With a city population of 400,000 and a total metropolitan population north of one million, Zurich is the largest city in Switzerland, making it the country’s unofficial financial and logistical capital.
The lakeside valley that Zurich now fills has been inhabited for at least 2,000 years, since the height of the Roman Empire, when the city was a provincial outpost known as Turicum. Zurich proudly wears that long history on its sleeve. Though few traces of ancient Zurich remain, evidence of its medieval wealth and prestige can still be spotted, from its grand stone houses to its soaring cathedral spires.
Compared with other major European cities such as London and Paris, Zurich isn’t particularly big. But it punches well above its weight in terms of economic importance. Due in part to Switzerland’s favorable banking laws, Zurich is a leading center of global finance, with numerous bank headquarters and satellite offices. According to CityLab, Zurich is the world’s 13th most economically powerful city – just behind Chicago and just ahead of Sydney, both of which have far larger populations.
Zurich’s strong economy supports impressive living standards and an effortlessly cosmopolitan culture. Those attributes, plus the postcard-perfect views of Zurichsee (Lake Zurich), contribute to its attractiveness as a vacation destination for tourists who romanticize old Europe, appreciate fine art and dining, and value the staggeringly beautiful Swiss countryside. Urban Zurich is also a Mecca for foodies, thanks to a long-running culinary resurgence that has turned it into a capital of gastronomic diversity and experimentation at every peg of the price scale – from formal, Old World dining, to rough-and-tumble street eats.
The downside of Zurich’s prosperity and cultural diversity, at least for international visitors, is its costliness. Despite Zurich’s modest size, the cost of goods and services is often higher than major coastal U.S. cities such as New York and San Francisco. Still, it’s possible to find attractive discounts and package deals in Zurich. With some advanced planning, frugal mindset, and a willingness to compromise, you can plan a trip that fits nearly any budget.
Here’s what to do and see with your time in Zurich, along with tips to save while traveling. Prices are quoted in Swiss Francs (CHF), but some experiences accept euros or U.S. dollars.
Urban Parks and Outdoor Areas
Zurich’s intimate cityscape and beautiful surroundings combine to memorable effect. Try to visit these sites and attractions, even if you only have time to pass through.
1. Lake Promenade
Lake Promenade is a popular walking path along Lake Zurich’s northern shores. It’s popular year-round when the weather is dry, but on nice summer days, it’s downright bustling. When it’s busy, vendors come out to offer attractive (by Swiss standards) deals on artwork, crafts, and local souvenirs. The Promenade is open 24/7, but use caution at night.
Schanzengraben is a quieter alternative to Lake Promenade. It’s a quaint walkway along a canal connecting Zurich HB, the main train station, with the northern end of Lake Zurich. Located about two meters below street level, Schanzengraben is a low-key place to take in the sights, sounds, and architecture of Old Zurich. It’s accessible at all times, but again, use caution at night.
Platzspitz is among Zurich’s oldest and most convenient parks – a calm oasis of green in the midst of the old city. Zurich’s two primary rivers meet at one end of this triangular park creating a beautiful landscape. If you need to rest after a few hours of sightseeing, it’s hard to imagine a better place within walking distance of Zurich HB. Platzspit is open throughout the week, but access may be restricted after hours.
Lindenhof is a seemingly modest hilltop park that holds nearly 2,000 years of Zurich history. The site has been home to an old Roman fort and a 9th-century palace built by European emperor Charlemagne. More recently, it hosted the signing of the Helvetic Constitution, the document that briefly bound Switzerland’s diverse regions around the turn of the 19th century. Today, it’s worth visiting simply for the amazing views of central Zurich’s landmarks, including Grossmunster Church and Lake Zurich.
Rieterpark is Zurich’s largest urban park. Once the estate of a powerful Swiss industrialist, it’s now one of the best places in town to see the Alps, weather permitting. The park’s mansion has been reborn as Museum Rietberg, a well-curated institution devoted to global art and culture.
Museum admission is 14 CHF, free with ZurichCARD. Open hours are 10am to 5pm, Tuesday through Sunday, except Wednesdays, when the galleries stay open until 8pm. The park doesn’t have official open hours, but access may be restricted at night.
