I can’t believe we have lived in Switzerland for over two years, and I’ve only just visited Zurich. It seems like such an obvious place to visit. I know many people think of Zurich and Switzerland to be essentially the same thing. And it’s so close – well, everything in Switzerland is, it’s not a very big country.
But there are factors involved in not visiting this city yet. The first and foremost being cost. If Switzerland is crazy expensive, then Zurich is hella-crazy expensive, so we’ve always avoided it a bit for that. Also, there is the language barrier. Not that it matters in such a tourist-friendly city (I wouldn’t be surprised if more Swiss in Zurich spoke English than in Geneva), but our grasp of French often keeps us turning towards our large French neighbour to the west.
Also, I’ve always thought of Zurich as a sophisticated, cosmopolitan city – read, no kids. While Zurich is without a doubt cosmopolitan (and so so beautiful), I’ve changed my mind on it not being kid friendly. Still, I’m happy I made the first venture without children, if only because it meant I got to sleep like a champion.
I’m incredibly lucky to have had a friend visiting Europe recently, who was keen to explore some beautiful parts of the continent. She happily agreed when I suggested Zurich. I even managed to find a perfect centrally-located hotel for cheap (by Zurich standards). Actually, I was looking for a hostel, thinking that it would be the only place we could afford that was located in Zurich’s centre, but I managed to get a crazy good deal on booking.com, which was awesome. The hotel is Hotel City Zurich – great if you can get a deal on the price, but its claim to real awesomeness is its location.
We took the train from Geneva to Zurich, and I was surprised at how easy it was. While train-travel and Switzerland are ubiquitous, we don’t actually take the train very often due to the cost. It is expensive. There is this fantastic card you can get as a Swiss resident, which cuts the price of all train tickets in half and is very quickly worth the cost, but we don’t use the trains enough to make it worthwhile. Also, there is the whole lugging a thousand pounds of baby gear around with us. It’s really better to rent a small semi-trailer then trying to hoist all that up into a train car.
But free from kids for the weekend, I felt like a liberated woman. We woke up early Saturday morning to catch the 7am bus to the train station. A half hour later and a memorable experience with some local characters behind us, we were in the Gare Cornavin train station. We easily purchased the tickets at the computer stall, then breezed onto the next train coming through (a train leaves from Geneva to Zurich every half hour, so the wait is never going to be bad). We set up to enjoy the next two and a half hours. Can I just say how much more civilized it is to travel by train than by air? From my house to the hotel in Zurich, the whole experience was four hours. I doubt it would be that different than if we had flown, and as opposed to arriving right in the heart of Zurich, we’d be at the airport on the outskirts having to figure out how to get into town. There were no line-ups, no waits, no hassle at the security gate, no stress. If we missed our train, we’d just take the next one, and would probably enjoy a delicious cappuccino and pastry while we waited. The whole process just kind of slowed us down a bit, as opposed to revving us up with stress, and it set the tone for the whole weekend. I LOVED it. While it’s still not super functional for us as a family now, I hope that when the kids are slightly older (and lugging some of their own shit around) we’ll travel this way a lot more.
And then, you arrive in a city that is this much beautiful. I’m not standing by my city here at all – Zurich is way more gorgeous than Geneva. It’s larger, too, as well as having a more developed medieval Old Town, which is kinda where you want to start out when you’re first exploring a city.
We dropped off our bags at the hotel (a convenient five-minute walk from the train station that I miraculously found despite the fact that my gps decided at that very minute to cack out), then followed a little route that would take us around the Old Town, which spans both sides of the Limmat River. It was getting awfully close to lunch time (Mittagessen) so we stopped along one of the cobblestone roads in Old Town for Italian. The area is pretty touristy, so we were a little wary that we’d end up in a flavourless tourist trap, but the Santa Lucia was charming to look at, and the food was delicious. We were groaning over the freshness of the mozzarella in our caprese salad, which made me wonder if we were just really really hungry, but it was delicious. A little coupe de champagne added to the pleasure as well.
We continued our self-guided walking tour to the Grossmunster, the largest of the many churches that sprinkle the Old Town, and supposedly founded by Charlemagne. You can see in the photo below the twin cathedral towers – that’s the Grossmunster. And for four francs you can climb a claustrophibically-tight stone spiral staircase to the top of one of them to look out from the top of one of the towers. A perfect introduction to the layout of the city on a sunny day.
