Zurich was a 48-hour stopover for us on our way to the Balkans for a mountain biking adventure. It was a perfect start to our European trip, and a great city to reacquaint ourselves with mainland Europe after a 14-year hiatus.
Descending into Zurich airport felt like we were landing in a small country town, not one of the major financial capitals of the world.
Zurich is extremely picturesque with rolling green hills, clusters of red-roofed homes and the sparkling waters of Lake Zurich. There’s not a skyscraper in sight.
That’s part of the beauty of this northern Swiss city: it’s nice and compact, with a population of around 400,000 in the metropolitan area. It’s a city made for walking and cycling, yet it has the one of the world’s most efficient train and tram systems.
With its narrow, cobblestone streets and colourful old buildings, the historic Aldstadt (Old Town) is charming. There’s a wine, spirits, cheese, or chocolate shop around every corner, and hundreds of restaurants and cafes to sample hearty Swiss cuisine and shelter from the cold.
Zurich feels very unhurried and oozes a strong sense of calm. The locals are uber friendly, impressively multi-lingual and extremely helpful. Some of my high school German comes back to me, but the reality is I don’t need it.
The city is very civilised, very sophisticated and very expensive.
Oddly enough I experienced powerful ‘sliding doors’ moments in Zurich. I felt comfortable and at home here and felt very strongly that this could well be my other life, that if I’d made some different choices in my twenties, I could well have ended up here. Have you ever had that feeling when you’ve visited a place?
48 hours in Zurich: Take a stroll along Lake Zurich
We arrived on a sunny Sunday afternoon on the last day of September. Zurich was a balmy 23 degrees Celsius, much warmer than we had expected. We checked into our hotel, a stone’s throw from Lake Zurich, and headed straight for the water.
The city was buzzing. It felt like summer. Everyone was out and about enjoying the unseasonal weather. Locals strolled along the lake, sunbaked and picnicked on the lawn and spilled over the decks of the lakeside swimming pools. Buskers played traditional Swiss alphorn (alpine horn) as kids darted in and out through the crowds, and people queued for a cooling summer ice cream treat.
We stripped off layer after layer of clothing and couldn’t believe we were walking around Lake Zurich in sleeveless shirts in mid-autumn. We ambled for a few hours, soaking up the atmosphere and the beautiful scenery of grand homes, distant snow-capped mountains and thick forest across the lake. It was a wonderful way to decompress after 24 hours travelling.
Back towards the central town plaza in front of the beautiful Opera House, the Zurich Film Festival was in full flight. Amid the red carpets, smart cars and installations, the restaurants overflowed with glamorous festival goers. What spectacular timing on our part!
We made our way to a little local restaurant, Rosaly’s and ate our first quintessential Swiss meal: Zürcher Geschnetzelte, a veal dish with cream and mushrooms and rösti, the traditional Swiss shredded potato cake. Deadly delicious!
48 hours in Zurich: Do a self-guided walking tour of the historic Old Town
We woke the next morning to dramatically different conditions. The temperature had plunged overnight, the sun was gone and grey heavy clouds and drizzling rain had moved in. It was a bitter 10 degrees. We piled on every layer of clothing we brought with us including beanies and gloves and set out for a walking tour of Zurich Old Town.
Where yesterday Zurich had been buzzing, this morning felt as though a hush had descended on the city. Close to ten o’clock there was hardly anyone around and many of the shops hadn’t yet opened.
Walking the historic old town is the number one thing to do in Zurich and there’s an easy map to guide you through the city landmarks, along the narrow cobblestone streets, past the artisan shops, the specialty wine stores, the cheese shop, the chocolate shops, the delicatessen, the bakery, the charming cafes. The buildings are small, low-rise and colourful, stunning architecture. It all feels rather quaint, almost like a doll version of a big city.
You’ll walk along Munstergasse, past the impressive Grossmunster cathedral with its distinctive double towers, the Rathaus (town hall), up to Newmarkt where you can get lost in the many small side streets, through the Niederdorf and Oberdorf pedestrian zone, then down to the Limmat River, and across the Bahnhof Brücke to the Hauptbahnhof (main train station).
Stroll down the Bahnhofstrasse, a mile-long street of upmarket shops and weave your way along the cobblestone streets up to the Lindenhof, a peaceful, leafy square with stunning views of the old town and the Limmat river.
On this side of the river you’ll find two buildings that pierce the Zurich skyline, the Fraumunster church with its tall green spire and St Peter’s Church with its huge clock on all four sides of the tower. It’s easy to tell the time from afar.
