Zurich may not be the capital of Switzerland, but it is a global centre for banking and industry. It is a beautiful city, very well organised and, at the same time, hospitable and tolerant of the multidimensional mosaic of its residents and visitors from every corner of the planet. Furthermore, it has an intense cultural and artistic life that makes it one of the liveliest cities in central Europe.
It is built on the banks of Lake Zurichsee and the River Limnat, with beautiful and well-kept quays and a vibrant old town. It is a beautiful, friendly, open-minded, and hassle-free city that invites you to get to know it and discover its visible and hidden treasures. It is a city where the traditional and the modern coexist harmoniously, and luxury goes hand in hand with the alternative and the original.
If you are visiting Zurich for the first time, there are 8 things you must do to become acquainted with and understand the city. However, these 8 things are just an introduction to this multifaceted destination.
1. Explore the streets of Niederdorf: Niederdorf, which means the ‘Low Village’, is the heart of the Old Town’s eastern section. The main artery through this historic neighbourhood is the pedestrianised Niederdofstrasse. A network of narrow alleys begins here, lined with antique shops, art galleries, cafes, restaurants, and small hotels. The Grossmünster, the imposing Protestant church with the tall twin towers, is located in Niederdorf. Its original construction started in the year 1100, but it has been rebuilt and renovated several times. It was from the pulpit of this church that the humanist Urlich Zwingli preached the Reformation, which then spread to the rest of the country.
Another very interesting and historic building in the area is the Cabaret Voltaire. It was an artistic club opened on February 5, 1916, by Hugo Ball with his companion Emmy Hennings, which proved pivotal in the founding of the anarchic art movement known as Dada. The club closed in the summer of the same year, and after the turn of the millennium, the building that had housed Cabaret Voltaire fell into disrepair. But after several protests and events, a group of artists managed to retain the building, which now operates as an artistic events venue.
2. Walk along one of the most expensive streets in the world: The main road in the west part of Zurich is Bahnhofstrasse, which lies on the course of the mediaeval city’s moat. It is the main downtown street and one of the world’s most expensive and exclusive shopping avenues. The street is also lined with the headquarters of several major Swiss banks and Zurich’s two famous department stores, Globus and Jelmoli. The avenue on its western side opens onto Papadeplatz, which was once a military parade ground.
After a walk along this famous street, a stop for lunch or dinner at the well-known restaurant Zeughauskeller (Bahnhofstrasse 28A) is necessary. The restaurant, housed in the old arsenal storehouse since 1926, has been a peaceful and friendly gathering place for the locals and is the perfect place for visitors to taste authentic Swiss cuisine. Zürcher geschnetzeltes (Zurich ragout), rösti, schnitzel, cordon bleu, and sausage and cheese salad, accompanied by great beer, are the specialties someone must try in order to learn and understand the local gastronomic tradition.
3. Relax among the locals at Quaianlagen: But beyond the previous two charming points, if you really want to feel like a local, what you have to do is take a walk along the lake, specifically in Quaianlagen Park. With a coffee in hand from the famous ViCafe at Bellevue, start your walk outside the imposing building of the Opera House (Opernhaus). During the walk, especially if the weather allows it, you see the residents of the city enjoying a meal on the grass, doing gymnastics or yoga, running, swimming in the public baths, sailing on their boats or just enjoying the sun.
At the south end of Quaianlagen starts the pleasant Zurichhorn Park, which contains sculptures by well-known modern artists. At its northern end stands a bronze sculpture by Henry Moore and at its southern edge, a kinetic sculpture by Jean Tinguely. In the eastern part of the park, walls enclose the Chinagarten, a Chinese garden that was gifted to Zurich by its twin Chinese city of Kunming in 1994. The best time to do this walk is in the afternoon, when the sun begins to set above the lake.
4. Admire Chagall’s windows in Fraumünster: The history of Fraumünster begins in 853 when King Ludwig the German appointed his daughter as the abbess of a convent at this location. The convent was destroyed during the Reformation, but the church survived to this day. The most amazing part of the church is the presbytery, which is lit by stained-glass windows created in the 1970s by the famous artist Marc Chagall, along with a rosette for the chancel. They depict biblical themes, and a different colour predominates in each.
