Europe Travel

A Weekend in St. Gallen, Switzerland

During our two glorious weeks gallivanting through Switzerland, we spent a weekend in historic St. Gallen. Its main attraction — the library in the Abbey of St. Gallen — was something Neal was really looking forward to. It did not disappoint. But St. Gallen also acts as a great hub for other short trips exploring Switzerland. Here’s how we spent our weekend there!

Exploring St. Gallen

We chose to stay pretty close to the old town St. Gallen. It’s a carless portion of the city and as quaint as many of the other cities in Switzerland. Its architecture, cobbled streets and those old paintings are unmistakable.

St. Gallen also has a fun art installation in the streets meant to make the streets feel like your living room. I love carless and wish NYC would go carless in certain sections of the city!

As you can see, St. Gallen was kind of empty. We don’t know why, other than that it was a beautiful weather weekend and a waiter told us a lot of people go to the lakes on the weekend. Makes sense to me!

Abbey of St. Gall

The Abbey

Of course, the Abbey is the main attraction. It was the first place we went after getting off the train in St. Gallen. We started by going through the old gate (pictured on the left below) that kept the Catholic monks from the reformed old town Protestants. They renovated part of the cellars into a cool open space for events that we enjoyed. To get there, you go through this really cool tunnel!

Then we headed into the Abbey’s courtyard. The courtyard, much to our surprise, was filled with a stage covered in bloody and fire-encrusted crosses with skulls. As it turns out, this was part of an opera series. It would have been cool to see if we had the forethought to get tickets!

Next, we headed to the cathedral. There’s a huge lawn where it seemed everyone in town was enjoying lunch. The grass was beautiful, and the view couldn’t be beat.

As you can see, we ventured on inside. The inside was insanely gorgeous. Extravagant doesn’t even begin to describe it.

We milled around for awhile in here and not just because it was a welcome reprieve from the heat. There’s a lot to take in.

The Library

After getting our fill, we headed around the back to the ticket booth. Our Swiss Pass got us into the Abbey’s museum for free – a nice perk – which included viewing the library, vaulted cellars, and archives. We started with the library.

They take this library very seriously. To enter the library, you have to put on slippers. It makes sense – the library was breath taking and worth preserving. Imagine a room that’s maybe 20-30 feet wide and lined with book cases. There’s a second floor with only more book cases. These books date back to the 8th Century! You can’t take pictures inside, but there’s a rendering on the wall outside of it that you can take a pic with:

In the center of the room and along the edges, the library has dozens of books out for display showing the history of the Abbey from its creation by Saint Gall to the official establishment by Saint Othmar to the dissolution in 1800, raiding and destruction of documents in 1945, and the restitution of the Abbey in the 1990s. There are artifacts, including a few mummy sarcophagi and a dead saint, housed in the library as well.

A couple fun stories from the Library: Othmar had a wine barrel with him at all times. It was said that the barrel would be filled with wine always. And every single depiction of him has the wine barrel in it – even the scenes of his funeral. Also, Saint Gall apparently stared down a bear with his faith. The bear went running. Years later, the picture of a roaring bear, the same one used in the Saint Gallen portrayals, sits as the image representing the cantor of Bern. Saint Gall is clearly pretty important to this country.

The cellar

Next, we went into the cellar. This was filled with a ton of models of the Abbey, cathedral, and town. It also had artifacts showing the excess of the church – golden table sets, ivory tankards, gem-encrusted books, intricate pillars, wooden coats of arms, and other such things from the period. All of this needless excess made it easy to explain the rise of the revolution and reformation of the church in the early 19th century.  By the way, they display all of these in something like 10 languages. It was really cool to be able to click through iPads to get to English, while the guy next to me is reading it in French, and the woman on the other end is reading German. Super accessible.

The archive

We next went to the archive, which is the oldest running archive in the world. The same rite of passage that the first archivist from ~1200AD undertook is still followed for every new archivist to this day. It’s nuts! Many fires, raids, floods, and other events have permanently ruined a lot of books and scrolls, but thankfully so much is still left behind. They took so much care to preserve the history. We bummed around these exhibits for awhile. They have interactive ones as well, which makes spending time here easy. We left only after feeling completely satisfied with the Abbey experience.