Continue down to Paradeplatz, the world-famous financial centre where everyone looks well dressed and well off, then head into the Sprüngli shop for unbelievable kuchen and kaffee.
48 hours in Zurich: Take a boat cruise around Lake Zurich
At the end of the Bahnhofstrasse is the Burkliplatz wharf, close to the Quaibrücke and Bellevue Platz, where you can hop on a ferry for a one and a half hour or three-hour cruise around the lake. We opted for the shorter trip.
The cruise takes you down past impressive and imposing lakeside homes towards the snow-capped mountains. It’s a leisurely, relaxing boat trip that offers a different perspective of the city, heading down the eastern shore of the lake then looping around to come back via the western shore. It stops at several wharves along the way so you could hop off and explore the local area then hop back on the next ferry.
48 hours in Zurich: Indulge in fabulous, fattening fondue
You haven’t been to Switzerland if you haven’t indulged in a fondue feast.
We headed to the closest fondue restaurant, Le Dezaley just below the Grossmunster cathedral. It’s a tourist mecca, which meant the service was rather brusque and brisk. That didn’t dampen our appetite though. As we dipped the bread chunks into the pot of rich, thick, melted cheese, we could feel our arteries hardening! It was sooo good,
After a post dinner stroll, we ducked into The Goethe Bar in the Brasserie Schiller for a glass of wine, a very stylish bar next to the Opera House. Very civilised.
48 hours in Zurich: Head to Uetilberg for panoramic views and hike to Felsenegg
This was the thing I most enjoyed doing in Zurich. Getting out in the fresh, clean air, hiking across the hills and enjoying spectacular views of the city.
From the Hauptbahnhof, you take the S10 train to Uetilberg station where it’s a short walk up the track to the lookout at the top. At 870 metres above sea level, it offers panoramic views of this very picturesque city. You can also climb up the 72-metre tall viewing tower for an even better view though it’s rather challenging if you’re afraid of heights. I gave it a miss.
There’s a hotel and restaurant at the top of Zurich’s ‘own’ mountain. We grabbed a pretzel and saw a sign for a six kilometre walk to a place called Felsenegg. Why not, we thought? We knew absolutely nothing about it but figured the worst that could happen is that we get lost and have to turn back.
It was an excellent decision.
The track follows the ridge of the Albis hills, through open grassed areas and forest, past numerous homes, a few cows and onto Felsenegg. It was peaceful, very pretty and reinforced our observation that Zurich is a very calm, civilised place to live.
We saw a few local joggers and mountain bike riders on the walking trail but not one other tourist. It felt quite remote and isolated. What I call travel bliss.
There’s a restaurant at Felsenegg, with a wonderful terrace overlooking Lake Zurich. A great spot to enjoy some apfel strudel and a glass of wine. From here, you catch the cable car down the mountain and connect with the S4 train from Adliswil station back to Zurich.
A great day out and if you have more time in Zurich there are plenty of other hikes in the area.
Where to stay in Zurich
The Ambassador a L’Opéra, directly behind the Opera House and a hop, skip and jump from Lake Zurich, is in the perfect position. It’s a three-minute walk to the Stadelhofen train station, where the S16 line takes you directly to the airport. The Bellevue Plaza, in front of the Opera House, is a hub for trams.
The Ambassador hotel is in a beautiful old building, and the service is impeccable. The staff couldn’t have been more helpful. In typical European fashion our hotel room was very small, though not as small as the teeny, tiny lift (elevator).
We stayed for one night on our way home at the end of our Balkans trip and were upgraded to a bigger, better room with a beautiful view. We loved it.
The hotel also has a fabulous roof top bar, open only during the warmer months, which enjoys spectacular views of the city.
Zurich Tourism is very helpful and has an excellent online chat facility. I wish we’d used it more before we arrived in Zurich!
Getting around: the local transport, trams and trains, is brilliant. Clean, efficient, on time. When we arrived at Zurich airport a couple of generous departing travellers gave us their travel card for the trains. You can buy a Day Card for different zones or a 24-hour or 72-hour Zurich Card which covers all of Zurich. You must validate your ticket on the platform before hopping on the train.
Other places to eat: Zurich is expensive so you don’t want to be sitting down at restaurants all the time. We bought takeaway food from the supermarket, Migros (it has a bakery) plus we LOVED the hotdogs at the Brezelkönig, which was at the entry to the Stadelhofen train station, a few hundred metres from our hotel. I don’t normally eat hots dogs but with warm, crispy bread rolls, these were delicious.
The Läderach chocolate shops are also to-die-for and a great place to get gifts.