24 Hours in Zurich: Love from first sight
Sometimes you only have 24 hours in a place and that becomes enough to fall in love with it.
We had planned ahead and managed to do quite a lot in our 24-hour stay in Zurich, but even if you only have several hours to spare, I encourage you to grab the opportunity and just walk around the old town and along the Limmat river. You will admire beautiful buildings, drink refreshing water from the many city fountains, feed the swans and just lighten up by watching elegantly dressed people eating lunch right on the steps by the river. Zurich and I totally agreed on everything (well, maybe not on the price – Zurich is expensive, but can we forget about it for now?)
Our family of 4 (kids ages are 6 and 16) went on a 24-hour quest to explore the city while choosing activities that would appeal to all family members.
HOW we arrived
We drove into Zurich from Ettal, Germany (as part of our European road trip last summer). We arrived in the middle of the day and had 24 hours to spend before leaving for our next stop (Lucerne) the following day.
The center of Zurich is very easy to navigate by foot and tram. If you arrive from Zurich airport, a 10-minute train ride will bring you to main Train Station – which is a very convenient area to start your visit. You can pick up free maps and sign up for walking tours at Zurich Tourism office located inside the Train Station.
Zurich’s beautiful train station is located at the beginning of Bahnhofstrasse – a 1.4 kilometers (0.87 miles) thoroughfare with the Train Station on one end and Lake Zurich (Burkinplatz) on the other. Bahnhofstrasse houses world’s most fashionable stores and Paradeplatz – the largest financial transaction site in Switzerland (many Swiss banks have their main offices on here). From Paradeplatz you can quickly reach Zurich’s old town.
Travel Tip: Airport transfers are covered by Zurich CARD which provides free access to all public transport in the city (beware night service surcharge) and offers free or discounted access to museums, parks and other attractions. Zurich Tourism kindly offered us Zurich Cards to facilitate our exploration of the city – see a cost rundown at the end of the post.
WHAT we did
Walking Tour of the Old Town
We joined “Stories of the Old Town” – one of the walking tours offered by Zurich Tourism Office. (Tours are offered year-long, check website for schedule. Adult CHF 25, child CHF 12.50, 50% off with Zurich Card).
Our guide Christiana took us on a 2-hour journey through the old town’s many points of interest and shared some lesser known stories of Zurich’s past (like a “hidden” 14th century former synagogue, or a flat where Lenin used to live on Spiegelgasse, 17.)
The tour started from the Train Station. We walked along Bahnhofstrasse to our first stop, Lindenhof, a former Roman Fort, now a green oasis in the city with glorious views onto the old town and Limmat river.
Here is Grossmunster (one of Zurich’s main landmarks) up close. Legend has it, it was founded by the ancient King Charlemagne.
Another interesting stop: St. Peter – the Oldest Parish Church in Zurich with the largest clock face in Europe (8.7m in diameter). Original 9th century foundation walls are still seen today beneath the chancel.
The many water fountains provided refreshing drinking water on a hot summer day as we continued our exploration of the old town.
Travel Tip: the group tour moved briskly and there was a considerable amount of stairs to navigate. If you have a limited mobility (or strollers) you may prefer to walk on your own or take a river cruise of the city (free with Zurich card).
After the tour we walked on our own to check out the painted windows created by Marc Chagall in 1970’s for the Fraumünster church (founded in 853).
There are over 50 museums in Zurich and we visited two during our short stay: Clock Museum and Zurich National Museum– both free with the Card and centrally located.
Remember the Bahnhofstrasse (“station street”)? After our old town walk we crossed one of the bridges back into the “new town” to Clock Museum on Bahnhofstrasse 31 where we had exactly one hour before close time (2-6pm daily, free with Zurich Card.) Zurich is a clock capital of the world and we did not mind being on the clock. It is a tiny 2-room museum so 1 hour is quite enough to see the one of a kind collection of historical and modern day clocks.
Zurich National Museum
Next morning we walked to the Train Station again, but this time our destination was Zurich National Museum right behind the station building (open 10-5 daily except Mondays, free with Card). The building itself looks like Fairytale Castle, but it was covered in construction during our visit so we could not fully appreciate its beauty from the outside. Inside, this Museum houses thousands of fascinating objects of Swiss history and is a great place for history buffs (kids will love it too!). It is not easy to navigate in a hurry, but is still worth a visit. I wish we had the guide with us! (they may actually provide one if you inquire ahead).
Bürkliplatz and Cruise on Lake Zurich
After our walking exploration of the city on the first day, we took a tram from Paradeplatz to the Bürkliplatz. Bürkliplatz is not only a boat dock, but also a marketplace (several times a week), performance area and a promenade with a view across Lake Zurich to the Alps. Short round trip cruise (1.5 hour) is free with the Card (here is a link to the boat Schedule).
Our 7 pm cruise took us outside the city and allowed a glimpse into the life of Swiss after hours: we saw kids jumping off the decks, beaches, lots of birds and back yards (that’s a beauty of European river navigation – you get close!)
Coffee and Cake in the Old Town
On our departure morning, we wanted to just “purposefully” get lost for an hour or so walking the streets of the old town. The plan was to then find our way to Café Schober at Napfgasse 4. Zurich is one of Europe’s most expensive cities, but I can assure you that you can afford coffee and cake at this beautiful place. No matter how pressed on time, I do not consider my exploration of a place complete until I have a chance to sit down in a nice coffee shop and try some of the local sweets – while quietly reflecting. Café Schober is easily the best coffee and cake cafe I have been to. The decor and the flavors are decadent.
After our 24 hours in Zurich we continued the roadtrip to our next stop, Lucerne.
Note on Zurich Card
Our exploration was made easy by Zurich CARD kindly offered by Zurich Tourism Office. At CHF 24 for 24 hours (adult fare) are they worth the price? The short answer is Yes! Do the math: daily use of city transport is CHF 5.20 (airport transfer which is CHF12.50 round trip without the Card is also covered); our visits to Clock Museum (CHF 8), and National Museum (CHF10) were also covered, as was short lake cruise (CHF 12.50). With half price saving (CHF12.50 off) on a walking tour, our total saving per adult were over CHF 20. Now, if you don’t visit any museums and just do an airport transfer and a walking tour, you will break even, but if you jump on a tram to a lovely Bürkliplatz to walk around or take a cruise – you will be in a surplus!
Travel tip: make sure to validate your Card at the automatic ticket machines or at the orange ticket validator on the platform before taking your first journey.
Where we stayed:
If YOU HAVE MORE TIME IN ZURICH
Take a cable car to Uetliberg – Zurich’s Very Own Mountain with views of the city and the lake (cable car is included in the Card).
Unwind in one of Zurich’s Spas and swimming beaches (see the listing here)
Take the kids to Zurich’s Zoo
Check out many other museums and attractions at Zurich’s Tourism Site.
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