Things to Do in Zurich
Fed by clear glacial waters that flow down the Swiss Alps, the crescent-shaped Lake Zurich (Zurichsee) forms the scenic backdrop to Zurich, Switzerland’s largest city, which spreads along the western tip of the lake. Measuring 25 miles (40 kilometers) in length and 1.9 miles (3 kilometers) in width, this alpine lake offers an easily accessible escape to nature for those based in the city, with plenty of swimming spots, hiking routes, tranquil islands, and picturesque mountain scenery.
With its striking 19th-century buildings and winding cobblestone lanes stretching along both sides of River Limmat, Zurich’s Old Town (Altstadt) is the most atmospheric part of the city and home to many principal tourist attractions.
Bahnhofstrasse isthe 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 (Opernhaus Zürich) 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.
Switzerland is famous for many things, including mountains, clocks, and, of course, chocolate. Legendary Swiss chocolatier Lindt & Sprungli has been churning out smooth and delicious confections since 1845. Today, visiting the Lindt & Sprungli Chocolate Shop, just outside of Zurich, is a must for any chocolate lover.
One of Zurich’s most distinctive and popular sights, Fraumünster Church is the green copper-spired building that is easily visible in Zurich’s skyline. The church itself dates back to the 9th century, but the building’s famous stained-glass windows are 20th-century additions.
At Rhine Falls (Rheinfall), sheets of white water tumble from a height of 75 feet (23 meters) across a 492-foot-wide (150-meter-wide) rock ledge. Created by the movement of the Earth’s crust about 15,000 years ago, this natural wonder is among Europe’s biggest waterfalls. The riverbanks near it are laced with walking and biking trails.
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. A regular series of temporary exhibitions supplement the permanent galleries, with recent showcases including themes like Swiss fashion and design and Roman history.
Sometimes called theGross Monster by English-speaking locals, Grossmünster 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. Visitors can climb the nearly 200 stairs up the north tower for sweeping views of the city. The cloister features a museum about the Reformation and the annex to the cloister is home to the theological school of the University of 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. While the views are spectacular during the day, don’t hesitate to visit at night either, when the sprawling city of Zürich can be seen spreading out as a sea of light in the darkness.
More Things to Do 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. A fountain in the center of the square still pays homage to this heroic deed, showing Hedwig, the leader of these women. In the following centuries, the square kept serving as a place of assembly and in 1798 it was here, that the citizens of Zürich swore their oath to the Helvetic Constitution.
Today, the Lindenhof is a green oasis in the heart of Zürich, from where one can enjoy a wonderful view over the old town, the Minster, the River Limmat and the University. But not only tourists come here to enjoy the perfect overview over historic Zürich. It is also a popular place with the locals, who often can be seen sitting on the many benches beneath the linden trees and taking a break from everyday life. Passionate chess players meet here to play long matches against each other amidst the tranquility of the trees and old buildings and regular theatre productions are held under the open sky.
Standing at 2,850 feet above sea level, Zurich's home mountainUetliberg offers fantastic panoramic views of the city, its lake, the Limmat Valley and the Alps beyond. 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.
Zürich’s Paradeplatz (Parade Square) 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 Paradeplatz 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 Paradeplatz wasn’t always mentioned in the same sentence as wealth and its history stands in stark contrast with today’s prestigious reputation. In fact, in the 17th century, the square was an important market place for trading livestock, especially pigs. Thus, Paradeplatz was known as Säumärt – pig market – for the longest time until the upswing in business and its renaming. Located at Paradeplatz is also one of the city’s most popular confectionery manufacturers, the Confiserie Sprüngli. At this café meets chocolate store you can enjoy tarts, cakes and everything in between or pick up some delightful macaroons from a huge display making up all colors of the rainbow.
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 high over the roof tops.
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. Eventually, it was upgraded from a funicular railway to rack operation and is now operated with two railcars.
St. Peter’s Church (St. Peterskirche) is one of Zurich’s most distinctive landmarks. The building is a combination of the original 9th-century edifice, 13th-century additions, and 18th-century reconstructions. Its clock face is the largest in Europe, and its spire rises high above the surrounding buildings.
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. This tradition goes back centuries, when wealth was shown by being able to afford paint for ones facades.
Tradition and customs are held in high esteem in Appenzell and apart from many cultural events, Appenzell is especially worth a visit during the yearly alpine ascent and descent of cattle. At the beginning of spring and at the end of summer, farmers don colorful traditional garb and lead their cattle either up the mountains to the lush alpine pastures or back down into the valley. The ceremonial processions are a festive occasion and many people from near and far line the streets to watch the decorated farmers and cows, hear the singing and listen to the melodious clang of the heavy bells.
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.
To delve some more into the history of this fascinating town, head to the Lindwurm Museum, and get a glimpse into the life of the 19th century as well as bourgeois agriculture and home décor. Follow the wooden footbridge to the island Werd in the middle of the river, a popular green spot and attraction where Franciscan monks have set up their residence. Watching over the picturesque town and landscape is Hohenklingen Castle. Sitting high on a hill above Stein am Rhein, this fortress, which was built in 1225, is still the most prominent landmark of the city.
Kunsthaus Zurich (also known as Zurich’s Museum of Art) is over a century old and contains more than 4,000 works of (mostly) European art making it one of the most important art collections in Switzerland. Works on display span the centuries, ranging from the medieval period to the 21st century.
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.
Just an hour north of Zurich, the lively medieval town of Schaffhausen is best known as the gateway to one of Switzerland’s most famous tourist attractions: Rhine Falls. The mighty waterfall is Europe’s largest, stretching 450 feet (137 meters) across the Rhine River and cascading from heights of up to 75 feet (23 meters).
Surrounded by a white wall topped with the golden East Asian roofs and interspersed with bright red gates, Zurich's Chinese Garden(Chinagarten) 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.
The Chinese Garden was a gift from Zürich’s sister city Kunming, as thanks for the help it received in the construction of a drinking water and drainage system. Now the garden is not only seen as one of the most beautiful Chinese gardens in the world, but is also considered to be the highest ranking temple garden outside of China. Apart from the pavilions and bridges, there is also a Chinese take away next to the main entrance, where one can enjoy the fresh spring rolls with a fitting view.
Zoo Zurich is very conservation-conscious, aiming as much to protect animals and sustain biological diversity in the world as to enable humans to look at the creatures they share their planet with. Home to over 250 species, including the endangered snow leopard and red panda, the zoo's slogan is 'Those who know animals will protect them.'
Children can feed sheep, pigs, ponies and goats at the zoo, while forest, mountain, aquatic and tropical ecosystems are also spread out throughout the site. Enclosures are spacious and aim to allow the animals to wander relatively freely in environments that echo their natural habitats.
The Botanical Garden (Botanischer Garten) is one of two botanical gardens in Zurich, both of which are operated by the University of Zurich. This nearly 15-acre (6-hectare) natural space sits on the outskirts of the city and is home to 9,000 species of plants from all over the world.
Zurich’s Museum Rietberg is the only museum in Switzerland dedicated to non-European art and displays art and artefacts from Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Oceania. Visit to see the collection’s roughly 23,000 objects, ranging from Mayan masks to contemporary art from the Congo, and 37,000 ethnographic photographs.
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