Regularly named one of the most expensive cities in the world, Zürich isn’t the first place you’d think of for a bargain city break. With its classy designer shops, once-in-a-lifetime restaurants and eye-watering entry fees, it’s easy to empty your wallet in Zürich without much effort.
Fortunately, the financial powerhouse has plenty to do for zilch as well. From stuffed sloths and succulent collections to river swimming pools and Rembrandt, here’s a penny-pinching guide to the city.
1. Enjoy a free drink with a knockout view at Lindenhof
The knotted narrow alleyways of Zürich’s Old Town wend their way up to Lindenhof, an old Roman fortification with views across the Limmat River. Take a rest on a bench facing the view and quench your thirst for absolutely nada by filling up your water bottle at the pretty stone fountain – it’s just one of many across the city which provide drinking water on tap.
If you’re lucky, you might even get some entertainment thrown in for nothing, too – chess and pétanque enthusiasts often come here to play.
2. Survey the city’s urban sprawl from the Freitag tower
For something a little less storybook, head to the industrial quarter of Zürich West where Freitag (a homegrown brand that creates stylish bags from recycled seat belts, old tarpaulins and used bicycle inner tubes) has a flagship store made entirely of shipping containers. Its colorful tower, made up of nine of these containers stacked one on top of another, is a modern landmark in the city and free to visit.
It’s quite a climb up the many flights of stairs to the top, and the rough, slightly rickety nature of the tower is a little unnerving, but your reward is the fascinating view – a sprawling mesh of roads, railways, warehouses and office blocks punctuated by the occasional surprise, such as the wave pool of surf centre Urban Surf.
3. Stroll through the tropics at the city’s Botanical Gardens
One of the best free experiences in the city is a visit to one or both of the University of Zürich’s Botanical Gardens. The original garden, dating from 1837, sits on a hill in the city center and contains numerous exotic trees as well as a palm house and a medieval herb garden named in honour of a 16th century Zürich doctor who knew a thing or two about medicinal plants.
If it looks like rain – or even if it doesn’t – head to the "new" (it was built in the 1970s) complex at Seefeld, whose domed greenhouses are the main attraction. Home to around 7000 plant species, including ferns, orchids, cacti, tulip trees and bromeliads, these steamy tropical greenhouses can belie the weather outside.
4. Go behind the scenes at FC Zürich
If you prefer sports to science, check out the FCZ museum, which is devoted entirely to FC Zürich. Seven themed zones trace the football club’s history since it was founded in 1896, exploring the team’s highs and lows as well as the development of football in Switzerland.
It’s illustrated with photography, films, trophies and trouvailles. The much bigger and flashier FIFA World Football Museum is also in Zürich and children up to six can get in for free, however they must be accompanied by a paying adult.
5. Get schooled at the University of Zürich’s museums
Dinosaur skeletons, giant mammoths, stuffed sloths and countless insects – the hands-on Zoological Museum of the University of Zürich is home to 1500 animals with interactive exhibits that allow visitors to listen to whales sing or get up close to insects with a magnifying glass. Its in-house cinema shows free nature films twice daily. The university’s Archaeological Collection, Paleontological Museum (which houses fossils from the Unesco World Heritage site of Monte San Giorgio in southern Switzerland) and museum of earth sciences, focusTerra, are all free too.
6. See the best of Zürich’s art without paying a cent
Appreciating Zürich’s great art for free is tricky, but not impossible. Two of the city’s main art galleries offer free entrance on certain days. Visitors can ogle works by Rembrandt, Manet, Warhol, Van Gogh and Swiss native Giacometti at the Kunsthaus for free on Wednesdays (and children up to 16 years old go free any day), while the contemporary (and often controversial) art at the Migros Museum can be seen free of charge on Thursday evenings from 5pm to 8pm.
7. Go birdwatching in the city center
Thanks to Voliere Zürich, ornithologists don’t have to head into the wild for some prime birdwatching; instead they can stay in the city and see a number of exotic breeds for free. Taking in injured birds since its inception in 1898, this bird sanctuary and aviary on the Mythenquai has helped rescue parakeets, toucans and everything in-between.
8. Visit James Joyce’s grave
The famed Irish author James Joyce wrote Ulysses in Zürich before he died in the city in 1941. The James Joyce Foundation hosts free, regular meetings and workshops that delve into the author’s best-known works, including Finnegans Wake. Joyce is buried at the city's Kirche Fluntern graveyard, where a statue of the writer sits and thinks with a pencil in one hand and a book in the other.
9. Enter the wild in Langenberg Wildlife Park
For a break from the city, head to Langenberg Wildlife Park, west of Lake Zürich, where the wolves, brown bears, lynxes, deer and elks roam among large forested enclosures. A 2km-long Forest Adventure Trail leads visitors through the forest itself via 12 interactive stations, and is accessible every day of the year, even when the visitor centre is shut.
10. Climb Uetliberg, Zürich’s mini mountain
By lofty Swiss standards, Zürich’s local mountain Uetliberg stands nearer the shins of its contemporaries than their shoulders, but at 871m above sea level, the rolling, forest-roofed rumps are a pine-packed playground for hikers and bikers. It’s especially popular in autumn as its summit sits above the fog that sometimes encases the city. Climb the viewing tower for an extra special panorama.
11. Roam the city on a free bike
Zürich is eminently walkable, but if you want to get about faster yet avoid public transport costs, pick up a free bicycle from Züri Rollt. You do have to pay a deposit, but it’s fully refunded when you return the bike at the end of the day. In the meantime, you have two wheels with which to explore the banks of the Limmat, the industrial maze of Züri West and – if your legs can cope – the undulating alleys of the Old Town.
12. Go cactus crazy at the Succulent Plant Collection
It sounds like the answer to a quiz question, but with more than 4400 species from more than 78 different plant families, Zürich is home to one of the largest collections of succulents in the world. With seven greenhouses, an outdoor rockery, and cacti, agaves, aloes and pennyworts in all manner of shapes and sizes, the Succulent Plant Collection is free and full of surprises.
14. Make a splash in a river swimming pool
You can swim in Lake Zürich for free, but the real action takes place in the city’s river pools. Catering to adventurous swimmers, the Lower Letten Pool makes the most of a quick current, while the Upper Letten Pool is a tad more relaxed with a 400m-long swimming canal and diving board. The historic Schanzengraben River Pool, which opened in 1864, is on a secluded river bend but is men-only. Open to everyone is Werdisnel, a small island in the Limmat which is hugely popular in summer for its swimming pools, barbecue areas and grassy areas for sunbathing. Lockers are free but bring your own padlock.