Zurich is a very old city, built on the banks of Lake Zurich. It has been ruled by Romans, Franks and Burgundians, and was even briefly ruled by the Austrian Empire. Today, it is one of the most prosperous cities in Europe and one of Europe’s most important financial hubs. While Zurich is not the Swiss capital (that would be Bern), it is by far the most vibrant and happening city in this alpine country.
Zurich is the perfect place to kick start an amazing Switzerland trip. While the cities are beautiful in the traditional sense, I think the real beauty of Switzerland lies in its mountains and nature. Really it is stupid how beautiful the countryside is. Just look at this picture from my trip to the famous Lauterbrunnen. It defies reality that something like this can exist!
How expensive is Zurich?
As you probably already know, Switzerland is one of the most expensive countries in the world. I think it is actually more expensive than the countries in Scandinavia like Finland and Denmark.
Salaries are very high in Switzerland and the cost of all services is extremely high. The minimum wage in Switzerland is almost 25 CHF after all! You can expect to pay a lot of money for food, alcohol, accommodations, and taxis. A simple burger at a casual restaurant can easily be 20 CHF. Alcohol, while not as expensive as in the US, is still much more than the surrounding countries. Expect to pay 8 CHF for a beer, and 10 CHF for a glass of wine. Even a simple sausage in bread at a casual place can be 10 CHF!
No one comes to Switzerland to save money let’s be clear. Don’t think about it too much and know that you will be spending the cash to have a good time. With all that said, Zurich consistently ranks as one of the most livable cities in the world, always placing in the top 10. As expensive as things are, the quality of life is exceptional.
Thankfully, the city is small and public transportation is great so there is no need to Ubers or taxis. On a stroll around the Old Town you’ll discover churches, museums, chocolate shops and terraces with views of the city.
Zurich vs Geneva
Zurich and Geneva are the two largest cities in Switzerland and both are representatives of their respective language domains. Geneva is the main city of the French speaking region in Switzerland while Zurich is the counterpart for its German speaking region. I’ve been to both cities (Geneva for work many years in the past and Zurich for pleasure).
Even though I spent way more time in Geneva, I can safely say that Zurich is the far more interesting city. If you are planning a trip to Switzerland and are debating whether to fly into Zurich or Geneva, think no further. Fly into Zurich and spend the 1-2 days in the city. Geneva is beautiful yes but it is incredibly boring. Everything closes very early and everything is geared towards money and business. Zurich on the other hand is beautiful, compact, and has more life happening.
You can really feel the energy in Zurich. Sure you can not compare this other European cities like Vienna or Munich but the energy is there nonetheless. I just never got this whatsoever in Geneva.
Yes Switzerland has multiple official languages (with German and French being the largest) without much issue. The country has thrived even with this difference even though there is a huge cultural difference between the French and German parts of Switzerland. I guess any cultural differences can be set aside when there is so much cash going around. Swiss people are among the richest in the world after all.
How to get around Zurich
Zurich is very easy to get around. It’s an incredibly walkable city with a small city center. Everything is close by and you’ll never have to go more than 20 minutes to get to the main attractions.
The best way: By foot or by bike
Zurich’s city center is best explored on foot, particularly the Old Town since it has narrow, cobblestone streets. You can walk from one end of the old town to the other in 20 minutes easily. The walk is scenic as much of it is along the canals and lake Zurich. Traffic is calm in Zurich making walking a pleasure.
Rent a free bike
Zurich is one of the only cities that I know of that rents free bikes. Yes you heard me. You can rent a bike in Zurich absolutely free. Through the Zuri Rollt program, you can rent a bicycle for the day completely free from its two stations in the city center, one being located right outside of the Hauptbahnhof. All you need to do is show them your passport and put down a deposit of 20 CHF and you have the bike for the entire day. E-Bikes can be rented for a one time fee of 20 CHF. Children’s bikes are also free.
This is an incredible offer. Zurich is super expensive to begin with that a bike rental would easily be 40 CHF for the day. You don’t need to make a reservation in advance, just show up!
Bike Station at Zurich Main Station, Europaplatz
Daily, 8am – 9.30pm
Tram in Zurich
If you’re venturing further, Zurich has an excellent public transportation system (VBZ) consisting of trams, trains, buses and boats to help people get around. Taxis and Uber are available but they’re expensive, so the tram is generally the best option. Before you board the tram you’ll need to purchase a single ticket or a day pass at one of the automated ticket machines or a ticket office. Fares operate on a zone system but generally you can expect a single ticket to cost around 2.70 Francs.
Should you get the Zurich card?
The Zürich Card is a pass available for 24 or 72 hours. During that time you can enjoy:
- Unlimited 2nd class travel by tram, bus, train, boat and cableway in the city of Zurich and surrounding region
- Short boat trips and Limmat river cruise
- Free or reduced admission to 43 museums
- 50% discount on the Zurich Old Town Walking Tour
The cost is 27 Swiss francs for 24 hours or 53 Swiss francs for 72 hours. If you’re planning to do a lot of different activities in Zurich, I could see this being useful but otherwise I’m not sure it’s worth the money. I only took the S-Bahn once to visit Uetilberg, and I never bothered with the tram. Zurich is so walkable and small that there is no need for anything el.se
Ubers and Taxis in Zurich
If money isn’t an issue, there are Ubers and official taxis all over Zurich. You can use the app to call a taxi but be prepared to pay an incredible amount of money.
