Things to Do in Zurich
The historic heart of Zurich, the Altstadt, or Old Town, remains the most atmospheric part of the city, with its striking 19th century buildings and winding cobblestone lanes hosting an array of modern cafes, shops and galleries. For visitors to the city, the Old Town makes the ideal starting point for a sightseeing tour of Zurich, sprawling along both sides of the River Limmat and home to many of the city’s principal tourist attractions.
Zurich’s two landmark cathedrals – the medieval Fraumuenster (Church of Our Lady) and the Gothic style Grossmuenster – make navigating the Old Town easy, perched on opposite sides of the river and linked by the monumental Munster bridge. From here it’s an easy stroll to the charming Niederdorf district, crammed with quirky boutiques and hip coffee shops; the famous Bahnhofstrasse, one of Europe’s glitziest shopping streets; and many of Zurich’s top museums like the Swiss National Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts.
Bahnhofstrasse is THE shopping street in Zurich. Running from Bahnhofplatz outside the main train station all the way to the lake, it's full of luxury shops selling designer fashion, furs, porcelain, and, of course, chocolates, clocks and watches. Halfway along is Zurich's first, biggest and best department store Jelmoli. The basement food-hall is a must. Or if you want the best in Swiss chocolate, take a break at Cafe Sprungli, the epicenter of sweet Switzerland since 1836.
Bahnhofstrasse follows the line of the moat of medieval Zurich and is mainly pedestrianized, although watch out for the trams running along it. It runs parallel to the river Limmat and it's easy to punctuate your shopping with visits to churches and other important sites of Zurich dotted in the narrow streets between. Culture and consumerism: Zurich has them both.
As the principal venue for the Zurich Opera since it opened its doors in 1891, the Zurich Opera House has garnered worldwide acclaim for its outstanding acoustics and wide variety of international performances. Originally called the ‘Stadttheater’, the venue was built on the site of the Actientheater, which burned down just a few years earlier, and staged its opening to a dramatic performance of Richard Wagner’s ‘Lohengrin’. Despite changing its name to the Zurich Opera House in 1964, the concert hall maintains its original Neo-classical façade, designed by Viennese architects Ferdinand Fellner and Hermann Helmer and held up by 1,800 oak pillars. Equally impressive is the Rococo style entrance foyer and auditorium, which seats 1,200 people and is notable for its intricate ceiling paintings that represent love, tragedy, comedy, music and poetry.
The 13th-century Church of our Lady, or Fraumünster, has an elegant blue spire which soars above the Zurich skyline. Situated right next to the lake, it is one of Zurich's key sights. Founded in 853 as a Benedictine convent, around the 11th century it was responsible for minting coins and collecting tolls making the then Abbess a powerful women indeed.
Inside the church are the famous stained-glass windows of 1967 by the famous artist Marc Chagall. The three main windows are: the blue Jacob window, with a ladder to heaven, the green Christ window, featuring Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus, and the yellow Zion window depicting King David and Bathsheba being trumpeted into New Jerusalem. To the sides there are windows depicting the Prophets and Moses. Near the main exit is a window by another famous artist, Giacometti.
Tumbling from a height of 75 feet over a 450-foot stretch of rock, the mighty Rhine Falls are the largest waterfalls in Europe. Located just outside the medieval town of Schaffhausen, the Rhine Falls make a popular day trip from Zurich and standing at the foot of the falls is one of the country’s dramatic sights, with an average 21,000 cubic feet of water plummeting into the Rhine river basin each second.
There are a number of ways to get a view of the falls, including strategic viewing platforms overlooking the main falls and a bridge linking the north and south banks. The medieval castle of Schoss Laufen also offers breathtaking views over the thundering falls, but the most hair-raising way to experience the power of the Rhine falls is to take a boat ride and cruise through the rapids.
In a city with almost 150 museums and galleries, the Swiss National Museum (Landesmuseum) beats off some pretty stiff competition to take its place as one of Zurich’s top museums. The largest of its kind in the country, the museum is devoted to preserving the cultural heritage and history of Switzerland, chronicling the birth and evolution of the nation.
Almost 1 million artifacts make up the permanent collection, which takes the visitor on a journey from ancient Switzerland, through the Middle Ages and into the 20th century. Personal items, handicrafts, artworks, furnishings and household items are among the many relics, bringing the past back to life through a series of evocative displays. Highlights include artifacts from as far back as the 4th millennium B.C; a significant collection of 9th century Carolingian art; a Swiss warfare exhibit of weaponry and armor; and an exhibit devoted to the traditional art of Swiss clock making.
