The Lavaux Vineyard Terraces

The Lavaux Vineyard Terraces begin on the eastern outskirts of Lausanne, Switzerland and cover a roughly 30 km along the stretch of Lake Geneva’s northern shore in the canton (similar to a state) of Vaud. This is a stunning area and a wine route through the Lavaux vineyards is a popular activity for travelers hoping to enjoy the Swiss countryside. Even more, however, the Lavaux Vineyard Terraces are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, protected and so named because of this cultural outstanding universal value. The UNESCO  inscription for this site indicates it covers nearly 900 hectares of land area along the lower slopes of the mountainside, down to Lake Geneva, and it includes the villages within its borders.

We’ll cover everything you need to know about this Swiss UNESCO site, from things to do in the region, where to stay, and how to best enjoy the Lavaux wine region of Switzerland.

History of the Lavaux Vineyard Terraces

Some evidence suggests the region’s vines were first established way back in the Roman times; however, the Lavaux Vineyard Terraces that preserved today were started during the 11th century, and it’s these more “modern” vines that form the foundation of the UNESCO World Heritage Site designation.

It was also around the 11th century when the Cistercian and Benedictine monasteries took control of the land. This enabled the region to produce high-quality wines that played an important role in the region’s economy—in the centuries since, it’s both the wine and the human’s unique interaction with the land—those striking and “daringly-constructed” hillside terraces in the area that most impress. A modern visit to Terrasses de Lavaux still includes wine cellars aged across nearly a millennium, traditional pubs, and more.

The Chasselas grape grown by most vineyards in Lavaux, Switzerland
The Chasselas grape grown by most vineyards in Lavaux, Switzerland

Swiss Wine Route

Even though the wine industry is huge in this region, there’s a good reason you may have never heard of it. The Swiss prefer to drink their wine! Switzerland exports less than 5% of its production each year.

An even bigger surprise, though, is the vastness of the wine region defined by the steep terraced landscape forming a wine route along the entire north shore of Lake Geneva, from the outskirts of the city of Geneva, which anchors the western end of the crescent-shaped lake, all the way to Montreux (yes, of Jazz Festival fame) on the eastern end. The lake’s north shore is in Switzerland, the south shore is in France. French is the primary language in the canton of Vaud.

The UNESCO-listed Lavaux Vineyard Terraces—which begin just east of Lausanne—are extra special for their 400 km of stone walls forming an intricate patchwork design of 10,000 terraces that were first constructed nearly 900 years ago. These terraces are the foundation of this little-known yet spectacularly picturesque wine region, which boasts deep vinicultural customs and intact living history.

Seventy percent of the Lavaux vineyards grow Chasselas, a white grape with few distinctive characteristics of its own. Instead, it carries the flavor of the terroir—the earth—and all that is nurtured in the Lavaux by the three suns: the one in the sky, the second reflected in the lake and the third reflected off the stone walls. The dry white wine is often enjoyed as an aperitif or with the region’s outstanding cheese or fish (especially the fresh perch; it is the specialty at the lakefront Restaurant Le Major Davel in the Lavaux village of Cully).

Walk a route through the UNESCO-listed vineyards from village to village and you’ll meet winemakers whose families have been caring for the grounds, the ancient walls, and the Chasselas grapes of this region for centuries. During the fall harvest though, it’s “all hands on deck,” limiting your access to the winemakers and their cellars, which operate sporadic hours during this season.

When to Visit the Lavaux Vineyard Terraces?
Despite being the busy harvest season, fall is still an excellent time to visit. The yellowing grape leaves provide a unique fall foliage experience. There are plenty of places to taste the Lavaux wines, including tasting rooms (there are many), as well as cafes and restaurants that showcase simply prepared local ingredients and plenty of Chasselas wine. Perhaps the best take-home story though is the honor-system wine stands you’ll find outside the winemakers’ homes along the trails and roads throughout the Lavaux Vineyard Terraces. If you’re moving through along this Swiss wine route, be sure to take a bottle, then you can simply leave 10 Swiss francs in a wooden box.

You don’t have to be a wine connoisseur to make the Lavaux the focus of your next European vacation. The Lavaux vineyards and their ancient cellars are best explored slowly, by foot, and one sip at a time.

Not a wine drinker? No problem. The stunning Swiss mountains and lake scenery, the warm hospitality and the full-immersion of cultural history are the same, even if you stick to drinking Evian water, bottled directly across the lake in Evian, France. (Fun fact: You can see the village from the vineyards.)

Best Things to Do in Lavaux

Fete des Vignerons is a wine festival which happens only once every 20 years
The Fete des Vignerons is a wine festival occurring only once every 20 years on average (the committee decides when to hold it!).

Fete des Vignerons

Among the Lavaux region’s winemakers—many of whom are double-digit descendants of families who have been caring for the vines, the walls, and the earth since the 1500s—one will be crowned a winner at the 2019 Fete des Vignerons (July 18-August 11). This Festival of Winegrowers dates to 1797 and is unique in purpose: to honor the winegrowers and the workers, rather than the wine itself.