St. Gallen University

We had heard about St. Gallen University being a beacon of scholarship in Switzerland. I like to see what campuses are like in different parts of the world, so we thought we’d see what it was all about. It sits on top of a hill, so we also thought we might get a good view of the city. Speaking of the hills, apparently St. Gallen is known as “the city of a thousand stairs.” On our way up to St. Gallen University, we found out why.

But it wasn’t difficult to walk the stairs everywhere and it was nice not having to walk in the road. Once we got to the campus, we discovered that the school itself looks kind of small and certainly is no homage to architecture. There’s no view either. I did really like this statue, though!

Schutzengarten + Good Beer

Hellbent on making the trip up to St. Gallen University not a total loss, we stopped at Schutzengareten, the oldest brewery in Switzerland. Now, we have been to a lot of breweries. And this one was not our mug of beer. It was mega-corporate and had no character. There is a restaurant/bar around the back, but once we realized that this is Switzerland’s equivalent of Budweiser, we bailed.

Instead, we went around the block to Bruw Pub – a micro brewery with what passes for craft beer in Switzerland. Actually, this place was great. We sat for an hour or so talking with the owner/operator who was working the bar. Somehow, we got on the topic of the business of beer in Switzerland. How he was blocked from selling food without selling Schutzengarten — the market dominating competitor — in his establishment. Likewise, other restaurants could not sell his beer unless he sold Schutzengarten in his bar. This seems crazy! We were kind of shocked at how much of a stronghold Schutzengarten has on the city. Once we heard this, we started seeing their signs everywhere.

He then went on to tell us about how hard he works to brew his own beer and keep things a float, and other woes of the business.  Like how the town cracked down and stopped him from having events or BBQs during holidays and instead put a Schutzengarten tent on the street outside his door. It was pretty fascinating to hear his plight!

Day Trip 1: Santis

We could have seen a LOT more in and around St. Gallen, but we really wanted to see more of the northeastern part of Switzerland, so we hopped on a train, then a bus, then a cable car to get up to Santis. The mountaintop at Santis is unique in that you can see 6 countries from there — Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Italy, France, and Liechtenstein. We could also see a lot of the peaks we had been surrounded by the whole time — Jungfrau, Eiger, Schilthorn, etc. It was sort of a great way to sum up the trip. Also, there are goats everywhere!

The food is surprisingly good at the Santis visitor’s center. And we really enjoyed the gift shop, too (something I don’t think I’ve ever said).

Day Trip 2: Maestrani Chocolarium

Switzerland is home to quite a bit of chocolate. We wanted to spend some time in a chocolate factory to make sure we really got the full cultural experience. Okay, we really just wanted to eat a lot of chocolate. The train to Maestrani Chocolarium takes less than an hour from St. Gallen, and admission is free with the Swiss Pass!

The tour starts off with a quick video of the history of the company. Maestrani is all about happiness (hence the picture on the left above “53 meters to happiness”). It’s been around for a long time, too (1852!). After the video, you venture into a room that takes you through the process of making chocolate step by step. You smell the cocoa beans and read about the countries they come from. Also, I had no idea about sugar beets before this! But apparently they make the chocolate sweet.

Next you go into a room and get to taste the melted chocolate before it’s mixed with the other flavoring ingredients. I FILLED UP on this chocolate. Little did I know, in the next room, we got to try all the finished products on the factory floor! After this, we got to make our OWN chocolate. It takes 10 minutes, but it’s so cute and fun. And delicious. Overall, we had a great time in the factory! My belly didn’t hurt at all from all the chocolate…

It POURED on our way out of the factory and the guy at the desk was so nice, he offered us an umbrella from lost and found. I left it in our hotel room for the next person who needs a big umbrella.

Day Trip 3: Biking Around Lake Constance

The last trip we took from St. Gallen was a 15 minute train ride to Rorschach, where we picked up bikes and headed around Lake Constance. We’ve written up a post on this bike ride here. If you go east, like we did, you get to ride through Austria and Germany. But it’s a beautiful lake to just sit at and enjoy, as well!

So this is how we spent our weekend in St. Gallen. Of all the towns we visited in Switzerland, I think I miss this one the most. It was a bigger city, but it felt almost like home. The history is so interesting and rich here (like the chocolate!), I am sure there is so much more to see.

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