Postcards from Italy

48 Hours: Zürich

The largest city in Switzerland (and capital of its eponymous canton), Zürich is also one of the country’s most dynamic and cosmopolitan urban centers. Pairing Swiss efficiency with European cool, this metropolis is set where the Limmat River meets Lake Zürich and has an artsy side that has made it a buzzy destination for creatives (including luminaries like Tina Turner)—despite the sky-high price of living. The charming old town is ringed by edgy post-industrial architecture with retrofitted historic factories that are now used as cultural spaces and contemporary residential housing.

Photo by Claire Gribbin via Flickr, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Many people assume that Zürich is the capital of Switzerland (that honor goes to the city of Bern) and it’s easy to make that mistake since it is here where the country’s main airport and train hubs are located; most visitors in Switzerland arrive via Zürich. But this lively city is more than just a jumping-off spot to visit the rest of the country and deserves at least two days of exploration. The historic center is thick with spire-topped churches, delightful coffee shops and boutiques, and a number of green spaces to relax and take in the city like a local. When you need a break from Zürich’s relentless pace, you can head out to Lake Zürich (Zürichsee) or the nearby peaks to admire the city from above.

Photo by Martin Kirchgessner via Flickr, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Here’s how to spend an unforgettable 48 hours in Zürich:

Two Days in Zürich: Day One

A Morning in the Old Town along the Limmat

Zürich has a surprisingly well-preserved historic center, today packed with trendy shops and cafés (the two most famous are Café Felix and Café Schober) set in the historic townhouses. The old town stretches along both sides of the Limmat River, so a good way to begin your day is with a stroll along the pedestrian-only Limmatquai, the city’s river promenade that skirts the eastern bank and is lined with inviting cafés and tiny shops. 

Zurich waterfront
Photo by Ed Coyle via Flickr, licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

On the north end of the Limmatquai, the Muhlesteg footbridge offers great views along the river looking south (the other bridges spanning the Limmat all thrum with traffic). After taking in the view, dive into the Niederdorf district, the most charming quarter of the city’s old town set on the east side of the river. The main thoroughfare (Niederdorfstrasse) is surrounded by a warren of pedestrian lanes crowded with unique shops and hidden cafés to discover; in the evening, this same area is a nightclub hotspot.

At the far northern edge of Niederdorf, catch the Polybahn, a cute red funicular railway that takes passengers uphill to the ETH Polyterrasse to enjoy one of the best views in Zürich. The ETH is Zürich’s technical university—where Einstein once taught—and its perch high above the cityscape offers views that stretch south across the rooftops to Lake Zürich.

After you’ve fully explored Niederdorf, stroll south to two of the city’s most storied churches that sit on either side of the river. To the east, the Grossmunster (or Great Minster) pierces the skyline with its “salt and pepper shaker” towers. Charlemagne is said to have commissioned this church on the site of the graves of the Saints Felix and Regula; it would later become the birthplace of Switzerland’s Protestant Reformation in Switzerland. As long as you’re there, spring for a ticket to climb to the top of one of the towers (note that there are 187 steps) for unbeatable views of the historic center. Almost directly across the river on the west bank, the Fraumünster Church is best known for its five stunning stained glass windows created by Marc Chagall in 1970. 

About halfway down the Limmatquai, pop across the river to the western side of the historic center (also known as Lidenhof) for a quick look at the Church of St. Peter, the oldest parish church in Zürich and famous for having the largest clock face in Europe on its tower, stretching almost 30 feet across. When the minute hand moves, it jumps ahead about a foot and a half.  

Switzerland-00144 - River View
Photo by Dennis Jarvis via Flickr, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

At some point during your deep dive into Zürich’s old town, you will probably start feeling peckish. We suggest stopping at the casual Sternen Grill for a perfectly charred St. Galler Bratwurst (white sausage made from veal and pork) served with a freshly baked roll and their own spicy mustard. 

An Afternoon of Art and Nature

After an entire morning outside, duck into Zürich’s impressive Kunsthaus (art museum) for a few hours. This world-class collection boasts important European works from the Old Masters to the Impressionists, including paintings by Monet and van Gogh and sculptures by Rodin.

Not into art? Zürich has you covered with a smattering of small but excellent museums, including the Museum für Gestaltung (design), Schweizerisches Landesmuseum (Swiss history and culture), Museum Rietberg (African, Asian and ancient American art), and Beyer Museum (timepieces). 

on a short trip to Zurich...Sprüngli- the Swiss world of chocolate
Photo by flumea via Flickr, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Not into museums? Skip the culture for commerce on the famed Bahnhofstrasse, the city’s most exclusive shopping street that is home to high-end designer boutiques like Tiffany and Louis Vuitton and some of the city’s most elegant chocolate shops. If your credit card can bear the strain, this is a paradise for luxury shopping. 

End your day of exploration with a meander along the lakeside promenade on the banks of Lake Zürich. You’ll see plenty of families out to take advantage of the parks and bike lanes, couples enjoying the sunset, and on-brand industrious locals squeezing in a final jog before sunset. 

Old-School Dinner 

Go full-on Swiss with dinner at Kronenhalle, an landmark restaurant not far from the  Kunstmuseum that is decorated with a museum-worthy collection of art. As Brian notes, “It’s the place to get Zürcher Geschnetzeltes”, the beloved local dish make with sautéed strips of veal served in a sauce of white wine, cream, and demiglace.

Two Days in Zurich: Day Two

Lake and Mountains

Take a break from the bustle of Zürich today by heading outside the city limits to relax on the lake or in the mountains. The city sits directly on the shores of Lake Zürich and there are a number of lake cruises offered that last from under an hour to all day; the two-hour cruise to Rapperswil is a great option. You can take in this picturesque lakeside town’s historic castle and lunch in one of the local eateries before heading back to Zürich by train (about 40 minutes).

Photo by Andrew Eland via Flickr, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Walking and hiking enthusiasts can instead head to the top of Uetliberg, Zürich’s neighboring mountain peak. Less than a 30-minute train ride from the city, this panoramic spot is a short walk from the train station for those who don’t want to work too hard for their views. There is a scenic hotel restaurant near the viewing platform if you want to stop for a leisurely lunch. More energetic visitors can hike up the entire mountain along the trail at its foot (near the Triemli tram/train station) or take the train to the top and then set off on one of the many well-marked trails along the mountain’s slopes.

Alps from Uetliberg
Photo by Joel Bez via Flickr, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Dine with History

Whether you spent the day on the lake or in the mountains, you’ve probably worked up quite an appetite for dinner. Book a table at the storied Zeughauskeller, which has been serving satisfying Swiss cuisine since 1926. Considered one of the best places in Zürich for schnitzel, this restaurant’s version of Kalbgeschnetzeltes nach Zürcher Art (a pan fried veal schnitzel in a creamy white wine and mushroom sauce) is a local favorite. If you’ve had your fill of Swiss cuisine, you’re in luck: Cantinetta Antinori (the prestigious Tuscan wine producer) has an outpost in the center of Zürich that serves Italian dishes.

Related posts:

Travel Tips for Switzerland

48 Hours: Bern

Switzerland for Art Lovers

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Maria Landers

Brian Dore