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When I headed to Zurich for a weekend the beginning of April, I had low expectations. I had only previously spent an extended period of time in Geneva and did not like it at all. So when I saw cheap flights to Zurich, I was quite hesitant – would I actually like the city or would it be like Geneva all over again? Much to my surprise and happiness, I fell head-over-heels in love with Zurich. I think it’s due to the German nature of the city but every corner I turned was even more picturesque than the last. It also helped that German is spoken in this region of Switzerland, making it infinitely easier for me to communicate compared to Geneva. Because I only had a weekend in Zurich (and decided to take a day trip from Zurich to Lucerne), here’s a guide on how to spend one day in Zurich!
Contrary to popular belief, Zurich is not the capital of Switzerland (that title is held by the city of Bern). However, Zurich is the largest city in Switzerland. Even though it is the largest city in Switzerland, it is totally possible to visit Zurich in one day. As mentioned above, Zurich is in the “German” part of Switzerland, and thus the language spoken is Swiss German (in my opinion, a very amusing dialect of German after having been taught High German!). Zurich consistently ranks in the top ten in terms of cities with the best quality of life and after visiting, it’s easy to tell why!
Table of Contents
- History of Zurich
- One Day in Zurich
- Two Days in Zurich
- Best Day Trips from Zurich
- How to get to Zurich
- Where to Stay in Zurich
- Budgeting for Zurich (and Switzerland)
- Best time to visit Zurich
- Final Thoughts on Zurich
- Like The Post? Share It!
History of Zurich
Although there were settlements during the Bronze Age and Neolithic Age, the city of Zurich rose to prominence during the Roman times with major reforms occurring under the rule of Emperor Constantine around 300 AD. Germanic tribes settled in the area around 500 AD although the Roman structures were still standing in the 7th century. In 835 AD, Louis the German (grandson of Charlemagne) founded the Fraumünster abbey for his daughter Hildegard. The abbey played an important political role in the city – collecting taxes, printing money, holding markets, and appointing mayors.
In 1218, Zurich became a free imperial city and by the 14th century, the power of the abbey began to wane after Zurich became part of the Swiss Confederacy in 1351. One of the biggest changes came in the 1520s, when Zwingli started the Swiss Reformation in Zurich – changing both the religious and civil life for the city. For the next few centuries, the city developed an isolationist attitude and reinforced the city’s fortifications. After experiencing a rise, fall, and rebirth in the 19th century, Zurich grew rapidly due to industrialization and long-distance transportation options. Following neutrality during World War II, the city experienced rapid growth due to the financial and international business sectors. This booming economy continues to exist today – making Zurich one of the wealthiest city’s in the entire world.
One Day in Zurich
When I booked my ticket to Zurich, I had no intention of falling in love with the city. The allure of round-trip tickets for under 50 Euros convinced me to visit the city that so many people rave about during their travels. I arrived on a Saturday morning and departed on a Sunday evening. Even with this short time frame, I had no problem visiting Zurich for one day. Instead of going straight to the city, I decided to take a day trip from Zurich to Lucerne, hopping on a train at the Zurich airport that took me directly to Lucerne. While I found Lucerne gorgeous, I’m really glad I decided to base myself in Zurich during my day there.
The old town of Zurich is divided in half by the Limmat River, which ends up emptying into Lake Zurich. I stayed to the east of the river but found both sides equally charming! While this guide only covers the old town area of Zurich, two days in Zurich would allow you to explore other neighborhoods.
Below is the ultimate old town walking tour of what to see in Zurich in one day and things to do in Zurich in one day!
This tour starts at the Zurich Hauptbahnhof (Zurich Main Train Station). Everything is 100% walkable so there is no need to buy tickets for public transportation. After arriving at the Zurich Hauptbahnhof, cross Bahnhofsbrücke (Train Station Bridge) – if you go over a river, you’re going in the correct direction ;) Keep going straight until you reach Niederdorfstr. – then turn right onto the street!