6. Uetliberg Mountain
Just a few miles west of Rieterpark lies Uetliberg Mountain, a 2,800-foot peak with breathtaking urban views of central Zurich and equally stunning water views of Lake Zurich. On clear days, the Alps are visible in the distance as well. A great destination for summer hikers, Uetliberg is equally engaging in winter, when sledding is permitted on its forest trails.
7. Zurichsee Boat Tours
Though Zurichsee Boat Tours are neither parks nor free, they are most definitely outside. If time and budget allow, it’s worth checking out.
The views from Lake Zurich and the River Limmat are life-changing, with snow-capped mountains, impossibly green foothills, rolling farmland, and ancient settlements all visible from the deck (or, if the weather doesn’t cooperate, the comfortable interior) of Zuricsee Boat Tours’ sturdy vessels.
If you have the time, try the Upper Lake Round Trip, which costs 33.60 CHF. For a quick jaunt up the River Limmat and underneath views of Zurich’s seven major bridges, stick with the one-and-a-half-hour, 4.30 CHF River Limmat cruise. Check availability before you book, as cruises are sharply curtailed during the shoulder seasons and stop altogether in winter.
8. Old Botanical Garden
The Old Botanical Garden is a modestly sized but welcome oasis in the heart of old Zurich, just a few blocks from Lake Zurich and the River Limmat. Centerpieces include a collection of majestic old trees dating back well before the turn of the 20th century, and a glass-enclosed Palm House that doubles as a concert venue. Also, don’t miss the Gessner Garden, a hillside plot that contains plants thought by medieval people to have medicinal properties. The Old Botanical Garden is open daily from 7am to 7pm during the warm season, and from 8am to 6pm during the cold season.
9. City Gardens Zurich
City Gardens Zurich effortlessly merges the practical and the whimsical. Its primary job is to supply a steady stream of annuals for Zurich’s prolific public flowerbeds – in all, some 250,000 individual specimens per year. However, its two greenhouses and avant-garde pumpkin patch are open to the public daily from 9am to 4:30pm. Plus, City Gardens Zurich is free, so if you’re a fan of horticulture, you don’t want to miss it.
10. Chinese Garden
Zurich doesn’t have much of a Chinese diaspora, but its Chinese Garden is still one of the finest outside the Middle Kingdom. It has a tranquil pond, a lovingly maintained pavilion, acres of manicured shrubbery, and a miniature palace. It’s open daily (from 11am to 7pm) from mid-March through October, weather permitting. Admission is 4 CHF.
Museums and Cultural Institutions
Zurich’s world-class cultural institutions come in many flavors. These are among the most popular and best regarded.
11. Zoo Zurich
- Adult admission: 26 CHF
- Hours: Daily, 9am to 5pm, November through February; Daily, 9am to 6pm, March through October
Zoo Zurich is an expansive space with nearly 400 animal species and an ethical, conservation-oriented approach to zoo-keeping. Don’t miss the stunning rainforest and elephant habitat.
For discounts on entry and other opportunities not included in the regular price of admission, check out the zoo’s discounts and deals page. Zoo Zurich is one of the only major Swiss attractions open 365 days a year, so it’s useful for winter holidays.
12. Kunsthaus Zurich
- Adult admission: 15 CHF
- Hours: Friday through Sunday and Tuesday, 10am to 6pm; Wednesday and Thursday, 10am to 8pm
Kunsthaus Zurich is a beloved fine arts museum with thousands of paintings from history’s best artists. Its collection spans medieval times to the near-present, focusing on work from European masters. A rotating slate of special exhibitions – many of which concentrate on underappreciated or “forgotten” artists – makes repeat visits worthwhile.
13. Landesmuseum Zurich
- Adult admission: 10 CHF
- Hours: Tuesday through Sunday, 10am to 5pm (except Thursday, 10am to 7pm)
Landesmuseum Zurich, or the Swiss National Museum, celebrates Switzerland’s long, complex, and unique history with a comprehensive look at the peoples and customs that have graced this beautiful country over the centuries. If you’re interested in archaeology and early European history, you’ll love the Archaeology in Switzerland special exhibition. The permanent collection is a treat as well.
