There’s no need to take out a bank loan when visiting Zurich as some of the best things to do in Zurich Switzerland are free.
With a long-established reputation for private banking, it’s no wonder Zurich is a lifestyle city.
Ranked by Mercer as the world’s fifth most expensive city, the Swiss financial centre sits at the edge of tranquil Lake Zurich with picture-postcard views of the snow-capped Alps on the horizon and soaring peaks like the Jungfrau Mountain.
Here’s the good news: spending a few days in Zurich need not cost a fortune.
Hotel rates are reasonable; there is an excellent public transport system, and many of the city’s best attractions are free.
Sure, you can just as easily drop $100,000 on a designer watch in a luxury boutique on the Bahnhofstrasse, which is possibly one of the world’s most expensive shopping streets and where public phone booths are equipped with heart defibrillators. But on the same street, you can also buy a fashionable Swatch watch for less than $100.
5 things to do in Zurich that are almost free
Pick up a ZurichCARD at the airport or the train station and tick off these five things to do in Zurich that won’t break the bank.
1- Roam Zurich’s Old Town
In my opinion, Zurich’s Old Town is one of the best historic quarters I have visited in Europe.
It reminds me a bit of the Old Town in Bern (you can visit Zurich as a day trip from Bern by the way).
Ambling past buildings that are hundreds of years old is a delightful way to spend the day.
The boutiques and galleries in the narrow pedestrian streets on both sides of the Limmat River are packed with paintings, prints, antiques and fashion.
Pop into Cafe Schober, which is housed in a 600-year-old townhouse, for hot chocolate and a pastry.
The café also serves a typical Swiss breakfast of Bircher muesli made with Alfred Bircher’s original recipe.
Churches worth visiting include the Romanesque Grossmünster (its twin towers are a Zurich landmark), the 13th-century Peterskirche (St Peter’s Church), which has Europe’s largest clock face, and the Fraumünster with stained glass windows by Giacometti and Chagall.
Don’t miss the Blüemlihalle (flower hall), which has artwork of national significance painted by Augusto Giacometti on the vaulted ceilings of Zurich’s police headquarters.
2- Cruise Lake Zurich
A cruise on Lake Zurich is a tranquil way to spend a few hours and is one of the best things to do in Zurich.
There are a number of boat operators offering paddle steamer cruises, fondue cruises and schnitzel cruises on the 40km-long lake.
The most popular cruise is the 90-minute journey offered by Zürichsee Schifffahrtgesellschaft (Lake Zürich Navigation Company), which is free with the ZurichCARD.
Sitting in a boat and watching the world float by is peaceful but if you’re feeling adventurous, disembark at any pier and catch a later boat back.
Lakeside attractions include the islands of Ufenau and Lützelau, the Baroque church in Lachen, the Lindt & Sprüngli chocolate factory in Kilchberg and public gardens of Rapperswil with its 15,000 blooming rose bushes.
On the north side, the “golden coast”, which extends from Zollikon to Feldmeilen, is lined with magnificent mansions.
3- Climb Uetliberg mountain
At 871m above sea level, Uetliberg is a dwarf when compared to the soaring peaks of the Swiss Alps such as the Matterhorn (4478m) or Monte Rosa (4634m).
Even so, Uetliberg is one of the best places to visit in Zurich for its lofty vantage point . Looking down upon Zurich, you will see panoramic views of the city, the lake and the Swiss Alps.
Getting to Uetliberg station is a pleasant ride on the S10 railway line, which is the steepest standard-gauge adhesion railway in Europe, running from Zurich’s main station.
From Uetliberg station, there is a ten-minute uphill walk to the viewing platform and the Uto Kulm restaurant, where the lunch buffet menu costs from 55CHF ($58) and has indoor and outdoor tables with splendid views.
If you’re feeling particularly energetic, you can climb the lookout tower or take the Planet Trail to Felsenegg.
The two-hour hike is a ridge walk, signposted with insights into the solar system and more views of Zurich, Lake Zurich and the Alps.
4- Visit a museum in Zurich
Low taxes and favourable art legislation make Zurich one of the world’s major art trading centres.
Zurich is also the birthplace of the Dada art movement that flourished during World War I.
There are 50 museums in Zurich and many have substantial art collections.
The Kunsthaus Zurich (Museum of Fine Art) has a substantial collection of modern art including paintings by Van Gogh and Picasso and the Museum Rietberg showcases works from outside Europe.
Housed in a hundred-plus-year-old fairytale-like castle, the Swiss National Museum contains the country’s Swiss cultural history exhibits.
There are smaller specialty museums such as the Beyer Clock and Watch Museum, which has 500 timepieces dating from 1400BC, and the Zurich Toy Museum with dolls, train sets, toy soldiers and other European toys from the 18th to the beginning of the 20th century.
Visiting a museum is certainly one of the best things to do in Zurich.
5- Hangout with hipsters in Zurich West
Another thing to see in Zurich is a world away from the Old Town’s cobblestone streets.
Zurich West is a former industrial quarter between the Limmat River and the railroad tracks.
Old buildings have been revamped and transformed into markets, restaurants, art and design shops.
An example is the red-brick Schiffbau building, a former shipbuilding factory, which is home to the fashionable La Salle where a fusion menu of Swiss, French and Italian fare is served in an airy industrial space spectacularly decorated with Venetian chandeliers.
The Swiss are proud of the Freitag flagship store, which is constructed from 17 rusted shipping containers piled 26m high beside an elevated highway and railroad tracks.
Inside are four levels of displays of Freitag messenger bags.
The messenger bag company founded in Zurich in 1993 produces a utilitarian unisex bag made from recycled truck tarpaulins, bicycle inner tubes and seat belts.
An example is showcased at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Of all the things to do in Zurich, this has got to be the hippest.
Save money with a 24 or 72-hour ZürichCARD. The card offers free admission to museums in Zurich along with transport on trams, buses, trains, boats and cableways. A 24-hour card costs 20CHF ($21); a 72-hour card costs 40CHF ($42).
For another amazing city to explore, here are some things to do in Lucerne.