Switzerland’s largest city finds a home for everyone, from outdoorsmen to shopaholics.
By: Ben Brown
ZURICH IN A NUTSHELL
The crisp air blows by as I bike along the lake. The path borders a park where people are lying in the sun, children are playing games and groups are barbecuing on portable grills. Others are playing pick-up cricket. The water stretches for miles, giving way to lush green countryside and the silhouettes of the Alps in the distance. Brightly colored houses give hills a quaint presence. Teenagers laugh as they splash each other on the rocky beaches. I am only a mile or so outside the historic city, but images of famous artwork, beautiful architecture and an overwhelming shopping district cannot leave my head. I can still taste the fondue I had at lunch.
Location: Northern Switzerland
Avg. Temperature: ~70 F, humidity: mid
Free/low-cost attractions: lake/river, swimming, bike rental, parks, old town, boat tours, most museums, Mt. Utileberg—hiking/mountain biking
More attractions: shopping in the Bahnhofstrasse, observatory, nightlife in the industrial area and in new town
Transportation: bus, train, tram
Cheap eats: Migros and Coop supermarkets, stretch of restaurants on Niederdorf in old town, various locations around train station
Misc: Zurich Card gives free public transport everywhere, as well as major discounts on museums and attractions in city and surrounding areas.
LODGING: HOTEL PLATTENHOF
Bartenders walk by red cushion chairs and serve you a complimentary home-brewed iced tea when you check in. Rooms are spacious, despite Zurich’s overwhelming demand for real estate. The plasma screen TV, with English channels and an Xbox, are some pretty nice perks too. A blue, glass window filters the faint moonlight to make for a very good sleep.
The breakfast is amazing and waitresses come by to serve you any hot drink your heart desires. It happened to be the week leading up to the Zurich Ironman triathlon, so I shared breakfast with athletes gearing up for the race.
The hotel is a 5-minute tram ride away from the city… or a 5-minute run, depending on what you want to do.
Plattenhof. Rooms start at ~$225/night.
THE RIVER AT NIGHT
I got into the hotel late, and decided to go running along the river. People were everywhere along the gravel pathway, walking under broad trees going through several long parks. Couples sat on stone steps to look out into the city night-lights. Teenagers paraded through the road with glow sticks strapped to their clothes. Eventually I stopped and walked down one of the docks where people were yelling from the beach bar in the background. I swear someone was going to jump from the balcony to the swimming pool down below.
THE CITY LAYOUT
Gorgeous stone buildings line the hilly streets, with doors opening to beautifully-lit houses and stores going all the way down to the river. This is old town, i.e. classic Zurich. Guild houses from the 13th century are lined up next to each other; paintings over the doors reflecting their trades.
We passed the University of Zurich, where the beautiful campus is almost intertwined with the museums that surround it. The plaza outside the tech building has a great viewpoint over the city.
We reached the river at the bottom of the hill, just after passing a small art quarter where the Dada movement first began. A walk down the promenade shows people sitting on the stone steps by the water and perusing through small shops. Europe’s largest clock face is right across the way. Yes, bigger than Big Ben’s. People are sipping fresh water from some of Zurich’s 1200 fountains.
This is home to the early/mid-twenties working community. Modern flats, chic restaurants, theaters and nightclubs rule this place. There’s also the Freitag, a famous shop made from nine stacked boxcars that sells high-end bags made from car covers.
MY FIRST TASTE OF SWISS FARE
What is Swiss food, exactly? Fine bratwurst, veal, and other meats served with seasoned potato dishes. And world-famous cheese and chocolate means fondue is at the top of the list as well. Every restaurant has its own specialty, and friendly service everywhere means your local waiter is always there to help. Plus more than 2,000 restaurants in this small city means you shouldn’t have a problem finding genuine Swiss food.
I got my first taste of Swiss at Restaurant Schipfe 16. Tables line up along the river and over a dock on the water. A small menu features daily specials of veal, fish, and pasta dishes. I had a classic order of veal in light cream sauce with roesti, or hashed potatoes cooked in butter or oil. For those who have never had it, roesti is incredible. Quite a way to make a culinary impression. Meals range from ~$18-30.
MORE SHOPPING THAN YOU KNOW WHAT TO DO WITH
One of Zurich’s staple attractions. The street used to be a moat surrounding the city, but was filled in many years ago and is now one of the finest shopping districts in Europe. The streets are always packed with people browsing through designer clothes and jewelry. There is a Globus center as well, which is comparable to Harrod’s in London—seven stories of high end shopping with a gourmet food market at the bottom.
One place to note is Kurz Jeweler, right by the train station. Every day, at 11 a.m. and 4 p.m., its clock out front becomes a 10-minute show of ringing bells and chimes, with traditional Swiss figures coming through a miniature door and dancing overhead.
For those looking to buy something off the beaten track, Zurich’s Old Town should come to mind. The guild stores specialize in everything from truffles to teddy bears. This is where you’re going to find truly authentic homemade products.