Niederdorf and Oberdorf
Fondly referred to as “Dörfli” by the locals, these streets (which run into one another) are parallel to the Limmat River. The street starts out as Niederdorf and changes into Oberdorf after passing by the Rathaus (Town Hall). As a pedestrian zone, the entire area is lined with shops, restaurants, café, and adorably old buildings. One of the older areas of Zurich, the narrow cobblestone streets have a plethora of hidden alleys and colorful buildings. During the summer months, outdoor seating and cafes pop up in this pedestrian zone.
While Niederdorf and Oberdorf entice shoppers during the daytime hours, the area turns into party central with DJs, bars, and a great nightlife! Make sure not to miss this area during the daytime and nighttime.
While walking along Niederdorf and Oberdorf, take a quick detour to the Limmat River to view Zurich’s Rathaus. Built in the 1690s, the Rathaus looks like it was built into the water. Don’t mistake the Rathaus with the Stadthaus (City Hall) – the Rathaus houses the legislative chambers and Parliament whereas the Stadthaus is home to Zurich’s executive branch.
Even though the Rathaus was built almost 330 years ago, the building itself is in its original condition. While the building was mainly built in the Renaissance style, elements from the Baroque style were also incorporated into this building. Before the current-day Rathaus was built on this spot, an old wooden Rathaus stood on this exact spot for almost 400 years.
Right across from the Rathaus is one of Zurich’s four iconic churches – the Grossmünster. Built on the site of an old Carolingian Church (commissioned by Charlemagne himself!), the present-day church dates to 1100. As a monastery church, the Grossmünster was in constant competition with the Fraumünster across the river for superiority. As the Grossmünster was commissioned by Charlemagne and the Fraumünster was commissioned by Charlemagne’s grandson Louis the German, the Grossmünster wins out in terms of superiority. Legend has it that Charlemagne chose this spot for a church as this was the location of Felix and Regula’s tombs, the patron saints of Zurich (a theory supported by the discovery of a Roman burial site under the church!).
The Grossmünster is most famous for its role in the Swiss Reformation initiated by Huldrych Zwingli. It was from this church that he started the Swiss Reformation in 1520. He removed most of the ornate interior decorations, including the organ – this accounts for the plain interior of the church even today.
The two towers of the Grossmünster are the most iconic landmark in the entire city and easily seen from most vantage points. For an incredible view of Zurich, make sure to climb to the top of these towers! While your legs won’t be too happy about the climb, your eyes (and camera!) with thank you for this gorgeous view.
Located right next to the Grossmünster and directly on the Limmat River is the second of Zurich’s four most important churches – the Wasserkirche. First mentioned in the 1250s, the church was built on an island in the Limmat River. However, the island was connected to Zurich’s mainland in 1839.
Although the church was mentioned in the 1250s, the church probably dates to the 10th century and has a dark past. The original building on this spot centered around the worship of a stone, leading to cult-like meetings. Legend states that the Romans executed Felix and Regula, the patron saints of Zurich, on this stone. Regarded as particularly holy, the Swiss Reformation labeled the Wasserkirche as a “temple of idol worshippers.”
Secularized in the 1600s, the first public library opened here in 1643 – contributing to the founding of the University of Zurich in the 19th century. Following a decline in its importance as a library, the church was renovated and reopened in the 1940s as a Protestant church, which it continues to be today.
Bellevueplatz and Quaibrücke
A crossroads for transportation, Bellevueplatz (Bellevue Square) borders Lake Zurich, right where the Limmat River empties into Lake Zurich. While the square itself isn’t very pretty, head over near the opera house and sit on the bank of the lake on a beautiful day. Although I visited at the beginning of April, I was lucky to have extraordinarily warm weather – the perfect opportunity to sit along the banks of the lake, dip in my toes, and watch all the sailboats. Make sure to stop at Lake Zurich and take in the breathtaking site of the lake with the mountains in the background!
To get to the other side of Limmat River and explore that side of Zurich, just take the Quaibrücke – a pedestrian and roadway bridge right at the mouth of where the Limmat River enters Lake Zurich. This not only gives you fabulous views of the Limmat River and Zurich on both sides, but also gives great views of Lake Zurich (like below!).