While we explored the area, what struck me is there were a lot of quirks to the city – not just a quintessentially quaint European medieval town, you’d turn a corner in an alley to find some interesting graffiti. Or a statue of a horse.
And what city would be complete without a romantic bridge of locks?
The shopping was spectacular, as can be expected. Especially breathtaking when you check out the price tags! But there were some cute boutiques down by the waterfront offering obvious Swiss gifts, unusual toys and bright splashes of colour – very fun to wander in and out of.
We were being very gung-ho about exploring everything (more than I normally am in a new city), but we also included champagne stops at sunny cafes. Which is the only way to travel, I believe. Then, because we are super heroes, we took in the National History Museum, which is located in a castle next to the train station. The great thing about the city is that it is very walkable.
Finally we checked into the hotel and rested for a little bit before venturing out to find dinner. And we got to see Zurich at night, which is dramatic to say the least.
Once again, we were concerned about falling for tourist-bait, but it turned out we didn’t have to worry. We wanted some traditional food (more Germanesque here) and found a bierhaus that was brightly lit and bustling, the Weisser Wind. It wasn’t even that charming – the inside was nice and warm, but also functional – but it seemed like most people in there were locals and it was the kind of place where concerts and festivals were held. Some delicious (and super heavy food) completed the experience. Portion control is not a thing here, yegads.
We stopped for a drink at a bar along the river, which turned out to be kind of a happening place. People-watching is at its best, I think, when everyone is trying to score a hook up. Ever so slightly tipsy, we made our way around the river to pass the ferris wheel. We actually discussed going on it, before seeing that the whole ride was placed on a flat-bed trailer. The little old ladies in us were not pleased, and continued on our merry way home.
The next morning, I slept until 9:30. I kid you not. I do not know the last time I’ve slept until 9:30 (years) but it felt amazing. And lazy in the best kind of way. But we had a city to see and only a few hours left, so I reluctantly left my cozy bed. It was worth getting up for, though.
One of our finds while we were in Zurich was a free walking tour, which we really enjoyed. I love seeing a city from the ground with a local like that, I feel so much more connected when someone tells me what it is I’m looking at. We went for the tour with the historical spin, more of our interest. It also seemed like all the young backpackers were taking the “culture and festival” tour, and they all made me feel old, so we went with the tweedy professor type tour guide. It was enjoyable and also he helped us find the Lindenhof, a raised hill in Old Town that was the site of a Roman castle – we had not found that yet.
We also learned on this tour that one of the churches, the Fraumunster, held five stained-glass windows by Marc Chagall. Intrigued, we headed there next.
The church itself is gorgeous, but the windows were glorious. In this photo below you can see three of them situated lengthwise in the back wall (I know there’s some fancy church term for it, I just don’t know what it is). You weren’t able to take photos inside, where you can see the art in its full form, so we splurged and bought postcards with the stained glass windows. I took a photo of the postcard to show you, that’s how in love with these windows I was. Is that ridiculous? God, the colours are stunning.
After that, we had time to pick up our bags from the hotel and take a river cruise. It was a nice, relaxing way to see the city. We had meant to do this when we first arrived; however, the weather was a bit chilly and we weren’t feeling it after the train. It was a sunny gorgeous Sunday afternoon, though, so getting onto the water seemed perfect. The low-lying cruisers go underneath the low bridges, which was mildly alarming, but other than that it was time to just sit back and enjoy. The boat, which was really a transit boat although is also treated by tourists like us as a sight-seeing cruise, stopped along the river then headed out to Lake Zurich, where it turned around and took us past a lovely park along the eastern bank. It was full to the brim with people, presumably Zurich-iens out enjoying the fine spring weather.
We got off at the dock right next to the train station. And this is how easy it was: since we had already purchased our return ticket the day before, we looked at the board to find the next train to Geneva, saw it was in a few minutes, and then got on it. The whole process took less than ten minutes from the boat to the train. It was amazing!
The great thing about the train home is that it was double-decker, so we were able to see more of the countryside and mountains (which had better visibility then when we headed out, so that was good). The train was pretty packed, but most people got off at Bern, so we comfortably continued the journey down through the Swiss heartland and around Lac Leman with relatively no one around us. We even cracked open some crackers, cheese and olives we had with us and had a little picnic, as we had seen others doing on our way into Zurich. The whole experience, from start to finish, was incredible. I’ll admit I was giddy to be child-free for nearly two days. And Zurich itself is a gem. I never thought of it like this before, but I would consider it to be a must-see European city.