14. FIFA World Football Museum
- Adult admission: 24 CHF
- Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 10am to 7pm; Sunday, 9am to 6pm
For serious soccer fans (and even those with a passing interest in the sport), the FIFA World Football Museum is a must-visit. Located on a hill just east of central Zurich, it’s easily accessible by tram offering excellent outside views. The museum’s interactive multimedia exhibits look at the intersection between soccer and real life. For example, “Brazil 2014 Revisited” includes kid-friendly capoeira (Brazilian martial arts) demonstrations.
15. Museum fur Gestaltung – Schaudepot
- Adult admission: 12 CHF
- Hours: Tuesday through Sunday, 10am to 5pm (except Wednesdays, 10am to 8pm)
Museum fur Gestaltung – Schaudepot is a cutting-edge design museum with more than 500,000 individual objects in its expansive collection – though only a small fraction are publicly displayed at any given time. If you have any artsy inclinations or plan to travel with someone who does, this should be high on your list.
Note that Museum fur Gestaltung – Schaudepot recently moved to the Toni-Areal. Travelers with old maps or guidebooks shouldn’t rely on them for the correct address.
16. Beyer Clock and Watch Museum (Uhrenmuseum)
- Adult admission: 8 CHF
- Hours: Monday through Friday, 2pm to 6pm
If you fancy a quality timepiece but don’t have room in your budget to drop thousands of dollars, the Beyer Clock and Watch Museum is the next best thing. It’s a complete look at the recorded history of timekeeping, from ancient sundials to modern precision instruments. The biggest downside is the limited open times – just four hours on weekdays.
17. Art Dock Zurich
- Adult admission: Free
- Hours: Tuesday through Friday, 5pm to 9pm; Saturday and Sunday, 12pm to 7pm
This free, quasi-underground art museum is the artistic equivalent of a hyper-local, farm-to-table restaurant. It showcases innovative, challenging work made by and for Zurich’s thriving artist community, wholeheartedly dedicating itself to archiving and protecting installation art made in Zurich since the 1960s.
Art Dock Zurich is currently located in a former shipping terminal near central Zurich, but the location is subject to change. See the In Your Pocket guide for a brief English-language rundown of what to expect. Check Art Dock Zurich’s official website if you’re comfortable reading or translating German.
18. Haus Konstruktiv
- Adult admission: 16 CHF
- Hours: Tuesday through Sunday, 11am to 5pm (except Wednesday, 11am to 8pm)
Haus Konstruktiv is another “living” installation art museum – a buttoned-up cousin to Art Dock Zurich. The museum occupies five floors of an old electric power substation. Its permanent collection houses a treasure trove of Swiss and European installation art, while its visiting exhibition program gives much-needed visibility to young, active installation artists looking to establish themselves in the cutthroat art world.
19. Fraumunster (Minister of Our Lady Church)
- Adult admission: Free
- Hours: Daily, 10am to 5pm or 6pm, depending on season (Sunday services may affect hours)
The ancient Fraumunster, founded in 853 by a medieval king, sought to create a high-class monastery in the increasingly important city of Zurich. It’s been slowly renovated, but the stunning arched transept still places the church deep in the Romanesque period. You’ll be floored by the ornate stained glass windows and beautiful frescoes too.
20. Grossmunster (Great Minister Church)
- Adult admission: Free
- Hours: Daily, 10am to 5pm or 6pm, depending on season (Sunday services may affect hours)
Commissioned by Charlemagne – the famous European emperor from medieval times – the Grossmunster is among Zurich’s most recognizable landmarks. According to legend, the structure was built on the graves of Felix and Regula, the city’s ancient patron saints. Grossmunster is now a Protestant church. The onsite Reformation Museum explaining the transition from Catholicism to Protestantism is a must-see. The old crypt and beautiful stained glass windows are worth noting too.
