Going to Zurich and searching for some advice? Mine is very simple: do not come to Zurich 🙂
Seriously, visit Switzerland for its mountains, meadows with grazing cows, for mighty waterfalls and lakes still like a mirror. Cities like Geneva or Zurich are well-suited for a business trip or a layover before / in between the flights but not for a full-fledged vacation experience. Read on to learn how to spend a few hours in Zurich in between more interesting destinations.
Having woken up in your hotel, as a first activity of the day just… get out of the city. No, this is not my usual “Zurich sucks” chant. Our goal now is to get to the best viewing platform around – the tower on top of Uetliberg, “the house mountain” of Zurich. Take the S10 train from the main train station (~30 minute ride). Do not forget coins – they are the only way to get access to the tower.
I recommend going there in the morning because there will be 1) fewer people; 2) better chances to see the snowy Alps; 3) no need to interrupt your day in the city for traveling back and forth from the mountain.
On the way down exit at the station called Binz. From there it is but a few steps to my personal favorite place in the city, the so-called Sihlpromenade – a long alley of old and huge plane trees. It is likely the least crowded green space in Zurich – you are going to appreciate having been here as you get to the downtown later…
Turn right as you run into the next train station – Selnau – just to stroll down along a canal again. I actually just discovered this place today as I was collecting pictures for this very post 🙂 Follow the wooden embankment until the very end.
It is not very obvious to find so here is the map:
As you exit the path, cross the canal and continue on the street to the east. At some point the road will bring you to a wide street lined with trees, with lots of people and trams instead of cars. This is Bahnhofstrasse, the heart of luxury shopping in Zurich. To be honest, Switzerland is so damn expensive, I cannot recommend to waste your money here. There are plenty European shopping cities that will offer the same brands at a much lower price tag (looking south, looking west, not calling any names…)
The walking people facade of the PKZ shop is the perfect symbol for the endless faceless crowds running around with no purpose nor meaning 😀
Head south along Bahnhofstrasse. The closer you get to the lake, the more expensive shops you will meet on the way. The prices reach their extreme around Paradeplatz where any respectful Swiss bank is obliged to have representation.
As you finally get to the lake, you might get lucky with a view of mountains towering above the water.
Crossing the bridge over the Limmat river, you will have a chance to enjoy the most typical view of the two primary Zurich sights – churches Grossmuenster and Fraumuenster.
At this point, it is probably lunch time, and you are probably hungry. Having crossed the bridge, you will find yourself at Bellevue. There are a bunch of kiosks there that sell grilled cervelat sausage – one of the most iconic Swiss snacks. In case if a big hunger is crunching your stomach, just across the Opera House square there is an awesome American-style diner with burgers and milkshakes.
Done with lunch? Time to work some calories off! Bellevue is where one of the largest parks of Zurich starts. Follow Utoquai embankment as long as you desire. Swans and other water-dwelling birds will keep you company.
I invite you to spend the afternoon discovering the old town of Zurich. Start at the biggest church in Zurich with a very matching name (“Grossmuenster” literally means “big abbey”).
The inside is not very inspiring (it is a rather modest Protestant church), but a few coins will get you to the top of one of the twin towers and a great close-up view of the very center of the city.
Just across the river from Grossmuenster lives his little sister Fraumuenster (“female convent”) whose stained-glass eyes were created by none other than the famous Marc Chagall.
Explore the tiny streets between Fraumuenster and Rennweg street. Like Bahnhofstrasse, this is a shopping district, but, as opposed to the more famous shopaholic magnet, this place is home to rather unknown exotic brands and tiny boutiques whose names are completely unrecognizable by a mass consumer and whose prices would make even a seasoned shopper shed a tear. Apart from luxurious boutiques, these streets also shelter bizarre shops of antiques, hand-made things, and craftworks from all over the world.
Time for another little break at Lindenhof slightly above Rennweg. One of the few green spaces in the downtown, this place is protected by the city from acquisitions by banks and any further development 🙂 Lime trees and a view on the river – isn’t it nice?
Across the river from there is the Niederdoerfli district with foot breaking floor paving, tiny buildings with Medieval graffitis on their walls, and statues of some rich dudes of the past. If you have seen Niederdorf – you have seen all Swiss old towns.
Take the Polybahn funicular to get to the viewing platform in front of ETH, the tech university of Zurich (it is also an option to walk up but your feet are probably swollen from all the walking of the day).
