14 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions & Things to Do in Zürich
Because Zürich, Switzerland's largest city, is well known as the country's economic and cultural hub and one of Europe's main financial and industrial capitals, it's easy to forget that it's also a delightful and fascinating place for tourists. Its many attractions include dozens of museums, a well-preserved old town filled with medieval and Renaissance buildings, and enough art - both in and out of museums - to keep art-lovers happy for a week. Zurich's tradition of liberal thinking and active intellectual life attracted leading figures that included Georg Büchner, Vladimir Lenin, James Joyce, C. G. Jung, and Thomas Mann, and this tradition continues into modern times. Although it buzzes with business activity, Zürich is one of the finest Swiss towns to visit and is perfectly arranged for sightseeing on foot.
See also: Where to Stay in Zurich
1 Old Town
Between the Bahnhofstrasse and the left bank of the Limmat, the western half of Zürich's old town is where the Romans built their fortified settlement, in what's now the quiet tree-shaded Lindenhof. From its terrace is a beautiful view of the old town. In the eastern part of the old town, across the river, you'll find a warren of charming old streets. Heading up Münstergasse, you'll come to the Napfgasse, with the Brunnenturm, which was headquarters of the Lombard money-changers in the 14th and 15th centuries. Haus zum Napt, at number 6, has a fine interior with rooms furnished in Renaissance style.
On Spiegelgasse, at number 17, is a house where Lenin lived in 1917. In this street, at Cabaret Voltaire, Hans Arp and Tristan Tzara launched the Dada art movement in 1916. Spiegelgasse runs east into the Neumarkt, where you'll find the Shoemakers' Guild House, now a theater, and the Hans zum Rech, dating from the Middle Ages and showing how decorative styles changed over the centuries. Step inside at least to see its courtyard and the model of Zürich in 1800. The interior preserves painted walls and ceilings from the 17th century and fine ornamental ironwork. The 13th-century Grimmenturm, at number 27, was originally a residence. In these streets, you'll find antiques shops and boutiques, as well as cafés and restaurants.
2 Kunsthaus Zürich (Museum of Fine Arts)
One of Europe's top art museums, the Kunsthaus is run by the Zürich Society of Arts and traces its history back to a society of artists founded in 1787. While it has large collections of works by several artists - more paintings by Charles Munch than any other museum outside of Oslo and Europe's most important collection of Monet's works outside of Paris - the emphasis has always been on showing the highest quality works by an artist over the largest quantity. The Kunsthaus is especially strong in Impressionists, Post-Impressionists, and Modern schools, beginning with the forerunners and early Impressionists Delacroix, Corot, Courbet, and Manet. Two of the most beautiful of the large water lily canvases are at the center of the Monet exhibit. Both Cézanne and van Gogh are represented by paintings from the end of their careers - van Gogh's painted in the final days of his life. An entire room is filled with characteristic dreamlike works of Marc Chagall.
Landmark works of Mirò, Max Ernst, Magritte, and Salvador Dali represent the Surrealist artists, and Matisse is featured both as a sculptor and painter. As you might expect, there are numerous works from the Dada school, begun right here in Zürich. Earlier periods are well represented, with important collections of exceptional paintings from the Dutch golden age, the Flemish (Rubens and van Dyck), Italian Baroque, and the Venetian Settecento periods. Again, the emphasis is on landmark works, such as Domenichino's first great landscape painting of the Baptism of Christ, considered a milestone in landscape painting. Obtaining works of living artists is an important mission, and on the ground floor, you'll find changing exhibits of contemporary sculptures.
Address: Heimplatz 1, Zürich
3 Schweizerisches Landesmuseum (Swiss National Museum)
A castle-like building with neo-Gothic flourishes houses an excellent museum showcasing the cultural history of all Switzerland. It is by far the most important collection of Swiss historic and cultural artifacts - more than 820,000 of them, covering a wide range of subjects from prehistory through the 20th century. The archaeological collections, with artifacts discovered in Switzerland that date from about 100,000 BC to about 800 AD are among the finest in Europe. Entire collections cover works of gold- and silversmiths, textiles, costumes, metalwork, jewelry, watches and clocks, scientific instruments, rural life, carriages and sleighs, musical instruments, crafts, and industrial antiquities. The medieval wall paintings are particularly interesting, as is the collection of old stained glass. The Armory Tower exhibits an important collection of arms and armor.
