You don't have to climb the mountains to live the high life here

Why Switzerland? Why now?

Because, from next weekend, it becomes much easier to reach this beautiful country with more than a touch of class, thanks to the new high-speed line east from Paris. You will be able to reach Switzerland – specifically, the stylish city of Basel – in under seven hours from the centre of London, without ever leaving the ground. The new, greener route to the greenest of nations typically costs around £129 return (Rail Europe, 0870 837 1371; www.raileurope.co.uk), with plenty of options for first-class travel on Europe's finest rail network.

Will I need a numbered bank account when I get there?

No. Despite Switzerland's reputation for stratospheric prices, seeing the best of the land that invented anonymous private banking need not mean taking out a loan first. Switzerland is surprisingly good at delivering value for money, especially if you visit in the "shoulder" season – that is, either side of the peak months of July and August – when you'll often be able to snaffle five-star deals at four-star prices. Rip-offs are rarer than sharks in the Rhine: in Switzerland (unlike in, say, France, Italy or Britain), you get what you pay for.

And what you're paying for, in a nutshell, is efficiency, world-class design, and a national obsession with courtesy, married with some of the finest natural scenery in Europe.

The phrase "lakes and mountains" could have been created for Switzerland, and the seductive combination of snowy peaks reflected in glittering blue water – at, for instance, Lucerne, Montreux, Interlaken or St Moritz – is legendary. Add in picturesque medieval townscapes – Swiss neutrality ensured that its cities suffered no wartime bombing – along with a tourist industry that has had 150 years to perfect its touch, and it's a crime that some Britons still think Switzerland is a bit of a joke.

How about some good old-fashioned opulence?

Nowhere does classic hotel glamour better than Geneva. Check in at the Four Seasons Hotel des Bergues (00 41 22 908 7000; www.hoteldesbergues.com), the city's oldest palace hotel, in a plum waterfront location. It's fully updated to 21st-century standards, but is still replete with marble, heavy drapes, gilt-framed mirrors and peak-capped flunkeys on the door. Doubles from Sfr583 (£241) for a Friday or Saturday night, including breakfast.

Alternatively, swan over to St Moritz for a SFr1,000 night at Badrutt's Palace (00 41 81 837 1000; www.badruttspalace.com), where men need to wear a jacket just to stand in the lobby. Or lounge in the expansive gardens of the wonderfully stuffy Beau-Rivage Palace in Lausanne (00 41 21 613 3333; www.brp.ch), whose lake-view doubles cost Sfr630 (£259).

If that sounds too indolent, head instead for business-minded Basel, where the sumptuous Hotel Les Trois Rois (00 41 61 260 5050; www.lestroisrois.com) recently reopened after a top-to-toe refit. This is purportedly the oldest hotel in Europe – in 1026, an inn on this site hosted Emperor Konrad II, his son Heinrich (later Heinrich III) and Rudolf III of Burgundy, the three kings of the hotel's name. It boasts a classic Rhineside panorama and, over the centuries, has hosted nobility, royalty and glitterati of all kinds. River-view doubles are Sfr490 (£202) per night.

Many of the grandest hotels lie outside the cities. The Grandhotel Giessbach (00 41 33 952 2525; www.giessbach.ch) has a stunning cliffside location overlooking Lake Brienz in the Bernese Oberland. Turreted, and with its own funicular railway for access, the hotel dates mainly from 1883. It was built to draw wealthy visitors to the natural spectacle of the foaming Giessbach falls. It is still characterful today – with the top-of-the-range Giessbach Suite, newly created for the 2007 season, costing Sfr560 (£230) including breakfast – but is none the less topped by the opulence of the legendary Gstaad Palace (00 41 33 748 5000; www.palace.ch), where the eye-popping three-bedroom Penthouse Suite costs something over Sfr5,000 (£2,050) a night.

Where's the new money?

