On a warm afternoon Zurich’s waterfront cafes throng with people.
Dozens more perch on the stone edges of the quays, soaking up sunshine and dangling their legs over the glacier-pure water of the Limmat River. Swans glide by as church bells ring. Can this be Switzerland’s banking centre and a hub for global finance? Indeed it is — but Zurich also has an enchantingly mellow side.
Here’s a city guide to the top things to do in Zurich.
A key position on European transport routes shaped Zurich’s history as a Roman customs post, medieval trading hub and modern centre for financial services. The city also played an important part in the emergence of Swiss Protestantism and the creation of the modern Swiss state.
A nucleus of Zurich’s history is the Lindenhof, an elevated park in the Old Town. Once the site of a Roman fort, then of a medieval palace, in 1798 this public space was the venue for the taking of the city’s oath of allegiance to the Helvetic Republic, the first attempt to create a unified Swiss nation. Today its linden trees frame a panorama of the peaceful city.
For more historical things to do in Zurich, two churches – the green-spired Fraumünster and the twin-towered Grossmünster – facing each other across the Limmat, also tell of the city’s religious and political past. The Fraumünster, with its stunning Marc Chagall windows, was once a medieval convent whose abbess essentially ruled the city. The Grossmünster was the cradle of the Swiss Reformation, where iconoclastic priest Huldrych Zwingli initiated the country’s move to Protestantism.
400 years later, Zurich hatched another revolution, this time in art. The absurdist Dada movement was born here in 1916, and you can visit Cabaret Voltaire, the café on Spiegelgasse where it all began.
There’s no shortage of cultural things to do in Zurich, from the super-traditional to ultra-modern.
Ancient customs are honoured at festivals such as Sechselaüten, celebrated each April to mark the coming of spring. Horsemen, a children’s parade, and trade guilds dressed in historical costume create a colourful pageant that culminates in the burning of the ‘Böögg’, a giant snowman figure.
For contemporary culture, Zurich’s Openair festival is an annual midsummer celebration of electro, pop and dance music. The August Zurich Street Parade, another paean to electronic music, is an all-day lakeside street party where communal revelry promotes peace and tolerance.
There’s also the FIFA World Football Museum, where you can learn everything you ever wanted to know about the history of the World Game.
Zurich’s Bahnhofstrasse is the city’s premier shopping street, showcasing the world’s top fashion and jewellery brands. Don’t worry if prices are beyond your reach — the displays are works of art and well worth a spot of window-shopping.
For artisanal charm, try the picturesque Schipfe area in the Old Town. The small shops and cobbled streets recall Sydney’s The Rocks, but on a smaller and quieter scale. Here you’ll find vintage of all kinds, leather crafts and independent fashion. Stone arches in the historic covered walkways frame views of the city and river.
Im Viadukt in West Zurich offers a modern alternative vibe, where a nineteenth-century railway viaduct has become a nest of market stalls, craft studios and hipster fashion stores.
Swiss Chuchi restaurant in the centrally located Hotel Adler is an ideal place to try the classics of the national cuisine: fondue and raclette.
At Quai 61 you can choose from an international menu while savouring city and Alpine views from an unbeatable lakeside location.
The Artisan – Kitchen and Urban Garden in the city’s north features on-trend dining that focusses on locally and sustainably sourced ingredients, with a wide range of gluten-free options.
Elle’n’Belle is an award-winning vegan restaurant situated to the north of the main station in Limmatstrasse. Downtown, Haus Hiltl is a Zurich institution, which has been serving delicious vegetarian food since 1898. (The Guinness Book of Records lists it as the world’s first vegetarian restaurant!)
For something different, visit the restaurant at Fischers Fritz, Zurich’s only urban campground. Here, fresh-caught fish from the lake is served in a casual, beachside atmosphere.
The hippest place to relax is West Zurich, where repurposed industrial buildings house bars, art galleries and design ateliers.
Near the Hardbrücke station you’ll find Frau Gerolds Garten, an urban renewal project combining a kitchen garden, food markets and eateries. In summer, its open terraces are perfect for sipping beer or coffee. In winter, the action moves into heated tents where fondue is served.
Zurich’s waterways offer more opportunities for relaxation. Hour-long Limmat River cruises traverse the Old Town and lake cruises extend to picturesque Rapperswil, with its medieval castle and monastery, at the opposite end of Lake Zurich.
In summer, Zürchers (citizens of Zurich) love to swim in the clear waters of their lake and river. The art deco Frauenbad, the women’s pool at Stadthausquai, has superb city views and transforms into a unisex Barefoot Bar three nights a week.
There’s also the Männerbad, the men’s pool, situated in what was once the city moat. At night it becomes the Rimini Bar, an open-air lounge with music, food, drinks and the fine motto: ‘In summer we trust’. There’s even a Monday Market where you can browse vintage clothes and accessories.
Do you have any tips for top things to do in Zurich? We would love to hear from you. Please leave us a comment.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Roslyn Jolly is a freelance travel writer whose work has appeared in Luxury Travel, Get Up & Go, The Sunday Telegraph (Escape) and The Australian (Travel & Indulgence). In her former career as an English Literature academic, Roslyn studied and taught the work of great travel writers, such as Henry James, Herman Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson, and became fascinated by the history of travel and tourism. Two years at school in Wales and three years at university in England allowed her to travel extensively in Europe and North America, which she continues to do.