Sometimes called the Gross Monster by English-speaking locals, Grossmunster is a Romanesque-style Protestant church in Zurich. According to legend, Charlemagne discovered the graves of the city’s patron saints, Felix and Regula, and ordered a church to be constructed on the spot. Construction of Grossmunster began in 1100 and was finished around 1220, with the core of the building built on the site where Charlemagne’s church stood. The only original decorations that remain today are some faded frescoes in a side chapel and a depictions of battle scenes and Charlemagne’s discovery of Felix’s and Regula’s graves. The church’s crypt is the largest in Switzerland and dates to the 11th and 13th centuries. Modern stained glass windows were added to the church in 1932 and bronze doors were added in 1935 and 1950. Also known as the starting point of the Reformation in Switzerland in the 16th century, Grossmunster’s twin towers make it one of the most recognized landmarks in Zurich.
Lindenhof is both a district in Zürich and a square of the same name and looks back on an eventful history. The district is the oldest part of the city and once, a Roman fort stood in its place on the hill. At Lindenhof Square, a Roman tombstone was found containing the oldest mention of the city, back then a customs post with the name Turicum. Even after the fall of the Roman Empire, the Lindenhof kept playing an important role in the city’s history. In the 13th century for example, Zürich was in a war against Winterthur and ran out of warriors. It was then that the women of the city dressed up as soldiers and stood on the raised Lindenhof, giving the impression that a strong army had come to the city’s rescue and thus, breaking the siege.
More Things to Do in Zurich
A cable car takes nature lovers in five minutes from Adliswil to Felsenegg, a view point on the Albis mountain range. It is one of Zürich’s most popular recreation areas and at 800 meters, you have a breathtaking view over Lake Zürich, the small towns lining the shores and the towering, snow-capped mountains in the distance. Numerous walking and hiking trails as well as a restaurant on the summit serve as an escape from the hectic everyday life. From Uetliberg for example, the Planetenweg, a planet trail that reflects the distances in the solar system, leads to Felsenegg. Every meter of the path corresponds with one million kilometers in space and the two-hour walk takes hikers from the sun past planets – little metal spheres embedded in boulders - all the way to Pluto. Just 20 meters from where Pluto can be found, the bright red Restaurant Felsenegg awaits, where you can get a drink on the patio and enjoy the view over the Sihl Valley, Türler Lake and the Säuliamt district.
Zürich’s Parade Square, better known as Paradeplatz, is located right outside of the main train station and is one of the city’s most important junctions. Not only do many of the tram lines meet up here, but Parade Square has made itself a name as one of the world’s big financial centers. Large Swiss banks have set up their headquarters here and thus, it has become a synonym for wealth and prosperity. The square also connects to the Bahnhofstrasse, Zürich’s main shopping avenue where luxury labels fight over premiere retail space and the rich and famous come to shop. But Parade Square wasn’t always mentioned in the same sentence as wealth and its history stands in stark contrast with today’s prestigious reputation.
The Dolderbahn is a proper mountain railway that, in just under six minutes, leads from the hustle and bustle of Zürich to the top of the Adlisberg, a forested hill on the eastern side of the city. Upon exiting the station at the Dolder Recreation Area next to the luxury Dolder Grand Hotel, one shouldn’t be surprised to see an army of bikers and joggers, as the region is immensely popular due to the many leisure and sports facilities as well as the vast network of hiking trails. The Dolder Train was built to provide the population of Zürich with an easy escape route from the busy city as well as stress-free access to a recreation area and still, there is hardly a better place to practice various sports. Even if you aren’t there to get sweaty, it’s a great destination to enjoy a sunny day.
The 1,328-meter long track of the Dolderbahn overcomes a height difference of 162 meters and is a little piece of history as it has been in operation since 1895.
Uetliberg Mountain is 2,850 feet above sea level and offers fantastic panoramic views of Zurich, its lake, the Limmat Valley and the Alps. Several hiking and mountain biking trails lead up the mountain in the summer, many of which are converted into sledding runs in the winter. There is also a Planet Trail, which is a two-hour walk from Uetliberg to Felsenegg and takes you on a tour through a model of the solar system. The mountain is popular during the fall since the summit is above the fog that is usually present this time of year.
The observation tower on the top of the mountain was built in 1990 to replace the old one from 1894. The tower is nearly 100 feet tall and also serves as a cell tower. There is also a hotel and a restaurant at the top of the mountain.
St Peter's is the oldest church in Zurich. It stands in a small square surrounded by houses and shops but its impressive spire dominates the city. St Peter's Church, also known as St Peterskirche, is so tall that from the Middle Ages until the early 20th century it was used by the night-watch keeping an eye out for fires breaking out in the city. On this spire is the largest church clockface in Europe with a diameter of 28.5 ft (8.7 m). The minute hand is 12 ft (4 m) long!
