35 facts about Switzerland
Test your Swiss knowledge with these top 35 Swiss facts – did you know Velcro and LSD originated in Switzerland or that the world's most expensive coffee is in Switzerland?
How well do you know Switzerland? Here is a mix of informative and interesting facts to prepare you for visiting or living in Switzerland. Test yourself on how many of these top 35 Swiss facts you know.
- Switzerland is one of the only two countries to have a square flag – the Vatican has the only other square flag in the world. The Swiss flag is a red square with a white cross in the centre.
- Switzerland is prepared for a nuclear war, if there ever was one – there are enough nuclear fallout shelters to accommodate its entire human population, due to laws that require everybody to have access to a shelter in their building or nearby. The Swiss military keeps fully stocked artillery bunkers, disguised as quaint country homes, in the middle of populated villages.
- Switzerland's main access points are wired to blow in case of an attack – one of the country's defense strategies is to demolish every main road, bridge and railway access into Switzerland in case of a foreign invasion, with at least 3,000 locations around the country prepared to blow at a moment’s notice.
- Coffee in Zurich is the most expensive in the world – costing an average CHF3.65 (USD 3.65) in the Coffee Price Index 2016, with Copenhagen, Basel, Bern and Geneva rounding out the top five respectively. Switzerland was also the origin of instant coffee when the Nestlé Company, started by Swiss businessman Henri Nestlé in 1867, created Nescafe in 1938.
- In Switzerland citizens can challenge any law passed by Parliament – provided they can gather 50,000 signatures against the law within 100 days. If succesful, a national vote is held and voters decide by a simple majority whether to accept or reject the law.
- Switzerland boasts some of the world's most famous inventions – they created Velcro, cellophane, the Swiss Army Knife, absinthe, the potato peeler, Helvetica font, LSD, muesli, edible chocolate gold and milk chocolate to name a few. They were also pioneers in introducing bobsleigh, tobogganing and luge as a competitive sport to the world.
- Swiss men have the longest life expectancy in the world – in 2015 life expectancy at birth was 81.3 years for Swiss men and 85.3 years for Swiss women, according to World Health Organization (WHO). This puts Switzerland second (after Japan) for the average longest life expectancy. The population is also ageing; in 2015, almost one-fifth of the population was 65.
- Swiss law prohibits owning 'soclal' pets unless you have two of them – this makes it illegal in Switzerland to keep just one guinea pig, mouse, ferret, fish, canary, pig or other social creature. With the world's most stringent animal welfare laws, Switzerland judges isolation for such animals as abuse. This has sparked services such as a lawyer who defends animals and a pet-renting service in case one of a pair dies and the owner wants to avoid a pet-buying cycle to abide by the pairing law.
- There are Swiss taxes for owning a dog – annual taxes are determined by the dog's size and weight. Dog owners are also required to take a training course to learn how to properly care for their pets.
- Switzerland is one of the world's best places to be born, live and be happy – according to consistently high rankings in global reports. Switzerland was ranked the world's happiest country in 2015, and came second in 2016 (after Denmark) out of 156 countries, while Zurich was named the second best city to live in Mercer's Quality of Living Report 2016 (after Vienna), and tied with Bern and Helsinki as the second best city for personal safesty, far above London (72) or the US (where no city ranked in the top 50). According to the Economist Intelligence Unit's (EIU) latest Where to be Born Index (2013), Switzerland was the best country to be born.
- There are 208 mountains over 3,000m high – with 24 of them over 4,000m. The highest is Monte Rosa (Dufoursptiz) at 4,634m, situated on the Swiss/Italian border.
- Switzerland's climate is not all about snowy mountains – cold, snowy winters were historically the norm but freezing temperatures and large snowfalls are less the case today, especially in lowland areas. Many Swiss ski resorts would struggle to survive without artifical snow. During hot summers, temperatures have been known to exceed 30–35°C in some areas. The Alps acts as a climate barrier: northern Switzerland tends to get colder from Atlantic winds, while southern Switzerland has a milder climate influenced by Mediterranean winds.
- Parents can be overruled on what they call their child – in Switzerland it is prohibited to give a child a name that could damage the child's interest. This right was exercised when authorities banned Swiss musician Christine Lauterburg from calling her daughter 'Lexicon' (an 'object', not a name); 'Djonatan' (the phonetic spelling of Jonathan) also got the thumbs down, as did 'J' as a child's fourth name based on the potential for it to be misunderstood and pronounced incorrectly in German (as 'yot' and not 'Jay' as intended).
- Switzerland is also known as Confoederatio Helvetica – which explains the abbreviation CH. It's officially named the Swiss Confederation for historical reasons, although modern Switzerland is a federal republic consisting of 26 cantons, with Bern as the federal city. The founding of the Swiss Confederation traditionally dates to 1 August 1291 and is celebrated annually as Swiss National Day.
- Switzerland has a considerable wealth gap between rich and poor – the top 20 percent of the population earn more than four times as much as the bottom 20 percent, according to the OCED.