Zurich, mainly. Switzerland's biggest city has undergone a revolution in the last few years, blossoming into a dynamic, rewarding place to spend your hard-earned cash. To see the city in style, hire a personal guide from the tourist office: Sfr260 (£107) buys you two hours with a specialist, for one-to-one insight on anything from Zurich's street art to its role during the Reformation (00 41 44 215 4000).

Zurich's Bahnhofstrasse is one of Europe's great shopping streets, whether you're out to bag a bargain at a department store or sign away thousands on jewellery, watches or handbags. Across town, in the post-industrial quarter of Zurich West, warehouses and former factory spaces are being converted into galleries, restaurants, shops and apartments. To catch the buzz, drop into the Design Museum, Ausstellungsstrasse 60 (00 41 43 446 6767; www.museum-gestaltung.ch) – open Tuesday-Thursday 10am-8pm, Friday-Sunday 10am-5pm, closed Monday; Sfr9 (£4).

Then stop for cocktails at the ultra-hip LaSalle, Schiffbaustrasse 4 (00 41 44 258 7071; www.lasalle-restaurant.ch), which occupies a huge glass cube on the floor of a former shipbuilding plant. And dine Asian at the fast-paced Lily's Stomach Supply, Langstrasse 197 (00 41 44 440 1885; www.lilys.ch).

If all that traipsing around sounds too much, take to the skies: Holly (00 41 56 633 4477; www.holly.ch) has a wide selection of hot-air balloon rides, including a two-hour float at around 2,500m over Zurich, the lake and the mountains, for Sfr720 (£296) for two people.

One of the best of Zurich's new breed of design hotels is the Uto Kulm (00 41 44 457 6666; www.utokulm.ch). This is located outside the city centre on the summit of the Uetliberg, Zurich's "home mountain". Go for one of their eight fabulously romantic suites looking out over the woods and the lake, all newly renovated: the Sunnymoon Suite, boasting an oval Jacuzzi, is a bargain – just Sfr350 (£144) for a week-night stay (Sunday-Thursday), including breakfast and champagne.

Can i take just a peek at the posh places?

Should you be travelling with, as my mother pithily puts it, Rolls-Royce ideas on a pushbike income, it's easy to sneak a taste of the high life by choosing where to see and be seen. Montreux is a perfect choice: if the prospect of shelling out Sfr1,750 (£718) for a corner suite at the legendary belle époque Montreux Palace (00 41 21 962 1212; www.montreux-palace.com) leaves you weak at the knees, totter down to the hotel's secluded terrasse, amid lush waterfront gardens, for reviving tea and cakes at a more manageable Sfr35 (£14) or so for two. And, after roaming the medieval lanes of Lucerne, drop in for pre-dinner drinks at the ultra-chic, Jean Nouvel-designed The Hotel, Sempacherstrasse 14 (00 41 41 226 8686; www.the-hotel.ch) – all smooth lines and dark wood.

I need some pampering

A great way to feel a million dollars – even if you lack the actual greenbacks – is to book a treatment at a luxurious spa. One of the best-known is the Victoria-Jungfrau, a grand 19th-century edifice in Interlaken that is now home to a superb 21st-century spa (00 41 33 828 2710; www.victoria-jungfrau.ch), including Espa products and a Clarins beauty centre. The Park Hotel Vitznau (00 41 41 399 6060; www.phv.ch) occupies a vast estate on Lake Lucerne, complete with a top-rated spa; while Albergo Giardino (00 41 91 785 8888; www.giardino.ch) is another splendid five-star spa option, in the Italian-speaking resort of Ascona on Lake Maggiore.

For Switzerland's – and perhaps Europe's – most striking spa, you have to journey into the rugged mountains of Graubünden. Therme V C Vals (00 41 81 926 8080; www.therme-vals.ch), designed by the architect Peter Zumthor in the village of Vals, is built of 60,000 bonded slabs of local quartzite. Inside and out, it is sleek and sensuous – a uniquely alluring combination of water, natural light, wood and polished stone in the wildest of Alpine settings.

How can I spend stylish days?

