Luxury watches, fine chocolate, meandering street trams, distant Alps and a majestic blue lake – these were the images I associated with Zürich. A visit to Switzerland’s largest city will confirm these images and impress you with even more.
I have visited Europe a number of times, but I have never before journeyed to Switzerland. Due to a good airline price, I decided to make a brief visit stop in Zürich on my way to London. While 24 hours is not optimal to explore any world-class city like Zürich, my goal was to get a brief taste of the city.
In a few days, I would be taking a cruise from Southampton, England to Norway, but the cheapest fare to Europe from Chicago was on Swiss International Air to Zürich. Therefore I decided to spend a day in Switzerland’s largest city before flying on to London. That’s the beauty of low-cost airlines like easyJet for regional flights in Europe.
Getting around and transport
True to its reputation, Swiss transport infrastructure is world class. Whether it’s the airport or the trains, Swiss facilities and travel options are modern, reliable, on time and easy to use. I only had about 24 hours in Zürich, and while I did study the city in advance, it was wonderful to find readily available transit maps and tourist guide brochures. I could hit the ground running and make good time during my layover.
Like many airports in Europe, Zürich Flughafen has a left-luggage facility near the parking entrance. I grabbed my luggage and deposited it with the left-luggage attendant. Free of my luggage, I took the Zürcher Verkehrsverbund train to Zürich Hauptbahnhof, or Zürich Main train station.
Getting to the city center is quick and simple. I recommend the ZürichCARD, which provides free travel with public transportation throughout the entire city on the Zürich Transport Network (ZVV). You can buy a one-day or three-day card, but I only needed the 24-hour one. It allows unlimited second-class travel on all forms of public transportation in the city of Zürich and surrounding region for the price of CHF 24 (€20). As an added bonus, it concedes free admission to the majority of Zürich’s museums, offers a 50-percent discount on public city tours organized by Zürich Tourism and concedes a 10-percent discount in various local shops.
The Swiss are know for their outstanding transportation network, and combined with the walkability of Zürich, it the easiest way to get around the city. The train from Zürich Flughafen takes only about 10 minutes. Once in central Zurich, it seems there is a tram, bus and train on every corner. In fact a bus or ZVV tram stops just about every 300 yards.
Bahnhofstraße and the Altstadt
After grabbing a ham and cheese bretzel sandwich for lunch, I decided to take a stroll down world-famous Bahnhofstraße, or train station street. I crossed the street at busy Bahnhofplatz as about five different trams zoomed by. I felt like I was back in Prague or Vienna with all of the S-Bahns crossing back and forth.
Then I headed down Bahnhofstraße, the world-renowned shopping boulevard where the city’s moats were located 150 years ago. Today it stretches almost a mile connecting Lake Zürich and the main railway station. Along the mile are numerous watch shops, boutiques and department stores. It truly is a fantastic street for shopping and people watching.
From there, I highly recommend visitors stroll up pedestrian Rennweg street. This beautiful street rises up a small hill from Bahnhofstrasse and runs below Lindenhof Square. During the Middle Ages, Rennweg was the widest street in Zürich. Today the cobbled street is another one of the city’s popular shopping destinations.
After climbing the hill, I took a left on Fortunag street which takes you up to the Lindenhof Square – one of the city’s best overlooks. The views of the Old Town from the Lindenhof are absolutely extraordinary. You can see most of the old town of Zürich with its beautiful spires below beckoning you to explore the city’s history. Below the River Limmat flows gracefully to blue Lake Zürich in the distance. I admired the views for a while before watching old men playing chess on larger-than-life chess sets.
The Lindenhof also holds an important part in Zürich’s history. A Roman fort stood on the hilltop in the 4th century. By the 9th century, Charlemagne’s grandson had built a palace here. Centuries later in 1798, the oath sealing the Helvetic Constitution that united Switzerland’s cantons occurred at the Lindenhof.
Old Church Tour
Once I finished taking photos from the overlook, I walked down the cobbled streets of the Altstadt (Old Town) to check out some of Zürich’s historic churches. My first stop was the Kirche St. Peter’s.
Kirche St. Peter’s current building dates back to 1706, although remains of an earlier church from the 1300s still exist on the site. St. Peter’s became the first church built under protestant rule and is part of the Evangelical Reformed Church of the Canton of Zürich. The exquisite steeple towers over the Altstadt. The most notable part of the church is the steeple’s clock face, which has a diameter of 27 feet, making it the largest church clock face in Europe. It’s definitely worth a visit inside the church – especially if you are as lucky as me to hear an organist practicing inside.
My next stop was the Fraumünster. The Fraumünster Church (Women’s Minster) was built on the remains of a former abbey – founded in 853 – for aristocratic women. It makes up one of the three main churches of Zürich, with the others being St. Peter’s and the Grossmünster – my final stop on the church tour.
In my opinion, the Grossmünster – located across the River Limmat from the Fraumünster – is the most beautiful church in Zürich. According to legend, Charlemagne discovered the graves of the city’s patron saints Felix and Regula, so he declared that a church be built as a monastery on the spot. It was at the Grossmünster in early 1500s where Huldrych Zwingli and Heinrich Bullinger started the Swiss-German Reformation. I toured inside and admired the ornate bronze doors before gazing in awe at the beautiful stained-glass windows. The Romanesque crypt is also interesting, but the highlight for me was learning more about the Swiss Reformation while touring the Reformation Museum located in the cloisters.
