With some 38,000 miles of rivers and streams and 1,500 lakes, Switzerland is one of Europe’s most water-rich countries. In fact, it houses six percent of all the continent’s freshwater reserves and has been called the “water tower of Europe”. Much of this is thanks to melting glaciers and snow from the Alps, which cover two thirds of its landmass.
It’s in the Swiss Alps where we find the sources of the longest rivers in Switzerland. What’s more, many of the rivers that begin in Switzerland cross into one of its five neighbouring nations, becoming some of the biggest waterways in Europe. Let’s explore Switzerland’s longest rivers, starting with the largest river in Switzerland.
1. River Rhine: The Biggest River in Switzerland
Length: 760 miles
One of the major rivers of Europe and the biggest river in Switzerland, the Rhine rises in the Swiss Alps in the canton of Graubunden. Staying within Swiss territory to the city of Basel, it forms much of the Swiss-German border. It then flows through Germany, the Netherlands, and finally into the North Sea. Its length is about 760 miles, and – in terms of river traffic – it’s one of the busiest waterways in the world. However, the Swiss section of the Rhine is its quietest one, as it only becomes navigable by commercial vessels from Basel.
Switzerland’s biggest river is home to the Rhine Falls, one of Europe’s most powerful waterfalls, located between the cantons of Schaffhausen and Zürich. Together with its tributaries, the Rhine drains over 80 percent of Switzerland’s landmass.
2. River Aare: The Biggest River Wholly in Switzerland
Length: 181 miles
While the Rhine is the largest river in Switzerland by overall size, it does not remain within Swiss territory throughout. By contrast, at approximately 181 miles in length, the Aare is the biggest river in Switzerland to both rise and fall there. It’s also a major tributary of the Rhine, emptying into it in the northwest of the country at Koblenz.
Fed by the Oberaar glacier, the Aare flows through several major Swiss cities, including Bern, Solothurn, and Aarau. The river is known for its clear water and is popular among swimmers and fishermen. Some forty hydroelectric stations along the Aare provide power to surrounding areas.
3. River Rhone
Length: 505 miles
The River Rhone is one of the longest rivers in Switzerland. Approximately 505 miles long, it begins in the Swiss Alps in the canton of Valais. The Rhone then flows through Lake Geneva, into France and eventually empties into the Mediterranean Sea. Along its journey, the river passes through many different landscapes, including forests, mountains, and valleys.
The River Rhone is an important resource for both Switzerland and France, providing drinking water, irrigation and hydroelectric power. The river is also popular with tourists, who come to see the beautiful scenery and to enjoy the many outdoor activities available in the area.
4. River Reuss
Length: 102 miles
As well as ranking among the longest rivers of Switzerland, the Reuss is a key waterway, running for 102 miles through some of the most beautiful scenery in the country. Its 1,323-square-mile basin covers central Switzerland. Along its journey, the Reuss flows through Lake Lucerne. It’s a tributary of the Aare, joining it near Windisch and, like the Aare, it remains in Switzerland.
The Reuss is a popular spot for fishing, swimming, and canoeing, and is a popular tourist attraction. The river is home to many different species of fish, and its clear waters make it a perfect spot for wildlife watching.
In exploring the longest rivers in Switzerland, it’s worth noting some of these rivers hardly – or even never – enter its territory, but which begin there. For example, the Po, the largest river in Italy, rises in the Swiss canton of Ticino before almost immediately crossing the border. Meanwhile the Danube connects ten countries, none of them Switzerland. However one of its main tributaries is the Swiss River Inn.
Switzerland's Longest Rivers
As we’ve seen, many of Europe’s most impressive waterways rise in Switzerland, its Alps providing the starting point for the Rhine, the Danube and many more. These rivers, including the longest rivers in Switzerland, tend to then branch out into one of its five neighbouring countries, becoming international rivers spanning many nations.