Planning a summer trip in Europe: Where to go

Planning a Summer Trip to Europe through Italy and Switzerland

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This time last year, our niece graduated high school, and we offered to take her on a summer trip to Europe. She’d never been out of the country, and we have a little bit of travel experience under our collective belts, so after brainstorming an itinerary that could easily have us flitting through five different countries in two weeks, we narrowed it down to a pair of bordering nations instead.

Planning a summer trip in Europe: Where to go

And while it may be too late to plan a summer trip in Europe this year—or maybe you’re more spontaneous than me, who knows!—you can use our itinerary as your guide for your own future vacations.

Planning a summer trip to Europe

While anywhere would have been new to my niece, SVV and I have traveled extensively through Western Europe and started plotting what would make a good road trip based on an international hub we could easily travel to.

How to Plan an Epic Road Trip through the Alps

Should we fly into Amsterdam, then take a train journey through the Benelux countries (Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg)? Should we go back to Munich, rent a car, then wind our way through Bavaria on a road trip and into the Austrian Alps?

The options are many for a summer trip to Europe that spans the better part of two weeks, and a few things came into play when we were planning ours:

  • airlift and flight prices
  • cost and availability of lodging
  • transportation options
  • the weather
  • the distance between destinations in-country

Kiva was flying from Sacramento and us from Nashville; we met up at JFK and flew together on the international leg. Now, nowhere in Europe is cheap to fly to in summer, and I tracked flight prices for 10 months before biting the bullet and finally just booking a multi-city, round-trip ticket that had us leaving from JFK to Milan (direct) and flying back from Zurich to Philadelphia (also direct), then connecting to our home airports.

Related Post: How I Plan a Trip: Tools, Tricks & Websites I Use for Traveling

Ultimately, based on flight availability and prices, we chose to visit Italy and Switzerland on our summer trip to Europe. Here’s why.

Lake Como in summer

Why we chose Switzerland

There’s nowhere in Europe that offers greater diversity in experience: the cities, the countryside, the mountains, the activities. Plus, selfishly, neither SVV nor I had been back to Switzerland in a decade, and it’s one of the few places in Europe we’d never visited together. So if we were taking our niece somewhere overseas—and her first international trip at that—we wanted to make sure it was 1) the best of the best Europe had to offer and 2) somewhere we could all create new memories together.

Planning a Summer Trip to Switzerland

Our trip would be based around several days in the Alps—based in Grindelwald, from which we could visit Interlaken, Lucerne and other cutesy Alpine towns—then four nights in Zurich, which also offered the ability to visit Liechtenstein and a few other touristy stops like Heidiland, about an hour outside of the city. If you’re really ambitious, you can visit four countries in one day from Zurich.

Switzerland road trip

Switzerland is one of those destinations where you don’t need a car because the transportation is so smooth—and a Swiss Travel Pass will get you access to all trains, buses and boats—but there were a few tiny towns we wanted to visit that we could only access by car, so ultimately we rented one. We like having the flexibility of a car, but it was pretty burdensome finding parking in many cities like Zurich and Interlaken.

Planning a summer trip in Europe: Where to go

Why we chose Italy

Italy was more or less an add-on based on flight ability and the fact that I didn’t want Kiva’s first international trip to be multiple legs—the more flights, the more likely something is to go wrong, right?—followed by a pair of train rides, a ferry and a long drive. Lake Como, just an hour and change from Milan, was the perfect stopover for three days while our bodies adjusted to the time zone and jet lag.

Visiting Lake Como in summer

My husband lived in Italy for three years while in the U.S. Navy, so he has extensive travel experience within the country, and I’ve been there no fewer than six times, to various regions including the Amalfi Coast, Sicily, Rome, Pisa, Florence and Tuscany.

While I would have loved to show Kiva more of Italy, I’m of the mindset that it’s better to spend more time in one destination than country-hopping to collect passport stamps—which is more or less irrelevant in the age of an expansive EU where passports are rarely checked—so we merely used Milan as our arrival point and Lake Como as our first stop en route to Switzerland, our main destination.

Lake Como in summer

Our summer trip itinerary to Europe

We flew United from JFK to Milan, then back from Zurich (ZRH) to Philadelphia (PHL). On the front end of our Europe trip, we all spent four days in NYC for a family event—and to give Kiva a true first-time experience in New York. After the pacing of NYC, the laid-back nature of Italy and Switzerland were even more of a welcome sight.

