Zürich is a historic city at the center of Europe, with enormous international influence, situated on a crystal clear lake with the stunning backdrop of the Swiss Alps. Here, we’ve compiled our top ten best things to do in Zürich. You know you want to visit this city so here are the first tips you need to begin your exploration.
1. Old Town
Although most European cities that managed to avoid bombings, invasions, and catastrophic fires for a few hundred years can boast a gorgeous old town, it’s rare that these artifacts of medieval life keep their liveliness over the centuries. In Zürich, however, the old town remains the heart of town, holding within it the city’s powerful financial district, some of the most upscale shopping in Europe at Bahnhofstrasse, and the still hopping nightlife and restaurant district of Niederdorf. Any tour of Zürich would have to start here, just as much now as it would have had to in the year 1400.
Two stunning church towers with views overlooking an ancient city and the surrounding mountain range are shockingly pretty standard for a European city. Yet the Grossmünster is no standard church. It became the birthplace of Protestantism in Switzerland when Ulrich Zwingli served as parishioner in the 16th Century. The transformation can be observed physically in the church’s architecture; the sloping Gothic arches of the original 1220 Catholic Cathedral are stripped of all their former ornamentation, leaving only lifeless gray walls. As much as the Protestant reformers tried to stamp out all superstition, the church remains steeped in folklore. If you’re up to the task, we recommend taking the 187 narrow stairs up to the top of one of the towers, Karlstrum, for a sweeping panorama of the city below.
3. Opernhaus Zürich (Zürich Opera House)
While you may fancy yourself not too shabby at yodeling after a few days in the Alps, you won’t be able to keep progressing your game unless you take a lesson from the professionals. Head to the Zürich Opera House for some, you guessed it, opera and pick up all the hot tips for your next vocal mountain adventure. The Opera House is a smorgasbord of columns, carved facades, and valiant angels beckoning you to worship the opera singers inside. If pseudo-Roman opulence isn’t your thing, you’ll be just as happy passing an afternoon on the steps overlooking the sprawling Sechseläutenplatz square for some of the most eclectic people-watching in Europe.
4. Kunsthaus Zürich
The Kunsthaus sets out to convince you that Switzerland deserves a place amongst the art capitals of the world. The expansive art museum makes a quite compelling case, exhibiting the titans of Swiss Art from 15th Century masters who seem just as impressive as their Italian cousins, from innovators of modernism to an incredibly creative contemporary contingent. Alongside the Swiss centerpieces, some of the leading artists of each period are displayed, challenging you to question whether the more famous names were really so much better than their Swiss counterparts.
5. Uetliberg Mountain
The Uetliberg is Zürich’s classic backyard mountain, offering stunning views of the entire city and a prime opportunity to fulfill your yodeling dreams. We recommend skipping the train and hiking to Uto Kulm, the summit; the trails are well-marked yet often isolated and empty. At the top, you’ll find a viewing tower (2CHF) and a restaurant that overlooks the Alps. Although its prices are on the higher end of the spectrum, think about stopping by to grab a drink. Considering all the yodeling you’ve been doing, you’re probably parched.
6. Lake Zürich
Surrounded by bustling city on both sides, flowing into a rushing river through medieval buildings, and sparkling clean, long, slender Lake Zürich is a water body like no other. While the water is nice to look at from the shoreline, the best view of the lake, and indeed the best view of Zürich, is from a boat in the middle of it. Rent a pedal boat from Bootsvermietung Rytz+Kreuzer to breezily chug into the center of the lake with up to four of your friends. Once you’re on board your ship, fun is guaranteed—pedal up into the River Limmat, play unrequited bumper boats with other groups on the water, live out your childhood dreams of piracy by pillaging an unsuspecting sail boat– the possibilities are endless.
Like the slightly more famous Grossmünster across the street, the Fraumünster is a living monument to how the reformation imposed its vision of austerity and modesty on everything bright and joyful in the world—the gray walls are bare and unadorned, the angels have been chopped off the facades, and the plain church pews seem to scream “can I talk to your manager.” But unlike the Grossmünster, this church has been rehabilitated by the citizens of Zürich to admit that there is, perhaps, some joy to our humble life before death. In the midst of the gray barren walls stand five captivating modernist stained glass windows, designed by iconic artist Marc Chagall to breathe some life back into the church during the 1970’s. Like a resolute flower growing through the sidewalk, they tried to stamp out beauty in Zürich, but it has stubbornly reared its head again.
8. Langstrasse, Gewerbeschule, and Zürich West
While many tourists will never travel outside of Old Town, the further out neighborhoods of Langstrasse, Gewerbeschule, and Zürich West boast the youngest residents and most interesting alternative scenes in all of conservative Switzerland. Immediately to the West of Old Town, Langstrasse hosts the heart of Zürich’s nightlife scene. To the North, Gewerbeschule is a hip neighborhood full of international restaurants and students cruising around on bikes. To the West and across a set of train tracks lies Zürich West, a former industrial wasteland that has been reclaimed to become the home of cavernous warehouse clubs and every other alternative use of a warehouse that you can think of. This is a large area to tour, but just by stepping into one of the three lively neighborhoods you’ll be venturing further than most tourists.
9. Zürich Arboretum
With Lake Zürich beckoning in the background from almost every angle throughout your wandering around the city, you’ll eventually have to accept the offer and simply lay back basking in the view. As a manicured shoreline park replete with grassy lawns and shady, well-groomed trees, the Zürich Arboretum is the perfect spot to lay back for hours and enjoy the sight of sailboats and paddle boats cruising across crystal-clear water.
10. Landesmuseum Zürich (Swiss National Museum)
Still confused how the whirlwind of dynamic cultures surrounding Switzerland congealed into a single nation most famous for the invention of the cuckoo clock? Look no further for answers; the Swiss National Museum houses exhibits on the country’s modern challenges, the workings of its government, local archaeology, and influential ideas, providing you with enough knowledge to understand the nation’s history and enough nuance to offer criticism. The designers of the museum aren’t overly generous either: the flaws rampant in a nation that pioneered the spirit of capitalism and didn’t grant women the right to vote until 1971 are fully on display, alongside the achievements of the Red Cross and centuries of Swiss humanitarian aid. It’ll be up to you to write your own verdict when you leave.