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.
- 10 free things to do in Zurich
- More things to do in Zurich
- Zurich travel tips
10 free things to do in Zurich
Pick up a ZurichCARD at the airport or the train station and tick off these 10 free (or almost free) 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.
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.
If you love Zurich’s Old Town, another city with a charming historic quarter is Lucerne. Here are some things to do in Lucerne.
2- Visit a Church
While wandering around Zurich’s Old Town, churches worth visiting include the Romanesque Grossmünster (its twin towers are a Zurich landmark), and the 13th-century Peterskirche (St Peter’s Church), which has Europe’s largest clock face.
A highlight is the Fraumünster with stained glass windows by Giacometti and Chagall.
Fraumünster was founded by Louis the German in the 9th century but a large part of the church’s architecture represents the 12th to 15th centuries.
Grossmünster is one of Zürich’s landmarks as the instantly recognisable towers are seen in photographs often.
This Romanesque church started off as a monastic church in the 12th century and is a stunning example of medieval architecture.
The oldest section of the church is the crypt, which has original 14th-century frescoes.
During the 16th century, Grossmünster was the headquarters of the Reformation in Switzerland and there’s a museum at the church where you can learn all about it.
3- 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.
4- 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.
5- Visit Kunsthaus 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.
6- Visit the Swiss National Museum
Housed in a hundred-plus-year-old fairytale-like castle, the museum contains the country’s Swiss cultural history exhibits.
You could easily spend a day at this museum, which has exhibitions covering everything from the history of Switzerland to archaeology and ideas.
One of the reasons why visiting the Swiss National Museum is a top thing to do in Zurich is the depth and breadth of displays on offer.
7- Visit a Swiss clock or toy museum
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.
8- 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.
This Tuk Tuk tour of the Old Town also goes to Zurich West and is a cool way to explore.
9- Admire the view from Lindenhof
Looking down at the city from the top of the hill, from a spot where a Roman castle once stood, Lindenhof has lovely views over the Old Town and the Limmat River.
You’ll find remnants of Roman ruins here too but most people go for the view.
10- Explore Zurich on a free bicycle
One of the best things to do in Zurich for free is to pick up a free bicycle and explore the city on two wheels.
You can pick up “Gratis Velo” or a free bike at the bike station at Europaplatz (every day from 8 am to 9.30pm) throughout the year while in summer, there are more stations with bikes.
Download the free app to check for availability and if you’re looking for more than five bikes, it’s possible to reserve them in advance. A deposit of 10 CHF is required for each bike.
Another way to explore is to join a guided cycling tour around Zurich.
More things to do in Zurich
11- Walk along Bahnhofstrasse
You don’t have to spend a fortune window shopping along Bahnhofstrasse, which is packed with boutiques and shops selling expensive Swiss watches.
Although this street has a reputation for having the most expensive shops in the world, there are still a few options if you’re on a budget.
Look for department stores that sell popular chocolate brands and Swiss street brands like Swatch is a good option to buy something to take home.
The section of the street near the main station is where you’ll find street brands, so unless you’re planning on splashing some cash stay away from the luxury shops near the lake and Bürkliplatz.
12- Soak in a thermal bath
As Zurich sits on top of mineral springs, which has historically been a drawcard to “take the waters”, soaking in a thermal bath is one of the things to do in Zurich to tick off your list.
Options range from a treatment in a stylish contemporary Hamman at Stadtbad to bathing in the cellar of a 100-year-old brewery with vaulted stone walls.
Hürlimann brewery also offers lovely views of the Zurich skyline from the thermal pool on the rooftop.
13- Go to the Opera
The Zurich Opera House is located on the shore of the left bank and is one of the best opera houses in the world.
The programme is fabulous all year round and it’s quite a treat to watch an opera performed by one of the best opera companies in the world.
In 2014, it won Best Opera Company of the Year.
If you’re visiting during the end of September, an event to mark on your calendar is the Zurich Opera House Season Opening Party where you can take a guided tour, get behind the scenes and watch a performance all day long.
14- Eat fondue
Even though fondue may the kind of food you’d normally eat at home, tasting fondue in the country where it was invented is a special treat.
Did you know that the Swiss created this dish in order to use up stale bread and old cheese in winter when fresh produce was difficult to come by?
These days, fondue is a famous Swiss dish that is eaten all over the world.
While in Zurich, there’s no shortage of places to eat fondue, and you can even go on a cheese fondue cruise on Lake Zurich.
15- Go on a Swiss Banking Tour
Discover why Switzerland is the banking centre of the world on an insider’s walking tour of the city.
The best way to learn about Zurich’s rise is to chat with a local who can recount stories about how banking evolved.
Exploring Bahnhofstrasse, Bürkiplatz and Paradeplatz to discover the secret spots where Swiss Bankers drink, dine and deal.
Zurich travel tips
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).
Use free Wifi
Free Wi-Fi is availble right through the city and the Old Town, so sign up for the Wi-Fi and use Skype to call home.