Not so long ago, Zurich was famed chiefly for being the cleanest, most icily efficient city in Europe. Things have changed. These days it qualifies as a metropolis with style, and even a touch of glamour. Plan your trip to Zurich with our guide to Zurich, based on The Rough Guide to Switzerland, your travel guide for Switzerland.
What is Zurich famous for? Your Zurich travel guide
Switzerland’s largest city (population over 420,000) has shaken off its reputation as Europe’s sourpuss and you’ll find its still pristinely clean streets abuzz with newfound confidence on the back of global recognition.
Zurich consistently rates at or near the top of annual surveys judging cities worldwide for their quality of life. Zurich is still best known, though, as a city to do business.
After World War II, the city’s foreign exchange speculators had become so powerful and secretive that exasperated British ministers, amid the 1964 sterling crisis, spoke of them as gnomes, scurrying about in the corridors of their private banks forever counting their gold.
Today Zurich hosts the world’s most important market for trading gold and precious metals. Exceptional affluence tends to define the area these days, and yet, despite its wealth and status, Zurich is not a flashy place at all.
You’re likely to find plenty to keep you occupied in this good-looking city, poised astride the River Limmat, adorned with over a thousand medieval and modern fountains, and turned towards the Zurichsee (Lake Zurich), so crystal-clear the Swiss authorities have certified its water safe to drink.
On the subject of good-looking cities, Zurich was one of the reasons you voted Switzerland one of the most beautiful countries in the world.
In recent years it's undergone a boom in arts and popular culture, expressed most tangibly in the Zurich West district, which has become a hotbed for the alternative scene and a powerhouse for new cultural institutions.
The heart of the city, though, remains its medieval Old Town, characterised by the steep, cobbled alleys and attractive, small-scale architecture of the Niederdorf district – perfect for exploratory wanderings.
With a handful of medieval churches to take in, including the mighty Grossmünster and graceful Fraumünster, the superb Kunsthaus art gallery and the most engaging café culture in German-speaking Switzerland, you could easily spend days here. That said, if you're thinking of visiting Zurich, read up on the wider region of northeast Switzerland and Liechtenstein.
Top attractions and things to do in Zurich
No trip to Zurich is complete without a visit to its iconic “Great Minster”, from where Zwingli preached the Reformation. With its distinctive twin sugar-loafed towers, and a venerable history at the heart of the Swiss-German Reformation, the Grossmünster, or Great Minster, dominates Zurich’s skyline.
A truly world-class gallery of art, the Kunsthaus collection begins even before you get inside. Beside the main door is Rodin’s vivid Gate of Hell, while sculptures by Moore, Maillol and others dot the grounds. Inside, one whole wing is given over to a permanent display of the widest array of Alberto Giacometti’s sculpture in the world.
3. Chagall windows
Head to Fraumünster church to be spellbound by Marc Chagall’s breathtaking stained glass. Once inside, you’ll see the Chagall windows immediately. For a closer look, venture into the Romanesque choir that has a simplicity of design that would make it a magical place even without its windows.
4. Swiss National Museum
Enjoy superbly presented, state-of-the-art displays on Swiss history and culture in this mock-Gothic castle with a modern wing. The Swiss National Museum provides a deep understanding of swiss culture.
Join the locals on this steep-sided ridge rising above the city, with stunning views and wooded walking trails. From the top of the summit’s 30m viewing tower, there are terrific 360-degree views over Zürich, the curve of the lake and, on a clear day, east into Austria and as far southwest as the Jungfrau.
6. Zurich West
Discover this hotbed of Zurich’s dynamic counterculture, centred on the buzzing Langstrasse. This sometimes seedy, but always absorbing, 1.5km-long strip boasts an abundance of designer bars, independent cinemas, clubwear outlets and cheap eateries.
7. Confiserie Sprüngli
Indulge yourself with exquisite sweet treats and fine coffee at Confiserie Sprüngli, the home of Zurich’s premier confectioner. The display cabinets are full of exquisite chocolates and cakes, plus their own speciality, Luxemburgerli — cream-filled pastry bites that are truly drool-worthy.
8. Lake Zurich
Take to the water and leave urban life behind on a short boat trip to the “City of Roses”, Rapperswil, where you can lose yourself in the quiet Old Town alleys, which weave around and between a succession of plazas.
To see lots of top Zurich travel attractions, you could book an immersive tour that takes in the Old Town, River Limmat and surrounding area by ferry, cable car and coach. Or, for a fun zip around Zurich, a private tuk-tuk tour of the city comes recommended.
Which areas should you visit in Zurich?
Because the River Limmat divides the Old Town into two distinct halves, it makes more sense to consider the two banks of the river separately rather than concentrate on a New Town/Old Town split.
The alleys of the east bank – known as Niederdorf or the “Dörfli” – are full of cafés and small shops, with the enormous twin towers of the Grossmünster as a centrepiece. The slender spire to the north belongs to the Predigerkirche with, above it on a hill to the east, the grandiose architecture of the university.
Opposite, the west bank is the oldest part of the city, centred around the raised platform of the Lindenhof and characterized by expensive fashion outlets and offices.