Festivals and Culinary Experiences
Switzerland is a cultural hodgepodge that combines French, Italian, German, and farther-flung influences in a vibrant melting pot. Though the city is located in Switzerland’s German quarter, its culinary landscape reflects an impressive diversity. These festivals, institutions, and experiences all pay homage to Zurich’s cultural and gastronomical heritage in tasty, surprisingly affordable fashion.
21. Zuri Fascht (City Festival)
Zuri Fascht bills itself as Switzerland’s largest festival. Held every three years in early July, it’s a weekend celebration of almost unimaginable proportions that turns much of central Zurich into a vibrant, often chaotic pedestrian mall. Music stages and food stalls are everywhere, with “culinary delights from all over the world” temporarily turning Zurich into the planet’s (or at least Europe’s) foodie capital. Two major fireworks shows cap off the festivities.
More than two million people attend each Zuri Fascht, so visitors need to reserve accommodations well in advance or risk being shut out. If you’re not planning to visit Zurich specifically for Zuri Fascht, consider altering your travel plans to avoid that weekend. The next Zuri Fascht is scheduled for 2019.
22. Zurich Pride Festival
Held in early June each year, Zurich Pride Festival is a jubilant, weekend-long event celebrating the city’s (and Switzerland’s) LGBT community. As with other pride festivals, the centerpiece of Zurich Pride is a thousands-strong march through central Zurich. The weekend also features live music on stages at Kasernenplatz and on the Zeughauswiese, plus political and social conventions, scheduled meetup events, food stalls, pop-up bars and clubs, and more.
The event is entirely free to attend, but keep in mind that it’s quite popular – if you’re planning to be in Zurich during Zurich Pride, but not partake in the festivities, expect above-average crowds and lodging prices.
23. Street Parade
Founded in 1992 and held every year since (save for 1994, when it was banned by city police), Zurich Street Parade is an annual “demonstration of love, peace, freedom, generosity, and tolerance.” With changing times and tastes, it has since morphed into the world’s largest techno festival, with more than 100 sanctioned “mega-parties” held throughout the city over several days in August, plus seven fixed stages and 30 “love mobiles” with giant sound systems spreading good vibes.
Hundreds of thousands of people attend each Street Parade, straining Zurich’s hospitality infrastructure, sending prices skyrocketing and turning Zurich’s already crowded city center into a veritable zoo. If you’re not visiting specifically for this event, consider working your travel plans around it.
24. Food Zurich
Over the course of 11 days in September, Food Zurich transforms Zurich into a living wonderland of culinary pleasures. Throughout the city, restaurants, hotels, and street kitchens offer new and unusual foods and drinks, put on interactive shows that allow diners to practice cooking techniques, host special formal dinners, and highlight the latest and greatest food trends.
Highlights of Food Zurich include:
- Behind the Scenes of Candrian, a guided tour of the famous Restaurant Da Capo, located deep beneath Zurich HB. The restaurant has been capably run by the Candrian family for five generations, yet retains a homey, simple approach that prizes the handmade over the flashy. The 60-minute tour concludes with a three-course dinner at the restaurant. It’s held every festival weekday and costs 89 CHF per person. Admission includes a ZVV (Zurich transit) ticket.
- Bike and Bite (German language link), a pedal-powered food tour that pairs two of Zurich’s favorite activities into one satisfying afternoon. It’s held on both festival Saturdays and costs 35 CHF per person.
- Zero Food Waste on Heinrichstrasse, a three-day event organized by the venerable Restaurant Holzschopf. Held in the bustling Heinrichstrasse food corridor, the event finds dozens of restaurants and stall operators, bringing their leftover food scraps to Restaurant Holzschopf where they’re preserved or transformed in preparation for distribution to needy Zurichers at the event’s conclusion. It’s no exaggeration to say that Zero Food Waste is the future of sustainable eating – and you can participate at no additional cost simply by patronizing participating Heinrichstrasse vendors during the event.