Its main event is an enormous theatrical production combining Old World pageantry with modern spectacle at the center of a purpose-built, lakeside stadium in the Market Square of nearby Vevey (just a 12-minute train ride east from Lausanne). The 2 ½ hour production is performed by a cast of 5,500 locals. Order tickets to one of 20 performances of the Fete des Vignerons here.

For many in the cast, this will be their first chance to participate since the Fete des Vignerons is mounted only once per generation by the Confrerie des Vignerons, the Brotherhood of Winegrowers. If you miss this one, you’ll have to wait another roughly 20 years.

If you can’t get tickets, it’s still worth spending time in Vevey during the festival to experience what locals call “the second stage.” The caveaux (cellars) are all open for tastings, and tables flow out to the streets where parades and performers keep everyone entertained. Each day of the Fete des Vignerons, different Swiss cantons (states) will send cultural ambassadors to present their traditional food and drink, music, dress, and more during Cantonal Days.

The Brotherhood of Winegrowers

Puidoux is one of several small villages in the world heritage area
Puidoux is one of several small villages in the world heritage area.

The winegrower’s festival itself has been placed by UNESCO on its representative list of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity. Since the festival only happens every 20 years, you can see exhibits and learn more about the centuries-old viniculture traditions at the the Museum of the Brotherhood of Winegrowers, located in the town of Vevey.

The Brotherhood (think of it as an Order of the Religion of Wine) is believed to have been formed in the Middle Ages with the express purpose of controlling the quality of the work of the winegrower-producer—which is still its mandate today.

Of note at the museum, housed in a 16th-century building belonging to the Brotherhood of Winegrowers are scale models of past stadiums, each one purposely built for the festival and located beside Lake Geneva in the Market Square of Vevey. You can also watch film clips from 20th-century festivals and take a seat at the table where the 24 Council members (half are wine-makers and the other half are landowners) meet twice a year.

Planning tip: The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday 11:00 – 17:00.

Exploring the Lavaux Vineyard Terraces

Beautiful boat tours run the entire region, or you can easily establish a base in the larger cities of Lausanne or Vevey, which bookend the Lavaux Vineyard Terraces, and then use your SBB Railway pass to hop between villages. Most of the village also offers smaller hotels, inns, and pensions. Check the best hotels in Lausanne and Vevey now

As you’d expect, wine tourism is well organized and the canton of Vaud offers an in-depth online portal to help visitors connect with its six wine regions, Lavaux being one of them.

For instance, the wine shop and bar Les 11 Terres in the village of Epesses (in the heart of Lavaux) organizes year-round, multi-lingual guided walks through the vineyards.

Self-Guided Biking & Cycling in the Vineyards

You can absolutely explore the vineyards on a self-guided trip. The tourism region of Montreux Riviera has excellent maps of the area to use for self-guided tours. You can download or order one on its website. The map labeled as “Walks” clearly identifies all of the villages, points of interest, train stations, and start/end points and distances of six different walks, each one ranging from 1.7 to 11 km and taking you through the best parts of the Lavaux Vineyard Terraces.

You can even explore this Swiss wine route without a plan! A good starting point is the village of Cully (pronounced coo-yee) where there is a train station, several hotels, and several paths that lead uphill into the vineyards and their tiny villages within.

Cyclists also flock to the area, and their main pathway through the terraces is the Route de la Petite Corniche. See how others cycle the Lavaux Vineyard Terraces.

Wine Tasting in the Lavaux Vineyard Terraces

There are many small wineries in Lavaux
There are many small wineries in Lavaux

The easiest, most reliably open place to taste Lavaux wines is at the Lavaux Vinorama—a tourism center disguised as a wine bar and located off the main highway called the Route de Lac, near Rivaz (where there’s also a train station). They carry 300 local wines to try or buy and show an interesting film about the cultural importance of the Lavaux wine route. It’s also a reliable restroom stop! Just saying.

There’s a cooperative wine-tasting room in Riex, a speck of a village tucked within the vineyards reachable by an uphill walk from Cully (where there’s a train station); you can also drive there. A short walk east of Riex is Epesses where you can stop at the 11 Terres for wine and local treats such as honey, cheese, and chocolate. The possibilities are endless as you walk along the Route de la Corniche that cuts across the hillside.

Not in the mood to walk it? Hitch a ride in an open-top van to taste local wines combined with a scenic tour of the Lavaux. 

Tour by Boat

A great way to see many of the lakeside villages along Lake Geneva (locally known as Lac Lémon) is by boat—you can even do gorgeous long boat rides from Lausanne. CGN also operates a large fleet of Belle Epoque-era steam-powered paddle boats that are reliably seen as they cut a serene path across the lake as you trek through the vineyards.

There’s really no lovelier perch than to sit on the outdoor deck or in the light-filled dining room and to quietly cruise along the waterfront and even along the southern shore which belongs to France (two countries in one cruise!).