If you make a right-hand turn once you get off Quaibrücke and walk along the water, you’ll go straight into the Fraumünster. An abbey was founded here in 853 AD by Louis the German (grandson of Charlemagne) for his daughter Hildegard. Although the abbey and subsequent Fraumünster underwent several changes and renovations before reaching its present-day form, this spot has always had a religious significance.
Fraumünster is the steeple on the left and St. Peter Kirche is the steeple on the right.
In 1045, the Holy Roman Emperor Henry III gave the Fraumünster the right to hold markets, collect taxes, and mint coins. Thus, it became the de-facto ruler of the city, and rose in prominence and power. By the 1300s, the role of the abbey waned due to the separation of religion from daily politics and the abbey was dissolved in 1524 due to the Swiss Reformation.
Today, the Fraumünster is a Protestant church and best known for its Chagall windows. As someone who absolutely loves anything and everything by Chagall, this church was one of the main reasons why I wanted to visit Zurich. Although I was unable to get pictures of the windows themselves, you can view them here.
St. Peter Kirche
If you continue along the water, you’ll run into St. Peter Kirche, a more secluded church that has undergone both several renovations and several religious changes! It is located right next to Lindenhof and there’s evidence that an original smaller church structure was built on this site in the 8th or 9th century. Throughout its 1,000-year history, the church has been rebuilt several times in different architectural styles including early Romanesque, late Romanesque, and Gothic. The present-day church was consecrated in 1706 as the first church built under Protestant rule in Zurich.
Gorgeous blooms outside St. Peter Kirche
Oddly enough, the nave of the church is owned by the Protestant church of Zurich while the steeple is owned by the city of Zurich. The steeple was previously used for fire and police duties, hence why it is owned by the city. Additionally, the clock face on the tower/steeple is the largest church clock face in all of Europe!
When you reach St. Peter Kirche, take a right and you’ll wander onto the gorgeous Augustinergasse – a street that’s impossible to miss due to its colorful buildings and endless amount of flags (something this American loves seeing!). As one of the oldest, most gorgeous historical streets in all of Zurich, Augustinergasse connects St. Peter Kirche with the major Bahnhofstrasse, the main shopping street.
Augustinergasse is known for its well-preserved bay windows which served as a way for residents to see who was knocking at their door! An additional bonus of these windows was the massive amount of light it allowed into buildings. Today, the Augustinergasse is lined with local shops, cafes, and restaurants.
Bahnhofstrasse is Zurich’s most exclusive shopping street and one of the most expensive shopping streets in the world! For reference, Bahnhofstrasse is the 9th most expensive street in the world for retail property. While it’s unlikely I’ll be buying anything from this street anytime soon, it’s still lots of fun to meander down Bahnhofstrasse and partake in a bit of window shopping!
Rennweg, one of the gorgeous side streets of Bahnhofstrasse
Head back to the water by taking the adorable old street of Rennweg. Similar to Augustinergasse, it is filled with old shops, historical architecture, colorful buildings, and lots of flags! It used to be one of the most important streets in Zurich during the Middle Ages and is the second most exclusive shopping street in Zurich behind Bahnhofstrasse.
Lindenhof is one of the most popular areas in all of Zurich, best known for Lindenhof Hill and its incredible views of Zurich. The area has had a human presence for almost 2,000 years. It was initially the site of a Roman castle and tax collection location. By the 9th century, the castle was in disarray and was rebuilt as a residence for Louis of German. By the 13th century, this residence was no longer used and the bricks of the residence were used to build other buildings in Zurich.
The view from Lindenhof Hill
Today, Lindenhof Hill is used as a social gathering place that provides fantastic views of the entire city!
Pretty steps leading up to Lindenhof Hill
The artisan’s district of Zurich, Shipfe might be my favorite area in Zurich. It is located on the other side of the Lindenhof Hill from St. Peter Kirche (between Lindenhof Hill and Zurich Hauptbahnhof). It is believed that this was the old harbor area during the Celtic-Roman times and it is considered the oldest area in all of Zurich. It is extremely picturesque with small artisan galleries and independent shops lining the narrow streets.