The park by the Burkinplatz and the lake becomes a flea market every Saturday morning. You can find second-hand jewelry, clothing, electronics, knives, and just about anything else you get in your typical flea market.
MUSEUMS AND ATTRACTIONS
I was very disappointed that I didn’t get to go here. This place features the only rainforest in all of Europe, and it is entirely manmade. Zurich made a deal with Madagascar to preserve animals here, and the rainforest was made to accommodate them.
Zurich Zoo. Tickets ~$22.
Kunsthaus Art Museum:
Zurich has a tremendous art history, and this large museum has many exhibits that depict centuries of movement. Albert Von Keller was the featured artist during my visit. Permanent displays of modernist and impressionist art make this museum an entertaining spectacle.
Kunsthaus Art Museum. Free with Zurich Card
Other museums worth noting are the animal museum, the museum of natural history, and the observatory, which has a 600x telescope that gives you a great look toward the stars at night. There are many more to name off, but only so much time to pick and choose.
THE SWISS CHOCOLATE CHRONICLES: ZURICH EDITION
Chocolate is not just another attraction to the Swiss, it’s a way of life; from white to dark, milk to marzipan; hazelnuts, walnuts, pistachios and pralines; strawberry, vanilla, and toffee on the inside or out; clusters of chocolate cornflakes and truffles filled with baileys, champagne, and native Kirsch cherry schnapps; chocolate bars, chocolate shells, chocolate drops of rain; chocolate leaves and mini chocolate buildings with chocolate windowpanes.
You get the picture. Chocolate literally flows from the taps here.
Locals highlight this place as the premiere chocolate shop of Zurich, and one of the best in Switzerland. The stores are surprisingly small, located near the train station and the Banhofstrasse, but renowned nevertheless.
Sprungli is most famous for their luxemborgli, which ironically isn’t much of a chocolate creation. Luxemborgli is structured almost like an Oreo cookie, with creamy filling in between two fresh wafer puffs. They come in many flavors and as soon as they touch your lips, you know just why they’re so famous. Take caution though: they’re highly addictive.
Sprungli Merkur: A much larger shop, and a chain throughout Switzerland, Merkur has just about every kind of chocolate you can imagine. Right in the front windows are blocks of fresh-made chocolate, just sitting there to lure you in. You can see chocolate-makers working in the back. The chocolate they use pours from a sink. Yes, a chocolate sink. I told you it flows from the taps here.
DINNER AT THE CRAZY COW
s Pictures of cows across the Alps hang on the walls and a projector shows cows yodeling in the snow. Swiss food meets bar food, and the bread comes in a loafer shoe while chicken wings come in miniature shopping carts. I joined a German-Swiss couple that recommended the gaggeligali, or ‘very yellow’ spaghetti. I will say, though, the food didn’t live up to the layout.
The Crazy Cow. Meals ~$25-$45
OTHER RECOMMENDED RESTAURANTS
For atmosphere, check out the Oepfelchammer in old town. Two large tables make up the entire restaurant, so patrons eat as a community. Every first-timer to this place makes allegiance by climbing through the wooden beams on the low ceiling and drinking a glass of wine upside down upon finishing. Complete this and the wine is on the house and you can carve your name anywhere you want on the tables and walls. This has been a tradition for over 160 years.
There is also Beughaskeller, on the border of old town and new town. It used to be an armory, which explains the axes and guns along the walls. Their menu comes in eight languages and meat is their specialty. You can order bratwurst by the meter here.
Anyone is allowed to rent a bike for the day in Zurich at no charge, thanks to Zuri Rollt, a project for a Zurich non-profit organization. Just show them a passport and give a 20-Frank deposit and you’re good to go. Scooters and skateboards are available as well. The bikes come with locks too, so it is one of the best ways to explore the city on your own.
Though small by comparison to the alps, Utileberg is the tallest point in the Zurich area at over 800 meters, and it’s a short train ride away. The top features several hiking and mountain biking trails, not to mention a great view of the city and countryside.
Picnic benches and fire pits make this a great day spot. If you book a hotel room for two nights through Swiss Tourism, a complimentary Globus picnic basket is yours for a gourmet lunch, so enjoy it here. I had too much food and offered it to a group I saw at another table. They asked me to join them, where we enjoyed wine and fondue. They also taught me how to make snake bread—fire-roasted bread that goes great with raclette cheese. Yet another Swiss twist on life.
Mt. Utileberg. Tickets free with Zurich Card.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Benjamin Samuel Brown is a senior broadcast journalism student at the University of Southern California. Born and raised in San Diego, California, Ben’s travel experience spans across more than a dozen countries over four continents and both hemispheres. His preferences tend to stray away from the typical excursion, however—from hiking for backcountry ski slopes in New Zealand to volunteering on an army base for the Israeli Defense Force.
In college, Ben is currently pursuing the honors curriculum in the Annenberg School of Journalism while obtaining a minor degree in sculpture.
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Note: This trip was sponsored in part by Switzerland Tourism.
- Switzerland Tourism
- Zurich Zoo
- Kunsthaus Art Museum
- The Crazy Cow
- Mt. Utileberg