- Switzerland has one of the lowest crime rates of industrialised countries despite liberal Swiss gun laws – in 2015 there were only 0.5 gun murders per 100,000 people in Switzerland (around 40 per year), compared to five gun murders per 100,000 people recorded in the US in 2014 (around 30–40 per day). Yet Small Arms Survey estimates Switzerland has around 45.7 guns per 100 residents, the world's third-highest after the US (88.8) and Yemen (54.8), although Swiss government figures put estimates at one gun per four residents, or around two million guns in a population of 8.3 million. In 2011, Swiss voters rejected stricter gun control including a proposal to ban the purchase of automatic weapons and introduce a firearm licencing system.
- Military service is still compulsory for male Swiss citizens – Switzerland is one of the last western Europe countries to enforce it, along with Austria. Under the Swiss constitution, male Swiss citizens have to serve in the Swiss army after age 18, while women can opt to volunteer. Military training camps are common across Switzerland as are civilians carrying shotguns over their shoulders. It is also legal to keep personal army-issued guns (semi-automatic rifles) after service, and Switzerland's high gun ownership is partly due to the Swiss tradition of keeping militia army rifles at home.
- Albert Einstein developed his famous formula E=MC2 in Switzerland – he developed his theory of relativity while studying and living in Bern, after renouncing his German citizenship to avoid military duty.
- Swiss politics include an anti-powerpoint presentation party – the party's goal is to decrease the use of powerpoint and other presentation software, which it estimates costs Switzerland EUR 2.1 in economic damage.
- Sundays in Switzerland are protected by a long list of social laws – making it illegal to undertake activities such as mowing, hanging out laundry, washing your car or recycling bottles to ensure peace and beauty is maintained. A peaceful night's sleep is also guaranteed by building rules that frown upon noisy actions after 10pm, which can include peeing standing up, slamming a car door, flushing a toilet or emptying a bath.
- Switzerland's Gotthard tunnel is the longest in the world – measuring 57km in length, located 2.3km under the Alps, it is 7km longer than the Channel tunnel between England and France. It took 17 years to complete and, with a total cost of some EUR 11, it's also the world's most expensive tunnel. It cuts 45 minutes off travelling between Zurich and Lugano and boosts the Rhine-Alp corridor that stretches from Rotterdam in the Netherlands, crosses Germany and connects the port of Genoa in Italy.
- Almost half of marriages in Switzerland ends in divorce – the divorce rate had been gradually decreasing but rose to 41.4 percent in 2015; Neufchâtel (48.6 percent) and Geneva (47.7 percent) recorded the higest rates. People marry relatively late in Switzerland with men at 31.8 years and women at 29.6 years, and the average number of children per woman is around 1.5, just under the EU average of 1.6.
- Switzerland has the third highest salary and job security out of all OECD countries – Swiss workers earn an average of USD 57,082 per year, ranked after Luxembourg (1) and US (2), and would only lose an average of 1.7 percent of earnings if unemployed. In 2015, some 80 percent of the population aged 15 to 64 had a paid job, the second highest OECD employment rate, and only around 1.7 percent of the labour force has been unemployed for a year or longer, lower than the OECD average of 2.6 percent. Additionally, Switzerland has consistently ranked as a top country for youth employment according to the KOF Youth Labour Market Index.
- Women did not gain the vote at federal level until 1971 – and they are still underrepresented in political life, despite Switzerland often being praised as a model of direct democracy.
- Switzerland is not governed by one head of state – instead it has a seven-member executive council that serves as the Swiss collective head of state. A president is elected for one-year in office and is regarded as the primus inter pares, or first among equals, during this time.
- Switzerland lags behind most western European countries in areas of gender equality – in 2015 only 41.3 percent of women worked full-time compared to 83.6 percent of men, and less than 20 percent of all national decision-taking posts were held by women. Despite a commitment to equal pay for men and women, Switzerland ranks 24 out of 38 OECD countries for gender inequality in salaries, with around a 17 percent diffecence. The 2017 Schilling report, however, reported that women now make up one-fifth of new executive positions, up from 4 percent the previous year, rising in one year as much as the previous 10 years combined.
- Foreigners account for nearly 25 percent of the population – one of the highest percentages in the world. However, in February 2014, Swiss voters narrowly passed through a controversial anti-immigration initiative. It aims to impose limits on the number of foreigners allowed into Switzerland and may signal an end to the country’s free movement accord with the European Union, although it is currently in EU negotiations. Despite this, the 2017 Schilling reported that the number of foreigners on Swiss executive boards rose to 45 percent, highlighting Switzerland's ongoing need for executive workers regardless of nationality.
- Tobacco consumption is widespread – some 28.2 percent of the population were smokers in the last government report (2012), compared to 19 percent of Brits or 16.8 percent of Americans, although it is in decline due to an awareness of health risks and rising prices.