By this point, you’re almost back at the Zurich Hauptbahnhof – right where you started the tour! If you spend your time leisurely walking and exploring some of the locations, this walking tour of Zurich should take between 4-6 hours! If you’re in Zurich for more than one day, check out how to extend your stay below into two days in Zurich as well as the best day trips from Zurich.
Bonus Location: Schanzengraben
Although I never made it to Schazengraben on my trip to Zurich, it’s high on my list when I return! Located behind Lindenhof and Schipfe, Schanzengraben is a moat and one of the last remaining Baroque fortifications in Zurich. It is also one of Zurich’s official city parks with a promenade along the water.
Two Days in Zurich
The Zurich walking tour above is the perfect itinerary for one day in Zurich. While it mainly focuses on the old town area of Zurich, these are some of the best things to see in Zurich in one day and things to do in Zurich in one day. Below are a few ideas on what to do with two days in Zurich.
The new “it” neighborhood in Zurich, everyone told me I had to visit Zurich-West. Unfortunately, I ran out of time to head over to that area of Zurich, but it’s lined with hip shops, night clubs, restaurants, cafes, and bars. As the former industrial area of Zurich, this area has been entirely gentrified and is now one of the coolest areas in the entire city. Next time I’ll definitely make it here!
Museums of Zurich
I didn’t have a chance to pop into any of Zurich’s museums but there are a few I’d love to visit on my next trip to Zurich – the FIFA World Football Museum, Kunsthaus Zurich (art museum), National Museum Zurich, Museums Löwenbräu-Areal (contemporary art museum), and Museum of Design.
University of Zurich
Maybe it’s because I was a perpetual student for so many years but I’d love to come back and just explore the grounds of the University of Zurich. I’m always so fascinated on how universities are organized and laid out, and this one is particularly interesting because it is so close to the old town of Zurich.
Best Day Trips from Zurich
There are so many places easily reachable from Zurich – here are the best day trips from Zurich! Even better, if you’re flying into Zurich, you can hop on a train to these places at the Zurich airport without even having to stop in Zurich. Here are some of my favorite excursions for Zurich day trips.
The easiest, best, and one of the prettiest day trips from Zurich. Lucerne is only about an hour train ride away from Zurich airport and there is ample luggage storage at the Lucerne Bahnhof (train station).
Lucerne is one of the most picturesque towns in all of Switzerland. Located on Lake Lucerne and famous for its Kapellbrücke (Chapel Bridge), the city has been around for at least 1,500 years. In the 12th century, the Habsburg dynasty exerted rights over the city. However, less than 100 years later, the city became a city-state, ruling over itself. While the Reformation was occurring in Zurich, Lucerne remained mainly Catholic and this played an important role in the city’s history.
Best idea for a day trip from Zurich to Lucerne? Starting at Lake Lucerne, walk along both sides of the Reuss River admiring the colorful buildings, lively city center, and absolutely gorgeous views! It’s an easy city to walk in less than 6 hours and a great day trip from Zurich!
A few fun facts about Kapellbrücke, the wood bridge above. The bridge is the oldest covered wooden bridge in Europe as well as the oldest surviving truss bridge in the world. The bridge is most famous for the ornate interior paintings dating back to the 17th century. Unfortunately, a catastrophic fire hit the bridge in 1993, destroying over two-thirds of it. There are varying theories as to how the fire started but it is mainly attributed to two ideas – either a boat with a fire on it going under the bridge spread the fire, or a cigarette butt was not properly discarded on the bridge and it started the fire. Regardless, the bridge was swiftly restored in all sections possible, and the other sections not salvageable were rebuilt.
Mount Pilatus & Titlis
If you’re wanting something a bit more outdoorsy, consider a day trip from Zurich to either Mount Pilatus or Mount Titlis. Both are fairly close to Lucerne, with it possible combine a day trip from Lucerne with Mount Pilatus as well (Mount Titlis might be a bit of a stretch). If you’re big into skiing, make sure to take full advantage of Mount Titlis and the amazing winter activities offered in the region.
