There are many reasons why you would want to visit Zurich. To start with, the city is absolutely gorgeous and lives up to the Swiss stereotypes that we, North Americans, have.
And just utterly beautiful scenery.
These clichés, for better or for worse, are all true. But more than just a pretty face, Zurich surprised me in many ways with its dynamism and effervescence, something I didn’t quite expect from this notoriously homogeneous German-speaking city. I had only planned for 48 hours in the city because I flew SWISS’s new direct route from Montreal before going on an epic pan-European adventure.
Truth be told, 48 hours was not enough. I guess it’s a good thing I’m going back in September, right? Let’s see what I did manage to see and do the first time around.
48 Hours in Zurich – Day 1
Go on a Lake Zurich cruise
If there’s ONE thing you NEED to do in Zurich, it’s this cruise (which is included in the ZurichCARD). Switzerland is famous for its crystal-clear waters and Lake Zurich is no exception; it also beautifully showcases the Swiss Prealps as well as the city’s many manicured parks located along the water.
Wander the old streets of Zurich
One of the most fun (and cost-efficient) things to do in Zurich is just to wander around. The city is very picturesque, and its center is filled with winding cobblestone streets, each more photogenic than the last. I especially loved my early morning and evening strolls, when the streets are virtually deserted. I felt like I had Zurich all to myself.
Shop for Nordic home decor at Neumarkt 17
This is, hands down, one of the best shops in the city. Neumarkt 17 has an amazing selection of Nordic furniture and accessories, which could make for a particularly worthwhile souvenir from one of the world’s top design cities. Swiss style is also very linear and crisp, and isn’t all that far from the Nordic trends we’ve been seeing for the past couple of years.
Visit the Swiss National Museum
As one of the most important art museums of cultural history in Europe, the Swiss National Museum showcases the most significant events of the last 20 centuries, from prehistory to ancient times and the Middle Ages, with a particularly rich section focused on Gothic art and chivalry.
Bonus points – the museum itself is a magnificent work of art, with dozens of towers and courts. Make sure to take a photo or two from Platzspitz Park.
Enjoy a refined lunch at Restaurant-Boucherie August
Halfway between a multi-centennial butcher shop and a refined contemporary eatery, August is a fascinating place to say the least. The hotel in which the restaurant is located, the luxurious Widder Hotel, is the 700-year old headquarters of the Widder Zunft (Zurich’s historic butchers’ guild) – which explains the subtle and clever touches of traditional butcher items inside the restaurant, from the decor itself to the waiter’s outfits.
Tip: if weather permits, have your meal al fresco. And whatever you do, don’t skip the beef tartare – one of the best I ever had. And I’ve had lots of beef tartares in my life.
Go up Lindenhof for the views
As a place frequented by both tourists and locals looking to chill out in this acclaimed green oasis, Lindenhof is a place everyone will enjoy. Photographers will be pleased for obvious reasons, while Zurich connoisseurs will have a blast standing on the site of a bygone Roman castle and pointing out the different historical buildings on either sides of the Limmat River.
Admire the Chagal stained glass windows inside Fraumünster
Although the so-called Women’s Minster, built on the remains of a former abbey for aristocratic ladies, has a long and fascinating history, most people will head there to admire the stunning Chagall stained glass windows in the choir of the abbey. Installed in 1970, each of the five strikingly modern windows features a dominant color and depicts a Christian story in a very graphic and typical Chagall way.
Have coffee at Kafischnaps
One of the things I really wanted to do during my short trip in Zurich was to leave the very center and get a feel of what it must be like to live in Zurich. Hopping on the tram, I headed to Kafischnaps, a hip coffee bar between the districts of Wipkingen and Unterstrass, where I was served not only excellent cake but a warm smile, a rarity in this somewhat reserved country.
Good to know: there is more than meets the eye in this cafe, seeing as it has five small rooms to rent on its upper floor.
Eat traditional Swiss fare at Zeughauskeller
Rome Zurich, right? This extremely touristy spot (I suspect there wasn’t a single local in there) is kind of a must-do; the building, built in 1487, was formerly used as ammunition storage seeing as the Middle Ages were a far cry from the peaceful Switzerland we know today. In fact, legend has it that the crossbow from local icon William Tell was issued here.
Make sure to order the Zürcher Geschnetzelte, a rather hearty and traditional Zurich panfried veal dish served with mushrooms, a cream sauce and rösti – to be washed down with a pint of beer, obviously.
48 Hours in Zurich – Day 2
Have breakfast at Cafe Lang
A great place to stop for coffee on your way to Zurich West! This cosy and imperial, Austrian-looking coffeehouse (with its dark wood walls, fresh flowers and mint-colored furniture) serves a mean soy latte and mouth-watering viennoiseries. Try to snag a table outdoors if you have the chance, as their patio is one of the best people-watching spots in the city.
Visit the Viadukt and West Zurich area
Talk about clever urbanism! More than just a trendy neighbourhood, Viadukt is an ode to creativity and architecture seeing as its shops and restaurants are housed inside the arches of the disused, 550-feet long railway viaduct. It still feels like a very effervescent, constantly evolving space that I bet will look different when I visit again this September.
Viadukt a pretty good introduction to Zurich-West, actually. Factories have been transformed into theatres, shipyards are now art galleries, mills currently house pop-up shops. Indeed, art, design, food, culture, shopping and architecture are now the center of attention in this former industrial zone – especially at the Freitag flagship store (iconic bags produced from recycled materials taken from the streets – you’ve surely seen them before, just about every bike messenger in the world owns one), which is housed inside a structure formed by 17 freight containers piled one on top of the other.
Have lunch at Hiltl, the oldest vegetarian restaurant in the world
A little bit of veggies never hurt anyone – especially not in Switzerland, where traditional fare tends to be more on the heavy side. Hiltl was founded in 1898 and has been serving the best vegetarian buffet in Zurich ever since, now under the watchful eye of the fourth generation of Hiltl. The restaurant is massive and can easily accommodate the crowds it keeps drawing, even after 100+ years in business.
Admire the view from atop Grossmünster
I blame it on jetlag, but for some reason I got the time wrong and arrived at Grossmünster an hour late (hence the lack of photo evidence). But my local spies tell me that the view from its belltower is simply outstanding.
In addition, the Romanesque church played a major role in Switzerland’s history, as this is where the Swiss-German reformation started in 1520, leading local authorities to sever ties with the papacy. There’s even a Reformation museum in the cloister.
Indulge with Swiss fondue
I tried to come up something more original than fondue (such a cliché, amirite) but there simply is no such thing as going to Switzerland and not indulge in this iconic meal. Period. Although most Swiss you will meet will rebuff at the idea of eating fondue when there’s no snow on the ground, tourists are allowed to infringe this unspoken rule. Because cheese.