Switzerland’s largest city has become a popular destination for weekend and longer breaks thanks to its famously vibrant culture and nightlife, with over 500 night spots, to match its international reputation as one of the world’s foremost financial centres. For those who know the city, it comes as no surprise that Zürich consistently ranks in the top three among world cities in the Mercer’s Quality of Life Survey.
With a delightful old town straddling the Limmat River, attractive streets of good shops, 70 museums and galleries, 14 theatres, 16 cinemas (some with 12 screens and many showing English-language films), an opera house and many concert halls, the city has a great deal to offer the visitor.
What to see and do in Zürich
The old town
The street leads into the delightful St Peterhofstatt (St Peter’s Square). Sitting in the quiet shade of its central tree, surrounded by historic buildings and with the only sound coming from the modern sculptural fountain, it is hard to believe one is in the centre of the country’s largest city.
On one side is St Peter’s, Zürich’s oldest parish church, though this is the fourth building on the site. The tower dates from 1450 and has the largest church clock face in Europe, at 8.7m, which was installed in 1534. Restoration in the 1970s returned the church to its 1705 state when the nave was rebuilt.
The barrel vault has fine stucco, the pulpit is oddly positioned in the arch of the apse, and stalls line the perimeter of the whole church. The church contains the grave of the theologian Johann Caspar Lavater (1741– 1801) whose house (No 6) is on the opposite side of the square; he was visited here by Goethe. The pastor of St Peter’s for 23 years, Lavater was shot by a French soldier while tending the wounded during the seizure of the city.
To the north of St Peter’s Square is the Lindenhof, a raised area on which the Roman customs post was sited, followed by a ten-towered fort. This was enlarged 800 by Charlemagne into a palace that was occupied by German kings and emperors in the following century, law being administered from under the linden tree.
The palace was destroyed in 1218 when Zürich became a free, imperial city. Today it is a park with a giant chess board and views across the Limmat.
To the south of St Peter’s Square is the Fraumünster, founded in 853 as a convent for noble ladies by the German King Ludwig, whose daughter Hildegard was the first abbess.
Having been suppressed in 1534 and adapted to become the Stadthaus, the convent has been reduced to a few remains: part of the Romanesque south tower, with blind arcading; part of the cloister; and most importantly the choir, with its screen of 1470, and the transept, both of which have stained glass by Marc Chagall, installed in 1970 and 1978. The keystones in the vaults of the transept are also noteworthy.
Continuing into Münsterplatz, the Grossmünster is the largest church in the city, its twin towers with their octagonal lanterns dominating the skyline. Built on the site of an earlier building, the present Romanesque basilica was begun before 1100 and largely completed by 1230. It was here that Zwingli preached.
The nave is unusually high, and the church contains complete and fragmented wall paintings from the 13th and 14th centuries. In the crypt is a statue made in 1460 of Charlemagne, the founder of the original church on this site. The stained glass designed by A Giacometti was installed in 1932.
The cloisters of 1200, which are now part of the university theological faculty, should not be missed for the grotesque faces, monkeys, dragons and centaurs which decorate the 12th-century capitals and spandrels of the arched windows.
Swiss National Museum
As its name suggests, this is the most wide-ranging museum in Zürich, housed in a purpose-built neo-Gothic edifice designed to fuse various Swiss styles to resemble a castle. Completed in 1898, the museum has artefacts dating from the Stone Age to the 19th century.
The entrance is to the left of the archway, just beyond the St Gotthard stagecoach. Its sections include pre- and early history, weapons, flags, uniforms and costumes, metalwork from pewter to gold, glass, jewellery, textiles, ceramics, sculpture, paintings, musical instruments, watches and farming implements.
There is a large diorama of the 1476 Battle of Murten with 6,000 tin soldiers. There are also entire rooms from medieval and Renaissance buildings that have been dismantled and reconstructed. An extension opened in 2016 contains flexible exhibition spaces and a restaurant, Spitz, open for lunch and dinner.
Zürich Art Gallery
Switerzland’s largest art museum has been successively enlarged since 1910 to house a large collection ranging from 15th-century religious works to late 20th-century paintings. Among the international artists represented are El Greco, Bellotto, Guardi, Canaletto, Hals, Hobbema, Cranach the Elder, Bonnard, Rodin, Gauguin, Klee, Kandinsky, Chagall, Van Gogh and Picasso.
Among the best-known paintings is the Gotthard Post, painted in 1873 by Rudolf Koller, which was commissioned as a present for Alfred Escher, whose statue stands beside the station. It has been described as the most popular painting in Swiss art. A large extension designed by Sir David Chipperfield opened in 2020 and is devoted to the Bührle collection, temporary exhibitions and art created since the 1960s.
Travel to Zürich
Whether travelling by train from elsewhere in Switzerland, by international train or from the airport, passengers arrive at the imposing terminus of Zürich Hauptbahnhof (HB), opened in 1871. To reach the tourist office when you arrive, go straight ahead from the end of the platforms into what would be the choir of a cathedral, and the tourist office is on the far left-hand side.
Ask for a map of the S-Bahn network, which shows all the railway lines and connecting bus routes on one side and on the other the tram network and connecting buses, as well as the train and bus network around Winterthur. The office supplies two maps: a Citymap of the centre and a Stadtplan showing most of Zürich.