Even though its population doesn't even hit half a million, Zürich is a forerunner in Switzerland when it comes to business, banking, nightlife and gastronomy. If it’s happening in Switzerland, it’s happening in Zürich first.
Highly walkable yet with a chocolate-smooth transport system, Züri – as the locals affectionately call it – has world-class museums, a diverse social scene and a lakeside culture that’s hard to beat. Here are the best things to do in Switzerland's largest city.
1. Study up on Switzerland at the Landesmuseum
Get a sense of the country at the Schweizerisches Landesmuseum (Swiss National Museum), housed in a 19th-century stone building near the train station. The permanent collection takes visitors through the country’s eclectic history from the Middle Ages to the present day.
The exhibits detailing Switzerland’s attitude to banking secrecy, neutrality, foreign migration and women’s rights (women obtained the right to vote only in 1971) illuminate recent history, while a formidable display of pikes and halberds from the Middle Ages shows how far it’s come.
Don’t miss the original 1862 edition of Henry Dunant’s account of the battle of Solférino, which inspired his humanitarian ideology and led to the formation of the International Committee of the Red Cross a year later.
2. Admire Chagall’s modernist windows at the Fraumünster
Standing tall on the left bank of the Limmat River, the Fraumünster is one of Zürich’s oldest religious buildings, founded as a convent way back in 853 CE. But its major draw these days is something much more recent: a set of stained glass windows created by modernist artist Marc Chagall in 1967.
The five panels depict biblical stories through bold use of color and abstract imagery. Apparently Picasso was a fan, and it’s easy to see why. Chagall was 83 when the windows were inaugurated, but he wasn’t done yet. He created the Fraumünster's equally striking rose window at the grand old age of 90.
Detour: Walk over the Münsterbrücke to the Grossmünster on the opposite side of the Limmat, whose twin bell towers are a distinctive landmark in the city. Modern stained glass windows by German artist Sigmar Polke liven up an otherwise plain interior. This lack of adornment is due in part to Huldrych Zwingli, one of the founders of the Protestant Reformation in Switzerland, who preached here in the 16th century.
3. Take a break with a view at Lindenhof in the Altstadt
When you’re done wandering around the Altstadt (Old Town) – its narrow cobbled streets, decorative buildings, boutiques, cafes, taverns and bierkellers (beer cellars) may keep you there a while – rest your legs on a bench under the trees at Lindenhof, a peaceful plateau on a hill overlooking the Limmat River and the skyline of its right bank. Once the site of a Roman fort and later a royal palace, these days it’s a meeting place, picnic spot, chess players' hangout and backdrop of choice for selfie-taking tourists.
Planning Tip: You'll find water fountains all over the city, including at Lindenhof. Unless otherwise stated, the water is as clean and drinkable as anything pre-bottled. Bring your own bottle and top up as you go.
4. Explore Niederdorf’s coffee and craft culture
Known as Dörfli (meaning "little village"), Niederdorf sits on the right bank of the Limmat River and forms part of Zürich’s Old Town. Reflective of Zürich’s young heart as much as its old soul, the area’s cobbled pedestrian alleyways harbor contemporary artists’ galleries and upmarket artisan shops, cafes, delis, old taverns and fashionable bars that draw a lively crowd.
Browse the gourmet coffees and chocolate at Schwarzenbach grocery, which looks unchanged since it opened its doors in 1864, before having dinner and drinks at Am Rank, a sleek bar that hosts gigs by some of Zürich’s latest young music talents.
5. Discover Dada at Cabaret Voltaire
While war was raging in Europe in 1916, a group of artists, writers and thinkers sought safe haven and like-minded souls in neutral Switzerland, which – counter to the country’s reputation these days – became a magnet for the avant-garde. These anti-bourgeois intellectuals would hang out at Zürich’s Cabaret Voltaire, a small bar on a cobbled street in Niederdorf, where they formed Dada, an experimental, anarchical literary and artistic movement.
Today, the bar celebrates this history while also showcasing the work of contemporary artists. Sip a coffee or a Dada Sour in the ground-floor Artists’ Bar – decorated by a different artist each year – or browse the Dada Library in the 1st-floor space where Dada founder Hugo Ball and his friends used to perform.
