Offering a gorgeous lakeside location, over recent years Zürich has cemented its reputation as one of Europe's hippest destinations, with an artsy, post-industrial edge.

Ranked as one of the most expensive cities in the world, Zürich and budget travel are not natural bedfellows. But there are ways to make your money go further and many free activities to be enjoyed year-round. Whatever your budget, the following tips will help stretch your travel funds even further.

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1. Visit Zürich in the cheaper months

Vacations in Zürich between June and August or around Christmas and New Year each have their own summer or winter charms – but the additional cost factors, particularly in terms of accommodation rates, can be prohibitive. If your funds are limited, early August should be avoided as this is when people crowd into Zürich for its famous Street Parade. Visit in February to April or in November for the best-value times of year.

People walking down the cobbled street of the old town in Zurich, lined with colorful buildings decorated with the Swiss flag
Staying somewhere in Europe? Travel to Zürich by night bus and explore the old town in a day © Roman Babakin / Shutterstock

2. Travel to Zürich by night bus

Travel to Zürich by overnight bus services, such as those offered by Flixbus, and you will save on at least one night’s accommodation. Given the city’s compact layout it’s easy to cover the central sights on foot, so a long day’s visit is entirely feasible without incurring the cost of a hotel or hostel bed.

3. Pitch your tent beside Lake Zürich

Camping in Zürich? Yes, it’s possible – and at a lovely lakeside location that’s less than a 10-minute bus ride from the city center. The camping season at Fischer's Fritz runs from the start of April to the end of October. Tent pitches are small, and the nearby road and railway don’t make it the most tranquil spot. That said, there are options to upgrade to a safari-style tent, Airstream caravan or actual cottage. There’s a corner-style shop on site stocked with all the necessities, plus a restaurant.

4. Bunk up in a hostel

Zürich’s next cheapest level of accommodation are its hostels. Most hostels have kitchens so you can save money by self-catering instead of eating out. Also, the hostel managers and other guests are sure to have their own tips on making your budget go further. A reliable option is Oldtown Hostel Otter, which has a super convenient location for sightseeing. Also worth considering is SYHA Hostel where the rates include a buffet breakfast; dinner is also served here for under Sfr20.

A boat sails along a river in a city. The skyline is dominated by two large church steeples
The Zürich Card covers public transportation, including some river and lake cruises © Rasto SK / Shutterstock

5. Invest in a Zürich Card

You’ve made it to Zürich and sorted out where to stay. Next get all your transport covered by purchasing a Zürich Card. Download the Zürich City Guide to your smart phone and you can purchase the card from within the app. Valid for either 24 or 72 hours, the card provides free second-class public transportation across the city, short cruises on the lake and the Limmat River, as well free admission to some museums and discounts at others. You can also use the card for access to savings on guided city tours, cinema entrance and some cafe and restaurant prices.

6. Stay in outer suburbs or nearby towns

There’s no shortage of self-catering apartments in and around Zürich. Check out listings on Airbnb and other similar sites. The city’s excellent public transport system makes it easy to stay in more distant and cheaper suburbs. Also consider making your base in neighboring towns, including Winterthur and Rapperswil, which are worth visiting in their own right.

7. Pedal around Zürich on rental bikes

One version of the Zürich Card includes the use of rental bikes, including e-bikes, from PubliBike.

Züri Rollt is a program that allows visitors to borrow or rent bikes from a handful of locations, including Velostation Nord, across the road from the north side of the Hauptbahnhof. Bring ID and leave Sfr20 as a deposit. Rental is free if you bring the bike back on the same day; it costs Sfr10 per day if you keep it overnight. Daily rental of e-bikes is Sfr20.

8. Shop at supermarkets and markets and use the free water fountains

Keep a lid on costs by catering your meals at Zürich’s supermarkets and markets. The main two discount supermarkets are Lidl and Aldi – both have city center branches – while other budget chains to consider are Coop and Migros. All offer sandwiches and plenty of take-away food items, perfect for a picnic.

Zürich’s fresh produce street markets are ideal for buying local items to eat and drink, plus they’re great eye-candy and atmospheric to wander around. The Helvetiaplatz Markt (Tuesdays and Fridays between 6am and 11am) offers an international range of produce with stalls selling freshly baked breads, a wide range of cheeses and in-season flowers. For a 21st century take on the food market, make a beeline for BRIDGE next to the Hauptbahnhof.

Also keep an eye out for the city’s 1200+ water fountains, where you can fill your reusable bottle for absolutely no charge at all.

A neat flower garden in front of a grand building is surrounded by market stalls stocked with bric-a-brac for sale
One of Zürich's markets might have a bargain just for you © pawel.gaul / Getty Images

9. Browse Zürich’s flea markets and rummage around the secondhand shops

Unique souvenirs at bargain prices can be found at Zürich’s flea markets. Every Saturday, whatever the weather, sort the treasures from the trash at the Kanzlei fleamarket in Helvetiaplatz. Switzerland's biggest flea market has some 300 stands selling everything from designer vintage clothes to vinyl, porcelain and rare collectables. There are also a few snack stands to stave off hunger. On Saturdays between May and October head to Bürkliplatz for a similar, smaller flea market there.

Give yourself plenty of time to explore Zürcher Brockenhaus, a mazelike thrift store spread over three floors, offering furniture, homeware, records, toys and clothing.

Should you need further guidance to Zürich’s outlets for pre-loved goods, the postcard-sized booklet Züri Nicht Neu is worth investing in. A lovely touch is that each edition is wrapped in different prints of vintage wallpaper.

10. Dig into the buffet and grab a bargain from a no-waste bakery

Most prices in Zürich's restaurant will make your eyes water. One of in-the-know spots for a bargain meal is the top floor of the department store Manor. At this popular self-service restaurant, you can enjoy a breakfast buffet for under Sfr7, a salad bar that’s priced by the plate, or a coffee and a muffin for just Sfr4 after 2pm.

Other location that won’t break the bank for a meal include the vegetarian restaurant Hiltl, which has been operating since 1898, making it, officially, the oldest meat-free restaurant in the world; and Sternen Grill serving the classic Swiss bratwurst sausage since 1963.

Gentle on the wallet as well as tackling food waste is the bakery chain Äss-Bar. The dubious sounding name is a play on the Swiss-German word for ‘edible’. The specialities here are baked goods and other perishable foods, such as salads and cheeses, that would normally be thrown away by their original producers, but which are still in perfectly edible condition.

Daily costs in Zürich

Hostel room: Sfr40–50
Basic room for two: from Sfr100
Self-catering apartment (including Airbnb): from Sfr100
Coffee: Sfr3.50
Sandwich: Sfr10–15
Dinner for two: around Sfr50
Beer/pint at the bar: Sfr6.5
Average daily costs: around Sfr150

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