Planning a summer trip in Europe: Where to go

3 days in Lake Como

After landing at Milan Malpensa Airport (MXP), we took a train to Milano Centrale Railway Station then connected to another train that would take us to Como S. Giovanni, from where we’d catch the ferry. If you’re staying in Milan, you can also do a day trip out to Lake Como, but I’d recommend a private transfer to save yourself unnecessary time in transit.

What to Do in Lake Como, Italy

An hour after boarding the ferry, we arrived at our vacation rental in Bellagio, the liveliest of the lake towns. We didn’t do a whole lot of anything other in Como than walk the cobblestone streets of Bellagio and bathe in the warm waters of the lake.

What to Do in Lake Como, Italy

3 days in Grindelwald

From Lake Como, we took a bus about an hour from Lungo Lago Marconi in Bellagio to the train station Como S. Giovanni, then 35 minutes later, we arrived in Lugano, Switzerland where we picked up our rental car.

This was strategic: It’s very expensive to cross borders in a rental car, and we saved ourselves a few hundred dollars by taking public transportation in Italy and waiting to rent a car in Switzerland instead.

It’s around 3.5 hours from Lugano to Grindelwald, but we hit some construction, plus once we were in the mountains, we pulled over every couple miles for photos. That drive is simply breathtaking.

Planning a summer trip in Europe: Where to go

While in the Alps, we stayed at a cute vacation rental in Grindelwald, and there were so many things to do that we couldn’t squeeze them all in like visiting Mount Titlis. We did take the train up Jungfraujoch and back down again, an absolute highlight of our trip.

Planning a summer trip in Europe: Where to go

If you don’t have a car, there are plenty of tour companies that offer day trips to Grindelwald and Interlaken.

4 days in Zurich

We had all these grand plans to do day trips from Zurich—you can visit Rhine Falls or even take a train to France for lunch—but most of our time there was spent soaking up Switzerland’s cultural capital. We rented a three-bedroom apartment in Zurich in the Technopark neighborhood, and the public transit there is so smooth, we found ourselves taking the tram everywhere.

Where to Go in Europe: Zurich, Switzerland

I’ll write a longer post on things to do in Zurich, but here were some of the highlights:

  • Went badi-hopping in the public pools
  • Used the Zurich Card to visit so many museums and galleries
  • Filled up on fondue
  • Drank beer by the quart in a beer garden
  • Strolled the streets of the Old Town

Where to Go in Europe: Zurich, Switzerland

We also kept our rental car, which I wouldn’t advise as parking in Zurich is a nightmare, and took a day trip to Liechtenstein, as well, then drove into Austria for lunch, returning to Zurich via Bad Ragaz, home to Johanna Spyri’s Heidi. Without a car, you can book a day tour that goes to both Liechtenstein and Heidiland.

Where to Go in Europe: Heidiland, Switzerland

In all, we were gone 13 days: four days in New York, three days in Lake Como, three days in Grindelwald and three days in Zurich. I think the way we did our summer trip in Europe was perfect to give our niece a taste of these destinations, but as always, I wish we’d had double the amount of time in each, particularly the Alps.

Planning a summer trip in Europe: Where to go

What’s your dream summer trip itinerary for Europe?



How to Plan a Summer Trip in Europe
How to Plan a Summer Trip in Europe
  • June 13, 2023
    Michelle Knott

    Love it! Did you go up to First above Grindelwald?

    • June 13, 2023

      We did! We went all the way up and spent the afternoon there. Loved it! I went 20 years ago when I was a student in Europe and visited Interlaken but remembered very little about the experience.

  • June 15, 2023

    What an awesome trip and well-written overview! My husband and I spent 2.5 weeks during Summer ’16 in Switzerland. The Swiss Rail Pass was amazing, as were several of the well-designed apps from the Swiss Tourism Bureau. By using the Post Buses, we were able to get to some really remote sites. We took the postbus to L’Evitaz where we had the best cheese factory tour before continuing onto Gruyere. We’ve also driven through Switzerland on a separate trip, which was super easy too. I do worry a little bit about knowing where the speed cameras are but I don’t think we set any off!

  • June 15, 2023

    Oh, I forgot the main reason I wanted to comment! How far did you get in researching the Benelux idea? I’m going this September for two weeks with my husband. If you found any great resources that you’re willing to share, I’m all ears!

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