The Peterskirche was first built in the 9th century, but was altered in the 13th century and again in the 17th century. The interior is plain, white with wooden columns and pews but in the choir the remains of a medieval mural can be seen.
The village of Appenzell is the capital of the canton Appenzell Innerrhoden in eastern Switzerland. It is situated in the valley of Sitter, surrounded by green hills and dominated by a rural character. Appenzell isn’t a typical close-packed village and instead, is made up of free standing houses loosely grouped around the inner core. The parish church with the Gothic choir and massive tower rises over other stately homes such as the city hall, monasteries and other historical buildings. Hotels, cafés, traditional craft shops and stores located in brightly painted houses line the car-free main street. Especially impressive is the facade of the Löwen, which is painted with a huge variety of medicinal herbs. Just like the town houses, even the farm houses and adjoining barns in the region are known for being extremely colorful, often having bright yellow walls, red doors and green shutters.
Stein am Rhein is a small city set into the beautiful countryside alongside the Rhine River. Its main attraction is the well-preserved old town, which is characterized by the many distinctive medieval buildings, such as the church, the former monastery of St. Georgen, the town houses, the gates and towers as well as the town hall and armory. Most of these half-timbered frame houses surrounding the Rathausplatz are made of stone with delicate wooden window frames and bays jutting out. All of these buildings stun visitors with their exceptional frescoes, painted on every available surface. The most prominent of these houses is the White Eagle, an old inn, on which a mural originating in the early renaissance depicts the contrast between true and false love, justice and injustice and finally, the triumph of wisdom over evil.
Opened in 1910, the Kunsthaus, or Museum of Art, in Zurich is Switzerland's premier art gallery. It has a strong collection of modern art, including over 4,000 pieces of sculpture, paintings and installations. It has a particular emphasis on Swiss art, important for the rise of such movements as Dada which began in Zurich in 1916.
The collection includes work by Picasso, Chagall, Munch, Mondrian and Matisse as well as many more. The gallery has an extensive art education program and a library focusing on modern art.
Limmatquai is the street along the right side of the river Limmat in central Zurich. On one side is the Rathaus, Zurich's Baroque parliament building. Limmatquai is a vibrant shopping, dining and hotel area with many interesting buildings dating from the days of the rich Guilds which governed Zurich until 1789. It is the perfect place to start your exploration of the narrow, charming streets of the Old Town.
A lively medieval town located an hour north of Zurich, Schaffhausen is best known as the gateway to one of Switzerland’s most famous tourist attractions – the Rhine Falls. The mighty waterfall is Europe’s largest, stretching 450-feet across the Rhine River and cascading from heights of up to 75-feet. Along with hosting Switzerland’s largest fireworks display in honor of Swiss National Day on August 1st, the Falls are also a prime spot for hiking, boat trips and river rafting, overlooked by the medieval castle of Schoss Laufen and home to a spectacularly situated treetop adventure park. Back in the center of Schaffhausen, strolling around the medieval Old Town unveils an array of Baroque architecture, richly decorated with hand-painted frescos and elaborate oriel windows.
Surrounded by a white wall topped with the golden East Asian roofs and interspersed with bright red gates, the Chinese Garden is about as far removed from the traditional Swiss houses neighboring it as possible. The garden is a quiet oasis of little ponds, lush vegetation and intricately decorated buildings with tiered roofs, red pillars and bright green railings, a place where strolls on perfectly planned paths and meditation sessions are possible. Paintings and ornaments feature the unique culture of Yunnan Province and a big focus is set on the three friends of winter: pine, bamboo and plum. The plants are a big theme in Confucianism and since they don’t wither in winter and instead flourish, they represent perseverance.
Zurich has two official botanical gardens, both belonging to the University of Zurich. The old one, Arboretum, is now maintained as a park in the city center. When space became too tight in the mid-20th century, a new garden, Botanical Gardens or Botanischer Garten, was developed on the edge of town near the University. Since 1976, this has been the official Botanical Gardens of Zurich.
Unlike other Botanical Gardens, it is not formally laid out and many of the plants cultivated are wild species. There are some bubble-domed greenhouses and a water garden.
Museum Rietberg exhibits works from Africa, Asia and ancient America. It is the only non-European art gallery in Switzerland. Originating from the private collection of Baron Eduard von der Heydt, the museum was extended in 2007 to nearly double its exhibition space.
It is situated across several villas in a lovely, leafy park. Villa Wesendonck is a neo-renaissance mansion where composer Richard Wagner once stayed. It houses the main collection of the Rietberg, wooden, bronze and ceramic objects from Africa, India, China, Japan and south-east Asia. Park-Villa Rieter focuses on Asian art with prints and paintings from India, China and Japan.
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