With its location in the central-north region of Switzerland, Zurich is ideally situated for day trips where you can see mountains, lakes, small towns, or Europe's mightiest waterfall. And with Switzerland's fast, frequent and efficient rail system, most destinations are easy to reach without a car.
Rhine Falls: Europe's Most Powerful Waterfall
Located in the northern reaches of Switzerland, close to the border—formed by the Rhine River—it shares with Germany, the Rhine Falls (Rheinfall) is the widest and most powerful waterfall in Europe. A well-developed visitors area at the falls allows travelers to view them for free from the northern side of the Rhine, get up close—and possibly wet—from a viewing platform at Laufen Castle (accessed by a bridge), or take a boat ride to the base of the falls. There are restaurants right near the falls, plus an adventure park if you'd like to see the falls from a zipline.
Getting There: To reach the Rhine Falls from Zurich, take the S9 or S12 direct train from Zurich to Neuhausen (about 1 hour), and walk a few hundred yards to reach the falls.
Travel Tip: Spring is prime viewing time, when snowmelt causes the falls to roar with increased water volume.
Rapperswil: Town of Roses
Known as the Town of Roses, Rapperswil sits on the northeastern shore of Lake Zurich and is a short train ride from the city. Its flowery name comes from the more than 16,000 rose bushes planted in gardens around the city. Rapperswil has a lovely lakefront, a small, charming medieval city center, a 0.6-mile (1-kilometer) wooden footbridge to the island of Hurden, and the looming Schloss Rapperswil—a fairytale castle with sweeping views of the lake and the Alps.
Getting There: Trains from Zurich's main station leave every 12 minutes for the 37-minute ride to Rapperswil. In the summer months, you can also get there via a 2-hour lake cruise run by the Lake Zurich Navigation Company.
Travel Tip: If you're coming for the roses, be sure to schedule your visit from June to October.
Baden: Hot Springs and Medieval Ambiance
Since the Roman empire, the weary and stressed-out have soaked their bones in Baden's thermal waters, which flow at a toasty 117 degrees F (47 degrees C), at more than a dozen springs in the town. Today, most of the pampering in Baden—which means to bathe in German—is done in the town's numerous spa hotels, though there are still a few public bathhouses with gender-separate bathing areas. The outskirts of Baden are industrial, but there's still a charming medieval core along the Limmat River, along with a 13th-century abbey, the ruins of a castle, and a few interesting museums.
Getting There: Several trains depart Zurich's main station each hour for the 15-20-minute trip to Baden.
Travel Tip: If you don't feel like disrobing, you can still get a spa fix by soaking your feet for free at the Thermalbank, a 26-foot- (8-meter-) long bench with hot water running around it.
Winterthur: Museums for Every Persuasion
Though it's just 25 minutes by train from central Zurich, Winterthur is more than just a bedroom community. Once an industrial hub, Winterthur is now a destination for museum-goers, with offerings ranging from the arts to history to science. Foremost among the city's many museums is the Fotomuseum, with collections that explore photography from its historical, documentary, and artistic facets. There are two first-rate art museums, the Kunstmuseum and the Sammlung Oskar Reinhart-Am Römerholz collection, both with outstanding collections of classic and modern art. Finally, the Technorama science museum will keep kids and adults entertained with its hands-on displays. The city also has a cute old town, plus plenty of places to eat.
Getting There: Trains from Zurich Hauptbahnhof depart every 15 minutes for Winterthur.
Travel Tip: Almost everything is within walking distance of the train station with the exception of Technorama, which is about 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) away. Buses run back and forth all day.
Zug: Sunsets and a Small Lake
The cozy town of Zug has been a community since at least the 1200s, and its landmark clock tower, Zyt Tower (the clock wasn't added until the 1570s) dates back to the city's founding. With its own lake—the aptly named Lake Zug—and a mountain behind it, Zug is a favored day trip from Zurich due to its closeness to the city, its well-preserved Old Town, and its spectacular sunsets. Something about the proximity of lake and mountains makes for brilliantly colored red, orange, and yellow sunsets.
Getting There: It takes about 25-35 minutes to reach Zug from Zurich Hauptbahnhof, on one of many daily trains.
Travel Tip: To ooh and aah at that famous sunset without making too late a night of it, try to visit from November to February, when the sun sets between 4:30 p.m. and 5:30 pm—you'll be back in Zurich for dinner.
Flumserberg: Hiking, Skiing, and a Mountain Coaster
On this mountain close to Zurich, outdoor enthusiasts find year-round adventure, from hiking and mountain biking and a climbing tower in summer and an even bigger thrill—an exciting mountain coaster that careens 1.2 miles (2 kilometers) down the mountainside. When there's snow on the mountain, activities include downhill and cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, sledding, and winter hiking.
