Switzerland is a country in Europe. While still named the "Swiss Confederation" for historical reasons, modern Switzerland is a federal directorial republic consisting of 26 cantons, with Bern as the seat of the federal authorities, called Bundesstadt ("federal city"). The country is situated in Western and Central Europe, where it is bordered by Italy to the south, France to the west, Germany to the north, and Austria and Liechtenstein to the east. Switzerland is a landlocked country geographically divided between the Alps, the Swiss Plateau and the Jura, spanning an area of 41,285 km2 (15,940 sq mi). While the Alps occupy the greater part of the territory, the Swiss population of approximately 8 million people is concentrated mostly on the Plateau, where the largest cities are to be found; among them are the two global and economic centres of Zürich and Geneva.
Straddling the intersection of Germanic and Romance Europe, Switzerland comprises four main linguistic and cultural regions: German, French, Italian and Romansh. Therefore, the Swiss, although predominantly German-speaking, do not form a nation in the sense of a common ethnicity or language; rather, Switzerland's strong sense of identity and community is founded on a common historical background, shared values such as federalism and direct democracy, and Alpine symbolism.
Switzerland ranks high in several metrics of national performance, including government transparency, civil liberties, quality of life, economic competitiveness, and human development. It has the highest nominal wealth per adult (financial and non-financial assets) in the world according to Credit Suisse and the eighth-highest per capita gross domestic product on the IMF list. Zürich and Geneva each have been ranked among the top cities with the highest quality of life in the world (the former coming second globally according to Mercer).
Three of Europe's major languages are official in Switzerland. Swiss culture is characterized by diversity, which is reflected in a wide range of traditional customs. A region may be in some ways strongly culturally connected to the neighboring country that shares its language, the country itself being rooted in western European culture. The linguistically isolated Romansh culture in Graubünden in eastern Switzerland constitutes an exception, it survives only in the upper valleys of the Rhine and the Inn and strives to maintain its rare linguistic tradition.
Switzerland is home to many notable contributors to literature, art, architecture, music and sciences. In addition the country attracted a number of creative persons during time of unrest or war in Europe. Some 1000 museums are distributed through the country; the number has more than tripled since 1950. Among the most important cultural performances held annually are the Lucerne Festival, the Montreux Jazz Festival and the Locarno International Film Festival.
Alpine symbolism has played an essential role in shaping the history of the country and the Swiss national identity. Nowadays some concentrated mountain areas have a strong highly energetic ski resort culture in winter, and a hiking (ger: das Wandern) or Mountain biking culture in summer. Other areas throughout the year have a recreational culture that caters to tourism, yet the quieter seasons are spring and autumn when there are fewer visitors. A traditional farmer and herder culture also predominates in many areas and small farms are omnipresent outside the cities. Folk art is kept alive in organizations all over the country. In Switzerland it is mostly expressed in music, dance, poetry, wood carving and embroidery. The alphorn, a trumpet-like musical instrument made of wood, has become alongside yodeling and the accordion an epitome of traditional Swiss music.
The Swiss climate is generally temperate, but can vary greatly between the localities, from glacial conditions on the mountaintops to the often pleasant near Mediterranean climate at Switzerland's southern tip. There are some valley areas in the southern part of Switzerland where some cold-hardy palm trees are found. Summers tend to be warm and humid at times with periodic rainfall so they are ideal for pastures and grazing. The less humid winters in the mountains may see long intervals of stable conditions for weeks, while the lower lands tend to suffer from inversion, during these periods, thus seeing no sun for weeks.
A weather phenomenon known as the föhn (with an identical effect to the chinook wind) can occur at all times of the year and is characterized by an unexpectedly warm wind, bringing air of very low relative humidity to the north of the Alps during rainfall periods on the southern face of the Alps. This works both ways across the alps but is more efficient if blowing from the south due to the steeper step for oncoming wind from the south. Valleys running south to north trigger the best effect. The driest conditions persist in all inner alpine valleys that receive less rain because arriving clouds lose a lot of their content while crossing the mountains before reaching these areas. Large alpine areas such as Graubünden remain drier than pre-alpine areas and as in the main valley of the Valais wine grapes are grown there.
Education in Switzerland is very diverse because the constitution of Switzerland delegates the authority for the school system to the cantons. There are both public and private schools, including many private international schools. The minimum age for primary school is about six years in all cantons, but most cantons provide a free "children's school" starting at four or five years old. Primary school continues until grade four, five or six, depending on the school. Traditionally, the first foreign language in school was always one of the other national languages, although recently (2000) English was introduced first in a few cantons.
At the end of primary school (or at the beginning of secondary school), pupils are separated according to their capacities in several (often three) sections. The fastest learners are taught advanced classes to be prepared for further studies and the matura, while students who assimilate a little more slowly receive an education more adapted to their needs.
