7 Things to Do in Zürich, Switzerland: An Insider’s Guide

Looking for a world-class shopping, a touch of history, and exceptional global cuisine? To heck with Paris -- try Zürich.Read More

The old town of Zürich has much to explore, offering both modern and historical draws. (Source: iStock / Denis Linine)

As one of Europe’s most beloved capitals, there’s no shortage of things to do in Zürich. However, if you want to have a truly well-rounded experience in the city, we have a few specific activities in mind. Set aside three days or so and space these out to be sure you can really enjoy them. Then, relish the culture, dynamism, and good times Zürich has to offer.

1: Go on a church tour.

Being a city with centuries of history under her belt, Zürich also has had a longstanding relationship with Protestantism. It’s really hard to miss: Churches dot the urban landscape, serving as anchors of the city and annals of Zürich’s many-layered past. What’s more, the architecture is quite impressive – both as feats of engineering and showcases of period design.

We recommend spending a morning or afternoon enjoying the towers, stained glass, and statuary of a few specific (and famous) churches. The first, Grossmünster, is situated right on the Limmat River that rolls through town, dating back to the 1500s. While the Romanesque style of the church doesn’t seem particularly impressive, it is notable for its place in history; church reformer Huldrych Zwingli preached regularly from the pulpit. You can get a free public tour if you want a bit more historical background, though it’s also nice to just sit in the pews and think about the tectonic cultural shifts that took place five centuries ago.

Grossmünster as seen from the Limmat River (Source: iStock / RomanBabakin)
Grossmünster as seen from the Limmat River (Source: iStock / RomanBabakin)

Right next door to Grossmünster is Fraumünster – a 19th-century church that was built on the remains of a 9th-century abbey. This one is more of a looker; the striking blue tower stands out against the skyline of the city, while the stained glass windows – a primary draw for tourists – were designed by famous artist Marc Chagall. Tours are offered here as well, though you can simply opt to get an audio guide that explains the history of the building and the events that gave it rise. Keep in mind: There is a modest entrance fee (5 CHF / $6) if you are coming to see the church as a tourist and not as a congregant.

Last of our recommended churches is St. Peter, just across the river. Showcasing a mix of Roman and Gothic architecture, this much older church has a history that dates back to the 8th century. In fact, the earliest iteration of the building was erected on the site of a former temple to Jupiter. The current church, however, was consecrated in 1706 with an iconic tower and clockface (the largest one in Europe) and an impressive chorus of bells. While the interior is relatively modest in design, it centers majestically on a beautiful pipe organ, added in the 1970s. If you have a chance, drop by for some organ music – the acoustics are incredible.

2: Take a train to the top of Uetliberg.

For a taste of nature and breathtaking vistas, be sure to grab a train ticket up to Uetliberg, lovingly referred to as Zürich’s own mountain. Only 30 minutes from downtown, this 2,850-foot peak offers panoramic views of Zürich and the city’s adjacent lake. Bring your camera for this one – you’ll want to capture the experience.

Breathtaking views await from atop Uetliberg. (Source: iStock / Denis Linine)
Breathtaking views await from atop Uetliberg. (Source: iStock / Denis Linine)

There are also several walking/hiking trails on the mountain; depending on your fitness level, you can hike most of the mountain or just from near the top to the very peak.

Also, if you’re keen on a hiking “climax,” head to Uto Kulm at the apex, where you can enjoy a lovely meal at the Uto Kulm Hotel – featuring, of course, Zürich-Style Veal with rösti potatoes and yes, a glass of Sommerspritz (gin meets rosé).

3: Go shopping on Bahnhofstrasse.

Transit hubs are often where commercial centers spring up, and this site in Zürich has been an intersection of thoroughfares for decades – starting with the main train station that was built in the area (“Bahnhofstrasse” literally means “train station street”) in the 1800s.

Grab those walking shoes and plenty of Swiss Francs – Bahnhofstrasse is calling. (Source: iStock / Denis Linine)
Grab those walking shoes and plenty of Swiss Francs – Bahnhofstrasse is calling. (Source: iStock / Denis Linine)

Today, you’ll find a gaggle of high-end boutiques and posh shopping outlets docked alongside the station, as well as the popular Paradeplatz (“parade square”) where crowds converge for gabbing and dining. Catch major brands like C&A, Zara, H&M, Apple, Chanel, and Tiffany along this major thoroughfare, as well as boutique-y haunts that specialize in craft paper, jewelry, and souvenirs. There are even several galleries and plenty of dining to keep you occupied. You could easily spend a whole day here – but we like to keep it to a few hours to limit the temptations.