- Party at Engrosmarkt is Food Zurich’s capstone event. Its three halls include dozens of local food manufacturers showing off sustainable sourcing and production processes; a “Soul Food Hall” with cart vendors offering small bites from a dizzying array of global culinary traditions; and a high-end, sit-down sampling hall where chefs from some of Zurich’s finest restaurants (including Brasserie Lipp, Neni, Rüsterei, Saltz, Parkhuus, and Markthalle) prepare small bites. Entry is free, so if you’re looking to stretch your Food Zurich dollars further, this is one opportunity you can’t pass up.
25. The Epicure at Dolder Grand
The Epicure at Dolder Grand (properly known as The Epicure – Days of Culinary Masterpieces) coincides with Food Zurich, but it’s an experience all on its own. Over the course of “five days of the very highest level of culinary indulgence,” The Epicure showcases the work of the “best of the best of international chefs” for discerning gourmets seeking a refined break from Food Zurich’s crowds. Highlights include a formal eight-course dinner, a series of weekend “masterclasses” showing off cutting-edge cooking techniques, and a delectable food and wine pairing session.
26. Zurich Street Food Festival
Zurich Street Food Festival is a dressed-down alternative to The Epicure – a free-flowing celebration of global street food culture, complete with more than 100 food truck stalls sampling familiar and not-so-familiar delicacies. You’ve probably had pulled pork sandwiches, but what about the traditional Japanese pancake known as okonomiyaki, or Swiss raclette (a rich, melty cow’s cheese)? You can try both and much more at Zurich Street Food Festival for no more than you’d pay at a taco truck stateside.
27. Pumpkin Exhibition at Juckerhof Seegraben
The Pumpkin Exhibition at Juckerhof, in the Zurich suburb of Seegraben, is probably Switzerland’s premier pumpkin-related event. Held in mid-September each year, usually during Food Zurich, it shows off the orange bounty of Switzerland’s surprisingly fertile countryside. In addition to hundreds of pumpkin specimens, including oversized monstrosities, there are dozens of sculptures expertly carved from pumpkins.
If you have kids, this is a must-visit. However, it’s slightly challenging to get to – unless you have a car, you need to take the S14 train to Aathal and walk about 20 minutes to the farm. A shuttle bus runs from the station to the farm on nice days, if you’re willing to spend 4 CHF per person to avoid the walk. The farm itself is free.
28. Zurich Food Tour
Zurich Food Tour is a weekly, guided meander through the increasingly diverse food and beverage scene of Zurich West, a former industrial district reborn as an artsy hipster center. In addition to a slew of small bites and drinks (including Zurich-made beer), Zurich Food Tour includes a wealth of facts, figures, and anecdotes about Zurich’s culinary history and its ongoing rebirth as a global foodie destination. If you love food and can’t make it to Food Zurich, this needs to be on your list.
Zurich Food Tour is open to the public on Fridays, 4pm to 7pm, and costs 89 CHF per person (inclusive of food and beverage). Tours are given in English and German. Private tours for up to 15 people are also available – they’re perfect for bachelor parties, family reunions, and small corporate events, but they’re pricey, carrying a cover charge of 430 CHF, plus 30 CHF per person.
If the Zurich Food Tour’s sticker price doesn’t quite fit your budget, opt for a self-guided food tour instead – that way, you control how much you spend (and eat). One must-see stop on any self-guided Zurich food tour is Haus Hiltl, the western world’s first vegetarian restaurant. With several locations suitable for vegans and mainline vegetarians alike, Haus Hiltl is an excellent, reasonably priced alternative to traditional Swiss cuisine.
Planning a trip to Zurich? Here’s what you need to know to make the experience memorable, enjoyable, and stress-free.
When to Visit
Zurich has a four-season climate with cold, snowy winters and temperate summers. Zurich’s winters and shoulder seasons are broadly similar to Boston‘s, with comparable temperatures and precipitation patterns. Summers are a bit cooler and wetter than the northeastern United States’.
From a purely climatic standpoint, the June-August stretch is the best time of the year to visit Zurich. Though it’s farther south than London, Paris, Amsterdam, and Berlin, Zurich is still pretty far north – roughly at the same latitude as Seattle, the northernmost major city in the continental United States. That makes for lots of daylight during the summer months – great news for sightseers who want to pack as many attractions (and photo opportunities) into their days as possible.
