so tiny like the 5, 10, and 20 centimes—it almost takes a magnifying glass. You may want to toss them in the nearest fountain (make a wish).
But be careful with the surprisingly small ½ franc (50 centimes) coin—it’s small yet valuable. It’s most easily recognized by the “½” marking and the milled edge. The big coins—1-, 2-, and 5-franc coins will be the one you use the most.
A Dozen Places Where You’ll Want Coins in Your Pocket
As you travel independently in Switzerland, can you get along without Swiss coins? Possibly. But you might miss out on some special moments. Have some jingle in your pockets and you never have to worry.
- Ice cream. On a warm day, nothing refreshes like some Swiss ice cream or gelato. But don’t show up with a credit card as a couple 5-franc coins will get you what you want—The deepest chocolate ice cream in the universe.
- Toilets. From my experience, most public toilets in Switzerland are free of charge. Sadly, when you need to make an emergency visit, the free option may not be nearby. Usual cost is a 1 franc coin.
- Cafés. When you need a quick bite or something to drink, Swiss have developed their equivalent of fast food. A slow café. The idea is to sit down, relax and enjoy yourself. Savor each sip. Then pay with coins, rounding up rather than leaving a set tip.
- Farmer’s markets. These folks are the friendliest, but they deal in cash. You probably want a basket of glistening red currants or sun-blushed apricots. They want a handful of Swiss coins.
- Thrift stores. You may find some remarkable treasures at the local thrift stores and antique shops—known as brocante (French) or Brockenstube (German). Depending on the location and the typical clientele, you may be able to bargain a smidge—but be prepared to pay cash.
- Artisan handicrafts. Candles, costume jewelry, sweaters, scarves, soaps. Local artisan vendors want to give you the best products at the best price—please bring cash.
- Self-serve cheese kiosk. Tiny refrigerators are seen along the roadside with prices posted and coin box ready to accept your payment. Drop in the coins and get your cheese, sausage or other farm products.
- Transportation. Except for the train, most modes of transportation still like the security of cold hard cash. Bus, taxi, telecabine, gondola, funicular, streetcar, etc. Have those coins in your pocket and you’re ready to go.
- Artisan bakery. You must stop into a small local bakery or candy shop. So many local specialties to choose from. Buy a couple treats that catch your eye. And pay cash.
- Street performers. You’ll find them in train stations, tunnels, and farmer’s markets. Your generosity keeps them coming back. Swiss coins (especially the 2- or 5-franc coin) make a distinctive noise when they land in the musician’s instrument case. If the performer has given you some delight, give them a thrill by tossing in a handful of coins. It will make the day brighter for both of you.
- Historical and scenic sites. A medieval castle, church, or glacial gorge is worth a visit and usually doesn’t cost to enter. If it does, typically it will be less than 10 francs.
- Parking. Free parking is hard to find in Switzerland, but you can often find parking lots that only take a few coins. You’ll want to have some coinage to drop into their machine.
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