4: Tour Zürich’s medieval Old Town.

As with most European cities, Zürich is an expansion of medieval urban areas that left behind relics of the past. You’ll find this in spades on both sides of the Limmat River just south of Mühlegasse Strasse. Lindenhoff Hill on the west bank is a great place to start – it not only sports a cozy open park bordering on the river but once sported guild houses central to the city’s economy. It’s also the site of a 180 AD gravestone. How’s that for old?

Nestled along the river, Zürich's Old Town buildings recall a medieval era when guilds dominated the economy. (Source: iStock / Denis Linine)
Nestled along the river, Zürich’s Old Town buildings recall a medieval era when guilds dominated the economy. (Source: iStock / Denis Linine)

You can also check out the old-timey Schipfe, or docks, that used to be the landing point for boats carrying silk in the 16th century, as well as naval vessels that let their sailors loose on land.

For a magnificent 20th-century cap to your historic tour, stop by the Uraniastrasse Police Station, where dazzling ceiling murals by Augusto Giacometti will keep your neck craned for hours.

To be sure you hit all of the important stops, consider a walking tour – you’ll get to see all of the key historical landmarks in Old Town Zürich, plus a few surprises.

5: Relish world-class art and a fine Swiss meal at Kronenhalle.

Just across the Quaibrücke sits the restaurant known as Kronenhalle, offering guests a feast for the senses. While we often say that about our favorite restaurants, this one takes it to another level. A veritable Swiss institution since 1924, Kronenhalle is one of those restaurants you kind of imagine being in Paris: a place for good, simple food; exceptional wine; and plenty of debates about art, culture, and society. Make no mistake, though; this is definitely a Zürich establishment, hosting the likes of Yves St. Laurent, Coco Chanel, Pablo Picasso, and other great minds throughout the decades.

Chagall + Blini = bliss (Source: Kronenhalle Facebook)
Chagall + Blini = bliss (Source: Kronenhalle Facebook)

Little surprise, then, then you’ll be wowed both by the menu and the decoration. Art from Marc Chagall, Pierre Bonnard, and other greats line the wall, welcoming you as you dine on Blinis with smoked salmon, Oxtail Soup, and pepper-crusted beef filet. Toast with a glass of Blauburgunder wine from Swiss vineyards as you debate the emotional reticence evident in Chagall’s use of color.

6: Take a bike tour of the city.

A very pedestrian-friendly city, Zürich has done a great deal to make cyclists welcome on the streets. In fact, tourists can visit any number of bike hire locations in the city and pedal around for the day – without having to jockey with car traffic or worry about the logistics of public transportation. Free bike rentals are available, but be sure you use required hand signals and follow all local guidelines.

Pedal your way to Zurick bliss – and avoid public transportation. (Source: iStock / mrtom-uk)
Pedal your way to Zurick bliss – and avoid public transportation. (Source: iStock / mrtom-uk)

Note: While bike rental is free, you do have to put down a deposit of about 20 CHF / $21. You’ll get this back when the bike is returned without damage. Also, keep in mind that bikes must be returned by 9:30pm.

7: Drink wine in a 14th-century well-turned-wine tavern.

Another under-the-radar skill of the Swiss: winemaking. Many of the varietals we have come to associate exclusively with France are grown masterfully on the hills and plains of Switzerland, showcased in wine caves like that of the historical Weinschenke. A converted 14th-century well, this wine tavern inside the Hotel Hirschen is a delightful find – especially if you want to spend an hour or two really parsing the flavors of newly-discovered varietals.

Cozy in with a loved one for a tasting of the world's best wines. (Source: Hotel Hirschen Facebook)
Cozy in with a loved one for a tasting of the world’s best wines. (Source: Hotel Hirschen Facebook)

By the glow of candlelight, enjoy a tasting of five nuanced wines alongside a curated selection cured meats and cheeses – not to mention in-depth documentation and knowledgeable explanations of terroir, winemaking, and history from tavern staff. The tasting is a bit pricey (94 CHF / $100 per person), but nothing is quite this romantic so we think it’s worth the splurge.

Truth be told, we love the hotel the wine tavern is in, too. Steeped in history and character, it’s right in the center of Old Town Zürich with cozy rooms that run a reasonable 128 CHF / $136 per night – breakfast buffet included. Not bad, especially if you need a place close to downtown action.

Want more inspiration? Find other things to do in Zürich by visiting the city’s tourism website.