St. Gallen is the capital of St. Gallen canton and the largest city in northeastern Switzerland. Despite having never heard of St. Gallen before arriving in Switzerland, it has come up often in conversations and seems to be a center of Swiss culture and heritage. The town is best known for its UNESCO-listed abbey and the university, one of the most prestigious in Europe. I decided to visit because of the UNESCO site and because of its location in between Liechtenstein and Zurich.
May 24, 2023: Welcome to St. Gallen
After two days in Liechtenstein including a dinner in Austria, I arrived in St. Gallen on a train from St. Margrethen. The city center was quiet, but I could see the sleeping grandeur. On my walk to the Airbnb, I passed through a square completely covered in red carpet and containing red couches. This was so strange for Europe, ranking right up there with the millennial pink section of the Pamplona Cathedral.
My Airbnb was an apartment run by a “global citizen” who owns a souvenir shop in town. He and his wife have spent much time in Nepal and run an NGO there. I would have loved to spend more time chatting with them, but I had a really really long day and was exhausted.
May 25, 2023: St. Gallen and the Appenzell
By the time I woke up, Felix had gone to his souvenir shop and asked me to lock the apartment and bring the key there. It was 8:30.
The city center is dominated by the Abbey of St. Gaul, which contains a few separate buildings. The cathedral was open, and I was able to view the incredible baroque sanctuary. The ceilings were particularly impressive. The abbey´s most famous feature, the library did not open until 10:00, so I had some time to wander town.
The historic center itself is beautiful and has numerous painted buildings. While many Swiss cities have these types of buildings, the St. Gallen city center is more beautiful than most. I also visited a farmer´s market and bought some bread.
Eventually, I walked over to the Library. After paying a steep 18 CHF fee (nearly $20), I put away my phone, donned special slippers and walked into the room.
The Library, founded in the 700´s is the oldest in Switzerland. It is considered one of the most important medieval monasteries in the world. Before the abbey´s secularization in 1805, it was considered one of the most important learning centers in all of Europe. The library holds 160,000 books, tomes and manuscripts including many of significant cultural importance.
All that said, the library was a single room and was built in the same style of the cathedral. Therefore, I felt ripped off for paying 18 CHF (yes, everything in Switzerland feels like a rip-off, but this was excessive).
With that, I had seen the major attractions in St. Gallen. I then decided to visit the nearby region of Appenzell, as St. Gallen is often known as the Gateway to the Appenzell.
Appenzell has two cantons, Inner and Outer. The split occurred during the Reformation. Appenzell is considered the Alabama and Mississippi of Switzerland due to its large rural population and conservative politics. In fact, Inner Appenzell only granted women the right to vote in 1991 (Outer was just two years ahead in 1989). Mention Appenzell to a city dweller in Zurich and they will most likely shake their head while also acknowledging the delicious cheese produced there.
That said, Appenzell has wonderful rural tourism. Due to the train network and timing of the day, I decided to visit Ebenalp, a mountain in Inner Appenzell.
The train dropped me off at Wasserauen where I caught the cable car to the top of the mountain. There at 1,640 meters, I admired the beautiful misty view.
I then started walking down the mountain, through a cave and ended up at the Aescher restaurant. Aescher is 170-year old guesthouse located on the side of the cliff. It is known as one of Switzerland´s most iconic restaurants and one of the most unusual restaurants in the world due to its setting.
The food was traditional Swiss. I ordered macaroni made with the Appenzell cheese with a side of apple sauce.
From Aescher, I walked down the mountain along a rocky trail. Many online guides and posted signs listed the trail as wildly dangerous and expert only. While the trail did traverse over slippery rocks, there were ample railings for grip. Never once did I feel nervous being on the hike, apart from when a cow blocked the way!
The trail led me to Seealpsee, which translates to Lake Alp Lake. True to its name, it was indeed a beautiful alpine lake.
From there, I continued down a steep but wide and well-marked trail back to the starting point in Wasserauen.
While on the train back, I realized that the route stopped in the city of Appenzell, the capital of the region. With 30 minutes between trains, I knew I could catch another one later. The town had a cute center, but there were no real sights to see. The highlight was the unassuming main square, which is mostly now a parking lot. This square is home to one of the world´s only direct democracies. Every May over a single weekend, all eligible residents gather in the square to vote. When each measure is announced, voters will raise their hands either in support or opposition. Volunteers will eyeball it and determine the winner. If the result looks close, they will revote until one side has a clear margin of victory.
With that, I headed back to the train station to head back to Zurich for my final 2 days of the Switzerland portion of my trip.
Northeastern Switzerland is off the beaten path for tourists, but still has a lot to offer- especially culturally. The mountains are also still very beautiful, although not quite as dramatic as elsewhere in the country.
I would therefore recommend visiting St. Gallen and Appenzell as part of a larger trip around Switzerland or as an add-on to Liechtenstein. Alternatively, I would recommend it for anybody who wants to get away from foreign tourists.