What to do in Zurich
Zurich is small in comparison to other European cities so there aren’t too many must sees. You can easily explore most of Zurich in one day. Here are the highlights of a trip to Zurich.
Walk through the old town of Zurich
The old town of Zurich was built on an island surrounded by canals that once served as an important trade route between Germany and Italy. The port was used for trade by merchants and sailors from all over Europe until 1798 when Napoleon Bonaparte closed down the port due to his wars against Austria and then Prussia (which later became Germany).
The Old Town of Zurich is the perfect place to start your Zurich adventure. The best time is in the morning with a cup of coffee in hand. You’ll walk through beautiful cobblestone streets, medieval architecture, a plethora of different shops, and unlimited river views. Make sure to venture down smaller streets and alleyways because these tend to end up somewhere pretty.
Explore the churches of Zurich
As with any historic European cities, there are no shortages of huge churches. I mean what else did you spend money on back in the old days? Zurich is no exception. There are a plethora of churches here that you can walk by on your one to two day trip.
The most famous churches in Zurich are St. Peter’s, St. Mary’s and the Grossmünster. They are all located in the old town of Zurich. The first one was built in 1424, so it is considered a very old church. The other two were built between 1484-1519 and they are not as old as St. Peter’s, but they are still considered to be very beautiful buildings.
The Fraumünster is the most stunning church in Zurich. Famous for its stained-glass window, this church is lovely to visit on a rainy day. You can turn it into a spookier tour by taking a guided tour of the church and its crypt.
Eat at the Zeughauskeller
Make sure to visit the Zeughauskeller, a traditional hunting club that was transformed into a restaurant many years ago. Nowadays, it’s the traditional German style brauhaus serving classics like schnitzel, various forms of sausages, home brewed beer, and more. They have a big outdoor seating area as well which is great for the summer months.
A veal schnitzel and beer cost be about 45 CHF at this restaurant. It’s more than 2x the price of a similar meal in Germany but this is Switzerland after all!
Uetliberg is a small area just outside of the city and at 870 meters above sea level, it offers sweeping views of Zurich and the surrounding lakes. From the main train station, simply take the S10 S-Bahn train (4.40 CHF) to the very end of the line. This will take 20-25 minutes.
From the train station, it’s an easy 10 minute walk to the peak where you’ll be greeted with a lookout tower and a restaurant with views. The mountain offers incredible views over the city, the lake, and the neighboring Alps. For how easy this is (and cheap!), it is absolutely worth it.
Take a river cruise through Zurich
The Limmat River Cruise – This tour takes you along the Limmat River to see some of the city’s most famous sights, such as the Palace of Nations or parliament building. The boat ride takes about an hour and costs around 7 CHF (around $7).
Swiss National Museum
The Swiss National Museum – This museum houses artifacts from all over Switzerland and other parts of Europe. Many people visit this museum to see their national history come alive. It costs around 6 CHF (around $6).
Zurich Zoo – The zoo has plenty of animals and exhibits that you can see while you’re there. You might even get to meet some of them! There are also plenty of fun activities for children at this zoo like pony rides or petting zoos where you can interact with different species of animals up close.
Visit the FIFA Museum
If you’re into football (aka soccer) then you may want to include a visit to the FIFA Museum, which is located opposite the FIFA headquarters and Bahnhof Enge. The museum is spread over 3 floors and 3,000 square meters of exhibition space. The exhibits take you through the history of football and document the impact that football has had on society.
How to get to the FIFA Museum: You can reach the museum via public transportation. If you travel by train you get a 20% discount on the price of your train ticket and a 10% discount on entry to the museum. Alternatively you can take the tram or the S-Bahn and get off at Bahnhof Enge. A ticket to the musem costs 24 Swiss francs for adults.
Zurich 1 day Itinerary
I think 1 full day is probably enough to see Zurich. There really isn’t much to see and the city is so small that you can walk around quickly.
Start off the day right with a delicious local breakfast. Visit one of the numerous bakeries around the city that serve fresh breads, croissants, pain au chocolats, and other delicious pastries. Switzerland is sandwiched between Italy, France, and Germany so they don’t mess around with their grains.
Pair it with a delicious coffee and enjoy the snack at one of the numerous viewpoints in the city overlooking the river.
Walk through the old town
A walk through the old town after breakfast is in order. Simply stroll through the beautiful cobblestone streets and admire the German architecture all around you. Make a stop at places like the Lindt chocolate factory which is one of the biggest chocolate shops in the world.
Visit the churches of Zurich
The largest churches of Zurich are all spread out through the old town. Visit the Fraunmunster and the St Peters Church and admire the gothic architecture.
Have lunch at the Zeughauskeller
Enjoy your lunch at the traditional Swiss restaurant at Zeughauskeller. They have daily lunch specials which generally are cheaper than the menu items. Nevertheless, make sure to try one of the many sausage varieties Switzerland has to offer.
Take a river cruise after lunch
After lunch, take a river cruise through Lake Zurich and admire the beautiful views of the surroundings.
Visit the Uetliberg Viewpoint
Take the S-Bahn after your river cruise to the beautiful viewpoint at Uetliberg. Enjoy a cold beer at the restaurant at the top which offers panoramic views of Zurich.
Sunset at the Limmat River
In the summer months, the Limmat river by the Kornhausbrucke (Kornhaus Bridge) is where all the local life is happening. People come here all throughout the day to swim in the canal, have drinks, and enjoy the views. I went to a bar called Primitivo which served Aperol spritz and casual finger food. I had no idea Zurich had fun things like this as I just assumed everyone worked all day!
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