City Guide to Zurich: Sightseeing, House Sitting, and Public Transportation
Disclosure: We may receive a commission for links on our blog. You don’t have to use our links, but we’re very appreciative when you do. Thanks again for your support, we hope you find our posts and information helpful!
Finally, we were in Zurich! It was a bit of a debacle, but we made it! We were excited to take care of two little dogs, Diego, a Boston Terrier, and Valentina, a French Bulldog. The moment we saw the listing on TrustedHousesitters, and saw those cute puppy faces, we had to apply. We initially had a couple of messages back and forth with the homeowners, but didn’t get the dates we applied for. However, we were thrilled to no end when they contacted us weeks later and asked us to house sit and care for the dogs at a later date. We jumped at the chance. So needless to say, we were excited to be in the much anticipated city of Zurich, a beautiful, serene Swiss city, with two adorable dogs.
We’d had a long day of travel, starting with a wake-up call at 2 am and a flight from Istanbul, Turkey to Zurich, Switzerland, with a layover in Kiev, Ukraine. Once we arrived in Zurich, we took a stroll through the airport. It sounds odd, we know. But the Zurich Airport (ZRH) was voted the eighth nicest airport in the world by Skytrax. We made our way to the Airport train station and purchased tickets into city center. The trip only takes about 10 minutes and the trains run every 5 to 10 minutes. The downside is that tickets are $6.80 a person. While public transportation is pricey, it’s no surprise, since everything is expensive in Zurich. As a matter of fact, it's rated the most expensive city in Europe by the Economist Intelligence Unit.
Groceries and Expenses
We had the afternoon to ourselves before we needed to arrive at our house sit. We took advantage of the time and started to look for grocery stores. As we rarely eat out and nearly always buy groceries to cook our own meals, we appreciate finding well-priced grocers. Cooking our own food when traveling is a huge budget saver. Not to mention we also eat healthier, since we know exactly what we’re putting in our bodies. This is even more important in Zurich, since, as we mentioned, everything is incredibly expensive. Even the food.
Now, you’re probably thinking, ‘Expensive? What’s expensive, that’s such a relative word'. Well, allow us to put it into perspective and provide some context. A Swiss Franc (CHF) at the time of this article is equivalent to $1.02 US dollars. However, for simplicity, let’s assume a one to one ratio. By the way, the grocery items below aren’t from an upscale or even average priced grocery stores, instead, the prices are from discount/bargain grocers like Aldi and Lidl.
- A tall Starbucks coffee was $4.60
- A tall Starbucks Frappuccino was $7.40
- A pint of Ben & Jerry’s was $9.95
- A 1 kilo bag of frozen vegetables was $3.99
- A box of 3 Nestle ice cream cones was $9.89
- A standard size box (13 oz) of Special K cereal was $5.20
- On the Value menu at McDonalds a Chicken Sandwich meal (fries and soda) is $8.90
- Dry cleaning for a blouse was $12.50
- A men’s haircut at the bargain salon was $25
- A women’s haircut at the 'bargain' salon was $45
- Gillete Fusion razor blade refill cartridges, 8 count, was $45.80
- A 6.7 oz bottle of sunscreen was $17.00
Needless to say, we bought as little supplies as possible and trimmed our grocery shopping to a minimum during our stay. We have the standard items we purchase when arriving to a new location, but in Zurich, we made what we already had last as long as possible.
The House Sit
Like we said earlier, we were very excited to meet the two dogs we were going to be caring for. We're glad to say that upon meeting them, they didn’t let us down, they were as adorable as could be! Not only did we enjoy the dogs, we also made two new friends with the owners, Zuley and Alexis. We’re usually greeted very kindly by home owners when house sitting and have never felt unwelcome. However, we’ve never had a homeowner come out of their home with a huge welcome and hugs! Right away we could feel the immense hospitality and felt at home. We both had a great deal in common with Zuley and Alexis and talked about work, travel, and life in general.
