European City Pick: Zurich

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My best friend is Swiss, so I’ve traveled to Switzerland nearly a dozen times over the past decade. During this time, I’ve visited Zurich on probably 10 separate occasions (Bianca lives in the canton of Aargau, which is only 15 minutes by train from Zurich Hauptbanhhof), but it was only very recently that I began to appreciate the city, which is frequently ranked as having the best quality of life in the world.

To a first- (or even second- or third-) time visitor, Zurich can come off as cold, boring and even ugly. It also happens to be one of the most expensive locations on the planet! If you play your cards right—and read my recommendations for 3 days in Zurich below—I imagine you’ll fall in love with Switzerland’s largest city a lot faster than I did.

Where to Stay in Zurich

One of the most expensive aspects of travel in Switzerland is accommodation, with “average” hotels like Hotel Arlette Beim in Zurich and Hôtel Bel’espérance in Geneva routinely costing 200 USD or more per night. Even if you only plan to spend 3 days in Zurich, it’s easy to see how this can add up.

If you book far in advance, using Airbnb can afford you a decent discount on private accommodation in Zurich.

How to Divide Up Your Zurich Itinerary

Day 1: Stories from the City, Stories from the See [sic]

Actually, it’s difficult to imagine how anyone can see Zurich as being ugly. Whether you feed swans on the banks of Lake Zurich (Zurichsee), drink wine along the River Limmat or marvel at architectural wonders like Fraumünster or Grossmünster, Zurich is indisputably beautiful, particularly on clear days when you can see the Swiss Alps in the distance.

Zurich is extremely expensive, however, which is why I prefer buying a bottle of booze at a Coop supermarket, and enjoying my Zurich city tour while rich people get lit at 15 francs per drink, rather than heading even to “cheap” bars on seedy Langstrasse myself. Bread is also pretty cheap in Zurich—and those swans are always hungry.

Day 2: Get Out of Town!

Trains in Switzerland, not surprisingly, are also extremely expensive, but the good news is that Switzerland participates in the Eurail program. Whether you buy a Swiss rail pass, a Eurail global pass or a multi-country pass that includes Switzerland, there is no other country in Europe where a rail pass pays for itself faster than in Switzerland.

Why do I mention this now? Well, because of Switzerland’s size, taking day trips from Zurich is one of the best ways to spend three days in Zurich. And there are literally dozens to take, whether you head north to the spectacular Rheinfall waterfall, southwest to the Swiss capital of Bern (which, as its German name suggests, is actually home to real-life bears), or charming lakeside cities like Luzern or Zug or northwest, where you’ll find medieval Baden and Bruno Weber Park, a Gaudi-like wonderland just outside of industrial Dietikon that’s one of the best attractions to see during your Zurich itinerary.

Day 3: Go Tell It On The Mountain

Another great use of a Swiss rail pass is traveling to the Swiss Alps, although I should state up front: The pass does not include free use of the “Top of Europe” train, but rather a discount—and a modest one at that.

Bianca’s family loves spending time in Engelberg and Melchseefrutt, which are located near the city of Luzern, but incredible Alpine destinations are literally a dime a dozen in Switzerland. Another popular mountain getaway that can be counted among Zurich day trips is Interlaken, while Zermatt (a town popular for its views of the Matterhorn) is better seen if you have a night to spend there.

Is 3 Days in Zurich Enough?

On one hand, it’s perfectly easy to see Zurich in 3 days, whether you spend most of your time in the city center or take some of the day trips I’ve mentioned. Taking a shorter Zurich trip is also rather prudent, given what I mentioned earlier about the high cost of traveling in Switzerland in general.

Indeed, since so many of the things to see in Zurich in 3 days are in places like Baden, Rheinfall and even the Alps, you can easily spend just 2 days in Zurich if you plan to stay in city center. How many days in Zurich you spend is extremely customizable!

The Ultimate Zurich Itinerary

Whether you’re in search of things to do in Zurich, day trips from Zurich or just want a wide-range of inspiration, the best Zurich itineraries all share a few things in common:

  • Historical Zurich attractions in the city center like Fraumunster and Grossmunster Churches
  • Walks on the Limmat River and lazes on the shores of Lake Zurich
  • Visits to interesting towns and cities outside of Zurich, like Dietikon and Baden
  • Zurich day trips to natural attractions like Rheinfall and the Swiss Alps
  • Nights spent on Langstrasse, or other Zurich nightlife districts
  • At least a meal or two that spotlights Swiss cuisine like fondue, racelette and rösti 

The Bottom Line

Whether you follow my Zurich itinerary exactly or use bits and piece of it to build your own, one thing is for certain: “Downtown Switzerland” is anything but boring. Explore things to do in Zurich city center, like walking along the River Limmat or picnicking on the shore of Lake Zurich, or take day trips to the Swiss Alps or nearby Cantons. Are you ready to book your flight?

Robert Schrader
Robert Schrader is a travel writer and photographer who's been roaming the world independently since 2005, writing for publications such as "CNNGo" and "Shanghaiist" along the way. His blog, Leave Your Daily Hell, provides a mix of travel advice, destination guides and personal essays covering the more esoteric aspects of life as a traveler.
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