There are 12 universities in Switzerland, ten of which are maintained at cantonal level and usually offer a range of non-technical subjects. The first university in Switzerland was founded in 1460 in Basel (with a faculty of medicine) and has a tradition of chemical and medical research in Switzerland. The biggest university in Switzerland is the University of Zurich with nearly 25,000 students. The two institutes sponsored by the federal government are the ETHZ in Zürich (founded 1855) and the EPFL in Lausanne(founded 1969 as such, formerly an institute associated with the University of Lausanne) which both have an excellent international reputation.
In addition, there are various Universities of Applied Sciences. In business and management studies, University of St. Gallen, (HSG) and International Institute for Management Development (IMD) are the leaders within the country and highly regarded internationally. Switzerland has the second highest rate (almost 18% in 2003) of foreign students in tertiary education, after Australia (slightly over 18%).
The cuisine of Switzerland is multifaceted. While some dishes such as fondue, raclette or rösti are omnipresent through the country, each region developed its own gastronomy according to the differences of climate and languages. Traditional Swiss cuisine uses ingredients similar to those in other European countries, as well as unique dairy products and cheeses such as Gruyère or Emmental, produced in the valleys of Gruyères and Emmental. The number of fine-dining establishments is high, particularly in western Switzerland.
Chocolate had been made in Switzerland since the 18th century but it gained its reputation at the end of the 19th century with the invention of modern techniques such as conching and tempering which enabled its production on a high quality level. Also a breakthrough was the invention of solid milk chocolate in 1875 by Daniel Peter. The Swiss are the world's largest consumers of chocolate.
The most popular alcoholic drink in Switzerland is wine. Switzerland is notable for the variety of grapes grown because of the large variations in terroirs, with their specific mixes of soil, air, altitude and light. Swiss wine is produced mainly in Valais, Vaud (Lavaux), Geneva and Ticino, with a small majority of white wines. Vineyards have been cultivated in Switzerland since the Roman era, even though certain traces can be found of a more ancient origin. The most widespread varieties are the Chasselas (called Fendant in Valais) and Pinot noir. The Merlot is the main variety produced in Ticino.
Switzerland has four official languages: principally German (63.5% total population share, with foreign residents, in 2013); French (22.5%) in the west; Italian (8.1%) in the south. Romansh (0.5%), a Romance language spoken locally in the southeastern trilingual canton of Graubünden, is designated by the Federal Constitution as a national language along with German, French and Italian (Article 4 of the Constitution), and as official language if the authorities communicate with persons of Romansh language (Article 70), but federal laws and other official acts do not need to be decreed in this language.
In 2013, the languages most spoken at home among permanent residents aged 15 and older were: Swiss German (60.1%), French (23.4%), Standard German (10.1%), Italian (8.4%), English (4.6%) and Portuguese (3.5%). Considering languages usually spoken at work and at home, 42.6% of the permanent resident population have indicated more than one language. Other relevant foreign languages are: Albanian (2.6%), Serbian and Croatian (2.5%), Spanish (2.2%), and Turkish (1.3%).
The federal government is obliged to communicate in the official languages, and in the federal parliament simultaneous translation is provided from and into German, French and Italian.
Aside from the official forms of their respective languages, the four linguistic regions of Switzerland also have their local dialectal forms. The role played by dialects in each linguistic region varies dramatically: in the German-speaking regions, Swiss German dialects became ever more prevalent since the second half of the 20th century, especially in the media, such as radio and television, and are used as an everyday language, while (the Swiss variety of) Standard German is used for almost all written situations (c.f. diglossic usage of a language). Conversely, in the French-speaking regions the local dialects have almost disappeared (only 6.3% of the population of Valais, 3.9% of Fribourg, and 3.1% of Jura still spoke dialects at the end of the 20th century), while in the Italian-speaking regions dialects are mostly limited to family settings and casual conversation.
The official languages (German, French and Italian) have terms, not used outside of Switzerland, known as Helvetisms. German Helvetisms are, roughly spoken, a large group of words typical of Swiss Standard German, which do not appear in either of Standard German, nor Standard German dialects. E.g. terms from Switzerland's surrounding language cultures (German Billette from French), from similar term in another language (Italian azione used not only as act but also as discount from German Aktion). The French spoken in Switzerland has similar terms, which are equally known as Helvetisms. The most frequent characteristics of Helvetisms are in vocabulary, phrases, and pronunciation, but certain Helvetisms denote themselves as special in syntax and orthography likewise. Duden, one of the prescriptive sources for Standard German, is aware of about 3000 Helvetisms. Current French dictionaries, such as the Petit Larousse, include several hundred Helvetisms.
Learning one of the other national languages at school is compulsory for all Swiss pupils, so many Swiss are supposed to be at least bilingual, especially those belonging to minorities.