With classy designer shops, once-in-a-lifetime restaurants and eye-watering entry fees, it’s easy to empty your wallet in Zürich without too 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.
There's plenty to do for free in Zürich, but great views like this don't cost a cent either © Nataliya Hora / Shutterstock
1. Take in knockout views for knock-down prices
Cameras at the ready: Zürich has three prime viewpoints that cost nothing to visit. The Polyterrasse, a panorama terrace in front of the Federal Institute of Technology, gazes out across the city’s soft surrounding hills and the spires and slanted slates of the Old Town.
Across the river, the knotted narrow alleyways wend their way up to the Lindenhof, an old Roman fortification with views out across the blues of Lake Zürich. For something a little less storybook, head to the industrial quarter of Zürich West where Freitag (a brand that creates stylish bags from recycled seat belts, old tarpaulins and used bicycle inner tubes) has a flagship store made entirely of towering shipping containers with views across the city’s gritty edge.
2. Unwind in the city’s parks and gardens
Zürich has cultivated some spectacular gardens and parks, most of which are free to visit. All towering beech trees and trimmed lawns, leafy Rieterpark offers the glamour of 19th-century upper-class life, mainly thanks to its charming neo-classical villa from 1857 (now the Museum Rietberg, free only with a Zürich Card).
The landscaped leas, ornate ponds, and colourful flower beds of Belvoir Park, meanwhile, make it one of Zürich’s most impressive green spaces. It has plenty of secluded, quiet spots to savour as well. If it looks like rain, head to the Botanical Garden at the University of Zürich. Home to around 7000 plant species, including ferns, orchids and bromeliads, its steamy tropical greenhouses can belie the weather outside.
3. Go behind the scenes at FC Zürich
If you prefer sports over science, check out the FCZ museum, which is devoted entirely to FC Zürich. Seven themed zones trace the football club’s history since 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 Zoological Museum is one of 12 collections at the University of Zürich that is open to the public © Claudia Peter / Lonely Planet
4. 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, and museum of earth sciences, focusTerra, are all free too.
5. 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 at works by Rembrandt, Manet and Giacometti at the Kunsthaus for free on Wednesdays, while the contemporary (and often controversial) art at the Migros Museum can be seen free of charge on Thursday evenings from 5-8pm.
6. Go birdwatching in Downtown
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 on the Mythenquai has helped parakeets, toucans and everything in-between.
The grave of James Joyce has become something of a pilgrimage sight for fans of the author © Claudia Peter / Lonely Planet
7. 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.
8.Enter the wild in Langenberg Wildlife Park
For a break from the city roam the wilds of Langenberg Wildlife Park, west of Lake Zürich, where the wolves, brown bears, lynxes, deer and elks rove among large forest enclosures. A 2km-long Forest Adventure Trail leads visitors through the forest itself via 12 interactive stations.
9.Climb Uetliberg, Zürich’s nearest mountain
By lofty Swiss standards, Zürich’s local mountain Uetliberg stands nearer the shins of its contemporaries than their shoulders, but at 870m 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.
Visitors don't get stung by an entrance fee at Zürich's absorbing Succulent Plant Collection © Claudia Peter / Lonely Planet
10. Go cactus crazy at the Succulent Plant Collection
It sounds like the answer to a quiz question, but with more than 6500 species from more than 70 different 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, spikes and stature, the Succulent Plant Collection is free and full of surprises.
11. Savour the silence of a secret courtyard
Next to the Grossmünster church is a secret cloister not visible from the street. Accessed by a tiny door next to the church entrance, only the curious ever find the beautifully carved pillars of this serene cloistered courtyard, now part of the University of Zürich theological faculty. It’s the ideal spot to cool down on a sticky city day.
12. Make a splash in a river swimming pool
Visitors 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.
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