10 Top-Rated Day Trips from Zürich
Zürich's location in north-central Switzerland, plus the country's excellent rail network, makes it a good base for day trips. In an easy day from Zürich, you can sample Switzerland's magnificent Alpine scenery, ride trains to mountaintops, visit postcard villages, delve into history, take lake cruises, and admire impressive waterfalls. Or you can explore lovely Lucerne and cruise its lake in an authentic paddle-wheel steamboat. Travel by train is easy in Switzerland or you can sign on for one of the many day tours that explore the tourist attractions around Zürich.
1 Jungfraujoch and the Bernese Oberland
The three famous peaks of the Jungfrau massif - the Jungfrau, the Mönch, and the Eiger - are in the heart of one of Switzerland's most beautiful regions, the Bernese Oberland. Along with the snowcapped mountains, long-time favorites of skiers and climbers, the region's steep green pastures and idyllic little Alpine villages like Wengen and beautiful Lauterbrunnen, set beneath long, ribbon-like waterfalls, have made it a popular tourist region for more than a century. The largest town is Interlaken, named for its scenic setting between Lake Thun and Lake Brienz. In Grindelwald you can board a cog railway that climbs to the Jungfraujoch mountain pass, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its remarkable scenery. At the highest railroad station in Europe, at 3,454 meters, the Jungfraujoch has a hotel, restaurants, research stations, and an Ice Palace carved into the glacier. Ride the elevator to a viewing platform at the summit of the Sphinx for views of the Aletsch glacier and Alps.
Spread along the banks of the River Reuss as it flows out of Lake Lucerne, Lucerne was an important medieval trading town and retains many of its old features in its compact center. Most tourists head first to Lucerne's most popular landmark, the Kapellbrücke, a covered wooden bridge built in 1333. Inside are more than 100 pictures of saints and scenes from the town's history. The octagonal Wasserturm beside it is a 13th-century water tower from the town's fortifications. Paintings inside the second covered wooden bridge, the 1406 Spreuerbrücke, depict the Dance of Death.
Take time to explore the Altstadt, the old town on the right bank of the Reuss, to admire the brightly painted old burghers' houses, timber-framed buildings, and little squares with fountains. Look especially for the Kornmarkt with the Altes Rathaus, built in 1602-06, and the adjoining 14th-century tower. The picturesque Weinmarkt has an elaborate Gothic fountain.
3 Mount Titlis
It's not just spectacular 360-degree Alpine views that await you at the 3,238-meter summit of Mount Titlis. Atop this lofty crest are several ways to explore the glacier and the Alpine environment.
The trip from Zürich takes you past Lucerne and along its scenic lake shore to Engelberg in the Swiss Alps. There, you begin your ascent of Mount Titlis, arriving at the summit via a revolving cable car that reveals the changing scenery in all directions as you climb. At the top are the fascinating ice boulders and deep crevasses, which you can see up close from the Ice Flyer chairlift. A trip down the Glacier Park snow slide turns this frozen world into a giant natural playground. For more thrills and views, walk across Europe's highest suspension bridge. Or just soak up the scenery from a café on the mountaintop sunny terrace.
4 Rheinfall (Rhine Falls)
After emerging from the west end of Lake Constance, the Rhine River flows through a beautiful green valley before plunging over the Rhine Falls and flowing on toward Basel. The mightiest falls in Central Europe surge over a ledge of Jurassic limestone 150 meters across and up to 21 meters high, with two higher rocks standing in the middle of the river. The flow of water is at its greatest in June and July, after the mountain snows melt.
The falls are easily visible from both sides, and you can see them from below on a 30-minute boat tour through the churning waters. Another fine vantage point, especially at night when the falls are floodlit, is from the Schlössli Wörth, set on a tiny island that from the 13th to the 19th centuries was an important shipping and reloading area for goods on the trading route from Lake Constance to Basel. Today, it is a fine-dining restaurant and café with a terrace overlooking the falls.
5 Stein am Rhein
Arriving in Stein am Rhein, about an hour from Zürich by train, you feel as though you've been dropped abruptly into medieval Switzerland. Except that the timbered buildings that line its main street are in far better condition than they probably were in the Middle Ages. Colorful frescoes, also beautifully maintained, decorate the buildings around Rathausplatz, the cozy main square. Flowers hang from window boxes, making every angle photo-worthy.