How to get to Zurich
Getting to Zurich is quite easy, especially by plane and train. Like most western European locations, public transportation is excellent and efficient.
Zurich is well-connected to surrounding countries including Germany, France, Austria, and Italy. With extensive roadways, it’s easy to reach Zurich – just make sure to check the roads in the wintertime to make sure some of the smaller routes or mountain passes aren’t closed due to snow. In terms of parking (which is always difficult and expensive in a European city), I’d recommend parking your car when you arrive in Zurich and not touching it until you leave. Zurich is a walkable city and most of the older streets aren’t conducive to cars anyways.
The Zurich Hauptbahnhof, located right next to old town Zurich, is the largest train station in all of Switzerland. With almost 3,000 trains departing a day from Zurich, it makes it one of the busiest train stations in the world. There are hundreds of long-distance and short-distance trains connecting to all other regions of Switzerland as well as popular cities in France, Austria, Italy, Hungary, and Germany.
As Zurich is such an important station for all of Europe, even the slightest delay can cause the rest of Switzerland (or the continent) to have their train schedules thrown off. Thus, there are strict rules in terms of how long trains in Zurich can wait before departing (usually a maximum of 3 minutes).
With reasonable priced tickets and one of the nicest airports I’ve ever visited, I opted to fly from Hamburg to Zurich. The ticket was around 50 Euros with a flight time of about an hour. Exiting out of the Zurich Airport is swift although I did find the train station in the airport a bit confusing. Regardless, there are always individuals available to help and everyone speaks impeccable English, French, and German! The trains from Zurich Airport to Zurich Hauptbahnhof run every 5-10 minutes from 5:00 am to 12:30 am. Travel time is 10-15 minutes and a ticket costs around CHF 7.00.
The cheapest but slowest travel option is by bus. Flixbus, one of the main bus companies in Europe, connects Zurich to several other countries including France, Italy, Germany, Austria, Netherlands, Czech Republic, Poland, etc. If bought in advance, bus tickets can cost less than CHF 20.00. Do note that buses in Europe are known for being rather late so plan accordingly!
Where to Stay in Zurich
Hotel Adler – Out of all the hotels in Zurich, I would highly recommend Hotel Adler. It’s where I stayed and I absolutely loved my time here. The location is central, the area is quiet but still lively, the breakfast was over-the-top delicious, and the building was the home of a former artist. Best of all – the price was insanely affordable! I’d 100% stay here agin.
Check availability for Hotel Adler
I may have been scheming a way to take this adorable car home with me!
Budget (Under CHF 100)
On a tight budget and looking for affordable options under CHF 100? Check out the two hostels below – my favorites in Zurich!
Oldtown Hostel Otter – Not only is this hostel located in the old town of Zurich, but it is only a few steps away from Lake Zurich. Everything in Zurich is walkable from this location and there are options for private or shared rooms. The breakfast buffet is quite large and it has an attached bar.
Check availability for Oldtown Hostel Otter
City Backpacker Biber – Located 300 meters away from the Grossmünster, this hostel has a secret location – its rooftop bar! A short distance from all the main tourist attractions, there are options for private and shared rooms. Additionally, there is a large common area that’s great for chilling and meeting others.
Check availability for City Backpacker Biber
Mid-Range (CHF 100 – CHF 300)
25Hours Hotel Zurich West or Langstrasse – Whether you decide to stay in the hip Zurich West location or right by the main train station, 25Hours Hotel has you covered with cool and luxurious amenities at an affordable price. They also include tasty on-site restaurants as well as a free sauna!
Motel One Zurich – Located right next to the old town area of Zurich, Motel One is a chic European hotel chain that offers a high standard of service and amenities at a reasonable price. The breakfast buffet has a large array of food options and the interior has a warm, rustic charm to make you feel right at home.
Check availability for Motel One Zurich
Greulich – The original design and lifestyle hotel in Zurich, the hotel already catches your eye initially from the quirky exterior. The rooms are styled in a bright, airy manner that mimics a simple yet modern Scandinavian style. The bar and terrace are cozy meeting places or areas to enjoy by yourself!