Book a straight sightseeing tour, or add-on a specialty package such as an elegant three-course lunch and dinner cruise.

Boat tours of Lake Geneva are a popular option in the region
Boat tours of Lake Geneva are a popular option in the region

Beyond the Vineyards: A full-day Tour from Lausanne

Need to pack it all into one day? This full-day tour combines steam-powered boat with a bus to introduce you to the whole Montreux Riviera coast from Lausanne to Montreux (there’s also a fun trolley option if you like to stay land-based). You’ll taste wine in Lavaux, shop and snack in Vevey, tour Chillon Castle, visit Charlie Chaplin’s family home and museum, and even the visit the recording studio of the rock band Queen.

Lake Geneva Museums You Shouldn’t Miss

Make time to visit the Olympic Museum in Lausanne. The building is set within sculpture-filled gardens overlooking Lake Geneva and offers a gorgeous view of snow-capped Alps across the lake. Inside is filled with inspiring Olympic moments throughout history. There’s also the lovely TOM Cafe with a view, that you can enter from the north entrance without museum admission.

Planning tip: Check for hours; the museum is closed on Mondays.

Charlie Chaplin's Home at Chaplin's World
Charlie Chaplin’s Home at Chaplin’s World

Chaplin’s World is near Vevey and it’s a beautiful and poignant ode to the silent-film star Charlie Chaplin who lived out his last 25 years of his life in the manor house that is the basis for the visitor experience. It’s just a 15-minute bus ride from the Vevey train station (bus #212 to the “Chaplin” bus stop). True Chaplin fans can dig even deeper into his history in the region with a private Gruyere & Chaplin full day tour of this region’s best sites.

Villa “Le Lac” Le Corbusier

Officially known as Petite villa au bord du lac Léman, this is one of several world heritage designed homes designed by Le Corbusier. The home is quite small and was designed for his mother, who lived there until she died at the age of 100. Note that it’s right on the highway, and it can be very difficult to park. The home is owned and operated by the Le Corbusier Foundation and be ready to pay an entrance fee of 12 Swiss Francs.

How to Get to Lavaux

Switzerland is undoubtedly one of the most gorgeous countries in Europe, and with such a unique wine region, there is no reason to hesitate in booking your trip there. We recommend purchasing travel insurance for your trip—World Nomads is a top option. Use our full free guide to plan your Travel to Switzerland, as well as the below tips to visit Lavaux, specifically.

By Air

The easiest way to visit Lavaux is to fly to the Geneva Airport, where you can easily transfer to the train station with the same ease as changing terminals in a domestic airport. From there, it is only a 45-minute journey to Lausanne, or an hour to Vevey.

By Train

There is no easier way to travel through the Lake Geneva region than by train. You have a couple of options.

  • Eurail is a standard-bearer for not only traveling through Switzerland, but especially if you plan to travel onwards from Switzerland by train. Plan your Swiss Eurail train journey here.
  • The Swiss Travel Pass, which is only available for trips up to 15 days, is loaded with benefits. For starters, it allows unlimited train travel in Switzerland, public transportation in most cities and free access to museums. You can also use your Swiss Pass to take a scenic boat tour on Lake Geneva on the CGN fleet and board the panoramic Montreux Oberland Bernois (MOB) train into the mountains on routes whose names promise delicious destinations: the Cheese Train and Chocolate Train.

By Car

You can book an affordable rental car in Geneva or Zurich, and the Lavaux region is easily accessed by car. Here are drive times to Vevey from various Swiss cities:

  • Zurich: 2 hours, 30 minutes
  • Geneva: 1 hour, 10 minutes (with tolls)
  • Berne: 1 hour (with tolls)
  • Lugano: 4 hours (with tolls)
  • Lausanne: 30 minutes

Where to Stay in the Lavaux Region

  • In Lausanne, stay at one of the luxury standards in the Sandoz Foundation Hotels portfolio. The Lausanne Palace (opened in 1915) is located high up the slope and overlooks the beautiful city and the lake.
  • The Beau-Rivage Palace (from 1861) is lakeside and feels more like a resort hotel. Both have spas, Michelin-starred restaurants, and five-star concierge service.
  • In Vevey, The Grand Hotel du Lac (1868) overlooks Lake Geneva and is a full-service, intimate hotel with just 50 guest rooms and a small spa.
  • Between Lausanne and Vevey is the Hotel Major Davel in Cully which opened in 2018 after a complete makeover by the owner, the former general manager of the Lausanne Palace. Fourteen simple but elegant rooms overlook the plaza and Lake Geneva.

By Megan Padilla

A many-months long solo trip to Europe in 1997 prompted Megan Padilla to become a travel writer. These days she writes mostly for Florida readers traveling near and far. She was thrilled to recently spend a week exploring the Lake Geneva region of Switzerland and drinking plenty of Chasselas wine. She’d like to return in late summer to witness the ceremonial descent of the cattle—each cow wearing its uniquely toned bell and festooned with flowers—in an Alpine village such as Rougemont.