It’s not often that random people on the street take the time to wish me a good day. Well, this is actually unheard of where I come from. In fact, I’m used to being met with hostile glances on a daily basis, which is I was quite surprised – and rather delighted – that complete strangers were returning a smile as I walked past them through the quiet, cobbled lanes of Zurich.
It was an overcast day in the famous Swiss city, but the intermittent rain did little to dampen the spirits of locals who were making their way to work. Cheerful exchanges volleyed across the streets. Shop shutters rattled up and bicycle bells rang in quick succession. The aroma of ground coffee and freshly-baked bread filled my lungs, but I somehow managed to resist the temptation to walk into one of the many coffee shops lining the alleys of Zurich’s old town.
I had just arrived in the largest city in Switzerland and I had less than 24 hours to explore it.
Recommended hotel: I stayed at Hotel Felix, which is only a 5-minute walk from the main train station. This cosy and super clean hotel is located in the heart of the Old Town and next to many restaurants.
Is Zurich expensive?
Set at the intersection of river and lake, Zurich is one of the most exciting and contemporary cities in Europe. The wealthy metropolis is world-renowned for its high quality of life and rich cultural scene, as well as being one of the main financial and industrial capitals in Europe. Zurich currently ranks among the ten most expensive cities in the world, and it is the second most expensive city in Switzerland after Geneva.
It was only after walking into Starbucks for lunch that I became aware of the city’s exorbitant prices. Until then, I’d never imagined that buying a coffee and green salad from Zurich would actually make a dent in my finances.
Well, being in an expensive city meant spending more time wandering through the streets and experimenting with my camera. After all, there was nowhere in particular that I wanted to go. In fact, I didn’t even bother looking at a map. I just wanted to do what I do best – get lost.
Tip: Want to save money in Zurich? Get the Zurich card for free travel on public transportation and free admissions to museums, plus discounts at selected restaurants and tours.
Some interesting facts about Zurich
Zurich was founded by the Romans in 15 BC, although it is believed that the first settlements in the area date back more than 6400 years. The city was later inhabited by the Franks and the Alemans. After the death of the last feudal lord In 1218, Zurich became an Imperial free city and was placed under the authority of the Holy Roman Emperor.
In 1336, a group of craftsmen stormed the Town Hall and overthrew the aristocratically dominated Zurich Council. A new council was formed, and consisted of 13 guild masters and 13 nobleman. Although the guilds no longer hold any significant political power in Zurich, guild societies are still alive and well.
Each spring, the Zurich guilds celebrate the traditional Sechseläuten Spring Festival, where they dress up in historical costumes and set fire to an effigy of a snowman perched on top of a huge pyre.
Tip: Learn more about Zurich’s history on this 2-hour walking tour in the Old Town.
Things to see in Zurich in one day
The Old Town
Taking photos in unfavourable weather conditions can be quite difficult, but I was up for the challenge. The old town is full of character; winding lanes, intact Baroque facades, artsy shops, charming little cafes and imposing church steeples – enough to lend a bit of colour to my photos on a gloomy day.
Zurich’s beauty lies in the striking individuality and diversity of the city’s architectural heritage. A mix of traditional styles, such as Baroque, Classicism, Neo-Classicism, co-exist in harmony with modern structures.
The well-preserved medieval buildings hark back to the city’s former splendour. Every time I was about to put my camera away, a decorative balcony or a colourful facade would catch my eye. I could never tell what I would find at the next corner, and each street held a different surprise.
Guild houses and fountains
Zurich is nowadays home to 12 historic guild houses. Among these are the Zunft zur Safran, which belonged to merchants of textiles and spices, the Zunft zum Widder, who were cattle merchants and butchers, and the Zunft zur Schmiden, which included blacksmiths, goldsmiths and clockmakers.
There are also over 2,000 restaurants, some 630 bars and more than 50 museums in Zurich. Oh – and 1,224 fountains, but funnily enough I can only recall chancing upon two fountains while walking through the scattering of streets.
The James Joyce Foundation
I regret not having done any research before going to Zurich. Shortly after my visit, I learnt that the Irish writer James Joyce lived in Zurich during WWI, where he wrote Ulysses.
After spending twenty years living in Paris with his family, Joyce returned to Zurich in 1940, fleeing the Nazi occupation of France. He died a few months later and was buried in Fluntern Cemetery. The James Joyce Foundation in Zurich harbours the largest Joyce collection in Europe.
The cute shops
One of the things I enjoyed most about Zurich was coming across all sorts of art collectors, unusual gift shops and luxury fashion boutiques. I thought there was no harm in doing some window-shopping, until I stumbled upon a confectionery shop.
I stood in front of the sweet display for a good five minutes, drooling over my future wedding cake. Church bells rang through the air – a reminder that it was nearing late afternoon and I hadn’t yet explored the other side of the river.
After crossing over the iconic Munster Bridge and climbing a sweat-inducing hill, I ended up in the ancient site of Lindenhof. A few local men were absorbed in a game of chess, completely unperturbed by the presence of a big group of tourists snapping photos on their phones. I, on the other hand, tried to be a bit more discreet about it.
Located high above the city, Lindenhof offers stunning views of the Limmat river and Zurich’s old town. Celtic, Roman and medieval ruins were found on this idyllic hillside, suggesting that the area has been inhabited since 1500BC. Once home to a Roman fort and palatine, Lindenhof is now a green oasis at the heart of the city.
Zurich’s first Christians, Felix and Regula, were beheaded for their faith. According to legend, the siblings miraculously got to their feet, picked up their heads and walked to the place where the Grossmünster Protestant Church stands today, before falling to the ground dead.
Zurich’s imposing twin-towered cathedral was founded by Charlemagne in the 9th century and was dedicated to the patron saints Felix and Regula. The present Romanesque-style cathedral was completed in 1220. In the 16th century, a firebrand preacher, Huldrych Zwingli, brought the Reformation to Zurich, and the city became a stronghold of Protestantism in Switzerland.
The best way to end the day
I walked around the city’s winding alleys one last time, then decided to give myself (and my camera) a wee break. By the time I got back to the other side of the Lammat, the rain had picked up. The city had suddenly taken on a rather sinister aura, and the tall church steeples now felt a bit more intimidating than before.
I tucked my camera protectively under my jacket and started looking for a nice, not-so-expensive cafe. It had just dawned on me that I was about to leave Switzerland without treating myself to some chocolate.
Tip: Want to indulge in Swiss chocolate? Check out this chocolate tuk tuk tour in Zurich.
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