Set alongside a shimmering lake and framed by alpine mountains, Zurich seamlessly blends the indoor and outdoor. Take a stroll around the Old Town, check hip attractions like the Viadukt and then take a dip in a ‘badi’ – open-air swimming pools beloved by locals.
For the best views, hop on a train and head towards a nearby mountain, or for high life of a different kind, eyeball Bahnhofstrasse, one of the world’s most expensive shopping streets. Zurich also loves to party, with an exciting network of bars and clubs open into the small hours and beyond.
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21 amazing things to do in Zurich
The flat boats of the Limmatschifffahrt offer a different view of the city – from the bottom up. Built to pass below the seven bridges over the Limmat, they offer space for up to 51 passengers. It can get crowded at the Landesmuseum station, where the boat begins its one-hour round trip, so check the website in advance for departure times and arrive early. Fancy a dinner cruise on the lake? Board one of the Dreamboats of ZSG, departing from Bürkliplatz – fondue trips and barbecues are on offer.
Zurich’s Kunsthaus may not be the MoMa or the Tate, but it has plenty to offer. Lovers of Alberto Giacometti will find a whole series of rooms dedicated to the Swiss artist and sculptor, and the likes of Van Gogh, Monet and Chagall are displayed in small but bright rooms on the top floor. The permanent collection can be visited for free on Wednesdays.
The old town stretches between Central and Bellevue and is often referred to as the 'Dörfli' by locals. It actually consists of two parts – Niederdorf and Oberdorf. Though something of a tourist trap – fondue restaurants and souvenir shops are common hereabouts – the old buildings and narrow streets are charming enough, and the area has generous offerings of quirky shops and cosy bars. Don’t miss Cabaret Voltaire, the cradle of Dada, and its Café duDA. For impressive views of the city, climb up one of the towers of Grossmünster – those who suffer from vertigo might first want to stop by the Bodega Espanola for a bolstering Moscatel.
Originally a run down area full of decaying warehouses, Zurich West – also called 'Kreis 5' or 'Industriequartier' – is now an alternative heart of the town. Its main attraction is the Viadukt, a stretch of shops, restaurants and bars built into the arches of the old railway viaduct that runs between the bank of the river Limmat and Hardbrücke station. Nearby Frau Gerolds Garten offers cute little shops, an urban garden and some seasonal attractions, such as a Saturday market in summer and a fondue tent in winter. Every local’s favourite restaurant, the Rosso – with its crispy pizzas and industrial atmosphere – is a few steps away.
Rather than go on one of the group tours offered on various websites (and designed mainly to get participants drunk before the third stop), put together your own itinerary. However, we do have a few suggestions: start with a beer at El Lokal and admire the skeleton hanging from its ceiling, before moving on to Central, where you might want to have a quick snack. If cocktails are your thing, hit Raygrodski (we strongly recommend the 'Hot Russian). The Wohnzimmer is the place for a mellow ending, while the bar of the Plaza might get you in the mood for a long night out.
The editors of hipster-bible Monocle never get tired of pointing out the Badis as Zurich’s unique attraction. The Badi of all Badis is definitely the Flussbad Oberer Letten, whether you lounge around on the wooden panels of the right bank, play a game of beach volley, enjoy a drink from the container bar or join the sun-hungry at Pier West on the left bank.
Known as one of the most expensive shopping streets in the world, Bahnhofstrasse is popular with visitors. Its lower half (starting from the main station) is filled with the usual high street brands, while most of the luxury shops are situated at the upper end, close to Bürkliplatz and the lake. Café Sprüngli’s outside tables on Paradeplatz, the epicentre of the Swiss banking world, are the place to be on a sunny afternoon (try their hot chocolate if it’s chilly), while in December you should wait until after dark to see the dazzling lights of ‘Lucy’, Bahnhofstrasse’s custom made Christmas illumination.
Departing from the main station, the SZU takes you all the way up Zurich’s backyard mountain, the Uetliberg. Take the journey up to the top where you can climb the observation tower and enjoy the views in all directions. A planet trail takes you over to the Felsenegg, from where you can take the cable car down to Adliswil (and return to Zurich on the train). If you prefer to head straight back to town there are various hiking trails downhill. On a winter’s day if you're lucky you might be able to sledge down the Uetliberg – an exceptional experience as Zurich doesn’t usually get much snow.
Some of the best activities in town come for free, like renting a bike – or using one for free, in fact. Leave a CHF 20 deposit at one of the Züri rollt containers and enjoy the city on two wheels. Other similar bike hire schemes are also run across the city by LimeBike and Zuri Velo. You might want to cycle down either side of the lake, or simply use the bike to get round town quicker. Why not start at the Bellevue rental station, enjoy a quiet ride with striking river views down the car-free Limmatquai, before making your way around the train station and down Josefstrasse and its ecletic selection of shops until you reach Josefswiese and the Viadukt? Then you can hand in your bike at the on-site rental station and quench your thirst with a Gazosa lemonade from the kiosk.