Detour: If you can’t get enough of Dada, head to the Kunsthaus Zürich, the city’s main art gallery, which holds the world’s largest collection of Dada art, including pieces by Man Ray, Tristan Tzara and Swiss artist Sophie Taeuber-Arp.
6. Swim in a lakeside badi
Like most Swiss cities, Zürich lives for its waterways, and in summer the banks of the Limmat and the shores of the Zürichsee (Lake Zürich) simmer with sunbathers, swimmers and the smell of barbecued sausage. The city’s many badis (swimming baths) are a longstanding part of Zürich life, providing changing facilities, sun decks and water access, as well as offering a place to socialize, eat and drink into the evening.
There’s a quaint, old-fashioned feel to wooden bathhouses like Seebad Utoquai, which dates from 1850 and has both single-sex and mixed zones, as well as a sauna and massage facilities – plus the best view of sunset over the city.
Planning Tip: Most badis aren’t open in winter, so get more lake into your life by taking a boat ride from shore to shore or farther afield with Lake Zürich Navigation Company, which runs commuter services and leisurely cruises year-round.
7. Hike Zürich’s local mountain, Uetliberg
Higher and mightier mountains are within a short distance of Zürich, but Uetliberg holds a special place in people’s hearts as Züri’s local mountain – so local, in fact, that all you need do to get there is take the S10 tram from the main train station (Hauptbahnhof) and walk 10 minutes to the viewpoint.
Popular in all seasons, Uetliberg has family-friendly hikes and picnic spots in summer, toboggan runs in winter and an eye-filling panorama of the city and lake all year. It’s particularly special on a fall or winter day when you can rise above the fog that habitually hovers over the city at that time of year and enjoy the blue sky overhead.
8. Join the afterwork crowd in Zürich West
In stark contrast to the beauty of the city’s Old Town and riversides, Zürich West isn’t pretty at all, but what it lacks in looks it makes up for in personality. A patchwork of former industrial buildings, concrete flyovers and railway tracks, this area has in recent years been seized upon by enterprising locals who have opened quirky bars, restaurants and cultural attractions in its unusual spaces.
Explore the boutiques and food hall under the railway arches at Im Viadukt; catch a theater performance at the Schiffbau, the former site of Zürich’s shipbuilding activity; and have a drink with the afterwork crowd at Frau Gerolds Garten, a surprising pocket of greenery where shipping-container bars, independent shops and an organic kitchen garden surround a central area of bench seating shaded by trees.
Planning Tip: Get from the town center to Zürich West on an electric scooter. Several companies including Bolt, Vio and Lime offer on-street rental through their apps.
9. Climb the Freitag tower
It’s hard to pass a day in Switzerland without seeing someone with a Freitag bag. This ubiquitous Swiss brand began life in Zürich in the early 1990s as the brainchild of two inventive brothers who decided to make practical messenger bags out of old truck tarps.
It’s appropriate, then, that the flagship store in Zürich West is also made out of recycled materials, nine former shipping containers to be precise, piled one on top of another to create a creaky old tower. It's a trek up the stairs to the top, but worth it for the view of the area’s industrial sprawl and its surprising incongruities, such as the nearby wave pool where surfers can be seen catching a ride.
10. Eat plant-based at Hiltl, the world’s oldest vegetarian restaurant
Plant-based food may be all the rage these days, but in Zürich, it’s nothing new. The vegetarian restaurant Hiltl has been operating since 1898, making it – according to the knowledgeable folk at Guinness World Records – the oldest meat-free restaurant in the world.
The original restaurant at Sihlstrasse, Haus Hiltl, has since spawned several other outlets across the city, all serving a buffet spread of imaginative salads, pasta dishes and mezze-style creations inspired by flavors from around the world. Even if you’re a dedicated meat-eater, you’re bound to find something here to sate your appetite. Haus Hiltl also offers an à la carte menu with table service.
Detour: If vegetarianism isn’t your thing, seek out a classic Swiss bratwurst instead. Sternen Grill has been serving this traditional snack since 1963. Pair it with a hunk of bread or a tub of potato salad.