Not only did we get a great personal welcome, but Zuley showed us the ropes of her home, the dogs, and around town. The best tip she could have given us, which she didn’t realize at the time, was showing us a Middle Eastern market just down the street from her home. This is where we found some of the best prices, even compared to Lidl and Aldi. As we’ve traveled throughout Europe, time and time again, small, family owned markets have come through for us when we’re looking for inexpensive groceries.
House sitting has been a great way to save money on lodging during our travels, but for us, it’s so much more than that. Not only do we provide a great service to the homeowner, taking care of their pets and home, but we get a place to stay that has all of the amenities of home. There are a few things people don’t always think about though. As an example, when traveling long-term, and in multiple countries, it can get lonely, or challenging to be so far from the comforts of home. So, to have a pet nearby, to cuddle, play, and walk with is comforting and soothing. We’ve also met so many great people and made friendships that we’ll have for years to come.
We can’t recommend house sitting and TrustedHousesitters enough. Our Zurich house sit has been a highlight of our European travels. We had a blast with Diego and Valentina, had a comfortable home to stay in, and met two great new friends!
We took the train from Zurich Airport to city center. In the airport, above the train station, we stopped in at the information office, right next to the ticket machines, to ask a couple of questions and confirm a few things. They were extremely helpful and confirmed that we had a few options when it came to public transportation.
- Single ticket – It’s valid for travel through the zones it's purchased for. For example, a ticket valid for travel between one and two zones costs 4.40 CHF. On the other hand, going to city center from the Zurich Airport crosses three zones, so a single ticket costs 6.80 CHF. Tickets are generally valid for one hour of use, although it varies on the number of zones they're purchased for. Single tickets can be used for the train and any connections needed, such as the tram or bus.
- Day Pass – If we planned on using public transport on more than just one trip, it made sense to purchase a Day Pass. A day pass is valid for unlimited travel for 24-hours. Depending on the zones you're going to travel through, the cost of the day pass will vary. Most sightseeing within Zurich is in zone one and two, so, the appropriate Day Pass will be 8.80 CHF per person. Although, from the airport, you’ll need a ticket valid for zones 1-3, costing 13.60 CHF per person.
- ZürichCARD – The ZürichCARD is great for tourists because it’s both a pass for unlimited public transportation within Zurich, and a pass for free or discounted entry into museums and tours. The card can be purchased for 24-hours or for 72-hours. What we especially liked about the card is that public transportation isn’t limited to zones 1, 2, or 3; you can use it in all of Zurich and the surrounding region. Additionally, ZVV (the company that runs Zurich’s Public transportation system) only offers a Day Pass valid for 24 hours, while the ZürichCARD offers a competitively priced pass for 72-hours. A 24-hour ZürichCARD card is 24 CHF and the 72 hour card is 48 CHF.
- More Options – There are additional ticket options for specific needs. Review all ticket options on the ZVV website.
At the airport, we decided that we’d use a single ticket to get into city center and then settle into the house sit. From there, we could decide if we wanted a Day Pass or a ZürichCARD. Ultimately, once we looked at our sightseeing map and where everything was located, and took into consideration how close we were staying to city center, we realized that we could walk to almost everything. If we ventured beyond walking distance, we’d consider the ZürichCARD for 24 hours or a Day Pass, and purchase the least expensive option depending on the zones we’d need to travel through. Unlike most cities we've visited throughout Europe, ticket machines are located at all tram stops and at most bus stop, so we wouldn't have to venture far to purchase tickets if we needed them.
Currency and Language
Knowing the currency and the local language are two important pieces of information when visiting a new place. The currency aspect is straightforward. Switzerland’s currency is the Swiss Franc, abbreviated to CHF. You may be asking yourself, ‘how can the abbreviation for Swizz Franc be CHF, that doesn’t make sense’? Well, head on over to Investopedia for a bit of background and explanation on why the abbreviation for Switzerland’s country currency is CHF. At the time we visited, the exchange rate was one CHF to $1.02 US dollars. Naturally, we prefer it when the Dollar has a higher valuation, purely for budgetary reasons. Although, we did appreciate the ease of converting prices when shopping in Zurich.