Some call it a tourist trap, but sitting in the Jules Verne Panorama Bar with 360-degree views of the city, sipping on a cocktail and holding your significant other's hand might be as close to a perfect date as it can get in Zurich. The bar is just below the Urania Sternwarte and reached through the elevator inside Brasserie Lipp. It can be crowded, but a table beside the window is worth the wait. To top up your stargazing experience, check Urania Sternwarte's website for public tours and events – and bring a warm sweater, because it can get chilly when they open the dome.
Zurich’s trams are much more than a simple means of transportation – they’re an attitude and a lifestyle, so buy a ticket and hop on! Enjoy views of the old town and the Limmat river on the 4 or the 15. The 7 takes you down one side of the lake – take the 2 or 4 for the other side – and the 10 offers an almost scenic ride all the way to the airport. Looking for that special ride? Seasonally changing themed trams like the fondue tram, the sushi tram or the apéro tram run from designated stops
It’s all in the name: Zurich burger restaurant Heidi & Tell is full of Swiss clichés, but not to embarrassing effect. A focus on quality over quantity means a limited menu made up of fresh vegetables, homemade bread, grilled Swiss meat and mountain cheese – all free from preservatives and flavour enhancers. It’s about as far from the greasy burger stereotype as you can get. Wash it all down with a beer from the restaurant’s vast selection.
Forget about Züri Geschnetzeltes, the veal dish with a creamy sauce of which some people might tell you is Zurich’s iconic culinary offering. Go vegetarian instead. Founded in 1898, the Hiltl is – according to the Guinness Book of Records – the world's oldest vegetarian restaurant, and its famous buffet is filled with over 100 enticing dishes. Owned by one of the fourth generation of Hiltl's (Rolf), the spacious restaurant spreads over two floors and has become a small vegetarian empire with its own bar, cooking classes and shop – there's even a nightclub. If you still feel like a plate of 'Geschnetzeltes', the Hiltl serves its own vegetarian version.
Zurich is famous for its Street Parade, the electronic music festival in August which sees a long stretch of decorated trucks – the Love Mobiles – make their way through a dancing crowd of about a million people. If you’re looking to carry on the party, the Kaufleuten is a classic venue, and you can hardly go wrong with the Plaza or the Mascotte. A marginally edgier (and younger) crowd can be found at the Hive or the Härterei, and newer venues on Langstrasse like Cafe Gold and Kinski continue to attract attention.
On a cold and rainy day, head to the Hürlimann Areal and its Thermalbad & Spa. The view over the city from its rooftop pool is outstanding, and this alone is worth the entrance fee. But there's more: you can relax in the huge wooden water-filled tubs of the old brewery in the basement and – for an additional sum – enjoy the Irish-Roman spa with its steam baths and shallow pools. It gets very crowded on weekends, so arrive early. If you are looking for a more intimate spa experience, check out the Stadtbad on Helvetiaplatz with its stylish hammam.
Sundays are all about brunch for Zurich’s young, cool and hip, and you’ll find it hard to get a table at one of the popular venues if you don’t book in advance. Head to Kafischnaps, Café des Amis or Nordbrücke for a casual, bistro-style brekkie and mingle with the locals who spend hours here reading their Sunday newspapers. Maison Blunt is usually booked out days in advance but offers a truly memorable oriental brunch, while the Markthalle is a good place to go with small kids.
The best way to get to know any city is to people-watch, and the promenade in Lake Zurich’s Seefeld district, known as the Zurich Horn, allows plenty of opportunity for that. It’s here that people come to stroll, cycle, skate, lounge about on the shore and have a dip in summer. Watch street artists gather crowds around their trompe l’oeil chalk drawings, pick up handmade jewellery at street stalls or sit on a bench and scoff an ice cream.
The historic centre of Zurich is up on this hill. Overlooking the Old Town, Limmat river and cathedral, the elevated spot of Lindenhof is the former site of a Roman castle, around which the city of Zurich grew. There are still remnants of Roman and medieval settlements up here, earning its status as a site of national importance. But these days people come here to relax rather than ruminate on history.
The three glass domes in the palm houses of the Botanischer Garten (botanical garden) might make you worry about an alien invasion. But despite their exotic and often stunning appearance, all the plants inside the spheres appear to be earthlings. Take an early morning stroll across the vast grounds or just sit and relax for a while on a sunny afternoon. The botanical garden is rarely crowded and can deliver instant peace and happiness when you stumble upon a pretty flower or watch the branches of the old trees swing with the wind.
Zurich's Helmhaus gallery displays contemporary art with a strong focus on Switzerland- and Zurich-based artists. Each year the gallery mounts five exhibitions, including solo shows, group shows and themed exhibits. As a rather huge bonus, entry is free.
You can learn more about the history of Zurich’s trams in its own tram museum. Original carriages from 1897 onwards are on display as well as models. A special museum tram runs to the venue every last weekend of the month (check the website for timetable), and there are special family Sundays with handicraft activities.
Go further afield and explore the Swiss ski scene
Switzerland’s long-standing obsession with skiing has led to an incredible scene, so make the most of it at a ski-in and ski-out hotel. These fabulous spots are the ideal getaway for skiers, as you can spring out of bed and straight on to the piste, without wasting valuable carving time schlepping to the slope. Here’s a handpicked selection of the finest ski-in and ski-out hotels around.