Congratulations, now you have seen pretty much every single interesting thing that there is in Zurich 🙂
There are so many nice places to eat in this city… provided you are able and willing to pay up. The cheapest decent places will run at 30-40 CHF per person (with drinks). Here are some restaurants that belong to this category: Italian, Thai, burgers. One thing that I just have to mention is Hiltl – the world’s very first vegetarian restaurant!
When you are ready to absorb a slightly higher price tag (40-100 CHF), there are some really great options. My personal favorites are The Bite (gourmet burgers), Yardbird (fried chicken), Palavrion (grill). When I recommended Rolli’s Steakhouse – steaks on a hot stone – to a friend, he later complained that I ruined all other steakhouses for him forever 😀 A bit of a drawback is that Rolli’s is in Oerlikon, but if your flight out of Zurich is in the late evening, it only makes it a perfect place for your last meal in Zurich.
Of course, there is no shortage of ridiculously expensive (100+ CHF) restaurants including ones starred by the Michelin guide. I have not tried all of the Michelin places, just a few, and my all-time favorite so far is definitely EquiTable. Great food, local ingredients, top-notch service. If you are more up for Japanese, there is an amazing place next to Bahnhof Enge (not Michelin-starred as far as I know but awesome nevertheless).
With a fuller belly and an emptier pocket, it is probably time to discover some nightlife. There are plenty of great bars in the city, but be prepared to pay 8+ CHF for a beer and 15+ CHF for a cocktail. Cheaper places are crowded along Langstrasse – the red light district of Zurich (although the public there is also appropriate to the prices…) Some more sophisticated and pricey bars are scattered around Niederdorf and Rennweg districts. Here are a few that I can recommend: unique cocktails, awesome drinks (extremely popular – hard to get a table!), great view on the city, dark and lively, open air next to a canal (fantastic location but drinks are not the best), cozy space.
Now clubbing is not my specialty but I have heard that Plaza is the biggest night club? Plus I bet there are a bunch of places on Langstrasse…
Hey wait… but you did not tell anything about museums!
Yeah… I am not really a museum person. There are a couple that are very well-known to anyone who lives in Zurich: National museum, Kunsthaus, Rietberg, Kultumara. However, I have not been to any of them, so sorry folks, you are on your own here.
P.S. I’ve heard that the Tram Museum is real fun!
Things I did not mention
Finally, I omitted from the itinerary above a few places which might not be for everyone, like, for example, the huge Zoo of Zurich. Most of the animals there have large open-space enclosures so you can watch them in almost-natural habitats, but their freedom is still limited which will definitely repel some people (like, for example, birds have their fly-feathers trimmed so they cannot fly away).
Another place I did not mention is the thermal bath at Huerlimann Areal in the B2 hotel. The reason I skipped it is that there are much better places for spa/thermal baths in Switzerland (for example, Bad Zurzach is easily reachable from Zurich as a day trip). The only unique feature of the baths here in Zurich is a warm infinity pool on the roof of the hotel with a view down on Zurich. The place is popular so prepare yourself to swimming in a dense crowd…
Opernhaus Zurich has a cool building but opera is certainly not the strongest side of this city… Consider rather visiting other opera-famous cities such as Milan or, I don’t know, St. Petersburg…
I personally loved the succulent collection. It is such a bizarre place to visit but was nevertheless surprisingly fun to walk around! It is basically just a greenhouse with a few dozen species of cacti and similar plants, but who knows, maybe you are into this stuff?
How to get around
For the itinerary above the only transport you need is the train up and down Uetliberg – the rest is designed with walking in mind. However, if you decide it is too much foot action for you, there are other options to get around this city.
Public transit is amazing in Switzerland. In Zurich, this mostly means trams (you have probably noticed them already on many pictures above!). Just get a 24-hour ticket for the 110 zone – and you are good to go!
Another options is to use a bike/scooter. There are a few services for e-bike and e-scooter rentals (Lime, PubliBike, and others). Zurich is very bike friendly, so make sure to check these out if you like to turn some wheels!
As a base for exploration of Switzerland, Zurich is not really the best choice (I believe Interlaken is a much better one). And yet there are quite a few cool day trips that you can do from the city. I have decided to not lay them out here as it would be too many characters then. Stay tuned for future guides 😉