Sion (pronounced see-ohn) is the capital of the Valais canton of Switzerland, and is a charming town in the Bernese Alps. It has two sentinels created by the glaciers that flattened the rest of the Rhône valley floor, with the mediaeval castles of Tourbillon and Valère atop them.
Sion is one of the most important pre-historic sites in Europe. The alluvial fan of Sionne, the rocky slopes above the river and, to a lesser extent, the Valeria and Tourbillon tors have been settled nearly continuously since antiquity. The oldest trace of human settlement comes from 6200 BC, providing eight thousand years of history, and making it the oldest town in Switzerland.
Sion became the capital of Valais in 580AD, and the bishop princes turned it into a place of grandeur. Today, with a population of around 30, 000, it lives like a capital; having a grand town hall, many museums and medieval churches, and surprisingly, a vibrant café culture.
Sion is at the centre of the important wine region in Switzerland. Fendant is their signature white wine. To irrigate the vines, bisses (channels) were carved out of the sides of the mountains; walking along them in the vineyards is a popular pastime for both tourists and locals alike. Their wines are little-known outside Switzerland, as the Swiss drink most of the wine themselves.
Sion is known as the most sun-kissed town in Switzerland, and is renowned for its blue skies. Its central location makes it ideal as a base for exploring the summer and winter holiday spots in the Valais side valleys.
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Best time to go
This depends very much on the purpose of your visit.
If you want to go skiing or any other winter sports, then December is the best month, as it gets an average of 61mm of snow or rain over an average of 7 days.
For a summer visit, April would be the best month. This month sees Sion at its summers’ best, reminiscent of rural Spain – mild, dry, with clear skies and bright sunshine; with warm breezes, the smell of pine needles, and the chirping of cicadas.
Getting Around in Sion
The public transportation in the town is known as one of the finest and most efficient in the world.
The train is the main means of transport, with the train station situated south of the town centre. The train network has excellent connections to the major areas in Switzerland.
The buses run every hour. You can take them to visit the neighboring villages and hills and mountains, buying tickets from the drivers or at the bus stations.
You can rent a bicycle for free – simply leave a small deposit and your passport with them in lieu of money at the tourist office in Place de la Planta.
The highways are highly efficient and accessible should you have a hire car.
Taxis play a major role and are a popular way to get around town. Taxis are available at taxi stands at many places around Sion.
Major Attractions and Sights
The main attractions are the buildings on top of the two mountains. The most impressive is the Notre-Dame-de-Valère, a church housed in the castle. You can take the Petit Train up the mountain, or you can walk, stopping in museums en route. The basilica is carved from the rock that you can see in the floor of the 12th Century church, with three aisles and intricately carved choir capitals, and a 16th Century carved wooden altar. The highlight is the 14th Century organ in the painted loft, which is one of the world’s oldest that is still playable. The views from the front of the castle over the Rhône valley are breath-taking. Next to the church is a museum housing Roman antiquities and medieval sculpture.
On the other mountain you find the ruins of the Chateau de Tourbillon, built in 1294 and destroyed by fire in 1788. The views from there are equally spectacular.
The Tourist Office has devised a Walk of Discovery, which gives visitors the opportunity to appreciate its wealth of sights and its historical centre of great beauty. The walk has 14 stops of interest, which you can visit at your leisure. Signs on the ground help you find them, and the Tourist Office recommends you begin at their office. The length of the walk is 2.3km, and will take you as long as you want it to.
The Town Hall in the main street was built in 1660; pop in there to see Roman inscribed stones dating from 377AD, and which embody the earliest evidence of Christianity in Switzerland.
The Bishop’s Palace is on the Place de la Planta and worth a visit. North of the Bishop’s Palace is the 12th Century Wizard’s Tower.
The Notre Dame du Glarier has a 12th Century tower, and was rebuilt in the 15th Century. It has 17th Century choir stalls, 15th Century bishops’ tombs, and reliquaries dating from between the 8th and 10th Centuries.
There is also a crucifixion scene made of stone, where the characters seem suspended in mid-air.
There is an interesting Museum of Natural History with dinosaur finds in the zoology department, and geology, botany, and mineralogy sections.
The Museum of Antiques is on the slope on the way to the Chateau de Tourbillon and features Gallo-Roman displays, and prehistoric artifacts.
The Saint Théodule Church features wonderful stained glass windows, and statues including one of Théodule himself.
It is worth taking a 12 minute train ride to nearby Martigny to visit the sculpture garden in the Fondation Pierre Gianadda; on a sunny day it’s wondrous to behold.
For something completely different, how about a ride in a real fighter jet? The flights take off from Sion Airport, and fly over the Alps. For the optimal experience, they take into account your preferences with maneuvers. Although a pricey outing, it will prove to be an unforgettable one too.
For the sports fans, in summer Sion offers guided walks, mountaineering, mountain biking, lake diving, glacier trekking and mountain climbing. In winter, there are ski safaris, skiing, snowshoe walks, mountain treks, frozen waterfalls, héliski, and frozen waterfall climbing.