The central window, which is green in its main colour, depicts scenes from the life of Christ. The blue window on the left is inspired by the visions of Jacob, and the yellow on the right features King David. There is also an orange window in the north wall with the prophets and a red-and-blue window in the south wall with the Holy Law. This world-famous masterpiece by Chagall still impresses visitors from around the world today, and it is a unique example of how modern art can be combined with religious faith to create something really breathtaking.
5. Learn the history of Switzerland in the National Museum: The collections of the National Museum of Switzerland (Schweizerisches Landesmuseum) illustrate the country’s history and culture from prehistoric times to the present. The museum has departments in various locations in the country, but its headquarters are in Zurich. In Zurich’s museum you see the largest collection of objects from the cultural history of Switzerland.
These objects include artefacts from the archaeological past, costumes, handicrafts, works of art, and also a special exhibition about the common ideas that are passed down from generation to generation, shaping the development of the Swiss community and forming the foundation of a national identity. It is obvious that there is no better way to learn and understand Switzerland than a visit to this very interesting museum. Check the museum’s official website, landesmuseum.ch, for information on hours, admission prices, and new exhibitions before you go.
6. Indulge in the magic of Sprüngli: Although today, Confiserie Sprüngli has become an international brand as part of Chocoladefabriken Lindt & Sprüngli, its story began in 1836 when David Sprüngli bought a confectioner’s shop in Zürich. Together with his son, Rudolf Sprüngli, he started producing chocolates and opened the shop on Papadeplatz in 1859. In 1956, Richard Sprüngli took over the confiserie and transformed it into a luxury brand. A year later, Sprüngli sold the first Luxemburgerli, a macaron invented by a Sprüngli confectioner from Luxembourg and which in fact introduced the company’s flagship product, of which about 650 kilogrammes are produced daily now.
But apart from a fine pastry shop with exquisite products, the Sprüngli cafe on Papadeplatz was a part of the social life of the city. The Sprüngli cafe was one of the few places where upper-class women could talk to strangers without risking their reputation. Today, there are several Sprüngli shops around the city and in the airport, but nothing can imitate the magic of the original shop on Papadeplatz, where all the shop windows are full of pastries that look like works of art bursting with colour.
7. Grab a wurst on your way: Wurst, which means sausage in German, is one of the most popular foods in Switzerland. The sausage is typically combined with bread and a sauce (usually mustard or ketchup). The two most common types of sausage you can find in Switzerland are the German bratwurst and the Swiss cervelat. Ιn Zurich, the street food tradition of wurst is also quite popular. It is a favourite lunchtime dish among locals and, at the same time, popular with tourists.
The classic place to try wurst is Sternen Grill (Theaterstrasse 22), which has operated in the same location since 1963 and has become a city landmark. Every day, city residents, visitors, employees, students, and passers-by queue outside the place to sample its delicious sausages. The St. Gallen Bratwurst is the most well-known sausage here, and it is served with spicy mustard and crunchy bread. However, a very good alternative is Wursteria by Hinz & Kunz (Stüssihofstatt 10), which is a butcher shop and delicatessen located in the heart of the old town. In addition to the exceptional quality meats and cold cuts available, they also make their own delicious sausages. The sausages are grilled in the shop, and you can sample them right away.
8. Visit the Viaduct arches: However, if you want to get away from the obvious and visit something truly new and original, it is worth moving a bit away from the historic centre of the city and walking along the Viaduct arches. The Viadukt is an ambitious architectural project that transformed the thirty-six arches of a railway viaduct built in the 19th century into an alternative market place.
It is a colourful mix of delicatessens, galleries, sports and fashion boutiques that focus not on luxury brands but on small and trendy fashion labels and concept stores . At the heart of it all is the Market Hall, where twenty farmers and other food vendors offer their products. Apart from the shops, Viaduct hosts a few restaurants, cultural venues, and social events that have made the place a relaxing meeting place for the citizens of Zurich and a very interesting cultural hub. Visit the official site for more information: im-viadukt.ch.
Zurich is a fascinating city that won’t let down anyone of its visitors. No matter what you enjoy—art, culture, history, delicious food, strolls, or shopping—the city will readily accommodate you and exude a laid-back and sophisticated vibe. Allow yourself to be completely charmed by the city and it will not disappoint you.
Check also our previous successful “8 things to do…” guides to Lisbon, Barcelona, Copenhagen Geneva and Amsterdam