On Geneva's Rues Basses, you'll find shopping to match the class of Zurich's Bahnhofstrasse. There are jewellers next door to chocolatiers next door to more jewellers. In the small Italian portion of Switzerland, Lugano's long Via Nassa is beautiful enough for a stroll beneath its arcades, even if the price-tags make you shudder. Nearby, at Mendrisio, off the Milan-bound autostrada, the Foxtown outlet mall ( www.foxtown.ch) offers an array of international brands, from Armani to Zegna, at discounted prices (up to 70 per cent off).

As for high culture, Basel is the national hub, and also the artistic capital of the Rhine. Founded in 1460, the city's long-standing reputation for great art is deserved. Its Kunstmuseum (00 41 61 206 6262; www.kunstmuseumbasel.ch; 10am-5pm daily except Monday; Sfr12/£5) is dazzling, with roomfuls of Holbeins, while the Fondation Beyeler (00 41 61 645 9777; www.beyeler.com; 10am-6pm daily; Sfr23/£9.50) – masterfully designed by Renzo Piano – holds an exceptional 20th-century collection. Beyeler's Munch retrospective closes on 15 July, while a special exhibition showcasing works by Mark Rothko and his friend Barnett Newman runs until 5 August.

Later this month, Basel hosts the world's leading contemporary art fair, Art Basel ( www.artbasel.com), featuring the work of more than 2,000 artists. It takes place in the Messe from 13 to 17 June; Sfr30 (£12).

Highbrow pleasures aside, a stylish day in Switzerland could just as easily involve relaxing aboard a luxurious train. Flagship half- or full-day panoramic routes such as the Glacier Express, between Zermatt and St Moritz ( www.glacierexpress.ch); the Golden Pass, between Interlaken and Montreux ( www.goldenpass.ch); or the Wilhelm Tell Express, from Lucerne to Lugano ( www.wilhelmtellexpress.ch), all of which run daily, are the perfect ways to see the countryside.

If you'd rather be outdoors, head for the Lavaux slopes above Lake Geneva – to be declared in July, so the locals hope, a Unesco World Heritage Site. From the villages above Vevey – where Anita Brookner set her novel Hôtel du Lac – plenty of modest walking trails fan out through tranquil vineyards. Regular refuelling with a glass of the local vintage keeps the pace mellow.

And nights?

Until 9 July, the Zurich Festival ( www.zuercher-festspiele.ch) is staging all kinds of cultural events, including opera spectaculars such as Der Rosenkavalier. Zurich's opera season proper begins in December with Il Trovatore; top-price seats at the 19th-century Opera House ( www.opernhaus.ch) are an eye-watering Sfr380 (£156).

The classical theme continues at the prestigious Lucerne Festival ( www.lucernefestival.ch), running 10 August to 16 September, with Claudio Abbado headlining as director of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, plus performances by Daniel Barenboim's West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, the Berlin, Vienna and Israel Philharmonics and symphony orchestras from London, Amsterdam, Boston and San Francisco.

But possibly the most stylish of Swiss nights take advantage of the local topography, leaving worldly cares behind. On the rack-railway line, high above Zermatt, choose between the Riffelalp resort (00 41 27 966 0555; www.riffelalp.com) – a traditional-style five-star hotel with all the trimmings – or the highest hotel in the Alps, the Gornergrat Kulm (00 41 27 966 6400; www.gornergrat-kulm.ch ), a dizzy 3,100m above sea level, its interiors renovated in a cosy, contemporary style. From either, watching the moonlight shadows on the Matterhorn beats any amount of urban thrills.

How do I get there?

