Planning Your Trip
Things to Do
What to Eat & Drink
Zurich is the largest city in Switzerland and the point of entry or departure for the majority of travelers visiting the country. It's also one of the great cities of Europe with history dating back to the Roman era as well as a preserved medieval old town, and important monuments and churches. Zurich also offers stunning scenery (both from viewpoints in the city and the surrounding mountains), Swiss and international cuisine, and museums showcasing rich culture and history. There's also palpable modernity in Zurich, as evidenced in its young, educated population and in new developments and urban reclamations like Europaallee and Zurich West.
Whether your travel tastes lean toward history, culture, or the outdoors, Zurich is a must-see city on your tour of Switzerland. Here's the info you need to plan your trip.
Planning Your Trip
Best Time to Visit: The months of July and August see pleasantly warm weather and are the most popular months to visit. In late November and all of December, Christmas markets are open all over the city, and streets and buildings are strung with lights and decorations. In January and February, skiers use Zurich as a city base for outings to the surrounding mountain ski resorts, so the city can be crowded and pricey. Spring and fall are shoulder seasons, when the crowds are less dense and hotel prices are generally lower, but the weather can be especially rainy and overcast. Read more about the best time to visit Zurich and our guide to the weather and climate in Zurich.
Language: Zurich is in the German-speaking part of Switzerland (the other part is French-speaking), so German is the official language of the city. But the language you'll hear in Zurich is Zurich German, a local dialect of Swiss German. English is widely spoken, particularly among people in industries catering to tourists.
Currency: The common currency in Zurich and the rest of Switzerland is the Swiss franc (CHF). Switzerland is not a member of the European Union, so it does not use the euro as currency. While some stores and businesses will accept euros, they will give you change in francs. U.S. dollars are not accepted anywhere. Your best bet is to go to an ATM when you arrive in Zurich and withdraw some francs. Most businesses of any kind will let you pay with credit and debit cards, though you may find that American Express cards are less widely accepted.
Getting Around: If you arrive to Zurich by train or plane, your first introduction to the city will be Zurich Hauptbahnhof, the busy main train station. From here, you can reach virtually any part of central Zurich by foot or via one of the numerous, frequent trams that ply the city. Zurich's comprehensive tram network is enhanced by a periphery network of buses and regional and cogwheel trains, as well as boats that cruise the Limmat River and Lake Zurich. There is no need for a rental car in Zurich unless you plan day trips to areas not reachable by public transport, plus you'll find parking in the city scarce and expensive. For more on getting around Zurich, read our guide to public transportation in the city.
Travel Tip: Zurich's city center is compact and mostly flat. In the Altstadt (Old Town), many zones are pedestrian-only, making for pleasant walking, and people-watching from sidewalk cafes.
Things to Do
If you're spending a few days in Zurich, you'll want to spend your time taking in a few museums, exploring historic neighborhoods and enjoying the scenery along Lake Zurich and the Limmat River. Luxury fashion and accessory shopping draws tourists to Zurich, but there are also areas where you can find antiques and one-of-a-kind goods from local designers and artisans.
Here's a look at some of our favorite things to do in Zurich:
- Explore the Altstadt. The oldest and most characteristic neighborhood of Zurich, the Altstadt (Old Town) sits on both sides of the Limmat River and is home to medieval churches, public buildings, and historic guild-houses dating from the 12th to 19th centuries. Much of the area is pedestrian-only.
- Take a boat ride on Lake Zurich. Commuter and tour boats sail the clear waters of Lake Zurich all year long, and a ride on this postcard-perfect lake is a must-do activity in Zurich. Boats are a fast, easy, and entirely pleasant way to access many easy day trips from Zurich.
- Head up to Uetliberg. At 2,850 feet above sea level but just 30 minutes by tram from Zurich's main station, Uetliberg mountain is a favorite outdoor destination for Zurichers and visitors alike. There are family-friendly hiking trails, casual eateries, and terrific views of Zurich, the lake, and more distant mountain peaks.