Displays follow four themes: early migration and settlement, religious and intellectual history, political history, and the economic development of Switzerland. The Collections Gallery provides an overview in 20 displays showing Swiss handicrafts and products. A series of reconstructed period rooms, for which the museum is best known, shows furnishings and decorative arts in room settings following the evolution of living spaces through the centuries as needs and tastes changed. Swiss furniture from the 20th century is displayed as well, highlighting the contrasts.
Address: Museumstrasse 2, Zürich
Zürich's "Main Street" is the busy pedestrianized Bahnhofstrasse, stretching from the main train station (bahnhof) to the Bürkliplatz at the head of the lake. The 1,200-meter street is one of the most attractive shopping streets in Europe, enlivened by fountains, public art, trees, and distinguished buildings. Although many of the shops that line it are filled with furs, fashions, jewelry, and other high-end goods, their smartly decked windows and the buildings themselves make it a popular place for everyone to stroll. The middle section of the street was built in 1867 after the filling in of an old moat, the Fröschengraben; the parts towards the lake and the station were built a few years later. Among the interesting buildings are several dating from the turn of the 20th century: the Weber building (number 75), re-built in 1912 and 1928, and the Jelmoli department store complex at Seidengasse 1, originally designed with a skeleton in iron. Notice especially the 1913 facade of the Peterhof and Leuenhof building.
In the basement of Bahnhofstrasse 31, the Uhrenmuseum Beyer Zürich displays a large collection of watches and clocks, ranging from sun, oil, and water-clocks to Swiss clocks with wooden wheels and Nuremberg pendulum clocks. In the lower part of Bahnhofstrasse is the Paradeplatz, with the palatial 1876 headquarters of the Schweizerischen Kreditanstalt and the Hotel Savoy Baur en Ville, built in 1838 and reconstructed in 1978. In the 18th century, there was a cattle market on the Paradeplatz, and later it was used as a parade ground.
Often mistranslated to Church of Our Lady, the name of the protestant Fraumünster actually means Women's Church, referring to the founding of an abbey here in 853 for aristocratic women of Europe by the Emperor Ludwig for his daughter, Hildegard. Until the high Middle Ages, the head of the convent was also governor of the city. The church is a three-aisled, pillared basilica with a Gothic nave built from the 13th to the 15th centuries, a Romanesque chancel, and an Early Gothic transept with high vaulting. In the undercroft, you can see remains of the crypt of the 9th-century abbey church.
Although the church itself is worth seeing, what makes it one of Zürich's most popular tourist attractions is the beautiful set of five stained-glass windows in the chancel created by Marc Chagall in 1970. From left to right, the vividly colored windows show Elijah's ascent to heaven, Jacob, scenes of Christ's life, an angel trumpeting the end of the world, and Moses. The rosette in the southern transept is also the work of Marc Chagall. In the north transept is another impressive stained glass window, The Heavenly Paradise, created by Augusto Giacometti in the 1940s. The abbey itself was demolished in 1898 to make way for the Stadthaus, but the Romanesque and Gothic cloister survives, with 1928 paintings by P. Bodmer illustrating the legend of the convent's founding and the city's patron saints, Felix and Regula.
Address: Münsterhof, Zürich
6 Confiserie Sprüngli: A Confectioner's Café
Sprüngli House was opened in 1856, and today, the confectioner's café on Paradeplatz is a favorite stop for locals and tourists. One look at the stacks of temptations in the window, and you'll be drawn inside to at least feast your eyes on the beautifully displayed truffles (made fresh each day), bonbons, cakes, and their signature macarons, called Luxemburgerli. The retail shop is on the street floor, while the upstairs café-salon serves breakfast, lunch, and afternoon desserts in genteel surroundings.
Address: Bahnhofstrasse 21, Zürich
7 Bürkliplatz and Lake Zürich
At the point where the Limmat flows from the lake, the Quaibrücke crosses the river to connect Bellevue Platz and Bürkliplatz, where you'll find the landing for lake steamers. From here, you can cruise on Lake Zurich to enjoy beautiful views to the Glarus Alps. The entire shore is lined with promenades and parks where local residents catch the sun, jog, picnic, and swim in the lake. About 1.5 kilometers from Bellevueplatz is the beautiful Zürichhorn Park, built for the National Exhibition in 1939. Here, you'll find a restaurant, a Chinese Garden, and a boat landing for the Limmatschiff, which runs from Zürich's main train station up the river to the lake, ending at Zürihorn.