Sion Ski School offers both training in skiing, as well as other snow sports. It’s open from mid-December until March on Wednesdays and Saturdays from 2-5pm and on Sundays from 9-12pm and then 2-5pm.
For the kids, there is the Children’s’ Snow Garden of Sion. Open from December to March, it offers them a snow slope with a snow cannon for skiing and sledging, a conveyor belt, a baby lift, and a café at the ice rink. It’s open at the same times as the ski school.
Shopping in Sion
The Sion is the biggest shopping mall in the Valais, with more than 700 shops and eateries. Between the museums and churches are dozens of quirky little shops, for example a chocolatier on rue de Conthey and a tobacco shop on rue de Lausanne. The art galleries are sure to yield something of interest. The jewelry shops are a treat, and it’s fun to browse for that Swiss watch or clock that you can brag you bought in Switzerland, so it’s the real deal. Buying expensive things like art and jewelry makes good sense in Switzerland, as you are paying with Swiss francs, and not Euros as in all the neighboring countries.
Every Friday sees market day in the old medieval town centre, with great local produce for sale. From April till October it’s open from 8am to 2pm, and from November until the end of March from 9am to 2pm.
Eating Out in of Sion
Specialties of the Valais canton include: raclette – a fondue of melted cheese with potatoes and gherkins; cholera (!) – a pastry with apples, onions, potatoes and cheese; brisolée – bread and butter with hot chestnuts and thin slices of smoked meat; and of course the traditional cheese fondue with pieces of bread for dipping. These specialties can be found at many restaurants on the main street. You can find quality and great deals there.
Caviar House & Prunier is popular with tourists. Around 10 tables are set up with comfortable chairs, and a blanket available for cool or cold weather. Not a cheap place to eat; wine is paired with shrimps, caviar, salmon, and smoked salmon. On weekends there’s live music from 5pm.
Brasserie du Grand-Pont serves Swiss white wine to go with its European/Asian cuisine.
Zenhäusern on the Place du Midi is only open until 7pm in winter and 8pm in summer; however it serves excellent lunch dishes and sandwiches for those on a budget. Don’t forget to pick up a few coffee truffles at their bakery.
Mekong is a Chinese restaurant if you fancy Chinese food.
Grotto de la Fontaine serves fresh pastas, pizzas, risottos and stews.
L’Enclos de Valère is on the mountain halfway up to the castle. It is very attractive, with trellises and vines sheltering you in summer. The food is typically French, and the prices are high, but they have some fixed menus if you’re watching your francs.
Nightlife in of Sion
Sion has a vibrant nightlife, with a safe environment that caters to every age group.
Sion en Lumiere has great music and light shows, with the best DJs. If dancing is your thing, then there’s also the Diam’s Club which is a student hangout with DJs.
Café Victory serves wine, coffees, and plays jazz music.
St James Irish Tavern serves both national and international beers; it’s known for being expensive.
The White Lion Bar serves good music and drinks and is a refuge for businessmen.
The Amadeus Bar is the meeting place for young skiers and snowboarders. It’s open from 5pm till late. You can arrive for an aperitif in the early evening and enjoy soft music while you sip. Later on it gets busy and very crowded. It’s the ideal place to chat with locals, and get some ideas as to what to do the next day; there’s nothing like mingling with the locals to find hidden gems you might miss as a tourist.
The movie theatre shows all the latest blockbusters.
Of Local Interest
There are many events held in Sion and also its close neighboring towns throughout the year. Here are some of them.
January sees the Zermatt Horu Trophy Curling Tournament, one of Switzerland’s biggest open-air curling tournaments. Also the Blatten Belalp Witch Ski Race down the pistes. Begun in 1983, it has since grown to be one of the most popular winter sports events in the Valais. These two events are in neighboring towns, but are noteworthy enough to travel to.
In February is the Carnaval de Sion on the Place de la Planta.
In March is the Glacier Bike Downhill. The bikers ride on ice and snow. After the mass start at 3500m they descend down the mountain at high speed; an extreme sport indeed.
April sees the Zermatt Unplugged music festival, where International stars and singer/ songwriters make great music on the marquee stage; as well as the Allalin open downhill races in the nearby village of Saas-Fee, which are the highest races on a glacier in the world. Participants from all over Europe compete in various disciplines.
June to September sees the three month long International Festival of the Ancient Organ of Valère, which encompasses organ, choral and orchestral performances, by masters from around the world. It is centered around the ancient organ in the church.
Another three month long festival is the Tibor Varga Festival, running from July to September and featuring 15 concerts of chamber, choral and orchestral music.
The Guinness Irish Festival is in August.
In early September is the Onion Market and Festival, which has proven popular over the years.
The Sion Christmas Market in the middle of December is on the Place du Midi and has around 50 stalls of local arts and crafts and other goodies. Concerts of various genres feature in the evenings. It opens on Monday to Friday from 2-7pm, and on Saturday and Sunday from 11am-7pm.