Getting There: The direct S2 train from Zurich Hauptbahnhof runs to Unterterzen. From there, a cable car carries visitors to the top of Flumserberg in 20 minutes.
Travel Tip: For novice skiers, including young kids, there's a drop-in ski school and plenty of beginner runs.
Einsiedeln Abbey: 9th-Century Pilgrimage Site
In a country that played a central role in the Protestant Reformation, Einsiedeln Abbey remains one of the most important Catholic pilgrimage sites in Europe. Found in 835 by a hermit monk named Meinrad, the abbey flourished for centuries and even during the tumultuous years of the Reformation, emerged intact and continued to be a pilgrimage destination. The current abbey church is from the 1700s, and is known for its venerated Black Madonna statue as well as the relics of Saint Meinrad. The entire complex—including the church, courtyards, stables, a library, and a wine cellar—makes for an interesting visit.
Getting There: Take one of several daily trains from Zurich Hauptbahnhof to Wadenswil, and then transfer to the 13 train to Einsiedeln, which runs every 30 minutes. The entire trip takes a little over an hour one way. From Einsiedeln station, it's a 10-minute walk to the abbey.
Travel Tip: Every day at 4:30 p.m., monks perform evening song in the chapel.
Bern: Swiss Capital and a Famous Clock
You could easily spend a few days in Bern, but you can cover a lot of ground during a long day trip. The Swiss capital has a completely different character than bustling Zurich—it's cozier, less flashy, and overall more low-rise. The Old Town, formed by a sharp curve in the Aare River, was created after a devastating fire in 1405—after which the town was rebuilt in stone instead of wood. Don't miss the Zytglogge, Bern's famous astronomical clock with moving figures. You can also walk the city's miles of arcades, take in views of the Aare, and tour the mighty Bern Cathedral with its elaborate sculpted main portal.
Getting There: Daily, frequent direct trains from Zurich take between 60 and 90 minutes to reach Bern's main station, which is less than 10 minutes by foot from the Old Town.
Travel Tip: Be sure to arrive in front of the Zytglogge at least 5 minutes before the hour—the mechanical figures start to come to life 4 minutes before every hour, and finish about 2 minutes after the top of the hour.
Lucerne: Storybook Switzerland and the Chapel Bridge
While we think Lucerne merits more than a day trip, its proximity to Zurich makes it an easy day trip. With its compact dimensions and setting on Lake Lucerne and backed by the Alps, Lucerne is postcard-pretty. Walk around the Old Town (Altstadt), still hemmed in by medieval defensive walls and towers, and cross the low-lying, 14th-century Chapel Bridge (Kapellbrücke) over the Reuss River. The Swiss Museum of Transport is the most visited museum in Switzerland.
Getting There: Trains from Zurich Hauptbahnhof depart daily, at least once an hour for the 50-minute journey to Lucerne. The Altstadt is just across the river (via one of several bridges) from the train station.
Travel Tip: Climb one of the four accessible towers of the Museggmauer, the old city wall, for great views of the city and the Chapel Bridge.
St. Gallen: UNESCO Heritage Sites and Old Books
Eastern Switzerland's largest city, St. Gallen grew up around the Abbey of St. Gall, which is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city appeals with its well-preserved, pedestrian-only Old Town and the vast Abbey complex. Spend some time in the magnificent Abbey Library, it has manuscripts and books dating to the 700s and is one of the most important rare book collections in the world. St. Gallen has long been a center for textile production and the Textilmuseum displays historic clothing and machinery.
Getting There: Several direct, daily trains reach St. Gallen from Zurich Hauptbahnhof in just over an hour. From St. Gallen's main station, it's a 4-minute walk to the Old Town.
Travel Tip: As you walk the streets of the Old Town, look up to spot the intricately carved and painted oriel, or bay windows, which adorn houses that once belonged to textile merchants.
When it comes to high-altitude Stoos, getting there is at least half the fun. The mountain recreation area—which, like similar spots in Switzerland has a range of activities for all ages—is reached by the world's steepest funicular, complete with its Space Age looking carriages, that transports riders more than 2,400 feet in five to seven minutes. From the car-free village of Stoos, you can enjoy hiking, an adventure park, family discovery trails, and, in the winter, snow sports.
Getting There: This is one of the few day trips from Zurich where a car comes in handy for the roughly 70-kilometer drive to Schwyz, the starting point of the funicular. If you do opt to arrive by train, you'll need to travel from Zurich Hauptbahnhof to either Arth-Golhau or Zug, take a bus or train to Schwyz, then a bus to the foot of the funicular.
Travel Tip: On a clear day, the Rütli meadow, birthplace of the Swiss Confederation, can be seen across Lake Lucerne.