However, summer is also the busiest time to visit Zurich, thanks to the pleasant weather and preponderance of festivals. If avoiding crowds is a priority, schedule your trip for earlier or later in the year – the month of May, or late September (following Food Zurich) through October. Lodging prices also tend to be cheaper during the shoulder seasons.
Zurich is just a short train or bus ride away from some of Europe’s finest mountain terrain. If snow sports are on your agenda, you’ll want to visit between late November and early April. Crowds and prices tend to pick up around the winter holidays, so avoid the weeks around Christmas and New Year’s if possible.
What to Bring
What you bring to Zurich varies by season. While this isn’t a comprehensive packing list, it does include the basics that you’ll need to remain comfortable and prepared.
- Sturdy Shoes: Your Zurich trip is likely to involve a lot of walking, so make sure you have shoes that can handle the abuse. If you plan to do any hiking or climbing, proper boots are strongly recommended.
- Smart Casual Dress: If you’re sticking to street food and coffeehouse pastries, this might not apply. However, if you plan to eat at any of Zurich’s higher-end restaurants or hit a club after hours, bring a suitable outfit.
- Weather-Appropriate Clothing: During the warm season, most days are temperate enough to endure in short sleeves. However, even summer nights and mornings can be chilly, so a fleece or light jacket is appropriate at any time of year. During the shoulder seasons, consider bringing a cap and heavier jacket, as freezing temperatures are possible in the mornings. From November through March, coats, hats, gloves, and intermediate layers are essential.
- All-Purpose Backpack: Even if it’s not your primary piece of luggage, bring a sturdy backpack that can hold your personal effects, extra clothing layers, and snacks. You’ll want these as you make your way around Zurich – especially the snacks, as even bite-sized sustenance can be incredibly expensive in Switzerland.
- Rain and Sun Protection: Zurich’s weather is lively and variable. No matter when you visit, it’s a good idea to carry an umbrella and waterproof coat or poncho. Waterproof boots are strongly advised as well, especially in winter, when snowbanks and slush puddles are unavoidable. Unless luggage space is at a premium, buy these things before you leave the U.S., as they’re certain to be more expensive in Switzerland.
- Hydration Gear: Since you’ll probably be walking or biking around Zurich, you’ll want to stay hydrated (and avoid paying inflated prices for bottled water). Bring a refillable water bottle that fits easily into your backpack. If you’re planning a longer excursion outside the city, consider a larger-capacity setup, such as a Camelbak.
Where to Stay
Zurich has a wide variety of accommodations, from five-star hotels that rank among Europe’s finest to (reasonably) budget-friendly hostels and vacation rentals. Prices tend to be highest in the summer and winter high seasons, especially during festival weeks. Deals are more common during the shoulder seasons. However, since Zurich is a business capital, demand for city-center hotel rooms is always robust, so price swings aren’t as great as in the tourism-reliant Swiss countryside.
If easy access to Zurich’s historic core and major cultural attractions is important, look for places in and around District 1 (the Altstadt/Old City), which straddles the Limmat River near its exit from Lake Zurich. Hotels and hostels are less common in outlying areas such as District 6 and District 2, but vacation rentals are likely to be cheaper there. The exception is the airport district, which has a good selection of hotels and hostels for travelers seeking easy passage to and from the Zurich area.
- Hostels: Hostelworld has a good roundup of Zurich’s hostel options. Expect to pay anywhere from $30 to $60 for a basic room with amenities such as TV, free WiFi, and laundry.
- Hotels: Zurich’s most luxurious hotels, such as the Dolder Grand and Widder Hotel (a stunning, must-see property in Altstadt), can easily cost upwards of $500 per night. However, it’s possible to find charming, basic (two- and three-star) properties in the city center for less than $200 per night. Some boutique hotels occupy refurbished townhouses, effortlessly blending Swiss pragmatism with Old World charm and refinement.