On the other hand, speaking of ease, the local language in Zurich is a bit more complicated. Switzerland’s ‘national language’ actually consists of four different languages: French, German, Romansh, and Italian. While in Zurich we heard and saw mainly French and German being used. When we arrived, we were a bit confused though. While the language sounded and read like German, there were words that confused us, because we didn’t recognize them as German. When we asked about this at our house sit, Zuley cleared things up for us. What we were hearing and reading was actually ‘Swiss German’. Swiss German is similar to German, but some words and pronunciations are different. Enough so, that even native German speakers have trouble understanding Swiss German. Let’s just say, we were glad that so many people spoke English and that the few German words we know were understood by others.
Interesting fact: There are six different ways to write the name ‘Zurich’:
- Zurich – French and English
- Zurigo – Italian
- Turitg – Romansh
- Zürich – German
- Zuerich – German, without the umlaut
- Züri –Swiss German
Impression of Zurich
While Zurich isn’t the capital of Switzerland, it’s the country’s largest city, with over 400,000 people in the city and 1.3 million in the canton (region). Compared to our hometown, Boise, the capital of Idaho, Zurich is a large city, almost double the population. However, compared to New York City's nearly 8.5 million people, it’s relatively pretty small. For us, we found the size of the city to add to the charm and feel of a city that embraces a bit of modern in a traditional setting.
As we mentioned, Zurich may not be the capital of Switzerland, but it’s known as one of the principal banking centers in the world. Knowing this, we expected to see a wealthy, clean, and modern city when we arrived; we weren’t let down. Just a walk through the airport will gave us a clear sense of the financial means of the city. Not only, dare we say it again, are things expensive, but everything is well maintained and clean. There’s definitely a sense of pride and orderliness within the city. Street markings are bright, easy to see and read, and showed very little signs of fading. There was very little graffiti, even in city center and on side streets. Parks were green, well maintained and trashcans were a plenty. Reputations of punctuality and timeliness held true, as we almost never found anything to be delayed. There’s even an expectation of ‘quiet hours/times’, especially in apartment buildings. Such that doing laundry, vacuuming, hammering, or flushing a toilet may not be allowed or appreciated at night, in the early morning, or on Sundays. We’re told that there’s an unspoken rule among citizens here, but it’s also often written into rental contracts.
As a 2,000 year old city, with over 6,400 years of being populated, there's much to explore in Zurich. We were fascinated with the over 1,200 fountains in the city. Each fountain is unique and the water flowing from them is potable. We walked the streets of Old Town, Altstadt, and enjoyed the history and traditional Swiss buildings and the narrow winding streets. Older parts of the city are charming with their cobble stone streets, although, personally, we prefer looking at them rather than walking on them.
Part of Zurich’s beauty isn't only Lake Zurich and the Limmat River, but also the hillside it sits on. As you explore the town, you’ll find yourself climbing the hill, which while walking, can seem extremely steep. To take a rest, why not ride up the hill on the Polybahn Funicular? Connecting city center with the University since 1889, this funicular averages a 23% gradient. It takes 100 seconds to get to the top of the line at Polyterrasse, the Federal Institute of Technology and Zurich University, where you’ll get beautiful views of the city. If you’re in the North-East suburbs of Zurich, you can also take the Rigiblock Funicular, dating back to 1901 and climbing an average 25% gradient.
Our Must See Sights in Zurich
We spent a couple of days sightseeing in Zurich. When we weren’t playing with the dogs or doing work, we were likely in city center exploring the town. Before we arrived in Switzerland, we did our research and made a list of everything we wanted to see, do, and visit. While we didn’t have enough time to explore the Swiss Alps and towns beyond Zurich (we’ll be back Switzerland!), we did cover a lot of ground in town.
