For folks living in Europe, medieval castles are probably a bit commonplace, along with Gothic cathedrals, alpine chalets, and vibrant green landscapes dotted with tiny, picturesque villages. Though we do actually have castles in the States, they’re not very old. Plus if someone mentions a castle, they’re most likely referring to Disneyland. One of the most beautiful castles in Switzerland is the Château de Gruyères.
Lemme tell you – oh là là, this castle is swank.
The Château de Gruyères is a Swiss heritage site located in the town of Gruyères in Fribourg canton. By car, it’s only 1 1/2 hours from Geneva and just over 2 hours from Zurich.
The town of Gruyères is a tiny, charming village tucked inside a larger, more modern town. To reach the castle itself, visitors first must park their car and walk along the picturesque cobblestone streets of the old medieval quarter. This area around the castle is for pedestrians only.
Shops cater to tourists, offering everything from tinkling Swiss cowbells to whimsical metal sculptures for your garden. When you’re hungry, you can stop for traditional Swiss fondue at your choice of restaurants or sip a glass of sweet white wine from the Valais, the sunny southern region of the country.
Built during the 13th century, Gruyères Castle represents nearly 800 years of history. Standing on a small hilltop at the foot of the Swiss Alps, it’s now a museum open to the public.
While the exterior is in excellent condition, it’s the interior that’s much more startling with respect to its recent occupancy and comprehensive renovations by the Bovy/Balland families in the 1800s. Inside, the castle neither looks nor feels its age. Absent are the crumbling walls and cold, damp rooms devoid of furniture. Château de Gruyères feels like a real home.
I could imagine myself crawling into bed at night with a crackling fire on the hearth, picture the scullery bustling with activity before supper, and daydream about riding the verdant hillsides on my favorite horse from the stables.
Apart from the corsets, chamber pots, and occasional cholera epidemic, Gruyères Castle in the mid 1800s would’ve been just dreamy.
The crane, or grue in French, is the coat of arms for Gruyères and the region’s namesake. Images of cranes are found throughout the castle and grounds.
The highlight of the entire castle is probably the climb to the top floor, which resembles a giant wooden dance floor. Huge timbers support a vaulted ceiling and a collection of fantasy art adorns the walls.
Tucked away in a distant tower is yet another tribute to fantasy art. The tower’s spiral staircase is lined with pieces by Danish artist, Patrick James Woodroffe. In some ways it’s similar to the work of Brian Froud, an artist I’ve admired for years as a closet fantasy art fan.
Once you’ve finished exploring the castle’s many rooms and towers, make sure not to miss the gardens on the eastern side of the castle. Even on a gloomy day, the gardens are exquisite.
On the way out, you can pop into a little church attached to the gardens by a large, covered wooden walkway.
A second, much larger church is visible on the opposite side the Château de Gruyères. Consecrated in the 13th century, the Eglise Saint Theodule withstood the ravages of fire in 1860 and was later rebuilt.
If you happen to love aliens, you’re in luck.
While it may seem oddly out of place, just steps from the entrance to the castle is the H.R. Giger Museum. It’s graced with statues and art that would perhaps appear more at home on a sci-fi movie set. Nonetheless, they found a home in Gruyères.
Right across from the museum is the Giger Bar, more commonly referred to as the “Alien Bar.” Even if you’re not interested in the museum, it’s worth it to pop into the bar/cafe to take in the fascinating decor and architecture.
The place is tiny and will likely be packed, but folks don’t stay long. Most just down an espresso or snap a few photos and leave. You also won’t find many places that offer better meringues with La Gruyère double cream. If you haven’t tried them yet, you should! They’re perfect for any sweet tooth, especially with a rich shot of espresso.
The Giger Museum and Alien Bar seem a bit out of place in the quaint medieval village of Gruyères, but they’re a fun and quirky addition to any visit to the Château de Gruyères.
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The town of Gruyères is also celebrated for its famous Gruyère cheese, which it has been making since the year 1115. For a deeper appreciation of the region, make sure to plan a visit to La Maison de Gruyère, where you can watch every step of the cheese-making process.
- A small parking lot is available right at the entrance to the old town area surrounding the castle, but it fills up fast with tour buses and cars. Ample parking is also available for free in a secondary lot below the castle area.
- Adult admission to the castle is 10 chf. Check the castle’s official website for updated info before planning your visit.
- If you’re a student, you can save 1.50 if you show your student id/card. That’s almost enough for half a cup of coffee in Switzerland!
- Official website for Gruyères Castle (EN, FR, DE, IT)
- Memorial website for artist Patrick Woodroffe
- Official website for the HR Giger Museum
- Official website for the Giger Bar (Alien Bar)