Six of the best: Swiss winter experiences

SKIING

No surprise that Switzerland has ample ski-resort choices, from chic St Moritz and Davos to sporty Verbier and Crans-Montana, plus many a minor resort that might suit families or just a quick day visit in between sightseeing and city life. The largest and most modern ski resort in Switzerland, Andermatt-Sedrun, has 120 kilometres of runs (plus 125 kilometres of cross-country trails) and is surrounded by high alpine peaks; you can ski from the top of the 2969-metre Gemsstock. The Guetsch side of the valley has easier skiing and a sunny aspect, and is a favourite with families. See andermatt.ch

FESTIVALS

Switzerland's many winter festivals have ancient pagan origins. In Kussnacht near Lucerne, early December sees locals parade with enormous candle-lit mitres on their heads, ringing bells and blowing horns to scare off dark spirits. In Lötschental, locals don the leering wooden faces of the Roitschäggätä spirits. At Laupen, near Bern, on New Year's Eve, boisterous schoolboys meet below the castle, ringing bells and waving juniper branches as they parade. And in Lucerne in late February, Carnival is presided over by an old man known as Fritschi, paraded through town in a procession of bands. In the evening, masked balls last long into the night. See myswitzerland.com

WELLNESS RETREATS

When you're sitting up to your neck in hot water watching snowflakes fall, you're in a mighty good place. Many Swiss alpine hotels offer wellness facilities, the latest at the uber-chic Bürgenstock Resort, where the largest spa in Switzerland tempts with all-day wallowing from swimming pool to whirlpool to spectacular infinity pool jutting high above Lake Lucerne. Leukerbad, meanwhile, has natural thermal waters and large public facilities styled like a Roman senator's villa. The alpine town has 22 thermal pools, steam baths, whirlpools and jets that will warm you as you gaze over snow-covered mountains. See buergenstock.ch and leukerbad.ch

TOBOGGANNING

Nothing brings back your childhood sense of fun more than a whoosh down a toboggan run. Adrenaline soars, runners hiss, the valley tilts and you might tumble off in an explosion of snow. You'll find dozens of toboggan runs above Lake Lucerne, such as the steep, speedy four-kilometre course on Mt Rigi, the eight-kilometre descent from Melchsee and the night sledding on ski runs every Friday evening at Rossweld. If that whets your appetite, then the world's most infamous toboggan course, the Cresta Run at St Moritz, sends you hurtling down an ice chute at 120km/h. See luzern.com and cresta-run.com

CHRISTMAS MARKETS

No better way to get into the seasonal spirit than at a Christmas market, a-twinkle with lights and trees and rich with the aromas of gingerbread, sausages and mulled wine. Switzerland's markets, though not well known internationally, are lovely and uncrowded. Basel and Zurich have several, including the country's largest indoor market at Zurich's main train station. You'll also find lovely markets in Lucerne, Montreux, Bern, Stein-am-Rhein, St Gallen and Einsiedeln above Lake Zurich, which is likely to be snow-covered thanks to its altitude, and has a huge Benedictine monastery and baroque church as backdrop. See myswitzerland.com

MOUNTAIN RAILWAYS

Though some rack railways close in the winter, many stay open, offering exhilarating rides to the summits of snow peaks and glaciers. One of the best is Europe's oldest rack railway to the summit of Mt Rigi, near Lucerne, which has superb views over lakes and a 200-kilometre horizon of Alps. Above Zermatt, the train to the Gornergrat at 3089 metres allows you to eyeball the Matterhorn in all its snowy glory. The famous train to the top of the Jungfrau, near Interlaken, hauls you up (and through) the Eiger to 3454 metres for views over the Aletsch Glacier. See swisstravelsystem.com

Brian Johnston was a guest of Switzerland Tourism and also frequently visits Switzerland at his own expense.

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