So, to possibly make your research on sightseeing in Zurich (and other destinations) easier, we’ve kept our maps with all of the information we gathered (accurate at the time of our sightseeing). Finding hours, prices, and general information can sometimes be challenging, so we’ve tried to include these details on our maps and provide appropriate links below. And finally, not every attraction is suitable for every visitor, but the copywriters and marketing departments for the destinations sure make it sound like it. How many times have you read “Great for kids and adults alike” and shown up to wonder why anyone over 20 years-old without kids would go out of their way to be there? Below we’ve included our itinerary with tips, impressions, and our takeaways on each place that, when combined with the official attraction information and website, may help you decide if it’s a destination for your travel adventure or not.
NOTE: We used this sightseeing map for our personal sightseeing adventures, because of that, some notes may not make perfect sense, and some information could be outdated. Information on this map was valid at the time of creation. All prices are shown in US dollars but are actually Swish Franks (local currency). That being said, feel free to save it to your Google account and use it as a starting point (or modify it accordingly) for planning out your personalized itinerary in Zurich.
The map above is inclusive of everything we saw and did in Zurich. However, we want to highlight some of our favorites. We’ve included the most famous attractions, that you’ll find in every ‘must-see’ list of attractions, but primarily we’ve included the hidden gems and the destinations that you don’t come across in every blog and article about Zurich. Hopefully, you’ll love them as much as we did!
Without further ado, here are some of our favorite sights in Zurich.
Walk the City
By far, just like most other places we visit, our favorite thing to do while sightseeing was walk around the city. Going from destination to destination, walking is the best way to see the town in a way you never would be able to on a train, in a car, or even on a bus (Green Eggs and Ham anyone?). When we’re walking we can take a detour down the interesting street we pass, or walk through a park that wasn’t on our map. We also get a feel for the locals and how they live.
So our absolute, number one tip to sightseeing in Zurich, is to walk around. Walk the banking district, along the water front on Zurich Lake, across the bridges that cross the Limmat River, down the upscale shopping district Bahnhofstrasse, around streets of Old Town, and walk everywhere in between.
We started our Sunday morning off bright and early, with camera in tow, and made our way to Saffa-Island. In character, Sergio kept the destination a surprise and kept the three-mile walk one of anticipation and discovery. We walked a bit through city center, but kept our walk mostly on the outskirts, staying along calm walkways in the suburbs. We detoured through parks and found our way past interesting buildings and unique architecture. We enjoyed the serene, yet bright Sunday morning walk. We seemed to have the streets and the parks to ourselves as we made our way to the surprise destination. We crossed under a street and made our way up a set of stairs, where once atop the bridge that led us into the park, Saffa-Island, ‘our private little island’, could be seen.
While not actually a private island, Saffa-Island is part of a public park along Zurich Lake. This man-made island can be reached by bridge, where if you stop and look below, you’ll likely see the swans crossing under you. The small island has short cut grass for picnicking on and trees to shade you from the overhead sun. We walked hand-in-hand along the path that encircled the island and took in the views from both directions. On one side was the clear blue lake, with the snow covered Alps peeking through. In the other direction, we could see into the city with the towers of the churches and the homes rising on the hillside. In either direction, sailboats and swans were a plenty.
Swiss National Museum
On first impression, if you could take the 100 year old building (built in 1898 actually), out of the hustle and bustle of the city that surrounds it, you may think you’re looking at a castle from a Grimm’s Fairy Tale. Inside, the museum houses a permanent collection that’s masterfully displayed to take visitors through history to learn about Switzerland. The temporary exhibitions seem to be just as well curated and displayed. The use of technology is impressive and done tastefully. The Swiss National Museum website has information on temporary exhibits, hours, and ticket prices.