Nearby rise the graceful spires both of St Peter’s, featuring the largest clock face in Europe, and the Fraumünster, a medieval church decorated in the last century with beautiful stained glass by Marc Chagall.
The long, curving Bahnhofstrasse follows the ancient course of the western city wall, and is now one of Europe’s most prestigious shopping streets, packed with jewellers and designer boutiques.
The best of the city’s clutch of museums are the Kunsthaus on the fringes of the Niederdorf, and the Schweizerisches Landesmuseum (Swiss National Museum) in a park on the west bank.
Best places to stay in Zurich
Zurich has a full range of accommodation and – despite its being one of the most expensive cities in the world – if you book ahead you’ll have a strong chance of finding a decent place within your price range.
Prices at the higher-end places, though, can be frightful, and some mid-range hoteliers take this as carte blanche to overcharge: ask what you’ll be getting for your money before you check in.
Nearby Baden and Winterthur offer equally pleasant accommodation at more affordable prices. It’s worth checking with the tourist office about any weekend or off-season promotions, which can slash walk-in rates.
The greatest concentration of inexpensive hotels is in the Old Town’s Niederdorf district. None is more than a 10min walk from the station, or an even shorter trip on the tram.
Mid-range hotels in Niederdorf are generally quiet and attractive, although often pricey, while those elsewhere in the city tend to offer better value but have noisier or more mundane surroundings. Withdrawing to one of the good-value hotels in the wooded hills to the east and west is a sound ploy.
- Best for culture vultures: Alma Hotel. This upmarket designer hotel focused on sustainability is located near the lake south of the Opera House and has spacious, airy singles and doubles displaying great attention to detail.
Best hotels in Zurich
- Best for couples: Hotel Kindli. A tranquil location on the steep cobbled lanes below the Lindenhof, this is one of Zürich’s most charming small hotels and has provided lodging since (at least) 1774.
- Best for nightlife-lovers: Pension Furdich. Backing onto Backeranlage park and pavillion, this quaint hotel with ajoining café is close to funky bars and clubs.
- Best for families: Fischers Fritz. With a superb lakeside setting not far from the city centre, this offers glamping options as well as traditional tent and caravan pitches.
Best hostels and camping in Zurich
- Best for budget travellers: Jugendherberge. This popular hostel in a southwestern suburb of the city boasts a quiet location close to the lake shore.
Eating and drinking in Zurich: best restaurants, cafés and bars
Zürich’s most alluring café culture takes place at the pavement cafés along the riverside Limmatquai and the cobbled squares nearby, such as Hechtplatz and Schiffländeplatz.
As a general rule, Niederdorf is livelier in the evening, while the area around Bahnhofstrasse is more popular at lunch time.
Traditional Zürich cuisine is rich and heavy with meat, epitomized in the city’s trademark dish Züri Gschnätzlets – diced veal in a creamy mushroom sauce, generally served alongside potato Rösti. Vegetarians will nonetheless find plenty of options.
While eating can be often expensive, it is possible to eat cheaply. Dozens of hole-in-the-wall snack joints along Niederdorfstrasse churn out kebabs, falafels, sausages, noodles and/or chips, though you can often do better with the daily special at one of the beerhalls on the same street.
If you're into food, book a food-themed sightseeing tour to indulge in Swiss cheese fondue and fine wine while seeing the city — sure to be a memorable highlight of your Zürich vacation.
- Zum Kropf: an atmospheric listed building, boasting a frescoed interior that dates from its conversion into a restaurant in 1888. Serving meat, potatoes and dumplings in various forms, standards are high.
Best restaurants in Zurich
- AuGust: offering a contemporary twist on the traditional butcher’s, this chic bistro specializes in sausages and other meaty dishes.
- Bodega Española: with an outstanding menu ranging from tortilla catalana to paella, this dark-wood place dates back to 1892 and drips with atmosphere. The tapas bar downstairs is also outstanding.
- Café 1842: a very popular confectioner’s and café, famous for its hot chocolate. The nineteenth-century cash till is surrounded by fresh cake creations and wonderfully-presented packages of chocolates and sweets.
Best cafés in Zurich
- Odeon: a compact café-bar on Bellevueplatz, where Lenin once sat and watched the world go by. The interior has plenty of character, with impressive marble on the walls and a long central counter.
- Zähringer: long-standing cooperative-run bastion of Zürcher counterculture, attracting an alternative clientele for snacks, herbal teas and beer. With a focus on local organic ingredients, this has lots of veggie options.
- Rheinfelder Bierhalle: with wooden benches, zero decoration and bright lights, this is a place to get shamelessly, sociably drunk, laugh loudly and clap strangers on the back.
Best bars in Zurich
- Jules Verne: an intimate little city-centre bar in a domed observatory building with panoramic views across the rooftops and steeples. The cocktails and bar food are good.
- Frau Gerold's Garten: simultaneously one of the hippest and most relaxed hangouts in town, this open-air bar boasts an urban garden (used to source the simple but excellent food) with a magical atmosphere.