The way to reach Switzerland in style is by train. Next Sunday, 10 June, sees the opening of the 'TGV Est' line across eastern France: trains from Paris will reach Basel in just three-and- a-half hours, cutting journey times from London to under seven hours in total – roughly the same as flying, once you tot up airport transfers and time spent clearing security. From this November, when the new high-speed line into London's St Pancras station opens, travelling by train will be quicker still. If you insist on flying, Zurich, Basel, Geneva, Bern and Lugano are served by more than 50 flights a day from 21 UK airports. The flag carriers are Swiss (0845 601 0956; www.swiss.com) and British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com), but you'll also find a wide choice of flights on other airlines, including easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyjet.com); Flybe (0871 522 6100; www.flybe.com); BMI (0870 607 0555; www.flybmi.com); bmibaby (0871 224 0224; www.bmibaby.com); Air Berlin (0871 500 0737; www.airberlin.com); Jet2 (0871 226 1737; www.jet2.com); FlyGlobespan (0871 271 0415; www.flyglobespan.com); and Darwin ( www.darwinairline.com).

And get around?

Switzerland's public-transport system is unequalled. Trains speed between major cities every half-hour, all day long; rolling stock is state-of-the-art; and onboard service and facilities are top-notch. Find timetables for every train, bus, boat and cable car in Switzerland, including Eurostar connections from London, at www.rail.ch.

A Swiss Pass, valid for travel nationwide in first class, including on 38 urban bus/tram systems, costs £167 for four days; passes for eight, 15, 22 and 31 days, as well as second-class and other options, are also available. If you plan to travel between 1 October and 23 December, buy a second-class pass and you will automatically get a free upgrade to first class. You can buy one from the Switzerland Travel Centre at 30 Bedford Street, London WC2E 9ED (020-7420 4900), or online at www.swisstravelsystem.co.uk.

Switzerland's unique national baggage-handling service (coupled with hotel portering that is second to none) means that you need not lay a finger on your suitcases between check-in at your home airport and your hotel room. A similar system on your return lets you check bags in early, so you travel to the airport unencumbered. Search at www.rail.ch for "Fly Rail Baggage" (outbound) and "Check-in at the railstation" (coming home).

Where can I find out more?

Call Switzerland Tourism for free on 00 800 100 200 30 or visit www.MySwitzerland.com.

Matthew Teller is the author of 'The Rough Guide to Switzerland' (£13.99)

Alpine albatross

Spain or the Algarve may be better known as golfing destinations, but Switzerland is making inroads; its courses can't be beaten for Alpine views or pristine maintenance, and playing at altitude adds those pleasing extra few yards to every drive. Forty upmarket hotels have been designated " golf hotels", offering easy access to one or more courses, as well as spa facilities and other attractions; full details can be found at www.swiss-golf.ch. In addition, several firms – including Green Golf ( www.greengolf.ch) – offer special golfing itineraries, such as an eight-day tour of Switzerland that includes rounds at five different courses.

Hobnobbing with the stars

All summer long, Switzerland turns on the style with a succession of events to draw in the A-list. Tickets are still available for gigs at next month's Montreux Jazz Festival ( www.montreuxjazz.com), with Norah Jones headlining – hang around the lobby of the Montreux Palace to pick up on whispers of after-hours parties.

Alternatively, you could spot the stars at Locarno's prestigious International Film Festival (www.pardo.ch), in early August.

The Swiss Open in Gstaad ( www.allianzsuisseopengstaad.com), from 7 to 15 July, combines a modest venue in a celeb-crazy village with the world's top tennis players: excellent star-spotting possibilities here. The same is true for the European Masters golf, at the stunning Alpine course in Crans-Montana from 6 to 9 September ( www.omegaeuropeanmasters.com).

Winter in Switzerland is even more frenetic. Royalty, Hollywood and wannabes galore flock to the big skiing resorts – for the Christmas week in particular, when hotel prices go through the roof. St Moritz takes the biscuit: the royal-watching is unsurpassed at the Polo World Cup on Snow (24-27 January 2008; www.polostmoritz.com), and the White Turf horse-racing on ice every February ( www.whiteturf.comm).

And even if you can't manage to break into the A-list, you can still play that movie in your head. An ex-military bunker beneath the icy Gotthard Pass has been transformed into the sleek design hotel La Claustra (00 41 91 880 5055; www.claustra.ch) – perfect for an evening of 007-style power-flirting over caviar and vodka martinis, deep within a Swiss mountain.

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