As one of the highest-ranking Chinese Gardens outside of China, this garden is quite impressive. The garden was a gift from Zurich's partner town of Kunmig for its help in expanding and restoring Kunmigs water facilities. While the idea of a Chinese Garden may not be what you had in mind when visiting a Swiss city, these gardens are a beautiful place to discover.
Zürichhorn and Park Blatterwiese
This park, located at the far side of the Zurich Lake promenade, is a popular place to picnic, relax, and play games. It houses a playground, Spielplatz Blatterwiese, that will have any kid drooling in anticipation to play in it. It’s here that you’ll find the Chinese Gardens, but also where you’ll find some great views of the lake, the alps, and beyond. The bridge at the opening of the lake, Quaibrücke, is usually lined with tourists taking pictures of the view. In our humble opinion, at the south end of Zürichhorn, near the pier and the sculpture Heureka by Jean Tinguely, better views can be had. With plenty of seating, on benches or on the stairs leading to the water, you can sit, relax, and capture that perfect picture of an amazing view.
There are two botanical gardens in Zurich, both maintained by the University. There’s the ‘Old Botanical Gardens’, located in city center, and there’s the newer garden, known just as Botanical Garden, located on the east side of town. We visited both, although the newer garden certainly stood out to us. It was a bit of a hike to get to the garden, since it’s located on a hill. Once you enter, you’re taken away from the city and have a multitude of pathways to follow. Inevitably, you’ll find your way to the center with the bubble domed greenhouses that are set in front of a pond. While most of the garden is wild fauna, the greenhouses cultivate tropical plants. We were quite impressed that so much of the garden seemed to be labeled. We’ve been told that in the spring, you can hear the frogs around the pond. While, we missed this, we did see thousands of tadpoles swimming in the water. Something we can imagine would be an incredible sight for any young child!
St. Peter's Church
While wandering the streets of Old Town, it'll be hard to miss St. Peter’s Church. While the courtyard is small and the interior is simple, you’ll want to be sure to see this church up close. From the courtyard, look up at the tall tower that overlooks the city. Once used for observing the city and keeping an eye out for fires, this clock tower is home to the largest clock face in Europe. It may not seem like it, but the minute hand is 12 feet long! At a diameter of 28.5 feet, the clock face is larger than even the one on Elizabeth Tower (Big Ben) in London. If you follow the history on this church, you’ll be going back into the 9th century.
Great Minster (Grossmünster)
A landmark in Zurich’s skyline is the twin towers of Grossmünster. Rebuilt and renovated many times, the church was originally built in 1100 CE and inaugurated in 1220 CE. Upon entering the church, we immediately noticed the unique stained glass windows, by Sigmar Polke. Also, pay special attention to the stained glass windows by Augusto Giacometti and the two bronze doors. Enter the crypt, which is seemingly empty other than the cloisters. However, if you turn back around towards the doors you entered, you’ll see the large sculpture of Charlemagne, thought to have founded the original order of the church. At a cost of 4 CHF, climb the 187 stairs up to the top of the tower to get a bird’s eye view of the city. For those Assassin’s Creed fans, you may feel like Altair, but no jumping please! Visit the church website for information, but you may want to view it in Chrome, so that you can use the translate feature.
We genuinely enjoyed our time in Zurich, and we were grateful to have such gracious hosts. We didn’t have time for day trips beyond the borders of the city, however if we return, we’ll definitely embark on adventures outside of Zurich. While we have nothing planned yet, who knows where future adventures may take us. In the meantime, you may find great Swiss travel tips and ideas on TainoTrails. Kudos to our new friends, Zuley and Alexis.
Stay tuned for our next adventure, where we take the Bernina Express, arguably one of the world’s most beautiful train rides. The train will take us from Zurich, Switzerland to Chur, Switzerland, cross into Italy and end in Tirano, Italy. From there our adventure continues to Milan, Italy.