- Vacation Rentals: Want to live like a true Zuricher? Vacation rentals abound in Zurich. Accommodations tend to be cozier in the Aldstadt and other close-in neighborhoods, but prices aren’t out-of-this-world – cheaper than two- and three-star hotels in many cases, especially if you’re willing to compromise on space and amenities. Check Airbnb and VRBO for availability and pricing.
Getting There and Getting Around
Like the rest of Switzerland, Zurich has an excellent transportation system. Here’s what you need to know about arriving in Zurich and getting around once you’re there.
Arriving in Zurich
If Zurich is your first (or only) stop in Europe, you’ll likely arrive at Zurich Airport, a major international airport with nonstop service to major U.S. cities such as New York City (JFK), Washington, D.C., Miami, San Francisco, Chicago, and L.A. Prices vary but are surprisingly reasonable – it’s often possible to find a nonstop round-trip flight from major U.S. cities for less than $1,000 per person.
Getting from Zurich Airport to central Zurich (Zurich HB or Zurich Main Station, the main train station) is a snap. Trains leave Zurich Airport’s station every few minutes, typically take less than 15 minutes to arrive downtown, and cost a little over 3.30 CHF.
If Zurich is a later stop on a longer European trip, you’ll likely arrive at Zurich HB. Located at the northern end of the Altstadt, Zurich HB is one of the busiest rail stations in Europe, with nearly 3,000 daily movements. It’s easy to connect to most major European population centers, though pricing and journey times vary widely. For tourists entering or departing Switzerland through Zurich HB, there’s a currency exchange facility on site, plus a bike rental facility for visitors looking to explore Zurich on two wheels.
Public Transportation in Zurich
Once you arrive in Zurich, you can reach almost anywhere in the city proper on public transportation. The local transit agency, ZVV, operates buses, trains, trams (streetcars), cable cars, and boats on Lake Zurich.
On shorter visits that involve lots of transit utilization, a day pass is probably the most cost-effective option. ZVV’s fare zone system is complicated, but unless you plan to explore outlying cities, a two-zone pass (8.60 CHF for unlimited adult second class travel) is sufficient. If you’re in the area for longer, try the multiple day pass option, which gives you six-day passes for use at your leisure at a discount of up to 10% (46.40 CHF for unlimited adult second class travel).
If you do plan to explore the wider Zurich region, consider a ZurichCARD (24 CHF for 24-hour validity or 48 CHF for 72-hour validity), which entitles you to unlimited travel anywhere in the ZVV network. ZurichCARD also confers discounts of up to 20% at select retailers, reduced admission to many Zurich museums, and 50% discounts on public tours operated by Zurich Tourism, the city’s official visitor bureau.
Be warned that ZVV charges extra for transit usage on weekend nights. In addition to your day pass or applicable ZVV fare (including ZurichCARD), you need to purchase a night supplement (5 CHF for one night or 27 CHF for six nights) to ride after hours.
Other Transportation Options
Driving a car is not practical in Zurich. However, ridesharing is easy with Uber. In central Zurich, Uber can’t compete with public transit on cost – for instance, a ride from the airport into central Zurich typically costs 25 CHF or more. However, it’s useful for exploring the immediate countryside, where transit coverage isn’t as good.
In central Zurich, particularly the Altstadt, walking is a wonderful option for visitors in good physical condition, provided they’re not in a rush. Zurich also has a free bike rental program that operates from early mornings through late evenings. As long as you’re willing to put up with occasional traffic encounters and puff your way up Zurich’s hillsides, biking is likely the cheapest and fastest transportation option in central Zurich. However, it’s first-come, first-served, so bike availability is not guaranteed, particularly on festival days and summer weekends.
Rail Passes for Travel Outside Zurich
If you plan to visit other cities, towns, and natural areas in Switzerland, consider buying a multi-day rail pass. The cost of individually purchased intercity train tickets can quickly add up, especially in rural areas where transportation is controlled by private companies (such as in the popular Jungfrau region, to Zurich’s south).