A large flea-market is held every Saturday on Bürkliplatz from May until October with as many as 500 vendors including antiques dealers and hobby traders.
8 Limmatquai and the Rathaus (Town Hall)
Along the Limmatquai, a popular riverside shopping street, are a number of elegant old guild-houses with sumptuous interiors reflecting the wealth of the guilds which governed the town until 1789. Many of them now house restaurants, so you can get a look inside at the 1719 Haus zur Saffran (number 54); the 1660 Haus zur Rüden (42); and the two-storied Haus zur Zimmerleuten (40) from 1709, with a beautiful oriel window. Zürich's Town Hall, the Rathaus, is easy to spot, as it overhangs the river and is supported on wide arches at the east end of the Rathausbrücke. Constructed between 1694 and 1698, the massive Late Renaissance building has rich sculptured decoration and a Baroque ceremonial hall that is well worth seeing.
At the end of Münsterbrücke stands the Late-Gothic Wasserkirche, once entirely surrounded by the River Limmat. It was not connected to the land until 1839 when the Limmatquai was constructed. Built onto the north side of the church is the 1794 Helmhaus with an open fountain hall in which special exhibitions are held.
Southwest of Zürich, the Uetliberg, the most northerly summit in the Albis ridge, rises to an altitude of 871 meters. The Uetlibergbahn, a mountain railroad, runs year-round from Selnau station to the upper station from where it is a 10-minute walk to the summit. The broad walkway is well lit at night and leads to the summit restaurant, a glass-enclosed space with beautiful views of the city lights below. Daytime views from the lookout tower stretch across the Valais, Bernese, and Glarus Alps, with the Black Forest to the north and the Säntis to the east. From here, an easy ridge walk to the Felsenegg takes a little more than an hour, where a cableway descends to Adliswil. You can return to Zurich by the Sihltalbahn.
10 Zurich Zoo
More than 360 different animal species live in the exotic world of the Zurich Zoo, one of the finest in Europe. Animals live as close to their own environments as possible: snow leopards amid the rocky Himalayan landscape, penguins swimming in chilly water, and you can spot flying foxes from a canopy walk amid 13,000 square meters of tropical rainforest. In the Kaeng Krachan Elephant Park, you can watch the Asian elephant family play with their baby and swim in their multi-environment outdoor complex, which was designed to resemble their natural Thai habitat. Trams and trains run to the zoo from the main train station and the Paradeplatz.
Address: Zürichbergstrasse 221, Zürich
11 Bellerive Museum
The astonishingly broad collections of Switzerland's most important museum of applied arts are shown in exhibitions that explore various topic and themes, moving between art and design and through various historical periods. It is especially strong in works across all media from the Art Nouveau era, with particularly valuable examples of ceramics. Other specialties include textiles, modern ceramics, and marionettes by 20th-century artists. There are 200 historic musical instruments.
Address: Höschgasse 3, Zürich
12 Rietberg Museum
A Neoclassical villa modeled on the Villa Albani in Rome (it's said to be an exact copy) houses the outstanding collection of Baron Eduard von der Heydt. The villa was built in 1857 for a German industrialist and was a meeting place for Zürich intellectuals. It is Switzerland's only museum of non-European art, with collections that include Indian sculpture, Tibetan temple pictures and bronzes, Chinese grave decorations, Buddhist stele, and Asian ceramics and jade. There are also arts from the Pacific, the Near East, and North America, along with a collection of African carvings, masks, and bronzes. The villa sits in beautiful Rieter Park, an English landscape garden with walking paths.
Address: Gablerstrasse 15, Zürich
13 St. Peter's Church
South of the Lindenhof in the Old Town, St. Peter's Church stands on a little hill. The oldest parish church in Zürich, it has an early 13th-century Romanesque choir under the tower and a Baroque nave with three-aisles and galleries. You can see the original 9th-century foundation underneath the chancel. In 1538, the church acquired the largest clock dials in Europe, 8.7 meters in diameter, and still holds that record.
