It's not the capital of Switzerland (that would be Bern), but Zurich is Switzerland's largest city and its commercial, transportation, and cultural hub. The city is set along the Limmat River, encompasses Lake Zurich (Zürichsee), and is surrounded by mountains. With its scenic setting, colorful and well-preserved Old Town, and ample museums, parks, and pedestrian areas, it is a delightful city to explore. Plus there's a great dining and arts scene, and a comprehensive and efficient system of trams, buses, and boats meaning you can travel around Zurich, including to its outlying areas, with ease.
Get Acquainted with Old Town
Start your visit to Zurich in the oldest part of the city. The Limmat River divides Zurich's Altstadt (Old Town) in two, with the Lindenhof to the west (left) bank and the Rathaus to the east (right). Archaeological remains dating to the pre-Roman and Roman eras have been found in Lindenhof, making it the oldest part of the city. Both halves of the Altstadt are medieval in character, with houses, churches, public buildings, and historic guild-houses dating from the 12th to 19th centuries. Auto traffic is limited on all but the main arteries, making this a lovely area for walking and exploring. Shops and restaurants, some in existence for hundreds of years, line most streets in the Altstadt.
The most recognizable landmark on the Zurich skyline and a symbol of the city, the Romanesque-style Grossmünster (Great Minster) is one of a handful of important churches in the Altstadt. Construction on the present church began in 1100, and the church was allegedly founded by Charlemagne. When the church seceded from the papacy in the 1500s, it became the focal point of the Swiss Reformation and the growth of Protestantism in the country.
After touring the interior, you can climb one of the Grossmünster's twin towers for sweeping views over Zurich, Lake Zurich, and the mountains beyond.
Ride a Tram
New and vintage trams rumble all over Zurich, and connect visitors and residents to practically all parts of the city and its suburbs. Apart from being a convenient mode of transportation, the above-ground trams are also a way to see the city. Single tickets are good for 30 minutes and are priced from 2.70 Swiss francs with prices going up according to how many zones are crossed. A simpler way around the fairly complicated zone and tariff system is to buy a Zurich Card, which includes unlimited travel on all city transport and free or reduced admission to dozens of museums.
Zip Around on an Electric Scooter
When in Zurich, make like a local and zip around town on an electric scooter, hundreds of which are readily available through various rental and share programs. You simply have to download the app for the company you wish to rent from, leave your email address and credit card number, scan the available scooter, and take off. When you're done with your ride, leave the scooter parked wherever; an online mapping system will let the next user know where available scooters are waiting. On Zurich's mostly flat streets, this is a fun way to get around, and you'll blend right in. Apps and scooters are currently available from Circ, Lime, and Bird.
Take a Boat Ride on Lake Zurich
A sightseeing boat ride on Lake Zurich or the Limmat River is a fun and relaxing way to take to the water any time of year. Lake Zurich Navigation Company operates a large fleet of sightseeing vessels, including motorboats and steam-powered ships. Sailings are more frequent in the warmer months and include such novelties as a fondue cruise (yes, please!), beer cruises, and salsa-dancing cruises. If your stay in Zurich is over and you're transferring to a different location along the lake, a boat commute is a scenic and fun option.
Stroll the Limmat
The Limmat River cuts a pretty swath through Zurich, and like all rivers in Switzerland, it's remarkably clear and clean. On both sides of the Altstadt, but particularly on the Lindenhof side, it's possible to walk along the embankment and to watch the swans, ducks and, in warm weather, swimmers and kayakers enjoying the river. The waterfront walkway runs under covered arcades in places, and passes historic buildings, squares, and riverside bathhouses.
Swim in the Lake or River
Swimming in Lake Zurich and the Limmat River is a favorite pastime of Zurich's residents young and old, and many of them are willing to brave very chilly water to take a dip! All along the banks of both bodies of water are places to wade in and swim, including bathhouses with changing areas and "swimming pools" built out over the water. There are also beaches and grassy areas along the lake where you can just roll out a towel. If you want to take to the water and (hopefully) stay dry, kayak, stand-up paddleboard, and canoe rentals are available.