Check availability for Greulich
Marktgasse Hotel – Smack dab in the middle of Zurich’s old town area, the rooms have high ceilings, large windows, and the comfiest looking beds! Besides the breakfast and dinner options, there is a terrace with views of the entire city.
Check availability for Marktgasse Hotel
Luxury (CHF 300+)
Widder Hotel – One of the premier hotels in all of Zurich, this 5-star hotel is spread out between 9 adjacent buildings decorated by famous artists such as Andy Warhol. No two rooms are the same – every room is individually decorated and furbished. Awarded 15 points by the Gault Millau guide, the hotel’s restaurant serves traditional Swiss cuisine year-round.
Check availability for Widder Hotel
Baur Au Lac – Situated in its own private park, Baur Au Lac is the crème de la crème when it comes to luxury accommodations and fine dining. The two restaurants have won several awards including 18 points by the Gault Millau guide and a Michelin star. The views are magical from this hotel and the decor is both elegant and colorful.
Check availability for Baur Au Lac
Budgeting for Zurich (and Switzerland)
I’m not going to lie – Switzerland is expensive. But I really didn’t find it that much more expensive than most other western European countries. As with all travel, the further ahead you plan your travels to Switzerland, the cheaper it will be.
As of writing this post, the exchange rate between the U.S. Dollar and Swiss France is equal – this makes calculating prices so much easier!
- 1.00 USD = CHF 1.00.
In my opinion, I would splurge for lodging over food in Switzerland. Because of my limited amount of time in the city and because there were so many places to visit in Zurich, I wanted a centrally located hotel. Due to traveling solo, I knew I wouldn’t spend that much time eating in restaurants anyways. Some of the best food I ate in Switzerland came from food stands and grab-and-go locations. Additionally, I bought a pre-packaged sandwich from a local grocery store for lunch (so good!) and had breakfast included in my room rate (it was a massive buffet breakfast!). This both saved me money and time.
Compared to Germany, I actually found the train prices quite reasonable (then again, German trains can be so expensive!!!). Round trip from the Zurich Airport was about CHF 15.00 and round trip from Lucerne was about CHF 50.00. Tickets can be bought cheaper in advance to Lucerne but because I bought the ticket day of, I paid the most expensive price (which, for over an hour train ride each way, still seemed reasonable to me). While in Zurich, I walked everywhere and spent nothing on public transportation!
Best time to visit Zurich
It’s hard to pick the best time to visit Zurich because the city is just so gorgeous year-round! I visited Zürich the beginning of April and had the best spring weather – light jacket in the mornings and evenings, and lots of sunshine during the daytime. I think March and April are some of the best months to visit Europe in general because the continent is warming up yet you’re not fighting hoards of tourists. To be honest, it felt empty in Zurich, especially when walking the side streets (many times, I was completely alone). Additionally, I think I got an amazing hotel deal due to traveling in the off-season.
If I hadn’t visited Zurich in the springtime, I definitely would have gone in wintertime. I’m a sucker for cold weather, snow, skiing, and fondue (Dad, if you’re reading – sorry I’m not sorry!). With so many ski resorts easily reachable from Zurich, it would have been heaven for me. Luckily, I’m headed back to Switzerland in a few weeks to explore the Christmas markets in Basel and Bern – I’ll be sure to get my winter fix there!
Final Thoughts on Zurich
I overlooked Zurich so many times due to my poor experience in Geneva and my fear of how expensive I thought it would be. By planning ahead of time and going in the off-season, I was able to save a significant amount of money – making Zurich no more expensive than London or Paris. Additionally, Zurich is nothing like Geneva. I think I liked Zurich so much more than Geneva because it has a more German feel – something that immediately makes me feel more comfortable in any location. I was able to read the signs, navigate, and communicate – something I was totally unable to do in Gevena due to my lack of French.
Don’t be scared off by the prices and reputation of Zurich – it’s such a charming city with so much to do even if you only have one day in Zurich!