Best place to go
In the midst of this modern financial powerhouse of a city is a neighborhood filled with historic charm, its narrow streets rising steeply on the east side of the river. 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.
You can get an overview of the Old Town’s warren of charming streets, as well as an orientation of the layout of the city, on the two-hour Zurich Highlights Tour. After riding through the Old Town and hearing the historic commentary from your guide, you’ll board the Dolderbahn railway to climb into the hills of the Zurichberg district for views of the Old Town and lake.
For the best views of the city and the lake, follow locals to their favorite weekend aerie, the 871-meter Uetliberg. Southwest of Zürich, the Uetliberg is the most northerly summit in the Albis ridge, easy to reach by the Uetlibergbahn, a mountain railroad that runs year-round from Selnau station to the upper station. From here 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. Riding to the Uetliberg at night for a dinner of fondue and views of the city with its lights reflected in the snow is one of the locals’ favorite things to do in Zürich in the winter.
Lake Zürich and Bürkliplatz
The focal point of Zürich, and a favorite playground for tourists and locals is the long Lake Zürich. The entire shore is lined with promenades and parks, where local residents catch the sun, jog, picnic, and swim in the lake. But the favorite way to enjoy the lake is on one of the many cruises from which you’ll see beautiful views to the Glarus Alps. Look for the steamer landing at Bürkliplatz, at the point where the Limmat flows from the lake. The Quaibrücke crosses the river to connect Bürkliplatz with Bellevueplatz. 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, a boat that runs from the National Museum along the river to the lake, ending at Zürihorn.
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.
Bahnhofstrasse and the Bahnhof
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.
Between the Bahnhofstrasse and the left bank of the Limmat, the western half of Zürich’s old town rises steeply to the quiet tree-shaded Lindenhof. This is where the Romans built their fortified settlement in the fourth century to defend against migrations from the North. Five centuries later, the grandson of Charlemagne built a palace here as a royal residence. Long after remains of these structures had all but disappeared, some incorporated into buildings around the park, the site was still used for important ceremonies; in 1798 the oath confirming the Helvetic Constitution was taken here. Today, it’s a tree-shaded park with benches, chess players, and tourists enjoying the sweeping views across the river and Old Town.
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.
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 AD 800 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.
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.
The astonishingly broad collections in the Bellerive make it Switzerland’s most important museum of applied arts. The diverse exhibitions that display these explore various topics and themes, moving seamlessly between art and design and through various historical periods. The Bellerive 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 handmade by 20th-century artists. There are 200 historic musical instruments in the collections.