There are many reasons why you would want to visit Zurich. To start with, the city is absolutely gorgeous and lives up to the Swiss stereotypes that we, North Americans, have.
And just utterly beautiful scenery.
These clichés, for better or for worse, are all true. But more than just a pretty face, the cosmopolitan city surprised me in many ways with its dynamism and effervescence, something I didn’t quite expect from this notoriously homogeneous German-speaking city. I had only planned for 48 hours in Zurich because I flew SWISS’s new direct route from Montreal before going on an epic pan-European adventure.
Go on a Lake Zurich cruise
If there’s ONE thing you NEED to do in Zurich, it’s this cruise (which is included in the ZurichCARD). Switzerland is famous for its crystal-clear waters and Lake Zurich is no exception; it also beautifully showcases the Swiss Prealps as well as the city’s many manicured parks located along the water.
Wander the old streets of Zurich
One of the most fun (and cost-efficient) things to do in Zurich is just to wander around. The city is very picturesque, and its centre is filled with winding cobblestone streets, each more photogenic than the last. I especially loved my early morning and evening strolls when the streets are virtually deserted. I felt like I had Zurich all to myself.
Visit the Swiss National Museum
As one of the most important art museums of cultural history in Europe, the Swiss National Museum showcases the most significant events of the last 20 centuries, from prehistory to ancient times and the Middle Ages, with a particularly rich section focused on Gothic art and chivalry. Bonus points – the museum itself is a magnificent work of art, with dozens of towers and courts. Make sure to take a photo or two from Platzspitz Park.
The ZurichCARD is very good value at just CHF 27 for 24 hours or CHF 53 for 72 hours. It includes unlimited 2nd class travel on all forms of public transportation in Zurich, free or reduced admission to museums as well as 50% discount on public city tours.
Enjoy a refined lunch at Restaurant-Boucherie August
Halfway between a multi-centennial butcher shop and a refined contemporary eatery, August is a fascinating place to say the least. The hotel in which the restaurant is located, the luxurious Widder Hotel, is the 700-year old headquarters of the Widder Zunft (Zurich’s historic butchers’ guild) – which explains the subtle and clever touches of traditional butcher items inside the restaurant, from the decor itself to the waiter’s outfits.
Tip: if weather permits during your 48 hours in Zurich, have your meal al fresco. And whatever you do, don’t skip the beef tartare – one of the best I ever had. And I’ve had lots of beef tartare in my life.
Admire the view from atop Grossmünster
Admittedly, this is one of the most iconic things to do during your 48 hours in Zurich.
I blame it on jetlag, but for some reason, I got the time wrong and arrived at Grossmünster an hour late (hence the lack of photo evidence). But my local spies tell me that the view from its bell tower is simply outstanding.
In addition, the Romanesque church played a major role in Switzerland’s history, as this is where the Swiss-German reformation started in 1520, leading local authorities to sever ties with the papacy. There’s even a Reformation museum in the cloister.
Go up Lindenhof for the views
As a place frequented by both tourists and locals looking to chill out in this acclaimed green oasis, Lindenhof is a place everyone will enjoy. Photographers will be pleased for obvious reasons, while Zurich connoisseurs will have a blast standing on the site of a bygone Roman castle and pointing out the different historical buildings on either side of the Limmat River.
Admire the Chagal stained glass windows inside Fraumünster
Although the so-called Women’s Minster, built on the remains of a former abbey for aristocratic ladies, has a long and fascinating history, most people will head there to admire the stunning Chagall stained glass windows in the choir of the abbey. Installed in 1970, each of the five strikingly modern windows features a dominant colour and depicts a Christian story in a very graphic and typical Chagall way.
Have coffee at Kafischnaps
One of the things I really wanted to do during my short trip in Zurich was to leave the very centre and get a feel of what it must be like to live in Zurich. Hopping on the tram, I headed to Kafischnaps, a hip coffee bar between the districts of Wipkingen and Unterstrass, where I was served not only excellent cake but a warm smile, a rarity in this somewhat reserved country.
Good to know: there is more than meets the eye in this cafe, seeing as it has five small rooms to rent on its upper floor.
Eat traditional Swiss fare at Zeughauskeller
Rome Zurich, right? This extremely touristy spot (I suspect there wasn’t a single local in there) is kind of a must-do; the building, built in 1487, was formerly used as ammunition storage seeing as the Middle Ages were a far cry from the peaceful Switzerland we know today. In fact, legend has it that the crossbow from local icon William Tell was issued here.
Make sure to order the Zürcher Geschnetzelte, a rather hearty and traditional Zurich pan-fried veal dish served with mushrooms, a cream sauce and rösti – to be washed down with a pint of beer, obviously.
Have breakfast at Cafe Lang
A great place to stop for coffee on your way to Zurich West during your 48 hours in Zurich.
This cosy and imperial, Austrian-looking coffeehouse (with its dark wood walls, fresh flowers and mint-colored furniture) serves a mean soy latte and mouth-watering viennoiseries. Try to snag a table outdoors if you have the chance, as their patio is one of the best people-watching spots in the city.
Have lunch at Hiltl, the oldest vegetarian restaurant in the world
A little bit of veggies never hurt anyone – especially not in Switzerland, where traditional fare tends to be more on the heavy side. Hiltl was founded in 1898 and has been serving the best vegetarian buffet in Zurich ever since, now under the watchful eye of the fourth generation of Hiltl. The restaurant is massive and can easily accommodate the crowds it keeps drawing, even after 100+ years in business.
Visit the Viadukt and West Zurich
Talk about clever urbanism! More than just a trendy neighbourhood, Viadukt is an ode to creativity and architecture seeing as its shops and restaurants are housed inside the arches of the disused, 550-feet long railway viaduct. It still feels like a very effervescent, constantly evolving space that I bet will look different when I visit again this September.
Viadukt a pretty good introduction to Zurich-West, actually.
Factories have been transformed into theatres, shipyards are now art galleries, mills currently house pop-up shops. Indeed, art, design, food, culture, shopping and architecture are now the center of attention in this former industrial zone – especially at the Freitag flagship store (iconic bags produced from recycled materials taken from the streets – you’ve surely seen them before, just about every bike messenger in the world owns one), which is housed inside a structure formed by 17 freight containers piled one on top of the other.
Indulge with Swiss fondue
I tried to come up something more original than fondue (such a cliché, amirite) but there simply is no such thing as going to Switzerland and not indulge in this iconic meal. Period. Although most Swiss you will meet will rebuff at the idea of eating fondue when there’s no snow on the ground, tourists are allowed to infringe this unspoken rule. Because cheese.
Day trips from Zurich: a few suggestions (if you have time)
- Eiger – Jungfrau Glacier
- Interlaken – Grindelwald in the Bernese Oberland
- Black Forest and Rhine Falls
- Heidiland and Liechtenstein Tour
- Swiss Alps: Jungfraujoch and Bernese Oberland
- Switzerland Countryside and Traditions Tour
- Bern Day Trip
- Mount Titlis
- Lucerne and Stanserhorn Including Funicular Railway, Aerial Cable Car and Train Ride