First of all, before we go any further: Happy Birthday Switzerland, since August 1 is Swiss National Day! I don’t intend this to be a complete guide to Zurich or Switzerland at all, but rather a quick intro to some resources/tips one can use to plan out his or her trip. If you are flying into Switzerland directly in all likelihood you will land in Zurich, the country’s largest city and transportation hub. If you are following my guide, you will note that Zurich is the starting point for my suggested itinerary to Switzerland.
Zurich Airport/Flughafen (ZRH) is located about 15 minutes away from the centre of Zurich and is served by most airlines, foreign and domestic. The flag carrier of Switzerland, SWISS Air, releases award seats quite frequently and does not charge fuel surcharges when booking awards through United or Aeroplan. The airport is connected to Zurich Hauptbahnhof (Zurich’s main train station) via trains which depart every 10-15 minutes. There is no missing the signs to the train station upon your arrival in Zurich since signs pointing to the station are found everywhere.
In case you are hungry or in need of quenching your thirst for shopping, the airport has an attached shopping mall. Inside the mall are no less than three grocery stores, a large food court equipped with a diverse range of cuisines, and shops of all kinds. These shops are quite affordable compared to the ones you will find in Central Zurich, on the world renowned Bahnhofstrasse.
Staying in Zurich
Staying in Zurich can be ridiculously expensive if you aren’t equipped with hotel points or staying at an Airbnb/VRBO. The great part about the hotel market is that it features a great assortment of properties from various chains that you can use points at, but again the downside is that these hotels are in the upper award categories of their respective hotel chains. The best chain hotels in town are the Park Hyatt, Marriott, Kameha Grand (Marriott), Renaissance (Mariott), and Sheraton, probably in that order. You can easily scout for hotels available on points using the AwardMapper tool. If you are expending cash, again look no further than Airbnb/VRBO for the biggest bang for your buck.
Transportation in Zurich
Don’t drive in Zurich. The city is small, pedestrian friendly, and has loads of public transportation options. However, if you are driving in from somewhere outside Switzerland or just happened to have a rental car, parking is not much of a problem like people say it is. It can be a bit of a nightmare driving in Zurich though given all the tram lines, taxi lines, and bus lines dividing up the streets. I do it quite often now, but when I drove for the very first time I thought it was harder than driving in New York or Tokyo because of all the rules and restrictions.
TIP: Park Hyatt Zurich and several high end properties provide passes for public transportation such as the city street cars and ferries across Lake Zurich. Make sure to ask just in case you don’t have a Swiss Pass or don’t want to activate your Swiss Pass just yet.
Sightseeing in Zurich
Zurich isn’t the most exciting city in the world for sightseeing, historically speaking, but the town has its charms. You would want to start your walk off at the old town (Allstadt), which offers a quaint assortment of architecture and quintessential European cathedrals. A cruise along Lake Zurich or a visit to the city’s museums are also some of my favorite things to do while in town.
Views: If you are looking for panoramic views of Zurich and the Limmat River, The Grossmunster (a 16th century cathedral) or Lindenhof hill are probably your two best bets for panoramic views of the city. Lindenhof hill is famous for being the Bryant Park of Zurich, where all the chess players gather to soak in the views and enjoy a quick game.
(Window) Shopping: And of course you have to visit the famous Bahnhofstrasse, just to peruse its stores (and perhaps annoy shop owners in the process). I can’t remember the last time I saw anything that was affordable at one of these stores, but I always visit in case I run into RF somewhere on these streets 🙂
Culture: During the summer months street side symphonies are very common as are farmers markets. And of course like any other global city, there is no shortage of festivals going on in the city centre. One of my favorite things about Zurich is that most of the street performances are refined and organized, while in many other European cities they can be breeding grounds for pickpockets.
Christmas Markets: I’ve never actually been to Zurich during the Christmas time, but I’ve seen enough videos for me to believe that it certainly has some of the best Christmas markets outside of Eastern France and Germany. The two most famous ones are located in the old town and in front of the Opera House. If cold weather isn’t your thing, the Zurich Hauptbahnhof plays host to one of the world’s largest indoor Christmas markets. I’m hoping to make my way there this year so I will report back with my thoughts and pictures. Check out the videos available on Youtube regarding these events.
Eating in Zurich
Let’s be honest, it’s fairly easy to find good food in most cities when you are not vegetarian. All you really have to do is walk out the front door and look around to find pretty much any cuisine you would like to eat. Luckily, in Zurich the job is extremely easy for vegetarians as well. You just have to decide how much you are willing to pay:
On a Budget:
Both McDonalds and Burger King have veggie burgers in Switzerland. I personally prefer BK, but McDonalds is also good when you don’t have a choice. Coop outlets all over Switzerland sell sandwiches, bakery goods, and drinks at a reasonable price when you are hungry or thirsty and want to save a couple of CHF. A Coca Cola can cost about 60-70% percent less when bought at these supermarkets.
Zurich has no shortage of good restaurants in any category or cuisine. In general vegetarianism in Switzerland is very common so there are tons of exclusively vegetarian restaurants and 99% of all menus have a couple of vegetarian dishes.
Haus Hitl – Supposedly the oldest vegetarian restaurant (since 1898) in the world serves a good variety of Asian and Western vegetarian dishes alongside a large assortment of dessert options. This place offers a buffet style experience where you weigh your plate every time you pick up your food and keep the receipts for when you finish eating. The restaurant can get quite pricey if you think of it as an all you can eat buffet like those you see in the U.S so do be aware. To compete with this popular Swiss chain, another chain has recently opened called “Tibits” which offers the same style of dining.
If you are up for fancy dining, Zurich has no less than 13 Michelin starred restaurants, many of which are geared toward French cuisine. You can easily do your research on that topic here.
There’s no denying Swiss supremacy in dairy products. Switzerland’s ice cream, cheese, and chocolate are all world class with a chocolatier or ice cream shop at every corner. Honestly I can’t remember the last time I ate a full meal in Switzerland because I usually just live of these Swiss staple foods 🙂 Don’t forget to have some of that Movenpick ice cream before you leave!
Suggested Day Trips from Zurich
Lucerne Area – Lucerne (town)/Rigi Kulm/Pilatus are just 45-60 minutes away from Zurich by train and car making it an easy and attractive option for day trips from Zurich.
Bern – Switzerland’s speedy intercity express trains will put you in the country’s capital within an hour. The town features a stunning old town with the Alps visible in the distance.
Jungfrau/Interlaken Region – During the summer when days are long, it is quite easy to make the roundtrip to the beautiful Jungfrau Region where the towns of Wengen, Lauterbrunnen, Murren, and Grindelwald are located. Having a car saves A LOT OF TIME here though because rail connections can easily be inconvenient, not to mention they are longer time wise because of connections in Bern or Lucerne.
Some Personal Favorites
If you have a car most of Switzerland is within driving distance of Zurich in the summer time and you can easily find yourself a quiet spot in the Alps, away from where all the tourists flock. And tourists usually flock to destinations easily accessible by public transport.
What is your favorite part of Zurich? Favorite restaurant?
Switzerland in a Snap Series:
Quick Guide: Zurich