Nightlife and entertainment in Zurich
Zurich’s nightlife scene has skyrocketed recently, helped by legislation permitting some all-night opening. The city’s dynamic club scene covers the gamut from techno to salsa, with the industrial quarter northwest of Langstrasse home to the best underground clubs.
Venues move, nights change and new places open virtually every month, so check flyers at the bars up and down Langstrasse.
Entertainment in Zurich
Zurich has a surprisingly wide range of entertainment options. It is home to a top-flight orchestra, a world-famous opera company, and one of the German-speaking world’s premier theatres (Schauspielhaus Zurich).
Moreover, many of the city’s churches – principally the Grossmünster, Fraumünster, Predigerkirche and St Peter’s – host regular concerts of organ, choral and chamber music, as does the Kunsthaus.
You can find complete what’s-on listings for the week ahead in ZüriTipp, the Fri supplement to the Tages Anzeiger newspaper, available free at the tourist office.
- Kaufleuten: in this plush city-centre nightspot, housey beats draw an unusual blend of hardcore clubbers and work-to-play young professionals. It was voted one of the world’s best party venues by the Wall Street Journal.
Best nightlife and entertainment venues in Zurich
- Rote Fabrik: this alternative-style arts complex housed in a graffitied former silk mill on the lakeshore hosts a flow of bands famous and unknown from all musical genres, as well as big-name DJs.
- Opera House: Zürich’s majestic opera house attracts a host of international stars to what is a relatively intimate venue. The impressively varied programme of opera and ballet sells out quickly, so book well ahead.
- Xenix: this alternative cinema with a bar and terrace started in the 1980s as a politically-motivated youth movement and still shows socially committed films, with open-air screenings in summer.
How to get around Zurich
To reach the city centre from the airport with ease, you could pre-book a private transfer, but it has to be said that one of the great advantages of Zurich is that you can enjoy all the buzz of big city life in a compact setting that’s no larger than a single arrondissement of Paris. In short, covering the city on foot is perfectly feasible.
Thar said, Zurich’s city transport system, run by Verkehrsbetriebe Zurich, is legendary for its efficiency, punctuality and convenience. For timetables, check the Verkehrsbetriebe Zurich website.
The ZurichCARD represents excellent value (24hr or 72hr). It is available at the tourist office, train stations (including the airport station) or at hotels, and is valid for free public transport by train, bus, tram, boat or funicular throughout the city centre (extending as far as the airport, Uetliberg and short trips on the lake).
Getting around Zurich by tram
The main mode of transport is tram, with fifteen lines covering the city and its outskirts. The main hubs in the centre are at Bellevueplatz and Bürkliplatz and by the station (Central and Banhofstrasse stops). The most useful lines are tram #4 that runs down Limmatquai in Niederdorf, stopping at Central, each of the three river bridges and Bellevue.
Getting around Zurich by train
S-Bahn suburban trains, most originating from or passing through the main station, add another dimension, linking to Zug and Einsiedeln in the south and Winterthur, Schaffhausen and Stein-am-Rhein in the north, as well as serving the nearby Uetliberg summit.
Getting around Zurich by boat
Boats crisscross their way up and down Lake Zurich. The tourist office has full information, as does the Lake Zurich Shipping Company. Regular boats sail from Zurich to Rapperswil (hourly; 1hr 45min) and beyond, stopping at just about every shoreside town on the way.
Getting around Zurich by bike
Excursions and day trips from Zurich
- Braunwald: a car-free Alpine hideaway for rapid battery-recharge. Change at Linthal (1hr 45min)
- Einsiedeln monastery: a centuries-old site of pilgrimage up in the hills. Change at Wädenswil (45min)
- Lucerne: an exquisite Old Town plus breathtaking lake-and-mountains scenery (45min). Either train back, or boat Lucerne–Flüelen then train Flüelen–Zurich
- Rapperswil: a gentle, easy-going town on Lake Zurich, perfect for a lazy afternoon (direct 35min; 1hr 45min by boat)
- Rhine: Europe’s biggest waterfall. Change at Winterthur for Schloss Laufen or Neuhausen (50min)
- Rigi: a popular ride up the nearest high mountain to Zurich (1798m). Change at Arth-Goldau (1hr 40min)
- Schaffhausen: fascinating, little-visited Old Town; combine it with a river trip to Stein-am-Rhein (direct 55min)
- Uetliberg: Zurich’s “home mountain”, with a network of easy walking routes (direct 20min)
- Winterthur: a relaxed city with high-quality art museums (direct 25min)
Easy day-trips from Zurich by train
If you're into the idea of exploring further afield, read up on the best outdoor experiences in Switzerland.
Adventure-minded female travellers might also want to discover a programme of outdoor activities in Switzerland created by women, for women.
It's also worth bearing in mind that Zurich is an easy gateway to the charms of Central Switzerland.
If you feel inspired by this Zürich travel guide, The Rough Guide to Switzerland and our tips on things not to miss in Switzerland will help you plan — think of them as your personal travel guide to Switzerland.
Not a fan of planning? Consider booking a hassle-free tailor-made trip to Switzerland, with customisable itineraries covering everything from unforgettable highlights of Switzerland, to touring the Grand Circle.
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