Stein am Rhein began as a Roman fortress beside the Rhine, built in the third century to secure the river. Learn more about the town's long history at the museum inside Hohenklingen Castle, built above the town in 1225. Views from the castle encompass the compact town and the river valley. Visit the well-preserved Medieval Monastery of St. Georgen, browse among the works of local artisans in the excellent gallery, or just linger in a Rathausplatz café to savor Stein am Rhein's Medieval atmosphere.
The old town of Schaffhausen, about 50 kilometers from Zürich, is a postcard-perfect scene of colorfully painted timber-frame houses with oriel windows and coats of arms on the facades. On Fronwagplatz are the Fronwag tower and two fountains from the 1500s, while the single-towered Münster, built from 1087 to 1150, was originally the church of a Benedictine abbey. Be sure to see the delicate 12th-century arcades in the cloister. The handsome convent buildings now house All Saints Museum, one of the richest local museums in Switzerland, with collections of prehistoric material, religious art, period rooms, traditional costumes, and works by modern Swiss artists. Its two chapels from the 11th century and a Romanesque loggia are worth seeing as well.
Overlooking the old town and river from a vine-clad hill is 16th-century Kastell Munot, a circular castle fortified with walls more than five meters thick. Not only is the well-preserved castle interesting, it provides fine views of the town and the Rhine valley.
Winterthur, about 26 kilometers from Zürich, can thank the thriving craft industry of its past for today's art and cultural largesse. The little triangular Old Town still preserves streets with rows of old burghers' houses - look especially for the Waaghaus in Moorish-Gothic style, Zur Geduld with an Early Baroque façade, the elegantly Rococo Hans zum Adler at the Obertor, and the graffiti on the Hans zum Hinteren Waldhorn. For its size, Winterthur is well endowed with museums: applied and decorative art in the industrial museum, a natural history museum, a clock collection, and three separate art museums. One of these, the Oskar Reinhart Collection includes works by Rubens, Rembrandt, El Greco, Goya, Renoir, and Cézanne. At the excellent Technorama of Switzerland, science and technology are presented in compelling exhibits filled with hands-on activities that will appeal to all ages.
8 Mount Pilatus
The trip up Mt. Pilatus gives you a taste of the various feats of Swiss engineering as well as a chance to sample both the cable cars and the mountain cog railways that make so many mountain towns and mountaintop views accessible. The trip from Zürich passes through Lucerne before arriving at Kriens, where you board a panoramic gondola then an aerial cable car to just below the 2,132-meter summit of Mount Pilatus. From the terrace are panoramic views of central Switzerland and the Alps. Short trails lead to the various peaks of this rugged limestone massif, for even broader views.
For a full sampling of Swiss mountain transport, make your return trip down Mount Pilatus by cogwheel railway, traveling at a gradient of 48 percent, one of the world's steepest for a railway. The cog railway brings you to Alpnachstad, from which you can return to Lucerne by boat on a scenic cruise across Lake Lucerne before returning to Zürich.
South of the Walensee and an easy drive or train ride from Zürich, the little canton of Glarus occupies one of the most beautiful valleys in the Alps. Rising above it on the west is the 2,332-meter ridge of Glärisch, and the massive bulk of Tödi, at 3,614 meters, closes its southern end. From Linthal, a cableway connects to the traffic-free resort of Braunwald, an ideal jumping-off point for walking and climbing. Although the Freulerpalast in Näfels has a magnificent Renaissance doorway and Early Baroque interior that houses the Cantonal Museum, the main attractions for tourists are not architecture or museums but the scenic splendor of Glarus and its opportunities for outdoor adventures.
You can drive, take a post bus, or walk from Netstal to cross the Schwammhöhe into the high Klöntal, one of the most beautiful and romantic of Alpine valleys, with the Klöntalersee and a series of tumbling mountain streams. Above the south side of the Klöntalersee rear the rock walls of Glärnisch, and below them is the canton capital of Glarus. The drive over the Klausen Pass to Altdorf is breathtakingly beautiful, and continues down the Schächen valley, where you'll find the 93-meter-high Staubi waterfalls.
About 18 kilometers northwest of Zürich, Regensberg is one of the best preserved medieval towns in Switzerland. Among the carefully restored old burghers' houses is the half-timbered Rote Rose (Red Rose) house from 1540. The round tower of the castle and the 57-meter-deep draw-well, the deepest in the country, date from the 16th century. Inside the tower, whose walls are three meters thick, is a small museum of the castle's and town's history.