Popular pass options include:
- Swiss Travel Pass: Offered through Rail Europe and Swiss Travel Pass’s own website, Swiss Travel Pass boasts unlimited travel on trains, buses, and boats operated by the national Swiss Travel System. It also offers 50% off full fares on privately operated mountain railways, such as Jungfrau Railways. Choose between passes for free or discounted travel on three, four, eight, or fifteen consecutive days, or on any three, four, eight, or fifteen individual days within a one-month period. It’s cheaper, but less flexible, to purchase consecutive-day passes are cheaper than the one-month passes. Second-class adult prices for consecutive-day passes range from 210 CHF for the three-day option and 440 CHF for the fifteen-day option. Swiss Travel Pass also confers free admission to hundreds of museums around Switzerland, including many in Zurich. Check the full list here.
- Swiss Half Fare Card: The Swiss Half Fare Card entitles you to 50% discounts on nearly every bus, train, boast, and cable car fare in Switzerland, including on privately operated railways. It costs 120 CHF for a one-month pass.
- Berner Oberland Regional Pass: If you plan to focus your travels on the Bernese Oberland, a south-central Switzerland district that includes the famous Jungfrau region, look into the Berner Oberland Regional Pass. It covers all travel on privately owned railways in the area and comes in four-, six-, eight-, and ten-consecutive-day configurations. Second-class adult prices start at 240 CHF for the four-day, and 380 CHF for the ten-day. If you already have a Swiss Travel Pass or Swiss Half Fare Card, you get a reduced rate that ranges from 180 CHF for the second-class adult four-day to 285 CHF for the second-class adult ten-day.
Language, Budgeting, and Exchange Rates
The Swiss are a famously polyglot people, but the dominant (and official) language in Zurich and the surrounding areas is German – specifically, the Standard German dialect. Most Zurich residents speak a German dialect known as Zurich German, which is intelligible to other German speakers. Signage is generally in Standard German.
Many Zurich residents, especially younger folks and customer service staff in touristy areas, can understand and converse in English. Still, try to brush up on basic German and at least attempt to initiate conversations in the local tongue. Locals can tell that you’re not a native speaker and the conversation will likely switch to English.
Budgeting and Exchange Rates
Switzerland is famously expensive, and Zurich fits that mold. As a rule of thumb, you can expect prices in Zurich to be comparable to, or even a bit higher than, prices in major U.S. and European cities. While most items available for purchase in Zurich proper are denominated in Swiss francs (CHF), transportation and lodging can often be purchased in euros or U.S. dollars.
Preserve your budget and avoid sticker shock by developing a cost-control plan before your trip. Unless you want to be in town for a specific festival, avoid the busiest weeks of the year, when lodging prices spike. Seek out transportation and lodging deals in advance and determine whether you’ll need to compromise on amenities or location to stay within your budget. If you plan to travel extensively outside Zurich, strongly consider purchasing multi-day rail passes – the sizable upfront hit is worth the savings. And avoid cost creep by bringing snacks to tide you over between proper meals.
Though it’s a bit risky, you can also try a classic travel hacking move and time your big-ticket purchases to coincide with favorable currency movements. For instance, if you notice that the CHF has declined in value relative to the U.S. dollar, prepay for your hotel rooms to lock in the favorable rate. However, remember that exchange rates can swing both ways, so it’s not wise to wait too long to make your purchase.
Zurich is Switzerland’s largest city and de facto economic capital, but it’s not the only place worth visiting. From the cultural mecca of Basel to the beautiful lakeside expanse of Geneva to the charming old town of Bern, Switzerland has more than its fair share of tourist-friendly cities.
And Switzerland’s countryside harbors plenty of opportunities for visitors willing to get off the beaten path. More than half the country is covered by high mountains and foothills, the legacy of a great (and ongoing) collision between the Earth’s tectonic plates. Some of continental Europe’s most dramatic landscapes are found south of Zurich, in the deep glacial valleys and soaring heights of the Bernese Alps and the famous alpine Jungfrau region.
So, if you can only spare a few days, check out Zurich and its immediate surroundings. But, if you’re fortunate to have more time, you owe it to yourself and your traveling companions to explore greater Switzerland.
Have you ever been to Zurich or anywhere else in Switzerland? Any tips that we missed?