What to Eat and Drink
Cuisine in Zurich, as in the rest of Switzerland, is heavy on meat, cheese, potatoes, and bread. Must-try dishes include fondue, which is a blend of melted cheese, wine, and seasonings served hot and gooey. It's eaten with chunks of bread, small boiled potatoes, and other vegetables and served in a communal pot. Raclette is another Swiss favorite; it's a thick slice of grilled, melted cheese served with cured meat, potatoes and vegetables. Sausages of all varieties dominate restaurant menus in Zurich, and they're often served with rösti, a type of crispy potato pancake. Chocolate, of course, is a treasured treat in Switzerland, and you shouldn't leave Zurich without trying some high-quality offerings from a fancy chocolate shop. Zurich also has an international food scene, with plenty of great restaurants for Indian, Thai, and Chinese food.
Whether wine, beer, or coffee is your drink of choice, Zurich presents a multitude of options. The city's historic cafes, such as Odeon and Conditorei Schobar, are ideal places to sip a coffee or tea, while in the summertime, outdoor beer gardens pop up along the lake and riverfront. The Swiss are justly proud of their wine—in Zurich, red Blauburgunder (Swiss German name for pinot noir), and aromatic whites such as Müller-Thurgau, räuschling, and completer are good choices for those wishing to sample a regional wine.
Where to Stay
As in most European cities, hotels in Zurich run the gamut from basic and (kind of) cheap to lavish and ultra-expensive. The city's poshest and priciest hotels are found in the Altstadt (Old Town), but even this area has some affordable options. Expensive hotels are also scattered along both sides of the lakefront, especially on the eastern Seefeld shoreline. For more of a modern city feel and generally lower prices, look west of the Altstadt to the area anchored by Europaalee and Langstrasse. The latter, once Zurich's red-light district, now has a lot of small hotels and bed-and-breakfasts, plus the hip 25hours Hotel Zürich Langstrasse.
For more ideas on where to stay, check our guide to Zurich's best neighborhoods.
You'll most likely arrive to Zurich by plane or train. Domestic, European, and international flights arrive to the modern and efficient Zurich Airport (Flughafen Zürich), located about 7 miles (11 kilometers) from the city center. A taxi from the airport into the city will cost between 40 Swiss francs and 60 Swiss francs, depending on traffic. It's faster, and much cheaper, to take one of the trains that leave roughly every three to five minutes for the 12-minute ride into the city. As you leave the arrivals area, just follow the signs for trains. Airport trains arrive to Zurich Hauptbahnhof Station (abbreviated Zurich HB), the city's main station. From there, you can catch a cab or tram, or walk to your final destination.
Most trains from other parts of Switzerland and Europe also arrive to Zurich HB—it's a huge transportation hub. Signs will direct you to station exits, where you'll find dozens of tram stops. Within the station, there's a shopping mall, restaurants, and transportation and tourist information offices.
Not only is a rental car not necessary in Zurich, it's ill-advised. Public parking spaces are hard to find and private parking—either at your hotel or a private lot—is very expensive. With the city's walkability and efficient tram system, a car is not needed. If you're driving to Zurich from outside the city, park your car and leave it parked during your stay in Zurich.
Culture and Customs
Visitors from the U.S. might find the people of Zurich and the rest of Switzerland a bit more formal and reserved than the American norm. You'll likely be better received at restaurants and theaters if you dress neatly and a little more professionally than you might typically for a vacation—shorts, T-shirts, and baseball caps are not the norm here, no matter how warm in it is. Avoid talking loudly on your cellphone or using the speakerphone mode when you're in public places, including trams.
Note that a service charge is almost always included at restaurants, so tipping is not required. However, if you were pleased with the service or if you were a particularly large party, it's nice to leave a tip of 5 to 10 percent.
Zurich is one of the most expensive cities in Europe, but there are a few ways you can save money here during your stay.
- Ride the trams. Instead of taking costly taxis, take advantage of Zurich's extensive tram network to get where you're going. A single tram ticket, good for one hour, costs 4.40 Swiss francs (about $4.50).
- Consider the Zurich card. The Zurich Card travel pass includes unlimited free travel on the city's network of trams, buses, boats, and regional trains.
- Pack a picnic. Avoid pricey restaurants by packing a picnic lunch or early dinner and enjoying it in one of the city's lakeside or riverside parks.
- Dine out at lunch. Restaurants in Zurich are expensive. But if you've got your heart set on a particular fine dining experience, you'll generally find lunchtime menu prices are lower than at dinnertime for the same food and ambiance.