Down by Lake Zürich
Afterwards, I walked south down Limmatquai on the banks of the River Limmat toward Lake Zürich’s harbor. After strolling through Bellevueplatz, I walked down to Sechseläutenplatz before arriving at the Zürich Opernhaus (Opera House). I didn’t have time to tour the inside, but the opera house was absolutely beautiful from the exterior.
Down by the harbor overlooking Lake Zürich, I enjoyed the beautiful waterfront. Certainly the Alps to the south add to the luster, but the azure colors of Lake Zürich definitely create a sparkling jewel. On this beautiful day, hundreds of Zürich residents and visitors strolled the harbor and relaxed on it shores. It was easy here to appreciate the charm of Zürich, which is known for having one of the highest qualities of life in the world. From 2001 to 2008, Mercer Consulting group ranked it number one in the world. It seems everywhere the streets are clean, swimmers enjoy recreation on the lakes and river, and the parks are green and well maintained.
Across the lake I saw the famous Mythenquai Fountain shooting jets up into the air from the lake surface. Zürich must truly be one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. I would rank it right up there with Prague, Istanbul, Vienna and Copenhagen.
I decided to have dinner that evening back up the River Limmat in the Niederdorf entertainment district of the Altstadt – called “Dörfli” by the locals. It’s known for its bars, discos and street artists.
I ate a beer hall called Bierhalle Wolf, which even has live music. The Schlager bands were pretty good and I enjoyed what had to be the best warm pretzel I have ever eaten with a golden pint of Swiss lager. For the main course I sampled several different bratwurst along with a plate of rösti potatoes. It was a little overpriced for simple German and Swiss food, but a highly enjoyable experience.
Then I took a street tram back towards the Hauptbahnhof. I exited at Paradeplatz – the Swiss banking center and world financial headquarters. It’s rather interesting that back in the 17th century, it was a pig market! In addition to the large Swiss banks, a compulsory stop is the Sprüngli confectionery company to buy their famous Luxemburgerli candies. I bought a few of these mini-macaroons with their delicious fillings. The chocolate, Bourbon vanilla and pistachio were absolutely heavenly!
For my last stop, I decided to visit the Swiss Casinos Zürich on Gessnerallee street. The casino is the largest in the country and it was very luxurious inside. I played video poker and blackjack for a little while but left before I could lose too much money. It was a great relaxing way to end the evening.
Afterwards I walked back to the Hauptbahnhoff. From there I boarded a Zürcher Verkehrsverbund back to the airport. The trains are like fine Swiss Rolex watches – they are precise and run like clockwork. At the airport I claimed my bag from left luggage and took a taxi to my pre-booked apartment.
Visiting Switzerland is not cheap. Everything is expensive here, from eating to lodging. Therefore, trying to find cheap accommodations is a challenge.
Before I left, I used Expedia.com and found a well-reviewed and valued-priced option near Zürich Flughafen. I stayed at some apartments called the Swiss Star in nearby Kloten. There is no attendant and you receive your key from a lockbox via a code that they email to you. Even though I am proficient in German, I had a little difficulty at first getting the box to work. Once I finally figured it out, I checked out my room, sat on the bed and watched Swiss television before crashing for the evening. It was a great, one-day introduction to Zürich.
If you have more time than I did, there are several must-see attractions inside and outside of Zürich that are worth visiting.
Those mesmerized by watches should check out the Beyer Clock and Watch Museum on Bahnhofstraße. It’s the world’s leading private collections of clocks and also a museum that presents the history of timekeeping from 1400 BC to the present day. Entrance is CHF 8.
For art fans, Zürich is the home of artists such as Dada and Zwingli. The top destination is the Kunsthaus, the city’s main art museum located on Winkelwiese.
A highlight for outdoor lovers is Uetliberg, or Zürich’s mountain with a view of the Alps from 2,850 feet. There is great hiking and mountain biking during the warmer months followed by sledding runs in the winter.
Many tourists head to Rapperswil, known as the picturesque town of roses by Lake Zürich. Visitors board boats from Zürich to cruise down the lake to the medieval town famous for its small alleys and winding streets. Rapperswil castle overlooks the town from the hill above and offers great views of the lake and Alps.
Many visitors love to visit Rheinfall, Europe’s biggest waterfall. The Rhine Falls are located near Schaffhausen and Laufen Castle. They draw large numbers of visitors to witness its wonder. They stretch almost 492 feet wide and fall about 75 feet. The Adventure Park at Rhine Falls – on the north bank – is one of Europe’s best rope parks.
Further afield are the Swiss Alps. Visitors short on time may make a bus trip to Mt. Titlis to admire Alpine glaciers at 9,900 feet. After a stop to see the Lion Monument, the tour continues by rotating cable car up to the summit of Mt. Titlis with its deep glacier crevasse. Highlights include a visit to the glacier cave and a trip over glacier crevasses in the “Ice Flyer” glacier chairlift.