Ascend the Uetliberg
The closest mountain to Zurich, the Uetliberg is 2,850 feet above sea level and offers sweeping views of Zurich, the lake, and the Alps beyond. Trams depart every 10 minutes from Zurich's main station for the 30-minute ride to Uetliberg station, from where walking trails depart for the summit. Hiking and mountain biking trails fan out from the summit, and in winter, it's a popular sledding area. Families will enjoy the Planet Trail, a walking trail with a scale model of the solar system. There are casual to upscale restaurants at the Uto Kulm Hotel, plus modern rooms and suites if you just can't tear yourself away from the views.
Marvel at the Fraumünster
With its elegant green steeple rising across the river from the Grossmünster, the Fraumünster (Women's Minster) is built on the remains of a ninth-century abbey. Throughout the Middle Ages, the Fraumünster was a powerful and independent woman's abbey, which even minted its own coins. The steeple dates to 1732, though sections of the oldest parts of the church still remain. Art lovers come to see the 20th-century stained glass windows by artists Alberto Giacometti and Marc Chagall.
Eat Fondue and Hearty Swiss Fare
Fondue is likely the most iconic Swiss cuisine you can eat—bubbling hot, melted cheese served with chunks of bread and small potatoes for dipping. You'll find it all over Zurich, but Le Dézaley, on the Rathaus side of the river, has been serving it up for a century. It and Swiss Chuchi, also on the Rathaus side, are also great places to try raclette, a dish of melted cheese typically served with thick-sliced bread, pickled vegetables and sliced, cured meat. For hearty Swiss fare like Wienerschnitzel, rösti (fried potatoes), and sausage sold by the meter, try Zeughauskeller, a raucous, rustic eatery in a building from the 1400s.
Drink Coffee at a Historic Cafe
Zurich has a strong coffee culture, and there are several historic cafes and coffee roasters around the city where patrons can sip a premium brew, nosh on chocolate, pastries, or other sweets, and soak up the storied setting. Schwarzenbach has been roasting coffee and selling high quality beans, teas and foodstuffs in the same Marktgasse location since 1910. In a building from the 1300s, elegant Conditorei Schober, in business since 1842, has tea and coffee-drinking salons that are almost as frilly as the fancifully packaged chocolates, candies, nuts, and pastries it sells. Right near the mouth of the Limmat, Cafe Bar Odeon was once the haunt of Albert Einstein, Vladimir Lenin, James Joyce, and a host of other early 20th-century intelligentsia.
Shop Along Bahnhofstrasse
Bahnhofstrasse, the wide boulevard that starts at Zürich Hauptbahnhof train station and ends at the lakefront at Bürkliplatz, is often called the most expensive stretch of real estate in the world, and the labels are not far off. The street is lined on both sides with high-end to ultra-high-end retailers—the kind of stores where security has to buzz you in. Prada, Chanel, TOD's, Salvatore Ferragamo—they're all here, along with millions and millions of dollars of jewelry and watches. Even if you can't afford to shop here, it's fun to window shop; plus the prices get much more affordable the closer you get to the train station.
Dive into Zurich West
The development of Zurich West, a once-abandoned industrial area, is an absolute success story of urban planning and repurposing. Former factories and even an old railway viaduct have taken on new life as Zurich's trendiest area for shopping, dining, nightlife, and living. Be sure to check out the Freitag Flagship Store (home of the made-in-Zurich recycled bags), which is housed in a high-rise crafted out of 17 shipping containers, the Im Viadukt food hall, and the top-floor bar at the 35-story Prime Tower.
Sample Sweets at Fancy Chocolatier
Switzerland is synonymous with chocolate, and in truth, eating good Swiss chocolate is a life-changing experience. Zurich's streets are dotted with fancy chocolatiers, many of which have been handcrafting delicate bon-bons, macarons, brittle candies, and other confections for 100 years or more. Window displays are often spectacular and tempting, and while fine chocolate can be very expensive, it's perfectly acceptable to just purchase a couple of pieces to enjoy on the spot. Hallowed halls of chocolate and all things confectionery include Confiserie Teuscher, Confiserie Sprüngli, and Läderach.
Ponder Picassos at the Kunsthaus
One of the largest art museums in Switzerland, Zurich's Kunsthaus houses thousands of works of art from the 13th century to the present. While the collection is vast and varied, the museum is best known for its holdings of Impressionism, Expressionism, and Modernism—among the finest anywhere. Allow at least a few hours to scratch the surface here.