- Switzerland has one of the highest rates of cannabis use in the world – along with the US and Britain. It's estimated that some 600,000 users get through 100 tonnes of hash and marijuana each year. Since October 2013, the possession of marijuana has been decriminalised and anyone older than 18 years caught with up to 10g can pay an on-the-spot fine of CHF 100 but there won't be any formal legal proceedings.
- Switzerland has four national languages although English is increasingly popular – the four official languages are French, German, Italian and Rhaeto-Romantsch (with Latin roots), although proficiency in another national language is decreasing in favour of English. Around 60 percent of the population are proficient in English and Switzerland ranks 14th in the world in the EF English Proficiency Index for non-native English speakers.
- Absinthe originated in the Swiss canton of Neuchâtel in the late 18th century – when French doctor Pierre Ordinaire crafted an emerald green elixir rumoured to cure all ails, concocted from local herbs and the bitter-tasting herb Artemisia absinthium, or wormwood, which grew abundantly around the small Swiss town of Couvet and the icy Val-de-Travers region of Switzerland. After allegedly sharing his recipe, in 1797 Henri-Louis Pernod, father of the Pernod brand, opened the first absinthe distillery in Couvet. National Absinthe day celebrates in the drink on 5 March each year.
- The Swiss eat more chocolate than any other nation in the world – they eat a record of around 11kg per year. Chocolate is a major Swiss export; with 18 Swiss chocolate companies, Switzerland exported almost 115,500 tonnes of chocolate in 2015. They have also invented techniques like conching and tempering to perfect the art of chocolate making.
- More than half of Swiss domestic electricity is produced by 556 hydroelectric power plants – some 19 million gigawatt hours a year, with hydropower the country's most important renewable energy. Switzerland is home to around 1,500 lakes, of which Lake Geneva is the largest and reportedly holds more than 40 shipwrecks.
- Switzerland's Aarau railway station holds Europe's second largest clock face – measuring 9m in diameter, only the railway station clock in Cergy, France is larger (10m). St Peter's Church in Zürich also has the largest church clock face in Europe, measuring 8.7m in diameter.
- Swiss are best mathematicians in Europe – Swiss teenagers ranked first in Europe for maths in the 2015 PISA survey (Programme for International Student Assessment) and eighth in the world. Swiss teachers also receive the highest annual salary, averaging USD 68,000 (EUR 61,430), out of 30 OECD countries, according to The Efficiency Index.
Background Swiss facts
Switzerland has 26 cantons, which are the federal states of the Swiss confederation. They vary greatly in size, population and character: the canton of Geneva comprises just one city; the canton of Uri is entirely mountains and valleys; the population of the Zurich canton is over one million while the people of Appenzell Inner-Rhodes would fit into a football stadium.
Switzerland's economy is based on highly skilled workers, in specialist areas such as microtechnology, hi-tech, biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, as well as banking and insurance. Switzerland is widely recognised as an international research centre, with the private and public sector strongly promoting science and technology.
Switzerland has a population of 8.3 million; about 5 million of them live in the Swiss Plateau in between the Jura Mountains and the Swiss Alps. All the larger Swiss cities lie on the plateau, including the city of Zurich, which is Switzerland's largest with a population of 376,990. The canton (federal state) of Zurich is the most densely populated canton in Switzerland, with 1,242,000 inhabitants in total. Regarding family life, on average women in Switzerland have 1.54 children.
Most people in Switzerland are Christian, including 42 percent Roman Catholic and 35 percent Protestant, with 11 percent stating no religious affiliation at all.
Switzerland's climate is not considered as being excessively hot, cold nor humid, although it varies according to region. In the north, the climate is moderate, with cold winters and warm summers; temperatures drop in the mountainous east; the west has a mild climate; while in the south it's so warm that palm trees line the shore of Lake Lugano. As a guide, expect daytime temperatures from 18–28°C (65–85°F) during July and August, in January and February -2–7°C (28-45°F) and in spring and autumn/fall 8–15°C (46–59°F).
The Swiss are an educated population; in 2015, 88 percent of adults aged 25–64 had the equivalent of a high school diploma. The Swiss government forecasts the number of people aged 25–64 with post-secondary education will rise to almost 60 percent in 2040, although foreigners are expected to contribute some 30 percent of the increase.
Switzerland does not use the euro as its currency. Switzerland uses the Swiss franc (CHF). In June 2016, one Swiss franc was worth around EUR 0.92/USD 1.02/GBP 0.76.
Switzerland is also home to CERN (the European Organisation for Nuclear Research), the world's largest particle physics laboratory based in Geneva and straddling the Swiss/French border. Physicists won the 2013 Nobel prize in physics for their work on the theory of the Higgs boson, one of the building blocks of the universe, which was finally discovered at CERN's Large Hadron Collider in 2012.
Switzerland was the birthplace of many famous inventors and pioneers, including World Wide Web creator Tim Berners-Lee, architect Le Corbusier, Red Cross founder Jean Henri Dunant, DNA discoverer Friedrich Miescher, philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and psychologist Carl Jung.
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