Address: St.-Peter-Hofstatt, Zürich
14 Grossmünster (Great Minster)
Standing in an open terrace above the river, Zürich's principal church dominates the city skyline with its twin towers. Built between the 11th and the 13th centuries, it is a Romanesque three-aisled galleried basilica with a chancel over a crypt that dates from about 1100. The upper levels of the towers date from 1487, but the domed tops were added in 1782. High on the south tower on the river side is a seated figure of Charlemagne, who is believed to have founded the order to which the church originally belonged. You can see the badly weathered original of the statue in the crypt; the outside one is a copy. Be sure to see the two modern bronze doors done in 1935-36, the sculptured Romanesque capitals, remains of Gothic wall-paintings, and the Late Romanesque cloister from about 1200. The three vividly colored stained-glass windows in the choir were designed by Augusto Giacometti in 1933.
Where to Stay in Zurich for Sightseeing
Most of Zurich's top-rated attractions lie close to the Limmat River, between the Bahnhof (main train station) and Bürkliplatz, where the river flows from the lake. Connecting these two points on the west side is the broad Bahnhofstrasse, Zurich's most fashionable shopping street. Rising from the other side of the river is the Old Town of narrow streets and squares lined with Medieval and Renaissance buildings. These highly-rated hotels in Zurich are all in this central area:
- Luxury Hotels: Often found on the "Best Hotels in Europe" lists, Baur au Lac is known for great service and its elegant, spacious rooms overlooking the lake, as well as for its Michelin-starred Pavillon restaurant. Not as close to the Old Town, but near the lake and the main shopping area, Park Hyatt Zurich is in the heart of the financial district. A grande dame with Old World style (and free high-speed internet), the uber-elegant Hotel Schweizerhof Zurich faces the Bahnhof but rooms are very quiet.
- Mid-Range Hotels: In the center of the Old Town and close to shops and restaurants, Hotel Adler offers guests free breakfast and in-room soft drinks amid a contemporary décor. Higher in the Old Town and on a tram line, Hotel St. Josef also includes a free continental breakfast. Farther from the Old Town, Zurich Marriott Hotel is on the riverbank, about a 10-minute walk from the Bahnhof.
- Budget Hotels: Just behind the station and on a tram line, Walhalla Hotel overlooks the river and includes a good breakfast buffet. Also near the station, but across the river in the Old Town, the family-run Arlette Am Hauptbahnhof Hotel has dated but comfortable rooms. Limmathof faces the main station from across the river, at the edge of the Old Town.
Tips and Tours: How to Make the Most of Your Visit to Zurich
- Sightseeing Tours: If you have limited time, a great way to see the city's top sights is on a Zurich City Highlights with Felsenegg Cable Car Ride tour. This half-day guided excursion takes you on a luxury coach to see top attractions such as the old town, Swiss National Museum, Fraumunster Church, and Bahnhofstrasse, and includes a scenic ferry ride across Lake Zurich. After seeing all the city sights, ride a cable car up Felsenegg for a bird's-eye view of the Alps and the mountain towns below.
- Day Trips: Zurich is surrounded by exciting day trip options, and the most convenient way to experience them is to join a guided tour. One of the most popular is the Jungfraujoch: Top of Europe Day Trip. This full-day tour takes you through the beautiful countryside of the Bernese Oberland and on a cogwheel train to Jungfraujoch, where you can enter the heart of a glacier and admire the spectacular UNESCO-listed Alpine wilderness from the Top of Europe. If you want to expand your horizons and visit two countries in one day, the Heidiland and Liechtenstein Tour from Zurich is an excellent option. This full-day tour visits the top sights in Zurich; the medieval castles of Rapperswil; the verdant Swiss Alps setting of the classic Heidi stories; and Vaduz, capital of the tiny Principality of Liechtenstein. Lucerne is also within day-trip distance of Zurich, and the Mount Pilatus Summer Day Trip from Zurich takes you on a fascinating tour of this picturesque city as well as up the 2,132-meter summit of Mount Pilatus. From here, you can enjoy panoramic views over the snow-capped mountains before descending on the world's steepest railway. Top off your tour with a peaceful cruise across Lake Lucerne.